Darkness Rising

by Arianna

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Lisa Klink

Prologue

Wind whistled through the rigging, cracking and snapping the billowing single square crimson sail. The ancient wood of the sturdy Norse craft’s shallow hull and decking creaked as it hove gently into troughs and skimmed through the tops of the turquoise swells. Above, the cloudless sky was the palest blue, as if bleached by the blistering heat of the fiery sun. Behind them, the narrow strait from the vast western sea receded from view.

Lost in thought, Hercules stood tall at the prow, his steady gaze fixed on the eastern horizon. Soon, in just another few days, he would be home. Gulls swooped in the wind, their bickering capturing his attention briefly before his somber gaze dropped away. Moving out of the bow of the boat, he made his way to the water barrel, needing to quench the persistent thirst occasioned by the salty air and the relentless hot sun burning down upon the Mid-Earth Sea. Unhooking the communal tin cup from the rim, he dipped it into the barrel and drank the tepid water swiftly, with more need than pleasure. He had just finished reattaching the cup to the barrel when a murky disturbance on the surface of the gently heaving water within the barrel caught his attention, and he frowned in concentration as he studied the oddity warily.

Gradually, swirling indistinct colours grew stronger, clearer, and he gasped as a face appeared. “Iolaus?” he whispered in astonishment then, gripping the edges of the barrel with both hands, he called more loudly, “Iolaus!” His partner was there, in the depths of the water, looking out at him as if from the other side of a mirror. For a moment, Iolaus simply stared at him, longing and grief written on his face and in his eyes, but then he straightened his shoulders, and spoke with urgency:

“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.”

Alarmed by the news, staggered by the vision itself, Hercules could not find words. His heart in his throat, he lifted a hand, as if he might reach in and touch Iolaus, but he knew that was impossible. To see Iolaus again, to hear him, but … to know he was forever beyond touch, and might never be seen again was … torturous. The moisture he saw glistening in his friend’s eyes was mirrored in his own. He saw Iolaus shake his head, and swipe impatiently at his eyes. And then the image urged:

“B-be careful, Hercules. I don’t think I can-can watch your back this time.”

“Iolaus, don’t -” the demigod began, intent upon urging Iolaus to get to Hades before he ran out of time. But as if the very sound of his voice - or maybe simply the breath he exhaled - broke the tenuous connection between them, the vision of Iolaus was gone as if it had never been. Distraught, he stared at the still surface of the water in the barrel, willing his friend to get to the safety of the Other Side where his would might find peace, and his jaw clenched with the regret of having no way of knowing if Iolaus had heard him or not.

And then he heard just the barest whisper, “I love you, my friend,” and Hercules felt the familiar ache of loss flaring again in his heart. “And I you, always,” he rasped in sorrow, bowing his head.

Blinking, Hercules straightened and swallowed the words he hadn’t had a chance to say, the questions he’d had no opportunity to ask. “Dammit,” he growled, wheeling away from the barrel to grip the wooden rail as he glared toward the eastern horizon, helpless anger flaring, furious that Iolaus had not yet hastened to Hades and Elysium, and was playing such dangerous games with his soul’s future when his allotted time was growing short.

But the anger faded quickly. Sighing, he huffed a weary laugh as he forced himself to calm down, to think about what Iolaus had said, and about what needed to be done. Rubbing the back of his neck, he told himself that after all their years together he could hardly be surprised that his friend continued to place the welfare of others ahead of his own. But time was of the essence - and not just for Iolaus’ sake. Dahak’s greed for power, his quest for control through unbridled chaos and wanton destruction had to be stopped; the sooner, the better - and at least now he knew where the damned demon could be found. Taking a deep breath, he whirled to jog along the rolling deck to the helmsman in the stern, his only companion on his long journey home.

“Change of plans,” he briskly told the straw-haired pilot, his tone conveying the urgency he felt. “We’re going to Sumeria. How long before we get there?”

The lean, middle-aged man looked up at the snapping canvas sail, and then at the heaving sea, the wind and water beyond his control, whatever the urgency might be. Phlegmatically, he replied, “If the wind holds, four days, maybe five. If not ….” He shrugged expressively.

“And if I lend a hand with the oars?” the demigod suggested tautly, knowing that speed was now of the essence.

“Then we’ll get there faster,” the weathered sailor allowed, with a thin smile and a wink.

With a single, sharp nod, Hercules turned away and, bending low, slid sideways through the narrow hatchway and down the short ladder to the stuffy, shadowed lower deck. Dropping to one knee in the aisle between the rowers’ benches, he wrapped a fist around the ends of two long, brutally heavy wooden oars that were normally wielded by three men apiece when the boat was fully crewed. The muscles of his back, shoulders and arms rippled as he poured his strength into heaving the oars, dipping deep into the current and cutting through the waves, to speed the sturdy craft on its way to Sumeria - to Iolaus, Nebula … and Dahak.

Act I

His hair flying, Iolaus ran pell-mell down the winding earthen pathway that wound through the ethereal forest of the netherworld, skidding around tight curves, pounding flat-out on the straightaways. Finally, he reached a sign post for Sumeria and plunged around the turn, scarcely breaking his stride. He had no idea how far or how long he ran, no sense of time or distance in this other place, but he soon found himself racing through the remains of the Sumerian underworld’s chamber of mirrors. Dahak’s cruel laughter echoed hollowly around him and, itching to fight, he slowed, his gaze raking the shadows. But there was no one there. Disgusted at being baited and distracted from his goal, he again picked up his pace.

Moments later, he charged through the walls of Nebula’s bed chamber. Relieved to see that she was healthy and whole, he skidded to a halt. But then he soon realized that something was definitely wrong. She was sitting rigidly on her bed, staring lethargically into space. Her hair was awry, her clothing disheveled, as if she’d been waging battle and had taken a moment of respite to rest and catch her breath. She looked desperately weary and so … alone.

But when her vacant stare drifted toward him, she recoiled in aversion and her body stiffened, her posture defensive but very evidently ready for battle. He was startled at first, amazed that she could see him, and then he remembered that strong emotions could make ghosts visible to mortals, and he realized she could, indeed, see him. But he didn’t understand her wariness or her expression, stonily angry and her eyes were filled with such hate that he felt chilled. Reflexively, disconcerted by her hostility, he spread his hands wide to show he meant her no harm but her antipathy remained clear. “Hey, it’s okay,” he assured her. “I came to help you, if I can. I heard Dahak is threatening you -”

She snorted and shook her head, though she never took her eyes off him. “Yeah, right,” she retorted, cutting in scathingly. “Like I’d believe anything you’d say. You can’t fool me, pretending to be him. He’s dead and I know you’re not real.”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” he replied earnestly as he slowly approached the bed. “It’s really me, Iolaus.”

But she recoiled from him, her eyes flashing and her lip curling derisively. “Leave me alone!” she shouted at him. “Get out of my mind!” Retreating further, she stood defiantly with the rumpled bed between them. “You’re not real and I will not play this stupid game with myself.” Stubbornly, she forced herself to look away. Crossing her arms, she muttered, “How can I feel so normal and be so … so crazy? Hallucinations. Not real. Not real.”

Frowning, he paused in his approach. “You’ve … you’ve seen me before?”

Laughing bitterly, she raked her fingers through her hair. “Every night,” she grated furiously, flashing a quick look at him, and then away. Rubbing her hands over her upper arms, she went on distractedly, “Every damned night for weeks. They … they’ve locked me away in here. So the people won’t know.” Disgusted to have been enticed into conversation by a figment of her imagination, she turned her back on him, willing him to disappear.

Iolaus gaped at her and then closed his eyes. Shaking his head, he muttered, “Damn you, Dahak!” Taking a breath, he again attempted to reassure her, his tone warm and compelling, “Nebula, I promise you, it’s really me, Iolaus. You’ve been seeing Dahak pretending to be me. He’s … he’s trying to control you, but I won’t let him get to you anymore.”

“Dahak?” she echoed, wheeling to face him, incredulous. “Well … that’s new,” she challenged aggressively. “You’ve never said anything like that before. Usually, you just tell me I belong to you, that you’ll never let me go.”

“I swear I haven’t been here,” he insisted, looking around the spacious, richly appointed bed chamber. “Not since … not since that night before I … before I died.” His somber gaze returning to hers, he went on, “You know I’d never lay claim to you. I respect you too much and, well, we agreed that our paths go in different directions, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what we agreed,” she allowed, but her posture was still rigidly defensive as she studied him skeptically. “But that doesn’t prove anything. Doesn’t prove you’re real and not a figment of my imagination. Go away.”

Shaking his head, he cajoled, “I can’t do that. You’re in danger from Dahak, and I have to help.”

“Lies!” she snapped furiously. “All lies! What would Dahak want with me? He got you!” Throwing up her hands, she began to pace in agitation. “What is wrong with me? Why am I seeing you, hearing you? Making you up? You’re not real. I refuse to believe that you are. I will not allow this craziness to continue! Leave me alone!”

Turning his face away from the self-loathing and fear of insanity on her face, he fought to control the fury he felt for the way Dahak had been tormenting her, masquerading as him, making it seem as if she were losing her mind. Raw emotion wouldn’t help either of them now, would only distract and weaken them when they both had to be strong.

“Please,” she whispered hoarsely, to herself more than to him as she crossed her arms tightly, closing her eyes against the sight of him. “Please, just go away.”

“I can’t,” he grated. “I can’t leave you like this. Can’t let him keep tormenting you by pretending to be me. As long as I’m with you, he can’t appear without proving I’m telling you the truth.” Swallowing, he looked back at her, sorrow and affection darkening his eyes. Gesturing to the far corner of the room, he said quietly, “I’ll … I’ll stay over there. I won’t hurt you.”

Carefully, he backed away while she stared at him, her fists clenching and unclenching as she strove to retain control of her fear and loathing. He sank onto an ornate, brocade covered stool and she shook her head. “You’re not real,” she muttered, like a litany. “Not real. Not real.” But, she relaxed enough to sit stiffly on the edge of the bed. Her fingers clutched her head, buried deep in her hair as she bent over, hair hiding her face. “My fault. My fault.” A strangled sob caught at her voice as she castigated herself, blaming her grief and guilt for driving her insane, “You’ve shouldn’t have died. Not for me. Not for me.”

“Nebula, stop!” he called out, but gently, his heart aching, bitter that he can do no more to assuage her pain. “It wasn’t your fault! None of what happened is your fault! Dahak is responsible for all of it. Gilgamesh, me, your illusion of being crazy. You’re not insane - I really am here.”

She looked up at him, her expression implacable, and then her gaze drifted away, lines of strain and near exhaustion clear around her mouth and eyes. “You’re not real,” she said with mechanical assurance, but with an edge of desperation in her tone. “I … you’re not real. All in my head.” Again giving him a determinedly straight look, she went on bitingly, “You’re nothing but a hallucination. I’m may be losing my sanity, but I still know what’s real and what isn’t. I will not let this madness defeat me!”

“You are not insane,” he repeated in exasperation, wishing there was more he could say or do to bring her relief, to convince her that he was real - or as real as any ghost could be. Lifting his hands up, palms out, he tried again to make her understand. “Okay, look. Here’s the deal. I wouldn’t give up my body, so Dahak can’t use it to take over the world. But now he’s beginning to think he’d like your body, and he’s trying to drive you crazy, maybe with the hope that you’ll kill yourself, I don’t know. Hercules is on his way, and he’ll help, but in the meantime, we’re on our own.”

“Uh huh,” she grunted disbelievingly. “Right.” Her gaze narrowed as she searched his eyes, but then she shook her head impatiently. “You can’t be here,” she argued doggedly. “You’ve been dead for months and I don’t believe in ghosts.”

He chuckled and raked his fingers through his hair. “Well, just because you don’t believe in me, doesn’t mean I’m not real,” he replied wryly. Sighing, he gazed at her fondly. “Whether you can see me or not, because I’m likely to disappear soon, I’m going to be right here until Herc arrives. In the meantime, get some rest and save your strength. I think you’re going to need it before we finally defeat this monster.”

“Rest,” she repeated, and then nodded wearily. “Sounds like a plan,” she murmured, watching him closely to be sure he stayed on the far side of the chamber. Gathering up the sheets around her, she curled onto the bed, facing him, as if to be sure he remained where he was. When a question flitted over her face as she peered at him, he knew he must be fading from her sight. Gradually, she relaxed and let her eyes drift closed into sleep. Tears of compassion glittered briefly in his eyes but, sighing raggedly, he blinked them away.

Crossing his arms, he looked around the bed chamber and he silently cursed Dahak’s propensity to take on the guises of others, to confuse and tempt and taunt and torment. His thoughts drifted, recalling the cold, triumphant sound of Dahak’s ugly laughter distorting the beloved features and familiar tones of his best friend’s voice. He had no doubt the demon god had pulled something similar with her, posing as him to torment her. But that game was up - she’d only need to see the two of them at the same time to know, or at least be more inclined to believe, that she’d been deceived by the monster. So, for the moment, it was a stalemate.

But he didn’t delude himself into thinking that it was anything more than that.

Dahak wasn’t going to give up his greedy aspiration to control the world. Scratching his cheek, Iolaus tried to imagine what their enemy would try next. And he couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been somehow manipulated, if maybe Dahak had been torturing Nebula simply to draw him back. But why? What was the point?

And he wondered how much time he had to come up with some answers before Hercules arrived. His lips thinned and he rubbed the back of his neck. There had to be a way to destroy Dahak, but he didn’t know what it was and he didn’t think he could do it on his own. But him and Herc together? He had to believe that even Dahak couldn’t defeat them, not when they knew what they were up against and couldn’t be blindsided. But, he mused unhappily, looking at the hands he held out before his eyes, what good was he now? All he could do was continue to refuse to release his body to the demon. Sighing, he wondered if that would be enough to keep Dahak contained.

Taking a break to get some air and nourishment, Hercules stood in the prow of the ship. The wind blew his long hair into his eyes, giving a measure of relief from the hot sun beating down upon him from a clear sky and drying the beads of sweat that streaked his brow and body. The taut canvas sail snapped behind him as the wind shifted slightly, and he gripped the rail with white-knuckled fists, staring ahead toward the thin band of brown and green on the horizon. Sumeria. They would soon be there.

His muscles ached from days and nights of rowing and, even now, he’d only taken a short break to eat some hard bread and cheese, and drink deeply from the water barrel to replace the sweat that ran in torrents when he was rowing in the stifling, shadowed lower deck. But, in his urgency to get to Sumeria, he wasn’t aware of being tired or sore, only impatient to arrive and find out what was going on.

Whatever it was, it had to end. Iolaus shouldn’t even be there - he was running out of time to find his way to Hades and their Underworld. And he’d seen enough of Dahak’s evil machinations to know the monster had to be confronted head-on and stopped once and for all. This was his battle, one that had begun long months before when he’d first been lured to Sumeria by Gilgamesh’s false request for assistance; a battle that, this time, he was determined not to lose. With a last glance at the low strip of land rising ahead, he turned and made his way back down the narrow, steep ladder to once again add the strength of his rowing to the wind, to carry them ever faster toward the end of the voyage.

Act II

Days had passed; servants had come and gone, bearing trays of food Nebula either ignored or ate with stoic determination to remain strong. Occasionally, despite her fierce determination to triumph over the nonsense conjured by her own mind, furious to be locked up like some animal, she angrily threw a tray against the wall. As the hours of what she believed was restored sanity grew into a day, and then the days added one to another, she grew increasingly restless when she was awake, pacing like a tiger around the room, frustrated to still be held behind lock doors ‘for her own safety’. But, as the long days and nights passed with no more ‘visions’, she also seemed to grow more confident, less anxious, and she slept deeply, restoring her energy and strength. “Maybe it’s really over,” she murmured to herself hopefully one day as she looked warily around the room, as if still half expecting Iolaus to jump out at her.

Iolaus, invisible to her but still perched on the stool in the corner, could tell from the uncertain expression on her face and wary sidelong looks toward where she’d last seen him, that even though she was steadier, less exhausted, she was in no way certain that ‘the hallucinations’ wouldn’t start up again. It was maddening and incredibly boring to remain silent when he would rather have been talking with her, sharing ideas, getting her views about how they might defeat Dahak. But he knew if he revealed himself, she’d just assume she was still crazy, and that wouldn’t help anything. When the time came to fight, he wanted her rested and strong. So he drew upon the discipline he’d learned in the East so many years before, focusing on keeping himself calm, holding a tight leash on his emotions, to ensure he didn’t inadvertently reveal his continued presence.

But it was hard, too hard, to keep his emotions in check the night she sadly picked at the sheet. Only a single candle illuminated the darkness, and tears filled her eyes, slipped down her cheeks. Her lips trembled as she pulled the silk sheet over her shoulders and curled on her side. “I loved you, as much as I’ve ever loved anyone, maybe more,” she whispered into the silent, still night. “I guess I can’t let you go, don’t want to let you go, not like that. Not just gone, following your own dreams, but dead. Guess that’s why … why sometimes I see you so clearly. So clearly. But I have to stop looking for you; have to stop this nonsense. I’ve got a kingdom to run!”

Smiling sadly, Iolaus’ heart ached for her and he desperately wished he could alleviate her grief and confusion. When she gasped and cringed, his lips tightened with the realization that his turbulent emotions had again made him visible to her. “I’m sorry,” he sighed softly, chagrined by his lapse in allowing himself to be seen. “I won’t hurt you.” Holding out his hands, he struggled to explain, “I am real, Nebula. Well, as real as a ghost or spirit can be. You’re not imagining me.”

But she shook her head slowly, unable to believe him, closed her eyes and buried her face in the pillow.

Feeling helpless and hating it, Iolaus also closed his eyes and struggled to master his errant emotions. There was no time for useless regret; it was only a distraction, one he couldn’t afford. He had to decide what to do. Frustrated by his lack of ideas, he scrubbed his face and opened his eyes - and found himself in the twisted dank jungle he had learned to associate with Dahak’s manifestations. Grimacing, well aware of what to expect and finding the persistent manipulative attempts to sway him had grown old long before, he stiffened and turned around.

‘Hercules’ leaned against a nearby tree, his arms crossed, but the speculative, cruelly amused expression on his face gave the illusion away. “Why do you keep fighting me?” Dahak asked congenially, in a tone pitched to seem appealing and reasonable. Opening his arms peacefully and holding his palms up as if carrying an invisible offering, he cajoled, “I can make you a god. Give you power you’ve never dreamt of. Make you immortal. What would be so bad about that?”

Iolaus waved him off and turned his back in disgust, unable to look upon the familiar visage of Hercules and know that it was the demon god. A large, powerful hand gripped his arm like a vise, flipping him around sharply, and he found himself slammed violently into a tree. The false Hercules gripped his shoulders and roared furiously into his face, “What is wrong with you? Why will you not submit to my will? You’re nothing, less than nothing. A worm to be crushed beneath my feet!”

“Maybe so,” Iolaus retorted coldly, contemptuously, as he stared defiantly up into cold blue eyes, so familiar and yet so foreign. “But without my body, you’re nothing but illusion and hot air. I’m the one with the real power here and we both know it. So back off!”

Infuriated, Dahak locked a fist around his throat, and squeezed, but Iolaus only laughed tauntingly. “What? You’re going to kill a dead man? Get real.”

As quickly as the god’s rage appeared, it dissipated, and he stood away, his hands raised in an open gesture of conciliation. “You’ll change your mind,” he insisted. “Give me your body and I’ll give you the power to continue to fight the good fight for all of eternity.”

Quirking a skeptical brow, and his lip curling with loathing, Iolaus shook his head slowly, almost amazed that the demon could be so stupid as to think his words could be believed, or that Iolaus was too stupid to see through his lies, but he’d learned through his dealings with other gods that such unbridled arrogance was blind to its own faults. “You wouldn’t know the truth if it bit you on your ass,” he snarled. “You think I believe anything you tell me?” Glaring at the demon, he snorted with sarcastic contempt. “Fight the good fight, huh? Against you? In my body? Yeah, right. A minute ago, I was a worm to be crushed under your boot.” Standing away from the tree, his chin up, he shook his head vehemently. “No. No, I will never help you destroy my world. Never. When I get to the Elysium Fields, I’ll have no more use for my body and it will rot, and you’ll be stuck here in never-never land. You hear me? I’ll never submit to you!”

The image of Hercules before him grew very still, and then his lip twisted with ugly, cruel contempt. “No?” he challenged with deadly quiet. “Will you stand aside and watch me kill them? The crazy Nebula and the grief-stricken Hercules? Neither of them are a match for me now. I’ll rip them apart.”

Laughing humorlessly, Iolaus shook his head. “You’re no match for them. If you were, you’d’ve tried that already. And even if by some weird twist of bad luck you succeeded, they’d never give up their bodies to you,” he retorted coldly, forcing from his mind the hateful images of death and destruction that he knew Dahak was only conjuring to weaken him, frighten him. Well, it wasn’t going to work. “You’ll be wasting your time.”

“Maybe,” the false Hercules agreed with a negligent shrug. “But you’ll all be dead and no longer any irritating distraction. I’ll find another warrior’s body. Or, maybe I’ll just hold you here. Soon, it will be too late for you to go to your Underworld and you’ll be trapped, with no choice but to wander the world and watch me triumph - or maybe Hercules would trade his body in return for your soul’s freedom and eternal peace?”

Cocking a coolly amused brow, Iolaus’ gaze flickered over him assessingly and then away, as if the demon wasn’t worth contemplating. But he shuddered internally, momentarily chilled by the thought of Dahak possessing that strength, wearing that face for real. Deluding all who had ever believed in Hercules and what he stood for, what he represented, the decency and kindness, the compassion and courage all twisted into something obscenely ugly, hideous … and brutally, mercilessly dangerous. But that was never going to happen. Hercules might regret the decision for all eternity, but he’d never give way to Dahak, not even to save Iolaus’ soul; his worries on that score were both groundless and distracting when he needed to be paying attention. But it chilled his soul to think that Dahak could kill his partner. Affecting boredom, he replied cynically over his shoulder, “Like I should believe anything you say? You’re bluffing and you know it. Hercules wouldn’t trade all humanity for one soul, not even for mine. And the gods know, I love him, but I won’t make that trade just to save his life, either. He’d never forgive me.”

“Who’s bluffing now, Iolaus? You can’t stand it, can you?” the demon taunted him viciously, walking in a slow circle around him. “You can’t stand the idea that I’ll destroy your precious Hercules. And who’d protect the world then, huh? With him dead and gone?” When Iolaus crossed his arms and bowed his head, refusing to answer, Dahak laughed. “He’s nearly here, you know?” he wheedled, doing his best to push the warrior’s emotional buttons. “He heard you when you called and he’d deny you nothing in his power to give, even if it’s to save the life and sanity of the woman who took you from him. He’ll be here soon, Iolaus. Very soon. And then we’ll see, won’t we? We’ll see if you can stand back and watch me destroy him.”

“You’ll never beat Hercules,” Iolaus insisted calmly, as he lifted his steady gaze to meet the blue eyes glaring down at him. “You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough.”

Chuckling with chilling cruelty, the demon drifted away into the trees, weaving in and out, sometimes visible, sometimes not, deliberately annoying and provocative, his mocking laughter ringing in Iolaus’ ears. But then, as suddenly as he was gone, he was back, appearing out of nowhere to loom over the warrior.

“Imagine it, Iolaus,” Dahak began salaciously, clearly enjoying himself, “Imagine Hercules bloody and broken, dead at your feet. Imagine the world without him in it, ripe for the picking. There’ll be no one then, nothing to stand in my way. Those fat, lazy, self-indulgent gods in Greece will be no match for me, no more than any other, weaker gods have been wherever I’ve been. I’ll win - and you’ll lose everything, everything that ever really mattered to you.” His much-despised voice sneered as he leaned closer still, “You’ll watch him die, Iolaus. And there’s nothing you can do to stop me, except to give me what I want.”

Iolaus rolled his eyes and turned away, a skeptical expression on his face, determined not to succumb to the manipulative crap. Snorting with contempt, he drawled with disdain, “You’re wasting your time. You can’t ever make me believe that you could best Hercules. I’m only hanging around for the enjoyment of seeing him demolish you.”

Fury swept over Dahak’s features and, frustrated, he wheeled away.

Abruptly, the jungle disappeared, and Iolaus found himself back in Nebula’s room. She was staring at him implacably as if he’d been there all along, and she was refusing to be drawn into the false visions she believed to be conjured by her own mind. Confused, not having expected her to be able to see him, Iolaus gaped at her, but then he remembered that in times of heightened emotion, spirits could be seen. Dammit, he’d let Dahak get to him, let the fury and his frustration at being so helpless rage out of control. Though it was hard, given how scared he was for her, he let his gaze fall away and, breathing slowly, brought his emotions under control so that he would again fade from her view.

But, just then, Dahak appeared in the guise of an enraged and threatening Iolaus, and the illusion of flames burst luridly from the walls. Stalking toward her, he gripped her arms painfully and shook her, uncaring of her fierce struggles to pull herself free. “You can stop it from happening, Iolaus,” he goaded smugly. “You can end her pain, save her life, save your best friend’s life. You can end our petty little conflict at any time - just give me your body and I will spare them. No lies, no games. I’ll take your body and go, leaving them behind whole. Think about it, Iolaus. Think about whether the use of your body is worth their lives, or whether your continued stubbornness is worth their agonized deaths. For I promise you - thwart me in this, force my hand, and they will suffer the torments of the damned before I am finished with them.”

Furious, giving his emotions free rein, Iolaus re-materialized and charged across the room to wrench him away from Nebula. The demon lashed out at him, and he ducked away, spinning into a kick to drive the apparition back. Dahak tackled him and they both hit the floor, wrestling for dominance - and Iolaus realized he was no match against the god’s strength. Twisting away, he nevertheless scrambled to his feet and planted himself between the monster and Nebula, his stance defensive, determined to keep him away from her. Flames licked at the wall coverings and flared toward the bed to dance upon the silken coverings, but there was no smoke, for nothing was actually burning. Nebula’s frightened gaze flicked between the fire that surrounded them all, and the two furious men standing before her.

“You see,” he called urgently over his shoulder to her. “You see two of us now? You see that the fire is only illusion, nothing to fear, nothing that burns. You wouldn’t hallucinate this, Nebula, not in your worst nightmares. We’re both here - he’s Dahak, and he’s trying to deceive and terrify you, to confuse you. You heard what he just said. He’s trying to force me to release my body for his use, so he can come fully into the world. You’re not crazy. You’re as sane as you ever were.”

His eyes narrowing, Dahok retreated a step as he sneered, “It doesn’t matter what she believes or doesn’t believe. What’s important is that you understand that I will destroy her, and Hercules, too, unless you release your body. I’m tired of the games, Iolaus. Tired of your stubborn resistance. You have until Hercules arrives to give me what I want. Refuse, and watch them both die.” Before Iolaus could reply, the demon vanished, and so did the flames.

Iolaus spun around, his gaze raking the chamber, expecting Dahak to reappear to wreak more havoc, but they were alone. Nebula watched him warily, shaking her head and trembling as she sought to maintain her rigid control.

He smiled grimly. “What? You still think I’m a figment of your imagination?”

“Maybe,” she replied uncertainly. “No telling what a crazy person will imagine.”

Rolling his eyes, he took a step toward her but stopped when she drew back and lifted a hand to stave him off. “Okay, fine,” he allowed, frustrated. “Hercules will be here soon and he’ll sort things out.”

“I’m supposed to believe that because you tell me he’s coming?” she contested, her voice thin with strain. “Why would he come back here? He doesn’t care about me. Probably can’t stand the sight of me.”

Sagging wearily, Iolaus shoved his fingers through his hair. “Whether you believe me or not - believe in me or not - Hercules is coming,” he insisted. “And you’ve got to be ready for the fight of your life, because Dahak isn’t bluffing. He’s going to do his best to kill the both of you. We’ve got to stop him, Nebula. We can’t let him win.”

Reluctantly, not yet convinced she could trust her own senses, she nodded. “If Hercules comes, if … I’ll be ready to fight. If he comes. If this isn’t all ….”

“Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t believe his lies,” he urged compellingly. “You aren’t hallucinating. You’re seeing my spirit and whatever he wants you to see, to confuse you.” When she again shook her head, her expression flattening in resistance, he added compellingly, “Just think about it, okay? Just consider that maybe, maybe you’re not crazy after all, and never were.” And then he, too, faded from her view.

But he watched her, and knew she was thinking about what she’d just seen and heard, and he dared hope that she was beginning to believe him. She frowned and crossed her arms as she leaned against the headboard, her gaze speculatively drifting around the room, her fingers touching cool linens that a moment before had been alight with fire. Nodding to himself, he was pleased. She was halfway to beginning to believe she wasn’t crazy after all, and that was all to the good - because when Hercules arrived, they all needed to be focused and ready to fight the demon.

Iolaus retreated to his corner to continue his vigil. He did his best to not dwell on Dahak’s threats, and told himself there was no way the demon could kill Hercules or, worse, compel Herc to give up his body. But the empty hours dragged on and he had little else to think about. His brow furrowed and anxiety tightened in his chest when he thought about Hercules, about what Dahak could do with such strength, and he felt a sharp stab of deep fear. Had coming here been a mistake? Had he fallen into Dahak’s trap? Had Hercules heard his appeal and was he really on his way back to Sumeria? He only had Dahak’s word for that, and he couldn’t help but remember how Dahak practically gloated when he insisted Herc was close. With a sick, sinking feeling, he wondered if his concern and affection for Nebula had been used to draw him and his friend back into the web of Dahak’s plot to rule the world - that by returning to Sumeria himself, by appealing to Hercules for help, he may have set something in motion that could not now be undone.

‘Ah, Herc,’ he thought wretchedly, ‘what have I done?’

But he pressed away the traitorous fears that threatened to unman him. Hercules could handle Dahak. He had to believe that. Had to believe they weren’t all little more than puppets dancing to the demon’s tune. Gods, he loathed Dahak with a passion that seared his soul. Leaning his shoulder against the wall, he rubbed his mouth with his hand, fighting off the hot fury he felt for the monster that was manipulating them all. Mastering the wild, uncontrolled outrage, he channeled his roiling emotions into a fierce need to do battle and destroy Dahak before he could do more harm.

His job, his only job now, was to figure out how he could help. Maybe create a distraction? So long as Dahak was also just a spirit, he could physically fight him even if he couldn’t ultimately defeat him alone. His expression thoughtful, he toyed with how to do battle with a powerful god. His mouth curling ruefully, he figured he had some experience with that, what with his many past confrontations with the likes of Ares, Discord and that jerk, Strife. And he held a certain power, after all - so long as he refused to give up his body, Dahak couldn’t get into the world, could only tempt and torment at the fringes.

But he also had to keep dangling the bait of his body, so that Dahak didn’t give up in frustration and go out to find another, more amenable warrior to kill. He had to keep that monster from winning control over any body. His … Nebula’s … Hercules’. By the gods, he could not allow Dahak to hurt Hercules. Once again, he forced that fear away. Hercules had already proven that he was more than equal to Dahak - if he could keep the evil demon god distracted, Hercules would find a way to destroy him, of that he was certain.

Grimly, he studied Nebula and thought about his best friend, and wondered how he could keep them both safe. He’d told Dahak that he’d never surrender, not even to save their lives. But, if worst came to worst … could he do really do that? Stand by and watch them die when it was within his power to save them? And, even if he could stop himself from intervening to save them, what would that gain? Wouldn’t Dahak just go after some other poor schmuck? Without Hercules, what chance did the world have of surviving Dahak’s assault? But wasn’t that what Dahak wanted him to think, to believe? What was truth? What was lies? His thoughts whirled, going in circles, going nowhere.

He had to get a grip. Had to decide for himself what could be risked and what was too much, had to filter truth from the illusions and lies, the threats and temptations and the fears that Dahak evoked. He tried to imagine what Herc would do, would choose, in his place. And he found himself remembering how close he’d come to killing the Sovereign, though he’d known such an act would result in his partner’s death. And he remembered how that realization had spurred him on to find another option, another solution. Because so long as there was life, so long as Hercules lived, there was always hope ….

Closing his eyes, Iolaus concentrated on centering himself as he’d learned to do so long ago, clearing his mind of the confusion and hatred that muddied his thinking so that he would be ready to do whatever he had to do when the time came.

Act III

Impatiently, Hercules paced the deck with taut, feline grace as the small craft tacked through the harbour, hoving ever closer to the wharf. As soon as it was close enough, he leapt over the wooden rail onto the dock. “Thank you,” he called to the helmsman with a wave of gratitude, as he released the seaman and the ship from his service. “Safe journey home.”

And then he was running through the crowd of burley longshoremen and surly porters, water-carriers bowed under their yokes bearing heavy, splashing buckets, and shouting tradesmen. He dodged around, or leapt over heaps of rope, large grain or oil-filled clay urns, clusters of wine amphora and stacked crates, skirting past prostitutes and travelers and merchants with loaded wagons, oblivious to the chaos, single-minded in his rush up along climbing, winding lanes to the palace.

When he approached the gates and saw that they were closed, he frowned and slowed as he neared the guards standing sentry. They recognized him immediately, but seemed both astonished and disconcerted by his unexpected appearance. Drawing to stand before them, he gestured at the gate and told them, “I’m here to see Nebula.”

“Sorry, Hercules, but the Queen is … not receiving visitors. She’s … unwell,” one of the men said, his gaze shifting uneasily as he followed his orders to bar any unauthorized entry.

“Unwell?” he echoed, looking from one to the other, concern clouding his eyes. “What’s wrong? Has she been hurt?”

“No,” the other soldier replied, shaking his head, but he offered nothing further.

“Hey, c’mon,” Hercules objected to the silence. “You know I’m her friend, right? So what’s the problem here?”

But they only glanced at one another and then away, uneasily shaking their heads. “Orders are orders,” one said, as if by rote.

He studied them and then straightened. “Look, I don’t want to cause trouble,” he said, carefully keeping his tone reasonable, “but I’m going in, with permission or not. I … I’ve heard the Queen is in danger and I’m here to protect her. So either open the gate or I’ll break it down.”

They swallowed hard, well knowing they could not stop him if he was determined to go through them. One muttered to the other, “He is her friend.”

The more senior soldier nodded. Sighing, he lowered his voice and confided, “She’s not the same, Hercules. She’s … well, the Queen is … she’s lost her mind. She’s crazy, is what she is. There’s nothing anyone can do, and no one can see her like this.”

Hercules wiped a hand over his mouth and shook his head. “Nebula isn’t crazy,” he asserted. “Whatever is going on here, the demon god, Dahak, is responsible. Let me past. I can help.”

Once again the two men exchanged glances, but shrugged and stood aside to allow him to push through the unbarred wooden doors.

“Thanks,” he said as he hastened on his way.

One servant after another exclaimed at him as he loped through the palace hallways, in surprise, and to forestall his progress, but he ignored them. Just as he neared the ornate double doors leading into her private chamber, one of the priests stepped into his path, holding up a hand, palm out. “Halt. You may not approach the Queen,” he intoned superciliously.

“Is that right?” Hercules challenged, his eyes glinting dangerously; though he’d grown concerned by the number people who had told him that Nebula was ill, insane. And he sincerely hoped it wasn’t true.

“Go away, Hercules,” the priest told him. “There’s nothing anyone can do for her. She’s completely mad, and … violent.”

Frowning, Hercules’ gaze narrowed as he clasped the priest by the shoulders and gently, if resolutely, moved him aside. “Let me just see for myself,” he insisted as he continued toward the entryway. “And don’t worry - a little violence doesn’t scare me,” he added over his shoulder. But when he tried the latch, he found the door locked, and his lips tightened. Scowling, he glared at the priest. “You locked her in?”

“What else could we do?” he protested at the harsh tone of censure. “She’s seeing things, talking to the air, fighting and yelling. She’s useless as a ruler and a danger to herself and anyone around her. We’ve tried healers - and given her time, thinking it may be grief over the loss of her brother and … and your friend, Iolaus. But she’s lucky we’ve not ‘removed’ her, to allow a true leader to emerge.”

“You mean, to take over the kingdom yourself?” Hercules challenged, disgusted. He put his shoulder to the door and shoved with scarcely any observable effort, but the heavy bolt gave way and the doors popped open. Before entering, he warned, “If anyone tries to hurt her, he’ll answer to me.”

The priest pursed his lips, but his gaze dropped away. With a last scathing look, Hercules turned away from the man and entered the chamber, closing the doors behind him. When he looked around the room, he was appalled by the evident lack of care - old, rank food smeared walls and rotted on the marble floor, the bed linens were tangled and he could smell the pervasive odour of old sweat. Nebula stood on the far side of the chamber, pressed against the wall, her clothing disheveled and her hair a mess. Her eyes were wide with fear but her posture was defiant. She looked more like a desperate animal, cornered and ready to fight to survive more than the confident, self-possessed woman he knew.

“What’s happened to you?” he demanded, concern and no little shock in his voice, in his eyes.

“Didn’t anyone tell you?” she snarled. “I’m crazy. I imagine people who aren’t really there. See ghosts and demons, fire that doesn’t burn. Like I’m imagining you right now.”

Snorting, he rolled his eyes as he approached her, his hands raised in peace. “Calm down,” he soothed. “You may not be as crazy as you and everyone else seems to think. Iolaus asked me to come -” he began to explain.

“Iolaus?” she cut him off, laughing bitterly. “Iolaus is dead. Has been dead for months.” Turning away from him, she snapped, “Now I know you’re not real. No way could Iolaus have summoned you here.”

Undaunted, he continued to walk toward her, and when she whirled to face him, bringing her fists up, her teeth bared in a snarl of warning, he reached out for her. When she fought him savagely, he grabbed her arms, holding her firmly. “Listen to me!” he shouted. “I’m real. I’m here.”

When she continued to struggle and curse him, he muttered in frustration as he continued to restrain her, “Gods, you always were a raunchy hellcat, but for some reason, you appealed to Iolaus and he still cares about you. Maybe he saw something in you that I didn’t.”

At the exasperation in his voice, his words of frustrated assessment, she ceased struggling. “I told him you never liked me,” she snapped.

“You rarely showed me much to like,” he riposted, shaking her a little, but he quickly mastered his anger. “But that’s not important now. Iolaus told me Dahak is threatening you - and we need to deal with that demon, once and for all. So - you gonna help me, or not?”

Her gaze narrowed as she studied him, and then she tentatively reached to touch his face. He watched her warily but didn’t pull away. “You are real,” she murmured. Standing straighter, pulling away from his grip on her arm, she shook her head. “But maybe you’re as crazy as I am if you think you’ve been talking to Iolaus.”

Raking his hair back from his face, he studied her and then looked again around at the ruin of the room. “Tell me why you’re so sure you’ve lost your mind,” he said.

“I see … see Iolaus, hear him,” she muttered, moving away to sit on the edge of the bed. Looking away, she continued, “At first … at first he came to me as a lover. And then he became possessive, jealous, violent and threatening.”

“Well, that’s not Iolaus,” he said quellingly, no doubts in his voice.

“Yeah, that’s what he said, the other one,” she replied with a brittle laugh. When she flicked a glance at him and saw his frown of confusion, she clarified, “I see two of them. One says the other one is Dahak. And that Dahak is … was tormenting me to either drive me into killing myself so he can have my body, or to force the one who claims to be the real Iolaus give up his body.” At Hercules’ thoughtful look, and the way his gaze searched the room and his head tilted as if straining to listen, she insisted, “But that’s not possible! We saw him die! He can’t be here - his body is in our crypt.”

“Oh, I suspect he’s here, all right, aren’t you, Iolaus? Not back in our Underworld where you should be by now, but here, keeping watch,” Hercules retorted. Meeting Nebula’s gaze, he told her, “Iolaus’ spirit has been wandering through the far reaches of the Other Side, keeping tabs on me and apparently on you. If he says Dahak has been tormenting you, then that’s the truth.”

“But,” she faltered. “Ghosts don’t exist ….”

“Oh, come on,” he disparaged. “Just because you’ve never seen one before doesn’t mean they don’t exist. A spirit wanders on this plane until they go to their proper resting place, and Iolaus belongs in our Elysium Fields. Trust me - he’s not the first ghost I’ve seen.”

“Then he’s really been here,” she gasped in wonder, and she turned to look at the corner where he sometimes appeared. “Everything he said is true ….” She frowned, puzzled. “But, then, why isn’t he always visible?”

Following her gaze, Hercules moved toward the far corner, explaining over his shoulder, “Ghosts are usually invisible unless moved by profound emotion - he’s been worried about you, worried about Dahak hurting you. Worried enough that he’s become visible, at least for a time.” As he approached the corner, he muttered unhappily, “I’m surprised you aren’t visible now.”

“Maybe … maybe he’s gone,” she offered tentatively.

“Nuh uh,” Hercules disagreed, shaking his head. Turning to face the corner, he closed his eyes and listened with his whole being, certain his friend is close though he can’t yet sense his presence. “He’s here,” he insisted, his voice hoarse. “Iolaus would never leave while he thought you were in danger.” Smiling crookedly, sadly, shaking his head slowly, he continued, “You have to go, Iolaus. Don’t keep hanging around here. Your time is running out - you know that!”

The air shimmered and Iolaus vaguely appeared, indistinct but clearly there. “Thanks for coming, Herc,” he said, his voice sounding faint, very distant, as if he was very far away.

A smile twitched at the corners of Hercules’ lips. “Hey, buddy - of course I came.”

“You have to get out of here, quickly,” Iolaus told him, clearly agitated as his image became somewhat clearer, his voice more distinct. “Dahak says he’s going to kill both of you, and then he’s going to Greece.”

Hercules nodded in acknowledgement of the warning. “And you need to go, too, my friend,” he said quietly.

“As soon as you’re on your way,” Iolaus replied with his familiar, cocky grin.

“You can see him, too,” Nebula marveled behind him, for the first time truly believing that she really wasn’t losing her mind.

“Yeah,” Hercules agreed softly, lifting a hand, wishing he could touch his friend. “Nebula says he wants your body.”

“Uh huh,” Iolaus grunted with a grimace. Shrugging, he went on, “I never really realized it, Herc, but our bodies don’t begin to corrupt until we’ve reached the Other Side. Dahak … well, he still wants a warrior’s body, needs one, to fully enter the world and dominate it. He’s pretty pissed that I won’t give him mine.”

“Good for you,” Hercules approved. “No matter what, don’t you give in to that monster.”

Iolaus swallowed as he looked from Hercules to Nebula and back again. “You’ve got to get out of here, Herc,” he urged. “Both of you. It’s not safe. You have to get back to Greece.”

“Right,” Hercules agreed. Turning to Nebula, he cocked his head toward the doorway. “You ready to break out of here? Help me fight this monster?”

Steely determination entered her eyes, and her jaw lifted proudly, “You betcha,” she asserted with her old spark of energy and invincibility. “C’mon. Let’s go.”

She started for the door. Hercules paused long enough to point at Iolaus and order, “And you - you get to Hades. You’re running out of time!”

Iolaus quirked a grin and faded from sight. Hercules hesitated a moment more, his hand drifting through the space where Iolaus had been. His throat tightened on all the words that could never fully express all that he felt. “You’ve been hurt enough; given more than enough to foil Dahak’s plans,” he finally rasped with grim determination, and a near desperate desire to know that Iolaus was safe with Hades, happy with Anya and his family in the Elysian Fields. “This is our fight now.” And then he swallowed and followed Nebula through the portal.

“No, Herc,” Iolaus murmured staunchly, though his tone is strained and he knows Hercules can’t hear him. “This is our fight, at least for as long as I can maybe be of some help. I’ve got your back, buddy. Just like always.”

ACT IV

Iolaus watched them leave the chamber and then flitted through the wall and along with them as he kept a wary eye out for Dahak. In his gut, he knew it couldn’t be this easy, that the demon wouldn’t simply let them march off, not after the threats Dahak had made. Resolute as he followed and kept watch, Iolaus knew he held the last card in any struggle that would occur, and he was more or less comfortable with the decision he’d made. When he’d listened to Nebula recounting some of what Dahak had said, he’d been relieved she’d not mentioned - maybe hadn’t really registered - that Dahak planned to use her and Hercules to force his hand. No way had he wanted to get into a debate with Herc about what his choice would be, if push came to shove, not when it was so urgent that they simply get away as quickly as possible.

Tensely, he watched them brush past the priest outside the door, and ignore the startled questions of the servants and guards, other than shouting, “I’m fine,” “She’s fine,” as they loped through the long corridors toward the front gate. But Nebula abruptly turned off into a side corridor, gesturing for Hercules to follow her. “The armoury is this way,” she explained hastily. “I want some weapons.”

Hercules looked as if he might protest, but then raced after her, evidently deciding it was faster than wasting time arguing with her. But Iolaus’ lips thinned, unhappy with the delay, however brief. Ordinary weapons would be little use against a god, and this god was strongest here in Sumeria, his own home ground. Once they were away, they’d be safer from direct threat, though the demon could still meddle, still tempt and taunt, and engage others to do his bidding.

Moments later, they burst into the dark, cavernous hall that was filled with all manner of weaponry: spears hung on the walls, quivers and arrows were stacked in a corner near bows, swords were piled on tables, ready to hand, shields were stacked in the corners, knives and daggers were on rows of shelving, staffs and clubs were piled along one wall. Light filtered in from open slits cut into the tops of the thick walls, and torches flickered in iron sconces at intervals along the walls.

Nebula quickly strapped on a scabbard and sword and shoved one knife into her boot and another into the belt. She slid a round shield over her left arm, slung a bow over her shoulder, and reached for a quiver of arrows. “Take anything you want,” she called to Hercules, who had followed her into the centre of the chamber. His posture wary, his gaze raking the shadows, he shook his head. “I’m good,” he replied shortly.

She threw him an assessing glance, then nodded. “Okay, let’s go,” she said, turning back to the doorway.

Just as Hercules moved to follow her, knives and arrows flashed into the air from the shelves, hurling toward their unprotected backs.

“GET DOWN!” Iolaus shouted, flashing into view.

Hercules leapt toward Nebula, pulling her down, and kicked out at a table, sending it crashing on its side, and they heard the rapid thunks as the knives and shafts buried themselves in the wood.

Dahak’s laugh rippled around them, raising their hackles, and more knives, followed by spears, filled the air, coming at them from all directions. They rolled away, and the weapons clattered into the floor, and the table at the level where their heads had just been. Hercules scrambled to grab a large full body shield and tossed a second one to Nebula; they lifted them barely in time to stop more of the missiles from imbedding in their flesh.

“Guess coming in here wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had,” Nebula shouted as she scrabbled closer to Hercules, the shield up and covering her body.

Too busy trying to anticipate the next attack while trying to work out how they were going to escape the continuing barrage unscathed, he smiled humourlessly, but didn’t respond.

“Show yourself, you bastard!” Iolaus called out, frustrated to be so helpless but he didn’t have the corporeal substance to stop the flying weapons. Though Nebula was doing a pretty good job of holding her own, he knew she didn’t have the reflexes Herc did and that, on her own, she’d soon be a gruesome pin cushion. And he could see that Hercules was marginally distracted by the need to protect Nebula as well as himself from the deadly hail, and he cursed himself for having drawn Herc back into Dahak’s ambit.

Hercules grabbed two fresh shields and then dove toward Nebula, hauling her back behind the long, heavy table, as spears plowed into the floor where they’d both just been.

Dahak laughed again, richly entertained by the sight of Hercules and Nebula cowering beneath shields that were already splintering from the force of the blows of all the knives and daggers that were splinting the wood and leather coverings, and a table that only covered them from assault from one direction. Once again in the guise of Hercules, he manifested and lazily flicked a hand, directing more spears to detach from their brackets and wing through the air.

Iolaus launched himself at the demon, tackling him from the side, and driving him to the ground. Desperately, he wrestled with Dahak, hoping to distract him long enough for Hercules and Nebula to escape the chamber of death. Behind him, he heard Hercules shout at her, “Go! Now! I’ll cover you!”

Growling, “They won’t get away!” Dahak let loose a burst of energy that flung Iolaus away from him, to land sprawled close to the table behind which Hercules and Nebula had taken shelter. But now, they were both moving fast, moving past him toward the exit, Hercules using his size and shield to cover her, while he batted flying knives and arrows from the air, catching some and flinging them away. But when she reached the door, she found it solidly closed and she couldn’t budge it. “It’s locked!” she yelled.

Hercules, still covering her with the shield in one hand and batting flying knives and swords out of the air with his other strong arm, half turned to ram his shoulder against the door, trying to use his strength to force it open, but it held firm.

Panting anxiously, Iolaus watched, hoping they’d make it, but he frowned as he realized something odd was happening - all the flying missiles seemed to be coming from one direction, keeping Herc fully occupied, so that he was completely distracted from watching his own back. “No,” he whispered, realizing what Dahak was doing, the trap that was set - and was sprung by the spear launched with silent stealth at Hercules’ back. Nobody could watch in every direction at once - no mortal being, anyway. Not even a demigod in human form.

And, even as he was moving, in a burst of insight, Iolaus suddenly realized that the same thing would hold true for Dahak. Though the demon needed a body to fully enter the world, that body would also his greatest weakness, keeping him harnessed, grounded, locked in one place, no longer able to appear and disappear at will. Herc couldn’t take on a disembodied demon but he could do battle with one encased in human form - Hercules could fight the body and destroy it and, maybe in doing so, would also destroy Dahak. Instinctively, he’d known that it was critical that Hercules survived, that Hercules needed to live to stop Dahak, but now he thought he understood why his friend’s life was so essential to ultimate victory.

He’d hoped they’d get away, hoped he’d never have to play his card, because the idea of Dahak inside his body made him shudder with revulsion. But even as he flashed into place, once again back to back with his best friend, he thought that, maybe, this was just as well.

“NO!” he cried furiously, barely gotten in position when the lancing spear hurtling toward Hercules’ back plunged into him, and he groaned as he felt its fiery burn in his gut as it stalled in the air, crackling with unholy energy.

Nebula looked back at his shout, and gaped, and Hercules whirled around in the sudden still silence of the room, all the weapons now fallen and littering the floor. He saw the spear buried in Iolaus’ spirit, though he had to shield his eyes from its blistering light.

“Iolaus, what have you done!” he shouted, aghast, terribly afraid that he knew.

The light bursting from the spear faded and it dropped to the floor with a clatter.

“What I had to do,” he husked, swallowing hard, rocked by the unexpected and blistering pain he’d felt as he surrendered his body to Dahak. Feeling unaccountably weak, he sank down to one knee, his arms bracing his belly against the still flaring agony. “My body is now his.”

Dahak roared his triumph and lightning flashed around the room as wind gusted through the chamber, blowing the doors open with a resounding bang. The sacrifice had been made and he was too eager to take possession of Iolaus’ body and hasten to Greece to worry whether Nebula or Hercules survived. They were of no consequence - he’d gotten what he wanted.

“Ah, no,” Nebula sobbed, a hand half lifted toward Iolaus, while Hercules stared at him, immeasurable, inexpressible grief in his eyes for the price his partner had just paid to save his life.

Behind them, the heavy rock that sealed the crypt that contained the bodies of Sumeria’s warrior heroes slid away from the portal with a grinding wrench of stone against stone. ‘Iolaus’ strode cockily out of the shadows, garbed in the traditional garb and armor that had been left in tribute to the fallen dead.

“I knew you’d come around,” Dahok gloated, holding out his arms. “This body will serve my purposes very well.”

With a roar of inarticulate rage, Hercules charged at the demon. Iolaus, desperate to try to help, sprang to his feet and flashed toward Dahak - only to be repulsed by a blast of hideously powerful energy that sent his spirit flying backward. The bolt of energy expanded to fill the cavernous hall, catching Hercules in mid-stride and flinging him like a doll into the stone wall, and knocking Nebula flat, both of them rendered unconscious by the brutal blast.

Furiously Iolaus looked up from where he was sprawled on the floor, and found Dahak almost glowing with energy, as if he sucked it from the air around him, and gazing down at him with contemptuous loathing. “Nothing - nothing - can stop me now,” he crowed victoriously, and then strode from the hall.

“Ah, gods, no,” Iolaus moaned as he stumbled toward Hercules, terrified that he’d been killed after all. But the demigod groaned as he stirred, slowly regaining consciousness. Relieved that Hercules was still alive, but overwhelmed with the sick knowledge that he had released the demon upon the world - a demon it seemed not even Hercules could stand against - he slipped to his knees and huddled miserably against the wall. Dahak was now walking the earth guised in his features, appearing human, but having unbelievable, unspeakable power; power that appeared greater than that wielded by the gods of Greece. Even Ares in his worst rage hadn’t been able to fell Hercules with a single blast or blow. Pressing his fist against his mouth, his eyes stinging with tears of frustration, he knew he had somehow failed, that he should have been able to somehow save Hercules without having allowed Dahak to win. He’d failed, and in failing had given his body to be the instrument that would destroy his world.

Beside him, Hercules lifted a hand to gingerly touch the back of his head, and the demigod winced before he pulled himself up to sit against the support of the wall, and opened his eyes. Near the doorway, Nebula began to mumble, still dazed, but she, too, pushed herself upright to lean against the door frame.

“I’m sorry, Herc,” Iolaus whispered hoarsely, looking up to briefly meet his friend’s somber gaze. “I thought …” he went on, lifting a hand helplessly, “I thought you’d have a better chance against him if he was … was in a body. My body.” Utterly miserable, he bowed his head and covered his eyes. “I was wrong. I … I only had to do one thing to keep him out of the world. Only one thing: just keep refusing to let him have what he wanted, and I failed. But I just couldn’t … I couldn’t ….”

Stricken by Iolaus’ grief, Hercules reached out instinctively, wanting so badly to touch his friend, to draw him close, but his fingers passed through Iolaus’ shoulder, and Hercules closed his eyes against the pain of the impossibility of them ever touching again. “No, no,” he murmured brokenly, leaning close. “Listen to me, Iolaus. You did all you could. You resisted him for … for months. You’ve sacrificed everything you had, you died to save Nebula, and now you’ve given your body to save my life. Don’t you think I know that?” His tone softened as he went on, “It’s just not in you to allow innocents to die, not if there is anything you can do to save them? Don’t you know yet how proud I am of you, how proud and grateful I’ve always been and always will be of your courage and your strength?”

But Iolaus simply shook his head, refusing to look up or to receive absolution. Hercules glanced at Nebula, and saw the tracks of silent tears on her face before she turned her head away.

“This isn’t over,” Hercules asserted stubbornly, but with clear determination as he turned back to his partner. “You didn’t fail, Iolaus. You’re a hero,” he went on, his voice quaking with emotion. “My hero - and you always will be.”

Iolaus trembled at his words, but couldn’t bring himself to face Hercules when he knew how manifestly undeserving he was of such an accolade. When he remained silent, still hunched and beaten, Hercules went on compellingly, “You bought us time, time to figure out how to stop him. I … I wasn’t thinking when I tried to attack him this time. I was just reacting in blind anger for what he’d done to you. But … but there will be a way to stop him. I know that. We’ll figure it out. Trust me, okay? I promise you, your sacrifice will not be in vain.”

Hesitantly, Iolaus scrubbed at his face and then looked up, hope in his eyes. “You really believe that?” he challenged.

“Yes, buddy, I do,” Hercules affirmed steadily. “There has to be a way that he’s been beaten before, or he’d’ve taken over the world long, long ago. We just need to figure out his weak spot, that’s all. You’ve given us a chance to do that - and to warn Greece that … that he’s definitely not you, so that he can’t delude anyone into believing he’s someone to be trusted or admired.”

Iolaus chuckled wryly, but was deeply touched by Hercules’ words and assurances. Maybe … maybe he’d done the right thing after all. “That’s all?” he echoed, and shook his head. But he looked less defeated, the spark of optimism again lighting his eyes. “Well,” he said with heart-felt assurance as he stood, “if anyone can stop him, I know it’ll be you.” When Hercules rose to stand beside him, he added poignantly, “Being in a human body has to … to make him vulnerable, Herc. Don’t hesitate to destroy it, okay? Remember, when you see that face again, it’s not me.”

Shadows darkened Hercules’ eyes and his gaze dropped away. But he said quietly, “I’ll do whatever I have to do to stop him.”

“You’d better,” Iolaus insisted, reading the hesitation, understanding it - he’d feel the same way if Dahak was inside Hercules’ body. Glancing at Nebula, then looking back up at his partner, he said, “You have to go after him, as fast as you can, before he gets too much of a head start.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Hercules agreed, then pinned him with a meaningful look. “And you have to get to Hades. You don’t have much time left before the next Solstice.”

“I know,” Iolaus agreed, though his gaze shifted slightly away. “I’ve done all I can here - I’ll head straight to our Underworld.”

Hercules frowned thoughtfully, unsettled by Iolaus’ subtle avoidance of his gaze and immediately suspicious that he wasn’t getting the whole story. “Iolaus - you have done everything you possibly could. And I’m so proud of you; I’ve always been, will always be, proud of you. But your fight with Dahak is over. Don’t make me live with the knowledge that your soul is forever lost because of that damned demon. That’s a victory you can’t give him, Iolaus. You hear me?”

Chagrined, knowing he was only holding them up, wasting time they needed in pursuit, Iolaus nodded tightly and looked up at him, emotion full in his eyes. “Alright,” he sighed. “Alright. I said I’d go and I will. It’s just that ….”

“I know,” Hercules murmurs with aching understanding. “I know.”

Iolaus reached out to Hercules, and Herc lifted a hand toward him, but Iolaus had no substance to touch or be touched, and their desire for contact died stillborn. Briefly, they leaned toward one another, the longing in their eyes clearly expressing their desperate desire to be able to hug one another, to hold on tight, for one last time.

But it was impossible.

Impatiently, Iolaus stepped back and then waved them away. “Go. Hurry. And … and good luck,” he rasped hoarsely, as he began to fade from their sight. “I know you’ll stop him, Herc,” he stated, his voice already distant and faint as he vanished completely. “Whatever it takes, I know you’ll defeat him.”

“I will. I promise,” Hercules vowed, his throat tight. Then he turned and took Nebula by the arm, and they both run full-out, past startled servants and soldiers, out of the palace, through the town and to the docks where they commandeered the fastest ship in her fleet for their journey to Greece.

Epilogue

Unseen, Iolaus had continued to follow them and was lingering on the dock as he watched them set out to sea. “I’ll go, Hercules. I’ll go to our Underworld,” he murmured, his lips thin and his expression determined. “But if you really think I’m gonna sit out this fight, safe in the Elysium Fields while that monster uses my body to destroy our people … well, I’m sorry, buddy, but that’s just not gonna happen. This is my battle, too, Herc - and whatever it takes, whatever it costs, I’m going to help bring that sucker down.”

Finis

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