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Bearing Gifts

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“So, there’s three of them?”

The ragged man who’d literally tripped over their camp nodded frantically. “Yes, yes, three, oh they’re horrible, they won’t stop, we don’t know what they want, but they won’t stop…”

Hercules caught Iolaus’ eye and nodded. They’d been hoping for a quiet night, a well-deserved break, but it looked like trouble had found them – again. This man was genuinely terrified. He hadn’t been looking for help when he stumbled into their camp, he’d been running for his life.

They’d been able to get little sense out of him – just that there were three creatures who had arrived at his town two nights ago and efficiently started killing its inhabitants. The man said they did not know how or why, just that the first morning they had found three men dead in their beds, the next morning nine…and so he’d run. The creatures could be seen by day lurking in the shadow at the edges of the forest, but were nowhere to be seen when some braver men decided to investigate. The only physical signs of their presence where the substances they left next to their victims – small nuggets of gold (which everyone was too afraid to touch) or some lumps of resin.

It had taken some time for Hercules and Iolaus to get this much out of the man – he was terrified, exhausted, trembling, and still on the verge of getting up and running again.

Iolaus sighed and turned to start packing up their camp again, while Hercules did his reassuring hero thing and sent the man onto the next village, telling him Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.

The stricken town was close, and they were there at dawn. It was eerily silent and still, even in the calm bright light of the morning. Not a creature was stirring, and everyone was indoors. Iolaus was turning a slow circle in the dirt-packed central square when a scream tore the still air. It was like a signal: suddenly other screams and wails emerged from houses throughout the small town. Hercules was already running to the source of the first scream and Iolaus chased after.

Not waiting to be let in Hercules just about ran straight through the door and skidded to a stop in the small room; Iolaus nearly ran into him. On the bed in the corner a woman was crying as she shook the shoulder of a man who was clearly dead.

Hercules crouched next to the bed and gently but firmly drew the woman’s hands and attention away from her husband. “What happened?” he asked.

Still in shock the woman didn’t answer. Iolaus poked around the one-roomed house while Hercules started to coax answers from the woman. On one windowsill was a clump of resin, which Iolaus picked up curiously; this seemed like the substance the frightened man had spoken of, but it was just a hardened lump of tree sap. Nothing special or scary about it. He tucked it into a pocked in his vest to think about later.

Meanwhile the woman was shakily starting to answer Hercules’ questions. No, she hadn’t seen or heard anything. They’d gone to bed as usual last night, except her husband was going to try and stay awake a little longer in case one of…whatever those were…came. She’d fallen asleep. In the morning she woke and found…

“All right,” Hercules said gently. Other women were coming into the house to investigate, and he and Iolaus slipped out and left them to it.

Across the village they followed other sounds of grief and found the same scene, over and over again. All in all, 27 men had been killed during the night. In this small town that was a decent portion of the population and there were more murmurs that leaving en mass was a good idea. A few of the younger men were agitating for a hunting party, but no one was taking them seriously. This threat was too ambiguous, too dangerous.

Iolaus drew Hercules off to the side, and they watched the town gather. Iolaus didn’t think Hercules was going to step in yet; the town’s leader seemed an exceptionally wise and well-respected man, who was keeping the crowd relatively calm while debating the merits of leaving town, just til this whole mess died down – and 81 more men lost their lives.

“Do you have any idea what we’re dealing with here?” Iolaus asked. Hercules looked across the town and into the forest some short distance away.

“Not a clue. They’re not mortal, whatever they are.”

“That’s not a lot to go on,” Iolaus said, absently picking the piece of resin out of his pocket and fiddling with it while he thought.

“I’m going to go out to the forest where they’ve seen the creatures. You stay here and see if you can find out anything else.”

“Aw, c’mon Herc!” Iolaus protested to Hercules’ departing back. They should be sticking together when there was an unknown danger; not splitting up. And certainly not one person getting to go and actively fight stuff instead of just talking.

Iolaus sighed and turned back towards town. He started pitching in to help people packing bags and wagons, the authoritative voice of the town mayor a continual drone in the background. All the stories he heard as he worked were the same: until the other night, there had been no signs or omens of anything coming. The village had been prosperous and peaceful ever since the mayor had taken over a year ago. The deaths were unexpected and terrifying; everyone Iolaus spoke to was glad they were leaving, glad they had their mayor to look after things.

Pausing with a mug of cool water, Iolaus rolled the resin in his palm and looked towards the forest where Hercules had gone. He was about to go back to work, wiping the fragrant oily residue of the resin against his trousers, when he saw Hercules stagger out of the tree line.

Iolaus had started running before Hercules fell heavily. He thought he saw shapes fading back into the trees but they’d disappeared by the time he fell to his knees next to Hercules; then only one thing had his focus.

Two fingers against Hercules’ pulse point and Iolaus relaxed fractionally. Hercules was unconscious, not killed like the townsmen. There was no injury on him, but Iolaus couldn’t wake him. A few people from the village arrived, bringing a small cart with them. It took five of them to lift Hercules into the cart. As they moved him his hand fell open, and a small piece of gold and two nuggets of resin rolled out. Iolaus paused, jolted momentarily, and picked them all up before helping to take Hercules back to town.

Several hours later it was mid-afternoon and Iolaus was arguing with the mayor. At least, he thought he was arguing; he knew he’d been angry before, worried about Hercules, frustrated that people were just leaving, and trying to figure out what was happening here. He wanted to use one of the carts or at least borrow a horse to get Hercules out of there, to take some time for Hercules to wake up and get the upper hand before coming back.

However, the major had explained to him that this wasn’t a good plan. It wasn’t a good idea to move Hercules, really. The townspeople needed to evacuate and they’d really need every cart and beast to do it, but surely Iolaus would be able to keep Hercules safe here?

Iolaus found himself agreeing. It was a very sensible plan, after all.

It wasn’t until after the entire town was deserted, a few random belongings dropped or forgotten on empty streets, milkcows and dogs led away with the wagons, that Iolaus suddenly realised that this was a deeply stupid plan. He looked at where Hercules lay pale and still, only the movement of his chest showing he was still alive, and cursed, running a hand through his hair in frustration.

It had to be something to do with the major. Out from under his influence, without his voice constantly in the background, Iolaus saw the beginnings of a pattern. The townspeople had been way too complacent and happy to follow the man – who, Iolaus was now remembering, wasn’t even that impressive. Apart from a deep voice, he was thin and weedy and rather young to be in a position of authority.

Casting one last look at Hercules, Iolaus moved quickly back out into the town in search of the mayor’s large home.

Inside was a mess: no one had cleaned here in some time, with plates and remnants of meals on the table, linens and clothes in piles on the floor, and scattered scrolls and papers everywhere. The mess made the contrast easier to see: a small table meticulously neat and dust-free, with a scroll, a lump of gold and two of resin, and a knife with bloodstains on the edge sitting on top.

Iolaus approached it cautiously – the whole thing screamed Evil Altar – and rested one hand on the scroll. When nothing happened immediately he picked it up and gingerly undid the tie holding it closed.

The writing on the scroll cramped and messy, and Iolaus frowned trying to make it out. He saw the words “σοφος” and “δωρον”, and remembered how often the villagers had specifically called the mayor wise. “Χρυσος”, “μυρ” and “λιβανωτος” made him pull the lump of resin out of his pocket and smell it. He’d seen the gold, and the resin did smell like the myrrh-based perfume he’d smelled once. Putting more of the fragmented sentences together, Iolaus huffed in annoyance – this seemed like a summoning spell. The mayor wanted more power and cast a spell to give himself Wisdom.

A year after the spell was originally cast, though, and the price had to be paid. The Magoi who gave the gift returned to claim their cost – human lives. Iolaus cursed the cowardly mayor – did anyone really think that just running away was a good way to avoid supernatural retribution? Okay, so maybe not as many people as Iolaus had experience with that kind of thing, but still. Common sense, surely?

On the verge of throwing the scroll back down and returning to Hercules, Iolaus noticed more writing on the back in a different hand. This seemed to be a calculation of the lives that would be taken. The first few lines followed the pattern so far: 3,9, 27…  A protection symbol – Iolaus noticed the same thing scratched onto the floor, half hidden by dirty linen. It looked like the deal the mayor had made meant that he was meant to be taken by the Magoi a year after he cast the spell. As long as he was protected every night by the symbol on his floor, the Magoi took townspeople instead. Iolaus felt even more disgust for a so-called leader who would sacrifice his own people to try to save himself from his own mistake. The last note gave him pause: scribbled equations, ending with demi-god=81. The mayor thought that one demi-god would be worth 81 lives? That explained why he’d made the effort to leave Hercules and Iolaus behind. Iolaus was even more unimpressed.

Running back to Hercules just as dusk was falling, Iolaus used a poker to scratch the protection symbol into the dirt floor of the small house they were staying in. As soon as it was completed, Hercules stirred, frowning slightly as he started tossing and turning. “Hercules!” Iolaus shouted, and that was enough for Hercules to wake up, confused and disoriented.

Before Iolaus could ask what happened to him in the forest, or explain what he’d discovered, there was a scratching at the closed window shutter. Iolaus realised that outside was eerily still again, the few remaining birds having gone completely silent. The scratching moved to the door, and then at the window again. Iolaus thought he could start to hear voices in the scratching noises.

“…bearing gifts…”

“…behold him…crown him with gold…”

“…all men praising…”

“…sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying…”

At the last, Iolaus locked eyes with Hercules. The look on his face reassured Iolaus that he was hearing the same thing. When he opened his mouth to talk to Hercules, the voices and scratching immediately fell silent.

Iolaus tried to think of a way out. Whatever these things were, they could kill a grown man silently, and could take out Hercules pretty effectively. Iolaus got the feeling that they weren’t the kind of thing that would just give up and go home: they had a price to be paid. If they didn’t get anyone tonight, he suspected that the following night would only be worse.

“Uh, guys?” he called out. “Magoi-things?”

There was a rustle outside and then silence again.

“I know you’re after the tasty demi-god in here, but can I offer an alternative?”

Silence again, but a heavy, waiting silence.

“You’re after the mayor, right? He’s the one you want?”

Iolaus could swear that he heard something licking its lips. It wasn’t a nice sound.

“If I tell you where he went, will you go? Will you take others?”

“…no, no others. That wouldn’t be….wise….” one voice scratched, and the others seemed to laugh. It was a horrible sound.

“…guide us…” said one of them, and the others echoed it. “…guide us guide us guide us…”

Hercules was struggling to rise, not speaking but trying to get Iolaus’ attention. Iolaus easily stepped out of his reach and put his hand on the door. The voices stopped, and he slowly opened it a crack. Outside was the dark grey of late dusk, not so dark yet that Iolaus couldn’t tell that there were three shapes of blacker night drawing together in front of him. Now he knew what it was, he could smell the heavy perfume of myrrh and frankincense, and thought he could see a small gleam of gold appearing and disappearing. The three shapes were vaguely man-shaped, but also taller and somehow wrong – the proportions were off, the limbs too long, the backs hulking, the heads heavy and spiky as if weighed down by misshapen crowns.

Iolaus decided he didn’t want to look too closely. He pointed to the road the mayor had taken, towards the village that had been the townspeople’s destination. “He want thatta way.”

That was all the creatures needed. One moment they were there, the next they were gone, the only sign of their existence a perfume that was quickly blown away. As if it were a signal, a bird squawked, and the normal sounds of animal night life resumed.

Whatever happened to the mayor, Iolaus felt he deserved it. Too many lives had already been lost.

Now Hercules was regaining his strength. “What,” he said, “in Tartarus were those? Did you set them onto someone?”

Iolaus shrugged and held Hercules’ gaze. “He deserved it. It saved dozens of lives, including yours, so I’m okay with that.”

Hercules frowned. “Are you sure it was the right thing to do?”

“Yes.”

“Was that really wise?”

Hercules gave up when Iolaus started laughing.