“Hey! Hey, Bigfoot,” Hercules groaned, trying to get the attention of the owner of the large boot that was grinding his face into the sawdust. “Didn’t you hear the promoter? This is supposed to be an exhibition. It’s for charity. You do know what charity is, don’t you?”
“Feel the pain!” his opponent growled gleefully, twisting his wrist painfully as the crowd shouted out their encouragement to the demigod.
“OK,” Hercules told him, having given the man a chance and finding his own charitable attitude rapidly diminishing. “If that’s the way you’re going to be.”
He kicked out, breaking the behemoth’s hold on him, then grabbed the brute by the leg and swept it out from under him. Both rivals quickly got to their feet and faced off. There weren’t many men that could make the demigod appear small, but small he did appear next to the giant opposite him. And it didn’t take much to see that the guy had a mean streak every bit as big as his body. Sparing a quick glance around the crowd, Hercules picked out Iolaus, wearing a huge grin around the apple he was eating and seemingly having no intentions of coming to help. With a sigh, the demigod turned back to his foe, who was advancing with a malicious smile.
They grasped each other’s shoulders, grappling fiercely for a few moments, before Hercules broke his grip and landed a hard uppercut on his chin. Grabbing his arm, the demigod twisted around and yanked, sending the brute flipping head over heels into the sawdust. When he clambered to his feet, Hercules grabbed his arm again, sending him spinning across the ring to slam into two spectators that had the misfortune of being just a little too close to the action. The man staggered a bit, but came back for more, seemingly unfazed by his wild ride.
“I like that,” he declared proudly.
“Figures,” Hercules muttered.
They circled each other warily a few times, then the giant advanced, slamming the demigod hard across the chest before reeling back and delivering a killer head butt. The crowd fell silent as the two opponents hesitated. Hercules’ eyes went wide for a moment as he tried to shake off the momentary stun. But his rival found it wasn’t so easy to shake off, and he toppled over backward into the sawdust, unconscious. The crowd went wild and Iolaus leapt into the ring to his partner’s side.
“Way to go, Herc!” he enthused.
“I had a feeling he was soft in the head,” the demigod said wryly, pressing a hand to his aching temple and trying to force the world back into focus.
“Yeah, well, no more jokes about MY hard head,” Iolaus told him with a grin, slapping him affectionately on the back as he moved off to the let the advancing crowd offer their congratulations to the humble hero.
“Isn’t he great, folks?” the promoter called out, hoisting the embarrassed demigod’s arm up triumphantly. “Isn’t he fabulous? Hercules! And he did it all for charity!”
Once he managed to extricate himself from his well wishers, Hercules began wandering among the colorful tents, determined to enjoy the rest of the festival and wondering where his friend had gotten to. The crowd had dispersed, but the demigod still found himself besieged by fans, offering him everything from meat to pastries to ale. He declined everything gently, then turned and found himself face to face with an attractive brunette clutching a goblet.
“Maybe you’d rather have what I’ve got.”
“And what would that be?” he asked, arching an eyebrow as he picked up something suggestive in her tone.
“Water,” she replied innocently, holding out the goblet to him.
“Oh,” he chuckled, accepting the drink. “Thank you.”
“Not much for celebrating, are you, Hercules?”
“You know what they say,” he told her. “Clean body, clean mind.”
“Nobody ever says that in Orestia,” she declared vivaciously.
“Orestia? Well, if that’s where you’re from, you didn’t need to come here for a good time.”
“I was looking for you,” she informed him. “Your friend, Salmoneus, sent me. My name is Ayora.”
“You don’t look like a distress signal,” Hercules observed, taking another glance at the pretty woman. “So he must not be in trouble.”
“Far from it. He’s rolling in dinars. And he wants to share his good fortune with you,” Ayora explained. “For all the good deeds you’ve done on his behalf.”
“Tell Salmoneus I’m not interested,” the demigod grinned, sure that the salesman wouldn’t be surprised with his standard answer. “He’ll understand.” He started to walk away, but Ayora put a restraining hand on his arm.
“Even if I promise to stay by your side, 24 hours a day?” she offered, all traces of innocence gone. “Ah, look, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the offer,” Hercules stammered. “But...”
“I know,” she demurred, not entirely convinced as she ran a hand up and down his broad chest. “Clean body, clean mind.”
“Clean conscience,” the demigod insisted, catching her hand and returning it. “Just out of curiosity, how did Salmoneus strike it rich?”
“Oh, no,” Ayora smiled seductively. “You have to come to Orestia to find that out.” She turned and began sauntering off, giving a small wave over her shoulder. “Bye, now.”
“You’re not eating,” Iolaus commented, sliding onto the bench next to his friend and nodding at the untouched bowl of stew on the table. “So I would say that something’s eating you.”
“It’s nothing,” Hercules denied quickly.
“Come on, Herc,” the hunter urged, nudging his partner playfully. “I know that look. You want to go to Orestia, don’t you?”
“I just can’t help thinking that if Salmoneus did strike it rich, it wasn’t by hard work,” the demigod sighed. “What if he’s gotten in over his head?”
“Salmoneus is a big boy,” Iolaus reminded his friend. “One of these days he has to learn to avoid trouble rather than relying on you to bail him out of it all the time.”
“I know, you’re right.” Hercules ran a hand over his face wearily. “But, I just have a bad feeling about this.”
“Ok,” the hunter relented finally, seeing that his partner was honestly concerned. “Let’s go to Orestia.”
“There’s no need for both of us to go,” the demigod protested. “You’re probably right, and I’m probably overreacting. But I’d just feel better if I went and checked it out. You should stay and enjoy the festival. I’ll meet you back here and you can say ‘I told you so’.”
“Are you sure?” Iolaus asked. He didn’t want to leave the fun for what was most likely going to amount to a wild goose chase, but partners always covered each other’s backs.
“I’m sure,” Hercules told him warmly, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder in thanks for the offer of what he knew to be a great sacrifice for the hunter.
“All right,” Iolaus agreed with forced solemnity. “If you insist. But just one thing before you go, Herc.” “What’s that?”
“Are you going to eat that?”
The demigod grinned and slid his bowl over to his friend.
“Marvelous,” Salmoneus beamed. “Simply marvelous. Same exquisite craftsmanship. Every piece an original antique. And all of it in perfect condition.”
He moved around the wagons, full of the finest treasure he’d ever lain eyes on, taking inventory of the beautiful pieces and practically salivating over how much he’d be able to get for such masterful work.
“I think you’re gonna like it even better after it’s sold.”
“You know something? You’re right.” The salesman slapped Purces on the chest, liking the way his companion thought. “Foreman! Hey, foreman! We ready to go? Huh? The carts are filled. The public’s appetite for these artifacts is insatiable.”
“We can move out as soon as you finish talking,” the man said sourly.
“A little fresh, but industrious,” Salmoneus laughed. “Let me have another peek, just to satisfy my aesthetic needs.”
He entered the cave, glancing around the dimness and wondering just how much more wealth there was to be excavated. Something in the rafters caught his eye, and he reached up and pulled out a figure on a camel. Solid gold, and with detail the likes of which he’d never seen in a sculpture.
“Who thought I’d behold something almost as lovely as the precious dinar?” he murmured in awe. Salmoneus blew the dust off the object before kissing it reverently.
An ominous creaking drew his attention back to the present. His gaze went to the ceiling of the cave as bits of rock and dirt began raining down.
“Look out! It’s caving in!”
The shouts from outside were unneeded, as the salesman had already assessed this himself. He ran for the wagons, getting clear just as the tunnel caved in, the entrance crashing down angrily with a shower of dust and debris.
“Did you see that?!” Salmoneus demanded of the men.
“We framed the entrance with double support beams,” the foreman insisted, not understanding how the structure could have collapsed.
“Let’s get out of here,” Purces suggested nervously.
“Maybe the gods are trying to tell me something.” The salesman looked worried for a moment, then shrugged it off confidently. “No, they’ve always been good to me,” he scoffed, brushing the dust from his expensive silk tunic. “I’m their boy!” He strutted to the front of the wagon train, squaring his shoulders. “Let’s move it!”
As the men put their backs into setting the heavy carts filled with priceless treasures in motion, Salmoneus led the way, whistling jauntily.
Hercules’ walk was peaceful, until he came to a stretch of woods that was littered with broken branches, as if a violent storm had recently passed through. The demigod frowned as he found a small cauldron, and then a broken clay jar. He followed the trail of smashed objects and came upon a body that was trapped under a large fallen tree.
“Help me,” the man moaned faintly.
“I’ll do everything I can,” Hercules reassured him.
“It was the wind,” he gasped out. “The wind chased me like a thief.”
“Don’t talk,” the demigod ordered, lifting up the heavy tree. “Save your strength.”
“I couldn’t run fast enough,” the man continued, ignoring his command. “So I offered everything I had. Everything, except this. Here, take it.”
Hercules tried to accept the ornate vase from him, but it fell apart as he took it in his hands. The man gasped when he saw his treasure in pieces, then he fell back and stilled.
“The wind won’t chase you anymore, my friend,” the demigod said softly, reaching out to close the man’s sightless eyes. He glanced down at the broken pottery in his hand, not getting what was so precious about it. But as he turned it over, his gaze went hard as he saw a familiar mark etched into the bottom of the piece, and a sudden, ominous gust of wind made him think that his suspicions hadn’t been unwarranted after all.
“Fifty-three dinars? You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“Madam,” Salmoneus began grandly, clearing his throat. “The days of Salmoneus haggling over a price are long gone.” He feigned disinterest for a split second, then turned back to his customer. “I could let you have it for... I don’t know, uh, fifty dinars?”
“Forty-five,” she bartered quickly.
“Madam, I fear you miss the point.” The salesman took the chalice from her, stroking it lovingly. “See, the purpose of art is to elevate us above the crassness of bargaining. Not to demean us the way the give-and-take over a mere number does. Forty-nine.”
“Forty-five,” she insisted again.
“Forty-eight, and don’t make me haggle,” he offered, giving her his most winning smile.
“Oh, all right,” she conceded, done in by his slick charm as she reached out to pinch his cheek. “Forty-eight, you big baby.”
“Ah, there, now,” Salmoneus chuckled as she paid him and he handed the chalice back to her. “Don’t we both feel better? Hmm?” The woman nodded and moved off, and the salesman turned and frowned when he saw two lovely women entering his gallery. “Ah, what’s wrong with this picture?” he asked loudly, holding up his hands to form a frame as he scrutinized the girls. “Syreeta’s here. And Ayora’s here, so it obviously can’t be her.”
“Stop it, Salmoneus,” Syreeta chided. “You’re being mean.”
“I’m not being mean,” he argued. “I’m being DISAPPOINTED that Hercules isn’t here.”
“But Ayora thinks he may have a change of heart,” Syreeta tried to placate him as the brunette fidgeted beside her.
“I never said that,” Ayora snapped at her.
“I’m just trying to help you,” the blond said quietly.
“You help me?” Ayora sniffed. “That’ll be the day!”
“It’s all right, Syreeta,” Salmoneus reassured her.
“It was just like you said, Salmoneus,” the brunette told him, moving forward. “If Hercules wasn’t fighting evil, he’d be doing charity work. And there he was. Wrestling to raise money for war babies.” Ayora pouted prettily. “I could have shown him some wrestling.”
“He’ll never learn,” the salesman chuckled.
“Learn what?” Syreeta asked.
“That money isn’t a dirty word,” Salmoneus declared loftily. “If he had only come here, I could have made him rich.”
“Excuse me.” The salesman’s former customer approached him with another piece that had caught her eye. “The price tag can’t possibly be correct. It says sixty dinars!”
“Watch a master in action.” Salmoneus said in an aside to the girls with a smug grin. He turned to his customer, putting an arm around her as he led her off through the grand showroom. “Madam, let us talk about the cultural value of beautiful things. Such as yourself, huh?”
Hercules entered the rather seedy looking tavern, wishing he hadn’t been so quick to give his last meal away to his insatiable partner. Moving through the crowded room, he approached the counter, but thoughts of food died away quickly as a silver vase caught his eye. It was new and rich looking, and definitely seemed out of place in the dark tavern. He reached out to examine it, but it was quickly snatched out of his hands.
“Put it back,” the innkeeper snarled.
“I just wanted to see it,” the demigod told him, a bit surprised at his attitude over such an innocent gesture.
“You don’t see with your hands,” the man snapped.
“But I need to check it for a mark that could bring you trouble,” Hercules tried to explain.
“Are you threatening me?” the innkeeper bristled, putting the vase back on it’s shelf and moving from behind the counter.
“Threatening you... No, I’m... I’m trying to help,” the demigod said, sensing a fight brewing but not wanting to believe that one could escalate over such a minor incident.
“I don’t want your help,” the man growled, grabbing his shoulder.
“There’s no need to be rude,” Hercules told him firmly, removing the hand with just a touch of strength as his patience began to wane.
“We got a troublemaker here!” the innkeeper announced loudly.
“Wait, this is all a misunderstanding,” the demigod insisted as men began to rise from their tables, advancing on him with palpable aggression.
“Get him!” the innkeeper ordered.
“Get me?” Hercules demanded incredulously. “For what?!” The innkeeper grabbed him again, and the demigod caught his arm in an iron grip. “This is really stupid.” He elbowed the man hard in the face, knocking him to the ground. Then Hercules kicked him, sending him flying across the floor to knock down another man rushing him.
With that, the battle was on full force. Hercules used the momentum of his next attacker to send him sailing over the counter. He met the next one head on, blocking his swing and flipping himself around the man, across his shoulders. When he landed back in front of the guy, a hard right put him out of action. Picking up a chair, the demigod used it to take out the man that was crawling back over the counter. Someone landed on his back, and Hercules used the opportunity to whirl around in a circle so that the guy’s feet took out his approaching friends. He flipped the man over his shoulder and kicked the next attacker without missing a beat. Turning, the demigod backhanded the one he’d kicked and grabbed the limp body to swing him at the next one, swatting him off. Hercules tossed the guy in his grasp off into the corner and ducked as another thug took a swing at him. A strong punch sent him flying, and the demigod sent the prone form on the counter sailing to land on top of his buddy to make sure they would both stay down. He whirled again, punching out the next foe and then jumping into the air to avoid someone trying to hit him low. A well placed kick insured that the man kept going until he met the wall up close and personal. And at last, there were no more.
But all of the ruckus had jarred the vase from it’s shelf. It rocked back and forth and finally fell, hurtling toward the floor. With a Herculean dive, the demigod landed on one of his fallen enemies and managed to catch the vase before it hit the ground. But the stress was too much for the fragile piece and it disintegrated in his hands.
“I don’t believe it,” he groaned. Hercules picked through the pieces until he found one that bore the insidious mark. Getting up, he moved through the fallen bodies until he came to the innkeeper. The demigod squatted down beside him, tapping him on the chest to wake him up. “Where’d you get the vase?”
“Huh?” the man asked fuzzily.
“That’s all I wanted to know,” Hercules informed him loftily. “This fight wasn’t necessary. Now, where’d you get the vase?”
“A pushy little man. He called himself Salmoneus.”
“Salmoneus,” Hercules sighed, his gaze wandering over the ravaged inn as his concern became downright worry. Nothing good would come to his friend if he were mixed up with Hera’s treasure, of that the demigod was certain. Looking back at the man on the floor, Hercules saw he had faded back out and tapped him again. “Excuse me? Next time? Try a little communication. It won’t hurt quite so much.”
The innkeeper groaned, and the demigod decided to take that as an agreement. Leaving the inn, he resumed his journey to Orestia. But Hercules’ pleasant walk had suddenly become a determined run.
It was business as usual for the men at the cave as they continued the excavations. The workers whined about getting a break and the foreman urged them on and gripped about how long it was taking. None of them were aware that a divine presence had appeared in their midst. A beautiful woman, transformed from a dove and keeping herself invisible to them as she watched them toiling to load up the treasure.
“This load goes to my home,” Purces declared to the men on the first wagon.
“What’s Salmoneus gonna say?” the foreman asked him.
“He won’t say anything if he doesn’t find out,” Purces snapped.
“Well, I’m not keeping my mouth shut unless there’s something in it for me,” the foreman threatened.
“You think there won’t be?”
“I’m just telling you how it is,” the foreman declared, knowing full well he wouldn’t see a cut without a bribe. “That’s all.”
“You’re forgetting something. I’m the one that calls the shots around here,” Purces reminded him before turning to the wagon driver. “Go on!”
Nemesis saw her opportunity and chose to make her rather spectacular entrance.
“Then you’re the one I’m looking for,” she announced, moving forward.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” Purces gave her a lecherous smile. “I’m busy.”
“This won’t take long,” the archer assured him, pulling an arrow out of her quiver and fitting it to her bow.
“Purces, she...she...” the foreman stammered nervously, not taking it as a good sign when beautiful women appeared out of the thin air, heavily armed.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Purces waved him off, then turned to the wagon bearer who had stopped in his tracks. “OK, OK, you’ve had an eyeful. Now, get moving.” As the wagon moved off, Nemesis drew back her bow and aimed it at him. “Put that away,” he said patronizingly, still not sensing the danger. “It’s not hunting season.”
“Guess again,” the archer said grandly, letting the arrow fly. It hit the dirt at the man’s feet. “Time to dance, Purces.”
“You crazy?!” he demanded.
“No, I’m curious,” Nemesis answered, stringing another arrow. “I want to know if you’re man enough to admit that you’re a thief.” She turned to the men who were staring. “Get back to work!”
The men quickly did as they were told, breaking up the rocks at the entrance of the cave, and something flashed in Purces’ face as he finally realized the trouble he was in.
“I’m no thief.”
“That’s a lie,” she insisted. Another arrow hit the dirt at his feet.
“What’s wrong with you?” Purces shouted. “Huh? I’m telling you the truth.”
“That’s another lie,” Nemesis said haughtily, launching another arrow.
“Get this lunatic woman away from me,” Purces cried to the foreman.
“Don’t even think about it,” the archer warned him, stringing three arrows at once. “Now, tell me the truth.”
“OK. OK. I..I admit it,” Purces confessed, backing away from her as the three arrows surrounded him. “I’m a thief! I’ve been stealing chalices and-and-and vases and anything I could lay my hands on!”
Not looking where he was going as he tried to put distance between himself and the archer, Purces stepped too close to the men working. As one of them threw his pickaxe over his shoulder for another swing, it struck Purces in the head, killing him instantly.
“Justice has been served,” Nemesis informed the stunned group. She turned and walked away, satisfied with a job well done.
“Ow! Wait! There’s a shoulder attached to that arm!” Salmoneus begged the guard who was hauling him roughly down the corridor. “Careful! Do you get enough fiber?! Listen! This time, please don’t... Ow!” The man shoved him hard to the ground and the salesman sprawled across the floor in front of the imposing figure seated before him. Getting to his feet, Salmoneus brushed himself off and tried to recapture what was left of his dignity. “Every time I come here, Zandar, that guy does the same thing! It’s REALLY getting tiresome!”
“What happened out there?” the cloaked figure interrupted.
“All I know is what I hear,” the salesman reported. “Some crazy woman with a bow and arrow started calling Purces a liar and a thief.”
“And he wound up with a splitting headache,” Zandar chuckled with genuine amusement.
“Poor Purces,” Salmoneus lamented. “He wasn’t exactly ‘Mr. Personality’. But since when is being a liar and a thief punishable by death?”
“Do your mourning quickly,” Zandar ordered. “You’re more vital to our operation than Purces ever was.”
“You mean it?” the salesman asked in astonishment, not used to receiving compliments on his worth.
“I’m not the type to joke around.”
“No! I can see you’re not!” Salmoneus agreed quickly, not wanting to offend his often volatile superior.
“Your laborers have to keep hauling artifacts out of that cave. And you, my friend, have to keep selling them.”
“Selling. I’ve got the concept,” the salesman said facetiously. He took a nervous step forward, stroking his beard. The cave-in he could write off as coincidence, but with what had happened with Purces... It definitely wasn’t sitting right and he was starting to have his doubts that he was part of a legitimate business. “But listen. Um... this treasure of yours. I’m a little vague on how you got it. I mean, was it a treasure map, or did you find some kind of...?”
“Tell me, Salmoneus.” Zandar rose and cut him off. “What interests you more? Dwelling on some inconsequential mystery, or making money?”
“Give me a moment. Making money, absolutely.”
“I knew you’d see things my way,” Zandar told him, slapping his shoulder. His ragged laughter became a hacking cough, and Salmoneus hurried off, his desire to get away from the man’s foul breath momentarily outweighing his desire to find out where the treasure had come from.
“Is something wrong, Iolaus?”
“No, nothing,” the hunter hastily assured his lovely companion, dragging his thoughts back to the present.
“Then I’ll take the lack of dinner conversation to mean that you were enjoying the meal,” Halae said wryly as she cleared the empty plate in front of him from the table.
“It was fantastic,” Iolaus promised, giving her a blinding smile.
“So,” the woman hinted. “You want to go sit in front of the fire for a little while?”
“Maybe later,” the hunter replied, rising and retrieving his sword from where he’d left it by the door. He strapped it around his waist, unable to shake the bad feeling that had settled over him. Whatever had been eating Hercules had apparently been contagious.
Iolaus looked back at the stunned woman, who had obviously not been expecting a negative response. Sighing, he shook his head, thinking he must be crazy to be running out on the dark haired beauty.
“I’m sorry, Halae,” he apologized. “I can’t explain it, but I just have a feeling that something is wrong. And I won’t be able to relax until I go back to the festival and just make sure that everything’s ok. I hope you understand.”
She studied him through narrowed eyes for a moment, then relented.
“Good. It shouldn’t take me long, and I’ll be back.... What are you doing?”
“I’m going with you,” Halae informed him, slinging her shawl over her shoulders as she looked up at him with a gleam in her eyes. “I’m not THAT understanding.” She knew she hadn’t been the only girl at the festival vying for the handsome warrior’s attentions, and she wasn’t about to let him slip through her fingers now.
Iolaus laughed and opened the door, shutting it behind them as he escorted her out. He tried to tell himself he was being ridiculous, but as they headed for the marketplace where the festival was being held, he kept one hand on his lady’s arm and the other firmly wrapped around the hilt of his sword.
All of Salmoneus’ earlier concerns about the validity of Zandar’s claim on the treasure went up in a puff of fragrant steam as he lounged in a ridiculously large bathtub with four gorgeous women pampering him.
“Oh. Oh, yeah,” he sighed in pleasure, until a rough sponge dug at his chest. “Ow! Ow, careful. Careful. Syreeta, tell her what I like.”
“A little lower,” the girl instructed. “With a gentle rotating motion.”
“Yes. Yes, that’s the place,” Salmoneus groaned happily as the sponge was repositioned. “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, you girls. Ooh, you girls. You’re so good to me.” He reached down into the water and pulled out a handful of pearl necklaces. “I have presents!” He laughed as the lovely women all gasped, their eyes lighting up at the sight of the jewels dangled just out of their reach. “Presents for you all. Syreeta.” He held the pile aloft to the sweet young woman, allowing her first pick. “Now, the rest of you,” he teased, moving out into the center of the tub. “Are going to have to fend for yourselves.”
They all squealed as he dropped the jewels below the water’s surface.
“Come on,” Ayora challenged her friends. “The one with the most pearls wins.”
The three girls jumped in, diving for the pearls and letting Salmoneus know their appreciation.
“Whoa!” he laughed. “Whoa! Hey! Hey, not those pearls!”
“Oh, Salmoneus!” Ayora cried. “You’re so good to us!”
“Remember, girls,” the salesman said dreamily. “Clean living always pays!”
“You’re so generous!” Ayora lunged at him, kissing him deeply.
“Oh, I’m generous to a fault!” Salmoneus murmured, falling into the arms of one of the other girls.
“‘Fault’ is the key word.”
“Hercules!” the salesman called out, turning to identify the owner of the familiar voice standing in the doorway. “I’d knew you’d come. I knew it.”
“Wait,” the demigod commanded as Salmoneus started to climb out of the bath, rather disturbed at the thought of getting a glimpse of his pearls. There were some jewels that were just better left under wraps. “Uh, no...” Hercules held up a hand to shield his eyes, but the quick thinking Syreeta met her boss with a blessedly large towel and made sure nothing inappropriate was visible. “Thank you,” the demigod told her gratefully.
“You have no idea the amount of riches and plenty that we’re going to be rolling in, my friend,” Salmoneus began, not able to wait until he was more suitably attired to exalt their good fortune.
“Uh, that’s what I want to talk to you about,” Hercules told him. “Let’s take a little walk.”
“Why so glum?” the salesman asked, clutching the towel tightly around himself as he followed his friend. “It’s time to eat, drink, and get disgustingly rich.”
“You’re wrong,” the demigod contradicted, deciding that Salmoneus didn’t deserve to have the news broken to him gently.
“Yes. That treasure you’ve been selling? That belongs to Hera. And if I know Hera, she wants you dead.”
The salesman took the news a little harder than Hercules anticipated, evidenced by the manner in which he immediately fainted dead away.
“Salmoneus?” the demigod called, wondering if his friend was just being dramatic. But the salesman was out cold. Hercules sighed, realizing it was going to have to be up to him to move Salmoneus and hoping that towel was tied good and tight.
“Iolaus, what are you doing?” Halae demanded as the hunter abruptly pulled her into an empty tent.
“I don’t want them to see us,” he whispered, lifting the tent flap enough to peek out and watch the group of men swaggering through the festival.
“Why not?” she questioned, her hands going to her hips. This was far from her idea of an ideal date.
“Because if I recognize them, chances are they’re going to recognize me,” Iolaus told her impatiently.
“Who are they?” Realizing that the situation was serious, she obligingly lowered her voice, moving behind the hunter to try and get a look as well.
“They’re mercenaries,” he replied. “Last time we met, they were working for Hera.”
“They’re going into the inn,” Iolaus relayed. He lifted the flap up and stepped out into the street. “Let’s see if we can get a closer look.”
Halae followed him, somewhat reluctantly, as she realized there was a very real and present danger to being a hero. And she had somehow landed in the middle of it all.
Hercules had left his friend’s revival in Syreeta’s hands, and before too long the young woman came for him, telling him that Salmoneus was ready to talk. The demigod reentered the room, finding the pale salesman stretched out on a lush leather sofa, and fortunately clothed.
“Feeling better?” he asked, taking a seat across from him.
“You tell me,” Salmoneus replied quietly, the fear visible in his eyes as he took the laurel crown off his head and tossed it aside. He knew all too well the consequences of wronging Hera, and he considered himself lucky that he was even still alive to have this conversation.
“You’ve really done it this time, Salmoneus,” Hercules lectured gently. “What I can’t believe is that you’ve never heard the story of Hera’s treasure. It’s a local legend. It’s been...” The demigod glanced down at his friend. “Oh, maybe I can believe it.”
“All I could think about was how much money I was going to make, and how many ways I could spend it,” the salesman chastised himself. “But that’s all I ever think about.”
“Tell me the story,” Salmoneus chuckled humorlessly. “I can’t wait.”
“It happened when King Ores was in power,” Hercules explained. “There was a rebellion against Hera, and he wiped out every man, woman, and child involved. Hera rewarded him with the treasure you found.”
“Now, listen,” the salesman protested as he sat up. “That can’t be. My treasure was found sealed in a cave. It had never been touched.”
“You’re right,” the demigod continued. “And there’s a reason. Before Ores could get to it, I helped to overthrow him.”
“Why didn’t you take the treasure?” Salmoneus asked in disbelief. “It was right there!”
“Salmoneus, are you learning anything from this?” Hercules demanded incredulously.
“Sorry,” he murmured, rubbing at his temples as he realized his insatiable greed was not only leading him to his grave, but that he was encouraging it as they went.
“Hera left the treasure where it was to test the Orestians’ loyalty.”
“I thought the laborers were being stupid for being scared. I was the stupid one, huh? I flunked Hera’s test and now I’m dead.”
“Well, you’re not dead,” Hercules countered casually. The salesman looked up at him sharply. “You’re not going to die,” the demigod reassured him, gentling his tone.
“You could reverse it?” Salmoneus inquired, almost not daring to hope. “You would do that?” Hercules nodded, but the salesman didn’t seem to notice as he came out of his seat, filled with joyous gratitude as he groveled at his friend’s feet. “You could do that? Please? Please?! Please?! Please?! Please?!”
“Salmoneus,” the demigod sighed, getting up and pulling the salesman to his feet. “Just show me where you took the treasure.”
“Right! Anything you want!” he heartily agreed. “But I’ve got to tell you, this is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me. You find a way to keep my head on my shoulders, I’ll turn over a new leaf. I swear!”
“Don’t bother,” Hercules told him lightly, slapping him on the shoulder. “You’d only sell it to the highest bidder.”
Salmoneus wanted to be insulted, but he had to admit that his friend was probably right.
“Please!” the woman sobbed, struggling ineffectually against the ropes binding her to the signpost. “Don’t take my babies! I’m begging you!”
“Babies?” the brutish thug sneered, keeping a tight hold on the squirming boy and girl in his grasp. “These brats are old enough to work the fields! I’ll get twenty dinars apiece for them.”
“You’re not going to do anything except turn them loose and apologize for being such a swine,” Nemesis announced, striding forward. True, the events didn’t concern her, but she wasn’t about to stand aside and let two innocent children get sold into slavery when she could do something to stop it.
“Well, looky here,” the man drawled. “No telling how much a slaver’s dream like you is gonna fetch.”
“Do what I said,” the archer ordered, fitting her bow and aiming.
“You’re a bossy little thing, aren’t you?” the thug taunted.
Nemesis turned, letting her arrow fly. It hit the post, severing the ropes binding the woman and freeing her. She turned back to the slaver, grilling him with a look that plainly said she was done negotiating.
“Now, let the children go,” she commanded sternly.
“Yeah, sure,” the thug agreed, releasing the kids. They ran to their mother as he took a step forward. “I’d rather have you, anyway.”
“Your fun’s over,” Nemesis insisted, aiming another arrow at him. When he didn’t back off, she let it go. It came close enough so that he felt the wind and it struck the wineskin on the back of his wagon. “Consider that a warning.”
He angrily grabbed the arrow, watching his wine trickle out into the dirt below.
“I’m gonna kill you!” he growled, pulling out a knife and hurling it at her.
“Ow!” the archer gasped, looking at the bleeding gash the blade had left on the back of her hand. She turned back to the thug with a heated glare, pulling two arrows out of her quiver. Her shot was true, and the man found himself back against the wagon, pinned there by an arrow through each of the large hoop earrings he wore. “Next time, I’ll take your ears off!” Nemesis threatened. “Now, get out of here!”
“I’m going! I’m going!” the thug promised, yanking the arrows loose. “I’m going!”
He took his wagon and beat a hasty retreat as the grateful woman smiled her thanks to her family’s savior. But the smile quickly faded as she saw the wound on the archer’s hand.
“You’re bleeding,” she pointed out, sorry that the stranger had been hurt saving them.
“Curse of being human, I guess,” Nemesis said, a bit sarcastically, as she headed off, shaking her hand to try and dull the stinging pain.
“Too gaudy for my taste,” Hercules declared, examining a golden skull with glittering sapphire eyes.
“Hey, this is top-of-the-line stuff,” the salesman protested.
“If you say so,” the demigod shrugged, not impressed. “How did you find it?”
“Strictly on the up-and-up,” Salmoneus promised him. “A gentleman named Purces approached me on behalf of, uh, a third party. And he said they had a lead on a treasure trove.”
“All this was just out of the blue, right?” Hercules asked skeptically.
“Contrary to your belief, my reputation as a salesman precedes me,” Salmoneus bristled.
“They didn’t happen to know you were a friend of mine, did they?” the demigod wanted to know, seeing the pieces falling into place.
“Uh, I might have mentioned it once or twice,” the salesman admitted.
“Huh. I think I better have a talk with your partner, Purces.”
“You’re too late,” Salmoneus told him, stopping him as he turned to go. “He’s dead.”
“I heard it was a scorned woman. One armed with a bow and arrow.” Salmoneus peered around his large friend to address the woman that entered his showroom. “I’m sorry! We’re closed!”
Hercules turned, and his eyes went wide with shock when he saw Nemesis standing there. She seemed surprised to see him as well, but she recovered quickly. With a teasing smile, the archer vanished from the salesman’s sight.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
“What, you saw her?” Hercules asked.
“Yeah, but I don’t anymore!” Salmoneus told him.
“Well, she’s still here,” the demigod assured him, grinning as he watched the divine woman weave her way around the pedestals and artifacts.
“Where?” the salesman questioned, not seeing anyone.
“Oh, Hercules,” the archer sang out.
“Right over there,” Hercules told his friend, his grin getting bigger as Nemesis gave him a little wave from behind a large vase.
“I’m over here.”
“Quit playing games! My eyes aren’t that bad!” Salmoneus cried.
“She’s the one who’s playing the games,” the demigod revealed as the archer made a beeline for the door.
“Who she?! What she?!” the salesman stammered.
“I..uh.. an old friend,” Hercules called over his shoulder, not having time for explanations.
“Hercules, don’t leave me!” Salmoneus begged.
The demigod looked back at his terrified friend, then ahead to Nemesis’ retreating figure.
“You can’t catch me, Hercules,” she challenged.
“You’ll be fine,” Hercules promised Salmoneus as he tore out of the building after the swift woman.
He followed her through the marketplace, weaving around the villagers until he finally cornered her behind a fruit stand.
“You’re never going to catch me!” she taunted him, deftly avoiding him as he circled around.
“That’s what you think!” the demigod grinned.
“Think quick!” Nemesis tossed him an apple, which he caught and dropped as he lunged over the stand to grab her.
“Gotcha!” he shouted, but she danced out of reach and took off.
Looking around, Hercules realized he was garnering quite a few stares and comments from villagers who thought he’d lost his mind. For a moment he tried to find a way to explain, then waved it off.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he muttered, climbing off the fruit stand and giving chase once more.
Nemesis took mortal form, glancing behind her and seeing no sign of the demigod. She moved under an archway, crossing her arms smugly.
“I told you you couldn’t catch me, Hercules,” she said triumphantly.
Before she knew what hit her, the demigod had leapt down from the archway and encircled her within his strong arms.
“As you were saying?” he prompted.
The archer giggled, squirming out of his grasp and smacking him lightly on the chest.
The teasing smile quickly left Hercules’ face, and something else replaced the mischievous gleam in his blue eyes. As he looked at the beautiful woman, all the old feelings he’d once had for her resurfaced. Leaning forward, he took her in his arms and she met his lips with an eager kiss. After several sweet moments, he reluctantly broke the embrace, looking down at her expectant face.
“We need to talk.”
“Talk?” Nemesis repeated in confusion as he took her hand and led her away, a conversation the last thing on her mind.
“I thought you said Hercules wasn’t coming.”
“How could I know?” Ayora sulked. “He turned his nose up at me.”
“Your head must be in a spin,” Zandar said cruelly. “Knowing your charms aren’t 100 % irresistible, hmm?”
“You’ve never turned them down,” she pointed out, pressing herself up against him suggestively.
“Yes, I have,” he rebutted. “This very minute.” Zandar turned his back on the girl to ease himself into his throne. “Now, go. Keep your ears and eyes open. I’ve got a lot of work to do. That greedy, conniving little sneak.”
“You’re going to kill Salmoneus along with Hercules, aren’t you?” Ayora asked him, surprised that she felt somewhat sad about the prospect.
“It’s my business!” he shouted at her. “Now, do what I told you!”
For a moment, it seemed like she was going to argue. But then Ayora obediently turned and left him to go back to Salmoneus and the showroom.
“You’re awfully stern for someone who was having such a good time a few moments ago,” Nemesis pointed out as she navigated a flight of stairs ahead of the demigod.
“My friend saw you,” Hercules sighed.
“Salmoneus is a friend of yours?” she asked in disbelief, turning to face him.
“Yes,” he told her. “What do you want with him, Nemesis?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Oh, don’t give me that,” the demigod scoffed. “The gods make up your mind for you. Now who sent you? Hera?”
“Yes,” Nemesis admitted, placing a hand on her hip and jutting out her chin defiantly. “But I’ve made a change in policy. The orders of the gods don’t rule my life anymore. Before I execute anybody, I decide whether he deserve it.”
“Since when do the gods listen to you?” Hercules asked skeptically.
“Since they’ve realized that nobody’s been better at dealing out divine retribution than I am,” she said grandly, patting her chest for emphasis. The archer had been teasing, but the demigod quickly grew serious.
“Nemesis, your hand.” He frowned in concern, examining her wound. “I didn’t think you ever got hurt.”
“Only when I take human form,” she explained. “Which is something that I always do when I’m seeking the truth. You can ask your friend Salmoneus that... if he lives through the experience.”
“But there’s an explanation for his involvement,” Hercules protested.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Nemesis informed him airily, turning and morphing into a white dove.
“Wait a minute!” the demigod shouted after the bird as it fluttered off.
“You can’t save him this time, Hercules.” Nemesis’ disembodied voice filled the air and filled him with dread. “Salmoneus must pay for his greed.”
Hercules took off, tearing through the marketplace, knowing there was no time to lose if he was going to make it back in time to save his friend’s life. So he was in no mood to deal with the thug that swung a club out in front of him, tripping him and sending him sprawling across the ground.
“That was by accident, right?” the demigod demanded, giving the guy a fierce glare. The man growled at him, assuming a fighting stance as his buddy joined him. “Guess not.”
They rushed him, and Hercules unleashed a volley of punches and kicks. He knocked the first man down, then used the second as a battering ram to take out a third man. A hard kick launched the second thug headfirst into a stone arch. The demigod grabbed the fourth guy as he was flying at him and slammed him up against a wall, staring down at him with more impatience than anger.
“Can’t you see I’m in a hurry?”
Someone tried to rush him from behind and he ducked so that the man’s club did it’s damage to the guy pinned to the wall. Dropping him, Hercules knocked out club man quickly and turned to intercept the next thug’s whip. He used it to pull the guy to him and knocked out both him and his accomplice. Then the whip was his, and he used the handle to add a little force to his swing and made short work of the remaining men. Tossing the whip to the ground, he glanced around the circle of prone bodies.
“Have to do a lot better than that.”
“Oh, I will, Hercules,” Zandar promised, unseen from his vantage point above. “I will.”
Fearing that the minutes he had wasted in battle may have been enough to cost Salmoneus his life, Hercules ran back to the showroom. As he burst through the door, he was relieved to see that the salesman was still alive, although seemingly not for long. He was on his knees before Nemesis, and she had her bow and arrow firmly fixed on the terrified man.
“Nemesis, don’t!” Hercules called out.
“You’re too late,” she replied coldly, all traces of lightheartedness gone as she stood, fierce and imposing, her manner all business.
“It won’t hurt much, will it?” Salmoneus whimpered as he closed his eyes, bracing himself for the final blow.
“Can you hear anything?”
Iolaus put his finger to his lips, signaling Halae to be quiet. She complied, pressing herself tightly against the wall of the inn as the hunter crouched below the open window, trying to make out the rowdy voices inside. Finally he motioned to her to follow, and they slunk away to hide amongst the sea of tents.
“They’re just stopping here for a drink,” he relayed, running a hand through his unruly golden curls. “They’re on their way to Orestia.”
“What’s in Orestia?” the girl asked.
“Hercules,” the hunter told her grimly.
“Well, he can handle them, right?” Halae pressed him, relieved that the menacing looking thugs were just passing through.
“Whatever’s going on in Orestia must involve Hera,” Iolaus speculated. “Which means that Herc probably already has his hands full. I can’t let these guys get to him.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I can’t take them all on myself,” the hunter sighed in frustration. He folded his arms over his chest, pacing back and forth slightly as he tried to work out a plan. “I’m going to need your help.”
“My help?” she clarified, sure that she had heard wrong.
“Yeah.” Iolaus took her hand, pulling her along behind him. “Come on.”
“Put it down, Nemesis,” Hercules commanded, coming forward.
“Nemesis?!” Salmoneus cried, eyes flying open as he took another look at the beautiful woman before him and realized he was in even deeper than it had appeared. “She’s Nemesis?”
“He’s a thief!” the archer argued hotly. “Evidence is everywhere. Take a look around!”
“Salmoneus is no thief,” Hercules tried to placate her. “He’s greedy, yes, but he’s no thief.”
“He’s right. I’m greedy,” the salesman babbled. “Anything for a dinar, that’s me. I’m shameless, money- hungry, and conniving.”
“I'll vouch for that,” the demigod agreed heartily. A little too heartily for Salmoneus’ liking, but he realized it probably wasn’t the time to point that out since Hercules was trying to save his life. “And I’ll tell you something else. He couldn’t have found Hera’s treasure by himself. I mean, not in a million years.”
“Someone led him to it?” Nemesis asked, willing to hear him out.
“That’s right,” Salmoneus chimed in eagerly. “It was Purces.”
“He’s dead,” the archer snapped at him.
“Oh, right.” The hope that he might offer a scapegoat quickly faded.
“Salmoneus,” Hercules prodded. “You mentioned earlier about a third party. Who is it?”
“Huh?” The salesman had fallen into a daze over the thought of his impending death, but he quickly snapped out of it as he realized the demigod was giving him another out. “Zandar! He’s the one pulling Purces’ strings!” Salmoneus looked Nemesis square in the eye. “Listen, I would never steal from Hera or any other god. I’m much too big a coward for that.”
“At the very least, you should check him out. Come on, you said you were seeking justice, Nemesis,” Hercules urged. “Now, here’s your chance to prove it.”
“You’re right,” she conceded, lowering her bow.
Salmoneus sagged, letting out a big sigh of relief, before he got up and approached the archer, taking her hand and kissing it repeatedly.
“Thank you,” he groveled. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Salmoneus turned to Hercules. “Thank you! Thank both of you!” He grabbed them both in a big group hug. “Oh, how can I ever thank you! Thank you!”
Hercules gave Nemesis an apologetic glance over the salesman’s head as he continued his grateful fawning.
“He’s been doing a lot of this lately.”
“The time is at hand, oh, mighty Hera,” Zandar prayed, kneeling before the altar dedicated to his patron goddess. “They’re here. Both of them. Hercules to meet his death. Nemesis to determine whether she lives or dies. But I, your humble servant, cannot do what you’ve asked of me with mere mortals to help me. Already, those who call themselves my warriors have failed ignobly against Hercules. And I fear the mercenaries you’ve sent won’t be enough against his divine strength either. No, if I am to succeed to your greater glory, I need a weapon which will not fail. I need a true instrument of destruction!”
Deep in the bowels of the earth where nothing could exist except molten rock, churning and spraying deadly fire, a pair of iridescent eyes appeared, giving a silent command to the being that dwelt there. The one that lived to serve her.
“Oh, mighty one,” Zandar begged. “Give me a sign.”
A fountain of fire shot up from the altar, burning bright with an unnatural light as a deep laughter echoed through the chamber.
“Pyro,” Zandar breathed reverently. “Pyro. Yes!” He shot a fist in the air, ensured that victory would soon be his, along with Hera’s rewards, and he shouted out the monster’s name in support. “Pyro!”
“We’ve got a problem, Nemesis.”
“What are you worried about now?” she asked her companion as they walked through the marketplace.
“I’m worried about you,” Hercules told her. “When you let Salmoneus live, you may have signed your own death warrant.”
“I can take care of myself,” the archer insisted.
“Hera is going to be furious.”
“You know, I have better things to do than to listen to this.”
“Hey, hey, hey!” Hercules caught her arms and pinned them to her side, preventing her escape. “No, you don’t.”
“You know,” Nemesis said, annoyed. “It is really hard for me to fly away when you’re holding onto my wings. I mean, my arms. How do you STAND being in human form, anyway? It’s a miracle you ever get ANYWHERE.”
“I don’t always run away like you,” the demigod informed her, tightening his hold slightly against her weak struggles.
“I’m not going to run away.”
“Promise?” Hercules asked, trying to look her in the eye.
“Yes,” she agreed haughtily. The demigod released her, and she turned to face him.
“Nemesis, the gods aren’t going to let you decide who’s guilty and who’s not. That’s how they amuse themselves,” he reminded her.
“Well, too bad for them,” the archer declared defiantly.
“It could get you killed,” Hercules argued.
“Well, fear never stopped you,” she retorted. “Look, you worry about Salmoneus, and I’ll take care of Zandar.”
“Hey, you know, if I wanted to take orders from you,” the demigod said with a grin. “We’d still be together.”
“Well, too bad we’re not,” Nemesis replied with a seductive smile. “I’d take you flying with me.”
“Nemesis, wait!” Hercules called out as she turned and morphed into a white dove and he was left watching her fly away. “I hate it when she does that!”
“Oh, it’s really great having you all here,” Salmoneus addressed his entourage of young women. “Now, if you can just help me take this, uh, stuff, hmm.” He waved his hands, indicating the room full of treasures before continuing. “Back to the cave, we... Whoa! It won’t be that much work!” he added hastily as the girls groaned. “Just a couple days, max, and then we can, uh... have a party. Huh? Party! It won’t be in this beautiful mansion, and we may not have champagne, but it’s not going to be that different. OK? That’s right. All get up and pitch in.” But pitching in was the last thing on their minds. Led by Ayora, they rose and headed for the door to go out and find a new meal ticket.
“Hey! Hey! It’s just a temporary setback! I’ll be back on top,” the salesman called after them. But none of them gave him a backward glance as they marched out past Hercules who had just arrived. “Don’t come crawling back unless you plan apologizing!” Salmoneus shouted after the women, turning his back on them and crossing the floor.
Only the lovely Syreeta had remained, and she moved toward him, wanting to offer some sort of consolation.
“You’re a clever man, Salmoneus. Maybe you’ll find another way to get rich.”
“You don’t have to pretend to care about me,” he told her woodenly. “Just go on with the others.” Syreeta reached out, touching his arm and turning him to face her. “I don’t want you here,” Salmoneus snapped harshly. “Find some other rich guy to use, huh? Get out of here.”
The girl held his gaze for a moment, then turned and ran out of the building in tears.
“Well, that’s one way to keep a woman interested,” Hercules said quietly from the doorway. He could see his friend was upset, but they had more important matters to deal with. Broken hearts fell below arrow-pierced hearts on the priority scale. “We’ve got work to do, Salmoneus.”
“I know they only loved me for my money,” the salesman admitted, pain evident in his voice. “But it still hurts. And after this, there may never be another pretty girl in my life.”
“At least you’ll be alive,” the demigod told him gently, gripping his shoulder in support. Salmoneus turned to face him, sorrow heavy in his eyes. Hercules sighed, wishing he had something better to offer in comfort, but it was not the time or place to offer solace. “What do you say we get this stuff out of here?” The salesman nodded and picked up a small chalice filled with pearls as the demigod hefted a large iron lion statue, stagging a bit under the weight of it. “Well, now I KNOW you didn’t do this by yourself.”
Zandar dropped the coins into the chest, delighting in the metallic tinkling.
“I never get sick of this,” he sighed, turning to the guard behind him. “Come on.” Turning back to the chest, the handful of dinars scattered across the floor as Zandar screeched in surprise. “Nemesis!”
“The one and only,” the archer chuckled, arching an eyebrow and enjoying the shock of her sudden entrance.
“Don’t you ever knock?!” Zandar demanded, quickly trying to adjust his cloak over his scarred face, then giving up on the pointless gesture. “I suppose you’re here to tell me you killed Salmoneus,” he speculated, closing up the chest and handing it off to his man. “The little thief. But you’re not finished yet. Hercules is in town. And Hera wants him dead so bad she can taste it.”
“The only thing she’s tasting is her own bile,” Nemesis said disdainfully. “She ought to get something to settle her stomach.”
“You... you didn’t kill Salmoneus, did you?” Zandar laughed.
“No! And I’m not going to kill Hercules, either,” the archer informed him, pulling an arrow from her quiver. “But you, my friend, better get ready to visit Hades.”
“I don’t think so,” Zandar chuckled, waving to one of his men who stepped out of the dim gloom with a rope. He lassoed the archer, pinning her arms and a group of men rushed forward to restrain her while she was securely tied.
“This never could have happened if you had...”
“I know,” Zandar interrupted impatiently. “Hera told me. As a human, you’re a mere woman.”
“Swine!” Nemesis spat venomously.
“By your refusal to carry out your duties you have betrayed Hera,” Zandar intoned, looming over her. “Just as she thought you would when she put you to this little test! And for your betrayal, you’ll meet the same fate as Salmoneus and Hercules. You will die.”
“I’m not cut out for manual labor,” Salmoneus complained as they made yet another trip out to the wagon. “I’m sweating like a piece of rancid pork. My back hurts. I’m getting blisters. And you have no idea what this is doing for my manicure.”
“Maybe, you should take a rest,” Hercules proposed sarcastically.
“Good idea.” The salesman leaned up against the wagon, wiping his face with his hands. A throat clearing got his attention and he turned to see the demigod behind him, a giant amphora across his strong shoulders. “You’re needling me, aren’t you? You’re trying to make me feel bad. You’re trying to make me feel guilty. Guilty about the...”
“About being so greedy that you almost got killed?” Hercules cut in, setting his burden down next to the wagon. “Yeah, that sounds right. Shall we get back to work?”
“It’s sweltering in there!” Salmoneus protested.
“Think cold,” the demigod suggested.
With a sigh, the salesman followed him back inside.
“It’s worse than ever,” he whined. “I’m going to melt if I stay here too long.”
“You’ll be fine,” Hercules assured him. He bent to pick up another heavy piece, but paused when he noticed wisps of smoke seeping out of a raised area of the floor. “What is this?”
“It’s the cellar,” Salmoneus told him. “There’s a trapdoor at the top of the stairs.” Hercules went up the few steps and lifted the door. Smoke began billowing out. “Whoa! I’m going to get some water!”
“That’s a good plan,” the demigod murmured as his friend ran off. Cautiously, he began descending the stone stairs into the dark, smokey depths of the cellar, not seeing anything obviously on fire and getting the really bad feeling that he usually got when Hera was at work. Out of nowhere, a blazing wall of flame shot out at him. With lightening reflexes, Hercules dove out of the way, rolling across the floor. He turned to see a ball of fire hovering before him, bearing the fuzzy outline of a human skull.
“Ashes to ashes, Hercules. As it was for your family, so shall it be for you.”
“Pyro,” the demigod snarled.
Iolaus could hear Hercules’ voice in his head, berating him for being so reckless and foolish. And he had to admit, his partner would probably be right on this one. But he didn’t have much of a choice. Even if the mercenaries hadn’t been marching for Orestia, the hunter knew he had to stand up to them. They weren’t the type of men to have a peaceful drink and be on their way. Their kind always went looking for trouble, and they were never happy unless they were exerting their bullying power over someone weaker. And Iolaus was determined to stop them before any innocent people got hurt.
Not a moment too soon, he realized as he entered the inn and saw one of the men with a firm hold on a pretty serving girl.
“Please let me go,” she begged in a frightened voice.
“Not until we’ve had our fun, wench,” the thug threatened as his companions laughed riotously.
Everyone in the inn turned to see the warrior standing in the doorway.
“If you’re looking for a dance partner,” he said coldly. “How about me?”
One of the mercenaries, obviously the leader, rose and approached the hunter. The others fell into step behind him, waiting for his cue as to how to handle the situation. Iolaus noted that the serving girl had been released and was being escorted to safety by the innkeeper, then he turned his full attention to the men before him.
“I remember you,” the leader sneered, looking him up and down contemptuously. “About a year ago. Macedonia.”
“If you remember that,” the hunter declared boldly. “Then you’ll also remember the beating you took. So why don’t you guys just turn around and go back where you came from and we’ll just save the trouble of a repeat performance?”
The mercenaries all laughed and jeered at his words.
“We happen to know your pal, Hercules, isn’t here to bail you out,” someone in the back piped up.
“Yeah,” the leader added. “So why don’t you just turn around and go back to where you came from, shrimp? Save us the trouble of ending your life?”
Iolaus didn’t move, and the men all shuffled and nudged each other as their aggression and bloodlust rose in anticipation of tearing him apart.
“Well, have it your way,” the head mercenary shrugged. “Boys, let’s show the big hero here what a beating really is.”
“Why don’t we step outside?” the hunter suggested, jerking his head toward the door. He led the way, walking backwards, obviously not daring to turn his back on the men. Iolaus stopped a few feet from the inn in the street, and the mercenaries formed a deadly row in front of him.
“You must be a glutton for pain.”
“No, I’m not,” he replied somberly. If he was at all nervous, it didn’t show. His face was neutral, his eyes like blue ice as they darted from one man to the next. “I just like this town. There are good people here, and I’m not going to let you idiots hurt them.”
“So, you’re drawing a line in the sand?” the leader clarified, rolling his eyes disgustedly at the show of nobility and courage.
“I already have.”
Before any of them could react, Iolaus snatched a torch from one of the poles that lined the street, tossing it to land at their feet. The lamp oil that he’d spread there only minutes before caught, and a wall of fire shot up in front of them. Surprised and momentarily blinded, the mercenaries all recoiled with shouts of alarm. They recovered quickly, but the hunter had disappeared.
“Find him,” the leader hissed angrily.
“What about Orestia?” one of the others asked.
“I want him dead!” the mercenary shouted. “Go on! Twenty dinars to whoever brings me his body.” He watched the men split up, scattering to search the town. The man pulled his own sword as he moved off to look as well. They would take care of this nuisance, and then deliver his head on a pike to Hercules in Orestia.
“It’s easier to kill sleeping women and children, isn’t it, Pyro?” Hercules seethed, rage boiling beneath his calm exterior as he faced the monster who had stolen his family from him.
“I’m going to get you,” the demon laughed, the fire expanding and shaping his body. “Have no fear.”
“I don’t fear you,” the demigod told him hotly.
“Brave talk won’t save you,” Pyro promised. A ball of fire shot his way, and Hercules scrambled to his feet, narrowly avoiding getting hit. “I’ll fry you to a crisp!”
Another bolt of flames soared toward him, and the demigod blocked it with a shield that he grabbed from the wall. As the fire licked at the surface of the shield, he tossed it into a well of water, Pyro’s insane laughter ringing in his ears.
“Hercules?” Salmoneus called out, peering down into the cellar from up above. “You all right? Hercules?”
“Salmoneus! Get out of here!” the demigod shouted, diving out of the way of another round of flames.
A cloud of fire shot up through the trapdoor. With a shriek of terror, the slightly singed salesman turned and fled, fully content to leave this one up to Hercules.
“He has to be around here somewhere.”
“Keep searching,” the mercenary muttered to his companion as they searched the tents on the west side of town. “I want that twenty dinars.”
The second mercenary followed his friend’s nod and spied the hunter slipping behind a tent up in front of them.
They tore after the stealthy figure, but one of the mercenaries quickly went down. Iolaus had thoughtfully removed the colorful flags from the banner that stretched between the tents, and the thug hadn’t seen the almost invisible string until it clotheslined him. The other had been trailing his buddy and managed to avoid the hazard, chasing the hunter out into the street. Iolaus let him get close, then put on a burst of speed and led him straight to the covered fire pit in the middle of the street. The mercenary blundered into it, and the hunter took advantage of his momentary awkwardness to pounce. Once he had him secured, he went back for the first one. Iolaus tied his foes good and tight and stashed them away in one of the empty tents.
Carefully, he headed back out and silently navigated the abandoned square, making his way to the marketplace. He’d previously warned everyone to spread the word to take cover, not wanting any innocents to get hit in the crossfire. And crossfire there was bound to be, he realized, getting into position to lure his next victim. Two were down, but there were still six to go.
Salmoneus bolted out of the door, crashing right into the arms of Zandar.
“You’re not supposed to be here!” he blurted out.
“Really,” Zandar chuckled. “Where am I supposed to be?”
“You’re supposed to be d-d-d..... Let me start over.” The salesman cleared his throat, trying to shift the burden of guilt to Nemesis. “There was a beautiful woman...”
“I know all about her, you scheming pipsqueak,” Zandar interrupted. “She was going to defy Hera and kill me. She’s insane!”
“No, actually, I think ‘charming’ is a more suitable word,” Salmoneus contradicted, having been enchanted by the vivacious archer once she assured him she wasn’t going to kill him.
“You know what she’ll be after I feed her to Pyro? She’ll be dead.”
“Pyro?” the salesman whispered, turning to look back at the house where he’d left his friend.
“That’s right. Is he finished with Hercules yet?” Zandar asked.
“No, sir,” Salmoneus proclaimed confidently, turning back to face the disfigured man. “Hercules is going to finish him.”
“You’re betting on the wrong horse.”
“Oh, I never bet on the wrong horse.” The salesman’s voice became a strangled rasp as Zandar grabbed him by the throat. “I never do that!”
Iolaus hopped over the edge of a vendor stall, getting the attention of the mercenary who had wandered into range. Cautiously, the man approached, sword drawn as he peeked over the edge of the booth. He didn’t see anything, but he staggered and cursed as an apple hit him square in the head. Turning, he held his sword out and approached the apple cart on the other side of the market. He inched closer, and when he was almost there he realized that he had been led into a trap as he heard a creaking noise. The mercenary looked up just in time to see a stack of barrels raining down on him.
“That was a terrific throw,” Iolaus said, impressed, as he came out from behind the former stack of barrels.
“You sound surprised,” Halae sniffed, pretending to be insulted.
“Maybe a little,” the hunter grinned rakishly. “So tell me, what other hidden talents do you possess?”
“Maybe if we ever go on a normal date you’ll get to find out for yourself,” she teased.
“I promise, next time we’ll lose the crowd,” Iolaus laughed. “But speaking of which, that commotion will be drawing them out. Come on, we have to go.”
Nemesis struggled ineffectually against her bonds, her frustration and anger growing as she realized that she was helpless in her current form.
“How do mortals stand being this vulnerable 24 hours a day,” she seethed, jerking against the knots that would not give. “A little rope and they can’t go anywhere!” She fell backwards and rested a minute, her eyes on the light shining from the doorway that was so close, yet so far away. “Ok, we’ll do this the hard way.”
With no other alternative, Nemesis began inching her way across the floor, wriggling in a most undignified manner as she resolved never to take her divine powers for granted again. But as she slid forward, her feet kicked out, catching a helmet that rolled forward and bumped into an axe that was leaning against the wall. Turning over on her back, she saw the blade rapidly descending toward her.
Hercules peered out from behind the well, his eyes scanning the cellar for anything he could use to his advantage.
“Keep fighting,” Pyro taunted. “And I’ll burn you limb by limb. What’s the matter? Not having fun? I’ll torch this whole place if I have to!”
The demigod leapt out from behind the well and grabbed the heavy rafter in the ceiling. Using all of his mighty strength, he pulled it down, causing a giant timber to come loose. The massive wood swung down from the ceiling onto Pyro, pounding him into the floor. But the triumph was short lived as smoke began to curl out from under the timber.
“I don’t die that easily, Hercules,” Pyro cackled as he reformed before the demigod’s eyes in a blaze of glory.
“Nice try,” the mercenary declared as he shoved the tent flap away and stepped inside. “But hide-and-seek is over.” A cruel smile spread over his face as he drew his sword. “How about a nice game of tag instead?”
“Ok,” Iolaus said quickly, holding up his hands in surrender. “You’ve won. You can take the girl if you want, just please, don’t hurt me.”
“Iolaus!” Halae gasped in outraged shock.
“I’m sorry, honey,” the hunter apologized meekly. “But in times like these, it’s every man for himself.”
“Why, you lousy, no good, lowdown, dishonorable coward!” In a fit of anger, the young woman grabbed a small clay bowl from the shelves behind her and hurled it at him. More pieces of crockery followed as she berated him, each new diatribe growing more colorful than the last. The mercenary watched, confused, but somewhat amused, as Iolaus ducked and leapt around the small confines of the tent, trying to avoid the relentless projectiles that kept coming his way.
“Halae, please,” he yelped, covering his head with his hands as he crouched on the floor. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“And I don’t mean anything by this, you miserable excuse for a hero!” She heaved a large vase over her head, preparing to brain him with it. But the cowering hunter lashed out with his leg and clipped the mercenary, knocking him off his feet. And before the stunned man could react, he was sent to the realm of Morpheus amid colorful shards of pottery. Iolaus had been poised to leap in and finish him off, but it was unnecessary, for the blow had been enough to knock him out cold.
“Nice work,” he said admiringly.
“Thanks,” Halae replied, straightening her dress. “Although I don’t think the sculptor is going to appreciate it much. But I do have to admit, I did enjoy that.”
“Yeah, a little too much, if you ask me,” Iolaus snorted. “You winged me a few times.”
“Slip of the wrist,” she told him innocently.
“And I might almost believe that if I hadn’t seen you throw that apple before.”
“Well, I had to make it look real,” Halae snickered as he pretended to pout. “All right, I’ll make it up to you.”
“Promise?” In answer, she leaned in and kissed him. “I’ll take that as a yes,” he said, a bit breathlessly, when they parted. Quickly, he tied up the unconscious mercenary before peering out of the tent to ensure the coast was clear. “Go on to the temple now,” he told Halae, squeezing her hand. “Wait for me there.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Send out the invitation for some lucky mercenary to come to the stables.”
“Ah, yes. The Old Hunter’s Trick,” she nodded sagely.
“It’s an oldie, but a goodie.”
“They say the classics never die.”
“Hercules must be burned to a crisp by now,” Zandar speculated, grasping the salesman by the shoulders.
“Not in your lifetime,” Salmoneus told him firmly.
Zandar leaned forward to whisper into his ear.
“You’ll change your mind when you meet the same fate he did.”
As they watched through the open door, a blast of fire shot up through the trapdoor.
Nemesis laughed, a touch hysterically, as she contemplated her near death experience. Miraculously, the axe had landed precisely between her arm and torso, severing the rope binding her and leaving her unscathed.
“I guess this is what happens when you do the right thing,” she sighed, laying back on the floor and relaxing briefly. Once her heart no longer felt like it was going to leap out of her chest, she sat back up and untied the rope around her feet. “And I’m going to do the right thing.”
Rising, she procured her bow and arrow and sprinted out the door, taking a second to revel in the feeling of freedom before she turned into a white dove and flew off.
“I know you came in here,” the mercenary muttered, his dagger clutched tightly in his hand as he ventured further into the stable. He jumped behind a tall stack of hay bales, ready to attack, but failed to find anything other than a startled barn cat that hissed and swiped at him with her paw. He raised his boot, but the feline took off before he could kick it. Cursing under his breath, he came out from behind the hay and saw the door to one of the horse stalls swinging shut.
“Gotcha,” he shouted triumphantly, rushing forward and hurdling over the stall. Only to find himself face to face with the biggest boar he had ever seen in his life. The pig grunted, tossing his head and displaying his very long, and very sharp, tusks, dripping with foamy saliva.
“Play nice, now,” Iolaus instructed as he swung the top half of the split door shut and latched it from the outside. He made his way out of the stable, leaving the mercenary perched precariously on top of the wire hay rack as the pig paced beneath him, squealing angrily.
Hercules picked up a wooden chair and heaved it at his foe. Pyro caught it, setting it ablaze before launching it at the wall, laughing maniacally.
The mercenary opened the door and slipped inside, waving away a cloud of incense that surrounded his head. At first, he didn’t even see the girl curled up beside the altar, as she was so still. But his eyes quickly became used to the dim light, and he grinned lecherously as he spied her.
“Now what’s a sweet, young thing like you doing praying to Demeter?” he asked, striding forward and looming above her. “You’d be more at home in one of Aphrodite’s temples.”
“I like it here,” she told him, standing up and brushing herself off as she realized she was caught.
“Well, I’ve got a feeling Aphrodite’s going to answer your prayers tonight anyway,” he said sinisterly, reaching out to run his grimy fingers through her soft, dark hair. “You know, there are bad men out there. Men with dishonorable intentions. You shouldn’t be here all alone.”
“Who said she was alone?”
The mercenary started to turn around to confront the voice, but a sword hilt slamming into the back of his head halted him mid-spin and he collapsed down on the altar.
“Is that all I am to you?” Halae demanded, a smile twitching her lips. “Just bait for all your traps?”
“I don’t think I could find anything else more appealing,” Iolaus told her, giving her his most charming smile as he trussed the unconscious mercenary. A yelp sounded from outside, and the hunter rose, sliding his sword back into its sheath. “Sounds like one of our friends found the snare I left at the back entrance.”
They went outside, ensuring that the mercenary that had blundered into the trap was dangling helplessly in the air.
“How many is that?” Halae asked as they walked back to the front of the temple.
“Seven,” Iolaus told her.
“Which just leaves me.” The head mercenary intercepted them, stepping out from around the corner of the temple and drawing his blade. “And you won’t find me quite so easy to defeat.”
“The fire awaits,” Zandar hissed into the salesman’s ear. “Let’s go.”
“Wouldn’t you rather toast marshmallows, instead?” Salmoneus yelped as he was pushed toward the door. “Get in touch with your inner child, huh?”
“Move!” Zandar growled, shoving him up the stairs.
“Hold it right there, Zandar!”
Everyone turned to find the source of the disembodied voice, gasping in surprise when Nemesis materialized before them. She immediately drew and arrow and fitted her bow, aiming at Zandar with a look that meant business.
“Nemesis,” he rasped, unable to fathom how she had gotten away. He turned to his men, milling on the street. “Get her!”
She shot a warning arrow that was close enough to make her point. The thugs all scrambled, collectively knowing that they were no match for the divine archer with a score to settle.
“Come back here!” Zandar shouted to his men. Salmoneus took advantage of his distraction to break free and run to Nemesis.
“Pyro’s in there!” the salesman told her. “He’s trying to kill Hercules!”
“What are you doing here?” Zandar demanded. “How did you escape?”
“Just lucky, I guess,” she told him sweetly.
“This is where your luck runs out, you crazy witch.” Zandar turned and entered the building, closing the heavy wooden doors behind him, laughing at his own cleverness. “You’ll never get in here! You suckers!”
Nemesis grinned, glad of the opportunity to strut her stuff and show Zandar he had definitely messed with the wrong ‘crazy witch’. With a ‘watch this’ glance at Salmoneus, she pulled five arrows from her quiver, fitted them, and let them fly. They hit the door with perfect precision, splitting it in two, the severed half falling on the stairs.
“That’s terrific!” the salesman congratulated her.
“Thank you,” she replied magnanimously. Nemesis sprinted up the stairs, opening the intact door before turning back to Salmoneus, who had not followed. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
“In there?” he demanded.
She tilted her head, giving him a slightly exasperated look.
“I’ll protect you.”
“You promise?” Salmoneus asked, trying to forget this was coming from a woman who had been out to kill him a few short hours before.
“Yes,” Nemesis assured him, giving him a kind smile that laid his fears to rest. Taking a deep breath, he trotted up the stairs after her as she cautiously made her way into the smokey room.
The mercenary’s prediction turned out to be true. Unlike his somewhat limited companions, he was highly skilled with his blade, and Iolaus was finding it a challenge to match him. The hunter would gain the upper hand, driving his foe back with a volley of thrusts, but before he could subdue him he would be repelled, forced to go on the defensive rather than the offensive while Halae watched, biting her nails in suspense. But as good as the mercenary was, he was still no match for the stubborn persistence of the hunter who just didn’t know when to quit.
Iolaus found himself backed up against the temple wall, pinned to the stone by the weight of the larger man while their swords locked in an uneasy stalemate. It was a precarious position, but one he had been in many times before and he had long since learned how to escape. Without taking pressure off his blade, the hunter twisted slightly, digging his elbow into his opponent’s sternum. The man backed off just a fraction, but it gave the leeway that Iolaus was searching for. In a blur of movement, he spun in a circle, bringing down his sword, wrenching the blade out of the mercenary’s grasp while he wrenched himself free.
“You’re good, but not that good,” Iolaus panted, using the tip of his sword to halt the man as he started to go after his fallen weapon. “Halae, find something to tie him up with.”
She turned, her eyes raking the area for any rope or string that could serve as binding. Seeing an advantage to escape, the mercenary suddenly sprung backwards, rolling across the ground and jumping up to sprint after her, intent on using the girl as a hostage to ensure his safe retreat. But Iolaus was right on his heels, so the man pulled a knife from his boot and turned, determined to end things for good. The hunter plowed into him and they tumbled across the ground for several feet until finally coming to a stop. Halae had been on the verge of a scream when she’d seen the mercenary charging her, but the scream found fruition as she took in the blood trail that led up to the two still figures lying side by side.
Pyro launched himself at Hercules, who dodged out of the way just in the nick of time. But the fire monster kept going, hitting the wall and seeming to go right through it. The trail of flames he left quickly died out. But the demigod knew he wasn’t gone and he desperately tried to take advantage of the few seconds he had, frantically searching the cellar for anything he could use while at the same time trying to keep his eyes peeled for the sneak attack he knew would be coming. A faint sound caught his attention, and he spun around to see licks of flame spreading along the seems in the stone wall.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” Pyro taunted him. “You will die the way your family did. I’m going to barbecue you, Hercules.”
The demigod held his ground, tensely waiting for his foe to spring. But he wasn’t expecting the attack to come from beneath him. A little smoke and a tuft of flame were all the warning he had before a geyser of fire rose up from his feet. He staggered back just in time to avoid being consumed as Pyro again formed before him.
“End of the road, Hercules.” He raised his arm, preparing to launch a ball of fire at the demigod, but he was distracted by someone calling his name and turned to see Zandar creeping down the cellar steps. “Who in Hades are you?!”
“Oh, you remember me. Zandar. Hera must have told you about me.”
Hercules took advantage of Pyro’s distraction, glancing behind him as he worked out a plan.
“You’re at the wrong place at the wrong time!” Pyro yelled. Zandar realized his folly and began climbing back up the stairs, but it was too late. A wave of fire shot up through the trapdoor, engulfing him completely. He staggered out into the room, screaming as the flames consumed him, finally collapsing on the floor before the horrified eyes of Salmoneus and Nemesis as evil laughter rang out and echoed through the building.
“You want to play games, Pyro?” Hercules muttered under his breath as he turned and leapt into the well, soaking himself. Dripping wet, he climbed back out, jumping up and catching a rafter. “Try to catch me now.” The demigod swung himself into a large barrel on the floor and ducked down inside of it.
“Hercules, you will burn!” Pyro screeched. He launched himself at the barrel, diving in just as the demigod leapt out. Hercules grabbed a flat sheet of metal and slammed it on top of the barrel, leaning on top of it to hold it tightly on the rim. “No!” Pyro screamed, struggling violently. “No! No! Let me out! I need air! My flames! No! Noooooooooooooooooooooo!”
“Light’s out, Pyro,” Hercules panted as the barrel quieted and a few smoke wisps drifted out. It wouldn’t bring his family back, but at least the demigod could take solace in the fact that he had avenged their deaths and that Pyro would never be able to hurt anyone else again.
“That should do it,” Iolaus commented cheerfully as he shoved the bound mercenary he’d just rescued from the stable into the food larder at the inn. Being a small town, they were lacking a jail and the larder was the only locking structure that could safely hold seven men until they could be transported for trial.
“We can’t thank you enough, Iolaus,” the magistrate told him gratefully, securing the door.
“Hey, he didn’t do it alone!”
The hunter looked at the pouting girl beside him and grinned.
“No, I didn’t. You were wonderful, Halae. I don’t suppose you’d want to join up with me and Hercules, would you?”
“No, thank you,” she replied quickly. “I think I’ve had enough excitement to last me for a lifetime.”
“So,” Iolaus murmured, taking her in his arms, his blue eyes giving her a smokey look that almost made her melt. “Does that mean you’re giving up adventure?”
“Well,” Halae sighed as his lips inched towards hers. “Maybe just one more.”
A dark figure appeared in the hazy, smoke-filled air, and Nemesis drew her bow back and took aim.
“I hope you don’t plan on using that thing,” Hercules commented as he stepped forward and saw her.
Immediately, she housed the arrow back in her quiver and ran to him, laughing in relief as she kissed him on the cheek. Salmoneus followed, substituting a high five for the kiss and finding out that even a simple hand slap from the demigod had a lot of power behind it.
“Are you all right?” he asked as Hercules put an arm around each of them.
“Uh, yeah,” the demigod replied. “Fresh air would be nice.”
Eager to be out of the smokey, stifling place, they headed outside, but Salmoneus stopped short when he saw who was waiting there.
“Syreeta?” he said in surprise. He went down the stairs toward her. “I don’t believe it. What are you doing here?”
“Are you all right?” she asked earnestly. “I was worried about you.”
“You were? Even though I’m... how can I put this? Financially embarrassed? I mean, temporarily?”
“Don’t you know that doesn’t matter?” she chided him gently, taking his hands. “You were always nice to me, Salmoneus. Let me be nice to you.”
“Syreeta,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I said those things. I didn’t mean them...”
She stopped his words with a kiss, which he eagerly returned.
“Salmoneus, you look like you need a bath,” Syreeta told him fondly.
“My house is full of smoke,” he protested.
“Mine isn’t,” she said softly.
For a moment, Salmoneus was speechless, hardly able to believe his good fortune. A fortune that had nothing to do with money. He pressed his forehead against hers and squeezed her hands, but then he made himself step back.
“I’d like that,” he murmured regretfully. “But Hercules and I have work to do. We need to get all this stuff back to where it came from.”
The demigod arched an eyebrow, wondering if he’d actually heard right.
“All right,” Syreeta agreed. She leaned in for one more kiss. “Then come to my house when you’re finished. I’ll wait for you there.”
Salmoneus watched her go, realizing that he had just declined to go off with a beautiful girl in favor of manual labor. Shaking his head, he wondered if the heat had fried his brain.
“Well?” he said to Hercules as he passed him, going back inside the house.
“Yeah, I’m coming,” the demigod called after him, giving Nemesis a shrug.
It took the rest of the day, but they finally got all the remaining treasure loaded up and returned. Salmoneus placed the last piece, setting the golden camel statue down next to the pile of priceless artifacts, doomed to forever be untouchable. He went outside, and Hercules broke the supports, letting a shower of rock and debris rain down and cover the entrance, sealing up the cave once more.
“Well, that’s that,” Salmoneus sighed. “That should make Hera happy for awhile.”
“Don’t count on it,” the demigod snorted.
“Hercules,” the salesman began, turning to look at him with sincere eyes. “Thank you. You saved my life. Again.”
“Hey, what are friends for?” Hercules grinned, clapping him on the shoulder. “Now why don’t you get out of here? You’ve kept Syreeta waiting long enough.”
Salmoneus nodded and started toward the village, but he turned back when he heard his name called.
“Stay out of trouble.”
He smiled and nodded his agreement, then waved at his friend and headed off, whistling happily.
“Think he can do it?”
“Not a chance,” Hercules grinned. “Salmoneus is a good man, but he lets his money pouch do most of the thinking.” He turned to look at the woman who had materialized next to him. “I was wondering what happened to you. What have you been off doing while I’ve been doing all this work?”
His teasing failed to garner a smile from the effervescent archer, who looked back at him with serious, sober eyes.
“I’ve been watching Iolaus,” she confessed.
“What?” The demigod’s blood ran cold. “Why would you do that?”
Nemesis held up a scroll, and Hercules snatched it out of her hand.
“He killed one of Hera’s mercenaries,” she explained as he glanced over the contents of the parchment. “Hera demanded his life in retribution. And she said it was my last chance for redemption. If I brought divine justice to Iolaus, all of my crimes would be forgiven.”
“Nemesis, please tell me that you didn’t...”
“No,” she assured him. “I didn’t.”
“Thank you,” Hercules sighed in relief. Her demeanor had been so serious, for a moment he’d been terrified to think she’d actually carried out the farcical sentence on his best friend.
“Don’t thank me,” Nemesis told him. “I didn’t spare him as a favor to you. I can tell Iolaus has a good heart. He’s a brave and caring man, and he doesn’t deserve to die.”
“No, he doesn’t,” the demigod agreed firmly. “But Hera’s going to be furious with you.”
“Well, she’s just going to have to get over it,” she retorted, some of her old spunk returning.
“So, where do you go from here?” Hercules asked.
“To find out what comes next in my life,” Nemesis said resolutely.
“I know that feeling,” the demigod empathized. “Maybe I could help.”
“I’ll be fine on my own,” she reassured him. “All I ask is that you remember me.”
Nemesis stepped forward, and Hercules took her in his arms as they shared a bittersweet kiss. When they parted, she stepped back, giving him a blinding smile as she spread her arms. Watching the white dove fly off, the demigod couldn’t help but grin.
“How could I ever forget you, Nemesis?”
No Completely-Engulfed-in-Flames-Evil-Dudes were harmed during the production of this motion picture
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