Darkness Visible Revisited
by Martha Wilson


Author's note: I originally thought I could do this as a "missing
scenes" story. But while I enjoyed this episode I realized I did want
to fix a number of things about it, including Hercules and Iolaus
wandering through the snow bare-chested, camping in a field of impaled
dead guys, the blatant rip-off of the movie Blade etc. So I rewrote
almost the whole darn thing. Thanks to Liz Sharpe and Carolyn
Golledge. We came up with this concept together and did an outline at
MediaWest 2000, very late one night shortly after evicting a glow-in-
the-dark skeleton from the room.

http://www.rtis.com/nat/user/chimera/legends.htm
The Less Than Legendary Journeys


***

As night closed in on the snowy mountain pass, the gray clouds
thickened and mist obscured the distant crag-perched castle that marked
their goal. Balanced up on a rock to observe the trail ahead, Iolaus
glanced back down to where the others were making camp. Hercules was
moving around securing the hide tents by pushing the wooden stakes into
the frozen ground. Despite his own mostly frozen condition, Iolaus
smiled to himself. _One of those times having a demigod around comes
in handy._

Iolaus pushed to his feet, scrambling down the icy rock, and jumped to
land in a snow drift. Galen, the half-Greek strygoi-hunter, was trying
to get a fire started while Vlad's chamberlain Mattias dug into the
supply packs for dinner. Iolaus grimaced at the thought of another
meal of dried frostbitten meat. Dacia wasn't a frozen wasteland like
Norseland; even in this rocky mountain pass the slopes were covered
with pines and winter-bare trees, with streams trickling down the
rocks. But they had seen no game except for a few straggly crows not
much bigger than a mouthful or two. If it took much longer to reach
Vlad's fortress, the gnomes they saw occasionally -- peering red-eyed
at them from tree stumps or clumps of bracken -- were going to need to
watch their furry little backs. _There has to be something
somewhere,_ Iolaus thought glumly, stamping through the snow toward
their tent. It was as if the animals had fled the strygoi just as the
humans had. Though every evening as the sun set they heard wolves
howling in the distance.

Iolaus plopped down beside Hercules, who had taken a seat at the front
of their tent to study the map they had picked up back at the port of
Varna. Mattias, of course, knew the way, but there was something about
the guy that wasn't quite right. And after Sumeria, they were both
ultra-sensitive to Not-Quite-Right people who wanted them to go on
mysterious errands. _But this is different,_ Iolaus reminded himself.
Vlad Tepes was an old friend and word of the strygoi plague had been
all over the port. The deserted villages they had passed on the way
here had told their own tale. Nobody was lying about that, at least.
"My ass is freezing," Iolaus commented.

"Uh huh." Since most of their conversations lately had started out
that way, Hercules just nodded.

Iolaus rolled his eyes. Hercules had a demigodly resistance to cold
and wore only a fur-trimmed leather coat over his normal clothes.
Iolaus wore a wool shirt, a sheepskin jacket, and gloves and he was
still freezing. He leaned over to look at the map. "Where are we?"

"Right around here." Hercules flattened the square of bleached leather
against his knee, pointing to a spot among the mountains drawn in brown
and black ink. He squinted, translating the squiggly writing above it.
"The Borgo Pass."

"Huh." Iolaus glanced up. His gaze crossed Mattias' where the other
man sat on the far side of the clearing beside the fire. The
chamberlain stared at them, his scarred face somber, as if the sight of
the two Greek warriors with their heads together over the map was
somehow menacing. He met Iolaus' eyes, then looked away without
changing expression. Galen, who had made it plain he was here only to
kill strygoi and search for his missing sister, might be a loud-mouth,
but Iolaus liked his company better. He nudged Hercules with an elbow,
calling attention to Mattias, and asked softly, "Did you get anything
more out of him about...what we found yesterday?

Hercules shook his head, his eyes lifting to thoughtfully study the
other man. Mattias turned back to the supplies as Galen made some
sneering comment to him. Mattias and the strygoi-hunter hadn't gotten
along since Galen had joined them in Varna, but relations hadn't
exactly improved after the strygoi had killed Galen's friend Darius
yesterday. It was where Darius had been killed that Iolaus wanted to
know more about.

The muddy snowfield filled with impaled corpses was more like something
you would see in the Horde's wake. It had been rank with the smell of
death despite the cold; Mattias's claim that Vlad was responsible had
made Iolaus even colder.

They had come upon the place close to nightfall and had pushed on past
it as far as they could before the darkness forced them to stop. Even
though Dacians didn't believe they had to be properly buried for their
souls to reach the afterlife, Iolaus still thought such a scene of
violent death had to be lousy with angry shades. Since Iolaus had been
a shade himself for a while this wasn't as nervous a prospect as it
would have been a few years ago, but strygoi tended to frequent the
same spots. That had been demonstrated last night, when Darius had had
guard duty and been caught by a hunting strygoi.

Hercules folded up the map, his face troubled. "He still says that
Vlad did it and that those men were border raiders."

Iolaus lifted his brows. "And do we believe that?"

"That's not the Vlad we know." Hercules glanced at him. "Let's say
I'm looking forward to hearing his side of it."

"Yeah." If Vlad had changed that much.... Iolaus shook his head. He
still couldn't see it. Not honorable, fun-loving, gung-ho, Vlad
"Romans! I spit on Romans!" Tepes. Not wanting to think about it
anymore, he turned and ducked under the flap of the low tent.
Wrestling with the hide groundcover and the fur blankets piled inside,
he said, "I'm going to sleep until it's time for my watch."

Hercules leaned down to look in, brows quirking. "Don't you want me to
wake you for dinner?" Iolaus' opinions on their food supply were well
known.

"Very funny." Iolaus managed to get the groundcover unrolled and
stretched out on it. Pulling his pack around for a pillow and
wriggling to get comfortable, he said, "If we don't reach the castle
tomorrow, how do you like your gnome, roasted or boiled?"

Turning around, Hercules chuckled, then thought about it for a moment
and peered back inside the tent. "You're kidding, right? Iolaus?"

***


By sunset the next day they had reached the foot of a broad wagon
track. It curved further up the mountain to where the shape of the
castle was silhouetted against the reddening sky. Mattias said it was
only another couple of hours walk, so they pushed on after dark.

Travelling at night in strygoi territory was tense enough and the rocky
trail was icy and dangerous. Mattias carried the torch and they picked
their way along, wary of the deep shadows among the boulders and the
looming dead trees. Iolaus was relieved when they made their way
around a curve in the trail and he saw the flicker of firelight limning
the walls of the castle, the lamps in the windows hanging in the dark
like stars.

The road got wider, the snow stamped down into mud by the passage of
many feet. The torches along the crenelations provided just enough
light for Iolaus to tell the man-made stones from the natural ones.
The fortress was woven in with the rocks, its walls augmented by sheer
cliffs and its sentry towers perched on crags.

Passing under the first tower, Iolaus stopped, staring up at it. It
was a little octagonal structure only about twenty feet above their
heads and the torches inside threw yellow light up onto the carved
gargoyles clinging to the conical slate roof. Hercules stopped beside
him and they exchanged a puzzled look, though both could barely see
each other's features in the dark.

Breathing hard from the climb, Galen stopped beside them. "What?" he
demanded.

"Nobody's inside," Iolaus answered, still staring suspiciously up at
the little tower. Hercules turned, looking toward the other watch
towers set higher in the cliffs above them. All were torchlit but no
curious faces peered out, nobody called down to them. The first layer
of the castle's defenses was deserted.

Galen looked accusingly at Mattias as the chamberlain joined them.
"What's the deal with this?" he asked. "Where is everybody?"

Mattias shrugged and stamped past them, his eyes on the gates ahead.
"They're inside."

All three men stared after him. "Okay," Hercules said under his
breath. He glanced down at Iolaus and gave that slight shrug that
meant that this didn't make sense but there was no help for it now,
then started after Mattias.

"Yeah," Iolaus agreed glumly and followed.

Behind him Galen sighed and muttered, "I got a bad feeling about this."

***


"So, where is everybody?" Iolaus asked for about the twentieth time.

"Yeah," Galen seconded, setting his wine cup down and glaring at
Mattias. "Where's the villagers? Where's my sister? Where's the
freaking army, for that matter?"

They were seated at a heavy plank table in one of the rooms above the
main hall, in what was supposed to be the family apartments. In spite
of a fire in the giant hearth and candles in the wall sconces, the room
was cold and gloomy. All the furniture was dark and heavy and the
tapestries half-glimpsed in the shadows seemed to depict bloody losing
battles or noble death scenes. The food -- spiced chicken and black
bread -- had been brought by two silent elderly men. Knowing Vlad,
Iolaus would have expected the staff to be young, female and very
friendly.

When they had arrived at the castle he had greeted them just like the
old Vlad, with the same warmth and the usual disarray caused by the
fact that Dacian warriors kissed hello and Greeks didn't. It had
almost been enough to make Iolaus think everything was all right,
except for those unanswered questions.

Disturbingly, they had seen no sign of other servants or courtiers or
guards. Mattias seemed to accept this situation as perfectly normal
but Iolaus just couldn't buy it; the palace at Corinth hadn't felt this
deserted when Perseus had gotten most of the inhabitants turned to
stone. Hercules was talking to Vlad in the other room and Iolaus just
hoped he could get some answers out of their old friend.

Mattias took a bite of chicken and shrugged. "It's late. They're
asleep."

Galen snorted with disbelief and looked at Iolaus, who rolled his eyes.

On the way up to this room they had passed through tall echoing
corridors that led to tall echoing rooms, sparsely lit by torches in
wall brackets. The chill air held the acrid taint of pitch and the
musty-foul odor of bats. The corbelled arches and balconies overhead
were cloaked in shadow, wonderful places for ambush by strygoi or
anything else; it made the back of Iolaus' neck itch. The whole place
was creepy and cold. He had expected the cold, but not the creepiness.
When he and Hercules had fought with Vlad's forces the Dacian camp had
always been full of life; he hadn't imagined any of the warriors he had
met there to be living like this, in a great dark cave.

The door opened and Hercules and Vlad came back into the room. Vlad
was smiling and so was Hercules, but it was the demigod's reserved,
noncommittal smile rather than his real one. _He didn't like what he
heard,_ Iolaus thought, worried, and concentrated on wolfing down the
last of his dinner in case the situation deteriorated.

"Where's my sister?" Galen demanded, shoving to his feet.

"She is with the other refugees, in the lower part of the fortress,"
Vlad said, clapping a hand on Galen's shoulder. Vlad Tepes was a big
man even for a Dacian, and he stood eye to eye with Hercules. He gave
Galen a friendly shake that probably rattled the shorter man's teeth
and said, "You will join her soon, I swear it."

Looking up at him, even Galen decided not to argue. Frowning in
frustration, he stepped back.

Iolaus pushed his plate aside and stood, deciding he might as well jump
in with both feet. He grinned up at Vlad. "So when are we going after
the strygoi?"

Vlad shot a glance at Hercules, who assumed an expression of polite
curiosity. Vlad said, "Ah, it will be easier to find their nest in the
daylight. I've been able to make a few forays into the valley and I
think I can locate it with a little help." He slung an arm around
Iolaus' shoulders, half-lifting him off his feet, and grinned at
Hercules. "In the meantime, let us talk over old times. I have some
plum brandy for you to sample."

"No, I'm a little tired, I'd just like to turn in," Hercules said,
giving Vlad that absent, company smile again.

Distracted, Iolaus planted an elbow in Vlad's ribs to free himself from
the affectionate stranglehold, saying in surprise, "You're never
tired." Hercules stared pointedly at him. Iolaus normally ignored it
whenever Hercules did that, but the situation was just uncertain enough
that he decided to make an exception. He added, "But, yeah, that was a
long walk up here."

A flicker of something crossed Vlad's face, there and gone before
Iolaus could read it. The Prince shrugged. "Of course. I'll summon a
servant to show you to your rooms."

***


One of the two silent servants, who didn't respond to Greek or Latin or
anything else they tried and seemed vaguely terrified by their attempts
to communicate, led them to the guest quarters on the floor above.

In their room, Iolaus shrugged off his coat, dropping it onto the
stone-flagged floor with his pack, and stood his sword against the
wall. "I really love what Vlad's done with the place," he remarked,
looking around with his brows lifted dubiously. Hanging above the bed
was what had to be the most grotesque tapestry he had ever seen in his
life. In ugly colors and rough lines, it showed a figure either
feeding a monster or possibly killing it by driving something down its
throat. The fire in the hearth was welcoming, but the cornices of the
high-ceilinged room were decorated with carved gargoyles that stared
down out of the shadows with flat hungry eyes. "I don't know if I can
sleep with those things looking at me."

"Don't worry, you won't be getting much sleep tonight," Hercules said,
dumping his pack and coat in the corner.

Iolaus shrugged and sat down on the big bed, bouncing to try out the
feather-stuffed mattress. "I thought you said you were tired."

Hercules, pacing in front of the fire, paused to give Iolaus a quelling
look. "We're going to search this place from top to bottom."

"Oh." Iolaus frowned thoughtfully, trying to get his brain back on
track. "So what did Vlad say?"

Hercules grimaced, as if the story he was about to repeat left a bad
taste in his mouth. "A few months ago, he was at the Navari border
fort when he got an urgent message from his father. He only brought a
few men with him so he could travel faster, but when he got here he
found the countryside covered with strygoi and the castle full of
people from the surrounding villages looking for shelter."

"Full of people?" Iolaus repeated skeptically. "This place?"

"Uh huh." Hercules' expression said he didn't think much of that
either. "He said that not long after he returned, a strygoi made it
inside and killed his father. He's been fighting a losing battle
against them ever since." He pushed a frustrated hand through his
hair, pacing again. "But I know he's not telling me the whole story.
He's hiding something. Something besides all the refugees."

"Huh." Iolaus thought about it, not liking the way it was all adding
up. He knew Vlad's father had been called Vlad Dracul. Years ago he
had been wounded in battle and had to give up the generalship of the
Dacian armies to his son. He had lived in honorable retirement ever
since. Thinking of a number of drunken confidences during post-battle
celebrations at Antioch, Iolaus said slowly, "Vlad never liked his
father."

Hercules sat beside him, his weight making the mattress sink even more.
"No, he didn't," he agreed, his brow furrowed.

Iolaus shook his head, knowing they were both thinking the same thing.
If it was true, Vlad could be in a lot of trouble. Even if the Dacian
gods didn't consider patricide the worst possible crime, it was
unlikely that they would look on it favorably. "I still don't get it.
Even if he wanted the strygoi to kill his father, even if he let them
into the castle to do it, why would he help them afterward?"

"I know. I don't see what possible benefit there could be for him --
for anyone. Strygoi are worse than bacchae, they can't be controlled
or directed by a mortal." Hercules paused, staring absently at the
wall, lost in thought. "At least...." His brows lifted. "As far as I
know."

Iolaus shifted uneasily. He could tell what his partner's thoughts
were from the worried speculation written on his face. "What, you
think Vlad's found some way to make the strygoi obey him? But why
would he need that? He's the Prince and Warlord of Dacia; he doesn't
need an army of the undead, he's already got a real live army. One
that can attack in daylight."

Hercules let his breath out in annoyance. "It doesn't make sense.
There's something we're missing."

The door flung open suddenly. Hercules shot to his feet and reached
for the nearest weapon, which happened to be the bedpost. Iolaus
rolled off the bed, grabbing for his sword.

"So?" Galen demanded, planting himself belligerently in the middle of
the door. "Are we going to search this place or what?"

***


They decided to split up, at least while searching the upper part of
the castle. Hercules was reluctant to let them separate, but if the
place was full of strygoi, they had to find the surviving refugees and
get out as soon as possible.

They paused in a junction near the guest chambers, where one set of
stairs led up and another down, and several corridors stretched off
toward other parts of the castle where torches flickered in the
darkness. "Remember," Galen said before splitting off to search the
area near the outer wall. "You can only kill a strygoi by beheading,
or shoving one of these through their hearts." He thrust one of the
heavy wooden stakes he carried under Hercules' nose for emphasis.

"I got news for you, Galen," Iolaus told him, adjusting the set of the
scabbarded sword on his shoulder, "You can kill just about anything by
shoving one of those through its heart."

Hercules eyed the strygoi-hunter with annoyance, but took the stake,
tucking it into his belt. "Just yell if you find anything. Don't try
to take on a strygoi nest alone."

Galen grunted an acknowledgement that left Hercules in no doubt that he
would not follow those instructions and headed off down the dark
corridor.

Hercules sighed and turned to Iolaus. "You take the upper levels."

"What?" Iolaus lifted his brows. "There's not going to be anything up
there except bats."

"Then you can finish quickly, find me, and we'll tackle the lower part
together."

Iolaus still looked skeptical. Hercules pointed out, "This is our
escape route. We have to make sure there's nothing up here to stop us
on our way out."

"Okay, okay," Iolaus conceded reluctantly.

Hercules clasped his shoulder, tempted to dispense a lot of unneeded
advice about taking care. Iolaus just stood there, looking up at him
with that expression that said he was prepared to receive the unneeded
advice with varying degrees of bored annoyance and ridicule. Finally
they just smiled at each other and went their separate ways.

After an hour or so of searching Hercules made his way down a spiral
stair. The only thing he had discovered so far was that the place was
a dark warren of corridors and shadowy chambers, empty and silent.
Except.... _I know I'm being watched,_ he thought grimly, pausing to
glance into another unused room. The feeling had been growing ever
since he had entered this part of the castle. He knew it with such
certainty that if they were back in Greece he would have been certain a
god was spying on him.

He looked into the next chamber and saw a fire burned in the hearth. A
shadow passed over his vision and he blinked, falling back a step. Now
a dark figure stood at the end of the room, framed by the ruddy light
of the fire.

Uh oh. Hercules stepped forward slowly, every sense alert, and every
sense telling him that something was badly wrong. "Vlad?" But as the
man turned he saw it wasn't Vlad. This man was just as tall, similarly
built, but there was gray streaking his dark hair and mustache. His
face was much older, seamed and weatherbeaten. "Who are you?"

"I'm your host," the man said. As he moved the firelight caught the
side of his face. He had sharp white canine teeth and his eyes were
flat black, red-rimmed and wicked. "So glad you answered my summons,
Hercules."


***


As he had predicted, Iolaus hadn't found anything on the upper levels
of the living quarters but bats and more cold, empty rooms.

The last place he searched was the highest in the octagonal tower. It
had better tapestries and wall paintings, lacking in the blood and gore
of the others below, and the subjects were taken from Dacian stories
and songs. The chambers were more open and airy, the windows larger,
but everything was softened by a layer of dust and the furniture was
pushed to the walls and covered with drapes. It was chill enough that
Iolaus wished he had brought his coat. _The noblewomen's quarters,_ he
decided, lifting the torch he had taken from a wall bracket to light
his way. _So where are they?_ There should be mothers, sisters,
wives, spinster cousins living here with their friends, servants and
children. He knew Vlad had a big family and the size and number of the
rooms suggested they were meant for many people. Funny it hadn't been
used in so long. Funny that the "honorable retirement" of Vlad's
father hadn't included the company of any female relatives.

It had an air of sadness and neglect rather than the somber gloominess
of the other unused areas. Iolaus remembered Vlad saying that his
mother had taken her own life by throwing herself from the window of
one of the family's castles. Shaking himself to throw off the sense of
melancholy, Iolaus turned and headed for the stairs, ready to find
Hercules and get on with it.

He went back down to the occupied level of the living quarters, in case
Hercules had finished his search and returned there. He doused the
torch and tossed it into a wood stack near a hearth. If he met one of
the servants, he didn't know how he was going to explain strolling
through the castle with his sword slung over his shoulder, but
considering the place was under siege by strygoi, maybe an explanation
wouldn't be necessary.

As he passed one of the chambers off the main hall, looking for a way
down to the next level, he thought he heard Hercules' voice. He ducked
inside. "Herc?" The fire in the big hearth was lit but the wall
sconces were all out, leaving most of the large chamber in shadow.
There was a long trestle table, a few fur rugs, and tapestries that
were just gleams of red and gold in the darkness. Halfway up the back
wall was the balustrade of a musicians' balcony, dark draperies
concealing any other detail. Though he couldn't see much of the room,
it felt unoccupied. He took a few cautious steps forward, trying to
see if there was a door in the opposite wall.

A great crash immediately behind him made Iolaus dive forward, hitting
the floor and shoulder-rolling to his feet. He landed in a fighting
crouch, facing toward the sound.

The crash had been the heavy wooden panel door slamming shut. Vlad
stepped out of the shadows next to it, smiling. "Sorry to startle you,
Iolaus."

"You didn't," Iolaus said, returning a lie for a lie. He straightened
slowly, eyeing Vlad suspiciously. Whatever else was going on, it was
unbelievable that there were strygoi in the castle and Vlad somehow
ignorant of the fact.

"You were looking for Hercules?" Vlad said, moving forward slowly.
Though the words were meant to sound casual there was an undertone of
anticipatory tension that made Iolaus' scalp prickle. "I thought you
had both retired to bed."

Iolaus shrugged, falling back a couple of steps to keep the same
distance between them. "He felt like taking a walk."

Vlad's brows lifted and he smiled in a way Iolaus didn't like. "And
you were also taking a walk?"

"Sure." Iolaus circled back toward the door, making it look casual
though he didn't think Vlad was fooled in the least.

Vlad shifted to keep facing him, watching Iolaus with concentrated
intent. Stalking wolves looked at you that way. _Oh yeah, I'm
definitely in trouble here,_ Iolaus thought. Apparently moved only by
idle curiosity, Vlad said, "I heard a rumor that you were dead,
Iolaus."

"Yeah, I heard that rumor too." Iolaus backed to the door, reaching to
tug on the handle. It didn't budge. _Uh huh, I knew this wasn't going
to be that easy._ He demanded, "What game are you playing?"

Vlad shrugged. "Not a very complex one. It is only that the situation
changed since I sent for you." He stepped to the hearth, holding his
hands to the warmth and flexing them thoughtfully. "By now, Hercules
is having a similar conversation with my father."

Hoping it was an unfunny joke, Iolaus said, "Your father's dead, Vlad.
You said the strygoi killed him."

"Ah, so Hercules told you of that." Vlad glanced up with a faint
smile. "I confess I did not tell him all the story. My father did
become a strygoi and I did attempt to destroy him. The part I left out
was that I...was not successful."

A big lump of the puzzle suddenly fell into place, and Iolaus felt his
insides turn cold. He said, "When you invited us here for a strygoi
hunt, you might have mentioned that the strygoi would be hunting us."
He reached up, sliding his sword free of its scabbard. "And that you
were one of them."

"That would have ruined the surprise," Vlad said, sounding almost like
himself for an instant.

Iolaus wasn't fooled. "I hate surprises," he muttered, taking a firmer
grip on his sword and bracing himself to move.

Vlad stepped toward him deliberately and Iolaus shifted along the wall,
not wanting to be cornered against the door. "The simple truth is that
this was never my father's home, it was his prison. Did you ever
wonder how strygoi were first created?"

"No," Iolaus replied honestly. If he had ever thought about it, he
would have assumed they had been created by a god, either from
malicious purpose or pure accident, like all the other monsters. At
the moment he really didn't care.

"Surely you are more curious than that." Vlad smiled, and this time
Iolaus saw the fangs, white and sharp against the other man's lips.
"Every so often a man is born so evil, so corrupt, he becomes strygoi
by his own foul nature and not by infection from another creature. But
he does not take his full power until his death. When I and my
brothers and the other nobles realized what my father was, we
imprisoned him here, but we could not kill him because he was still
Dacian and royal." Vlad's expression sobered and he paced another step
forward. "I was on the border when I received a message that he was
dying. I came as quickly as I could, to make sure it was a true death
and that he did not rise again, but I was too late." He eyed him
speculatively. "Now my father wishes to control Hercules. And as
everyone knows, the first step to that is-- You." He lurched forward
suddenly, catching up a candlestand and swinging it at Iolaus.

"Why can't these guys come up with a different plan," Iolaus said under
his breath, deflecting the swing of the heavy iron stand and twisting
out of arm's reach.

The stand clanged heavily against his sword as Iolaus blocked two more
blows. He ducked under the next, the iron whistling past his ears as
he made it out into the wider part of the room. Vlad snarled,
abandoning the stand and leaning down to grab a massive wooden chair by
one leg. Iolaus' eyes widened as Vlad lifted it effortlessly, one-
handed. Realizing belatedly where the chair was heading, he swore,
dodging backward as Vlad flung it at him.

He almost made it clear but the heavy back struck him in the leg as it
landed and he went down. He rolled back to see Vlad almost on top of
him. Desperate, he twisted, pushing himself up on his knees, and
slammed the sword into Vlad's chest.

Vlad stopped, staring down at the hilt protruding from his body.
Iolaus shoved to his feet, breathing hard. For an instant he forgot
about the strygoi, forgot about everything except that he had just
driven his sword through the heart of a man who had once been his
friend.

Then Vlad reached down, his fingers curling around the blade, and
pulled out the sword.

Iolaus took an involuntary step back. "Uh oh," he breathed.

***


_And here's the missing piece,_ Hercules thought, regarding the
stranger warily. The family resemblance, his presence here, all added
up to one thing, and he was sure he could put a name to the man
standing before the hearth, though it didn't make sense. "Your
summons?" he said, stepping further into the room. The firelight threw
leaping shadows onto walls covered with martial paintings, giving the
fighting, dying figures the illusion of movement.

"Yes." The fangs, so unexpected and animal-like in that stern face,
gleamed a little. "I am the Master here."

Hercules took a cautious step closer. There was a statue on a table
nearby, a heavy-looking stone griffin, nicely shaped and situated for a
blunt club, and he wanted to get it within arm's reach. He said, "I
thought your son controlled this castle."

Dracul lifted a brow. "Ah, then you know who I am. Very good." He
paced away from the fire, further into the shadow. His expression was
hidden but his voice sounded amused as he said, "No, my son controls
nothing. Not anymore. I permitted him to send for you because it
suited my purpose."

Oh, no, Hercules thought, suddenly seeing the whole picture. Vlad
wasn't so taken by family pride that he would have hidden this from
them, not when he had summoned them for help. Not unless he couldn't
tell them. "You turned your own son into a strygoi," he said, his
voice rough with anger and the sick certainty it was the truth.

Dracul inclined his head, as if conceding the point. "You're quick,
for a Greek barbarian."

Ignoring the insult as an attempt to distract him, Hercules demanded,
"Why did you send for me?"

"I must build an army of strygoi, to defeat my son's forces. Already
his nobles grow restless that he has not returned to them, and send
messages demanding answers. Soon they will come themselves and I must
be ready." Dracul smiled, barring his pointed canines. "There are
those among them who will know what we are and no masquerade will
suffice."

"What does that have to do with me?"

"You will make a very powerful strygoi, under my control."

_Oh, great. I should have known._ Hercules smiled grimly. "You
might not find it as easy as you think."

"Even now, my son is explaining these matters to your companion--"

_This is a trap._ The thought was barely formed as Hercules grabbed
the statue, stepping forward to slam it into Dracul. Expecting an
impact, he almost slammed himself into the stones of the hearth when
the statue passed through empty air. Staggering, Hercules caught
himself, looking wildly around. The only sign he could see of Dracul
was a mist vanishing down through the flagstone floor.

Swearing, he pushed away from the wall and ran.

He reached the end of the corridor when he caught a flash of brown out
of the corner of his eye. He ducked, reaching up to boost whatever was
leaping at him over his head and across the corridor into the wall.

He slid to a halt, braced for another attack. He stopped in shock when
he recognized the man staggering to his feet.

"Galen!" Hercules stared, feeling sick. There was no mistaking what
Galen was: the man's eyes had already reddened, the pupils elongated
like an animal's.

Galen fell back against the wall, sliding away along it. "I can't stop
myself, Hercules, that's how it works," he said through gritted teeth.
"I can hear them in my head, telling me what to do." He stared, for a
moment his eyes fading back to their normal color. "Kill me!"

Hercules hesitated, the appeal so desperate he was half-tempted to
comply. But there had to be another way. And he had to get to Iolaus.
"Galen, just hold on, I'll--"

Galen's eyes reddened again and he bolted back down the corridor.
Hercules shook his head mutely and turned for the stairs.

***


_Damn, he hits like the Sovereign,_ Iolaus thought, dazed and reeling
from the last blow. Vlad's reach was longer and whenever Iolaus got
close enough to land a punch or a kick, the return hit augmented by
supernatural strygoi-strength knocked him sideways. He slammed into a
table, grabbed the silver platter off it and swung it up just in time
to deflect a punch to his head. Vlad yelled in pain, retreating a
step.

Breathing hard, Iolaus pushed away from the table, circling toward the
open part of the room. There was only one escape route that he could
see and he was almost in position to try it.

Watching him intently, rubbing his hand as if the silver had burned
him, Vlad said, "I would tell you that there is no point in resistance,
that soon you will welcome this, but we both know that isn't true."

"Thanks for being honest," Iolaus snarled. He flung the platter into
Vlad's face and broke past him, vaulting atop the long table. Knowing
he would only have one chance, he took a couple of running steps and
jumped for the bottom edge of the balcony balustrade. He caught the
stone lip of it, his fingers digging into the carving. Before he could
pull himself up something struck him in the back, knocking him free of
his precarious hold.

Iolaus slammed down into the table, fell off and landed hard on the
stone floor. Stunned, he tasted the coppery tang of his own blood. He
flailed one arm and grabbed the bench, half dragging himself to his
feet, but Vlad suddenly loomed over him. Iolaus tried to fling himself
away but he caught just a glimpse of a fist coming at him before the
world went black.

Barely clinging to consciousness, his head pounding, Iolaus realized he
had collapsed over the table. _Wake up, wake up or die,_ a voice
chanted in his head. He felt Vlad lift his legs and dump him face
first onto the wooden surface. With a desperate yelp, Iolaus managed
to roll over, trying to get his eyes open, trying to push himself up.

Suddenly his head was slammed back into the heavy planks and a weight
pinned him down on his back, flattening the last gasp of air from his
lungs. His arms were effortlessly pinned above his head.

Iolaus managed to open his eyes but all he could see was a blur. Now
one large hand pinioned both his wrists and a painful grip on his hair
twisted his head to the side. The fangs stabbing into his flesh
snapped him back to full awareness. Shock and pain forced a cry out of
him; it felt like his throat was being ripped out in slow motion. He
twisted, struggling blindly, but the grip on his wrists just tightened.
He worked a leg free and managed to drive his heel into Vlad's side
with a desperate force that should have broken bone, but the strygoi
ignored it.

_Hercules,_ Iolaus thought in despair, willing the demigod to get here,
though it might only be in time to avenge his death. Despite the heat
of the struggle and the heavy body pinning him, he could feel a chill
creeping over him. His vision went hazy and he didn't even have the
strength to spit one last curse.

The terrible pressure lifted abruptly and with almost his last effort
Iolaus took advantage of the respite to roll off the table. He landed
on his hands and knees, barely able to keep himself from collapsing.
Pain pounded through his entire body, emanating from the wound in his
neck, increasing with every labored heartbeat. Gasping, he touched it
gingerly, squinting at the blood on his fingers. If his throat really
had been torn out, then there would surely be more blood than that.

From the balcony somewhere above his head he heard Vlad's voice say,
"You're too late, Hercules. I've taken enough blood to turn him." His
laughter was richly amused. "Better watch your back. He'll have to
feed to survive the day."

Iolaus tried to stand but his head swam and his legs refused to support
him. Blinking at the fog clouding his vision, he saw Hercules drop to
his knees in front of him. The demigod grabbed him by the shoulders,
lifting him up. The enormity of what had happened was just beginning
to sink in. He wasn't dead but he had been bitten -- infected -- by a
strygoi. Iolaus gasped, "You'll have to kill me."


Pain shot through his head suddenly and Iolaus reeled over with a yell.
Hercules tried to steady him but he pulled away, pounding a fist on the
floor. The new agony receded to a throbbing ache, joining the
counterpoint formed by the pain coursing through his body. It was
enough to let him get a breath and he collapsed against the table leg.
It felt like something had erupted right through the roof of his mouth.
Oh, no....

He lifted a trembling hand and carefully felt his teeth. Something had
erupted from the roof of his mouth: two new fangs. "Oh, this is
disgusting." He looked up helplessly, barely able to see Hercules
leaning over him. "How could somebody want to become a strygoi
voluntarily? It freaking hurts." One of the new teeth stabbed him in
the lip and he swore. "You'd have to be nuts."

Things got fuzzy after that. Hercules hauled him up and slung him over
his shoulder, an action Iolaus protested with a faint yelp. As
darkness came and went he kept forgetting who had him and making feeble
attempts to escape. He heard Vlad's voice whispering through his
thoughts, like blood drizzled through water. It was telling Iolaus to
come to the others, or some other damn stupid thing. _Great,_ Iolaus
thought coherently, if sourly, _like I need that too._ It didn't
matter how weak and confused he was, part of his mind knew just what to
do. Concentrating, he locked the intrusive voice out of his head. The
effort of it made the world black out again.


...continued in part 2