“I wonder what’s taking so long?”
Iolaus had been pacing in agitation along the riverbank, but he halted and fixed a firm glare on his companion.
“You know, it’s bad enough that I’m dead. Even worse that I’m stuck down here in some foreign underworld away from my family and friends. And being that this is your fault, it’s probably not a good idea to remind me that you’re here.”
“I understand,” Gilgamesh said, unable to deny that he was deserving of the hunter’s anger. “Just let me say one thing, and then I’ll leave you in peace.”
“What?” Iolaus taunted, facing the fallen king as he rested his hands on his hips. “You’re sorry?”
“No. Well, yes, I am, but you don’t need to hear that from me. I want to thank you for saving my sister.”
“Pardon my skepticism,” the hunter snorted, “but you didn’t seem too concerned with her well being before.”
“That wasn’t me,” Gilgamesh protested vehemently. “I was horrified when I realized Dahak wanted Nebula for the sacrifice. But he was inside my head, controlling me somehow, and I couldn’t stop it.”
The king turned away, but not before Iolaus saw the anguish in his face. He felt a small surge of sympathy, but he beat it back. Because of Gilgamesh, a powerful evil almost entered the world. And because of Gilgamesh, he was currently dead.
“I just don’t know how I could have let this happen,” the king whispered dejectedly, the weight of his guilt crushing him and forcing him off his feet. Iolaus sighed and after a moment went to sit beside him. He was still ticked, but he decided it wouldn’t hurt to talk. Besides, it wasn’t as if there was anything else to do. Gilgamesh glanced at the hunter as he flopped down beside him, then fixed his dark gaze on the calm river before them. “I don’t expect you to believe me, but I was a good king once,” he lamented. “My kingdom flourished and my people were happy. Now, whenever they remember me, this is what they’ll think of. My corruption at the hands of Dahak.”
“How did he get to you?” Iolaus asked, his natural curiosity piqued.
So Gilgamesh told him of the loss of his wife and family and the grief he suffered but could not indulge because of his duties as king. And how when he was at his lowest, Dahak called out to him, promising him respite and power and strength to be a great leader once again. And like a fool, he listened and believed. Only realizing the evil one’s intentions after it was too late and he had lost control. Gilgamesh told his story without making excuses and with sincere regret, and when he was done, Iolaus realized he could sympathize with the fallen king. He’d seen Jason hit rock bottom after the death of his children, compounded by his duties to the throne. And he’d seen Hercules briefly give into rage and grief when his family was taken, losing himself to pain and revenge for a short while. But fortunately both of them had people in their lives to lean on. Friends and family who leant them strength when they were weak and helped them find the right paths when they were lost. Gilgamesh had nothing but a shattered heart and the convincing lies of an evil force. He was what Hercules could have been, had he not had Iolaus and Alcmene and Iphicles and Jason and his other friends to keep him anchored. And while the hunter could not quite forgive Gilgamesh for his betrayal, he was able to let go of his anger and hatred.
“I do believe you,” he said finally. Gilgamesh looked at him questioningly and he elaborated. “I can see you were a good king. And despite everything, I know you’re a good man at heart.”
The dark eyes filled with appreciation and relief before guilt made them turn away.
“Thank you for that, my friend,” he whispered quietly.
“So what are we waiting for here?” Iolaus asked, sweeping his hand to indicate the landscape.
“Ursanabi,” Gilgamesh replied. “The ferryman. He will take us across the river to the underworld.”
“Ferryman, huh?” The hunter repressed a shudder. “Hope he’s friendlier than Charon. With better hygiene. Although I don’t know how you could get much worse. Maybe if he didn’t hit the bottle so much...” Iolaus didn’t realize he was babbling until a large hand fell on his shoulder. He met Gilgamesh’s quizzical gaze, and then the king looked off down the river and nodded. A boat was approaching swiftly and the small craft came to a halt in front of them, poled by a trollish figure who quickly ascertained their identities and ordered them aboard. Gilgamesh stepped into the boat willingly, but Iolaus hesitated.
“Come on,” Ursanabi groused, having no patience for souls that simply could not embrace the fact that they were dead and leave their mortal lives behind. “I haven’t got all day.”
“Forget it,” Iolaus declared, crossing his arms over his chest as he came to a decision. “I’m not going.”
“But, you have to go,” the ferryman sputtered. Normally he would just leave those stubborn souls behind and eventually they would come to grips with things and come willingly upon realizing they had no other choice. But he was under strict orders to bring the foreign soul in quickly for processing and experience had taught him to always follow orders.
“No,” the hunter said defiantly. “I’m not going to spend eternity in a Sumerian underworld where I don’t even know anyone.” And, he silently added to himself, I’m not going when there’s a chance Hercules might show up to bail me out.
Ursanabi again tried to persuade him and they began to argue. Things were getting pretty heated when a bright flash of light beside them made them both jump.
“What is this delay?” the new arrival thundered.
“He won’t come,” Ursanabi answered meekly, cowering a bit in the god’s presence.
“You must get in the boat, Iolaus,” the god told him firmly.
“I’m not going anywhere,” the hunter insisted just as firmly. “Especially when I don’t even know who you are.”
“I am Dumuzi,” the god introduced himself in a voice that indicated his patience was waning. “I was given responsibility of the underworld while the other gods battled Dahak. And it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, so one way or another you are getting on that boat.”
The hunter opened his mouth to counter that statement, but he was interrupted by Gilgamesh.
“Please, lord Dumuzi,” the king began, “I would like to petition you on Iolaus’ behalf. He gave his life to protect Sumeria, but he does not belong here. I entreat you to allow him to go home to Greece where he may spend eternity in the company of his family.”
Dumuzi hesitated as he considered the proposition. He had wanted Iolaus processed quickly, because it was a safe bet that Dahak would be looking for him. The gods hadn’t realized what Dahak was doing until it was too late, but once Gilgamesh destroyed the chalice it was immediately clear. However, without the nectar the gods were losing power. They couldn’t stop Dahak from entering the world, and even though his attempt was thwarted, they were also powerless to stop him from trying again. The Sumerian pantheon was in an upheaval as they scrambled to find a means of survival without the nectar to sustain them. And Dahak was still trapped in spirit form, ostensibly not happy and likely to go after the slain Greek since that would be his only chance at redemption. His body was unusable since a warrior heart had to be directly sacrificed or freely given, but Dahak was full of lies and deceit and evil manipulation and had ways of possibly convincing Iolaus to sacrifice himself. Dumuzi had thought the best thing was to get the Greek tucked away in the underworld as quickly as possible, but he began to see the potential in getting Iolaus out of Sumeria all together. Maybe he’d be safe and maybe he wouldn’t be, but that would no longer be Dumuzi’s problem.
“All right,” he finally agreed. “The petition has been acknowledged and accepted. Iolaus, you are free to return to Greece.”
“Thanks,” the hunter said in surprise, not used to the gods granting favors so freely. He started to turn before Dumuzi could change his mind, but then turned back as something occurred to him. “What’s going to happen to Gilgamesh?”
“A fitting punishment,” Dumuzi answered.
Iolaus understood that Gilgamesh was destined for the Sumerian version of Tartarus and he glanced sadly at the king.
“It’s no more than I deserve,” Gilgamesh said, accepting his fate with dignity, if not with enthusiasm.
“Wait!” Iolaus called out as Ursanabi prepared to push the boat from the shore. “I want to do that petition thing. You know, on Gilgamesh’s behalf. He screwed up but surely all the good he did as king has to count for something.”
Dumuzi frowned, his gaze swiveling between the two souls. Dahak was still there, in Sumeria. He could feel his dark presence and sense the rage behind it. The evil one was not done with them, not at all. He needed to get the Greek out of there, and quickly. As for Gilgamesh, it was not out of the realm of possibilities that Dahak would come looking for him as well, wanting to exact a little retribution for the way the king had failed him. Growing nervous, Dumuzi decided that perhaps the best thing to do was rid his domain of these two troublemakers once and for all, thereby getting himself off of Dahak’s radar.
“Very well,” he said impatiently. “Gilgamesh, I cannot simply ignore your betrayal of the gods. But I will spare you an eternity of torment and suffering, out of respect for the good you have done and the repentance in your heart. You are hear by banished from the underworld and will spend eternity as a spirit in the living world. Now go, both of you.”
Dumuzi vanished as quickly as he’d come and Ursanabi pushed Gilgamesh out of his boat before rapidly poling away and letting the river carry him out of sight. Iolaus had expected the king to be happy about his reduced sentence, but his face was somber and after a moment the hunter realized why.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. As he had been given the chance to reunite with his family, the banishment ensured that Gilgamesh would forever be denied seeing the wife and children he’d lost. “I was just trying to help...”
“You did help,” the king assured him with a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. “You spared me an eternity of physical pain and torture.”
“But your family...”
“Will forever be here in my heart,” Gilgamesh told him, placing a hand on his chest. “Along with my sister, who, thanks to you, I’ll be able to see whenever I want. But your own family awaits and it is a long journey to Greece, my friend.” “Where are we going?” Iolaus asked as he started to follow the king away from the river.
“I’ll take you to a crossroads that will point the way home. It will be up to you to find your way from there.”
Iolaus spared a glance behind him to the riverbank. He wondered about Hercules, if he was all right and if he’d be so foolish as to attempt a rescue. Wondering if maybe he shouldn’t hang around in case his friend did come to get him. And knowing that maybe it would have worked once, but not now. Not since he’d made his deal with Hades. His soul was claimed, as much as he hated to admit it. But he’d admired the way Gilgamesh was willing to face his fate with such dignity and nobility. Iolaus would do the same. He’d go back to Greece and report to Hades, taking his place in the Elysian Fields with no muss and no fuss. It wouldn’t be so bad, he tried to tell himself. He’d be reunited with Ania and his boys. And his father. Hercules... Well, Hercules was Hercules. He’d be ok. They both would.
Iolaus turned back around, trotting to catch up with Gilgamesh’s long strides. He was going home.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Hercules.”
“Get out,” the demigod said flatly. He didn’t turn to see who the intruder was because it didn’t matter. He wanted nothing from anyone. Just to be left alone.
“Please, we must prepare his body for burial.”
“Don’t you touch him!” Hercules shouted, grabbing the man who stepped forward with jars of oils. He pushed him away, not bothering to check his strength, and the servant crashed into one of the stone pillars with a sickening crunch.
“Hercules,” Nebula admonished, drawn to them by the noise. “What are you doing?”
“Get out of here,” he growled. He was staring at the men but Nebula had a feeling she was included in his threat as well.
“Leave us,” she commanded. Upon Gilgamesh’s death she had been made queen of Sumeria. A title she had willingly accepted out of a desire to see her homeland rise out of the turmoil it had been cast into and flourish once again. Nebula hadn’t had the time or the mental energy to process her new position, but she’d slid into the chair of ruling authority with ease, having had many years of practice ruling over her ship and her crew.
They left the room, the first man helping his injured comrade out the door as Hercules moved away from the body on the table and went to the window. Nebula moved to stand beside him and they both looked out over the bay. “I’ve heard stories of sailors who are lost at sea and see lights in the northern skies,” she told him conversationally. “They say the lights are really spirits who have come to help them find their way. I never believed that story until now.”
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Hercules murmured brokenly. But the proof was behind him, still and lifeless.
“It’s not your fault, Hercules,” Nebula consoled him. “You stopped Dahak. The people are safe.”
“No,” he argued, shaking his head slightly. “It should have been me.”
“He loved you so much,” she reminded him, her voice husky with tears. “He wouldn’t have wanted that.”
“I know,” Hercules whispered. “He was...” His own voice failed him and he glanced at the woman beside him before turning back to the window and pushing the words past the lump in his throat. “My hero.”
Nebula tried to put an arm around him but he pulled away, moving from the window and returning to the table, reaching out to brush an errant curl back from his slain friend’s face.
“You’ve looked better,” she admonished him gently. “It’s been three days. Why don’t you eat something? Get some sleep?”
“Not until this is finished.”
“You want to clue me in?” Nebula asked, puzzled by his words.
“I’m getting Iolaus back,” he clarified.
“I know it hurts.” She moved beside him once more, forcing herself to look down on the face of the man who had captured her heart. “I think about him all the time, too. But you just can’t walk into the underworld and take him back from the dead.”
Hercules finally lifted his gaze from his friend and fixed his steely blue eyes on her.
Nebula shook her head and turned to leave, but his voice stopped her before she got out of the room.
“Tell me how to get to the underworld.”
“No,” she told him firmly as she turned back around to face him. “Listen to me. You’re not thinking straight.”
“My thinking’s never been clearer,” he insisted as he strode up to her. “I’ve done this before, and I can do it again. Iolaus died fighting for the gods. They owe it to him to let him come back. And I owe it to him to bring him back.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I let my best friend down. Iolaus didn’t want to come here but I insisted. He was right, but I was too caught up in my own legend to listen to him. I couldn’t save him and now he’s dead and it’s my job to make that right.”
“Stop,” Nebula begged him, holding up a hand for emphasis. “Don’t you see that this is the last thing in the world he would have wanted? He fought by your side all his life because he believed in what you stood for. You didn’t make him do anything. He chose to be with you and he chose to watch your back. And if you do this and you don’t make it, he would have died for nothing.”
“I need him back,” Hercules said, desperation heavy in his voice. “If Iolaus were in my place, he would do the same for me.”
Nebula hesitated, knowing in her heart that the demigod spoke the truth. Iolaus would not have given a second thought to attempting an underworld rescue, and nothing anyone could have said would have talked him out of it. Just like nothing she could say now would talk Hercules out of it, so she relented and told him what he wanted to know.
“Supposedly, the door to the underworld is up the Euphrates, in the darkest part of the jungle. And if you insist on being so stubborn about this, I’m going to have to come along and babysit you.”
“No chance,” he argued. “I can’t worry about you, too.”
“Brother, you don’t have much of a choice,” she said firmly. “Unless, of course, you stay.”
“Stay out of my way, Nebula,” Hercules ordered forcefully. “I mean it.”
“So do I,” she continued. “If you go, I go.”
Without warning, the demigod put his fist through the nearest pillar with an angry growl. Nebula was shocked by his action, but she wrote it off as a product of everything he was going through.
“Hercules,” she said softly, “he’s gone. We have to accept that.”
“I don’t know if I can,” the demigod whispered raggedly. For accepting that meant accepting living the rest of his life without a brave, loyal partner watching his back and motivating him by example. Without his best friend making fishing wagers. Without the man he’d known since early childhood keeping him up half the night around the campfire going over countless shared memories and making him laugh until his sides hurt. Without the stable presence that kept him sane and grounded when the craziness of his life threatened to overwhelm him. Without the pillar of strength that he so often leaned upon for support when the weight of the world was pressing down on him. Without the light of love that embodied everything pure and good in the world. Accepting Iolaus’ death simply meant accepting that a part of himself was dead, too. The very best part, and without that, life would not be worth living.
Hercules wearily sank down to the floor, burying his head in his hands.
“Why don’t you let me take you to your room?” Nebula suggested, knowing she was wasting her breath. Predictably, the demigod shook the head he was still supporting in his palms. “All right, stay here if you want. But try and get some rest. I’ll bring you some food later, ok?”
She squeezed his shoulder and disappeared, leaving Hercules to idly wonder about this new side of Nebula. The gentle, caring side. He managed to get to his feet and walked back to the table to resume his vigil by his friend’s side, knowing it was Iolaus’ influence that had caused the change in the sassy pirate’s personality. And not being surprised by it. Iolaus just brought out the best in everyone.
Some time had passed and the sun had set when Nebula returned to check on the demigod.
“Hercules?” she called out as she entered the room. “Thought you might want something to eat.”
But the room was empty, at least of living people, and a rope made from the drapes dangled out of the window in a telltale fashion.
“Damn him,” Nebula swore, setting down the tray of food that she carried. She started to rush out of the room but turned back to Iolaus. “Don’t worry,” she whispered to him as she closed her hand around his cold fingers. “I promise you I won’t let anything happen to him.”
Then she bolted, yelling for her primary aide, Agenor. There was much to make ready and scant time to spare.
Hercules leaned up against a tree and unconsciously heaved a mighty sigh. He was no stranger to grief and no stranger to loss. But he had never felt anything like this before. A pain so powerful it left him numb. An ache so strong that he couldn’t breathe. A hurt that ran too deep for grief or tears. And a gaping void in his heart and soul that filled him with agony and made him long for the sweet release of death. All compounded by the fact that it was his fault. He’d been too confident. Too righteous in his cause. Too cocky to listen to the warnings his friend tried to give him. Or even the warnings of his own mind and dreams. And because of it, Iolaus was dead. He’d been dead before, but it had never had the same sort of finality. The action had been swift and the redemption quick and Hercules had never really had the time to register that his best friend was gone. But this time... Three days he’d spent looking at the lifeless body of the man he’d loved as no other. Time enough to get over the shock and the denial. To truly realize that Iolaus was gone, and to let the magnitude of that wash over him in crushing waves. And the only thing that kept Hercules going was the hope that he could somehow make this right. He owed it to his friend to rescue him from the death he felt he could have prevented. And if he failed, well, then there would be nothing else left for him. No other reason to go on.
“Hang in there, buddy,” the demigod whispered as he pulled his friend’s treasured medallion out of his shirt pocket and slipped the cord over his head. He reached back into his pocket, his fingers brushing over the broken piece. “Don’t give up, Iolaus. I’m not going to stop until I find you.”
Hercules pushed away from the tree and continued plowing through the dark forest. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he figured if he could make it to the river it was a pretty straight shot from there. It was late and the jungle was uninhabited. He certainly didn’t expect to encounter anyone else there, so he was greatly surprised when he broke through into a small clearing and found an old woman cooking over a cosy campfire.
“Come,” she greeted him without a glance in his direction. “Sit.”
Hercules moved forward, a wariness growing inside of him as he got the feeling his arrival had been expected. Gingerly he eased himself down on the rock opposite her.
“I don’t have anything to offer you in return,” he demurred, feeling a distinct sense of unease but not wanting to outright refuse her hospitality. At least, not until he learned what was behind it.
“Your company will do,” she reassured him as she got up and ladled a thick stew from the pot over the fire into a bowl. Adding a spoon, she hobbled around the fire and handed it to him. “This land can be cruel to strangers.”
“Then what are you doing out here alone, in the middle of the night?” the demigod demanded, not having the energy to beat around the bush.
“I might ask you the same question,” she deflected easily.
“Well, if I told you, you’d probably think I was crazy,” Hercules muttered, not about to give any information to this odd stranger.
“You are at the beginning of an extraordinary quest. And there’s doubt in your heart. That doesn’t make you crazy.”
For a moment Hercules stiffened, wondering how she knew. But then he relaxed, realizing her generic words could be applicable to anyone. Why else would he be traipsing through the jungle in the middle of the night? But then again, just because Dahak hadn’t been able to enter the world didn’t mean he was gone. And the Sumerian gods might not be in favor of his plan to reclaim his friend’s soul. Which would be par for the course in terms of his experience with the Greek pantheon. Do nothing and let a good man, who was fighting on their behalf, die. And then interfere with him while he was trying to right the injustice. A flare of anger rose up inside of him.
“Is this the standard fortuneteller routine?” Hercules asked coldly. “Or did the gods send you?”
“I’m their servant,” the woman answered nonchalantly. “Just like you are.”
The demigod’s eyes turned to ice and he glared at her over the fire as he set his untouched bowl on the ground, infuriated by the very idea that he would serve any being, especially ones capable of such rampant cruelty and with so little regard for the mortals they were supposed to protect.
“You shouldn’t make assumptions about people you just met,” he warned her through clenched teeth.
The woman rose and hobbled back toward him, reaching out to touch him. Hercules grabbed her wrist mere inches from his face, noticing a symbol branded into her palm. She withdrew her arm, but did not back away.
“Don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to go on,” she whispered urgently. Then she turned and went back to her seat before continuing her lecture. “Only weak men fear the consequences of their actions. Your eyes have not yet grown accustomed to darkness, but they will.”
Without warning the woman vanished in an explosion of light. Hercules jumped up and looked around in confusion. The jungle that had been shrouded by the darkness of night was now bright and alive, illuminated by the sun that was high in the sky.
“They will....” came the woman’s faint, disembodied voice.
Hercules sat back down, replaying their strange conversation in his head. Was that a warning? An encouragement? Was she sent by Dahak? Or a god? And did it really matter?
The answer to that was ‘no’. All that mattered was finding Iolaus and bringing him back. No warning or risk or threat could ever be great enough to make him turn back. And another glance at the midday sun let him know time was wasting. So Hercules got up and began making his way once more through the jungle.
The river was near. He could sense it, just on the other side of those trees. Hercules quickened his pace and almost ran right past Nebula who was leaning up against a tree and apparently had been waiting for him for awhile. Well, it was not surprising, being that she knew the area and he didn’t. And also there was that disturbing feeling that he’d lost some time somehow while dealing with that old crone. But he chose not to think about that.
“What are you doing here?” he snapped at her.
“I could ask you the same question,” she countered.
“This is as far as you go,” Hercules told her firmly.
“You lied to me,” Nebula pointed out as she pushed away from the tree to face him.
“I was trying to protect you,” the demigod snarled, frustrated at the pig headed stubbornness that Iolaus had found so endearing.
“What do you think I was trying to do?”
“I don’t want your help,” Hercules argued. “Iolaus was MY partner. MY responsibility.”
Nebula bristled at that. She tried to remind herself that Hercules was in pain. He and Iolaus had a very deep bond and that the loss of his friend was tearing the demigod apart. But on the other hand, it wasn’t just a partner that was affected. It was the world who had lost a hero and a champion. And a lot of people had loved Iolaus, and she couldn’t allow their grief to be downplayed. It was disrespectful to his memory.
“I am getting sick and tired of watching you act like you’re the only one who lost something.”
“Oh, yeah? And what did you lose, Nebula?” Hercules spat, his blue eyes burning with a startling, unfamiliar cruelty. “A repeat performance of your one night stand?”
She slugged him, hard enough to turn him around. And she felt good about doing it.
“You listen to me, Hercules,” Nebula seethed at his back. “I may not have known him as long as you did, but I loved him, too. In fact, he’s the only man that I probably ever did love. And that was taken from me. Iolaus gave his life for me. So don’t you DARE tell me that I didn’t LOSE something!”
She pushed past him and started to stalk off, but Hercules called out her name and halted her.
“I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No,” she said quietly. “You shouldn’t have.”
Hercules slowly moved forward to stand next to her, suddenly ashamed when he realized how deeply his hurtful words had cut into her. And he’d known they weren’t true. What had ever possessed him to speak them?
“I knew Iolaus his whole life,” Hercules whispered, finding it hard to get the words out past the lump in his throat. He felt himself shaking, but he swallowed hard and tried to keep it together. He hadn’t broken down yet, and he wasn’t going to allow himself to fall apart now. After a moment he continued with tenuous control. “I saw the way you two looked at each other. He cared for you a great deal. I don’t know why I said what I said. I’m sorry.”
“It’s a long hike up the river,” Nebula said softly after a long pause. “I brought a crew and some supplies with me. I figure if we leave now, it’ll take us about three days.”
“I still don’t think this is a good idea,” Hercules protested. It was dangerous. Both because of the mission, and he was starting to fear, because of himself. He wasn’t in any shape to lead this quest, and he wasn’t sure it was a good idea for people to be around him anyway.
“Well, I do.”
“I can’t stop you from coming with me,” the demigod said flatly. “But I also can’t be responsible for you or your men.”
“Then I’ll just have to watch out for you this time,” Nebula told him confidently. “Come on.”
“Why don’t you go? I’ll... I’ll catch up.”
“You’re not going to....”
“No,” Hercules answered with a ghost of a grin, giving her a silent promise that he wouldn’t try to run off without her again. Trusting him, she turned and headed toward the river to ready her crew. Leaving him to stare up at the sky and try to pull himself together. He couldn’t deny that he deserved the punch Nebula had landed on him, but it had taken everything he had to keep from turning on her. His thoughts and emotions were growing confused, and his anger was starting to flare out of control. At the same time, his divine strength seemed to be fading. “I don’t know what’s happening to me,” he whispered to himself. The demigod took a deep breath, willing himself to keep everything in check. Iolaus was counting on him, and he couldn’t afford to lose it. He just had to hang on long enough to get Iolaus back, and then everything would be fine.
Nebula’s crew was a mix of hardened sailors from her ship and less adventurous aides from the palace. When Hercules joined them they split up into pairs to man the small boats that were already packed with supplies. Nebula insisted on riding with Hercules, in order to keep an eye on him. The expected argument didn’t come and he obediently got in the small craft and took up a paddle. Nebula joined him and ordered the crew to move out, and within minutes they were all navigating their way up the Euphrates.
“We keep moving upriver for another day or two,” Nebula announced. “It’ll spit us out into uncharted territory. From there, we hoof it.” She had been talking to Hercules, but her chief aide, in desire to remain close to his queen, had overheard her.
“We have only legend and rumor to guide us to the Temple of Dumuzi,” Agenor interjected, clearly not a fan of a mission he thought to be dangerous folly.
“Who’s Dumuzi?” Hercules asked.
“He’s known as ‘the Shepherd’,” Nebula explained. “He’s the gatekeeper to the underworld.”
“No living mortal has ever laid eyes on him,” Agenor added nervously.
“Well, I hope for his sake he’s feeling cooperative,” Hercules muttered darkly.
“By the gods!”
The startled gasp had come from one of the crew who pointed out an immense, looming statue high on the riverbank. This far from civilization, it could only be a warning. They all pulled into shore and climbed up the bank to investigate, although many of the crew hung back with palpable apprehension.
“The eyes are the window to the soul,” Agenor said in horror. “Look at the eyes. They have been desecrated. We risk our souls by traveling further.”
Hercules barely spared a glance to the desecrated eyes in the bird like head, more intrigued by the symbol emblazoned on the statue’s chest.
“What’s this marking? I’ve seen it before.”
“Where?” Agenor inquired.
“On an old woman I met last night,” the demigod answered absently as he ran his hand over the stone.
“That was no ordinary old woman,” Agenor explained with rising fear. “It was a spirit sent by the gods as a warning. She appears only to the damned. We have been warned by the gods not to proceed. To go on would be sacrilege.”
“Is that right?” Hercules asked in disgust as he turned to the colossal stone and got a firm grip. He had intended to send the ‘warning’ sailing up to the heavens, but to his mounting dismay and anxiety, found he could barely tip the giant statue over. His lack of strength unnerved him, but he didn’t let it show as he turned around to address the men. “Where I come from, you make your own destiny! Anyone who wants to leave can go. I’m not turning back.”
“I’m with Hercules,” Nebula announced, moving beside him in a show of support. “And you?”
Agenor squirmed slightly under his queen’s commanding gaze.
“We have our duty to the throne,” he finally said, not sounding happy about it. “We will stay with our queen. Even if she is following... a damned soul.”
The demigod’s face twisted in anger and he quivered slightly. Nebula could feel the tension swell in him and she quickly started to follow as he stepped forward. But he merely paused in front of Agenor to tell him he had it backwards.
“I’m damned if I don’t go,” Hercules declared tightly before continuing back down the bank to the waiting boats.
Nebula stopped the procession when the shadows began to grow long, wanting to make it to shore and set up camp in a safe area before it got too dark to see. She expected a protest but Hercules silently complied, obligingly changing direction and paddling toward the riverbank. More captain than queen, Nebula efficiently assigned tasks to the crew and by the time the night was full upon them, they were all sitting companionably around a large campfire sharing a meal. All except Hercules. The demigod kept himself apart, sitting a few yards beyond the warmth of the flames and facing away from them, looking out into the dark jungle with the weight of his burden slumping his shoulders. Nebula decided to let him be and her crew followed suit for the most part. One young sailor kept shooting looks at the miserable figure, finally getting up to approach his captain.
“So, that’s the legendary Hercules, is it?”
“In the flesh,” Nebula confirmed absently.
“Gotta say I’m a little disappointed,” Danaeus remarked.
“Why? Were you expecting him to fly?” Nebula asked with heavy sarcasm.
“I thought he’d be a little more... I don’t know. Inspiring?” the young man confessed. Like all other Greek boys he’d been hearing stories of the great Hercules and his heroic deeds for years. As a child he and his friends often imagined they were off with the demigod on one of his adventures. It had been excited to find out that the mighty legend was going to be sailing with them to Sumeria, but the journey was trouble free and Hercules had been a little preoccupied. Hardly the stuff of adventure. But when Danaeus had been given the option to accompany his captain and the demigod on a dangerous quest, he had leapt at the chance to watch and even assist with a legend in the making. But the sullen, brooding man was definitely not meeting his expectations. Granted, he had just lost a friend. One he held in such high regard he was ready to storm the underworld to get him back. But grief aside, it was still Hercules and the broken man across the camp was not measuring up to the myth. “I mean, he took down the Hydra and the Cyclops. I was hoping for some action.”
“Danaeus.” Hercules’ soft voice carried over to them from his self-imposed isolation. “If you came looking for a cheap thrill, you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong guy.”
Instantly contrite, the sailor tried to apologize for making light of a grave situation.
“I didn’t mean...”
“I don’t care what you meant,” the demigod snapped angrily. “I’m not here to entertain you. Just stay out of my way.”
Danaeus looked to his captain, who apparently was not going to say anything in his defense. And his own anger began to flare. He’d just been let down and dressed down by his boyhood hero. What was he even doing there? He was a sailor. And he should have been at sea, not stuck in a primeval jungle risking his neck, and if Agenor was to be believed, his soul, on some ridiculous quest to bring a dead man back to life.
“Screw this,” he muttered as he began to stomp away from the camp.
“Danaeus!” Nebula called after him. But it was too late. “Great,” she sighed, hoping that he’d cool off and come back soon. For she knew, probably better than any of them, that the jungle could be a dangerous place.
They finished the meal and cleaned up the camp and everyone was beginning to settle down for the night when one of her crew nervously alerted her to the fact that he’d found a torn strip of Danaeus’s shirt while he was gathering wood. Nebula organized a small search party, noting that Hercules had managed to slip off unnoticed. Deciding to deal with one problem at a time, she gathered the group of men around her and set off in the direction Danaeus had gone, calling out his name and getting no answer. At least, not from the missing young man. Hercules materialized from the shadows, telling her in a monotone voice to trust him and turn around. Glaring at him, insulted that he thought she couldn’t take seeing whatever he was trying to hide, she pushed past him and strode up to the dead body impaled to a tree.
“Danaeus,” Nebula murmured, reaching out to touch him gently. While there was nothing she couldn’t handle, it was a shock to see him. He was white, bloodless, and the skin was eroding from his face. “What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” Hercules answered. “I heard a sound. I came to check it out. That’s when I found him. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“I beg you,” Agenor spoke up, agitated with the way his queen was so blindly following this damned soul. “Let us turn back before Hercules dooms us all!”
The demigod whirled on the small, older man.
“If you’ve got something to say, you say it to me.”
“You’d gladly lead us to our death in your own quest,” Agenor shouted, fed up with this madness. “This crazy idea of saving your friend... He’s dead! Don’t you understand? He’s gone!”
Hercules snapped and grabbed the man by the throat with a roar, pinning the hapless aide up against a tree as his fingers tightened around his windpipe.
“Not until I say so!” he snarled, a glint of madness in his eyes.
“Stop it!” Nebula commanded, yanking on his arm. “You’re choking him!”
Hercules released the man and stormed off without a word, his whole body quivering with fury. Nebula took a moment to make sure her aide was all right, then went after him, finding him learning over a pool of water and splashing the moisture on his face.
“Hey, you want to tell me what that was all about?” she demanded hotly as she leaned over the pool and got into his face. He just glared back at her so she pushed away from the pool to pace around it in frustration. “Fine. Let me tell you this. Next time you feel like strangling one of my crew members, I won’t be so quick to ask why.”
Hercules slowly righted himself and turned to face her. They both locked eyes for long, uncomfortable moments.
“Is that a threat?” the demigod asked quietly, his calm belying the storm that was brewing inside.
“What if it is?” Nebula taunted him. “You going to hit me now? Hmmm? Is that going to make you feel better?”
Hercules turned away but she wasn’t going to let him go. Nebula could grant him a lot of concessions and forgive him a lot of transgressions in the face of the blinding tragedy he’d suffered. But willingly hurting innocent people? That wasn’t Hercules. He was becoming lost to his own torment and she had to snap him out of it before he did something he’d hate himself for later. She’d promised Iolaus, and it was a promise she had every intention of keeping.
“Have you listened to yourself lately?” she called after him. “Since when has it become a crime to disagree with you?” “I don’t know what’s happening to me,” Hercules blurted out. He was losing his strength, and he was afraid his mind was quickly following. “I look around and all I feel is rage.”
“You’re grieving!” Nebula shouted in exasperation.
“It’s more than that,” Hercules snapped as he whirled to face her.
“Like I said, I don’t know,” he snarled vehemently, his blue eyes flashing in anger. But then he seemed to retake control of himself and slumped against the edge of the pool, looking exhausted and helpless. “I don’t know,” he repeated wearily.
“You’re Hercules,” Nebula murmured as she moved beside him and placed a hand on his arm. “In case you forgot what that means, I’ll remind you. You’re at your best when things are at their worst. You give people hope when they don’t have any of their own. But if there’s one thing that I do know, you’re going to be fine. Because you always are.”
Hercules met her gaze, seeing her faith in him reflected in her eyes. Faith he didn’t have in himself. In the past he might have been fine. Because he had Iolaus to look to and to lean on. Now he just felt cold and empty and lost, and ‘fine’ didn’t seem to be something he could even aspire to anymore. But he nodded an agreement anyway, ready to end the discussion.
“I’m going to round everyone up and head back to the camp,” Nebula announced, giving his arm a little squeeze before she released him. “I think we should all stick close together by the fire, in case whatever did this to Danaeus is still out here. And that includes you, too, so let’s move it.”
“Danaeus deserves a proper burial,” Hercules countered. “I owe him that much.” Mostly, he was too hollow to really care and just looking for an excuse to isolate himself a little longer. But his rational side did agree that he owed it to the sailor, since it was his words that sent the young man storming off into the dark jungle. The demigod was offhandedly surprised he didn’t feel any guilt about that.
“All right,” Nebula allowed. “But don’t take too long or I’m coming back to get you.”
She moved off and when she had melted away into the darkness, Hercules returned to the pool and splashed another handful of water over his face, hoping that the cold liquid could help cool the burning anger buzzing inside his head. He was reaching in for another dip when he noticed the surface of the pool rippling as an image began to form.
“Hades!” he greeted in surprise as recognition set in. “What...? How...?”
“There’s no time to explain.” The god’s voice was somewhat muffled and distorted, but it was audible. “It took me awhile to find you and I don’t know how long this connection will last. Hercules, we have a problem.” “Yeah? Well Iolaus is dead,” Hercules blurted out, his anger flaring once more although this time he felt it was justified. “So I’m sorry but that trumps whatever petty problem you’re having.”
“I know about Iolaus!” Hades was impatient, but he tried to be understanding. He knew full well the depth of feeling his nephew had for his mortal friend and what lengths he was willing to go to for him. Taking that into account, he decided he could forgive a little insolence. “I’ve been trying to contact the Sumerian gods in the underworld to deal for Iolaus’ soul but I can’t reach anyone. All I get is a sense of a dark presence.”
“I’m on my way to the underworld right now.”
“Be careful, Hercules,” the god cautioned strongly. “I don’t know what’s going on there but it’s bad.”
“I’ll try to find out what’s going on,” Hercules said, deliberately not promising to be careful. After all, what was his own life even worth without Iolaus? “And Hades? Thank you for intervening on his behalf. I never knew you cared.”
“I’m just trying to get Iolaus where he belongs and complete the deal he made.”
“Deal? What deal?”
“He never told you?” Hades sighed, hating to be the bearer of the news that would crush his nephew. “When his cousin, Orestes, was killed, Iolaus and Aphrodite petitioned me on his behalf. I agreed to restore his life, but one of the conditions was that Iolaus had to report to me the next time he died. No bargaining and no reprieves. He was to come quietly and finally, and permanently, take his place on the other side.”
“I never knew,” the demigod whispered in shock. He wanted to deny his uncle’s claims, but it was exactly the sort of thing Iolaus would have done. And conveniently “forget” to mention it to his best friend and partner. “Hades, there must be something...”
“A deal is a deal,” the god rumbled in annoyance. Although he had expected his nephew to give him a fight. “If Iolaus returns to Greece, he is bound to the other side.”
“What do you mean, ‘if’?”
“I don’t know where he is,” Hades confessed. “But he’s only got until the next solstice to find his way home.”
“Or what?” Hercules asked.
“If his soul isn’t settled in an afterlife by then, then Iolaus is doomed to wander the earth forever. So find him, Hercules. And hurry.”
The image of his uncle winked out and the pool stilled, but Hercules remained staring into it for a long, long time. He didn’t think he could possibly feel any worse, but his heart had seemingly been shattered all over again. Iolaus’ soul missing? Doomed to wander aimlessly forever if he couldn’t find an afterlife by next solstice? And bound to Hades because of a deal he’d made? His best friend lost to him, even if he was found.
Hercules finally pushed himself away from the pool, deciding to continue on with his mission to the underworld. He didn’t know what else to do or where else to look, and it seemed as good a place to start as any. If Iolaus wasn’t there, then somebody would know what happened to him. And if he was there, then Hercules would get him back. If Iolaus was restored in Sumeria, then that would circumvent Hades’ deal, at least this time. The sense of urgency and desperation of the quest suddenly doubled and the demigod became even more rigid in his need to succeed. It was the one and only shot of getting Iolaus back, and no “dark presence” was going to stop him from saving his best friend’s soul.
Hercules returned to the campsite briefly to procure a shovel from the stash of supplies. He didn’t bother to tell Nebula about the talk he’d had with Hades, but merely brushed off her concern and went back out to bury the fallen sailor.
The ground was soft, but the work was harder without the strength he was used to and the humid air of the jungle clung to him and sapped his energy. But he continued on, digging deeply down into the earth. When he finally judged the size to be right, he climbed up out of the hole and rested next to it for a moment, gulping thirstily from a skin of water.
A hand shot up from the dark void and an achingly familiar voice called his name.
“Iolaus?” Hercules whispered, hardly daring to hope. But he reached down and clasped the hand in his. Fingers curled around his wrist. A grip he’d know anywhere. And then he was pulling his best friend out of the grave and into his lap, holding him protectively against his chest like he’d never let him go. Iolaus was shivering and moaning softly in pain, but he relaxed in his partner’s warm embrace.
“I knew you’d come and get me, buddy.”
“I couldn’t give up on you,” Hercules murmured raggedly. But his newly found joy burst as the body in his arms stiffened and turned. The face looking up at him was twisted with malice, the eyes demonic.
“You should have,” the abomination rasped, giggling dementedly.
Hercules bolted upright and it took him a few seconds to realize he’d been dreaming. At least, he thought he’d been dreaming. It had seemed so real. The rapture of having Iolaus back, and the pain of realizing he’d been deceived. It almost crushed the life out of him then and there. But as he forced himself to calm down and somehow pulled himself together, Hercules was at least reassured to know he was not losing his mind. He had no doubt that Dahak was involved. He’d sent the old seer woman, was tormenting him in his dreams, and was most likely the “dark presence” haunting the underworld. Hercules didn’t know what Dahak wanted with him, but it didn’t matter. If he had Iolaus, then there was nothing in any realm that could help the Great Evil.
As they continued upriver, the jungle grew denser. The trees and vines were so thick that they blocked the sun, letting in only a dim light. And the water of the Euphrates was cloudier, dark and swirling around their paddles. Vision was further obscured by a heavy mist that hung above the water. Worst was the silence. No noise could be heard in the thick, heavy air, but everyone had the distinct feeling they were being watched. Nebula and Agenor began discussing when they should leave the river and continue on foot, but then they came upon the ship.
“I thought you said this was unchartered territory,” Hercules questioned.
“It is,” Nebula replied, frowning in confusion as she stared at the dilapidated vessel that had seemingly run aground. “This isn’t right. A ship that size would have no reason to come this far up the river.”
“What do you wish to do, my Queen?” Agenor asked.
“Let’s check it out,” she decided. “But everyone be careful.”
They turned toward shore and pulled their boats up on the riverbank, securing them before they gathered in a tight huddle and cautiously followed Hercules and Nebula as they investigated the hold of the ship. Bodies were strewn everywhere, and the state of them caused more than a few of the men to blanch.
“They all look like Danaeus did,” Nebula pointed out quietly.
“It’s like they’ve been drained,” Hercules observed.
“Let me guess. A giant bat?” As the demigod shot her a ‘get real’ look, Nebula couldn’t help but grin. After all, it was the first hint of emotion that he’d shown, other than rage, since they first set out. “It could happen.”
Hercules just shook his head and took another step, but he halted as he saw the corpse at his feet twitching. Then without warning the rest of the bodies all suddenly became animated, staggering up and growling inarticulately.
“Now that’s what I call a speedy recovery,” Nebula quipped nervously.
“Everybody, get out of the ship, now!” Hercules commanded.
Some of the crew were already running and they made it out, but the formerly lifeless bodies closed in on the rest of them from behind, blocking the entrance. The group trapped inside began to fight valiantly, hitting the creatures with their own weapons and whatever they could grab from the ship. But the best they could do was briefly repel the monsters, for nothing seemed to phase them.
“They’re not dying!” Nebula called out to Hercules after the creature she’d skewered with her sword came after her again. And the demigod found that out for himself when he snapped the neck of one of the bodies and it didn’t even slow down, other than to twist its head back into position. The persistence and general unstoppable nature of the monsters started to win out over the determination of the crew, as several of them were overpowered and mauled in front of their helpless companions.
Something suddenly snapped in Hercules as he realized he’d been up against bigger and badder than this and had come out the victor. After all, everything had a weakness. A vulnerability. It was just a matter of finding it. And with all his long years of experience, he had a pretty good idea where to start. All he needed was an Old Hunter’s Trick. A stab of agonizing sorrow shot through the demigod and for a split second he was ready to crumble to the ground and let the creatures have him. But only for a second. Then he was steeling himself and grabbing up a fallen sword. He kicked the lid off a barrel of oil and dipped the blade into it, striking it against a metal chest and igniting the weapon. And sorely missing the presence of Iolaus at his back, he lashed out at one of the advancing monsters.
It evaporated in a shower of sparks.
“Nebula!” he shouted out.
She had seen what happened and reached out, catching the sword that he tossed to her and using it to take out three more of the creatures. But then strong arms wrapped around her from behind, causing her to drop the weapon. During the struggle to free herself, the monster’s nails cut into the skin of her arm, but she managed to buck it off her back. Turning, she started in shock to see that her attacker was Danaeus. Or what he’d become. He started back toward her, then reeled as if in pain, grasping the sides of his head. When he looked up, his eyes shone with a hint of recovered humanity.
“Kill me,” he begged her. “Kill me!”
Retrieving the sword, Nebula put him out of his misery.
“Sorry, Danaeus,” she murmured with deep regret.
“Get off this ship!” Hercules shouted out as he made another flaming sword. “Now!”
“Let’s go!” Nebula called out to what was left of her crew, using her own weapon to clear a path to the door. “Come on! Move!”
Once they were gone, Hercules began his own retreat to the door to the hold. When he was as far as he could get, he lobbed the fiery sword into the barrel of oil. The explosive blast blew him clear of the ship where he landed hard on the ground. But aside from a few bruises and a slight singe, he was unhurt and the creatures were all destroyed.
Nebula was binding the angry scratch on her arm when Agenor approached her, having been elected spokesman for the rest of the group.
“My queen,” he began a touch nervously, not knowing how she would react to what he had to say. “The men would rather live with the shame of desertion than die like the others.”
“Can’t say that I blame them,” Nebula told him understandingly.
“I will not be joining them.” The aide’s voice sounded brave, but his eyes shone with terror. “My place is by your side.”
“Not today. Go with them. That’s an order.”
Agenor couldn’t disobey a direct order from his queen, even though it went against his sense of duty as her servant to leave her. But he couldn’t deny the relief that washed over him to hear he was being allowed to turn back and did not have to follow a damned soul on what amounted to a suicide mission. However, what did that mean for his queen and the future of Sumeria?
“Please, come with us,” he begged her. “The people of Sumeria have already lost one leader. We cannot afford to lose another.”
“You won’t,” she assured him confidently.
“Let’s go,” he announced sadly to the group of men waiting behind him. They began gathering up belongings and packing up the small boats, and Agenor sent a prayer up to the gods that this “Hercules” would live up to his reputation and keep their queen safe, even if he had to damn himself in the process.
“He’s right,” Hercules said in Nebula’s ear, making her jump as she wasn’t aware he had approached her. “You should go with them.”
“I can’t,” she said, turning to face the demigod. “I almost ran out on Iolaus once. You told me then that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did, and you were right. I wouldn’t then, and I couldn’t live with myself now. You’re the one who taught me never to give up on people, Hercules. And I can’t give up on him. This might be an impossible mission for anyone else, but where the two of you are concerned, I’m willing to believe anything’s possible.”
Hercules looked at her impassively for a moment, then glanced up at the sky.
“We should get going.”
“Agenor found a stone marker over there. He thinks it’s a signpost that points the way to Dumuzi’s temple. It’s shouldn’t be far now.” Nebula bent to pick up her pack and then took the lead, pushing off through the jungle with Hercules following behind.
“I think we’re on the right track,” Nebula announced as she bent down to examine a stone icon that was almost hidden behind a tangle of vines. “This is another warning.”
“Of what?” Hercules asked in annoyance, growing tired of these repeated generic threats about the looming damnation of his soul.
“Doesn’t say,” she replied, straightening up. A wave of dizziness washed over her and she had to reach out and grab the icon to steady herself. Hercules had already started stomping off and didn’t notice, and after a second to catch her breath and clear her head, Nebula followed him. “Hercules, I have to talk to you about something.” He gave no sign of encouragement, so she just had to assume he was listening. “I think I know what happened to Danaeus and those other men.”
That piqued the demigod’s curiosity and he turned to look at her over his shoulder.
“There are legends about creatures called edimmu. Men whose souls have been captured before they reach the underworld so their bodies can be used for evil purposes.”
“So someone is stealing souls and controlling the bodies? Do you think it’s Dumuzi?”
“I don’t know what he’d have to gain by it, but I guess anything’s possible.”
Hercules shook his head slightly, knowing who was likely behind the edimmu. And then a chilling thought struck him.
“Nebula, what happens to a person’s body if the soul never reaches an afterlife?”
“The legends say a body doesn’t decay until the soul is claimed.”
“Iolaus...” Hercules choked out.
“Yeah, I thought about that,” Nebula said softly. Three days had passed, and the hunter’s body had not even gone into rigor. “But he can’t be an edimmu, Hercules. He wasn’t drained like the others.”
“Hades...” The demigod shook his head again and cleared his throat. “Hades said he doesn’t know where his soul is. And since his body... I don’t think Dumuzi has him.”
“So what do we do? Keep going or turn back?”
“Keep going,” Hercules decided helplessly. “I don’t know where else to start looking, and even if Dumuzi doesn’t have him, he might know where he is. Chances are Iolaus started off there.”
He unconsciously quickened his pace, feeling new motivation spurring him on. The demigod had thought that his best friend dying was as bad as it could possibly get, but he should have known it could always get worse. Iolaus’ soul was lost and Dahak was on the prowl. He was at risk of being captured and used, or fated to wander the earth forever if his soul couldn’t find an afterlife by the next solstice. Hercules vowed he wasn’t going to see any of those things happen. He would get Iolaus back, or at the very least, he’d see him rest in peace.
“There is a bright side to this,” Nebula panted beside him. “There has to be a reason that the body doesn’t decay until the soul is at rest. And I think it’s because there’s a way to get the soul back to the body. We just have to figure out how and then we can get Iolaus back.”
“If we can find him,” Hercules muttered bleakly.
“So what if we can’t?” she challenged with a huge grin. “I’d bet my kingdom that he finds us first.”
Hercules almost started to smile at that, knowing it was true, but then he frowned as Nebula stumbled hard, dropping the pack from her shoulders and leaning heavily against a tree.
“You all right?”
“Yeah, fine,” she gasped. “I’m just tired.”
“Come here.” The demigod looped an arm around her waist and led her over to a nearby stump. “Sit over here for awhile.” He took a good look at her, noticing how sick she looked, and his suspicions were aroused. “Let me take a look at that arm.”
She tried to resisted but he held her and unwrapped the bandages, shocked to see that the skin around the scratches she’d received was cold and gray and dead.
“Well, I figure we’re all headed for the underworld sooner or later,” Nebula said lightly, not surprised by her condition as she’d been feeling the effects and knew what was happening to her. “Wanna race?”
She chuckled, but Hercules was far from amused, not finding the situation a joking matter. “You’re not going to die,” he told her firmly.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” A deadly seriousness replaced her jocularity. “I don’t want to end up like Danaeus and the others. Promise me you won’t let that happen. Promise me you’ll kill me first.”
“It won’t come to that.” Hercules turned and retrieved her pack, fishing out her water skin. But when he turned back to her he found Nebula sitting calmly with her short sword pointed at her chest.
“Promise me,” she demanded. It was filling her with horror to imagine having no control over her body, being a puppet to carry out someone else’s evil purposes. For someone as fiercely independent as Nebula, it was truly a fate much, much worse than death. “Promise me or you’ll have a lot of cleaning up to do.”
“I promise,” Hercules told her, not having any other choice.
“Good boy.” She slipped the sword back into the sheath at her hip and reached out a hand. “Now help me up.”
The demigod assisted her to her feet and she took up her pack. They set off through the jungle once again, because there was nothing else they could do.
Nebula came to a sudden halt, her pack slipping from her shoulder.
“What is it?”
“Do you hear that?” she asked the demigod in a small voice, reaching back for him as if in fear.
“I don’t hear anything,” he replied in confusion.
Nebula put her hands to her head and screamed, then turned and bolted off through the trees.
Hercules called after her, commanding her to wait, but she ran like a woman possessed and he couldn’t catch her until she finally stopped, huddling up beside a tree and gasping for breath. Her eyes were wild and afraid and she seemed to look right through him, so the demigod took her by the shoulders, giving her a gentle shake and ordering her to look at him.
“He’s calling me,” Nebula blurted out. “It’s like a part of me is fading away. I’m afraid.”
Hercules had never seen her afraid before, and he realized her greatest fear was perhaps her only fear. The fear of losing control over herself, losing her own mind and free will, forced to become what someone else wanted her to be. And that fear was apparently about to become realized.
“No, listen to me,” the demigod urged. “We still have time.”
But she pulled out of his grasp and started to run again, though she didn’t go far. With an anguished moan, Nebula collapsed upon a giant slab of stone.
“He led me here,” she told him, a sob in her voice.
Hercules kicked the fallen debris off the slab and saw the carving of the eye that had been taunting him through the whole quest. It was etched into what looked like a door, one that he should have been easily able to lift off. But it took every last ounce of his fading strength to pull the heavy stone covering off and slide it aside. Sunlight streamed down into a cavernous pit that appeared devoid of life. Since it was too far for a leap of faith, the demigod unwound a thick vine from a nearby tree and dropped it down through the hole.
“I’ll be right back,” he said to Nebula.
She nodded weakly as he began to climb down the vine into the temple of Dumuzi.
It was an even farther drop than it appeared, but Hercules made it without incident. And once he was safely on the ground, he looked around and decided he wasn’t impressed. The chamber was empty, except for a raised stone slab directly under the shaft of sunlight that filtered in through the door high above. It looked disturbingly like an altar, and the demigod quickly averted his eyes and resumed his investigation of the dark, dank room. He’d been in many like it before and almost instinctively walked to a spot in east wall and pushed. It gave slightly, revealing a hidden door. Hercules pushed harder and again had to summon all his power to budge the stone wall, but he finally managed to get it to swing open enough that he could slip through. But then a sinister growl sounded from behind him.
He turned just in time to see Nebula coming at him. She kicked him hard in the gut and he flew backward, bouncing off the wall and propelling forward to sprawl on the ground next to the altar.
“I hope you’re a man that keeps his promises,” she rasped in a voice that had a frighteningly inhuman timbre. “Kill me, or I’ll kill you.”
“Nebula, Dahak’s making you do this,” Hercules tried to reason with her. “You’re not dead yet. Fight him! I know you can!”
But she just snarled and lunged at him, her short sword held high. The demigod rolled out of the way and leapt to his feet, dodging her wild slashes until he finally managed to grab her. He spun her around and held her tightly, pinning her back to his chest and forcing her hand to hold the sword at her own throat. Something came over Nebula and she shuddered, growing lucid for a brief moment as she fought for control.
“Do it,” she begged him, wanting her torment to end before she passed the point of no return.
Hercules hesitated, knowing he couldn’t kill her. Not because he felt anything for her. He’d hadn’t felt anything but anger toward anyone or anything for days. But he knew he couldn’t take her life, because Iolaus loved her. And Iolaus would never forgive him. Besides, she’d said it herself. He didn’t give up on people.
“Sorry,” the demigod said as he flipped her over his shoulder and deposited her roughly on the altar. Breaking off a piece of the vine on which he’d climbed down, he tied her hands securely behind her back. “But that’s a promise I can’t keep. Now, don’t go anywhere.”
Leaving her growling her fury in the chamber, Hercules slipped through the hidden door and went in search of Dumuzi.
The rest of the temple was much more lavish and opulent, more like what he’d been expecting. Torches burned on the walls, casting a warm light over the luxurious surroundings. Even the air seemed fresher, wafting by with just a hint of incense. Hercules came upon a room that was empty, but bore a giant symbol of the eye on the wall. He stared at it, itching to put his fist through the marking. The only thing that stopped him was the remembrance that his strength was waning and he wanted to conserve the power that still remained in his blood. Plus, he didn’t need a broken hand on the verge of a battle for his best friend’s soul. Instead, his fingers curled around the broken medallion around his neck and he moved forward, calling out for Dumuzi. No one answered, but Hercules’ attention was drawn to a large mirror across the room. At least he thought it was a mirror. It reflected his image, but distorted as the surface of the mirror rippled like water. Tentatively reaching out, the demigod touched it and his fingers penetrated the surface. He jerked his hand back, and then tried it again. It felt cool and his skin tingled ever so slightly, but it wasn’t painful. Taking a deep breath, knowing he couldn’t turn back, Hercules went for broke and barreled straight into the mirror, popping out on the other side.
He found himself in what appeared to be a hall of mirrors, all with rippling surfaces. No other way out, and his reflection peering back at him from the doorway he’d just stepped through. He didn’t have time to go popping through all the mirrors and a sense of urgency overcame him, causing his anger and frustration to boil. Hercules began stomping along the corridor, demanding that Dumuzi show himself.
The voice was so faint he wasn’t sure if he heard it or imagined it. But he stopped and listened, and after a moment it came again, a little louder this time.
“Iolaus!” he shouted back. “Iolaus, where are you?”
The demigod paced the hallway like a caged beast, calling out to his friend in desperation. And after a minute, one of the mirrors began to flicker and he saw Iolaus’ image start to form.
“Hercules,” the hunter called out imploringly. “It’s a trap. You have to get out of here.”
“Not without you,” Hercules argued hoarsely. “Where are you, Iolaus? Tell me how to find you!”
“You can’t.” The image faded away, but then reappeared in the mirror opposite. “Save yourself, Herc. Forget about me.”
“You know I can’t do that!” the demigod insisted vehemently, fixing a hard gaze on the wavering reflection of his friend. And then he saw it. It was for just an instant, and he was tempted to write it off as just a product of the distortion of the rippling image. But in his heart he knew better. He’d seen something come over the beloved face before him. A flash of evil, and the initial relief he’d felt at finding his friend evaporated, replaced by a furious dread. “You’re not Iolaus.”
“Herc, how can you say that?” the image said in a brokenhearted tone. “After all we’ve been through.” But then the figure grinned, not the cocky, mischievous, charming grin of the hunter, but a smirk of demented evil. And those blue eyes, typically sparkling with life and humor and passion, grew darker until they were black and soulless.
“Dahak,” the demigod spat with venom and hatred.
“I guess we’ve never really been formerly introduced,” the image said conversationally.
“Oh, I’ve been wanting to meet you up close and personal for quite awhile now,” Hercules growled. He lunged at the figure in the mirror but his hands closed around nothing. The reflection vanished and the surface of the mirror rippled in large circles, like a stone dropping into a pool of water.
“I’m afraid it won’t be that easy.”
The demigod spun around, seeing the reflection of his friend... Dahak masquerading as his friend, in the mirror behind him.
“What are you doing here?” Hercules demanded. “Where’s Dumuzi?”
“He ran when I appeared,” Dahak told him. “He and all the other gods. When the chalice was destroyed, the gods lost their source of the nectar that sustains them. Without it, they are weak and vulnerable. Certainly no match for me. They’re hiding, like the cowards they are.”
“So you decided to take over the underworld and start stealing innocent souls?”
“I can’t build my army until I fully enter the world,” Dahak continued, fading and reappearing in another mirror further down the hall. “The edimmu will serve in the meantime.”
“You are never going to enter this world,” Hercules vowed, striding down to face the reflection. “I stopped you before, and I will do it again, or die trying.”
“You misunderstand, Hercules,” Dahak said, almost gently. “I don’t want to kill you. You are no use to me dead. In fact, your death will only make my task harder. I need the people of Greece to see you as a fallen hero, not as a martyr and an inspiration. Without you, the people will lose what little faith they have left, and your land will be ripe for conquest.”
“You underestimate the strength in the people of Greece,” Hercules disagreed, spinning around as the image winked out and appeared in another mirror.
“And your ears have grown so accustomed to the sound of your own lies you no longer hear the truth.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“You know what it means. You blame everyone else for what’s wrong in the world. The gods interference, the Fates’ intervention. And of course, me. But you never want to take responsibility for yourself! You’ve started believing in your own legend, that you are invincible and infallible. Your sense of right and just is so strong that it blinds you to caution and care. And it was that supreme overconfidence that led you here to Sumeria. And got your friend killed. Surely you remember the look on his face when he took his last breath.”
It was a look he’d never forget. One that haunted Hercules every waking moment. But he couldn’t let himself be drawn in and baited. He had to harness his rage and make it work to his advantage, not lose himself to it now.
“I’m going to remember the look on your face, when you take yours,” he promised in a low voice.
“You knew then,” Dahak crowed, vanishing and reappearing in two mirrors at once. “Iolaus paid the price for his loyalty to you.”
“I’m here for his refund,” Hercules said chillingly. “So let him go. NOW!”
“He isn’t here. I admit I came here looking for him. He was killed outright and I cannot take possession of his body since a warrior heart has to be sacrificed or freely given. But as long as his soul is not at rest, Iolaus can still give me that sacrifice.”
“He would never do that!”
“You would be surprised what I can get mortals to do,” Dahak told him sinisterly. “And once I convince Iolaus to sacrifice himself to me, then his body will be mine and I’ll be able to enter the world. He was not my first choice, but he’ll be a strong vessel and useful in the enslavement of the Greeks. And it’s what he deserves for thwarting the original sacrifice. It’s what you both deserve. You are destined to be undone by the man who was your best friend, Hercules. And then once Greece is mine and you are thoroughly broken, I’ll enjoy seeing you die by his hand.”
“I told you before, I’m not going to let that happen!”
“You can’t stop it. No more than you could stop Iolaus’ death. You can no longer deny what you know in your heart. You killed him, as surely as if you’d thrown the knife yourself.”
“No!” Hercules shook his head violently, denying the words even as the guilt ripped at his soul. “Iolaus died fighting for what he believed in!”
“You allowed him to be sacrificed in your name. And that makes you no different than a god.”
“I am nothing like the gods!” he shouted.
“No, you’re worse,” Dahak taunted, spreading the profaned image of Iolaus out until he was reflected from every one of the mirrors, surrounding Hercules. “You’ve tricked mortals into thinking you’re their savior when you’ve been their greatest enemy all along.”
Hercules felt himself losing control, but he was powerless to stop it. The fury and guilt and grief overcame him, and he began lunging at the mirrors, swinging futilely as the wavering images laughed cruelly.
“Your rage betrays your true feelings,” Dahak accused him. “You’re everything you most despise, just like Ares or Hera. You failed your best friend, and once I find him, everything you ever cared about and loved and fought for will be gone!”
A dam broke inside Hercules and the searing pain drove him to his knees. Reaching up to the sky, the demigod screamed out Iolaus’ name in pure heartbreaking agony. The mirrors began to vibrate in response to the deafening, soul shattering cry, until the very force caused them all to shatter. Blinding bursts of light shot from all of the mirrors, circling around the hallway and shooting up through the roof. The souls of the edimmu, finally set free. Hercules blinked rapidly as the sudden light faded. The image of Dahak was gone, but his disembodied voice filled the hall.
“Iolaus is lost to you, Hercules,” he threatened ominously. “But not to me.”
The demigod sat down as the voice faded away, folding his arms on his knees and dropping his head down in the cradle of his limbs. And great, wrenching sobs shook his frame as he finally allowed himself to grieve for his friend. For Iolaus, the brother of his heart.
As Hercules slipped back through the door and entered the dark chamber at the entrance to the temple, he was surprised to see Nebula was not alone.
“Get away from her,” he snarled, striding forward angrily.
“Please, Hercules,” Gilgamesh spoke, raising his hands in an non-threatening gesture. “I mean no harm.”
The demigod didn’t believe him and made a grab for him, but his hands passed right through the incorporeal former king.
“What are you doing here? What do you want?” he demanded.
“I wanted to make sure my sister was safe,” Gilgamesh explained hastily. “And to thank you for protecting her. And to apologize. But mostly, I came to tell you of Iolaus.”
“What do you know?!”
“He’s safe,” the slain king reassured the demigod. “He’s going home to Greece.”
Hercules sagged slightly as a wave of emotion washed over him. Iolaus was safe, and he was going home where he could spend eternity with his family. And he would spend eternity there. Hades would look out for him, but because of that cursed deal Iolaus had apparently made for Orestes’ life, this time there was no hope of reprieve. No hope of getting him back now. But he was safe. His soul would be claimed, not destined to wander the earth as a haunted spirit. And free from Dahak. That’s what was important. Right?
“What’s done is done, Hercules,” Gilgamesh told him somberly. “We can’t change the past, no matter how much we might wish. We just have to deal with what’s happened and carry on.”
“How?” the demigod whispered brokenly to himself. But the Sumerian heard him.
“Like you told me before,” the king said with a kind smile. “You just have to follow your heart. Be safe, my friend. And tell my sister how much I love her.”
The image of Gilgamesh began to fade, and then he was gone. Hercules turned to Nebula, finding her unconscious, but her wounds were healed. Untying her hands, he gathered her up, settling her securely over his shoulder, and he took a firm grip on the vines and began to climb back out to the world.
Hercules stood next to the body of his friend which had been wrapped securely in linen in anticipation of burial. He didn’t know how long he’d been there, gazing down at the shrouded form. Grieving. Apologizing. And saying goodbye. A small sound alerted him to a presence behind him, but he didn’t need to turn around. Only one would disturb him.
“How you feeling?” he asked tonelessly.
“Been better,” Nebula replied. Physically she was fine. Emotionally was another story. “You?” Hercules didn’t answer, but it was pretty clear just how he was. “When do you start back for Greece?”
“I’m not going back,” the demigod told her. He couldn’t. Couldn’t return to his homeland without Iolaus. The memories surrounding him there would just be too much. And while he knew his family, especially his mother, wouldn’t understand his desertion, he just couldn’t go back and face them. Couldn’t go home again, knowing that Iolaus never would. “There’s nothing there for me.”
“You can’t let this destroy you, Hercules,” Nebula chided him gently as she moved to stand beside him. “Iolaus...”
“Iolaus is dead,” the demigod interrupted her coldly. Then he turned to meet her dark eyed gaze, his own blue eyes shadowed with grief and guilt. “I killed him. I killed my best friend.”
“Don’t,” he stopped her. There was nothing she could say and he couldn’t bear to hear about how none of this was his fault. Because it was. Too many people he’d cared about had been threatened and hurt and killed over the years. Punished for their association with him. Murdered in order to break him down and shatter his soul. He’d tried to deny it to himself, but now the one he’d loved above all others was gone. “I am damned, Nebula,” he whispered, tears filling his eyes as he forced himself to admit the truth. “And so are all the people I love. All I can do now is learn from my mistakes. And disappear.” He pressed something into her hand and she looked down to see the broken pieces of Iolaus’ medallion.Iolaus was gone and there was no getting him back. No reason left to hold onto him, to hold onto the past and to what they were. No reason to hold onto anything anymore.
“So, where are you going to go?” she asked, hoping that she was misinterpreting the significance of his gift, and that the demigod was not truly giving up on himself.
Hercules merely shrugged indifferently.
“Take my ship,” Nebula called after him as he started to leave the room with no hint of a goodbye. When he turned back to look at her quizzically, she elaborated. “I won’t be needing it for awhile. Besides, it’s time for me to stay put and take all this queen business a little more seriously.”
Hercules found a ghost of a smile. Finally, he could see what Iolaus had always seen in the brash pirate.
“It suits you.”
“I expect my ship back someday,” she cautioned him. “And you with it.”
The demigod looked at her evenly, making no promises. And then he turned to leave, but her words halted him again.
“Hercules, I don’t care what you think of yourself. You saved my life. And you saved the edimmu. All those souls found peace because of you. That’s worth something, isn’t it?”
He didn’t turn around. Didn’t acknowledge her words. Nothing was worth anything anymore. All he felt was a loss that was all encompassing. Drowning out his desire to help, his pride at triumphing over evil, his passion for everything he’d once loved. He was just empty. His body lived, but inside he was as dead as Iolaus. So without another word, Hercules walked out of the palace and boarded Nebula’s ship.
As he launched from port, he idly wondered which direction to take. Gilgamesh’s words came back to him, quoting his own advice to “follow his heart”. But he couldn’t follow a heart that was shattered in a million pieces. Couldn’t go home, because he no longer had one. His faith had been obliterated, and the only person who could give it back to him was gone. So Hercules just drifted, letting the winds and the tide carry him off, not much caring where he ended up.
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