Herakles felt stone and dirt explode underneath him as he slammed into the earth and the air was forcibly expelled from his lungs. The Olympian took a moment to stare up into the clear blue sky as he breathed in the crisp mountain air. He could feel soreness on his chest from the impact that had sent him flying and a large smile began to grow on his face as he heard a deep grunt and the pawing of hooves against dirt from just out of his line of sight.
“Come on now you old sow, is that all you have left?” Herc said, grinning as he sat up in the crater his collision had created in the mountainside. As he pulled himself to his feet, his gaze fell upon an absolutely massive creature. Some might say that it resembled a boar, but such a comparison would be like saying a housecat bore a striking resemblance to a lion. The beast before him was as wide as a semi-truck and almost as tall. Its body was a ten-ton mass of bristling fur and thick muscle with a wicked pair of tusks sticking out of its mouth like terrible spears. Its eyes glittered with something that might be considered joy as the enormous boar lowered its head and charged.
Most humans and even some gods might seriously consider their life and the choices they had made that brought them here, but Herakles was something of a special case. The old hero had many escapades to his name where he pitted his skills against all manner of monsters. Most of these adventures lead to the creature’s death, such as his Labors against the Laernean Hydra, the Stymphalian Birds, and the Erymanthian Boar, just to name a few. However, the past is not always prologue. The gods might not change but he was once a mortal and, despite his immortality, he still retained the ability to grow. To evolve.
The hero shifted his stance as the titanic, furred freight train barrelled towards him. Within seconds it was close enough for Herc to feel the heat of its breath on his face. It was far faster than its mass suggested, but so was he. The earth crumbled underneath him as Herakles exerted his strength downward through his legs, pushing himself into the air as the boar was about to run him down. He twisted his body in the air with the grace of a gymnast until he reached the apex of his arc at the center of the boar’s back where his arm flashed out and struck. This was an arm that had the strength to break mountains in half and hold gods at bay, but that’s not all it could do. He might have been a killer in his past life, but he wanted to be more than that.
A closed fist opened into a large open palm as it fell and smacked the coarse fur that covered the boar’s back as the beast’s forward momentum carried it past him. The large pig squealed in a tone that was not pained so much as it was frustrated as it dug its hooves into the dirt to bring its charge to a halt.
“Hah! Not nearly quick enough, Stella,” Herc exclaimed, grinning broadly as the boar turned to glowered at him. “That makes the score seven to five, in my favor!”
Stella let out a huff that sent a gust of air strong enough to send leaves and dust blowing into the Olympian’s face. Considering that she was standing ten feet away from him this was relatively impressive. Herakles could see the muscles around her shoulders and neck tense as the mythical creature prepared to continue their game, but all of a sudden something changed. All the tension slipped away from Stella’s muscles and her head whipped around to stare off into the distance.
There was not much that could distract the giant boar from one of their little games, so whatever caught her attention immediately piqued Herc’s as well. As soon as the thoughts of investigating whatever might be so interesting to Stella, the immortal felt another presence brush against his consciousness. He normally was not in the habit of opening his mind to others, but this was a special case.
As soon as Herakles gave his consent, he felt the consciousness of the land speak to him, in its own way. The spirit of this place was old before the Olympians started raising columns on Olympus, and rarely had a need or desire to communicate with anyone who walked on two legs. It only spoke to Herc out of absolute necessity and even then it was a rare thing. It didn’t use words, so much as it gave him impressions of a path. It was like he’d always known about the trail, even though he knew for a fact he had no knowledge of it minutes before.
Glancing over at Stella, he noticed that she was looking in the same direction that he was. For whatever reason, she must have been given the same directions he had. Maybe the elemental spirit believed she would be needed? Whatever the reason, the presence in his mind faded once the spirit had said what it wanted, having no more desire to converse.
“Guess you’re gonna have to keep up, old girl.” He said, moving to the colossal beast’s side to stare out in the direction she was. It wouldn’t take them long to reach their destination. Nothing short of a Sherman tank could stop Stella if she had a mind to get somewhere, but soon the sun would begin to set and he would prefer to face whatever awaited him in the light of day.
Without another word the strange pair pushed forward, deeper into the wilderness. Herakles was not exactly what one might imagine when someone used the words “nimble” or “inconspicuous” but compared to Stella he was as quiet as a field mouse. Any obstacles in her path were not so for very long as she plowed through fallen oaks and shoulder-checked giant boulders with such ease it reminded the god of a small child tossing around its toys. He could certainly imagine why such creatures terrified people during his time. What could a mortal do against such overwhelming power? Pray to the gods and hope for a miracle.
With a racket that probably even be felt deep down in his uncle’s domain, Herakles soon recognized that they were beginning to approach the end of the road. The hero was a fair bit shear of his boorish ally, so he held up a hand for her to stop her barreling rampage. There was no sense in her rushing in without knowing what they were dealing with. Surprisingly, she heeded his signal, skidding to a stop and sending up a wave of dirt and uprooted plants as she halted her forward momentum, completely covering the Hero of Heroes from head to toe in soil. For a moment, Herc just stood there, considering who he needed to blame for this before ultimately settling on himself. He lifted a hand and ran his fingers through his hair, dislodging as much grime as he could before pointing a finger at Stella. If the boar could smirk he was sure she would be doing so. He was tempted to say something childish, but he restrained himself and with as much dignity as he could muster, the immortal turned around and began moving towards what the spirit had sent them to find.
His eyes scanned the area as he pushed through the last bunch of bushes before his eyes fell on a rather curious sight. An injured drake of some variety and what appeared to be a young woman with the smell of magic on her. A strange pair to be sure, but considering the company he kept, he did not have room to judge. What truly surprised him was the fact that they were here at all. It was by no means a simple thing to reach this valley. These woods are treacherous even for a practiced mage and a healthy, adult dragon and it was a miracle these two seemed to be mostly in one piece. He certainly could not wait to hear what adventure brought them to his doorstep.
“Excuse me, terribly sorry to bother you,” Herakles said, announcing his presence as he entered their line of sight. He smiled widely and lifted his hand in greeting before stopping a respectful distance away. “You two certainly seem far from home. What brings you to this little corner of nowhere?”
Feral witches didn’t sleep. At least their minds never did. If she were to lay her head against the boney side of her companion and let her body fall into the endless pit of sleep, her spirit would separate from it and, if she so chose, would materialize in one of her animal forms as her human body slept. Dreamless. Practically dead. The dream realm did not cradle her in its arms and whisper old tales of where she’d been like it did any other human, or any other witch for that matter, it saw past the mortal shell of her body and treated her like the any other spirit. It wasn’t closed to her, exactly. While her spirit was separated from her human form, she could walk through the Living Dream, that strange realm between the spirit realm and the mortal one and from there she could step into the dream realm entirely to walk through the sleeping mind of anyone she came across… It was how she’d found him.
The creature had rested its head on the ground, each breath making the ferns cradling it shiver, but Beck could feel its spirit was as restless as ever. Could he ever taste peace again after so much pain? Could he ever be that great and terrible beast she had seen the first time their eyes met?
In the dream realm it had looked so spectacular. A menagerie of spirits had been gathered around the beast, desperately reaching out bony hands or claws trying to twist its mind and feed off it. Its scales had looked like a pearl in the silver starlight. Its legs had stood strong beneath it, and the muscles beneath its impressive armor were so thick that it could have crumbled a rock troll with a casual flick of its tail. She remembered. They’d locked eyes. It had called to her, and before she even knew what was happening, she’d found herself running from a great distance to see the magnificent beast, leaping over and slipping under spirits who blocked the way.
From those dreams of brilliance and strength, she could have never imagined the suffering she saw when she looked past the dreams to the reality of its mortal form. Chained, caged, starved, and sick. It had been taken captive as a curiosity by a group of wizards, and left to rot in its cage when they moved on to topics they deemed more “interesting.” She was fairly certain one of them had been gravely injured in the fire she’d set to distract them, but she couldn’t muster up any pity for anyone who would treat another creature so heinously.
She shook her head, not wanting to think about those men. If the rumors she’d heard about this place were true, they would never find her new friend again.
The beast’s head suddenly shot up and flattened like a cobra taking aim to strike. Its chest shook as a breathy hiss left its mouth, and the tremors when right down into her chest and made her heart tremble. Weak as it was, it still lashed its tail and showed its fangs. Beck was certain it was no empty threat, either. She followed his eyes toward a patch of thick, trembling bush, where an enormous man appeared out of the forest.
“Easy friend.” She murmured. It took a surprising amount of effort to raise herself up from the ground. Most of her energy was being poured into her magic. Unseen and unheard, she reached out to the beast’s mind and tried to reassure it. This was what they had come for. Surely no one else would be wandering this part of the woods.
Her eyes narrowed slightly as he spoke. Far from home? No. That wasn’t the problem at all.
“I couldn’t be any closer to home if I tried.” She said, running her hand over the rough scales of her companion. It wasn’t a lie, either. The wilds were her home. She was a piece of them no matter where she went. She would be just as much as home a thousand miles under the sea or roaming the tundra as she was in canyons, deserts, and even forests as ancient as these. The nature spirit had become so intertwined with the Earth that there was no distinguishing it from the rocks or trees or creatures.
She was not far from home. But she was far from herself—or at least pieces of it. If she wasn’t reunited with her familiars soon, the consequences would be dire.
“I’ve heard rumors about this forest, and I came to see if they were true.” Cautiously, she removed her hand from the beast and took a step to the side. “My friend here was taken captive by wizards. I was able to help them escape, but their home was destroyed by the wizards, and they can’t stay with me. It would be too dangerous for the both of us. The rumors say this place is a safe haven, guarded by a man with unmatchable strength. Maybe even enough to break the last of my friend’s shackles.”
She cautiously touched the chain on the beast’s neck, and it wrapped its tail around her, as if to shield her from the interloper. She had to get up onto her tip toes to see him properly.
“I’m guessing that’s you.”