Darkness Visible
by Martha Wilson

Part 3


***

Iolaus set out while Hercules was still working on his part of the
trap, but the timing was tight. There had to be enough remaining
of the night that the strygoi would be willing to venture up into
the higher parts of the fortress, but not too much, or he and
Hercules would just end up handing themselves to Dracul on a
platter.

Following Vela's directions, Iolaus found the stairs down to the
lowest depth of the fortress and the long straight passage that
led toward the crypts.

It ended in a big dim chamber, lit by dozens of candles. The
pillars were all carved into forbidding figures that could only be
different Dacian representations of Death. _This has got to be
the place,_ Iolaus thought as he paused at the entrance. The
flickering light seemed to sink into the walls and curved ceiling
of rough natural stone, throwing back no reflections. He could
hear the undead, moving in the shadows like rats.
The floor had been covered with dark polished tile and the dead
strygoi Iolaus dragged along by one foot slid across it easily.
It and two others had been guarding the top of the passage and he
had decided this was as good a way to announce his appearance as
any.

As he moved further in he saw the man seated in the elaborately
carved wooden chair at the far end of the room. Dracul. Vlad was
standing at his right hand and Iolaus felt a snarl building in his
throat. The throne was framed by the archway that must lead to
the crypts; cold air heavy with the scent of old death streamed
from it, making the candles flicker and the warbanners gently
ripple.

He counted seven men with the symbols of the Dacian Royal Guard on
their leather armor gathered around the throne; they must be all
that remained of those who had accompanied Vlad here from Navari.
Like the one they had found with the refugees, these men were
strygoi but not undead. Galen was standing with them. His face
had a greenish cast and he didn't look well, as if he was still
trying to resist the strygoi infection. _All right, for his
sister's sake, I'll try not to kill him._ Everybody else
definitely had to go. Mattias, now a strygoi too, stood near the
throne. There was no telling if his current condition was reward
or punishment.

Iolaus halted, dumping the dead strygoi. He had everyone's
attention.

Dracul broke the silence, saying, "You said he was dead."

"I thought he was," Vlad replied, studying Iolaus with a faint
puzzled expression. "I couldn't reach him."

"I heard you," Iolaus told him, truthfully enough. "I just didn't
feel like listening." Stifling his urge to fling himself at
Vlad's throat took up a terrible amount of his self-control.

Dracul ignored him, slanting a heavy-lidded glance at his son.
"You did not tell me he was this strong."

Iolaus rolled his eyes and folded his arms, looking away with
pretend indifference. All these strygoi, so close, were setting
his nerves on fire. _Gods, this is driving me nuts. I just want
to kill something._ His teeth and claws were fully extended and
he couldn't have retracted them to save his life. "When you're
done discussing it, I'll be right here."

Dracul pushed to his feet, pacing slowly towards Iolaus. He was
big, Vlad's size, and though there was gray in his hair and beard,
he moved with an arrogant animal grace. As if only casually
interested in the answer, he asked, "You escaped from Hercules?"

Iolaus flicked a glance at Vlad, not sure how much he had seen
from the balcony. While it would be entertaining to weave a story
about how he had overpowered Hercules and escaped, it was better
to stay on the safe side. "He let me go. He's sentimental that
way."

Dracul stopped a bare pace away, staring down at him with
speculative interest. There was something in there besides a
wicked old man, Iolaus could smell it. Something ageless and
hungry and evil. He didn't want to think about how evil a man had
to be, to turn into a strygoi simply by force of personality.
Iolaus lifted his chin, baring his teeth in a challenging grin.

Dracul moved suddenly, grabbing a handful of Iolaus' hair and
yanking him forward, half-lifting him off his feet. Iolaus
snarled and flexed his claws but didn't struggle, though it
stretched his already strained self-control to the limit. If
Dracul wasn't interested in what he had to say, he knew he was
dead.

"You've fed," Dracul said, still in the same thoughtful tone. "On
whom?"

"I didn't get his name," Iolaus said through gritted teeth.

"Answer me."

The grip on his hair tightened, pulling his head back further and
putting painful pressure on his neck, but the smartass remark had
given him a chance to think. "Some peasant. He'd been bitten
before and he had chains on his wrists, like he was locked up
somewhere."

The flicker in Dracul's eyes told Iolaus the old man accepted the
answer. "You are different," Dracul said, still studying him.
"A fledgling strygoi should be weak, easily manipulated.
Unaccustomed to this new state of being."

Iolaus tried not to take that personally. "Maybe I've had
practice with new states of being."

From behind Dracul, Vlad said slowly, "There was a rumor...he was
killed and Hercules had him restored to life."

Dracul acknowledged that with a lifted brow. He said to Iolaus,
"So you've come to join us. Why?"

"I don't have a choice. What else am I going to do?" The genuine
bitter resentment Iolaus felt gave that the ring of truth, though
he mentally added, _Except kill you._

"Don't trust him." It was Galen, speaking as if the words had
been choked out of him.

_That's it, you're dead too, Galen,_ Iolaus thought. Before
anybody could think too much about that, he said, "I know where
Hercules is. I can lead you to him."

The greedy light in Dracul's eyes betrayed him. Whatever was in
there, Iolaus had figured it would be greedy. And greedy things,
whatever they were, became incautious when what they wanted seemed
to be within their reach. "Very well." He released Iolaus,
stepping back to address the others. "Everything is exactly as I
planned. Soon our ranks will swell by the hundreds, the
thousands. But first, I will destroy Hercules."

The other strygoi raised a cheer. Iolaus just smiled, thinking,
_I've heard that before._

***


Leading Dracul and the others back up through the fortress made
Iolaus wish he was in the middle of a battle. Troy, maybe, with a
burning wooden horse about to fall on him. There were too many
things that could go wrong, too many moments for Dracul to realize
this was a trap.

As they reached the corridor where the hidden stair was, Iolaus'
nerves jumped in earnest. There was no way to avoid it; this was
the only way into the upper part of the fortress. He had a long
list of Things That Could Go Wrong at this point, anywhere from
Vela not being able to keep some idiot from trying to leave, to
the strygoi deciding to stop for a snack, to Dracul somehow
sensing that the stair mechanism had been temporarily jammed with
a few yards of chain.

As they neared the entrance, Iolaus couldn't stand the tension
anymore and had to relieve it. He said to Vlad, "Why did you
really bring us here? What did you want from Hercules?"

Vlad pressed his lips together and flicked an expressionless
glance at his father. Behind them, one of the other strygoi
hissed, but Iolaus ignored it. Without looking at them, Dracul
lifted a brow and replied, "A demigod's blood will be powerful.
No strygoi has ever tasted such before."

"Oh." They were safely past the entrance to the concealed
stairway, but now Iolaus had something else to worry about.
_Never, huh? Well, just the once. Dammit, I knew it was a bad
idea._

He noticed Vlad was still eyeing him and glared. Unperturbed,
Vlad said, "It's difficult to believe you would betray Hercules.
Even as a strygoi."

"It was difficult to believe you betrayed me," Iolaus retorted.
"But you did."

His face still closed and enigmatic, Vlad looked at Dracul again,
striding ahead of them. He said to Iolaus, "I turned you; you
should be under my control. How did you resist my compulsion?"

Iolaus stared at him, wondering if there was anything behind the
question. If Vlad did have some access to his thoughts, this plan
was toast and he and Hercules were both worse than dead. But he
just didn't think there was anybody in his head but him. Watching
Vlad cautiously, he said, "I just had to want it hard enough."

Dracul looked back then and Iolaus decided to keep his mouth shut
for a while.

They were nearing the spot, a place where the corridor narrowed
just before it opened into a large round tower room. A stairwell
into the upper part of the fortress lay just beyond it.

"It's near dawn," Vlad said suddenly, making Iolaus jump. "If we-
-"

"Silence," Dracul ordered. "There are no windows in this tower so
we can pass without trouble--" He paused suddenly. "He's there,
not far ahead." He glanced back at Iolaus, lifting a brow. "You
will be rewarded."

"That's what I'm aiming for," Iolaus assured him. _But not by
you._

Dracul strode forward swiftly down the passage.

Iolaus followed with Vlad and just as they stepped within the
narrow passage he heard Hercules shout. Iolaus turned and slammed
into Vlad with his shoulder, knocking the larger man out of the
passage and back into the wider corridor. They rammed into Galen
and another confused strygoi, knocking them aside. As they hit
the ground stone and broken beams crashed down in a cloud of dust.

***


The fall of stone had neatly sealed the small passage, locking the
other strygoi out and Dracul in. Hercules, from a ledge halfway
up the wall of the high tower room, had knocked out the prop that
was all that supported the ceiling of the passage; the
architectural rearrangements had taken him the rest of the night
to make. As the dust settled, he leapt down from the ledge,
landing several paces away from Dracul. The other doorway was
blocked with a few heavy stones he had carried in from outside.

Dracul stared at the blocked doorways, then turned slowly,
smiling. "You think this will help you?" He barred his fangs,
the confident smile becoming a predatory grin. "You should have
left when you had the opportunity."

Hercules hefted the boar spear he held. It was the best one he
had found up in the living quarters, with a long blade on a heavy
wooden shaft. He had chosen it for the quality of the wood rather
than the steel. He said, "I'll be leaving soon enough. I just
have to do something first."

Dracul stalked forward. "Give in, Hercules. You can't possibly
destroy me."

Hercules allowed himself a grim smile. He swung the spear,
driving Dracul back a pace as he stepped to the curved outer wall.
"I've heard that before."

Dracul made an abortive movement, then hesitated. Hercules
correctly read the flicker of startled anger that crossed his face
and nodded in satisfaction. "Galen was right. You can't change
shape after daylight." He turned and slammed a punch into the
wall behind him. Stone exploded outward and as the dust cleared
the graying sky was visible, the first gold light of dawn just
touching the mountain peaks.

***



Iolaus rolled over, shaking the dust out of his hair, and saw Vlad
crouched against the opposite wall staring blankly at the blocked
passage. He looked at Iolaus, saying in shock, "You--"

Iolaus grinned at him. "Surprise."

Vlad started to push to his feet. "And I thought you disliked
surprises."

"Not when they're on you."

Vlad lunged forward and Iolaus caught him in the chin with a kick,
sending him falling back. Iolaus leapt up, moving back into the
wider part of the corridor as Vlad regained his feet and came for
him.

Vlad halted suddenly and Iolaus bounced impatiently on his heels,
waiting for the next attack. The others were starting to stagger
upright and much as Iolaus would have liked to stay and see how
many of them he could take, he wanted to get to Hercules. Vlad
suddenly reeled away, falling against the wall. "Go," he grated,
his face white with effort.

Iolaus eyed him, wary of a trick. "What?"

"Go," Vlad repeated. "I'll hold them back. I--" He shook his
head, wincing, but couldn't seem to say more than that. With a
growl, he pushed away from the wall, shoving an approaching
strygoi back.

Iolaus stared, then decided whether it was real or not, he
couldn't afford not to take advantage of it. As he turned,
Mattias stumbled to his feet and charged him. Iolaus slammed a
punch into him, then darted down the passage and skidded around a
corner into a side hall.

There was a window at the end of it and he tore the dusty drapes
aside and stepped up onto the sill. Cold wind tore at his hair as
he paused, getting his bearings. The sky was gray with the faint
radiance of the dawn and golden light outlined the peaks of the
distant mountains. The curve of the tower hung out over the cliff
here and directly below him a chasm opened, plunging away down
into darkness. There was no ledge but Iolaus turned, working his
claws into the gaps between the stones and swinging out into empty
space. He found toeholds with the tips of his boots and pulled
himself up, shaking the hair out of his eyes. With a tight grin,
he thought, _So far so good...._

He worked his way along as quickly as he could, buffeted by the
cold wind. As he made it around the curve, he was relieved to see
the large jagged hole in the wall ahead. He could hear fighting
inside, thumps, crashes. _Then Galen was right._ If Dracul could
still change shape, he would have been long gone by now.

As he climbed determinedly toward the opening, Iolaus felt a
burning sensation down his back that grew steadily more intense.
_Uh oh._ He froze suddenly as the realization hit. _Strygoi.
Sunlight._ The tower above him was turning gold with dawn light.

He recklessly swung the last few feet, his claws slipping in the
cracks and his boots skidding on the stone.

Iolaus flung himself through the opening into the tower room,
hitting the floor and rolling. Smoke puffed up from his clothes
but he didn't feel too charred. Looking around wildly, he saw
Hercules facing Dracul over by the far wall.

"Iolaus, that's cutting it a little close," Hercules shouted,
swinging the spear as Dracul ducked away.

"You're telling me!" Iolaus scrambled to his feet.

Dracul faced them, his strong features twisted into a snarl, gray
hair flying, sharp teeth gleaming, more like an animal than
anything human.

"How's it going?" Iolaus asked Hercules. It didn't look so good.

"Not so good," Hercules admitted as Dracul charged.

They fought across the small room as the sun crept nearer the
opening. Even if he couldn't turn into a puff of smoke, Dracul
moved with blinding speed, and as a human he had been a vicious,
experienced fighter. Now as a strygoi, he was nearly unstoppable.
Hercules couldn't get a grip on him to use his strength and while
Iolaus was fast, every time he got close enough to try to slow
Dracul down, he got knocked nearly senseless.

Then Dracul's claws slashed Hercules across the chest and the
demigod managed to catch his arm, flinging him back against the
wall. Iolaus went for the legs, miscalculated, and took a kick in
the stomach that sent him flying across the room.

Iolaus bounced off the wall and hit the floor. Shaking his head
dazedly as he pushed himself up, he knew the force of that blow
would have killed him if he had still been completely human. He
looked up in time to see Hercules force Dracul back against the
gaping hole in the wall. Past him Iolaus could see the lightening
sky. In a few moments the dawn light would reach the opening.

Dracul must have felt it too. With a growl of effort he twisted
suddenly, turning and pulling Hercules off balance. Losing his
grip on the spear, Hercules had to grab the stone at the edge of
the gap to catch himself. As Iolaus shoved to his feet, Dracul
smashed Hercules across the face, knocking him into the side of
the opening. Suddenly the loosened stones gave way and the
demigod fell back and out.

Iolaus yelled in fury and fear and flung himself forward. With
that inhuman speed Dracul moved, snatching up the spear and
slamming the shaft across Iolaus' knees. He hit the ground,
rolled over, and Dracul was right on top of him.

The blade slammed down into Iolaus' chest and he curled up around
it helplessly, instinctively grabbing the metal.

For a heartbeat time seemed to freeze. He knew what being stabbed
felt like -- the punch and the pressure, then the delayed rush of
agony as air reached the torn flesh. But the pain didn't come;
all he could feel was the force of the blade pushing into his
body. _The metal can't kill me,_ he realized abruptly. Dracul
was forcing the blade through to the wooden handle. That was when
the agony would start. Time jolted back into movement, rushing
headlong as Iolaus sunk his claws into the blade, desperate to
force it back out.

Dracul was just too strong, towering over him, bearing down on the
shaft. Snarling, Iolaus fought frantically, kicking at Dracul,
his claws scored the metal as it slipped through his grip.

Barring his teeth as he smiled down at him, Dracul said, "You're
fortunate. The sun rises, so I won't be able to prolong your
death."

Iolaus could see the light glowing against the far wall, turning
the stone gold. The first edge of the wood shaft shoved past his
skin and he didn't have the air for a last curse. It was like
being stabbed with a red hot iron bar.

He saw Hercules and thought it was a hallucination. Until the
demigod seized Dracul and threw him against the wall, no more than
ten paces from the pool of sunlight. Nearly blinded by pain,
Iolaus managed to get a grip on the shaft, trying to push it out;
it seemed lodged in his body. Dimly he saw Hercules lean over him
and grab the spear. With one quick jerk he pulled it free.

Iolaus collapsed on the stone, panting, shaking from shock, as
weak as an unstrung puppet. He saw Dracul push to his feet and
lunge toward Hercules, but he couldn't do more than gasp a
warning.

With an expression of grim concentration, Hercules flipped the
spear and rammed the blade into Dracul's chest. He moved forward,
driving the metal blade through his body and shoving the strygoi
back against the stone wall. Iolaus struggled to stand, wanting
to help, but he only managed to roll awkwardly to his knees.
Dracul's growl turned into a shriek and he clawed for the demigod.
Hercules shifted his weight and drove the blade into the wall.

Dracul was pinned between the stone and the wooden shaft. He
looked down, then up at Hercules, his lips drawing back in a
rictus grin. "You missed the heart," he said, his voice grating.

Hercules looked him in the eye. "I meant to."

Dracul stared at him, then at the line of sunlight creeping slowly
nearer as the sun cleared the mountain peaks.

Iolaus gasped, the laugh turning into an outcry as his abraded
lungs burned. Hercules had deliberately missed Dracul's heart to
give Iolaus time to heal. If Dracul had been killed then, Iolaus
would have turned back into a human with a hole in his chest and
died instantly. _One of those times having a demigod -- a smart
demigod -- around comes in handy,_ he thought, slumping back down
and abandoning his attempt to stand.

Dracul fought to push away from the wall, his growl scaling up to
a howl of rage. Hercules ducked away from the clawing hands,
still grimly holding the jerking shaft in place. "How're you
doing, buddy?" he said through gritted teeth.

"Fine," Iolaus told him faintly. He knew the demigod hadn't heard
him but he didn't seem to have the air to make his voice louder.
He looked down at the wound in his chest, unwillingly fascinated.
The bloodless hole was slowly closing. He slid down, squinting
painfully at the sunlight as it moved inexorably toward them.
Strangely the room seemed darker as the sun filled it. Then as
his head sunk to the floor he realized it was his vision that was
going dark. He saw the edge of light touch Dracul's wildly
flailing figure. Smoke and flame flared up, just before the
blackness closed in.


***


Iolaus came to fighting with somebody and after a few frenzied
moments realized the large person he had just kicked in the gut
was Hercules. "What in Tartarus are you trying to do?" he
demanded, shoving the demigod's arm away indignantly as he sat up.

"I was looking at your teeth," Hercules said, sounding harassed.

"Huh?" _Oh right, I'm a strygoi,_ Iolaus remembered. He
couldn't remember much else, like how they had gotten here or what
they were doing. Or where here was. It was a dark dank cold
corridor, lit by a few torches, the walls banded with elaborate
carvings but grimed with dust. He saw two doorways sealed with
mortared blocks. _We're down in the crypts?_ That didn't seem
like a particularly good place to be. He didn't feel dead, but
his chest ached and his stomach was trying to crawl up his throat.
He was covered in a cold sweat and had that feeling of standing
just to one side of reality that a bad fever could cause. "What's
going on?"

"Nothing, just stay here." Hercules pulled a heavy wool cloak up
over Iolaus' shoulders and pushed him back down.

Ignoring this nonsensical statement, Iolaus sat up on an elbow and
squinted at him. Hercules looked like Iolaus felt. His shirt and
arms were scorched and stained with smoke and his chest scored
with livid clawmarks and dried blood. Iolaus knew there had been
a battle but he couldn't remember if they had won it or not.
"What's going on?" he demanded. Hadn't he said that before?

"Nothing," Hercules repeated grimly, "Stay here." The demigod
pushed him back down against the wall.

Unable to put up an effective resistance, Iolaus folded up and
pretended to pass out again. Hercules stood over him a moment and
Iolaus could practically feel skeptical eyes boring into him.
Then he heard Hercules walk softly up the corridor.

Iolaus sat up, bewildered and irritated and woozy. He shrugged
off the cloak and pushed himself up, using the carving like a
ladder to haul himself to his feet. Leaning heavily on the wall,
he made his way slowly down the corridor in the direction Hercules
had gone.

He came to an open doorway with square blocks stacked neatly
nearby, ready to be mortared into place. He paused, weaving
slightly. The muted voices inside were familiar, but he couldn't
quite place who they belonged to. He braced himself against the
cold stone and peered in, squinting until his eyes adjusted to the
dimmer interior.

It was a tomb, the walls covered with smoke-stained paintings of
Dacian warriors, shifting and fluid in the light of a few candles.
There were other people there but he focused on Hercules, who was
just lowering something down onto the central plinth.

It was Dracul's body, charred black from the sunlight, the cut-off
spear shaft still protruding from its chest. Hercules took a step
back, wiping his hands off on his pants. "All right, what's
next?" His voice was hard with distaste.

Galen swayed forward out of the shadows to lean weakly against the
plinth, saying, "Cut his head off and stuff his mouth with
garlic."

Hercules stared at him from under lowered brows. "You're
kidding," he said flatly. His tone suggested Galen had better not
be kidding.

"What kind of sick bastard would make that up?" Galen countered
wearily.

Fascinated, Iolaus slid down the stone and stumbled off a step,
barely catching himself before he tumbled headlong into the crypt.
At the slight sound Hercules spun, spotted him, and had him by the
arm, propelling him back down the corridor before he knew what had
happened. He tried to drag his heels and grab a doorframe to slow
their progress but it was useless. "What's going on?" he tried
again.

Hercules shoved him back down, pulling the cloak over him. "I'll
explain later."

Iolaus tried to sit up, but the brief exertion had sapped most of
his strength. Frustrated, he demanded, "Am I alive, am I dead, am
I next?"

"No!" Exasperated, Hercules shook his head. "Just stay there."

Someone else loomed into view behind the demigod and Iolaus was
shocked to recognize Vlad.

"Is he all right?" Vlad asked, glancing worriedly at Hercules.

This gave Iolaus the energy to throw off the cloak and sit up,
shouting, "You bit me, you son of a bitch!" He looked pointedly
at Hercules. "Why is he alive?"

Hercules inexorably shoved him back down. "I'll explain it to you
later."

Iolaus tried to sit up again but a wave of dizziness dropped him
back to the floor without Hercules having to help. He knew he was
fading out, but he still persisted, "When?"

"When you're conscious."

***


Iolaus was dreaming of the crypts under the castle, of being
trapped in those dark echoing passages. He kept finding doors but
they were all filled in with heavy stone blocks. He blundered in
the dark, the air growing hotter and thinner with each breath.
Part of him knew that even airless these chambers deep under the
castle would be cold; he knew he was confusing Dacia and Sumeria,
but knowing it didn't help.

He woke, flailing wildly. "Hey, hey. Take it easy, it's over."
Hercules caught his shoulders and pushed him back down onto the
bed.

"Huh?" Iolaus stared at him, then tried to push his hands away
and sit up but Hercules didn't budge. The dream still the most
vivid image in his head, he said in confusion, "But I'm not dead."

"I know," Hercules agreed reassuringly. "I was hoping you'd
notice," he added, like it was a joke he expected Iolaus to get.

"What?" Iolaus stared at him, still reflexively struggling to sit
up.

"Everything's all right," Hercules said, slowly and plainly.

"Oh." Iolaus subsided. They were in the guest chamber up in the
castle's living quarters; Iolaus recognized the awful tapestry and
leering gargoyles. Seeing him calm again, Hercules ruffled his
hair and got up from the bed.

Listening to Hercules move around the room, Iolaus lay there in
the nest of fur blankets, memories of the recent past coming back
in bits and pieces. He still felt dizzy and somewhat distanced
from reality, but the various aches and pains he remembered had
faded. He rubbed his chest where Dracul had skewered him with the
spear shaft. There wasn't even a scar, though his shirt was torn
and bloody. Finally the need for more information overrode the
urge to sink back into sleep. He rolled onto his side and propped
his head on his arm, clearing his throat. "I had some weird dream
that we were down in the crypts. Something about garlic...."

"That was true." Hercules was kneeling at the hearth, feeding
more wood into the fire. "According to Galen, it keeps strygoi
from rising again."

"Oh." Iolaus frowned. The decapitation part he could understand,
but.... "Garlic?"

"I have no idea, but it seemed to do the trick."

Iolaus lay there a moment, trying to force his fuzzy brain to
work. The room was cold despite the fire and the candles left
shadowy corners he couldn't see into. His stomach was complaining
about lack of food, but not seriously enough to worry him. Then
all those things plus the realization that he couldn't sense the
blood running through Hercules' veins suddenly came together. He
sat bolt upright. "I'm human again!"

Hercules glanced over at him, smiling faintly. "Uh huh."

Iolaus swore and flopped back on the pillows, overcome by relief.

Hercules nodded agreement. "That's what I said." He tossed the
last log in and dusted off his hands. "It took a while for you to
turn back. The others all recovered much more quickly. Galen
thought it might have been because you used up most of your
strength healing yourself right before Dracul died but," Hercules
smiled wryly, getting to his feet, "I told him you always have to
do things the hard way."

"Funny," Iolaus muttered. He gingerly felt his teeth, then flexed
his hands, trying to believe it. No claws, and no sign of any
ever being there. He sat up again, pushing his hair out of his
eyes. Hercules was standing at a table, looking at the contents
of a couple of steaming earthenware pots with a critical
expression. Iolaus supposed that was dinner, or maybe breakfast.
Whatever it was, he hoped it didn't have garlic in it. Still
trying to catch up on events, he asked, "So...what about Vlad?"

Hercules eyed him a moment, then came back to sit on the edge of
the bed. He admitted reluctantly, "He apologized and said that
his life is yours."

"He would, the bastard," Iolaus said sourly. After all that, it
was terribly unfair of Vlad to head off Iolaus' just desire for
vengeance by apologizing. _Typical._ He drew his knees up and
propped his folded arms on them. "I'm glad Vlad wants to kiss and
make up, but I think this is going to affect our future
relationship." He peered suspiciously at Hercules, who was
staring off at the ugly tapestry with a somber preoccupied
expression. Something was wrong. Iolaus could tell. He couldn't
think what it was; Hercules wouldn't have any reason to be
depressed about what had happened. Some moments had looked pretty
dark, but Dracul had been evil to the bone and killing him was a
service the Dacians would be thankful for for generations. _Not
to mention saving Vlad, damn him anyway, and Galen and Vela and
all the others._ "What's wrong with you?"

Hercules hesitated, then shook his head in agitation and said,
"You told me to kill you because you didn't trust me to get you
out of this."

Iolaus stared at him. "What?"

"You heard me."

Exasperated, Iolaus flung his arms in the air. "I told you to
kill me because I didn't want somebody using me against you --
again! It didn't have anything to do with not trusting you."

"Well, that's how I took it," Hercules said with some asperity,
but Iolaus could tell he was more relieved than annoyed at the
indignant denial.

"All right, fine. I swear never to ask you to kill me again."

Hercules stared at the ceiling as if asking it for patience.
"Fine."

"Okay." With the initial burst of defensiveness out of the way,
Iolaus shifted uncomfortably. Now that he thought about it, he
could see how Hercules might have taken it the wrong way. He said
simply, "I'm sorry. That's not what it was about."

"I know. I--" Hercules hesitated. Iolaus could see he was
hovering on the edge of an apology. In Persia Iolaus had demanded
Hercules limit his apologies to no more than one per day, and he
was pretty sure the demigod had already used up his quota. He
narrowed his eyes. Hercules gave him a mock glare back, and
finished, "I know."

***



Galen had practically been standing in the courtyard with his pack
in one hand and Vela in the other for the last day and a half, he
was so ready to leave. Hercules couldn't have agreed more
wholeheartedly. The castle felt more normal now; with people
moving about it and the heavy window coverings pulled aside to let
in the daylight, much of the oppressive atmosphere was gone. But
when Iolaus insisted he was completely recovered and ready for the
journey, Hercules was more than ready to see the last of the
place.

Vlad accompanied them down to the entrance hall and the leave-
taking was a little strained on Iolaus' part. Hercules knew
Iolaus would forgive their old friend eventually but it wasn't
going to be overnight and he was glad Vlad seemed to realize that.

The main doors to the big hall were open and dust motes floated on
the bright morning sunlight as Hercules stopped to exchange a last
arm-clasp with Vlad. The refugees had left earlier, equipped with
food and blankets from the fortress' supplies and escorted by a
troop of Dacian cavalry Vlad had sent for. The soldiers would
make certain their villages had not been taken over by bandits in
their owners' absence and report back if more help was needed.

"I don't know how I can thank you, my friends, my comrades," Vlad
said.

He had said this at least three or four times but that was the old
Vlad talking and Hercules was glad to hear it. Iolaus, standing
with his arms folded over his scabbarded sword, just snorted
derisively. "What are you going to do now?" Hercules asked Vlad,
ignoring the editorial comment from his partner.

Vlad gestured around, taking in the whole castle. "I'm going to
abandon this fortress. I will mine the walls so it can't be used
against me and leave it. Too many bad memories." He shook his
head. "The dead can have it."

"Still no sign of Mattias?" Hercules asked, not hopefully. If the
chamberlain who had disappeared in the confusion of Dracul's death
had been found, they surely would have heard.

"None." Vlad spat in disgust. "If that filthy traitor wants to
remain in this cursed place, he shall have his wish. But if I
find him," he added cheerfully, "I'll shall cut off his head and
send it to you."

"You do that," Iolaus grunted.

Leaving Vlad, they joined Vela and an impatiently grumbling Galen
and went outside. Iolaus squinted up at the morning sun and took
a deep breath in relief. The wind was brisk but the sun gleaned
brightly off the drifted snow and the sky was a limitless blue; it
would be a good day for travelling. As they started down the stone
steps to the courtyard, he asked Hercules, "Why do these things
keep happening to us?"

Hercules gave a resigned shrug. It had been a hard couple of days
and the deep philosophical questions were a little beyond him at
the moment. "I don't know. Just another useless experience, I
guess."

Galen snorted. "You two should talk. At least I had a reason to
come here, you guys just walked into it."

"It's our job to walk into it," Hercules told him pointedly.

"Yeah," Iolaus added forcefully. It was a little early in the
morning for him to muster a better comeback than that, but
Hercules was happy with it.

"Yes, Galen." Vela gave her brother a fondly annoyed glance.
"Just shut up."

Galen bridled but grudgingly obeyed. "That's going to make the
trip a little easier," Iolaus commented with a grin, settling his
pack more comfortably on his shoulder.

"Uh huh," Hercules agreed, smiling gratefully at Vela, his mood
already improving. _Iolaus isn't dead or undead or any state
between, we're leaving Dacia, and we have someone with us who can
keep Galen quiet without punching him. Life is good._


end


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