Chapter One: Reality

The moisture clogs my lungs with the heady fumes of rot and stagnant water. It is almost a living creature determined to suffocate me. The heat of the dampness clings to me, an extra thick layer that draws the water from my body until I can feel the sweat pooling along the hard contours of my armor.

Despite the heat, I begin to wish for the pelt of the Nemean lion to carry with me into the inevitable battle. The suddenness of the wish startles me, and the apprehension that follows it settles readily in the center of my chest, making my heart convulse with needless haste. What frightens you so, Hercules, son of Zeus? I ask myself, you deserve this Labor. It matters not if you live or die in its pursuit. My own words hold no sway over the fright shuddering through my limbs.

I force myself to take another step only after careful appraisal of the ground in front of me, but as the weight of my foot presses into the soggy ground, my sandal slips into the slimy muck that had only seconds before appeared to be solid, or as solid as the ground can get in this accursed swamp.

The mud oozes between my toes and presses against the sensitive arch of my foot, and I can't help but mutter a disgusted Euuuggh before attempting to violently shake the slime off. My outcry bounces against the thick trunks of the trees rising from the water like so many sentinels. The fading echoes of my exclamation only exemplify my feeling of foolishness, and I stop squirming. I grimace as my foot slips around inside my sandal. I don't have time to clean it out now.

I stop and listen at the sound of every strange bird and creaking of the branches high above. The fight to stay constantly alert drains my energy rapidly as the sweat drips into my eyes. I have to remind myself that I cannot falter.

The water behind me seems to gulp with bubbles of eager anticipation, and my hand instinctively finds the short sword at my side. My fingers are slick with sweat, leaving my grip lacking its usual security. The ring of steel sliding past leather washes over my senses, the slight vibration soothing my fingers. The smell of clean metal is sharp enough to overwhelm the stink of the swamp in my nose, the bright flash of light from an obscure ray of sunlight flashes into my eyes, and the smooth schik as the blade clears the scabbard seeps into my ears. My heart slows at last, and the breath that fills my lungs feels clean and light for the first time since entering the swamp.

I begin the spin towards the sound of burbling water, and the whistle of my sword through the thick air follows. I fight to keep my balance against the sodden earth that slips beneath my feet, but it is a hopeless struggle and I must bend my knees and steady myself with my free hand. As I am finally able to raise my eyes, the beast I have come to slay bursts from the fetid depths of the water, and tiny droplets of the displaced swamp cascade over me where I am crouched.

Nine pairs of golden eyes focus on mine, and nine broad jaws open wide to reveal rows of fangs glittering with iridescent poison eager to rip into my flesh. The water sluices from the dark scales that shimmer down the necks attached to each head, nearly obscuring the priceless shine beneath the murk and mud. The heads rise up nearly double my own height even though the lower of half of the beast's body has yet to finish dragging itself from the water. The fear that had gripped me before melts away.

"Come on!" I yell the challenge, and several of the Hydra's heads flick their forked tongues out to catch my scent. The beast's two thick legs bulge at its broad shoulders, talons as long as my forearms gouge into the soggy earth and the narrow tail slithers from the water with a slurp as if drags itself fully from the swamp.

I straighten to my full height and the Hydra continues to approach, a pair of its more eager heads stretching out their necks to snap their teeth at me. I feel a grin pull at my lips and my muscles react without me consciously telling them to. I grip the sword tightly and swing the blade downwards throwing my weight behind a mighty swing. It takes a modest amount of my strength to sever the first head from its neck, and before it can even finish its descent to the marshy ground, my sword is eagerly searching out the neck of the second reaching head.

Two wet splats reach my ears as the heads complete their falls to the earth, and I brandish my sword at the remaining heads, the blade now dull with the black blood of the monster. Steam rises from the two writhing stumps and the spurts of blood that sizzles and smokes upon hitting the ground.

I lunge forward, the song of battle now blazing through my veins. With a twirl of my blade, another head tumbles to the ground, and I leap back to avoid the fresh squirt of deadly poison blood. I pause to catch my breath, and I take notice of something odd. The Hydra's immense body begins to shake with a deep rumble emanating from the core of its chest. My eyes dart up to the six remaining heads to see them hissing with evident glee.

The rumbling intensifies, and I realize that it is the monster's hissing snarling version of laughter. I cannot help but pause and stare, and before I have a chance to gain the nerve to press my attack, an odd screeching sound assaults the swamp and right before my eyes the bloody stumps begin to bulge and lengthen with alarming speed. A sharp pop is followed by a slurp and from each stump there bursts forth two new snapping, glaring heads. The fresh skin of each new head shines as if still wet from being born, and the rumbling of the entire creature deepens. I stand before the now twelve headed monster with every one of their glowing gold eyes staring at me with hunger as the beast draws its jewel-encrusted sword.

The rumbling of the Hydra's laughter begins to fade, and a familiar voice fills my head. I can't seem to decipher where it is coming from, but his words are urgent, and I know that I must trust him.

"Adri? Adri!" he says, trying to sound calm. "Snap out of it, it's just a simulation!"

Her eyes fluttered open. Fluorescent lights on the ceiling forced her to squint and rendered the figures surrounding her dark and blurry. The figures murmured to one another, but just as she couldn't see their faces, she also couldn't make out what they were saying. The voices, both deep male and lighter female, sounded muted as if she were underwater.

Slowly the sensations of her own body became more evident to her. She was lying flat on a hard surface. Her toes ached with cold, and several somethings bit into her skin at various places on her body. The inside crease of her elbow. Her temples. The center of her forehead. Her brow furrowed and she tried to squint at it while her other hand automatically reached to shoo the things away from her tender skin. One of the voice-producers stopped the movement by holding her arms at her sides. She struggled, wanting to at least push the other strange something that cupped her mouth and nose and trapped the heat and moisture of her breath against her face, but the figure didn't loosen its grip.

She grimaced with distaste. Another of the speakers leaned closer over her, mumbling more unintelligible words and using its rubber-gloved fingers to force the lid of her right eye open wide. The hazel iris expanded, engulfing the sensitive pupil until it was barely a pinprick. The circular blare of light seemed to burn into the helpless eye and she squirmed, trying to turn her head away to escape, but the only result was that yet another of the blurry figures leaned over her and grasped her with one hand on her forehead, pressing sweaty locks of dark brown hair against her face while the other hand gripped her jaw between strong fingers.

Just before she had made up her mind for another escape attempt, the voice she knew, the voice that had reached her in the swamp filled her mind. With a start, she realized that the voice was inside her. The one she trusted wasn't one of the blurry figures in white prodding and holding her down with gloved hands. Her sudden stillness allowed the latex hands to expose her other eye to the bright light, but it also allowed her to focus on the internal voice that was distinctly not her own, and also quite male.

"You're awake." He sounded out of breath.

Awake. The soft breath of air that flowed from the mask over her mouth was suddenly oppressive. She began to fight against the flow, forcing her own breath against it with quick and uneven gasps. This place, the figures in white coats, she didn't belong here. A sickly sweet scent filled the mask over her face and she had no choice but to breathe it in.

"Just stay calm, we're coming to get-"