Life is But A Dream

by Ceryndip

Summary: An Answer to the Library's May 2000 challenge to write a story including the following items:

The Temple at Delphi
Charon's boat
mud
a melon
Typhon and Echidna
live pig
a noose
a waterfall
ale soaked honey cakes
Joxer's hat or a night vision tiara

Iolaus stood in the center of the ornate stone temple shifting back and forth nervously between his feet. The priestess turned and faced him. She was a tall and imposing woman.

"Iolaus, I see your heart's desire will be fulfilled but only if you pay your debts to the one in ragged robes."

"What debts? Who do I owe?"

"You will know."

Iolaus bowed and thanked the priestess. He left a coin on the altar as he made his way out of the temple. The streets were nearly deserted, only a few merchants were still putting away their wares for the night. The hunter glanced up and down the street wondering where in Delphi he might find a reasonably priced inn. He stumbled and rested a hand on the wall for support as his world shifted and grew dark around him.

Velvet blackness clouded his vision and surrounded him then just as suddenly the world burst with brightness. It was very bright...bright and wet...bright...wet...and painful.

Iolaus spluttered. Hercules pulled his head out from under the waterfall and guided the hunter as he sat back against a rock. Iolaus' hands held his head as though he were afraid it might fall off.

"Oh, my head. What happened? Did you get the description of the chariot that ran over me?"

Hercules chuckled, "Do you by chance remember anything from last night about ale soaked honey cakes?"

Iolaus kept his eyes tightly closed but he gave it some thought, "They tasted good?"

"Uh huh," Hercules nodded. "Do you remember how many you ate?"

The hunter thought some more, "A lot?"

"Uh huh, I told you you'd regret eating so many of them in the morning."

"How was I to know they were this potent?" Iolaus massaged his temples, "it's morning?"

"Yes."

"Is it bright or cloudy? Please let it be cloudy."

"Nope, sorry, the sky is blue and clear and the sun is warm and bright."

Iolaus sighed and shaded his eyes before opening them a crack. He moaned but kept them open.

Hercules slapped his thigh, "Come on, we've got to hit the road or we'll never make it to Corinth by midday tomorrow."

The hunter sighed again and sloshed his way out of the stream in the demigod's wake, "I'm coming, I'm coming. What were you trying to do anyway? Drown me?"

"You feel better now, don't you?"

"No, my feet are wet that stream was cold."

"Would you like some cheese with that whine?"

"Anybody ever tell you it's not polite to be this cheerful when you're best buddy has the hangover to end all hangovers?"

"Yes, actually, I think my best buddy told me that the last time he was hung over."

"Didn't listen then either."

Late morning after Iolaus had stumbled for the fiftieth time and Hercules had grown weary of his moaning, they stopped for an early lunch. Hercules had spied a few ripe, wild melons growing to the side of the path. The demigod went to pick lunch while Iolaus collapsed against a large shade tree.

Hercules returned with two large green melons to find Iolaus motionless, an arm thrown over his face.

"Lunch is here," Hercules announced loudly knowing full well it would elicit a groan from the hunter.

"You eat it. I don't feel up to food." With that, Iolaus slid down the trunk and curled up on the ground as the world shifted and grew dark around him.

The hunter found himself underground. The cavern was vast and long, stretching out in either direction. A stream bubbled nearby. The place had a very familiar feel but Iolaus couldn't quite place it. He knew if he followed the river it would eventually lead him out of the cave.

He'd walked only a short while when he came around a bend in the tunnel and heard a familiar face.

"Well don't just stand there gawking, give me a hand here."

"But I can't be dead. You don't just die from a hang over. You feel like you want to but you don't. You just have to suffer through it, right?" Iolaus asked uncertainly.

"You're not dead, ok? Now give me a hand here, my boat's stuck."

Iolaus stepped next to the boat, his boots sinking ankle deep into the mud. He put his shoulder to the bow and with the two of them straining with everything they had the boat finally slid back out into the current.

"Well, don't just stand there, hop in and I'll give you a ride back to the entrance, can't have alive people wandering around down here. It's not good form."

"You're sure I'm not dead?"

"Not yet but you don't want Hades to catch you down here. He doesn't like people showing up where they aren't supposed to and everywhere you go that big guy is sure to follow and you are notorious for causing all kinds of paperwork with your comings and goings. Now are you coming or not?"

"I don't have a coin."

"When has that ever made a difference with you? Don't worry, I'm keeping track. You'll get a bill when your time finally does come."

"Thank you." Iolaus said simply as he climbed into the boat and sat down.

Charon nodded, "I'm just saving us both a lot of trouble. Besides, I'm heading that way already."

Iolaus studied the boatman and realized that his robes were ragged and threadbare in places. He made a mental note to get Hercules to speak to his uncle about the dress code down here. A man with ragged robes, no doubt this was the man the priestess was talking about and Iolaus did owe him a debt, several in fact. The hunter wondered with more than a little trepidation how he could repay what he owed to the boatman. Maybe there was some work he could do?

"How'd you get your boat stuck anyway?"

"I was chasing a pig. I've got a great recipe for pig, been saving it for years but no pig to try it out on. It's a shame. I'd give anything for a real, hot home cooked meal. That slop Hades serves isn't fit for the living. Well, here we are. This is where you get off and this time try and stay away a little longer, like until you're really dead. Save us all a lot of trouble."

"What if I come back with a pig?" Iolaus asked.

"You come back with a pig and you ride in the boat for free. I wish it could be more, but that's all I can do. They don't let me out of here."

Iolaus stepped from the boat and his world tilted awkwardly. He grabbed for the side to steady himself but the boat wasn't there. He opened his eyes to find Hercules staring down at him.

"You ok?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." The hunter sat up, "I've gotta catch a pig."

"A pig?"

"Yeah," Iolaus climbed to his feet. "A pig for Charon so I can have my heart's desire, whatever that is."

Hercules frowned and felt Iolaus' forehead for fever. "No fever. Are you sick? You feel ok?"

"I'm fine, Herc."

"It's finally happened then, you've gone crazy." Hercules turned away and started down the path.

"I am not. It was a vision. I've had those before," Iolaus followed, arms waving and gesturing madly.

"Right over the edge."

Darkness had fallen.

"Shhhh, come on girl, we don't want to wake Hercules."

Iolaus led a plump pig through their camp, past the dying fire and into the nearby woods.

"You were easier to catch than I thought since I found this old noose hanging from the tree back there. If we hurry I can deliver you and get back before Herc wakes in the morning. He's a perpetual early riser, you know, very annoying. If we cut through here we should be able to shave a little time off reaching the lake."

The hunter chuckled, "You sure look cute in that hat, looks like Joxer's hat...wait, you couldn't be, could you?" Iolaus studied the animal, "Nope, you can't be, Joxer's a guy and you're not. You're still cute though. Where'd you get his hat from?"

Iolaus led the pig to the water's edge, "Now we just have to get you to swim. Can you swim? I suppose it really doesn't matter since you'll end up the same way once you get down there regardless." Iolaus sat heavily on a rock. "Oh who am I kidding? I can't do this to you, you're a nice pig." Iolaus patted the pig's flank before he sighed and started untying the rope. "Pigs are my weakness, pigs and women. You don't have to keep batting those big brown eyes at me, Sweetheart. I can't send you to become a four course meal. I just don't have it in me." He finished removing the ropes and slapped her rump to get her moving, "Go on, back to where ever you came from." He watched her disappear into the bushes, "I'll figure something else out."

Iolaus walked back to camp and settled in for the remainder of the night.

Iolaus could smell the roasted pork wafting on the breeze long before they entered the tavern.

"That is the most wonderful smell," Iolaus sniffed the aroma appraisingly as he sat on a stool at the bar.

"We'll have two of the specials," Hercules ordered as the innkeeper approached. He nodded and turned back toward the kitchen. Iolaus was still savoring the aroma.

"I assume that's what you wanted?" Hercules grinned as he took his seat.

"Oh yes, my mouth's watering already."

A steaming plate was placed before the hunter. He picked up his fork and was about to dig in when he hesitated.

"A hot, home cooked meal."

Hercules nodded his agreement as he chewed a large bite, "It sure is."

Iolaus grabbed up his plate in sudden inspiration, "I'll be right back, Herc. Don't leave without me." The hunter paused in the doorway and turned back. He threw a coin at the innkeeper, "For the plate," he explained, "I don't think it's coming back."

Iolaus ran, out of breath by the time he again reached the edge of the lake. He stood panting a moment before setting the plate at the water's edge.

"I know it's not your recipe but it's the best I can do at the moment. Maybe it'll pay for services rendered so far? I gotta get back to Hercules."

Iolaus turned and started walking back toward the village. He stumbled and fell against a tree as his world grew dark. Velvet darkness clouded his vision, enveloping him. He woke in a cold sweat.

"Easy, easy, just lie back," Hercules gently pushed Iolaus back into the pillows as he held a cold compress to the hunter's head.

Iolaus looked around in confusion, "Where?"

"We're in Typhon and Echidna's cave. You've had a nasty knock on the head. Do you remember what happened?"

Iolaus opened his mouth but knew better than to tell his friend about Charon and the pig. It was too crazy even for him. But did any of it really happen or was it all a dream?

"Glad to see you are awake, you had us worried. I brought fresh water." Echidna set a bucket with a cup next to Hercules.

"Thank you." Hercules slipped a hand beneath Iolaus' shoulders to support him as he sipped the water.

The cavern floor shook slightly signaling the arrival of Typhon, "I'm sorry I kicked you, Iolaus. I didn't mean to. Obie and I were out playing.."

"And you didn't see me. I understand, Typhon, that's ok. I'll be fine." So that's what happened. Iolaus certainly felt like he'd been drop kicked by a giant.

Hercules spoke as he lowered Iolaus to the pillows, "I've sent a message to mother so she won't worry that we're late. I asked Jason to bring the wagon to get us so you won't have to walk. I think you've got a concussion. You should be able to milk a couple of days of mother fussing over you out of it."

Iolaus returned Hercules' grin, then he caught the demigod's arm preventing him from rising. "Herc, my heart's desire is to travel with my friend and help people where ever I can," Iolaus smiled, "I already had that all along. I didn't need to go looking for it."

"Me too, buddy, but what brought this on?"

"Nothing, something in a dream or maybe a dream within a dream." Iolaus settled back and closed his eyes.

Hades followed the scent to the river Styx. "Charon, what is that wonderful smell?"

The boatman reclined against the side of the boat. His hand resting on his full stomach. "That aroma is all that's left of the most delectable meal I've had in centuries but with the food you provide around here, what would you know about delectable. Hmm?"

"Where did you get it?"

"A kid was paying his account."

Hades shook his head bewildered as he walked away, "Some things I don't want to know."

The boatman smiled as he licked the last of the sauce from his fingers, "Yeah, kid, you're paid in full."

The End.
17 May 2000

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