Heracles – California – Present Day
“You’re getting a little too obsessed with those toys of yours, Arthur,” an elderly woman with face that was heavily lined with age, yet still retained endless beauty, announced primly. She eyed the man beside her as they strolled together down the store aisle, the subject of her remark pushing a heavily-laden cart. “Honestly, computers in glasses. Who needs that?”
Arthur Chambers turned his head to regard his wife of so many years, winking at her from behind the high tech lenses that he wore. “Oh, don’t be such a fuddy duddy, Maria. These things are useful as hell! Look, I can scan the barcode here…” As he spoke, the man leaned over to stare intently down at a bag full of mulch in the cart. “And check the prices elsewhere. See, it’s three twenty-five at Home Depot.”
Maria Chambers eyed the man with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. “I’m so glad that your thousand dollar glasses have managed to save us fifty cents if we drive another two miles, you economical genius, you. At that rate, they’ll pay for themselves in a few short centuries.”
“Hmmph,” Arthur huffed while lifting his chin. “Al likes them, don’t you, Al?”
Both turned to look behind them, toward the fairly enormous figure who had been silently following them throughout their discussion. Arthur Chambers himself was a tall man himself, standing a full six and a half feet in height, with a physique that made him look as though he could wrestle bears. But the man behind him was almost five inches taller than that, and if Arthur could wrestle bears, this man could have drop kicked them. Despite the lines on his face and his grayish-white hair, he still moved with all the sprightliness of a much younger man (much, much younger than Arthur and Maria knew).
“Don’t look at me,” he easily replied, “I don’t exactly keep up with all the new technology.” He left out, of course, the fact that things such as batteries, steam engines, the printing press, and the mechanical clock had all been ‘new’ at some point within his lifetime. Or, for that matter, glasses themselves.
Maria smiled, gesturing with her hand. “Well, that’s only because you’re so tall that it takes awhile for you to see what all us mere mortals down here are doing, Mister Caeus.”
Caeus. Albert Caeus. It was the name he used now, and so very close to the name he had been born with, all those many… many years ago. Alcaeus, son of Alcmene and Amphitryon. One of two sons, actually. Twins, the other being named Iphicles.
Then the troll had come. The troll who had killed the infant twins’ father in an attack which had resulted in its blood spilling in the crib of the infant Alcaeus, gifting the child with its incredible strength and regenerative power. Strength which had grown as the boy aged, drawing the attention of the being known as Zeus. That so-called god had taken an interest in the boy, beginning to train him. Which had angered his wife, Hera, who sent the boy on many errands designed to kill him.
Yet Alcaeus had persisted, had continued to grow in strength and power despite Hera’s attempts to kill him. So he had taken on a new name, one meaning ‘Glory of Hera’, to show that it was his trials brought by the goddess that would make him famous.
Glory of Hera. Or, in a word, Heracles.
For quite some time, Heracles had proven himself against all comers and challenges. His desire to win Zeus’ approval and best Hera despite everything she threw at him quickly became an obsession. He did many good things throughout his quests. Yet also many bad things, things that he could take no pride in now. Yet at the time, all that had mattered were the victories, which continued to pile up. He was the grandest champion in all the lands, in every land.
Then the Bystander Effect had happened. And when it had, Heracles had seen what the people he had spent so much time trying to prove himself to, so much of his life working for, had been capable of. He had seen the unprecedented deaths that happened due to them erasing humanity’s memory and understanding of magic and of other intelligent species. He’d seen entire cities fall, had seen families turning on one another. He’d seen death to a scale he had never before imagined.
It had been too much, and the man called Heracles (or Hercules depending on the land he traveled through) had simply… disappeared. He left, disappearing into the mists of history and then myth. As far as almost all were concerned, he was dead.
For Heracles himself, it was a retirement. And a rebirth. Taking up the name of his birth once more, Alcaeus had kept to himself. He spent centuries simply traveling the world, moving often and sometimes spending entire decades living entirely alone and isolated in lands beyond true civilization. All that time had been spent coming to terms with his own anger, with the deeds he had done, both good and bad. The fury and obsession with proving himself against all odds had, in time, faded from a raging inferno to a spark held deep in his soul.
He had needed time to come to terms with who he was as a person. And who he was, was a very angry man who could quite easily lose himself in violence, and in drink. So he had sworn off both, had spent many years as a pacifist who did not raise a hand to others.
That too, had been going too far, only in the other direction. It had taken centuries beyond that for Alcaeus to find the concept of balance in his life. Balance which he was still striving for, but was at least closer to.
It was during one of those attempts at balance that he had met a then-young Arthur Chambers in a bar, and had become quite friendly with the man. After all, how could Alcaeus not make time to spend with a man after witnessing him, while a completely normal Bystander human in every respect, actually come out on top of a fist fight with a werewolf?
Seeing that remarkable event, he had bought Arthur a drink. Then another. And from that point on, the two had been friends. Even to the point of now, many years after that event, when Arthur and his wife had taken ‘Old Al’ with them to shop for new supplies for their garden.
It had been a long time, from their point of view. Long enough that, despite the fact that Alcaeus had been taking care to make himself look older over time, they had actually commented on his seeming agelessness.
He would have to leave soon, would have to fake a death just as he had with so many other Bystanders he had grown close to. It was a time he was not looking forward to.
“Well,” Maria Chambers insisted, “you are coming to dinner, anyway. And don’t give me any of that lip about not wanting to be an imposition. You’re coming and that’s final.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Al quietly acquiesced with a small smile. “Though I should probably find something to bring with, so I don’t feel like too much of a bother. I’ll meet the two of you up front.”
They made some noise about him not needing to worry himself about it, but headed off. Al watched them go, smiling softly. Slowly, he turned to look at the nearby shelf full of more mulch bags and other planting supplies. After eying the shelf briefly, he glanced up and down the aisle. Empty. Quiet. Not many people in the gardening section.
Without warning, his fist abruptly lashed out. He punched straight through the shelf and out to the other side. His groping hand caught hold of a startled figure there, clutching the fabric of his shirt before giving a hard yank forward. There was a hard thud as their head struck the shelf, and Al released them to collapse to the floor.
Whistling softly, he casually strolled around to the other aisle, where the figure in a dark trenchcoat was just starting to pick himself up.
“No,” Al calmly announced while putting his foot on the back of the figure’s head to keep him down on the floor. “Stay.” When the unknown man tried to grab his foot, he added, just as calmly, “If you try to possess me, I will crush your mind more thoroughly than I could crush your head by stepping down right now.”
The figure froze, and Al went on. “I told the last one of you who came sniffing around here, the Chambers are off limits. What part of that didn’t you understand?”
“Hey, hey, it’s not them, it’s not personal,” the hurried response came. “It’s their grandkid. She’s a Heretic, a Crossroads Heretic. But she knows about Seosten, and we think her dad knows, cuz he disappeared. So we’ve been trying to find him. But that means getting to his parents, her grandparents. He’s gone, we thought he’d contact them sometime. That’s all I know, I swear. I don’t know how, I don’t know why. I know what they tell me, and that’s to take one of those two and find out what they know about what their son and granddaughter are doing.”
“Lincoln Chambers is on a special investigation,” Al murmured, though that much obviously wasn’t true. “And Arthur’s granddaughter is–aww hell.” He muttered under his breath, stepping down a little more firmly. “You listen up. If I see, hear, or even smell you, or any of your kind, around my friends again, I will send you back to your masters taking up a third of the space your body ought to, with all the same parts still attached. And I do have ways of checking that they stay clean and unpossessed. You understand?”
He felt the quick nod beneath his foot, then moved it. “Go.”
The Seosten scrambled up, giving a brief glance back before starting to hurry off. Al watched him go, sighing to himself. Maybe he would poke around a bit, see what else he could find out about this whole situation while keeping an eye on Arthur and Maria to make sure they weren’t dragged into it. The Seosten, after all, weren’t known for giving up quite that easily. In any case, it sounded like his latest retirement was about to come to an end.
But hey, it had been nice while it lasted.
Saint Nicholas – Turkey – March 15th, 2018
It was a quiet, lonely grave, set in an unknown grove far from any sign of civilization. The simple headstone, itself having been replaced and updated several times since the original burial, was marked by words carved in Latin reading, when translated: Father Nicholas – Immortal In Deeds And In Love.
Any who found the grave would not believe it contained the man that it truly did. Yet Saint Nicholas of Myra, the man who had inspired the legend that would become Santa Claus, did indeed lay entombed here, far from County Kilkenny, Ireland, where Bystanders believed his tomb to be.
Here, in this quiet grove, a dozen figures stood in solemn, reverent vigil around the grave. Each stood no higher than a foot, though otherwise appeared to be adult humans. Seven males and five females, varying in apparent age. Each wore a patchwork outfit of various brightly-colored bits of fabric, including phrygian caps. Caps which, at the moment, were held against their hearts.
Their ancestors had come to this planet in a ship, though due to an accident in the cryo-freezing of those ancestors, none remembered precisely where that ship had originated from, nor what their race was called. The ship itself had been badly damaged in the crash that had awoken them, leaving only a portion of its name visible. Three letters: LVS. In time, they had taken that as a name for themselves. Lvs, or simply… elves.
While the current surviving elves had never truly met the man to whom they were paying homage, their respect and adoration for him could not have been greater. It had been the great Saint Nicholas, after all, who had taken in their ancestors and protected them from the Heretics who had come to kill them. It had been he who, through his incredible generosity and understanding, had given them a home and a place to work. He had taught them to make gifts for the children, before passing them out himself.
He had been a shining beacon of love and grace, changing the lives of those early elves roughly sixteen hundred years earlier. And after his death, they had grieved for him as if he was one of their own.
But they had done more than grieve. They, and in time, their descendants, had worked to ensure that the legend of Saint Nicholas’ generosity and love of children lived on. They furthered the legend of what became known as Santa Claus, so that every Bystander child might, for at least a time, believe in magic.
And every March fifteenth, they gathered here at his grave to honor the man who had given so much. He had been a human, an ordinary human in almost every respect aside from his gift to see through the then-much weaker Bystander Effect. That itself was something no one could explain. Nor did they want to try. That was simply who he was.
“Our sorrow is a hole which lies ahead of us,” one of the elves, a man known as Tuelen, quietly intoned.
Around him, the others all spoke as one, “Our joy will fill it.”
“Our grief is a pit which stretches before us,” Tuelen spoke next.
Again, the others spoke their part of the ritual as one. “Our deeds will fill it.”
“Our loss is a tomb which stands in front of us,” Tuelen finally declared.
“It is filled,” came the revenant chorus.
“It is filled,” Tuelen softly agreed. His eyes closed, and he thought of the stories that his own grandparents had shared with him, of the stories their grandparents had told them, of the man himself. A man he was entirely too many generations removed from knowing. Yet despite never coming close to meeting Saint Nicholas, he and the other remaining descendants of those original elves would continue the tradition. They would keep his memory alive.
They would defy the Bystander Effect and those who created it, by putting an old, ordinary Bystander human into the minds of as many as they could. Their ancestors had promised the old man that he would not be forgotten. Saint Nicholas would always be remembered.
One by one, the twelve small figures turned away from the grave and walked away. Tuelen was the last to move, staring at the marker for a few long moments after the others had departed. He thought not only of Nicholas himself, but of his dear, beloved family. They had all been lost over the years, some to age, others to more violent ends. Yet through it all, they had maintained the work. As would he.
Touching his fingers to his lips, then to the name on the gravestone, he finally turned to walk away. The others were waiting for him as he reached the road beyond the grove several minutes later.
“To the workshop?” Frodey, the youngest of their group while still being an adult spoke up. She was a tiny female only nine inches in height, barely above a child, with a shock of bright purple hair that stuck out in every direction.
“To the workshop,” he agreed. It was only March, giving them around nine months before the next Christmas. But given what day it was, none would have been happy or comfortable doing anything but working. Working on the toys and gifts that they would give children, to commemorate Saint Nicholas.
They couldn’t really go to every house in the world, of course. Not even enough to actually make a dent in things. And in those places they did go, the Bystander Effect made the parents within dismiss the idea of a ‘real Santa Claus’ when they saw gifts whose sender seemed unclear. No, the so-called elves could only make relatively few children happy each year. But those few mattered to them. Because they would have mattered to Father Nicholas.
And really… was that true? Yes, they were only able to directly help relatively few on that holiday. But so many others came together to do even more work for one another. In a way, the spirit of Saint Nicholas was helping so many more than those few whom the elves could directly affect. Just as their ancestors had hoped for. Just as they had worked so long to ensure.
The elves worked through the year. Not only for the single night of Christmas, though that was their main show. They also worked for other nights, giving toys and other bits of help here and there wherever they could. They worked, they laughed, they played… And they remembered. They remembered the man who had saved the lives of their ancestors and given them so much to live for, all those many years ago.
They remembered the man called Saint Nick. And ensured that he would, in turn, be remembered by far more than they.
Vlad Tepes – Visegrád – 1475
The emaciated figure hung from chains in the dark dungeon. Dried blood decorated his otherwise naked, near-skeletal body. Scars ran freely over that nude form, while his dark hair fell long enough to obscure his face with his head held down. Several sharp hooks where various torture elements hung protruded from the wall just behind him. His toes were held an inch or so from the cold stone floor, where more blood had fallen to stain the area around a small drain. A curious rat sniffed one of his toes, preparing to take a bite until the dangling man brought his foot back and kicked it to send the rat scurrying away with an annoyed squeal.
“Ah, so you are alive.” The voice, speaking quietly from the nearby nearly pitch-black doorway, sounded vaguely amused. The man who entered was dressed in finery, his skin flawlessly smooth and perfumed. Clearly well-fed, the blond man slowly descended the steps into the dungeon, carefully stepping over another rat before stopping in front of the prisoner. “Aww, come now,” he cajoled the man, whose head remained down, “you know how I enjoy these chats. They have been ever so informative this past decade.”
Snapping his fingers then, he spoke brightly, “Ah, I know the problem. You wish to be referred to by name, yes? What is it the people call you? Impaler? Yes, Vlad the Impaler. Or… do you prefer simply ‘The Impaler’? Sir The Impaler, perhaps?” His taunting tone turned sharp as he smacked a hand through the dangling man’s hair to strike his face. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Slowly, the man in question raised his head. His face was just as scarred and broken as the rest of his body, though his eyes were sharp, with cunning that shone through even in his condition. “Impaler,” he spoke in a deep voice that rumbled through the dark, damp room. “It’s a bit… on the nose.” A small smile crossed his face. “I’d hate to see what they would have called me if I had followed my first instinct to have them fed to the pigs. Pigfeeder? How would you terrify a populace with a name like that?”
“Terrify?” His tormentor echoed before chuckling. “Oh, you’ll never be terrifying anyone again, Impaler. Except perhaps the children when your body is strung up in the square. My father has tired of keeping you here. You don’t even squeal the way you used to. You’ve become too boring to torture. Weak as you are, I give it another… few days before we put you out of our misery. Though if you beg very nicely, I may be persuaded to–”
“I like your clothes.” The interruption came from the hanging man, as he swept his gaze all the way down, then up again. “It has been awhile since I wore such finery. But the perfume? That has to go. Far too many enemies with sharp noses. And it’s a little bit… poncy, don’t you think?”
“You…” Taken aback briefly, the finely-dressed man opened and shut his mouth before getting himself under control. “You clearly don’t understand your position here yet. Which is funny, because one would think that after so many years, even the least of–”
In mid-sentence, he stopped short as the prisoner abruptly moved. His body jerked as he twisted his wrists around the chains holding him before grabbing on tight to haul himself up. But even as his tormentor abruptly jumped back, the prisoner simply pulled up on those chains. With a grunt, he hauled his body up higher. A brief, wicked smile was flashed to the other man, before he abruptly swung his head back as hard as he could.
With a sickening thunk, the back of Vlad Tepes’ head was impaled on one of those sharp protrusions that held various torture instruments. His body went slack immediately, blood pouring freely down the already stained wall as his intelligent eyes faded.
And in the wake of that, a glowing figure appeared directly in front of the now-dead prisoner. The light faded, revealing a pale man with dirty blond hair that fell to his shoulders. His face looked as though it had been carved from marble, his eyes a pair of twinkling aquamarine gems. He wore a dark red form-fitting jumpsuit of material far as far beyond the comprehension of the man before him as his sudden appearance was.
“Wha-wha–” the finely dressed man stumbled back, eyes wide with terror as his gaze snapped from the dead prisoner to the figure who had abruptly appeared in that flash of light. “Sorcery,” he blurted before starting to raise his voice to a shout, “Sorcer–”
His words were cut off then, as the newly arrived man abruptly moved, turning into a blur that slammed into him. He was brought off the floor and pushed hard against the opposite wall with a hand over his mouth.
“Shhh, shhh…” the new arrival whispered. “We don’t want to be interrupted, do we?” Holding his hand over the other man’s mouth, he smiled. “I thought you wanted to meet the Impaler, after all.”
Watching the other’s eyes instinctively move past him to look at the now-dead figure hanging against the wall, the pale man chuckled softly. “Him? Oh no, no, no, no. Vlad. Vlad isn’t the Impaler. He was simply a boy. Simply a silly boy held hostage by the Turks almost thirty years ago. He wanted power, wanted a way to kill his enemies. I gave it to him. I believe… in the end… he found the cost too high. But I must say, all these years here in your dungeon have given me a new appreciation for the torment a human body can withstand. Your people, they are artists. I will most enjoy turning them to a better use of their talents.”
He slowly moved his hand from the other man’s mouth, to hear the whispered, “Wh-what… what are you?”
A new smile crossed his face then. “What am I? My people call me a Lie. But I am far more than that.” Leaning in very close then, he whispered almost seductively in the other man’s ear. “Let me show you.”
The finely-dressed man opened his mouth to scream, but it was too late. The figure holding him vanished, but the man remained pinned against that wall, trapped by a force far greater than he had been previously. His eyes slammed shut, and his body jerked once, then again.
Then his eyes opened, and the Lie looked out through new eyes. He surveyed his previous body, hanging there from the ceiling. A slight smile touched his new face, even as he straightened up. Glancing down at new hands, he turned them over a couple of times while ignoring the screaming, distant voice of his new body. It would fade away eventually.
“Yes,” he announced in his new voice, “no more perfume. And the hair… hmm.” With a thoughtful look, he stepped over to his old body. His hand reached past to touch the wall where the wet blood still dripped. Carefully, he dipped his finger in that blood, before drawing a simple rune on his own arm. After the spell was drawn, he touched it gently while murmuring the activation words.
His new body began to glow then, hair lengthening and darkening while his face reshaped itself. A moment later, it had transformed to look identical to the dead man, save for appearing much healthier and stronger, as he had in the time before his capture. He appeared to be Vlad Tepes, miraculously recovered from twelve years of torture and starvation and dressed in fine clothes.
“Better,” he announced then with a nod of satisfaction. “After all, what’s the point of cultivating a reputation if you just have to start over again every time you change bodies?”
Turning on his heel, he began to walk from the dungeon, only to pause at the foot of the steps. Head cocked to the side, he listened briefly to a pleading voice that only he could hear. “No, I am not Vlad Tepes. Though I have enjoyed being the son of Vlad Dracul.”
His voice was decisive, as he began his way up the steps. “Yes, I like the sound of that. That is a name that I will hold onto, a name that I will make my own. Son of Dracul.