The range of colors span wide from a bright turquoise in the ocean close to the ship to a lively purple in the horizon where the deep ocean currents met and fought. The sky was an intense azure which shifted to a soft violet between enormous snow white clouds. The already warming air was carried on a fresh summer breeze which, every so often, playfully swooped down and grazed the inhabitants of the world below before it regretfully returned to the skies.
Gabrielle giggled softly as her hair gently, like a soft feather, lifted and tickled her neck, caressing her skin with a mere whispers’ touch. Her eyes were lost to the colorful act unfolding in front of her as she listened to the waves lazily slapping against the sturdy wood of the ship’s side. Dreamily letting her finger trail the lines of the railing, she slowly raised her head and let it drop back. She closed her eyes as her skin hungrily devoured the first warming rays of the sun.
She could feel the warmth seeping through her body to reach every inch, effectively replacing the last of the chills from Selene’s reign. When she stood like this, she was the sun...the air...the ocean...and they were her. When she stood like this, nothing else existed. She was the elements...and they were her...melted together...bound to each other by invisible strings. Gabrielle existed in nature and nature in her. They were one. Oneness.
She could feel the air growing warmer as Helio’s chariot gained speed and power. The day was his to behold, and it was now Selene’s task to sail the ship of the night back west until she once again would rise with the darkness, illuminating the world with her cold ghostly, yet somewhat reassuring glow.
But the world was waking now, taking the magic of the early sunrise with it.
Letting out a regretful sigh, Gabrielle opened her eyes to be met by the fading remnants of colors. She could still sense some of the magic inside her and feel the dull trembling of her body. But she knew it would all soon subside, grow weak and old, and finally fade away with the hustling and bustling of the day. 'But there’ll always be tomorrow...'
“Hey.” The voice was low and soft. Relaxed in an unusual sort of way. Gabrielle did not start. She was expecting it.
“Morning.” She did not turn but had to watch the horizon until the last trace of magic was gone. She could feel the presence of the other person next to her doing the same.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle breathed. “But you should have seen it earlier. It was...” She let her voice trail off, a seldom loss of words denying her the ability to express herself.
“I know.” Xena smiled to herself. “I’ve seen it.”
The two women fell silent, each lost in the current of their own thoughts and memories. Each just enjoying that precious little moment of blissful silence. They would join the others soon enough.
‘Breakfast with this group is certainly somewhat...different,’ Saurus silently observed. Comfortably dressed in a long amber robe with silver trim, he looked the very image of a well-paid servant. His short-cropped dark blonde hair was threaded with grey and his dark eyes kept returning to the group at the other end of the table.
It wasn’t that he expected Hercules and Xena and the two small blondes to be overly well-behaved at the table. After all, they looked as if they were used to roughing it, and their lack of manners could therefore easily be explained and forgiven. But that Jason, King of Corinth and leader of the Argonauts, would copy their way of eating...well, that was something the palace healer of Ankra found somewhat odd. Sighing, he reached for the last plum.
The heater gave a startled yelp when, in the process, his hand bumped him into Damien’s. Giving the bigger man a quick, apologetic smile, Saurus made an effort of keeping his eyes to himself. Damien had, like himself, joined Jason and the others in Marathon. It had not been planned he should accompany five of Greece’s greatest heroes on their sea-bound voyage. But when the healer had been in urgent need of going to Greece and had heard there was a ship going in that direction down at the docks, he had asked if he could come along. Not long after, Damien had come forth in the same errand.
Saurus couldn’t help but feel a slight chill trickle down his spine when he felt the other man eyeing him. Damien was a huge man, nearly as big as Hercules, but he lacked the hero’s comforting air of kindness. Dressed in the serviceable leather that proclaimed his chosen profession as a soldier and warrior with his long dark hair flowing halfway down his back, Saurus doubted the big man ever needed the help of the knives tucked into sheathes at his waist to enforce his will. Now, when those small piercing brown eyes raked him, Saurus felt anything but comfortable.
Damien’s bass voice rumbled. “Were you going to have that plum?”
Saurus fidgeted. “No,” he finally managed, carefully retracting his arm.
“Then you won’t mind if I take it.” It was not a question.
“No.” The healer cast a quick look at the other end of the table to see if any of the men sitting there were watching his act of cowardliness. He was relieved to find them highly engrossed with Hercules’ story. “No. You just take it.”
“...and then I find that it wasn’t lightning which sunk our ship, but the weapon of that theory-crazed guy.”
“Wait...wait...” Iolaus demanded as lifted yet another olive from the bowl in front of him. “Do you mean this crystal-weapon could sink a ship?”
Hercules took a sip of water. “EVERYTHING on that island was powered by those crystals. They even had these flying boats they used to patrol with as well as a crystal wave oven which would supposedly heat food a lot faster.”
“A what?” Jason asked, his face tinged with laughter.
Iolaus casually threw an olive in his direction. “Then what happened?” he asked as Jason easily caught the olive and popped it into his mouth.
“Well,” Hercules continued. “Cassandra told Panthius what she saw in her vision, but he didn’t believe her. We left and later that night her house was set on fire. The rest you already know.”
“You mean this what’s-his-name let the poeple of Atlantis drown just because he didn’t believe Cassandra? That just becuase there wasn’t a rational explanation behind her visions, she couldn’t be trusted?” Iolaus couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
Hercules rubbed his forehead. “Yeah. You can put it that way.”
“Well, that’s just...” Jason began.
“The stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Iolaus finished.
“But at least you, Cassandra, and the others managed to escape Atlantis in one piece,” Jason stated. “That’s something.”
“Yeah, but nevertheless...”
“Nevertheless nothing.” The cool voice of the Warrior Princes came from over the demigod’s shoulder. “You can’t save those who don’t want to be saved, Hercules. You did all you could.”
Hercules sighed. “Good morning, Xena. Enjoy the sunrise?”
“What’s all this talk about Atlantis?” Gabrielle interrupted, taking her seat at the table next to Iolaus. “How come I haven’t heard this story?” She gave Xena an accusing glare.
“I only got to hear it last night,” the warrior defended herself giving the others a resigned glance. “I’m sure Hercules will tell you the story.”
“Yeah.” Iolaus gave Gabrielle a quick hug. “Soon you’ll have yet another tale for your scrolls.”
The bard gave him a smile. “Thank you.” Then she sent Xena another glare. “I only hope Xena doesn’t use them as cleaning rags again.” Wiggling more comfortably in place on the bench, she shifted her attention to Hercules. “So, how did it begin?”
It was well past sunrise by the time they finally set sail again after the night. Hercules’ tale at the breakfast table had reminded Gabreielle of a couple of other times she and Xena had been at sea. She told them about the time they had helped Ulyssess regain his kingdom and his wife, and all the touble they had with Poseidon on that adventure. The fact Gabrielle had been seasick most of the time did not leave any gaps in the story. She told it all, including the crush Xena and Ulyssess had on each other, earning deadly glances from the warrior, which she had pointedly ignored.
Saurus had sat still during the storytelling, enjoying Gabrielle’s abilities. But now, when he watched them all troop out of the galley, still chattering excitedly, he couldn’t help but feel a faint but growing unease. It wasn’t enough they were all laughing and seemed to be enjoying listening to each other’s near-death experiences. The fact that something nasty seemed to happen every time these people were on a ship really gnawed on his nerves. ‘And here I thought I would be safe...that nothing evil could happen to me when I traveled with these people.’ He wished to all the gods this would be an abnormal trip, at least for his shipmates.
Damien slowly rose to his feet. Giving Saurus a cold smile that did nothing to calm the healer’s suddenly frightened nerves, the big man followed the others out of the galley.
The sun had reached its zenith, and the zephyr from the morning had shifted to a stronger west wind. Iolaus found himself enjoying his position and the gentle rocking the ship provided as it plowed through the sea.
He had been assigned duty in the crow’s nest this day, a task which suited him well. The silence and peace it provided was something he rarely had a chance to enjoy, and the view was magnificent. And since they were so far out at sea, the possibility for sunken rocks was minimal. All he really had to do was make it look like he was watching the sea when in fact he was watching the people under him hustle and bustle and generally work their asses off. He found he really didn’t envy them. Then his gaze drifted...well, except for Gabrielle.
The blonde was trying out a technique she and Iolaus had discussed the previous day. Iolaus had believed it would be possible to catch more than one fish at a time if one could find a way to fasten several hooks to one line which then could be dragged after the ship. They had spent the evening preparing the line, and it had been decided Gabrielle should try it out the next day as fresh fish would be a welcome change from salted and dried meat. From the look of it, the new invention was working just fine, and Iolaus was already looking forward to dinner. Smiling to himself, the hunter lifted his head to take a quick look at the sea, then did a double-take.
Hercules had just finished trimming the sail to make as good use of the wind as possible when he heard Iolaus shouting above him. Casting a glance in his partner’s direction, he saw Iolaus pointing to something ahead and to the left.
Hercules looked at Jason. The older man had his brows creased in a slightly baffled expression and was already turning the ship. Biting his lower lip in thoughtfulness and noting Iolaus was actually looking at the sea, Hercules decided to head for the bridge to get a better look. Effortlessly taking the steps up from the deck four at a time, he asked, “Jason. What’s going on?”
The Argonaut remained silent, nodding his head in the same direction he was steering. Following the direction with his eyes, Hercules could see for the first time the source of the disturbance. ‘Another ship. What’s so odd about th...Oh.’ As another wave tilted the ship in a different angle, Hercules could see what a miserable state it was in.
Once a very beautiful vessel, it was visibly scarred by the forces of weather and the sea. Huge chunks of the railing had been torn away, suggesting the work of powerful waves. Where there should have been a mast, Hercules could see none. He had the feeling that sometime during a storm it had taken the same path as the railing. The remnants of the sail hung over the ship’s side like a rag...half in and half out of the water. The sight was disturbing enough but what troubled Hercules the most was the lack of people. The deck was completely empty without any signs of life.
A worried crease appeared on the demigod’s face. “Jase...” he started without turning.
Jason gravely nodded. “It doesn’t look good.”
“Do you know what kind of ship it is?” Hercules asked.
“It could be a merchantman from around here. Although I think it’s more likely to have come from far away,” Jason judged. “I’ve never seen a ship like that before.”
It became apparent when they got nearer that the ship was not from Greece, or any of the neighboring countries. The vessel was fairly light which suggested it was more likely to be a raider’s ship, built for speed and the ability of surprising its victims by coming fast upon them. Not like a merchantman's ship which would be designed to carry as much cargo as possible and to sustain the oceans’ great forces while doing so.
Jason calculated it to be about 20 meters long and 5 meters wide, built both for rowing and sailing by the looks of what was left of a sturdy mast in the middle. As for the starboard side, a large rudder could be seen. Both in the aft and stern, the ship was richly decorated with carved animal ornaments. The stern was formed as a rolled up snake with a head.
Iolaus had climbed down from the crow’s nest and now stood beside the others on the deck looking up at the mysterious vessel. Hercules could see his partner fidget with the urge to board the mysterious ship. “Hey, Jason! Do you know what kind of ship this is?” the hunter asked.
Before Jason could answer, Xena spoke. “It looks like the vessels the Norsemen use on their raids.” She edged closer to the railing where the two ships now lay side by side. “Except those are open in the middle. This one has a deck.”
Jason and Hercules, who had joined them, stared at the dark-haired woman. “You mean to say this ship has come all the way from Norseland?” Jason asked.
“Wherever it comes from, it looks like it’s been through some rough weather,” Hercules commented. “Think we should go on board and have a closer look?”
Saurus, who remembered the stories told earlier that day, looked up with a panicked expression. “No. No. I don’t think any of us should...”
“Of course, we should go on board,” Iolaus said giving the healer a curious look. “There could still be people on it. People who need our help. Besides, I want to have a closer look at that ship.”
“I agree,” Damien rumbled joining them from wherever he had been hiding for the last hour or so. “We can’t leave without checking for survivors.”
Jason nodded. “It’s one of the laws of the sea to help a ship in need. If we leave here without making sure no one’s onboard, we may incur Poseidon’s wrath.”
Gabrielle cringed, remembering the last time she’d had an encounter with the God of the Seas when she had accidentally ended up on a ship suffering under his curse. “That would NOT be a good thing,” she muttered under her breath.
Hercules heard her anyway. “No, it certainly wouldn’t.” He was very familiar with his uncle’s infamous temper.
“We can’t all leave our ship to go exploring. At least one person should stay here.” Jason let his gaze drift across the group. “I guess that should be me.”
A voice quickly emerged from the back. “No. I’ll stay.”
Jason looked over his shoulder. “You mean you want to stay here?”
“Yes,” Saurus frantically nodded. “Very much.”
“If that’s what you really want,” Jason slowly agreed. Another quick nod affirmed the answer. “Do you know what to do if the ships should begin to drift?”
Saurus swallowed. “I’ve had some experience with sailing. “I’ll keep a close eye on the rope. It won’t have a chance to become untied.”
Jason looked to where Iolaus and Gabrielle had already begun to secure the two ships together by using a long length of rope which they tied to each ship’s railing. “Very well, Saurus. Just yell if you need help.”
“Look at this,” Gabrielle exclaimed. She stood in the stern, looking at the animal ornaments. “They’re beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Xena lifted her gaze from the rudder. A multitude of coral had attached themselves to the wood and were now creating an illusion of bleached bones that made the water look more green than blue. She let her gaze slowly drift over the carved wood, but her brain didn’t register what her eyes saw.
The Warrior Princess could feel her entire body pricking. Her senses were trying to warn her against something...something she couldn’t identify. There was definitely something about this ship that didn’t feel right. Frustrated, she squeezed the smaller woman’s shoulder. “Let’s see what the others have found.”
As soon as they had boarded the ship, Xena and Gabrielle had volunteered to have a look at he upper deck while the others went below. Xena hadn’t liked splitting up. She’s seen from the expression in Hercules’ eyes, he wasn’t happy about it either. But there was no point in all six of them roaming over the upper deck. The sooner they finished checking out the ship, the sooner they could get off it. And that was something Xena was looking forward to. It wasn’t that she was afraid, but it bothered her she couldn’t identify the sensation of dread that had clung to her ever since she had laid eyes on this abandoned ship.
Below, Damien had discovered a couple of small lamps. Most of them had been empty of oil, but they had managed to find a couple that were half-full. With the help of Hercules and his gauntlets, they had managed to light them. When the light washed over the room, they could see for the first time what the lower deck of the ship looked like.
The lower deck was very much one large room. Narrow wooden benches, some five or six meters in length stretched along each side. In the hull itself were several holes roughly the size of Xena’s chakram. There was a cover before each hole where small beams of sun penetrated where the wood didn’t align exactly with the hull. But the covers were fitted with some sort of lock that could open and shut them.
Jason realized these were oar-holes, even if the oars themselves were missing. ‘Must have been REALLY big oars.’ A narrow passage led through the benches ending in a door in the stern.
“I guess that’s where we should be heading,” Hercules nodded as he set aside a lamp for Xena and Gabrielle when they finished up above. “Let’s go.”
“Well, this is bigger than I expected.” Jason swung the lamp from side to side to cast some light ahead of them. The door had revealed something that had originally looked like a small, short corridor. Actually it was quite larger.
Four doors led to their respective rooms on each side and a final one to a room at the end of the corridor. The doors were simple wooden structures though the one in the far end seemed to be of a better quality than the others. The corridor itself was narrow and empty, except for a thick sturdy log laying alongside one of the walls probably meant to be used for repairs. The headroom, which allowed even Hercules to stand upright, suggested the people who once sailed this ship were big men.
Jason flicked a hand to his left. “You two take that side,” he told Iolaus and Damien. “We’ll take this one.” He caught Iolaus’ eyes. “Be careful.” He sighed when the hunter grinned at him.
The two rooms were identical. Both were square and fairly small in size. As in the rest of the ship, there were no portholes to provide light. A hook in the ceiling held a now extinguished lamp which seemed to be the only source of light the crew had. Along the opposite side of the room were the bunks, five in height. If Hercules and Jason’s room looked the same, the four rooms would have provided for at least forty men. Small, richly ornamented chests lined the two other wall, containing scattered pieces of clothes, pottery and jewelry, along with an occasional comb made of bone.
Sighing, Iolaus sat back on his haunches, holdng a beautiful necklace from one of chests in his hand. While this was interesting, they were no closer to an answer as to what happened to the crew. Even if they had encountered a storm, they shouldn’t have all been washed overboard. Frustrated, he looked up to see Damien who stood looming over him holding the lamp to provide light. “What do you think?”
The big man rolled his eyes and snorted but said nothing. Shrugging, Iolaus put the necklace back in the chest and closed the lid. He was too accustomed to Hercules’ mood-swings to let the other man get to him. “Before we check out that last room, let’s see if Hercules and Jason have found anything.”
Sneezing as yet another cloud of fine dust rose into the air when Jason popped the lid on one of the chests, Hercules hunched down. Both the rooms he and Jason investigated looked the same. He very much suspected the two rooms Iolaus and Damien were checking were identical as well. His eyes followed Jason’s hands as he picked up another of the bone-combs. “Another one?” he commented.
Jason gave him a wry glance barely visible in the pale light. “You remember last time we saw one of these?”
Hercules thought for a moment. “Yeah.” His eyes shone by the memory. “I’m glad we managed to stop them in time.”
“Yeah, but it was a close call,” Jason recalled.
When Xena had returned from Britannia, she had brought with her a comb resembling the one Jason held in his hand. However, the welcome home party had gotten a little out of hand. After a tankard of ale too many, Iolaus and Xena had agreed they should head for the local Cyclops and give him a good comb-through of his hair. That the Cyclops was a man-eater, and the fact they were all going the day after to free the surrounding area from him didn’t seem to affect their decision. Hercules, Jason and half the Corinthian army had managed to stop the two hairdressers just outside the cave where the Cyclops had luckily been asleep.
“It was fun, wasn’t it?” Jason grinned.
“Oh, yeah,” Hercules muttered. “So much I want to do it again. You know, when Iolaus and Xena...”
Just then the door opened, and the form of the lithe hunter came into sight against the vanishing light of the lamp as Damien was carrying it further down the hall. “We’re going to the room at the end of the corridor,” Iolaus informed them. “Find anything?”
“Nothing yet. Well, if you look past the clothes, jewelry, and pottery in the chests,” Jason shrugged. “I still don’t have a clue as to what happened.”
“That makes two of us,” Iolaus cheerfully confided. “That’s all we found in the chests in those rooms. Maybe we’ll find something in the last room.”
“We’ll join you as soon as we finish up here,” Hercules answered.
The room was bigger than the others and seemed to be the quarters of only one man. From the collection of various shelves with pots and jars and the desk with all sorts of paper and maps, the most reaonsable explanation was also by far the most likely. The room belonged to the ship’s healer and captain. Iolaus made a mental note to ask Jason later how common it was for the healer and captain to be one and the same person. ‘It’s a first for me.’ Like in the other room, a lamp was hanging from the ceiling. But this room was also fitted with a little porthole near the ceiling.
Biting his lower lip in thoughtfulness, he watched as Damien stepped forward and replaced their lamp with the one already hanging in the room. The pale light now spread about more evenly, revealing more shelves along the walls, a hammock, and a rather large chest. A collection of different weapons stood in one corner, and a couple of strange-looking helmets with two horns set on each side of the helmet-base lay beside them.
While Iolaus took interest in the shelves and the pile of weapons, Damien begna checking out the contents of the chest and desk.
Most of the jars semed to contain the usual herbs and plants used for different poultices and other healing effects. Iolaus had no trouble recognizing the dried, yellow arnmica flower alongside thyme, comfrey, and garlic. Rosemary, myrrh and camomile made up the less used but no means unknown extent of the collection.
Damien, meanwhile, had gone through the chest without finding anything beyond what they had found in the other chests...pottery, jewelry, and clothes. The big man then diverted his attention to the huge wooden desk which occupied most of the porthole wall.
Shoving aside the log, written in a language he didn’t understand, he concentrated on the few maps and a small carved wooden box. What looked to be a few islands in various sizes drifted around a long but narrow mass of land which looked to lay to the far north. Damien looked over his shoulder to see Hercules’ blonde partner preoccupied with the weapons in the far corner.
Returning his attention to the desk, he studied the small box. It was a work of art. On the lid was carved a figure...a rather large man with only one eye, dressed in fur and with one of the horned helmets on his head. In his right hand he held a massive broadsword, resting it against his shoulder. He was sitting across the back of a small, yet sturdy horse with no less than eight legs. Under those hooves were small people were being crushed like unwelcome bugs.
Glancing again over his shoulder to see Iolaus’ attention still on the weapons, the big man inwardly sighed. He closed his eyes, and his lips moved in a silent prayer. Slowly, he opened the box.
Opening his eyes, he saw the massive broadsword which had been resting against the man’s shoulder was no longer there. Instead it lay buried in the chest of one of the figures under the horses’ hooves. The blood from the victim dripped from his pierced body and down the box, reaching Damien’s fingers. Damien’s breath caught in his throat as a sudden wind blew strongly into the room, slamming the door shut and tumbling the papers on the desk like butterflies in a storm.
Iolaus whirled around as a thick blue mist wrapped around him. Struggling to breathe, he managed to yell, “Herc!” before falling unconscious to the deck.
“Hey!” Gabrielle made a sudden grab for Xena to steady herself as the ship violently and without warning tilted to the left then suddenly to the right. Regaining her balance, the blonde turned to her partner. “What’s going on?”
The two women had just reached the lower deck and now found themselves having difficulties standing upright.
Xena turned her head to look at the bard, her ice blue eyes hard as steel. Gabrielle recognized the look. It was the same look she’d received when she first met Callisto. Swallowing in a suddenly dry throat, Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak only to be cut off by a shout coming from behind a door at the other end of the room.
The calm waters of the ocean had rapidly changed. Huge waves, the size of a good peasant’s house were now chasing each other across the water. Some came to an abrupt halt against the two ships which violently rocked side by side. When that happened, it was as if a great rage built up. A wall of water threateningly loomed over the suddenly very small man-built ships before crashing down on them thoroughly washing over the decks and nearly drowning the lone figure by the railing.
Sputtering and spitting out yet another mouthful of salt sea water, Saurus drew a shaky breath. “By the centaur’s tail...”
He had kept a close but wary eye on the mysterious vessel and the length of rope that bound it to Jason’s ship. He wasn’t worried about it become untied as he had watched Iolaus do a very good job of securing the knots. It was with unease he had watched the men disappear below deck only to be soon followed by the women.
Pushing a hand through his hair, he sat down with his back to the mast. He wrapped his arms around his legs in a comforting gesture, and mournfully thought about how they were supposed to hear him down there if he should need help. ‘Just yell if you need any help. Yeah, sure.’ Then he had no more time to think.
A strong gust of wind and sudden darkening of the sky made him look up. The sky which had been almost clear was now pitch black and very threatening.
Astounded by the sudden and unexpected change in weather and with his heart pounding in his chest, the healer rose, only to find himself sprawled on his back the next second as the now meter-high waves of the ocean violently rocked the boat. A lamp fell from its hook on the mast and hit the healer on the side of his head, making his world go pitch black for a second or two. Groaning and trying to blink away some of the gray film in front of his eyes, Saurus felt a strange unnerving need to look at the other ship. It was almost as if something was forcing him to look that way.
And it was there he saw what really chilled his bones. The ship the others had entered was now engulfed in a bright blue swirly mist. Still dazed from where the lamp hit him, Saurus cursed and sat up, not noting the man and his horse for a few seconds. When he did notice them, he thought he saw a hint of yellow. ‘Hercules.’ Relieved, he began to draw breath to shout to the demigod and ask what was going on when he suddenly realized something that made the hairs on his arms stand up. The two forms on the ship were transparent.
The horse snorted and began to anxiously move, alerting the man standing beside it. He looked first at the horse then he became aware of something behind him. Saurus could see him turn with a grace such a big form really shouldn’t have. What he really noticed was the large sword the man was holding in his hand. The healer could see the transparent form starting to raise his swordarm pointing the weapons Saurus’ direction.
“No...please...not me...I...” Saurus moaned. He knew he should be doing something...at least trying to hide. But fear as heavy as Greagus himself lay over him.
Then the man’s eyes flashed an eerie green...and Saurus knew nothing more.
“Iolaus! Open the door! Iolaus! Answer me!” Hercules pounded on the door even as he tried to shoulder it open.
Standing next to the demigod, Jason gave him a quick nod. Together they threw themselves against the solid door only to bruise themselves against the unyielding wood.
In desperation, the demigod resorted to throwing himself against the persistent barrier, speaking each word as he hit the door again and again. “Why! Won’t! It! Budge!?”
“Iolaus! Damien! Can you hear me?” Jason pounded on the door with both fists.
Muttering under his breath, Hercules quickly ran back into one of the nearby cabins.
“What’s going on?”
Jason turned to see Xena and Gabrielle standing behind him. Raking his hand through his hair, Jason let out a sigh and held out an arm to better steady himself against one of the walls. “Iolaus and Damien are in there,” he began. “And we can’t get them out.”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean you can’t get them out? Hercules can smash that door in seconds.”
“Well, he can’t,” Jason pointed out.
Xena turned to Jason. “What happened?”
“We were on our way to meet them in that room when the door slammed shut, and this rocking began.” Jason gestured managing to include both the persistent door and the bouncing the ship was making as it hit the waves. He turned worried eyes to Xena. “We haven’t heard anything from them even though we’ve been yelling.”
“I don’t like this,” Xena muttered. Lifting her head, she watched as Hercules returned with the lid from one of the larger chests.
“Move,” Hercules growled.
As Jason quickly moved out of the way, Hercules used the heavy metal lid as a battering ram. Once, twice, then a third time the demigod put his strength behind his lunges at the door.
The metal lid snapped on the third attempt.
Frustrated, Hercules threw the mangled metal to one side and began kicking the door shouting Iolaus’ name.
“Stop that before you hurt yourself,” Xena ordered.
Hercules gave no indication he’d heard her.
She sent the man an exasperated glance. ‘Figures.’ Hurrying as fast as she could, she made her way to him. Scowling, she grabbed him by the shoulder and gave him a powerful shove.
Looking at him with an expression which gave no room for discussion, she grabbed him by the other shoulder and stared at him. “You’ve already proven there’s no way you can break through that door.” Seeing she was already losing him, she shook him none too gently well aware she was very close to overstepping a line. “Look! We don’t know what’s happened to them. And I’m just as anxious as you to get to them. But injuring yourself in the process is not the way to do it. If something has happened to them, we’ll need your help.”
Hercules glared at her. “Then what do you suggest?” he demanded.
Dazed and confused, Saurus rolled over and slowly got to his feet. He had opened his eyes seconds before only to find himself sprawled with his right arm laying across his eyes, as if to shield them from something. Shaking his head to get rid of the buzzing in his skull, the healer desperately tried to remember what had happened. He had a vague memory of a blue mist surrounding the ship they had encountered earlier that day and...something else
’Why can’t I remember?’ It was just out of reach, hiding in the back of his mind, impossible to catch, much like...’like a frightened horse.’ Suddenly the memories were there. He could see them in his mind as clearly and vividly as he could see the hand he held in front of himself. His own hand.
And it was shaking.
‘What if he’s still here? Staring at me with those awful eyes?’ Saurus thought he knew now what the nymph Mintha must have been like seconds before Persephone had changed her into that tiny plant. Lifting his shaking hand to drag through his hair, the healer closed his eyes.
Saurus had never been a courageous man, and he knew that. That’s why he had become a healer in the royal palace of Ankra. That way he was sure he would never come across anything...like this. He had made himself a life there, safe within the walls of the palace, treating the occasional cold or bruise or whatever. But here...now...
Saurus groaned aloud as the buzz in his skull intensified, clutching his head in his hands. He had already decided he wasn’t going to see if the man still was on the ship behind him because he was never going to look at that ship again. He would simply go below deck and sit there and wait for the others. Whenever they might return.
But then he had no choice.
When he heard the crackle and felt the warmth trickle down his back, Saurus reacted on instinct. Whipping his head around, the healer gasped at what his eyes revealed to him.
The other ship. The ship they’d found less than an hour before...the ship on which Damien and five of Greece’s greatest heroes were exploring...was on fire.
‘Good question. Just what do we do?’ Xena was frantically trying to come up with something. She’d managed to check Hercules for the moment but knew if she didn’t think of something soon, the demigod would have another try at bashing through the wood again. After all, Iolaus was behind that door. The man who had been Hercules’ friend since their childhood days. The friend who had helped Hercules on more adventures and occasions that she could ever count. ‘The friend Hercules has lost to Hades three times already.’ Hercules and Iolaus weren’t just friends, partners, and comrades-in-arms. What they shared was something more...something neither Xena nor anyone else could fathom.
And now, Iolaus was trappped behind a door. A door which Hercules, a man with the strength of ten mortals, normally would have shattered to pieces in a matter of seconds, could not even budge. And as if that wasn’t enough, neither Hercules nor Jason has heard anything from Iolaus and Damien since the door shut. Nothing.
‘This is starting to eat at him,’ Xena though studying the demigod closely. Hercules was becoming more and more agitated by the second. She sensed Hercules move behind her to pick up the mangled metal lid. Letting out a breath in frustration, Xena began, “Hercules...”
She was cut off as a deafening roar filled the room closely followed by an explosion of some kind with a force that sent them crashing into the walls and each other.
Then an unmistakable odor filled the room.
‘This isn’t good,’ Jason thought as he helepd Gabrielle to her feet. They were both uninjured, except for a bloody nose on Gabrielle’s part from where she crashed into Jason’s elbow. He could see Xena picking herself up from where she had a close encounter with a wall. She looked fine, just a small cut on her forehead. Hercules looked okay once he’d regained his balance.
Jason could hear the sound of burning wood behind him. ‘We’re in real trouble now,’ he thought as he realized the ship was burning and they had yet to free Iolaus and Damien. Desperately, Jason turned to the others only to stop and stare in open-mouthed wide-eyed amazement.
The door was wide open.
“Iolaus!” Hercules screamed his partner’s name as he rushed through the door. For a split second, his heart stopped as he saw the hunter buried beneath a pile of lethal-looking weapons. Blood pooled on the deck around Iolaus’ head. “Iolaus!”
Jason nudged Gabrielle to where Damien was beginning to stir, then he turned his attention to Iolaus.
“Gods, Herc, stop shouting,” Iolaus irritably muttered.
Hercules released a deep sigh, finally freeing his partner. “Are you hurt?” he demanded.
Iolaus looked up from tenderly prodding the edges of the wound he’d received to his left temple when one of the heavy clubs had struck him. Gritting his teeth against the throbbing in his head, he said, “I feel okay.” Trying to blink away the shimmer in front of his eyes, Iolaus looked over to where Damien was getting to his feet, arrogantly brushing away Gabrielle’s attempts to help him. “What about him?”
Casting a fleeting glance in their direction, Hercules bent to help his friend to his feet. “I think he’ll be alright.” As he reached out a hand to help, Iolaus nearly toppled over. Giving the hunter a worried look, Hercules began to steer him towards the door. “We better get out, though. The ship’s burning.”
‘Well, there’s no way in Tartarus we’ll go through there.’ Jason grimly shared a glance with Xena. The door to the main room where all the benches stood was shut, but Jason could see the smoke from the fire filling the corridor through the narrow crack between the door and wooden boards that made up the deck. That, and the metal handle used to open the door almost too hot touch, told him about the inferno raging on the other side. Coughing against the smoke, he turned to Hercules standing behind him, holding onto a dazed-looking hunter.
Catching Hercules’ question from the look in his eyes, Jason shook his head. “We’ll have to find another way if we want to get out of here alive.” Giving Iolaus a look, he asked, “How are they doing?”
Whipping his head around, trying to spot another way out, Hercules answered. “Iolaus got a blow to the head. Damien’s fine.”
“Will he be alright?” Jason asked then was interrupted by Iolaus.
“Will you please quit talking about me like I’m not here.” Shrugging out of Hercules’ grip and giving his friend a glare, Iolaus added. “I just stood too fast before. And it’s not easy keeping my balance on a ship that’s heaving worse than a sea serpent with a bellyache! Now can we get out of here before we suffocate...or worse?”
The demigod gave Jason a look that confirmed he didn’t believe Iolaus but now wasn’t the time to argue the point. “Over there,” he decided. Pointing to where a small stream of daylight penetrated through the wooden boards in the bow, he stepped up to the crack, murmuring to himself as he felt for the weakest part of the structure. ‘If I can manage to make an opening without sinking this thing with us inside...’ “Maybe you’d better take cover.” Drawing a deep breath, he drew his hand back for the blow. ‘Here goes nothing.’
“I can’t believe you did that,” Iolaus said as he and Hercules stood on the deck of Jason’s ship watching the last remaining air bubbles break on the water’s surface. The storm which had tossed the sea earlier had vanished as quickly as it had come, leaving a peaceful and glassy ocean surface.
Hercules gave him an annoyed look pushing his dripping wet hair aside once again. “I got us out, didn’t I?”
“Yeah. And you nearly drowned us, too.”
“Well, that shouldn’t be a new experience for you,” Hercules smirked.
Iolaus glared at him. “If you’re referring to the time Jason threw me into that lake...”
“And a few other times,” Hercules recalled. He leaned forward and gripped the railing in a tight grip. “Look, I’m sorry, okay? But we all got out safely and the fact the ship sank...well, at least it put out the fire.”
Iolaus laid his head in his hands, keeping his eyes on the dark waters. “It just bothers me we didn’t get to know anything about that ship. Or the people who sailed it. What happened to them?” ‘And what started that fire?’
Absent-mindedly scratching a small graze on his hand from when he had smashed through the ship’s hull, Hercules said, “Xena said something about it being a Norse ship.” Turning to look at Iolaus, he added, ”Britannia isn’t that far from the Norse countries. Maybe she picked something up?”
Iolaus was already moving. “Well, what are we waiting for?”
The galley was the largest room on Jason’s ship. A long table occupied most of the middle of the room, complete with benches on each side. Five large lamps hung from the roof and did a good job of illuminating the room together with a couple of portholes. Cabinets, containing supplies, were braced against one wall. Cutlery and cups hung from hooks in the ceiling.
In one corner, closest to the door, was a rather large hook, that was the one they used to hang the water bucket on, to prevent spilling too much water over the bucket’s rim during a storm. Gabrielle strongly debated whether she should get the others to help her hang Xena on that hook.
“Will you hold still?” Setting up her most stern expression, Gabrielle glared at the woman in front of her. “If I don’t get the cut cleaned, it may get infected.”
Xena didn’t even acknowledge her as she deftly batting the smaller woman’s hand away. “Then what happened?” Xena’s eyes were trained on Saurus.
Shakily lowering the cup from his mouth, he nervously began swirling the hot tea to cool it. “Then, as I looked back, he and the horse were gone, and the ship was on fire.”
“You saw nothing more of him?” Xena prodded.
“You’re sure?” Xena demanded.
For the first time, gathering enough courage out of the frustration he felt at not being believed, Saurus locked his eyes with the woman’s with an icy stare. “Yes! I’m sure!” Then, as he realized what he’d just done, he lowered his gaze again. “I’m completely positively sure.”
Shrugging, Xena let the matter to drop, allowing Gabrielle to resume her work.
Jason glanced at Saurus. When they had gotten back to the ship, Jason had been more than a little annoyed that Saurus, instead of trying to maneuver the two ships apart, had been found hiding in one of the empty water barrels. Now he was more surprised than annoyed. ‘How did he made it from the palace to the docks?’ Then he remembered the number of guards that had followed close behind the healer. He turned to Xena. “Why are you so interested in what he saw?”
She was just about to answer but was interrupted by Iolaus’ laughter as he came through the door. “That’ll teach you.”
Wincing as he felt for the new lump on his head, Hercules gave Jason a demanding look. “Why do the door frames on these ships have to be so low and small?”
Trying to hide his smile, Jason replied, “It hasn’t occurred to you that maybe you’re taller and broader than most folks?”
“I had no problems on the other ship,” Hercules mumbled noting Gabrielle nodding meaningfully.
Iolaus turned to Xena. “Hercules said you’d recognized the ship?”
“I’m pretty sure I know where it came from.” Xena paused to let Gabrielle finish tending to her wound. “When we went to Britannia, I heard tales of ships like those. They belong up north in the Norse countries and are sailed by the Vikings. Apparently, the people I talked with were afraid of them. On most occasions, the Vikings come to Britannia to steal and plunder, often taking people with them.”
“That explains the amount of jewelry,” Hercules said.
“Well, it seems the most popular item to steal,” Xena shrugged.
‘Some things just don’t change.’ Iolaus thought of Autolycus. He smiled when Gabrielle motioned for him to sit on the bench. As she began cleaning the gash on his head, he whispered, “See what I’ll go through to get your hands on me?”
The others threw them confused looks when Gabrielle almost collapsed in giggles. Iolaus innocently looked back at them.
“What about the man Saurus saw?” Jason ruefully shook his head at the hunter.
Xena shifted to lean on her elbows. She stared at Iolaus and Damien. “Did either of you see a man with one eye?”
Damien stared back with a cold blank expression, everything about his body language displaying he wasn’t going to say anything.
“No.” Iolaus had never liked that look on Xena’s face. It was the look she wore when she was on the track of something that didn’t bode well. It always made him nervous. And he was seeing it now.
“You’re sure?” Xena demanded.
Grimacing under Gabrielle’s ministrations of his head wound, Iolaus shot a bewildered look at his partner. “I think I would’ve remembered it.” He jerked back from Gabrielle as she cleaned the wound with grim efficiency.
Xena shot a glare at Damien. The big man was as silent as the grave. “I suppose you would have,” she coolly agreed.
Jason shared an exasperated glance with the others. “What’s going on?”
“The man Saurus saw is a Norse god, Odin,” she explained.
“Who is that?” Gabrielle pointedly ignored the squirming hunter. “And how do you know all this and I don’t? I was in Britannia with you.”
“Maybe you were too busy doing something else,” Xena answered giving the younger woman a look that clearly signaled an end to that conversation.
“Do you think you could share this information with us?” Hercules politely interrupted. “Who...or what is he?”
Xena tore her glance away from Gabrielle and took a swig of wine before continuing. Slowly letting out her breath, she leaned closer to the table. “Odin is the main God in the Norse countries. I guess you can look at him as their answer to Zeus. Sleipne, the horse Saurus saw, is only one of the animals he surrounds himself with. Odin also has two wolves and two ravens.”
“Well, that’s nice and all,” Damien sourly commented. “It’s so interesting to hear about a Norse god and his private zoo.”
Gritting her teeth, Xena continued. “Odin is known to be the god of mystery and black arts along with wisdom, prophecy, skaldic art, and not to forget...warriors.”
Hercules swallowed. ‘If he’s a mix between Zeus and Ares...no, this isn’t good at all.’
“Hercules, I said warriors...not war,” Xena interrupted his thoughts.
“Well, that’s reassuring,” Iolaus wryly interjected. He favored Gabrielle with a smile as she finished spreading a healing lotion on his wound.
“That doesn’t mean Odin’s one of the good guys. His name translates roughly to ‘rage’ or ‘the gruesome’,” the Warrior Princess continued.
“How come he only has one eye?” Jason asked.
“Because he sacrificed the other to get a drink from the well of wisdom,” Xena answered.
“What’s that got to do this this?” Iolaus demanded. He didn’t like the way Hercules’ brow was furrowing deeper and deeper.
“Legend says Odin owned two small carved boxes. When the world was created he, gave one box each to two humans who’d helped him in a time when he needed it. The boxes were meant to give the owner and his loved ones wealth and prosperity and was supposed to remain in the family forever.”
“Then why....” Jason frowned.
“However, after a short while one of the boxes was stolen and has been lost to the known world ever since. The thief was found shortly after, his body crushed under a couple of trees. The family the box had been taken from all perished in a fire.” She shifted to sit more comfortably. “You see, Odin made two reservations when he gave the boxes away. First, if they were ever stolen, both the thief and the whole family of the box’s keeper would die.”
“Let me guess,” Hercules grimly interrupted. “The second was never to open the box.”
Gabrielle looked from one to the other. “What happens if the box is opened?” she asked in a small voice.
“Legend says Odin will possess one of those present at that moment and through this person kill everyone else,” Xena explained.
“Great,” Iolaus muttered. “Just great.” Sliding a hand through his hair, he asked, “If we decide to believe this is all true, then how will be know who’s possessed and how do we...depossess him or her?”
“I don’t know,” Xena flatly answered.
An odd silence fell over the room as everyone struggled with their own thoughts and ideas. The only sounds were the creaking of the wood as the ship shifted gently in the water.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” Jason finally decided.
‘We’re all going to die! I should never have left the palace! I would have been safer there!’
The sun was already high in the sky the next day, and Saurus had been pacing for hours. Sleep had not come easy to the healer the previous night. Not after what had been revealed by Xena in the galley.
Lifting a hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead, the healer glanced skywards. The wind which had previously filled their sails and kept them cool was gone replaced by a burning heat which showed no signs of relenting in the near future. The sun bombarded them mercilessly, reflecting off the surface of the water in a burst of light which hurt the eyes. The tar on the ship, getting warmed by the heat, was gathering into small puddles on the deck and dripping from the ship’s sides into the ocean in a graceful but bittersweet symphony. It was as if the ship itself was silently weeping.
Saurus had long since given up trying to do anything useful. It was too hot to be down below. Jason had several times asked him to sit and rest, but Saurus couldn’t get himself to relax. There was something in his body, in his mind which pushed him on, denying him the good of accepting the situation, to look to the future with a free and open mind, and not be afraid of what was to come.
‘Damn them! Damn them all for dragging me into this! If they could all have just left that ship alone like I asked them...’ Sobbing in frustration and fear, he completed yet another round and turned to begin a new one.
“Shouldn’t we do something about him?” Gabrielle asked. “It’s exhausting to watch him.”
“I’ve already tried,” Jason said, pouring another scoop of water over himself. “Water’s running low. Whose turn is it to go refill the bucket?”
“I carried that one from the galley,” Xena informed them.
“Well,” Gabrielle continued. “What did you say to him?”
“I told him to sit in the shadows with us before the heat exhausted him.”
“Then what did he say?” Gabrielle pressed.
“He ignored me.” Jason shifted his gaze to Hercules.
Sighing, the demigod grabbed the bucket. “Fine. I’ll do it.”
Watching Hercules’ retreating form, Gabrielle shaded her eyes. “And you didn’t push it further?”
Jason looked after her. “No. If he wants to be left alone, then I won’t deny him that.”
Rolling her eyes in a mildly exasperated manner, Gabrielle craned her neck to look behind her. ‘Speaking of wanting be left alone...’
Iolaus sat a few feet away from them, relaxing against a discarded sail, and some of the cargo. She, Hercules, Xena, and Jason had all been over to talk to him, worrying over his decision to skip breakfast due to a strong headache. He had rejected them all, claiming he was going to be fine, that he would eat later, and that he just wanted to be left alone for a while. Although it hadn’t made their worrying less, they had decided to let him have his way. After all, the gash he had received yesterday was deep, and undoubtedly painful.
Eyes closed, Iolaus listened as Saurus paced back and forth. Ten paces...hesitate...turn...ten paces...hesitate...turn...ten paces... It was almost soothing in its regularity. He knew Damien sat some distance away and hadn’t moved for hours. But the hunter was certain the big man was awake and alert.
He smiled to himself as he heard a soft measured tread approach. Seconds later, a cool wet rag covered his forehead. “I’m fine, Herc.”
The demigod grunted. “I didn’t say you weren’t.” He cocked his head to one side as he studied his partner. “That doesn’t feel good?”
“I didn’t say that,” Iolaus half-grinned. He heard the demigod grunt again as he settled next to him. “You know, we may be worrying for nothing. That box is at the bottom of the sea now.”
After a moment’s silence, Hercules looked at his friend. “Then why do I have the feeling this isn’t over yet?”
“Because you’re paranoid?” Iolaus innocently replied.
Hercules grunted a third time and continued staring at the horizon.
“How are we doing on supplies?” Gabrielle asked as she followed Jason to the galley hours later.
“We’re okay on food,” Jason answered. “We may have to go on half-rations in a day or two if the wind doesn’t pick up. But we’re going to be hurting on water soon.”
Gabrielle flashed him a dazzling smile. “Then it’s a good thing I’m small, isn’t it? I don’t need much food or water.”
Jason indulgently smiled. “You can remind Iolaus of that when I cut his rations.”
Gabrielle laughed. “He does enjoy eating, doesn’t he?”
“Always has,” Jason nodded. With a practiced eye, he began assembling just enough food for the evening meal to feed them with nothing left over.
“Tell me about Iolaus when he was younger,” Gabrielle urged as she began helping him.
Jason’s face slowly broke into a wicked smile. Then he glanced over Gabrielle’s shoulder. “What is it, Saurus?”
“I thought...” The healer uncomfortably shrugged. “I thought...maybe I could help. I’m...not used to being idle.”
“That would be fine,” Gabrielle answered after exchanging a glance with Jason. “You can tell me that story later.”
“Count on it,” Jason grinned.
Dinner was a strained affair. Saurus buried his face in his plate trying to ignore the quiet conversation at the other end of the table. Damien sat across from Saurus his cold eyes occasionally flickering to the others.
“Worst case scenario,” Jason calmly spoke. “With that box already open, either Iolaus, Damien, or Saurus has been affected...or all of them.”
“Best case scenario,” Gabrielle offered. “The box is at the bottom of the sea. Odin sank the ship, and there’s no curse affecting anyone.” She stared at the others. “Well, it could happen.”
“Works for me,” Iolaus grinned.
“Humor me, Gabrielle,” Jason humorously requested. “I’d prefer to plan for the worst case.”
“Same here,” Xena nodded.
“Worst case scenario,” Jason seriously continued. “Someone is going to try to kill someone else. So, nobody gets left alone. We work on the buddy system. Hercules and Iolaus will keep an eye on Saurus. Gabrielle, Xena, and I will keep an eye on Damien.” He took a deep breath. “We’ll need to go on half-rations day after tomorrow. Half-rations on water starting tomorrow. Quarter rations in two days.”
He eyed the others. “That’s going to cause problems. We can count on each other. It’s Saurus and Damien I’m concerned with. Saurus’ emotional stability is pretty rocky. And we have no idea what Damien’s capable of.” Jason looked at his plate. “They’re here because I agreed to take them to Corinth. They’re my responsibility.”
“But not your fault, Jason,” Hercules quietly interrupted. “We’ll make it.”
Xena slowly rose to her feet. She’d not had much experience with Jason. He was more Hercules and Iolaus’ friend than hers. She’d heard the stories of the Golden Fleece quest as well as the stories of his drinking when his family had been murdered. But she had to acknowledge his cool assessment of their position. “We’d better get some sleep.”
The full moon’s cold glare illuminated those sleeping on the deck. Slowly...carefully...quietly an almost ghostly form walked around the sleeping bodies until...
Hercules’ eyes slowly opened. Iolaus lay next to him his brow furrowed in pain. Hercules felt reassured by the steady rise and fall of the hunter’s chest. Just before going to sleep, the demigod had stretched his arm across his partner’s chest...partially in protection...partially in case the hunter stirred in the night...for whatever reason.
The demigod looked over his shoulder then quickly sat up. “Iolaus! Wake up!”
The hunter muttered in his sleep and turned away.
Hercules crouched next to Saurus who sightlessly stared up at the stars. “Xena! Jason!”
“It’s too late,” Damien intoned. “He’s dead. And maybe...just maybe we’ll all live.”
Xena sprang to her feet her hand hovering by her chakram. Beside her, Gabrielle gripped her staff while Jason instinctively moved a few paces away.
Hercules saw Iolaus slowly get to his feet. He steadied his partner who shook his head to clear it. “Why, Damien?”
“I’d been after Saurus for years...since we were hardly more than children.” Damien’s eyes were bright in the moonlight. “His father had stolen Odin’s box from my family.”
“How long has this box kept being stolen?” Gabrielle asked in exasperation.
“When I saw it on that boat, I knew all I had to do was open it.” Damien warily kept his eyes on them. “When the mist appeared, I appealed to Odin to remove his curse from me and my family. I offered him Saurus’ life.”
“What happened to the people on that ship?” Jason harshly asked.
“The captain had stolen the box from Saurus’ family,” Damien explained. “They were returning it to the Norse countries to bring it back to Odin’s mountain retreat.” He coldly smiled. “But stealing is stealing.”
“Saurus was running, wasn’t he?” Xena coolly asked. “You’d tried to kill him before?”
“Don’t you understand?” Damien angrily lashed out. “It was either him or me...and my family. Would you have done differently?”
“You murdered a man in his sleep,” Jason coldly accused. “Yes, we would have done it differently.”
“Awake or asleep,” Damien scoffed. “It makes no difference. With his sacrifice, perhaps Odin will permit us to live.”
“I wouldn’t count on that.”
Even Hercules shivered at the cold voice coming from Iolaus’ lips.
The hunter slowly raised his head. His handsome features were distorted as though the features of another were overlaid upon his. Iolaus’ normally clear blue eyes were now a deep emerald green.
“Odin,” Gabrielle breathed.
“Iolaus! Fight him!” Hercules shouted.
“Oh, Great Odin.” Damien took a step backwards then lowered his head. “Accept my sacrifice of the thief’s blood. Saurus lies dead in your honor.”
“So I see,” Iolaus hissed. “His days were numbered when he felt my gaze upon him. But you...”
Hercules stepped in front of Iolaus blocking his way towards Damien. “Iolaus! Listen to me!”
Iolaus eyes unfocused as the hunter shook his head to clear it.
“You want more sacrifices, great Odin? Take him!” Damien slid his knife into an unprotected Hercules’ back.
The demigod grunted in pain then fell to his knees.
“NOOO!” Xena shouted even as she grabbed her chakram.
Iolaus screamed in rage. Sheets of fire sprang from his cold emerald eyes striking the big man instantly incinerating him.
Jason sprung forward catching Hercules before he fell face-forward onto the deck. Gabrielle dropped to her knees and began staunching the flow of blood.
“Iolaus,” Hercules groaned. When the hunter ignored him, Hercules gritted his teeth. “Iolaus!”
“Herc?” Iolaus’ voice faltered. Then he shivered. “Son of Zeus.” The voice coming from Iolaus’ mouth was as cold as the northern ice fields.
Xena’s eyes narrowed. “What do you want, Odin? Those who stole from you are dead.”
“So they are,” Odin deeply intoned. “Except for the one I inhabit.”
“Iolaus didn’t steal from you!” Gabrielle shouted.
Odin coldly laughed. “Be careful, little one, or I will take the rest of you as well.”
“You’re not taking Iolaus,” Hercules grimaced as he struggled to his feet.
Jason quit trying to fight him and helped him stand.
“You think you can stop me?” Odin curiously questioned.
“I think we’re going to try,” Xena coolly answered. “And that includes Iolaus.”
“Iolaus isn’t going to let you hurt any of us without a fight,” Jason assured him. “He LET you destroy Damien because he stabbed Hercules.”
Iolaus’ green eyes flickered from a cold Xena...to a determined Gabrielle...to a quietly assured Jason...to a silently waiting Hercules. “We shall see,” he announced.
A blue mist swirled around Iolaus’ feet slowly rising until his entire body was concealed.
“Iolaus!” Hercules shouted. He stumbled forward grimacing as his knees buckled. Both Gabrielle and Jason grabbed him to prevent him falling.
The mist slowly moved away from Iolaus who stood weaving from side to side. He looked around in confusion.
“Herc?” Iolaus murmured. Reaching out for his partner, he caught the demigod around the waist and helped lower him to the deck.
“Hold him,” Gabrielle quietly ordered as she began to examine the wound.
Iolaus sat on the deck with his partner’s head and shoulders in his lap.
“You okay?” Hercules grabbed the hunter’s hand.
“Yeah,” Iolaus choked in response. “Just...do whatever Gabrielle says.”
Xena suspiciously eyed the surrounding darkness.
“Is he gone?” Jason asked after watching Xena for a few seconds.
“He’s gone,” Hercules muttered.
“You sure?” Xena asked.
“He’s sure. It’s a demi-god thing, you know,” Iolaus half-smiled. He brushed the hair back from the demigod’s face. “Hey, my headache’s gone, too.”
“Good,” Hercules gently smiled then closed his eyes.
“Gabrielle!” Iolaus looked at the bard in sudden fear.
“Xena, you help Gabrielle get him below,” Jason briskly ordered. “Iolaus...” he hesitated. “We can’t keep Saurus’ body. Help me drop him overboard.”
“Does he ever question whether he’ll be obeyed?” Xena ruefully asked Iolaus.
“Not when he uses that tone of voice,” Iolaus shook his head. He quickly helped Jason lower the healer’s body into the sea. ‘Go with your gods...whoever they are.’ Iolaus mournfully stared at the black water until Jason touched his arm. Silently, he followed the Corinthian king below deck.
Xena and Gabrielle had taken the injured demigod to the captain’s cabin. They found him lying face down on the bed. Xena was tossing his bloodied shirts to one side. “Jason, I need some light. Iolaus, I need water,” she briskly ordered.
Without a word, Iolaus headed for the galley.
Jason used the hilt of his dagger to strike a spark to light two of the lamps. He handed one to Gabrielle and set the other on the chest next to the bed.
Iolaus silently brought in a bucket of water and set it next to the bed.
“It looks worse than it is,” Xena finally decided. “He’ll be okay as long as he stays quiet.” Murmuring quiet orders to Gabrielle, she began cleaning the wound. “Jason, hold that lamp higher,” she requested.
Their concern focused on Hercules, none of them saw Iolaus quietly leave the cabin.
Iolaus leaned against the railing wishing for any kind of a breeze to relieve the stillness of the night. ‘Almost like someone’s holding their breath,’ Iolaus silently admitted. He stared into the still black water and thought long and hard.
“That should do it,” Xena breathed in relief. She gave Jason a crooked smile.as he replaced the lamp on the chest. “The good part of being becalmed is he WILL stay quiet.”
“The bad part is...” Jason’s eyes narrowed. “Where’s Iolaus?”
Gabrielle looked up from where she was bathing the demigod’s face. “I could have sworn he was behind me.”
Xena and Jason immediately started for the door. “Keep him quiet,” Xena ordered over her shoulder.
Gabrielle glanced down to where the demigod was softly moaning Iolaus’ name. “Hush,” she soothed bathing his face again. “He’ll be right back.”
Hercules’ blue eyes flickered open. “Iolaus?” He tried to raise his head. “Where...”
“Don’t.” Gabrielle’s hands on his shoulders gently urged him back down. “You mustn’t move.”
“Where’s Iolaus?” Hercules grimaced. He closed his eyes and used his fear and worry for his best friend to strengthen his limbs.
“Hercules! No!” Gabrielle gasped as the demigod slowly sat up. “Jason and Xena went to get him.”
“He’s in trouble,” Hercules panted. “Help me up.”
Gabrielle pursed her lips, then slid her arm around his waist. “I’m only doing this because you’ll hurt yourself worse if I don’t,” she scolded.
Hercules wanted to thank her but then decided to concentrate on not losing consciousness.
Xena and Jason quickly looked around as they reached the top deck. Jason caught his breath when he saw Iolaus standing on the railing. “Ioalus! Get down from there right now!” he ordered in his most authoritative voice.
As always, Iolaus found himself obeying that voice before he knew what he was doing. “How do you do that?” he grumbled.
“Old King’s Trick,” Jason grunted. “What did you think you were doing?”
“Trying to keep the rest of you alive!” Iolaus snapped.
“You going overboard will NOT keep us alive!” Jason snapped in return. “Hercules would kill us once he found out we let you do something that stupid!”
“He’s in my head, Jason!” Iolaus angrily shouted. He backed away from his friends only to have Xena cut off his retreat.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve gone up against a god, Iolaus,” she calmly reasoned. “We’ll find a way.”
Somberly, Iolaus nodded. Then he suddenly swung his left arm at Xena attempting a backhand slap across her face.
The Warrior Princess instinctively grabbed his wrist as Hercules and Gabrielle appeared. Jason frowned at the sight of the demigod leaning heavily on the small bard.
Xena frowned as Iolaus grinned at her. He viciously twisted his wrist.
Xena flinched as she heard the wristbone snap. “Iolaus! What did...”
“Iolaus!” Hercules shouted. Moving away from Gabrielle, he stumbled forward catching the hunter whose knees had buckled.
“Herc? You shouldn’t be out of bed,” Iolaus mumbled.
Jason caught both his friends before they fell to the deck. “Both of you are idiots!” he yelled as he helped them sit.
Iolaus cradled his broken wrist in his lap. He wearily leaned back against the demigod before remembering his partner’s injury. “Sorry,” he mumbled sitting erect.
Hercules gently pulled the hunter back against him. “It’s okay,” he softly assured him. He loosely wrapped his arms around the hunter as Gabrielle examined the hunter’s wrist.
“Iolaus, why did you do that?” the bard asked with an ashen face.
“He’s using the pain as a focus to try and keep Odin from taking him over,” Xena coldly assessed.
Iolaus flashed her a crooked grin. “Sorry, Xena. But it’s the only thing I could think of.”
Gabrielle gently laid Iolaus’ wrist in a sling. “I’ll splint that when we get you below.” She gave the demigod a firm look. “And both of you are going below. Now.”
“I think we have something more important to deal with.” Jason’s quiet voice alerted them to the blue mist rising from the water around the ship.
Iolaus quickly got to his feet then helped the demigod stand. The mist swirled around their ankles then slowly up their bodies.
“Everybody! Hold onto someone!” Hercules suddenly ordered. He reached out and grabbed Iolaus by his vest with one hand and Gabrielle’s arm with the other. The young bard instinctively reached for her partner. Xena, in turn, grabbed Jason’s hand seeing the king reach for Iolaus’ uninjured wrist just as the mist obscured her vision.
The five heroes stood, quietly straining their senses for any movement within the mist. They heard the measured tread of a large man slowly approaching. When Xena tried to turn her head to see who it was, she discovered she was paralyzed. As the mist slowly dissipated, she realized her friends were also immobile...each surrounded by an aura of a different color.
Odin stood silently gazing at them. His green eyes flickered from one to the other.
“Heart. Soul. Desire. Reason. Compassion.”
He reached out and touched Gabrielle on the forehead through the white aura that surrounded her. “Child of Compassion. Will you drink from the Cup of Bitterness?”
‘Gabrielle saw a woman that looked like her...short cropped hair wearing strange clothing. Her arms were extended to either side secured to poles securely staked in the ground. An unknown young woman waved a sword in her direction...the intent to bury it deep in Gabrielle. Looking over the woman’s shoulder, she saw... Joxer...looking older and tired coming up behind the woman...who swiftly turned and thrust the sword into Joxer’s stomach. Mortally stricken, Joxer’s dark eyes found hers for a few scant seconds before he slumped to the ground.’
Odin removed his forefinger and studied Gabrielle. Then, with a wave of his hand, the aura disappeared and she slumped unconscious to the deck. He turned to be confronted with a furious Warrior Princess.
Odin chuckled. “Woman of Desire. Will you ever be free of wanting?” He reached through the red aura surrounding her to place his forefinger on her forehead.
‘Xena almost dragged the two limp bodies along the corridor. One she recognized as Gabrielle although the bard had cut her hair and was wearing different clothing. The other woman was a stranger to her...yet as important to her as Gabrielle. She saw Aphrodite...clothed in black???...kneeling next to them. The goddess seemed to stare at her with sorrowful eyes. She felt the burning desire in her...the need within...to save both Gabrielle and this unknown woman...to finish the quest...to make things right...just to have some peace. As Aphrodite faded away, she was haunted by the sadness in the eyes of the goddess.’
Odin contemplated the fury in the Warrior Princess’ eyes. With a sigh, he removed his forefinger. Xena silently fought for a few seconds before she fell unconscious to the deck.
Silently, Odin turned to Jason who met the god’s eyes unflinchingly. With an almost mocking smile, the Norse god reached through the purple aura and touched Jason’s forehead. “Man of Reason. Is it your sword or your shield?”
‘Loneliness...for so many years. Constantly wary of the Council who sought to rule his kingdom by ruling him. Aware his subjects were loyal more to the authority of kingship than to him...only wanting a kingdom prosperous and at peace. Questioning himself during the long lonely nights if placing duty ahead of his peace of mind...reason ahead of emotion...was good for anyone or anything in the long run. Wondering if the next day would be the day he finally decided he was too tired to continue alone...or if this voyage of flight from the reason and order that had dictated his life for so long would provide the answers he sought.’
Odin met Jason’s dark eyes with almost grudging respect. He gently removed his finger and Jason cumpled unconscious to the deck.
Then the Norse god turned to Hercules. “Man of Heart. How many times will you survive the breaking of that heart?” As he touched the demigod’s forehead, he felt the green aura surrounding Hercules shimmer...to match the shimmer of the golden aura surrounding Iolaus.
‘Pain...it hurt so much! He cradled the bloody body of his best friend...the better half of his very soul...watching helplessly as Iolaus weakly smiled and gasped the demigod’s name with his final breath. Facing off against a god wearing that friend’s face...speaking with his friend’s voice. Defeating that god knowing the end of the battle would lose him that friend yet again. Falling into a river of lava sacrificing his own life to protect the soul of that precious friend.’
Odin watched with detached wonder as the hunter’s golden aura began to merge with demigod’s green one. The two seemed to fight for dominance for several seconds.
“Man of Heart. Man of Soul. Heart protects Soul. Soul protects Heart. So intertwined that what affects one affects both.”
Odin reached out with his other hand and placed a forefinger on Iolaus’ forehead. “Man of Soul. How important is the heart?”
‘Pain...it hurt so much! Seeing his best friend...the best part of his soul torn apart by grief and guilt...guilt at not stopping the foreign god before the knife became lodged in the hunter’s chest...grief at realizing the Sumerian god did not hold the soul that meant more to the demigod than his own...guilt that drove reason from his best friend’s mind and sent him fleeing to unknown lands...seeking death in a violent storm that could have only been sent by vengeful gods...grief-driven madness that turned him from those who sought his help until an absolution of sorts was found in a dark cave.’
“Man of Heart. Is the sacrifice of the Soul worth the fight? Knowing the price the Soul will pay, would you make the same decision? Man of Soul. Is the sacrifice of the Heart worth the fight? Knowing the price the Heart will pay, would you make the same decision?”
The northern god watched as the green aura of the demigod and the golden aura of the hunter smoothly joined becoming one aura that surrounded both men.
Heart and Soul answered as one.
Odin removed his forefinger from their foreheads. He silently nodded as both Hercules and Iolaus fell unconscious to the deck. He turned as he heard a soft whimpering from behind him.
The Norse god gently smiled and knelt next to a quietly sobbing Gabrielle. He gently placed his hand on her forehead. “Gently, Child of Compassion...gently sleep. All will be well. The injuries of the half-god and his companion will be healed. And none of you will remember our meeting. Betrayed I was by humanity. But your compassion...desire...reason...heart...soul...they have convinced me it is time to return home...and let revenge seek another course. You will only remember that Saurus and Damien were lost when the other ship caught fire and sank.” He smiled again when Gabrielle deeply sighed. After a few moments, he stood and looked around once more.
The blue mist began appearing around the ship. The last thing the Norse god saw was the sleeping Son of Zeus throwing a protective arm across the chest of his unconscious partner.
The sound of the wind snapping at a sail forced Jason’s eyes open. Startled, he sat up seeing the sun just rising over the eastern horizon. He grinned and jumped to his feet. “Hercules! Iolaus! Get those sails up! We’ve got a wind!”
As always, Hercules obeyed that voice hardly before he knew what he was doing. “How does he do that?” the demigod grumbled under his breath. It only helped slightly to see Iolaus was jumping to obey just as quickly.
Gabrielle sat up rubbing her eyes. It had been so hot they had decided to sleep on the top deck to catch whatever slight breeze they could. She stretched cramped muscles and got to her feet.
Xena stood looking around uncertainly. Her instincts told her something was out of place. A quick look around showed nothing wrong. Finally, she put it down to a lingering guilt at not being about to rescue Saurus and Damien before the burning abandoned ship had disappeared beneath the waves.
“Are we off course?” Hercules called.
“Shouldn’t be by much,” Jason cheerfully replied. The crisp wind blew his dark hair around his face. He looked like he was thoroughly enjoying himself. “In fact, if this wind keeps up, we’ll be in Corinth in two...maybe three days.”
Iolaus smacked his friend on the back as he headed towards the galley for food. “Then it’s back to the old grind, huh, Jason?”
Jason smiled in return. He’d taken this voyage to get away from Corinth and do some hard and serious thinking.
Hercules looked over his shoulder with a smile when Jason began whistling. He shook his head and followed Iolaus.
‘Why not do it?’ Jason asked himself with a wide smile. ‘It’s time I lived for myself,’ he silently promised with the courage of his heart.