Closest to Your Heart
By EuphoniusDisclaimer: With the exception of original characters created by the author, all characters belong to Universal Studios, MCA, or Pacific Renaissance Productions. Yes, I'm using them without permission, but I'm writing this for love, not for money, so I trust no one will get uptight about it.
I am the darkness that you hold closest to your heart.
I was at Erytheia's house when the message arrived, brought by a grizzled old sailor. Ever since Iolaus had left town after his all too brief reunion with his mother, she and I had become friends. Erytheia had asked me over for lunch that day, as she often did when I wasn't off travelling, and she was bustling around at the stove.
Women like me, even though I'm not much attracted to them. I'm a good listener, and I always take their words very seriously, something most men haven't realized they need to do. Besides, Erytheia and I share a common interest: her son.
Anyway, my mouth was already watering in anticipation of one of her excellent meals when a knock came at the door.
"I'll get it," I offered.
"No, that's all right, Euphonius. Stay where you are."
She opened the door and took the scroll, absently thanking the bearer. All the color drained from her face as she read it. I thought she was going to faint, so I put an arm around her waist and led her to a chair
"What is it? What's wrong?"
"Iolaus," she said, as the tears started running down her cheeks.
I took up the parchment that had fallen from her limp fingers. It told me only what I had already guessed from Erytheia's reaction: Iolaus was dead. He died a hero, the letter said, sacrificing his life to save the Queen of Sumeria, who was the author of the message. He died in Hercules' arms, and was interred with great ceremony and honor. She wrote also of her love for him, this Queen.
In future years, I would hear all the details of Iolaus' death, embroidered, elaborated, exaggerated, and eulogized upon by many different bards. But none of that would hurt nearly so much as holding his mother in my arms while she cried, and cursed the Gods, who had taken her son from her just as she had been getting to know him once again.
For her sake, I choked back my own sorrow over the man I had known for so short a time, but had found myself caring for so deeply, ever since that night he had shared my bed, while Hercules was away being a god on Mount Olympus. She knew about that, because I had told her after we had become friends. But Erytheia was his mother, and her grief took precedence over mine.
When Pandion came back from the village, I turned her over to him, leaving them to console each other, as it should be. I was, after all, just a friend of the family.
In a daze, I walked through the little village of Lydicea and down the road to my house just beyond the other side of the town, getting as far as the trees at the edge of my property before I broke down. By the time I got home, my hands were raw from pounding out my anger on the rough tree bark and I had no more curses to choke out to the uncaring universe. My housekeeper took one look at me and set her small daughter to heating water, in order to clean my hands and brew a calming tea. I couldn't even tell her what was wrong until several hours later.
I had originally planned to start out on a trip to Athens the next day, hoping to find a deal on some jewelry. I'm a merchant, but I only trade in quality merchandise. That way I don't have to work too hard at it, since one decent sale can keep me in dinars for months. But for that sort of thing to work, one has to know one's gems and precious metals, not to mention have connections to people with enough wealth to want to buy what I have to offer. It had taken me the biggest part of my 45 years to acquire the knowledge and the contacts, but I'd done it. I'm reasonably well off. Now, I go to the various markets and bazaars, travelling inconspicuously and modestly and trusting my instincts to tell me when that rare piece of truly valuable jewelry shows up in the unsuspecting hands of someone who has no idea of its worth.
This being the case, I spend a lot of time away from my home in Lydicea, leaving it in the care of Ysabel, the housekeeper I just mentioned, a middle-aged widow whose husband died in the Trojan War.
Under normal circumstances, I enjoy my itinerant lifestyle and would have been more than ready to hit the road once again. Now, however, the news of Iolaus' death sent me into a funk. I moped around the house, unable to work up any real interest in anything. I tried to tell myself this was stupid. I barely knew the man. Yes, he had helped me deal with the death of my father, when Apollo came to town and started tossing fireballs around. And, yes, as I've mentioned, we had spent one night together, when he'd thought he'd lost Hercules to Olympus. But that was it. There was no logical reason why his death should hurt me so badly. It made no sense, and yet, the weeks went by, and my apathy only grew worse.
Before Iolaus died, I had been able to imagine our paths might cross again. Before, I had been able to listen to the travelling bards tell of Hercules' exploits, always with my heart and mind focussed on the actions of his little blonde sidekick, although most of the audiences didn't even seem to care what happened to the brave mortal warrior, who stood faithfully in the shadow of the famous half-god hero. Before, I had been able to picture that bright smile and heroic heart, happy with the companion and lover he had chosen. Shit, before I had even been able to picture the two of them together, bodies interlaced and entwined as they sought pleasure in each other. I try not to give in to jealousy. I knew I could never take him away from Hercules. But there were times I thought I'd give my soul if I could.
And yet, the honest truth still remained that I barely knew the man, so why did his death hit me so hard?
I had no answers. The weeks went by, and I was at home. Ysabel worried and fussed over me, to no avail.
It almost seemed the countryside shared my grief, as a fierce drought swept the land, bringing the threat of famine in its wake. Everyone was on edge and anxious, wondering what was happening. The Gods turned deaf ears to the desperate pleas of their followers. No answers came from Olympus. It was even rumored that they had fled Greece.
The night I dreamed about Iolaus, it didn't surprise me all that much. I'd dreamed about my father fairly often in the months after his death and some of those dreams had been so real that it was frightening, even when the dreams themselves had been essentially happy ones.
That's why I wasn't particularly surprised to find Iolaus leaning over me, kissing his way down my chest towards my groin. (To be perfectly honest, I'd had that sort of dream a number of times even before he had died. You know how it is.)
His mouth closed over my already hard cock and I was loving every minute of it, until it dawned on me that something wasn't quite right here.
"Uh - Iolaus -- you're dead," I said flatly, reacting much as I usually did to the dream images of my father. That realization was generally enough to wake me up, but it didn't work this time.
His mouth left my straining cock, to be replaced immediately by his fingers.
"Yeah," he replied agreeably. "So what?"
"Uh -- so we shouldn't be doing this?" I suggested, taken aback by his casual attitude.
"You're enjoying it, aren't you?"
That was an incredible understatement for what I was feeling. It was all I could do to keep talking as my body squirmed under his expert touch.
"But this is only a dream," I tried to point out reasonably.
"And I suppose you've never had a wet dream before?" he asked, with a smile that was somehow twice as seductive as I remembered it to be. "About me?"
I'd have been lying through my teeth if I'd denied that.
His golden head ducked down once more towards my groin, but an uneasiness came sneaking into my mind, outweighing even the glorious sensation of his tongue licking my cock. This whole thing was starting to seem all too real for me.
"There's something wrong here," I objected, although not very forcefully.
"Euphonius," he asked archly, "do you really want me to stop what I'm doing?"
He stopped, propped his head up on one hand, and just lay there looking at me. I was too far gone to leave it at that, and he knew it.
"Uh - I mean, no."
"I didn't think so."
His mouth returned to where it had been, only this time he went down on me with a vengeance, taking my cock entirely into his mouth and sucking hard, even as he stuck one finger up my ass.
"Oh gods!" I gasped, as I came.
I was still trying to catch my breath when he moved to lie on top of me. Looking down at my face, he smiled and kissed me very gently. I felt his erection pressed against my groin.
"Want me to keep going?" he asked, sounding very confident of the answer.
By now my mind was clearer. "No." I took hold of his shoulders and pushed him far enough away that I could focus my eyes on him. "What's going on?"
A quick flash of annoyance crossed his face, gone almost before I was sure I had seen it.
"Nothing's going on," he replied. "Isn't it enough that I'm here? One of the advantages of being dead is that I can hear it when someone thinks about me, and you've been thinking about me a lot, haven't you?"
"You know that?"
"I know more than that." The seductive grin was back. One finger traced delicately over my lips as he went on. "You'd like to take me away from Hercules, wouldn't you? Well, here's your chance."
I shook my head. "Somehow, I don't believe that."
The grin slipped a notch, and his eyes turned solid black.
"Are you refusing me, Euphonius?"
There was a tone in his voice that I'd never heard before. This was becoming very strange.
"No," I replied. "I could never do that. Dead or alive or anything in between, I want you."
That seemed to satisfy him. The darkness left his eyes.
"But I need to know what's going on," I persisted. "Why are you here? What do you want?"
He kissed me, fast and hard enough that my lip split against his teeth. Then he leaned back and looked down at me.
"All in good time, my friend. All in good time. Let's just say, you haven't seen the last of me yet. Come to Corinth. You'll find me there."
An instant later, he was gone and I was alone in my bed. I sat up in shock, staring around in the dim light of the gibbous moon that hung just outside my window. The whole thing couldn't have happened. I had been asleep, that was all.
My lip hurt. When I touched it, there was blood running down my chin. That's when it occurred to me that, if this had been nothing more than another wet dream, why wasn't the lower part of me - uh -- wet?
Do I really need to tell you that I started out for Corinth the following morning?
I had no idea of what I was going to find, but it surpassed all my hopes and imaginings. Almost as if something were guiding my steps, I was drawn to a small temple. I don't even recall to which god it was dedicated. Or should I say, had been dedicated? It was obviously under new management now.
I went inside, still somewhat puzzled as to what I was doing there. I almost fainted dead away from shock when I heard Iolaus' voice and caught sight of him standing in front of a group of people, exhorting them about something. I didn't even notice what he was saying, so caught up was I in simply staring at him. (Not that it mattered what he said. All that mattered was that he was standing there saying it.)
He looked gorgeous, in a white floor-length robe with wide sleeves. The stole around his neck was decorated with red, white, and gold sunburst patterns and he wore heavy gold bracelets on his wrists. On top of all that, his hair was combed back more neatly than I was accustomed to seeing it and seemed a bit shorter and less wild.
My mouth was probably still hanging open in surprise as I worked my way into the small crowd listening to him. I had to find out more about this. The young woman next to me was staring up at him with a rapt expression on her face, so I figured she might make a good informant.
Leaning close to her, I asked in a whisper, "Excuse me, but can you tell me what's going on here?"
"This is Iolaus, the God of Light," she replied, voice as rapt as her face. "He's come to offer us salvation."
"Iolaus? The one who was Hercules' friend?"
"Yes. Hercules went crazy while they were in Sumeria," she told me, eyes still fixed on her saviour, as if reciting a familiar formula. "When he vowed to destroy the Olympian Gods, Iolaus ate ambrosia in order to become a god himself. Now he has returned, to save Greece from the insane son of Zeus."
That didn't quite jibe with what I knew, but I kept quiet, only nodding sagely at the information.
The God of Light concluded his sermon by asking his followers if they accepted him. Without fully realizing I was doing it, I responded with the others, "Now and forever!"
He smiled benevolently, then walked down among the people, who reached out to him, ecstatically happy if he deigned to touch or take notice of one of them. I watched from off to the side. I was still standing there leaning against a column when he dismissed his followers and they went off about their business.
He looked at me, then walked over, his face glowing with apparent delight. The eyes I remembered as blue were solid black, which somehow served to make him look more devastatingly desirable than usual.
"You came," was all he said.
I barely had the presence of mind to reply, "Was there ever any doubt?"
"No, not really." He laughed and draped an arm around my shoulders, leading me out of the main part of the temple, down a short hallway, and into a small, well-appointed room. I wasn't really surprised when he pulled me into an embrace and kissed me hard on the mouth. I guess I didn't respond as enthusiastically as he expected, because he broke off abruptly, held me at arm's length, and studied me with a funny look on his face.
"Okay, what is it? What's wrong?" he finally asked.
"Iolaus, I - uh - I know what really happened in Sumeria. I read the letter."
"What letter?" he asked guardedly.
"The letter Queen Nebula sent to your mother. I was there when it arrived."
"I see. That explains how you knew I was dead, before it became general knowledge." His voice turned strange, and scarlet fire glowed behind the blackness of his eyes. "And what exactly is it that you think you know about Sumeria?"
"I know you died saving the queen's life, and were embalmed and interred according to the local customs. You didn't just eat ambrosia and become a god, the way you told these people."
He considered that for a while, still studying me with a speculative look on his face. Then the fire in his eyes faded away and he grinned.
"You're right. It didn't happen that way at all."
That really wasn't the sort of answer I'd expected. Before I even realized it, I blurted out, "So why have you lied about it?"
He shook his head, still smiling.
"Euphonius, there's something you've got to understand about religion," he said in a confidential tone. "There's the official dogma, the pretty story that gets told to the masses because that's all they're capable of understanding. Then there are the real truths, the secrets that are revealed only to true disciples, believers who are able to see beyond the surface, people I can trust." Still smiling, he drew me down next to him on a brocade-covered couch. "People such as yourself."
Okay, he had me now. I'd have believed him if he'd told me the world was round, instead of flat. What he actually said was nowhere near as preposterous as that.
"Yes, I died saving Nebula's life. But Hercules did go mad and vow to destroy the Gods. After all, why else would they have deserted Greece, as they have, if not in fear of his return? And he will return, make no mistake about it."
I didn't much like that idea. Iolaus had loved Hercules. What might happen if the demi-god were back in the picture? Would Iolaus go back to him, mad or not? Or draw him into his following as a favorite?
I don't know if my face reflected my feelings or whether Iolaus was able to pick up on them some other way, but he raised an eyebrow questioningly as he looked at me. His grip on my shoulder tightened and he pulled my lips against his for another kiss that left me almost literally drooling for more. Then he laughed briefly.
"Trust me," he said, one hand holding either side of my head as he looked into my eyes. "You don't have to worry about the bastard son of Zeus."
"So why aren't you dead?" I was determined to have an answer, even if it meant that he'd stomp out of the room in a fury right then and there.
"You really want to know?"
He leaned forward, as if to kiss me again.
"Yes," I said, before he could follow through on his obvious intentions.
With a theatrically-exasperated sigh, he trailed one hand around the side of my neck and began unfastening the neck of my shirt. "Okay, I died," he murmured softly. "But Zeus offered me the chance to come back, if I promised to stop his son from carrying out his insane crusade against the Gods."
"Why didn't you just tell us that? It sounds perfectly reasonable to me."
He shook his head. "Too complicated. The common folk might feel a little edgy about someone rising from the dead and all. Better to give them something simpler to believe. Besides, how does it look if Zeus charges me with stopping Hercules, then he and all the other Gods just take a hike? Doesn't seem as if he has all that much confidence in me, does it?"
I couldn't disagree with that. My shirt was open to the waist now.
"But you believe me, don't you?" he asked, his fingers tracing an incandescent path down the center of my chest.
"Oh, yes," I replied, trying hard to breathe.
"And you won't doubt me anymore, will you?"
His fingers had found my groin, and closed softly around my quivering penis and tight scrotum.
"No," I barely managed to gasp. "Oh, no."
"Good," he said, as he turned my world into blazing ecstasy. "I knew you were mine."
Oh, yes. I was his, body and soul, from that day on. As his following grew among the people of Corinth and the surrounding countryside, I was right there by his side.
I had no shame. I followed him around like a puppy dog, hoping he'd throw me a bone. And he did, from time to time. I knew perfectly well that I wasn't the only one of his disciples whose bed he frequented, but that didn't matter. As long as I was one of those chosen to be rewarded with his presence, it was fine with me. Sometimes it involved more than one of us at a time. I didn't care. I did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, with whomever he wanted, male or female.
I was one of the inner circle, helping him plan, coming up with catchy phrases for his sermons, and supplying money when he asked for it. It was the happiest time of my life, and it didn't last long enough.
Okay, about now you're probably going to ask me how I could have been such a fool. All I can say is that I had no idea what was truly going on, when I first got into it. Remember, I really didn't know Iolaus all that well, having only met him a short time before his death and having spent a mere couple of days with him. It didn't occur to me to question my good fortune at having him back again.
At least, it didn't occur to me right away, in that first blaze of glory, lust, and ecstasy that he inspired. A few niggling objections surfaced in my mind now and then, but I squelched them. I wanted him to be what he said he was. I wanted it desperately.
However, it wasn't long before I found that fervent promise not to doubt him very hard to keep. The next campaign the God of Light decided to pursue was to round up the local scholars and convince them to see the light also. I had no real problems with that, as they caved in to the pressure fairly easily. It was only when he said we were going to clean out the libraries and burn the scrolls that those nasty little questions poked themselves into my mind once again.
It came to a head when I found myself actually standing next to Iolaus as his followers carried armloads of scrolls out of one of the scholar's houses, dumping them in the street in a chaotic pile. I learned some things about myself that day that I'd rather not have known.
"Do we really have to do this?" I asked him in a carefully-guarded undertone, as another load was tossed down in front of us. "I've read a lot of these writings. There's historic stuff here that shouldn't be casually destroyed."
"Euphonius, didn't you agree with me when I told you about the danger that the scholars and intellectuals pose to us?" he replied in a long-suffering tone.
"Yes, but this is different." I kept my voice barely above a whisper, not wanting any of the others to overhear. That might have been awkward.
"Well, there's something even more dangerous than those scholars," he went on, his face frozen in a confidently-benevolent expression as he beamed at the people adding more scrolls to the growing pile, "and that's their ideas. The writings on these parchments would lead impressionable folks to challenge my teachings. These ancient authorities and self-styled experts babble on endlessly about confusing philosophies, poorly thought out systems of ethics, and stupid morals. We have to sweep all this outdated nonsense away, to make way for the new dispensation." He picked up a scroll which lay at his feet. Shaking it open, he bunched up the parchment in his hands and ripped it in pieces, then tossed the pieces disdainfully back onto the pile. He smiled and said loudly, "You can't build a new world without destroying the old one. Give me the torch."
One of the white-robed flunkies did as he was ordered. I just stood there frozen as Iolaus waved the flaming torch above his head, to the cheers of the crowd. Then he lowered the torch and placed it in my hand, closing my fingers around it and holding them there.
"I want you to prove your devotion to me, Euphonius," he said very softly, the beneficent smile still on his face, as the crowd began chanting his name.
I almost tried to pull away, but knew it would be futile. He's not any taller than I am, but he's one heck of a lot stronger. "Please," I begged, tears coming to my eyes.
The midday sunlight gleamed in his blonde hair so that it formed a golden halo around his face. The flickering torch made his black eyes glitter like precious gems. This was the very vision of my God of Light. He was my hero, my love, my leader, and my master.
He leaned close, as if he were bestowing a kiss on an honored disciple.
"Do it!" he said, his voice a mere breath against my ear.
May the Gods forgive me. I did it. As the parchment flared and burned, the crowd went wild, dancing in a maniacal frenzy around the makeshift bonfire. Iolaus stood beside me, one arm around my waist. I vowed never to question him again, but still the tears ran down my face unbidden, and a cold dead feeling was born in a walled-off corner of my heart.
It wasn't long after that when the beginning of the end arrived.
We expected Hercules to return to Greece, so when the word came that he was actually in Corinth, we were prepared. Iolaus was out in the streets walking with his followers when we heard the shouts. He was carrying a young boy in his arms, much to the devoted mother's delight, and we were just the other side of the elaborate archway that led into the marketplace.
He turned to me where I stood in my usual place, a bit behind him and off to his right, and smiled. "Now it begins," he said softly.
Waving his disciples aside, he made his way through the gathering crowd to confront the demi-god. I had no idea at the time who the two women were who stood there with Hercules, but I found out later.
"The Day of Reckoning is at hand," Iolaus announced loudly. "But fear not, my children. I will save you from Hercules."
As the crowd voiced its appreciation and relief, he leaned over toward me and placed the child he was carrying in my arms. "Ditch the kid," he muttered in an undertone.
I gave the boy back to his adoring mother as Iolaus went on to exhort Hercules to leave and not hurt anyone, offering to help him repent and accusing him of killing the Druids and scaring the Olympian Gods away.
During all this, I stood there watching Hercules' reactions. I have to confess I enjoyed it immensely. I didn't even have to admit that I hated the demi-god for the place he had held in Iolaus' heart. I could hate him for being the insane berserker Iolaus told us he was, come to ravage Greece and overthrow the reign of the God of Light.
Trouble was, he didn't act insane. Or even violent, for that matter. Well, perhaps it was a show. Evil is crafty and devious when pursuing its ends.
Iolaus finished by telling Hercules that the least he could do was allow these people the freedom to worship in peace.
As the demi-god and his friends skulked off, Iolaus seemed to have gotten the best of this first encounter, much to my delight.
Later that day, something happened that failed to delight me by a long shot. I was sitting in my room in the newest and fanciest temple we had recently taken over, contemplating whether I wanted to have a slice of the exotic green kiwifruit or the orange mango on the gold platter before me. Or maybe just the plain old grapes in the silver bowl. I wasn't very hungry; just in the mood for a snack.
Iolaus came striding in the door, rubbing his hands together in satisfaction. Sitting down next to me, he grabbed the bunch of grapes and began popping them into his mouth. "I did it," he said cheerfully.
"I've got Nebula on our side."
"Nebula? What are you talking about?"
He smiled around the mouthful of purple fruit. "You mean you didn't recognize her? No, I guess not. You've never met her. Sorry. That stunning dark-skinned woman who was with Hercules earlier today. Surely you at least noticed her?"
I searched my memory. Yes, one of the two women fit that description. "She's the Queen of Sumeria?" I asked doubtfully. "Sure didn't look much like it to me."
"Oh, she's royalty, all right. Trust me. I know."
I really didn't like the self-satisfied expression on his face. He looked at me and laughed. "How'd you like to screw a queen, Euphonius? I'll share her with you, if you ask nicely."
Okay, I liked that even less. And I remembered the letter, and the way she had described her love for Iolaus.
"I have you. Why would I want anyone else?" I guess I sounded kind of stuffy here, because he laughed again.
"What's the matter? Jealous?" He held out a grape, dangling it in front of my mouth suggestively.
Figuratively and literally, I took the bait, accepting the offered piece of fruit from his fingers, along with everything else that came with it. By the time we were finished, I'd stopped worrying about Nebula, or anybody else, for that matter.
However, I was a little worried about the worship service scheduled for early the following morning. Iolaus said he had something special planned, but refused to tell any of us what it was.
The service itself started off pretty much the same way as most of them did, with the choir singing, and Iolaus' honeyed voice whipping his followers into further ecstasies of devotion. I watched from my usual vantage point, just around the corner of a low archway that framed a small side altar, not far from where the choir sat. I could keep an eye on everything from there, but remain pretty much unseen.
Iolaus was in great form that morning. His followers ate it up when he told them,
"I'm gonna show you a world where the only crime is to not do whatever you wanna do! 'Do what thou wilt' shall be the whole of the Law."
I wished I could say I had been the one to come up with that particular phrase, but I can't. That one had been his idea.
When he reached the point of asking them, as he always did, "Do you accept me?", they went wild, chanting the expected response and thronging around to touch him, as they usually did.
Then something happened that I had not expected. After he'd calmed everyone down a bit and restored a semblance of order, he told them he needed their help with someone who would not accept the gift of freedom.
When the diminutive redhead I suddenly recognized as one of the women with Hercules was brought out and tied down on the altar, I got a bad feeling about what was going on. Nebula came with her, taking a place all too familiarly beside my God of Light.
All I could do was watch in stunned disbelief as Iolaus leaned over his victim, whispering something I couldn't hear and laying aside his stole. He even kissed her on the forehead. Then Nebula said a few words to him, drew her knife and raised it above the helpless woman.
I suppose I should have objected or done something to stop it. I'm afraid that thought never occurred to me. I was simply too surprised to do more than stare.
The knife descended, cutting through the bonds that held the woman in place instead of through her body. The temple doors burst open. Hercules stormed in, accompanied by several people.
"All right, Dahok! Now it's your turn to pray!" the demi-god shouted.
The grey-haired man standing next to him raised his staff and proclaimed into the shocked silence, "Deception is the will and the way of darkness! The power of grace is upon you!"
I glanced at Iolaus and saw his eyes glow bright red. His followers seemed to go mad, rushing at the newcomers and attacking them fiercely. The choir started singing. The world went insane.
I stared at the resulting melee from the safety of my vantage point. Then a bunch of crazed disciples rushed out from behind me, dragging me along with them.
As you may have imagined, hand-to-hand fighting isn't my strong point. I found myself swept toward the gray-haired man, who wasted no time whacking me in the face with his staff, as he was doing to everyone else. I flew backwards into my archway, colliding with the wall alongside the small altar and crumpling to the floor.
I came to slowly, with this incredible pain wrapped around my head. My right eye didn't seem to want to open. When I reached up to touch it, I found it was swollen almost shut. My fingers came away red and sticky with the half-dried blood that had run down my face from a gash on my forehead. The back of my head hurt too, and further exploration revealed a tender lump the size of a small egg. I must have hit it when I'd hit the wall.
As I struggled to sit up, I heard voices. At first I couldn't quite follow what they were saying, but I figured I'd be better off keeping quiet and out of sight until I knew what was going on. After all, the last I'd seen, there had been an all-out battle going on. I had no idea which side had won.
Crawling across the floor, I pulled myself up on the rough stones and peeked carefully around the side of the archway.
Iolaus lay on the main altar, held down by heavy silver chains at his wrists and ankles. Blue light streamed over him from the tip of that same damn staff that had laid me low, which was now standing upright between him and the stained glass windows. Hercules, Nebula, and a couple of the others stood over him.
Guess my side had lost the battle. This wasn't good.
Trying to clear the cobwebs of pain and confusion from my brain, I concentrated hard on what was going on. The first coherent thing I could pick out was Iolaus' voice, sounding somehow deeper and rougher than usual. Maybe it was my ears playing tricks on me, due to the head injury?
"Zarathustra," he said to the grey-haired man who had knocked me out, "have a thousand winters taught you nothing? I'm as much a part of this world as the light that warms the day."
Okay, that made absolutely no sense to me. Not at the time, at any rate. Later, I'd have reason to remember what I'd heard, and think some long and terrible thoughts about it. But that came afterwards. This was now.
Black dots swam across my vision. I shook my head, trying to clear them away, and immediately regretted it. I settled for blinking the only eye that I could keep open, trying to make out what was going on. I wasn't close enough to see him really clearly, but Iolaus looked extremely frazzled and bedraggled, and that was putting it nicely.
He started saying something totally incomprehensible and writhing around on the altar as if someone had stuck a red-hot poker up his ass. Lightning flashed wildly and loud claps of thunder split the air. Everything shook.
I lost my grip on the edge of the arch and fell down, striking my battered head against the floor as I did so. For an unknown length of time, everything went mercifully black.
When I came to again and summoned enough courage to drag myself to my feet and look, the only ones still there were Iolaus and Hercules.
Iolaus was half-sitting, propped on his elbows as well as he could considering the chains that bound his wrists. Since he was facing pretty much in my direction, I got a good look at him this time. His robe was unlaced and open, and there was an odd symbol painted on his chest. No, not painted: carved into the flesh and outlined in dried blood.
Hercules said something about getting through to Iolaus. Made no more sense to me than anything else that had happened.
Iolaus shook his head. "Uh-uh. Zarathustra was the only one who knew how to perform the ritual. Now it's just you and me - buddy." He laughed, low and horribly.
The conversation got even more confusing after that. They were talking about Iolaus as if he weren't there, for one thing. I clung sickly to the rough stones of the archway, trying to get my sluggish brain to put the pieces together into some sort of coherent pattern.
"Iolaus would never invite you into his heart," Hercules said. "Why don't you tell me how you seduced my friend?"
"Why should I tell you anything?"
"Because I don't believe you."
"Then I'll do better than tell you, Hercules. I'll show you."
I'm not really sure what happened then. I know I collapsed when everything turned red. After that, a pretty strange scenario played out in my head. It was as if I wasn't really there, just watching it all, like you do a play on a stage. It started with Iolaus dying in Hercules' arms, with the demi-god's name on his lips. It only got stranger from there.
You've most likely heard the basic story yourself, since there have been numerous bards reciting various versions. If all those tales didn't share an essential sameness with what I experienced, I'd have been tempted to believe I'd imagined the whole thing. As it is, I have to believe it happened, but don't ask me how or where. Or even why I saw it, except maybe that the psychic overflow was just so powerful that it spilled over onto me simply because I was fairly nearby.
I'll spare you the details, since I'm sure you know them. Let's just say I was totally confused at first. Then Iolaus mentioned Dahok, as if he was talking to him, not Hercules, as he appeared to be doing.
Dahok? What on earth did Dahok have to do with anything? I'd heard the name earlier, come to think of it. Hercules had said it, when he'd interrupted our service. And I'd heard it even before then, in connection with some very nasty tales about a warrior princess and her companion. Dahok was certainly not something I'd want to meet in a dark alley. Or anyplace else, for that matter.
And then, as I watched the drama play out, I realized that I'd already met Dahok. In fact, I'd done one heck of a lot more than meet him. My heart went cold at that thought. I was very surprised when it continued beating.
Things jumped back and forth between scenes of Iolaus talking to something that looked like Hercules, and the real Hercules here at the temple, talking to something that looked like Iolaus. Strangely enough, a lot of what the phony Hercules said to Iolaus was true. That made it even more awful, somehow.
When Iolaus finally gave in to Dahok's offer of enough power to make the world a better place, the strange visions faded. I found myself still lying on the floor behind the archway, sick at heart and shivering with exhaustion and pain.
A wave of revulsion that was almost physical swept over me, as I had no choice but to realize that I had fallen for a temptation far less noble than the one that had trapped Iolaus. I had sold myself, not for an opportunity to make the world right, but for nothing more than my own lust, and the chance to be free from all constraints, even the necessary ones.
If I had been summoned into Hades' presence then and there, I'd have made no objection. I'd have deserved it, for being such a fool.
There was a lot of noise and shouting going on in the temple, but I had no idea what it meant. I was past the point of caring, lost in my own private morass of self-hatred.
Then something even more awful than revulsion raked through my ravaged mind, and a voice spoke inside my head in a way I hope I never hear again in my life.
"Euphonius? You're here? Ah, yes, you're over there. Good. I need your help. Get up. Jump out as if you're going to kill Hercules."
Me? Kill Hercules? Ridiculous, I thought back, still trying to make sense of what was going on in my addled brain.
"No, you idiot! Just try, that's all I need. Break his concentration so I can get at him. Distract him! Or he's going to do something I don't want him to do."
I didn't even try to voice a refusal. I just willed my body not to move.
His voice changed. Suddenly, he sounded just like the Iolaus I had known. "I thought you loved me, Euphonius. Come on. Do it!"
May the Gods forgive me. I was tempted.
Then I heard another voice in my head, a voice that didn't belong to Dahok, but to the man called Zarathustra: "Deception is the will and the way of darkness!"
You're lying to me, I replied, just as you lied to Iolaus.
The voice went back to being Dahok's. "What can I offer you, my friend?" he asked seductively, "What do I have that you *really* want, more than anything else in the world?"
That was easy. "Iolaus."
"Fine. Do what I want, and you can have him. It'll be just the way it used to be. Do it now! Move! Attack Hercules!"
I took what little courage I had and focussed it all into my reply. No. I don't mean I want Iolaus for myself. I mean I want his freedom. From you.
The laugh that rang through my head turned my blood to ice.
"No chance, asshole. If you won't help me, I have no further use for you."
The pain in my head multiplied itself by about a thousand, then squared that sum. I had no idea I could hurt so much and still be alive. I stumbled backwards as if I'd been thrown, coming up against the small altar behind me and tumbling clear over it and down to the floor, taking most of the things on the altar with me. I probably did my own imitation of hot-poker-up-the-ass writhing, at that point, and I doubt very much that I was breathing.
Then it cut off as suddenly as it had come, as if Dahok had been forced to direct his attentions to something more important than my death.
I just lay there in the narrow space between the altar and the wall, curled into a ball and gasping for breath. Every muscle in my body hurt, and a couple of them were cramped up something fierce. I don't think I could have moved if my life depended on it. Blood trickled into my one good eye from the reopened cut on my forehead. Black fog blurred the edges of what little vision I had left.
Seared on the black nothingness that closed in around me, I saw more pictures. Hercules and Iolaus, fighting something I didn't even want to get a clear look at, finally tossing it into a pit of flame. Bright light, and the guy with the staff, whose name I now knew to be Zarathustra. Hercules and Iolaus, hugging each other as if they'd never let go.
And Iolaus, standing in that searing brightness, one hand lifted in a gesture of farewell, as Zarathustra's voice said, "You were right, Hercules. The Impulse to Create does have a name."
That was it. Mercifully, I passed out again.
When the curtain of blackness drew away, I was still in the same place, but I didn't hurt quite so much. Definite improvement, that.
I pulled myself up to my knees. I heard muffled sounds, as if there were quite a few people nearby. Fortunately, no one had noticed me, since I'd been pretty much out of sight on the floor behind the small altar. Cautiously, I peeked over the top. Yep, lots of people out in the main part of the temple. Not good. How was I going to get out of here without being seen, as I much preferred to do at this point?
First thing was to get cleaned up a bit. One of the brass vases that had been on the altar lay on its side next to me, flowers mostly strewn about the floor in a puddle of water. But there was still quite a bit of water inside the vase. Using that and the scarf I had around my neck, I managed to wipe most of the dried blood out of my eyes and off my face. The white altar cloth hung skewed and sideways, so I pulled it off, careful to slide the one remaining candlestick off the cloth and leave it in its proper place. Arranging the cloth over my head and around my shoulders like a makeshift cowl to hide my bruised face, I crawled to one side of the altar and rose slowly to my feet. It took a moment for the world to stop spinning, but I leaned against the wall and used that moment to check out the situation.
The main body of the temple was full of people, as I had previously noticed. They were sitting on the stone benches, squatting in the aisles, and standing against the walls, all facing towards the main altar. I recognized some of them as followers of Iolaus.
No, I corrected myself firmly, not Iolaus. Dahok. Don't ever forget that.
No one took any notice of me as I took a few shaky steps toward the archway, hoping to mingle with the crowd and sneak away. This was good. The last thing I needed was to be recognized as one of the more active people in the cult, since I now knew what it had really been all about. I felt like a first-prize piece of shit, or worse. All I wanted was to skulk away and hide in a deep, dark hole somewhere.
But first I had to get out of there. I moved around the side of the arch, joining the others standing by the wall. The crowd was fairly quiet, but most people were crying. Some of the women were wailing in grief. I wasn't real sure I wanted to look in the direction of the main altar, but I knew I had to. I propped my back against the cold stone behind me and raised my eyes.
Iolaus' body was there, but he wasn't tied and spread-eagled, nor was he wearing the white robe. He was covered almost to his chin by a heavy gold cloth. Someone had evidently cleaned up the corpse and arranged it in a much more peaceful position.
As I looked at what was left of Iolaus, somewhere in my heart a small piece of me turned to blue crystal ice, ice that burned like fire. I'll get you for this, Dahok, I vowed, recalling that half-glimpsed monstrosity I had seen falling into the firepit. You are my sworn enemy. Now and forever!
I could see Hercules kneeling beside the altar, his forehead pressed against the cold stone. Nebula knelt next to him, her shoulders shaking with her sobs. I saw the big man put his arm around Nebula and draw her close against his side, as much for his comfort as for hers, I think.
Although I wasn't really sure how I felt about the demi-god, I know my heart bled for him that day. Yes, I had cared deeply for Iolaus. But my feelings were as nothing compared to how Hercules must have felt. This was his long-time friend and companion, and his lover. And now he had to mourn Iolaus' passing for the second time, and remember always what he had had to do to lay his beloved to rest.
I had thought I had no more tears to shed, but, watching Hercules and Nebula kneeling there together, I found out that wasn't true. Sinking down to the floor, I let myself feel the grief that had gathered inside me. I wanted to run screaming to the altar and throw myself onto the body lying there, but that would do no good. I had no right to such a melodramatic display.
The only thing I could do to keep myself even marginally sane was to recall that last vision I'd seen of Iolaus, waving good-bye. Yes, the man I had known and loved was dead, but I knew he was safe in the Light forever. What more can you wish for someone, if you truly love them?
Except, of course, to have them with you always.
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