Bliss

by Barbara

He stared at the pool of crystal clear water as it wavered and then formed a window onto the Paths of the Dead. The Paths were overshadowed by what appeared to be old forest or jungle. However, beneath his feet lay grass that was incredibly lush and green, the sky overhead a perfect shade of blue, with cotton clouds and the occasional sparrow only adding to its beauty. The man himself was tall and well formed, his white-blond hair immaculately swept back from a high brow. So intent on watching the scene playing out before him, he barely registered another presence by his side until Gabriel spoke.

“You’re spending too much time watching the Paths again, Michael.” The newcomer was just as tall and perfect of form, but sported golden curls and a more generous smile.

“Hardly a failing. Look what I’ve found.” Michael pointed out the bright soul wandering along one of the paths. It suddenly hesitated, pausing as if looking around or listening to something, then took a wrong turn-wrong if it wished to reach the Greek afterlife-and blundered away from the correct direction.

Gabriel peered more closely at the vision, not surprised when it turned out to be the very source of his reason to approach Michael. A dark spot, seeming to suck in all light around it, stood where the bright soul had been, then followed after it. “Looks like we have a little interference going on. That won’t do.”

“No. We should do something about it,” Michael agreed.

“We’ve no choice.”

“Oh?” The rise of a white eyebrow accompanied Michael’s response.

Gabriel, known as the Light’s favored messenger, nodded. “I bring news from Uriel, Angel of Light. He says this one has great potential to be a Guardian. He has been following this mortal’s life. This soul has already spent a good portion of it helping those in need and has a strong drive to continue to do so.”

“I thought the soul’s light was particularly bright.” Michael turned back to watch.

“Uriel wants you to make him an offer,” Gabriel added.

“The usual?” Michael asked.

“Always.”

Iolaus had been wandering a path-infested jungle for what seemed days now since Gilgamesh had pointed out the path to take. The only breaks had been when he’d managed to see Hercules and make things right with him. Funny how that seemed to have happened so long ago. He never grew hungry or tired though, so perhaps the feeling of time passing was distorted. However, he’d had plenty of time to think and worry over Hercules and whether or not Gilgamesh was still pulling their strings even in death. He sighed. This was nothing like the last time he died. Or the one before that.

“Okay, I have to stop thinking about that. Normal people don’t keep dying and coming back. Not that I’m not normal-except for the fact I’m all alone and talking to myself. As long as I don’t answer my own questions, I’m okay. Right? Right!” Okay, this isn’t going well. I’m beginning to worry myself.

When he’d started this journey, determined to reach Hades and the Elysian Fields, he’d been sure where to go, what fork to take. But now, ever since he’d heard that cry for help, he’d been lost. Twice he’d heard it and every time he’d been sure of where the sound had come from, he’d never once seen or come upon any sign that he wasn’t the only one on these paths. It hadn’t been like before, when he’d known it was Hercules who needed his help. This sounded more like a child’s voice. It was frustrating. He was a hunter, he could track anything through nearly any terrain, but he needed something to actually track. A voice in the wilderness didn’t leave any signs.

“It’s almost as if…nah…uh…” He’d come to another path. “Oh, great! Don’t they believe in signposts around here?” He stood there, facing his latest decision to make, hands on hips, feet shoulder width apart, braced for anything. Not that he’d come across anything threatening so far. “I have to get back on track here. I can’t find whoever it was that cried out. I’m not helping anyone at all blundering around here. Now, Iolaus, which one?”

He favored the left. Something about it just seemed so right, though there was no difference between its appearance and that of the right fork. He was two steps down the left-hand path when he heard a voice.

“Iolaus!”

Whirling around, he came face-to-face with the former Sumerian king yet again. Iolaus jumped back, putting a safe distance between them. He might be dead, but instincts still kicked in. “Gilgamesh! You--!” Words failed him. This man had betrayed his people, his sister, and Iolaus’ friend. He wanted to bash the Sumerian’s head in with his own hands, even if he had helped guide him toward the Elysian Fields. And that was assuming Gilgamesh hadn’t tricked him again. He’d begun to wonder about that as he felt his surety of where to go fade. Hadn’t it been Gilgamesh who’d separated Hercules from him in Sumeria? Hadn’t he told Iolaus not to try to help Hercules any more with the pretense that Dahak might trap him? What if Gilgamesh was still working for Dahak?

Gilgamesh raised his hands, palms out. “Peace, Iolaus. I’ve no wish to hurt you.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that before.”

“It’s the truth. If I had, I wouldn’t have set you on the right path or warned you about Dahak.”

“Yeah? Well, what are you doing here then? Shouldn’t you be in your Sumerian afterlife? I don’t know, maybe burning for eternity, or rolling a large stone up a hill or something? Oh, wait, I forgot, you’re supposed to be wondering the world as a wraith. Funny, this doesn’t look like the mortal world to me.” So much for his own attempt to intervene on Gilgamesh’s behalf with his underworld gods. Maybe they’d changed their minds and set him to haunting these paths. Iolaus didn’t lose his wary stance though.

Gilgamesh’s face fell. “You know I can’t go there. For my misdeeds, I’ve been banished from our afterlife. I’m cursed to wander forever. My only solace is that I might atone for my sins by helping other strayed souls find their way to the correct afterlife for them. Perhaps the gods will eventually forgive me for what I have done. Truly, Iolaus, I regret everything that has happened.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Iolaus muttered to himself. Still, he couldn’t deny that others had turned away from dark paths, sometimes before it was too late, sometimes after they’d royally screwed up everyone’s lives. Xena was a good example, and he had been in a similar situation when he’d been a boy as well and chosen the wrong path until Hercules’ and Alcmene’s love redirected him. He reminded himself of the sincerity of Gilgamesh’ apology as they waited for the ferryman after their deaths. “Okay, say I believe you. Which way do you suggest I go? I thought I was headed in the right direction, but now--” He gestured at the paths before him.

He fully expected Gilgamesh to point him down the right-hand path, so he was surprised when he heard, “Take the one you started down. It will fork again, not far from here. At that point, go right. It will wind to the left eventually, and will set you on the correct road.”

“Oh. Well, uh, okay.” Maybe Gilgamesh was truly sorry. He looked distressed. Maybe his own suspicions were just the product of a lively imagination stuck on a neverending path. Iolaus absent-mindedly ran a hand through his unruly curls, then relaxed his stance. “Uh, I guess you can walk with me for a while, if you want.”

Gilgamesh seemed to relax in turn. “Certainly, Iolaus. I’d like the company. I fear this journey I’m doomed to will be lonely.”

Don’t get too sympathetic, Iolaus. Just because he looks and sounds sorry, doesn’t mean he’s not up to something. Misplaced trust got you into this mess in the first place. Iolaus didn’t let his doubts show on his face. He plastered a half-smile on and started down the left path, Gilgamesh falling in by his side.

The first few minutes were traveled in silence. It felt strange to Iolaus to have a large man walking by his side and not be the big guy he expected. He kept wanting to turn and say ‘Herc’, but every time he started to, his throat would tighten, and he’d feel a pang of sadness. That was over now. If he got to the Elysian Fields, Hades wouldn’t let him leave again. Not this time.

Gilgamesh was the one who broke their silence. “You miss him.” It wasn’t a question.

Iolaus didn’t pretend to mistake to whom he referred. “Yeah. We’ve been by each others’ sides for over twenty years. We didn’t share blood, but he was my brother all the same. I just hope he’s doing all right. He gets a little-funny-when I die-I, uh, mean…” Iolaus trailed off into silence.

“You’ve done this before then?” Gilgamesh asked, an odd look on his face, though Iolaus couldn’t blame him for that. It was an oddity to die and come back not just once, but multiple times.

“Well, yeah, but not from outside of Greece. There was never this wandering around lost thing going on.”

“You’re not lost, Iolaus. You’re right where you need to be.” Gilgamesh sounded full of conviction.

“Maybe, but Herc-“

Gilgamesh interrupted, “You must remain out of Dahak’s reach.” Gilgamesh hesitated and then dared to gently place a hand on Iolaus’ shoulder. “And Hercules must find his own path, Iolaus.”

I know that. I just hope he does. Iolaus didn’t speak any more until they reached another fork, just like Gilgamesh had said. The path he was on went straight. The other path, smaller, headed right. So why do I feel something’s not right?

“Stop.”

Iolaus started. The voice sounded right by his ear, but when he turned, reaching for a sword that wasn’t there, a stranger stood a good fifteen paces away from them. Gilgamesh made an angry hissing noise before clearing his face of its frown. Interesting.

“Who are you?” He could be another unfortunate soul wandering around, but Iolaus didn’t think the shear presence emanating from him indicated anything short of knowing where he was, what he was doing and just how to do it.

“I am Michael, Iolaus of Thebes, and I have a proposition for you.”

“Oh no, that never works out for me. Propositions from strangers always end in trouble usually involving warlords, mummies, or gods. Thanks, but I’ll pass.” And never mind the fact that this Michael knew his name. Then again, he was dead. Anything was possible at this point. Iolaus shook his head and turned back toward the small path.

“At least hear me out.” The voice was reasonable, affable. Of course, so had Karkas been before he offered everyone some Lotus paste.

“He doesn’t want to hear anything you have to say,” Gilgamesh retorted. Maybe that’s what decided it for Iolaus. He certainly didn’t need a traitor defending him. Hercules would have said Iolaus was being contrary right about now as he turned around, arms folded and put on his ‘Okay, I’m listening’ expression. Iolaus liked to think of it as keeping his options open.

Gilgamesh folded his arms as well, but his whole stance bespoke one ready to do battle if need be. Iolaus got the odd feeling that they were about to come to blows over him. “Hey, hey! Not that I haven’t been fought over before by warlords and even gods, and I’m flattered and all, but really, I’m a big boy and can make my own decisions. I don’t need a former king or a…uh…” Iolaus gestured at Michael, unsure what he really was, certainly no mortal.

“I am a Guardian and Servant of the Light,” Michael helpfully supplied.

“Okay…I don’t need a former king and Guardian and Servant of…this is really getting ridiculous.”

“Iolaus isn’t any of your business, Michael. He doesn’t subscribe to your beliefs.” Yet again, Gilgamesh stepped in where he wasn’t wanted.

“On the contrary. We’re all about fighting evil. Iolaus has a long history of doing the same.”

“But he-“

“He can speak for himself,” Iolaus interrupted. “Sheesh, what is with you?” He turned back to Michael. “I’m listening. Who is ‘we’?”

“’We’ are Guardians of the Light and refer to where we exist, live if you will, as Bliss. Since the dawn of time, we have fought for Good. Sometimes we find mortals who share that same passion and when the time comes and their earthly bonds are shattered, we seek them out and make the same offer. Come with me to Bliss, Iolaus and let me show you what we have to offer.”

As Iolaus gnawed on his lower lip, obviously wavering, Gilgamesh drew close and whispered in his ear. The touch of that ghostly breath sent shivers up his spine and he could feel his short hairs rise. A part of him curiously wondered how he could feel anything since he was dead. Another topic for another day.

“Be sure you know what you’re doing, Iolaus. He’s not your Hades.”

Maybe that’s what decided him, sheer contrariness. However, Iolaus believed instinct was kicking in, old hunter’s instincts. He nodded his head. “You’re right, he’s not Hades.” He watched a smirk flash across Gilgamesh’s lips and took some delight in watching it vanish as he added, “Neither are you.”

“Then it’s decided!” Michael offered Iolaus his hand and in the instant that their fingers touched, Iolaus swore he saw a glimmer of white iridescent wings framing Michael’s body. The two disappeared from Gilgamesh’s view.

Vexed, Dahak lost the form of the former Sumerian king. “Damn you, Michael. Damn you to all the world’s hells!”

Iolaus felt a strong wind in his face, a sense of falling, and then he almost lost his balance as he stepped down and his foot landed on solid ground.

Michael’s voice sounded in his ear. “Watch your step.”

“A little late…” Iolaus’ words faded as he looked around. The bright light faded from his vision and he beheld an expanse of rolling hills covered in wild flowers and grass so lush he fought the urge to kick off his boots and squeeze his toes in it. The sky was a perfect shade of blue, the temperature just right. The slightest of cool breezes played through his hair as they began walking forward.

“This is just the outskirts of Bliss,” Michael was saying as Iolaus watched a white dove fly overhead, carrying what looked like a small olive branch in its beak. He realized he’d stopped and hurried to catch up with the Guardian who hadn’t slowed down any.

Just as they came to the top of the next rise, the landscape seemed to alter slightly. Below lay a meadow dotted with yellow flowers. In the distance there were a few copses of trees and what looked like people moving beneath them. The sound of laughter drifted to his ears. Joyous laughter. The heat of the sun warmed his body deep inside. Funny, I hadn’t noticed I was cold before.

Michael had stopped and was watching Iolaus’ face. “These are the souls of those who’ve died and have yet to be allowed into the center of Bliss.”

“Huh? You mean they aren’t, uh, all the way into this afterlife? But they seem so happy…” Iolaus strained to see them better, yet the distance befuddled even his keen eyes. It was a far cry from waiting in line at the river Styx.

“They are. They are simply on a journey like you are. Eventually they’ll be admitted at the appropriate time.” Michael started walking again.

“When is that?”

“When what is to come to pass has occurred,” Michael gestured to Iolaus to go right.

“Okay…” Clear as mud.

The scenery changed very little until Michael reached out a hand and touched Iolaus’ shoulder. “Turn left.”

The hunter did and suddenly the meadow and trees were gone and a sculpted garden spread before them. Strewn haphazardly about were small pools rimmed with white marble. Flowers and ornamental trees, most of which he couldn’t put name to, spread as far as the eye could see.

In what he assumed might be the center of the garden, or at least a prominent place, there was a great marble throne so white it almost blinded him.

Iolaus blinked and in that small instant, a figure appeared, seated on the throne. Like Michael, he appeared tall and handsome, but whereas the self-proclaimed guardian was light, this man was dark. His skin had the look of one who spent most of his time under the sun. Dark wavy hair touched his shoulders, a bit shorter than Hercules’. His tunic, pants, and boots were black and what Iolaus had mistaken for a cloak suddenly billowed up and outward like a hawk stretching its wings. In fact, they appeared to actually be wings. I wish Herc could see this. Scratch that. He’d have to be dead too.

“Maybe he will, one day.” White teeth flashed against the brown skin as a deep voice washed over Iolaus.

Don’t tell me he just read my thoughts. Iolaus tried to make his mind blank. He really didn’t need to deal with some kind of god magic that let his private thoughts be read like an open scroll.

“Iolaus, this is Uriel, Angel of Light.”

“Uh, hello.” Iolaus wiped his hand on his leathers and extended it for a warrior’s greeting. An amused smile lit Uriel’s face and he grasped the hunter’s forearm. Their eyes met and Iolaus only then realized they were grey like the sea on a stormy day. In fact---whatever he’d been about to think drifted away as if on a breeze and he fell deeper into that gaze. Somewhere he heard a faint voice calling his name. “Herc?” he murmured.

“Uriel, don’t forget, he still has a mortal’s weaknesses.” That sounded more like Michael than Hercules. Iolaus felt pressure on his shoulder and eventually connected it to a hand resting there, shaking him gently.

“My apologies, Iolaus of Greece. I forgot myself. Your soul is so bright I didn’t shield my gaze.” Uriel released his hand and sat back, wings folding neatly behind him. “Michael, have you made the offer yet?”

“No. We’re just touring right now.”

Uriel smiled at Iolaus again. “Then I shall let you at it.” That said, he simply vanished. No smoke, no sparkles, or flames. Nothing like the gods of Greece where showing off seemed to be the norm. It was almost disappointing, Iolaus thought.

“Come, Iolaus.” Michael gestured him away from the throne and down a path paved with small white stones. The smell of roses wafted by and Iolaus thought of Alcmene and her garden. She’d love this place. Wait, what am I thinking?! I don’t want her in my boots just to see some flowers.

Iolaus rubbed the back of his neck in chagrin and followed Michael. He really needed to stop wishing his friends and family were here.

“Iolaus, we were made aware of your predicament once you hit the paths, but we’ve watched you and your friend long before this,” Michael began.

Okay, that could either be a good thing or a bad thing. He only made a noncommittal noise, causing Michael to smile.

“Iolaus, you have unselfishly given of yourself for friends, family, and, more importantly, strangers. While many can say the same of friends and family, it has been the latter that impressed us most. This brought you to the Light’s attention. For this reason, we offer you a chance to continue fighting the good fight, this time in the name of the Light and Bliss.”

“Or?” There’s always an ‘or’ in these situations, though usually it’s followed by ‘we’ll torture you, kill you, kill your family, friends, the goat, whatever’.

“Or we can send you back to the paths and direct you to the Elysian Fields.” Michael gestured at one of the white-rimmed pools. The water wavered and Iolaus beheld a house with a woman holding a baby on her hip while pulling a bucket of water from a well. A young boy played nearby with carved wooden horses. The woman’s dark hair was caught back by a kerchief and reminded Iolaus so much of Anya that it took him a few seconds before he realized that it was Anya.

Iolaus reached out as if to touch the hair of the woman he still loved only to have Michael gently grasp his wrist. “If you disturb the water, the image will fade.” Even as he said that, it did fade, to be replaced by a blinding white expanse. Iolaus’ eyes finally made out that it was snow and the figure he saw in the distance was none other than Hercules.

“Herc!” As if hearing his name, Hercules’ paused, his head turning slightly. Then with a shake of his head, the demigod began walking again.

“Damn it! What’s he doing in snow? Where is he?!” Iolaus rounded on Michael, barely refraining from grabbing the Guardian’s tunic and shaking him for answers. There had been a backdrop of mountains, mountains with which he wasn’t familiar. He didn’t think Hercules was in Greece.

“Hercules is where he needs to be, just as you will be if you agree to join with Bliss.”

Iolaus ran a hand through his hair. “You mean I won’t necessarily be fighting in Greece.” It wasn’t a question. If he took this offer, there was no guarantee that he’d ever see Anya and his sons, and Hercules again.

“True,” Michael agreed. “Evil resides throughout the world.” He moved away from the pool and its now vanishing image to a smaller one. Iolaus followed, his inner conflict plain on his face.

The smaller pool rippled and an image appeared of Nebula. Cavorting about her was-himself?! “Wait. I never did that! Is this the future?”

“No, Iolaus. Dahak isn’t destroyed as you well know. It seeks to harm and control others by using the people they cared about most. Nebula is just one of its many victims.”

“W-we have to help her! We-“

Another nearby pool shimmered and showed Hercules curled up in sleep. Iolaus dashed over to it and shouted at his friend. He had to hear him! “Hercules! Herc! Nebula’s in trouble! Dahak is haunting her. You have to go help Nebula!” He watched his friend start to toss in his sleep. “Come on, buddy! I know you can hear me, Herc. Please, please hear me! Get back to Nebula. She needs your help!”

Hercules moaned and suddenly sat up, eyes wide. He mouthed Iolaus’ name, then shook his head, hand going up to cover his eyes, head bowed. That’s when the pool darkened, the image sinking to the bottom before fading out. “Damn! I have to-“ Another pool shimmered and like a passerby drawn to the scene of a chariot accident, Iolaus’ eyes fastened on it, both dreading and anticipating what it was to show him.

Blue sky framed a familiar silhouette as Hercules reached toward Iolaus. No, that wasn’t right. Hercules held a cup in his hand and dipped it at Iolaus-wait, he got it now. If he could see Hercules in a pool of water, then Hercules must be looking into a pool or bucket of water as well. Did that mean he might be able to communicate with him? He had seemed to respond to his voice when he’d seen him sleeping. Iolaus glanced at Michael who gave a nod at the pool. “If you want it enough, Iolaus.”

Iolaus turned back, watching Hercules stare back, but not really looking at his own reflection. Did he want to talk to Herc badly enough? Oh, you bet!

He leaned toward the water, hands gripping the edge of the pool. “Hercules!” He called his friend’s name several times before a frown grew on the demigod’s face. Hercules leaned toward the ‘window’ between them and Iolaus saw his lips move, framing his own name, though he didn’t hear a sound at first.

A desperate hope suddenly flashed in Hercules’ eyes and his voice came through loud and clear. “Iolaus!”

Iolaus leaned closer, hand reaching out to Hercules.

“Iolaus, you cannot go to him.” Michael laid a hand on the warrior’s shoulder, his eyes sympathetic.

“Not even if I accept your offer?”

“No. You’ll be sent to another troubled spot to get your feet wet. It wouldn’t be fair for either of you this soon to be so close and yet separated by death,” Michael explained.

Iolaus swallowed hard and looked back into the pool. He squared his shoulders. He knew what he had to do. “Hercules, listen, I don’t think I have much time here. Go back to Sumeria. Nebula is in trouble. Dahak is after her. He’s not dead. He’s going after our friends, maybe even our family. Anyone he can hurt to get at us-at you. You need to stop him. I don’t know what if any help I can be here. Maybe I can get to Sumeria from here.” Iolaus could feel tears threatening to fill his eyes. If I’m dead, why can I still cry? He shook his head and bit his lower lip to pull his mind back from distracting thoughts. He didn’t have time for philosophy right now. “B-be careful, Hercules. I don’t think I can-can watch your back this time.” The demigod opened his mouth, but whether it was to protest or ask questions, Iolaus would never know. The vision in the pool began to fade. Before it was altogether gone, Iolaus whispered to the water, “I love you, my friend.” The pool stilled and reflected only the sky above him.

Iolaus straightened and looked at Michael. “I guess the answer to your offer is no.”

“That was quick. Are you sure?”

“If Dahak is still after my friends, then yes. I can’t go kiting off somewhere else when they need me,” Iolaus answered. “I can’t even go to the Elysian Fields. I have to get back to Sumeria and help Nebula. If Hercules didn’t hear me-“ gods, let him have heard me!- “then someone needs to get there to help stop that bastard.”

Michael shook his head. “It’s not wise to go back to Sumeria. You aren’t strong enough in this state to go up against Dahak.”

“I’m sorry, Michael, but I don’t agree. I think I can take on Dahak, even if only to slow him down until Hercules can stop him.” He had to have faith that the demigod had heard it all and understood what was asked of him. “Besides, I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I let Nebula face Dahak alone.” Iolaus realized that the landscape had changed while they’d been arguing and they were once again standing at a juncture in a path, surrounded by forest.

“Uriel was right. You did turn us down,” Michael conceded.

“Then why did you-“

“We had to try, Iolaus.” Michael spread his hands in resignation. “Go straight and you’ll reach the Grecian underworld. Take the left hand path and you’ll return to Sumeria. But I warn you, it will not be easy.”

Iolaus chuckled. “When is it ever?”

Michael nodded in agreement. “Our offer still stands should you change your mind.” He took Iolaus’ offered handshake and watched the warrior head down the smaller path, back to Sumeria.

As the small figure disappeared, a much taller one approached Michael from out of the forest. The tall, dark, former king of Sumeria watched the receding Greek, sadness suffusing his face. “Why did you let him go back? Nothing good will come of it.” This wasn’t the first time Michael had encountered the real Gilgamesh. The dead king had taken to wandering in the forest and watching Michael approach various spirits on the path. Gilgamesh had watched in silence, stopped by Dahak’s power from interfering, as Dahak had taken the former king’s own form, and tried to interfere in Michael’s recruitment of Iolaus.

“Unlike you, Gilgamesh, Iolaus has never given up hope.”

Gilgamesh shook his head. “Hope won’t protect him from Dahak’s lies. You should have forced him to stay with you or sent him to his Elysian Fields.”

“That’s not how we work. Every man and woman has free will. We strongly support their right to exercise it. Iolaus, right or wrong, did that. Only time will tell if he made the right decision. It’s out of our hands now.” The Guardian started to turn away, then paused as if listening to a voice the fallen king couldn’t hear. With a nod and smile, he turned back to the Sumerian. “It appears that Iolaus wasn’t the only one we had an offer for.”

Gilgamesh looked at Michael. “What do you mean?”

“How would you like to work for Bliss? You’ve been banished from the Sumerian afterlife, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still right your wrongs elsewhere,” Michael offered. “After all, we’re all about forgiveness.”

“I thought you were all about fighting evil.”

“We multitask.”

Iolaus had walked the path back to Sumeria for what seemed hours. He wasn’t getting anywhere near as he could tell. There was a gloom to the path, which was new. He wondered if there was day and night here. “What do you think, Herc-“ He broke off, remembering he wasn’t with his friend and wouldn’t be for a long time to come. “Damn! This really sucks. I’m down to talking to myself. No one to hear my jokes, tell me they’re bad, give a pained laugh when they’re really bad-“

“Talking to yourself is considered a sign of insanity,” a familiar voice cut into Iolaus’ dialogue.

“Only if I answer my-“ Iolaus whirled around. “Hercules!” He launched himself at his friend, hugging him, laughter bubbling from his throat. “How did you-wait!” He stepped back, realizing that if Hercules was here, that could only mean one thing. “No, no, don’t tell me you died!”

“Hardly.” The smile that greeted him was Hercules’ smile, but something was wrong. It was the eyes. Iolaus took another step back. They were blue, they looked like Hercules’ eyes, but something cold and calculating stared out of them. It wasn’t Hercules.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Hercules,” the doppelganger answered.

“No, you’re not. Don’t even try to lie to me.” Iolaus slipped into a fighter’s stance, ready to take the thing on if need be. Michael hadn’t said anything about illusions or meeting evil twins of friends. And there was definitely something evil about the figure before him.

A smile crossed those familiar lips again, but it was a mocking smile. “I can’t get anything by you, can I, Iolaus? I like that. You have a quick mind to go along with your physical speed.” ‘Hercules’ took a step toward Iolaus, who edged back a little more, reluctant to get within arm’s reach of the man.

“You haven’t answered my question. Who are you?”

“Hercules, or-“ the figure shimmered and melted away, leaving a grizzled warrior. “-your father. Or do you prefer a happier memory?” Another shimmer and Nebula stood there. “Well, lover-boy, does this suit you better?”

“Stop it!” Iolaus had taken another step back at the last transformation, his hands flexing, aching for a sword, even if such would be futile against this being. “I know who you are. You’re that scum, Dahak.”

“Oh, you wound my heart!” Dahak’s hands flew up to Nebula’s-his-chest, a knife clutched between them, blood pouring down the dark skin. “But then, you’d be familiar with that, wouldn’t you?”

“What in Hades do you want?”

“You.”

That simple word had more danger in it than any threats the creature could have uttered. “W-why? I’m dead. I’m no use to you.” I hope Gilgamesh was wrong about Dahak being able to use my body.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Iolaus.” The knife and blood disappeared as Dahak leaned forward. The beautiful, dark eyes of Nebula looked back at him, eagerly. “You are so much more than you think! Hercules has done you a disservice. All those years you traveled in his shadow, never rising to what you were meant to be.” Dahak shifted again, his figure growing taller, broader, until the figure of the demigod confronted Iolaus one more time. “You’ve no idea how much Hercules held you back. Like the Greek gods, he gathers others to bask in his glory. But you could have been so much more! A general, a king, an emperor, no! A god!

With each claim, Dahak took a step closer, forcing Iolaus to back up till he had nowhere to go but into the forest, an idea that certainly he was reluctant to do. He couldn’t afford to get separated from the path.

“But it’s not too late, Iolaus. You can still have all of that,” Dahak pressed.

“Uh, unless I’m mistaken, I’m kind of dead right now. I think that’s passed me up already.”

Dahak snorted in amusement. “It’s never too late. Join with me. We can take Greece. We’ll bind the people to our cause, unite the warring states under one banner, our banner! Then, why then, we can take on the gods and rid your people from their yoke.”

“Uh, how do you expect to do that?” Iolaus tried to edge past Dahak. A muscular arm shot out, hand coming to rest against a tree, and blocked his escape.

“Petty details can be worked out,” Dahak said, broad shoulders giving a shrug.

“And if I say no?”

The other hand reached out and ran fingertips down Iolaus’ arm, a gentle caress that caused shivers of loathing in the blond warrior’s soul. The blue of Hercules’ eyes darkened and Iolaus had no doubt that this was Dahak. Dark pits stared at him, threatened to pull him in and drown him in hate and despair. “Then I will hunt down every friend and all your family and make them rue the day they ever saw you. I’ll start with Hercules, then have Nebula for dessert. I’ll even drag your lovely wife and children from the Elysian Fields and-“ he leaned closer, puffs of fetid air coming with each word, “-eat-them-alive.

Okay, this was more like it. He could deal with threats. Hades was too powerful for this piece of trash to take down. The god might be distant at times, but he did take his job seriously and had genuine concern for the souls under his care. But even if it was true, and those he loved could be harmed, all of Greece would suffer under Dahak’s rule. He wouldn’t let the monster use his face to destroy everything. If a few had to go down to protect the many, so be it.

“The answer is still no. It was ‘no’ when I was alive, it’s ‘no’ now.” Iolaus braced for annihilation, sure that Dahak would waste no time retaliating. Instead, he was greeted with an amused laugh.

“So be it. If I can’t have you, then I’ll just have to set my eyes on another prize. By the way, thanks for warning Hercules about Nebula’s circumstances. Now he’s removing himself from any help from your Greek gods and returning to Sumeria, my seat of power. I guess I’ll get the heart of a warrior after all.”

With that, darkness shrouded the figure and a brush of cold wind, carrying the scent of decay, hit Iolaus. For a moment he stood there, shaking, trying to get his thoughts in order. Taking a breath to steady himself, he took a step down the path toward Sumeria, followed by another. He had to get to Sumeria before Hercules did. A few more paces and he broke into a run.

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