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

Home is the Hunter

by Martha Wilson

"Oh, great. Welcome to my nightmare."
Armageddon Now

Part V

A battered wagon drawn by two somewhat elderly horses drew up in from of Asclepius' temple just as the sun was setting. The temple lay in a clearing in the outskirts of Epidaurus, surrounded by wild gardens of flowering bushes and large shade trees. Vines climbed the yellowed plaster walls and the wide pillared portico and there was a reflecting pool at the base of the steps. There were still a few townspeople coming and going, even this late in the evening.

The wagon was driven by an equally battered old man who reined in the horses and favored the temple with a suspicious glare. The white-robed temple acolytes who were enjoying the evening breeze on the portico could see there was a wounded man lying in the back and another warrior crouching next to him.

One of the acolytes hurried down to the wagon. He looked into the back to see the wounded man lay unconscious on a makeshift stretcher, wrapped in blankets and cushioned from the jolts of the trip by pine boughs. He nodded approval of these sensible arrangements and started to ask, "How is he injured...." The young man paused. The wounded man's face was familiar. Then he realized where he had seen it before. Startled, he stared up at the other warrior who was kneeling in the wagonbed, shouldering a couple of rough leather packs. The man was covered with dried mud and grime, his hair so dirty it was just barely possible to tell it was blond. The bewildered acolyte began, "But this is--"

"Is Asclepius' here?" Iolaus interrupted brusquely, glancing at him.

The man nodded and turned, gesturing urgently toward the other acolytes waiting on the portico.

Iolaus pushed to his feet and leapt down from the wagon bed.   There were too many people, petty bandit chiefs to minor warlords to Kings who might be drawn by news of Hercules injured and helpless, so Iolaus had wanted to keep this as quiet as possible. Fortunately Gelon and Anicles were both laconic and cagey and disinclined to talk to anybody about anything. With their help Iolaus had put together a travois for Hercules and they had used the mule to pull it down the mountain, carrying it over the difficult parts. They had made the journey in much better time than Iolaus would have managed alone. The worrisome part was that he wasn't sure if the pain-killing herbs had worked or not; by the time they had gotten back to the villagers' temporary camp, Hercules wasn't conscious and Iolaus couldn't wake him up.

From there Anicles had commandeered a wagon from a cousin down the valley. Leaving Gelon to take care of the other villagers, Anicles and Iolaus and travelled through the night to get Hercules to Epidaurus.

More acolytes came to carefully lift Hercules' stretcher out of the wagonbed. Iolaus turned back to Anicles, sitting up on the driver's bench. "Thanks for everything," he said, torn between wanting to stay within reach of Hercules and the need to thank the man for all his help.

Anicles nodded and spat into the dirt. "Good luck."

Iolaus waved and hurried up the steps into the temple's cella. Only a few lamps had been lit in the twilight and the flickering shadows revealed fragments of the wall paintings showing Asclepius' daughters and his symbols of pine cones and laurel. Carvings of snakes twined around the central pillars. One hand on his swordhilt to steady it, Iolaus kept his eyes on the stretcher as the acolytes carried it toward the entrance to the temple's inner chambers.  

"Hey--"

Iolaus felt a tingle against his bare arm, felt the poof of displaced air as something insubstantial became substantial. He reacted without conscious thought, shouting wordlessly half in warning to Hercules and half in battle cry as he threw himself into a sideways roll, landing on his feet with his sword drawn.

The figure that had appeared next to him in a flash of godly power reeled back against a column, clutching its heart. "Damn, Iolaus, watch it! I'm not a young man, you know!"

"Asclepius." Iolaus took a deep breath, feeling his own heart pound. "Sorry." He straightened out of his fighter's crouch, sheathing his sword but still watching the new arrival warily. "You're a god now. I didn't know that."

Asclepius straightened his robe and tunic. He had been an old man the first time Iolaus had seen him at the battle of Troy and he was an old man now, with gray white hair that fell past his shoulders and the fine lines of study and strain around his blue eyes.   "Well, wait a week, I'll get demoted again," he snapped.

Iolaus heard Hercules groan and hurried to the stretcher.   The acolytes had set it down on a low plinth near the altar and the demigod was stirring restlessly. Iolaus swore under his breath, realizing Hercules must have heard him yell even through the haze of the pain-killing herbs and was trying to respond.   He took Hercules' hand and knelt by the stretcher, anxiously brushing the hair back from the demigod's forehead.   "Hey, hey, it's all right, it's okay, I'm right here."

Hercules quieted and Asclepius examined him quickly, his brow creased as he looked at the bruising on the demigod's side. "When did this happen?"

"About a day ago."

The crease in the god's brow deepened. "Giants?"

Iolaus shook his head. "Something new. A shapeshifter. At first he seemed all right, then he just kept getting worse."

"Hmm. Bleeding inside.   Anybody else would have the sense to be dead by now." Asclepius straightened up and gestured to the acolytes. "Take him in the back, boys."

***

In the bustle of getting Hercules to one of the inner chambers, a lesser priest tried to send Iolaus away. Iolaus almost couldn't blame him; after days of mud, fighting and travel and no time for personal hygiene, the word "grubby" didn't even begin to cover it. But he still wasn't leaving.

They carried Hercules to a bare high-ceilinged room that would be well lit during the day by a row of window slits all along the upper part of the outer wall. An acolyte hurried around, lighting the bronze lampstands in the corners and then building a fire in the circular hearth. There was no furniture except a stone basin in the floor for water and the low pallet for the demigod.

Iolaus dumped their packs in the corner and pulled his sword off his belt, but didn't set it aside with the rest of their gear. Holding the scabbarded weapon, he planted himself against the wall near the doorway. Priests, priestesses and acolytes came and went, carrying ewers of water and herbs and cloths. The bareness of the room, the lack of any decoration or softness, made his nerves jump, though he knew it was just to make it easier to clean. It looked too much like a place used to prepare corpses for burial.

The priest who wanted Iolaus gone went to speak to Asclepius, who was standing to the side overseeing the bustle of preparations.   The god shrugged and replied, "It's your funeral. If Hercules wakes up crazy, I'm sure as Tartarus not hanging around to deal with him."

But after that Iolaus had to handle the well-meaning temple workers who wanted to send him off for a bath, for a meal, or because they were convinced that under the dirt he had to be wounded somewhere. He dealt with it all as patiently as his jumping nerves would allow and waited and watched and forced himself not to ask questions.

The rest of the temple was quiet, the other supplicants having left for the day or settled down in the dormitories on the opposite side of the building. Iolaus was keeping one eye on the corridor anyway and caught sight of a warrior trying to peer into the room. The tattered leather armor the man wore made him look like a mercenary; he had a neat bandage around his upper arm, which gave him a reason for being at the temple, but not for sneaking around in the back corridors.

Iolaus blocked his way, still casually holding his scabbarded sword. He sauntered forward until the man fell back a step. "You're in the wrong place," Iolaus told him.

The warrior jerked his head toward the room and demanded, "Who's that? Somebody important?"

"It's not your business." Iolaus kept moving, forcing the man to back warily down the hall to stay out of gutting range.

"Maybe I should make it my business," the warrior sneered. When Iolaus failed to be impressed by this he squinted at him and said suspiciously, "I know you."

"Good for you." They were out in the cella now, full of shadows from the flickering torchlight. The sun had set and the night air was cool, the crickets singing outside the open portico of the temple. The sacred snakes were gathered around the candles on the altar for warmth and hissed warningly at the intrusion.

As Iolaus stepped into the light from a hanging lamp the man's eyes widened a little with recognition. "But you're dead."

Iolaus didn't remember the guy but he had seen and fought more mercenaries than he could count. He gave him a feral grin. "Then maybe you better start running now."

The warrior stared at him a moment, then backed another few steps, turned and walked swiftly out of the temple. Why couldn't this happen in Corinth where we've got friends, Iolaus thought grimly, watching to make sure the man left. He turned back, trying to decide if he should send a message to Iphicles and Jason now or wait until Asclepius told him something. It would take three days for a messenger to reach either man and by then.... Iolaus took a sharp breath.

As he reached the chamber again Asclepius was standing in the doorway, shouting down the hall. "Will you morons stop chanting? I'm right here!"

"Asclepius--" Iolaus began.

"That's the problem with being a god; the idiots are chanting to summon me when I'm in the next room." Asclepius waved his arms in frustration and shouted, "Stop the chanting!"

"Asclepius! Is Hercules going to be all right?" Iolaus demanded.

The god finally looked at him. His godly aura wasn't as obvious in the dim candlelight as it had been out in the cella and he looked mortal. "I'm going to have to stop the bleeding."

"If he's bleeding inside, how--" Iolaus stared at him. "You're going to cut him open?"   It was only forbidden to cut up dead bodies, but the idea still made Iolaus a little ill.

"I do it all the time," the god said with a negligent wave as he turned back into the chamber, "Don't worry."

"Don't worry," Iolaus muttered, following. "I've heard that before." A steaming cauldron of water had been added to the hearth and the preparations of the other healers seemed even more frantic. "But you're a god, can't you use magic or something?"

"That's not how it works. And stay back! You're going to pollute the room."

"Fine." Iolaus retreated back to the doorway. "Just help him," he added under his breath.

***

Sometime later Iolaus sat on the cold marble tile, dozing off and on as he waited. Asclepius had said the surgery had come off without a hitch but Hercules still hadn't woken.   The other priests and healers had cleared out, though one or two of them came back at frequent intervals to check on the demigod. Iolaus could tell at least that Hercules didn't seem to have a fever and he told himself the demigod was much less pale, though in the candlelight it was hard to tell.

Iolaus snapped back to full awareness when Asclepius stepped into the room and leaned over him, saying, "Iolaus, listen to me. I've been called to Olympus. To make a long story short I may get killed again."

Iolaus sat up, rubbing his eyes. "Yeah, I know how that goes."

The god hesitated, pressing his lips together. "And.... Well, to tell the truth, there's something..."

Iolaus stared up at him expectantly. Asclepius stared back. Oh, that's right, he's Hercules' cousin. Iolaus sighed. "Just tell me, please?" It was probably why Asclepius had always been such a great healer; he just wanted to avoid giving his patients bad news.

Asclepius scratched his head. "The person who's supposed to protect my temples if I get killed...."

Oh, no. Iolaus sighed in resignation. "Is Hercules. Look, just tell Zeus what happened, that Hercules needs your help."

Asclepius snorted, half in amusement, half in derision. "I'm not going to beg that megalomaniac." The god clapped him on the shoulder. "See you when I get back. Or not."

style='mso-tab-count:1'>           Asclepius strode off briskly, not looking much like somebody who was heading off to a possible death sentence on Olympus. But then, he had never been much like any other god. Or demigod or mortal, for that matter. "Don't be an idiot!" Iolaus called after him angrily.   The god made a rude gesture at him without bothering to look back.

"Great," Iolaus muttered. He climbed to his feet and went to sit next to Hercules' pallet. The demigod seemed far too still, though he was breathing easily enough. The hollows under Hercules' eyes looked bruised. Iolaus told himself there were more good healers in this one building than in the rest of this half of Greece and there was every reason to expect Hercules' own strength to finish his recovery. I hope, he thought.

***

Iolaus didn't remember falling asleep.

He was in the woods on the hills above the farm. It was raining lightly and the clouds had a thunderstorm look, that strange sullen gray that was neither light enough for day nor dark enough for night. The colors of everything seemed muted, but maybe that was the rain. He was standing in the clearing where Hercules had buried him, sheltered by the heavy branches of the trees. There was no marker this time. He circled the spot thoughtfully, scuffed a heel in the mud. The rain was making the recently disturbed dirt sink, telling him something about the right size had been put under the ground recently.

So if that's different.... Iolaus started down the hill through the trees, meaning to try to get a view of the farm.   After only a few steps he found himself standing still, leaning against the trunk of a pine. He had to force his feet to move, staggered another couple of steps and fetched up against the next tree. Hanging on to it, Iolaus bit his lip, studying the problem. It was obvious something wanted to keep him up here, which made it all the more imperative that he keep going.

He forced himself forward, staggering against the invisible pull, dragging himself along from tree to tree until he reached the lower hillside. He collapsed on the edge of a steep slope, breathing hard, sweat trickling down his chest as if he had just climbed a mountain. He couldn't stop here; the trees still blocked his view of the house.

All right, let's do it the hard way. He took a deep breath and launched himself down the slope. He rolled down, crashing through the thorny bushes to land hard at the bottom. He struggled to his feet, wincing at the scratches on his arms, and stared across the field. style='mso-tab-count:1'>     

The farm looked empty and dead under the heavy gray sky.   The terrible force that had tried to keep him away seemed spent and he started toward the buildings unimpeded. The wind rose and fell, stirring the tall grass, but the silence between gusts was weirdly intent, as if little noises that should be there were missing. Up until now Iolaus had just been determined to get here; now he wasn't so sure that was a good idea.

As he got closer he saw the barn doors stood open and there was no flicker of candlelight from inside the house. Some of the shutters on the windows had come open and the curtains blew out into the rain. Something's not right. Iolaus just stood there. He had lost all desire to go into the house. He knew he would see something terrible inside -- terrible but unreal? This has happened before. He backed away.

A faint sound behind him and he spun around. "Hercules?"

Nothing. Just the fields, the winter dead grass, the dark forest clustered forbiddingly on the hills.   He could have sworn he had heard Hercules. I thought he changed his mind and came back for me. Iolaus pressed his lips together, trying to sort the memories from the dream-distorted phantasms. That already happened, he told himself firmly. He couldn't remember exactly when or how, but he knew it had happened.   And he knew there had been something behind him, knew it with the same certainty that he knew.... Well, he wasn't certain he knew anything right now, except for one fact. Angry, he shouted, "You're Dahak, this is just a memory, and I'm not dead!"

He realized a heartbeat later that antagonizing it was probably a bad idea.

The world shifted around him and he was back on the hill, except the sky was dark, rain was pouring down and the wind staggered him.   He sensed something behind him again but as he twisted to look it caught him by the hair. He tried to wrench away but it yanked him off his feet. He clawed at it, kicked furiously, but it dragged him across the clearing, keeping him off balance; it had too good a grip on him, its hand was dug in close to his scalp and he couldn't rip free. It flung him down on his knees, on the edge of an open pit in the mud. He realized it was the spot where his grave had been and tried to scramble away. It hauled him back, wrenching his head up. It snarled, "Is that what you think?"

You and your big mouth, Iolaus thought, the pain making his eyes water. But something told him giving in to it on any point was a mistake. You got yourself into this, he reminded himself. "Yes," he said through gritted teeth.

It shoved him into the pit. He tumbled down what felt like a long distance, landing in thick soupy mud. He flailed, struggling to stay on top but it pulled him under, his last desperate, terrified breath smothered in mud--

"Iolaus?"

"Huh?" Iolaus sat bolt upright, looking around at the quiet chamber, dizzied by the abrupt transition. Air. He took a deep, relieved breath. The candles had guttered in the sconces and the first glow of gray daylight was visible through the window slits. He had fallen asleep at the foot of the pallet, one hand wrapped around his sheathed sword. The scratches and scrapes on his arms, the ache of bruises was disorienting, but they were from leading the shapeshifter down the ravine, not falling through the thorny bushes on the hill. He rubbed his head where Dahak had dragged him by the hair, but the pain was just a remnant of the dream, fading rapidly. So it was a dream. But I would've sworn I heard--

"Iolaus?"

He twisted around to see Hercules shift restlessly. "Herc?" He scrambled up to kneel at the demigod's side. "You're awake?"

"Where are we?" Hercules looked blearily up at him.

"Epidaurus." Nearly dizzy with relief, Iolaus leaned against the pallet, propping himself up on his elbow.  

"That's where I wanted to go." Hercules rested his hand on Iolaus' arm, squeezed gently as if checking to make sure he was really there, and gave him a somewhat dopey smile.

Iolaus grinned back. "Yeah, you always get your way, no matter what you have to do."

"Uh huh." Hercules tried to shift and winced in surprise. "Ow."

"Careful, you're all banged up."

"I remember." He touched his side carefully, his fingers finding the new raw wound under the edge of the blanket. He frowned. "Did I get stabbed?"

"No, that's where Asclepius cut you open. He said you were bleeding inside."

Hercules' brows lifted. "You're kidding." He raised the blanket to study the new wound, neatly stitched up. It looked like a very precise sword cut.   "You're not kidding."

"You should have seen him do it."

The demigod grimaced. "I'll pass."

Iolaus waited until Hercules drifted off to sleep again, then went to find the head priest-healer.

There was a commotion in the cella and Iolaus approached it cautiously. It was Asclepius, returned and receiving relieved greetings from his priests and the other temple workers. Iolaus eyed him a moment, trying to decide what was different. Then he realized the aura of godly power was gone. Asclepius' robes were rough tan cotton now, the hem dusty from walking along the roads. He didn't look any older, but his face was more grizzled and his beard needed to be trimmed. Iolaus waited until the excitement had died down a little then stepped forward to say, "Hercules is awake."

***

Hercules slept on and off throughout the morning. The healers confirmed that the demigod was recovering rapidly, and when Iolaus was sure of this for himself he went to the temple baths and soaked in the hot basin for an hour, enjoying the luxury of being able to clean all his cuts and scrapes and let the heat take the ache out of the bruises. The temple laundry worker confiscated his grimy leathers while he was in the pool but was willing to loan him a shirt and a pair of pants to wear in the meantime. They were a bad fit but by rolling up the sleeves and using his own belt to keep the pants up, he made do.

He checked on Hercules to make sure the demigod was still resting comfortably, then went to find Asclepius.

The ex-god was in a sanctuary toward the back of the temple, sitting on the steps up to the small altar, writing on a tablet. Scrolls and scroll cases lay piled and stacked around him.

Asclepius acknowledged his entrance with a lifted brow but without comment. Iolaus leaned in the doorway for a while, then finally said, "Hercules said you interpret dreams here."

Asclepius nodded. "We do."

"What does that have to do with healing?"

"Sometimes dreams are trying to tell us something we need to know."

"I thought dreams were sent by Morpheus in case the gods wanted to torture us."

Asclepius snorted wryly. "You used to be so sweet-natured when you were a boy, what did Hercules do to you?" He shook his head.   "Most dreams come from your own mind."

Iolaus considered that for a long moment. "What if you already know the thing the dreams are telling you but they keep telling you anyway?"

"Then maybe you don't know as much as you think you do." Asclepius set the scrolls aside and stood. He moved like an old man now too, as if his joints ached. He went to one of the carved chests that stood against the wall, groaning as he leaned down to open it. After some shuffling and clinking of pottery containers, he lifted out a little blue glass vial. "Come here. This is what I give people who need help with dreams."

Iolaus' lip curled. "Morpheus' dream powder? No thanks."

Asclepius shook his head, putting one hand to his back as he straightened up. "If you're going to stay with Hercules, then you're going to have to get over this."

Iolaus stiffened. "Get over what?"

"Come on, Iolaus, it's me. I got two divine powers, healing and teaching. I'm harmless except to the patriarchal status quo up there on Olympus. And you were the one who started this conversation. So come over here."

Iolaus pushed off the wall and reluctantly crossed the room.   "I thought mortals were supposed to fear the gods," he said, just to be difficult.

"Yeah, whatever." Asclepius held up the vial, tilting it so the contents caught the light.   "This isn't Morpheus' dream powder. It doesn't open the dream world, it'll just clarify any dreams you have, let you see what they're really trying to tell you. It's made of crushed beetles and--"

"You drink it in wine, on an empty stomach," Iolaus finished. "I've seen it before."

Asclepius frowned. "Where?"

"Egypt."

"Ah. That explains that." He pointed at the barely visible scar on Iolaus' chest. There was a long moment of silence while Asclepius waited for further explanation and Iolaus refrained from supplying it. Asclepius finally sighed. "So you want to use this or what?"

Iolaus hesitated, then took the vial. "I'll think about it."

***

It was evening and they had moved into one of the temple's guestrooms, which was far less bare and forbidding than the healing room.   It had wall paintings, rugs, a real bed, and windows that looked out on the garden.

Iolaus sat on the fur rug in front of the hearth, cleaning gray shapeshifter goo out of his sword hilt and sharpening the blade. When he had gotten the sword as clean as possible he set it aside and stared at the fire. Well, he asked himself, are you going to do this or not?

He had already taken out the little vial several times during the day to look at it. This time he pulled the cork out and rolled a little of the powder across his palm, seeing the wings and legs of the crushed scarab beetles. It did look like the same stuff Kheper had made for his various spells. The powder caught the firelight and threw back a metallic gleam edged with green and red.  

Hercules was sitting on the bed, poking desultorily at a bowl of very thin gruel. He dropped his spoon back in the bowl with a disgusted grunt. "That's awful."

"That's all people who just got their guts rearranged can eat," Iolaus told him.

The demigod looked hopefully around the room. "What did you have?"

"I didn't have dinner. I was thinking I might try this stuff."

"What?" Hercules gathered the blanket around him and shifted gingerly from the bed to the fur rug. The wound in his side already looked less raw; it would probably be mostly healed by tomorrow. He leaned over to look at the powder on Iolaus' palm and his brows drew together. "Asclepius gave you that?"

Iolaus nodded.

"Well," Hercules said after a moment. "It worked for me."

Iolaus looked at him with a brow lifted and they shared a grin.

Hercules added, "When Kheper had me do it there was a candle too."

Iolaus asked, deadpan, "You had to drink a candle?"

"Uh huh," Hercules agreed. "Tasted terrible."

Iolaus looked at the vial again, turning it so the contents caught the firelight. "Asclepius didn't give me one."

Hercules smiled faintly. "Well, this was Kheper, so who knows what the candle was actually for."

Well, it's not going to get easier. Iolaus took a deep breath and picked up the goblet of wine he had poured earlier. He dumped the vial into it. "Here goes," he muttered. He drained the goblet, then licked the last of the powder residue off his palm. It didn't taste particularly vile but he could feel the sharp edges of the not-too-finely crushed beetle carapaces tickling his throat. "Ack, it's scratchy."

"Better lie down," Hercules advised, watching him thoughtfully. "It works fas--"

***

Iolaus walked along a road, empty and silent, that curved away into nothingness across a limitless, barren desert plain. It was night but there was no darkness. Light came from everywhere and nowhere and there were stars and a yellow crescent moon that hung strangely large in the sky, its horns pointing upward. In the distance cliffs soared to an impossible height.

There was suddenly something on the road, about twenty paces ahead.

Iolaus froze, staring. It looked like a human boy, maybe about fifteen or a little older. He waited for it to change into something horrible, but it didn't. He advanced cautiously, stopping a short distance away. He had been dodging demons so long it took him a long moment to remember what to do when you actually wanted to catch something's attention.   "Hello?" he said tentatively.

The boy flinched, he hadn't heard him approach. He stared at Iolaus then said, "Hello."

They stood there in silence a moment. Iolaus couldn't believe he was looking at another human.   Or at least at something that had been human. He still wouldn't have been surprised to see it turn into a demon.   The boy's hair was clipped close to the scalp, as if to fit comfortably under a helmet, and his skin had the dark tone of a desert country.  Sumeria, Iolaus thought warily, but somehow he didn't think so. His clothes were unfamiliar too, a white kilt with a short saffron robe over it. The boy finally said, "I'm not used to being alone."

"Me neither," Iolaus agreed. He was surprised he remembered how to talk. Having a conversation seemed like an esoteric skill, something he had heard about once but never done himself. The other person talks and you answer, he thought. That seemed simple enough.

The boy looked around at the vast night, and said worriedly, "I don't think I'm supposed to be here."

It really is a kid, Iolaus thought, still not quite daring to move closer. "What happened to you?" It must have been a mistake; the boy didn't look like the type to end up here. Oh, be honest. You don't care if he killed his whole family with a sickle, as long as he'll talk to you.    

The boy looked thoughtful, as if trying to remember. He said slowly, "I was in the garden near my rooms, and someone hit me from behind. It must have been Wahankh. He said he wanted to speak to me in private, and he was the only one standing behind me."

"You were murdered? That's terrible." At least I don't have to tell him he's dead, Iolaus thought in relief.

The boy felt the back of his head experimentally. "The wounds go away?"

"Yeah. Mine's not there either."

"How did you get here? Did you die in battle?" He added wistfully, "I never got to be in a battle."

"It's not as much fun as it looks," Iolaus told him, trying to pretend he hadn't heard the first question. He stiffened suddenly. In the dark/light air just off the road, something shadowy was solidifying.   "Look out," he snapped, stepping up to the boy's side.

The boy looked and hissed, "A demon!"

Whatever it was, it was big and had lots of teeth and claws.   It lunged for them and Iolaus pushed the kid out of the way. He dived away from a swipe, scooping up a rock as he rolled to his feet. "Duck!" he yelled and the boy hit the ground. Iolaus darted forward to make sure the creature focused on him, and when it lunged for him he slung the rock, hitting it straight in the chest. It wasn't a persistent demon; the ones that travelled alone seldom were, and after a few more rocks the thing finally moved away, growling in disappointment.

"That was great," the kid said enthusiastically as he stood up from the drift where he had taken cover.

"I've had a lot of practice," Iolaus admitted, looking at the slash on his arm. It hurt but didn't bleed and he knew it would go away in a little while. He had gotten badly mauled several times early on, but he had gotten the hang of fighting the things now.

"You look strange to me." The boy reached over and curiously touched Iolaus' hair, flicking one of the blond curls. "I think Amen-Re must have sent you to watch over me while I'm here."

I wish, Iolaus thought glumly. Being here for a good reason would make all the difference. "I don't think so. I've never heard of Amen-Re. Is he a king or something?"

"He's a god." The kid flung his arms in the preternaturally still air. "The greatest of all gods."

"I don't do too well with gods." Time to change the subject. "Come on, if we stay still too long more of those things will show up." Iolaus looked around, getting his bearings. The landscape had done one of its periodic shifts, but he had figured out that it always shifted in the same ways. He saw the fork in the road ahead and nodded to himself, reoriented now. "We need to go to the right."

The boy pointed down the other path. "What's down there?"

Iolaus shrugged. "Nothing good. Just a big fiery pit with even bigger monsters on the other side."

"How do you know?"

"I went down there."

The boy blinked. "Oh."

As they walked Iolaus felt his brain start to work again.   He felt more alive right now than he had felt in...however long. If there were other people here, and it was only a matter of being persistent enough to find them....

The boy paused, looking up at the sky. "Did you hear something?"

Iolaus listened for a moment. "No." Still, he pivoted slowly, looking for movement. The worst monsters usually hung off the path, or waited at deadends for you to come to them, though the roving ones weren't any fun to deal with either. As he scanned the horizon, he saw another one of those pointed pillars, carved with the unreadable picture writing. "Hey, we should go over to that thing and see if you can read the--"   He looked around. The boy was gone.

Iolaus spun around, his first fear that something terrible had crept up on them and snatched the boy in his instant of inattention.   But there was nothing. He looked down. The boy hadn't left footprints, but then neither had Iolaus, so that told him nothing. I imagined it. No, that didn't make any sense. If he was going to imagine someone, it would be someone he knew. Not a stranger, not a kid from somewhere that had a god he had never heard of before. I would have imagined.... No, don't even think that.

It was a trick. He rubbed his eyes, planted his hands on his hips and shook his head, trying to swallow past the lump in his throat. None of the monsters had gotten him, and he hadn't gone crazy from the isolation, at least not so that he could tell. So just in case he was having too good a time here, they sent him somebody to talk to and then snatched it away. Well, it worked. The desolation was sinking in again, overwhelming him.

After a time he started walking again toward the pillar, because there was nothing else to do. Maybe it hadn't been a trick. Maybe that god, whatever its name was, that the kid thought would protect him had come for him, taken him out of here back to where he was supposed to be.

Too bad nobody was looking for him.

***

Warmth. Real warmth, and the flicker of firelight playing across his face. Sensation returned slowly. Iolaus lay on his side, his head supported on Hercules' thigh, and the demigod was rubbing the back of his neck. Iolaus took a sharp breath.

He leaned back to look up at Hercules, felt moisture trickle down the side of his face into his ears. He lifted a hand to his cheek and realized it was tears. He sat up, wavering a little, and Hercules' hands on his shoulders steadied him. He quickly wiped his face with the heel of his hand.

"You okay?" Hercules asked worriedly.

"Yeah." Iolaus blinked, looking around, the reality of the room sinking in gradually. The crickets sang loudly outside the window and the evening breeze was cool and sweet. It felt as if he had been out for hours, but the fire and the candles hadn't burned down much at all. "Did the Pharaoh say anything about what happened to him on the Paths of the Dead?"

Hercules looked startled, but said, "He didn't remember it. The last thing he remembered was--"

"Wahankh asking to speak to him in private," Iolaus finished.

"Yes. Did you see that?"

"I saw him on the Paths."

"That's where you were this time?" When Iolaus nodded the demigod said cautiously, "It didn't seem too...traumatic."

"Yeah, well...It wasn't. Well, it's not now." Iolaus shook his head. "When I was there, I thought it was like Tartarus, that it was a punishment, and I must have done something...really horrible to end up there."

Hercules frowned worriedly. "You didn't say anything about that before."

"I'm not sure I remembered it." Iolaus rubbed his face, then looked up. One of the first things he had learned when he had come back to life in Egypt was that the Paths of the Dead where he had ended up were only meant to be travelled with a map and a set of protective spells conveyed by the Book of the Dead. But part of him hadn't been entirely convinced. "Knowing that it wasn't a punishment, that that's just the way it is for everybody, makes a big difference."

Hercules nodded slowly, understanding. "It wasn't personal. It was just a series of obstacles that had to be overcome," he said.

"Yeah. And if somehow I ended up back there.... I know the way through, now." He looked at the fire for a long moment. Maybe the dream really had been trying to tell him something he needed to know.   It was suddenly easier to think about all this, to say the words without them sticking in his throat. He looked at Hercules, who was still watching him soberly. Iolaus swallowed, his throat still scratchy from the powder, and said, "It's hard to explain, but I've been having trouble...off and on...believing this was real."

"Believing...." Hercules frowned, puzzled. "You mean the trip to Cenchreae?"

"No, I mean everything. Since Egypt. Since I woke up alive." Hercules was staring at him like he had grown another head. Iolaus rolled his eyes. "See, that's how I thought you'd react."

"Sorry, I...." Hercules shook his head, still thrown by the revelation. "But what...."

Iolaus gestured impatiently. "It's not like I thought about it all the time or that I even thought about it consciously, but it was just kind of there, in the back of my head." He tried to explain, "In Egypt it wasn't really the dreams that were keeping me awake.... It was that I was afraid that when I woke up, things would be different. This--" he gestured around at the room "--wouldn't be here. And then there were things that happened...like my bad shoulder isn't bad anymore." Iolaus worked his arm to demonstrate. "All that wet weather and it didn't hurt a bit."

Hercules said patiently, "Well, when Kheper recreated your body, you still had the knife in your chest. He did something to heal that and maybe it healed your old wounds too."

"Yeah, there's a reasonable explanation for everything, that was part of the problem."

Hercules thought about it for a moment, his brow still creased in consternation. "How would it have been possible? Did you think you were dreaming? That you were still trapped?"

"No, I knew Dahak was gone and I knew the Paths of the Dead were real -- you can't make a mistake about that. They're inside and outside your head at the same time, there's no room for you to hallucinate. But I got to the end, to that place Kheper said was the Hall of Two Truths.   I figured out that was where I was supposed to leave, but for a long time they couldn't let me out. So maybe what really happened was that I never got out at all, maybe this was just some strange god's idea of mercy, of letting whatever was left of me exist in this ideal dreamworld so I wouldn't notice that I was just fading into oblivion--"

Hercules looked badly disturbed. "Iolaus...."

Iolaus continued in a rush, afraid if he stopped he wouldn't be able to go on, "In Egypt it was easy to ignore it, to pretend that I knew everything was all right, but once we got back here.... Everything was so good. Too good. Too much like what I would have wanted to happen, like something I would have made up. When I went looking for my grave that afternoon, I think I was really looking for a discrepancy, something that would tell me if this wasn't real. I didn't find it, but then things started to happen that seemed to...play into some of the things that Dahak had showed me or threatened me with."

"What things?"

"Like when I remembered you talking to the Sumerian Death God. Dahak showed me that. And...." He took a deep breath and plunged in, "You and the other Iolaus. I didn't remember that until after we left the farm." He had insisted to himself, to Jason, that it wasn't about this. But maybe it was time to admit it was. Even if Hercules wasn't an immortal, the chances were good he would live longer than Iolaus, or at the very least have a longer career as a warrior.   Iolaus had always expected the demigod would have to find another partner eventually, but somehow he had imagined it would be some hotshot young hero that Hercules could pass all their accumulated experience on to, not.... Not someone who wasn't a warrior, who would always be looked at as a replacement for himself. He took a sharp breath. He had to get this out. If he didn't, it was a victory for Dahak. "And....   I was just worried that that was...what you wanted."

Hercules stared. "What do you mean?"

"You know." Iolaus shrugged helplessly. He looked away. "Somebody who wouldn't take risks, who wouldn't argue with you, who wouldn't get in your way...."

"In my way?" Hercules repeated. "As in saving my life in my way?"

"Well...." Iolaus said, thinking, Well, when he puts it that way it doesn't make that much sense.

"Iolaus--" Hercules gestured helplessly, shaking his head. "I worry when you take risks, I've always worried about it, but that doesn't mean I don't want you to-- Ow."

He looked at Hercules worriedly. "You okay?"

"Fine." Hercules shifted impatiently, pressing a hand to his injured side. "I thought after you lost your memory in Nemea you understood."  

"Yeah, but I thought...you changed your mind. I don't know..."

"Why would I change my mind?" Hercules demanded.

Iolaus took a sharp breath. "Because you thought I betrayed you."

Hercules waited until he looked up, then said with complete conviction, "I never thought that. Not even for a heartbeat. I told you that before, in Egypt. You don't remember it because you weren't all there yet, but--" He shook his head slightly. "Iolaus, I need your help, I can't do this alone. Nobody could do this alone. You know that, don't you?"

Iolaus hesitated, watching the shadow patterns on the rug.      "You weren't alone."

"In every way that counts I was," Hercules said with quiet emphasis.

They sat there for a time, just watching the fire. Finally Hercules said, "He never wanted people to mistake him for you. He wants his own life. Now that you're back, I think he might be able to have that."

Iolaus lifted a brow skeptically. "You don't think people will confuse us?"

"With you alive, it won't matter so much," Hercules said. He shrugged.   "Besides, you're not identical."

"Well, he cut his hair."

"And you're taller."

Iolaus stared at him, eyes narrowing dangerously.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Hercules protested. "I'm serious.   Stand up."

His expression grim, Iolaus stood up, folding his arms.  

Hercules eyed him a moment, evidently deciding to drop the subject. "Ah...you've got different scars. Except the one I gave you."

Iolaus sat down again, touching the scar above his right brow. Years ago when they were still at the Academy and Jason was Crown Prince of Corinth, they had been playing bagball in the throne room and Hercules had tackled him too enthusiastically, ramming his head into the corner of a pillar. It had knocked a chunk of stone out of the pillar and Iolaus had spent the next three days in a dream-like haze. "That was an accident."

"I almost killed you."

"All I remember is I got to stay in one of the best rooms in the palace and everybody was nice to me. And you made up that incredibly stupid story about my father coming to see me while I was unconscious and having to leave before I woke up because war broke out in Sparta."

"You didn't believe that?" Hercules managed to sound mostly sincere, though his lips twitched.

"Of course not." Iolaus thought about how utterly earnest Hercules had been at that age, and shook his head. "Do you think it's true, that we could have turned out like them, like the Sovereign and Iolaus, if just a few things had been different?"

Hercules snorted. "No."

Iolaus' brows lifted. "Gee, O Oracle, that was an easy answer."

"It's an easy question." At Iolaus' expression, he protested, "I'm serious. They were the products of their world. The Zeus there was mad and for that to happen their world must have been...messed up when it was created. They never had a real chance."

Iolaus blew out a breath. "Maybe you're right."

"I know I'm right," Hercules grumbled.

Iolaus rolled his eyes and started to climb to his feet.   "I'm starved, I'm going to look for something to eat."

"Bring something back for me."

"No," Iolaus said as he stepped past him. "You had yours."

"You're kidding, right?" Hercules shifted awkwardly around to call after him. "Iolaus?"

***

"Does this surprise us?"
"Not really."
The Wedding of Alcmene

Epilogue

After two more days of enforced inactivity Hercules was more than ready to leave and Asclepius was more than ready to get rid of him.   Iolaus was less easy to convince but once he was sure Hercules was healing as rapidly as usual, he agreed that they could leave.

They took it slow on the way back to Corinth, stopping early in the evening to hunt or fish for dinner, or in the late afternoon when they came across a pleasant spot to swim. They lay out in the grass at night counting stars and Hercules even let Iolaus sleep late in the morning. On the afternoon of the fourth day they reached the village near the farm and decided to stop for lunch.

It was a market day and the place was unexpectedly crowded. Stalls were packed into the square, with people haggling and gossiping and exuberant children and dogs running everywhere. Greeting old friends and acquaintances took some time but eventually they were able to settle down at one of the tables outside the little tavern.

After a while Iolaus poked through the olive pits left over from their meal and said thoughtfully, "Well, there's one more thing I want to know."

Hercules smiled faintly. "Only one?"

"Where's Perseus?" Iolaus propped his chin on his hand.   "So he didn't have a chance to go after Autolycus before because he was flitting around Cenchreae looking for the shapeshifter, but since then...."

A sudden commotion in the crowd attracted his attention and he trailed off. Frowning, Hercules turned to look just as someone shrieked on the other side of the street and a basket of goosenberries went flying.   He and Iolaus exchanged a bemused look and both started to stand.

Suddenly Autolycus appeared, bobbing and weaving through the crowd. He dodged through into a clear spot, looking around wildly.

Oh, great, Hercules thought. The last thing he wanted right now was another go-round with Autolycus over whatever the thief had stolen this time. "Duck," he muttered to Iolaus, pushing his bench back with the intention of diving under the table.

But Autolycus spotted them before they could take cover. Instead of launching into a "catch me if you can" speech, he shouted triumphantly, "Aha!" and plunged toward them, thrusting a hand into his tunic.

Having no idea what he was about to produce, Iolaus almost reeled off the bench trying to get away. But Autolycus only pulled out a sandal and shoved it at him, saying urgently, "Take this!"

Too startled to resist, Iolaus accepted the sandal.   Autolycus did a diving roll across their table, scattering plates and cups. He bolted across the open-air tavern as other patrons leapt out of the way, then vanished under the awning that sheltered the kitchen area.

"What the...." Iolaus muttered, looking down at the sandal. Clashing, clanging, and dismayed shouts rang out as Autolycus completed his escape through the back way.

Hercules leaned forward to look at it, puzzled. "Well, at least he didn't have the Shield of Invisibility anymore...."

He trailed off as he realized there were two little wings with white gold-tipped feathers attached to the dyed leather sole, flapping frantically. Iolaus lifted a brow. "You were saying?"

The disturbed market crowd parted again suddenly and Perseus stood in the clearing, glaring around thunderously. He wore a new-looking pristine white tunic and cloak with a gold fillet resting on his perfectly trimmed blond locks. The Shield of Invisibility was slung over his back but he was only wearing one winged sandal.

Iolaus hastily shoved the flapping sandal into his vest out of sight. He looked at Hercules, eyes alight with mischief.

Hercules nodded, smiling slowly. "Let's go see Jason," he said.

end

Some evil shapeshifting visitors from other worlds were severely injured in the writing of this story but the SPCAO (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animorphic Objects) was present to ensure that no harm came to any winged footwear.

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