The crackling fire from the hearth provided most of light in the humble cottage. A couple of lit candles in a smaller room helped with the romantic mood that permeated the young couple that sat, embracing, on the unrumpled bed. The dark-haired woman, clad in a long blue and purple dress, passionately kissed the man. His short, curly blond hair gave him a youthful appearance that belied his status of a seasoned warrior, as evidenced by his worn leather armor.
“Oh, Zachariah,” she moaned, “there’s no one like you. You’re so brave, and so strong. Oh, Zachariah.”
The man abruptly pushed himself away from her ardent advances.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, Cynea. Not tonight, okay?” Zachariah stood, marched out of the bedroom to the more spacious living quarters beyond.
Cynea followed. “Well, don’t worry about it.” She stopped beside him in front of the fireplace. “I’ve heard it happens to every man sometime.”
“That’s not it.” His mind wasn’t completely on the here and now. “Someone has to stop Braxis.”
“You promised we wouldn’t talk about that tonight,” she pleaded, turning away from Zachariah and the fire’s warmth.
“Yeah, you’re right. I’m through talking!”
She watched him cross the room to sit on a hard-backed chair positioned at the wooden table. “Wait, where are you going?”
Zachariah pulled on his boots. “Look at you. The fear Braxis put into you. I’m stopping him now.”
Cynea dropped to her knees in front of him. “No! Please, Zachariah, don’t! No one has ever come back from that awful place alive. I couldn’t bear to lose you.”
He stood, pulling her to her feet. “Look, if I don’t kill him, he’ll destroy Laurentia like he destroyed those other villages. He has to be stopped, don’t you see?”
She seemed to think about his statement for a moment. “If you must go, carry a part of me with you.” She plucked a purple scarf from the waistband of her dress. “For luck... and love.”
“I’ll be back. I promise.”
Cynea pulled him into a hug. He kissed her, then turned and resolutely took his leave. She sat in the vacated chair and stared after him.
Hercules entered the small village’s tavern. It was not unlike so many others he and his best friend Iolaus had stopped at over their years of travel and adventures: a long wooden bar at one side, large fireplace taking up part of another wall, tables and chairs scattered across the large, open area. The son of the god Zeus and mortal Alcmene strode up to the bar, sitting in one of the well-worn chairs. “Hi,” he greeted the rough-looking bartender. “Could I get a tankard of water and a rack of venison, please.” At the bartender’s nod, he added, “Thank you.”
The demigod picked at the bowl of salty treats left in a bowl for patrons to eat while waiting for their orders. From behind, a gray-haired, bearded warrior, his left arm missing, approached stealthily. Slowly, he pulled a long dagger from its sheath, then held it aloft.
Hercules raised his head, but didn’t turn. “If I were you, friend,” he stated casually, “I’d put that knife back, unless you want to lose your other arm.”
The older warrior paused, growling, “Are you threatening me, big man?”
Hercules still didn’t face him. Instead, he took the tankard of water from the man behind the bar, ignoring the worried look in the server’s eyes. “I believe you’re the one doing the threatening. I just came in here to get something to eat.”
The man stepped forward, then plunged the dagger downward... into the wooden bar beside the demigod. He dropped into the chair next to Hercules, turned a menacing look on him. Hercules returned it for a second before they both burst into laughter, each reaching out to grip the other’s forearm in a warrior’s handshake.
“Hercules! How have you been?”
“I”m great, Marcius. Yourself?”
“Never better!” He gestured to the bartender to bring him something to drink. “And Iolaus?”
“Oh, he’s fine. Actually, I’m on my way to meet him in Laurentia.”
Marcius’ face grew serious. “Business or pleasure?”
“Unfortunately, it’s trouble. Some of the soldiers who helped us overthrow Adamis have disappeared.”
“Then the rumors are true.” The bearded warrior put away his dagger.
“Seems so. What have you heard?”
“The same. Vedris, Meandra, Zachariah. They all pass through here, but... when they get to Laurentia, nobody hears from them anymore.”
“Well, I’m going to find out why.”
“I’ll come with you!”
Hercules chuckled. “And who’s gonna put food on the table for your eight children?” He raised his mug, took a hearty swallow.
Marcius smiled mischievously. “There’s ten now.”
Hercules set down his tankard. “Really? Two more reasons not to go. Don’t worry, my friend. Iolaus and I will get to the bottom of it.”
“Well, I hope so. They were all good men.” Marcius took a hefty swallow from his own tankard.
“Yes, they were.” The son of Zeus paused reflectively for a moment. “So, two more kids, huh?”
The other warrior just laughed.
“The nights must get really cold here.” Hercules gave his friend a sly look.
“Yeah, well--” Marcius grinned knowingly. They burst out laughing.
Zachariah spent a restless night preparing for his battle with the dragon Braxis. Since the beast’s lair was a bit of a hike from Laurentia, he opted not to travel there during the night’s darkness. Instead, he gathered what weapons he thought he’d need to go against a monster. When the day dawned, he headed for the mountain range north of Laurentia. Across his back was a quiver of arrows, a fully strung bow hung off his left shoulder. His sheathed sword, Cynea’s purple scarf tied to the hilt, swung from his waist. In his right hand, he carried a long spear.
He passed a couple of destroyed villages on his way there, the burned out remains still smoldering from recent attacks. Once or twice on his journey he found his commitment wavering. His hand would then touch the silken material of the scarf; he would think of his beloved, the fear in her heart, and his dedication to rid the world of Braxis would return.
A little after mid-morning, Zachariah approached the large cave said to be Braxis’ den. Blackened scorch and several deep scraps, that could have been made from sharp claws, marred the rocky surface near the entrance, offering further evidence that this was the beast’s home.
Spear held in readiness, the curly-haired warrior stepped cautiously into the cave. He noted several tall pillars of rock that stood here and there within the cave; these would make good things to shield behind if needed. A huge hole in the roof opened the cave to the sky above; sunlight shone brightly into the grotto. The stench of sulfur and, fainter, charred flesh assailed his nostrils. Human bones lay scattered across the floor of the cave. A heavy breathing sound came from the back of the large cave, where shadows halted any progression of light.
So intent was he on the sounds beyond his range of sight that he nearly stepped on the charred remains of a fellow human. Startled, Zachariah jumped backwards. His eyes flicked to and fro as if he had awakened from a spell and realized what horrible deed he had been commanded to do. The breathing noise stopped, followed by a low growl.
Heart pounding with adrenaline, Zachariah dropped the spear. With the skills acquired by a seasoned warrior, he quickly replaced the discarded weapon with his bow, swiftly notching an arrow. He launched the arrow into the darkness beyond. A few moments later, his arrow--now broken neatly in half--landed back at his feet.
Quickly, Zachariah pulled his sword. Both hands on the hilt, sword point thrust forward, he swiftly advanced. Just as he reached the edge of the shadow, a huge paw shot from darkness, knocking his weapon to one side. The warrior ducked as another clawed foot lashed out at him. He back-pedaled, then whirled and dived for his fallen spear.
Spear firmly in hand, he stood his full height, spied a dragon-shaped shadow falling over him. He whirled to face the approaching menace. Because the dragon’s rearing form was backlit by the morning sun, Zachariah couldn’t make out any details in the beast’s features, except to see a huge body, unfurling wings and curved neck that supported a large head. The last thing he saw was a huge fireball, erupted from the open mouth, headed swiftly towards him.
Before the flames engulfed him totally, however, he could have sworn he heard an angry voice in his head. Die, assassin, die!
Shortly after the fiery death of Zachariah of Macedonia, his still smoking body was tossed over the edge of some rocks and into a pit by the wall. His unused sword, the purple scarf still attached to the hilt, unceremoniously followed. Both items landed on a small pile of similarly scarred human remains and untouched swords. All the swords had purple silk scarves wrapped around the hilts.
Hercules strode leisurely down the road towards Laurentia. It was a pleasant day, despite that the morning sun peeked through dark clouds, hinting at rainy weather. He paused when the sharp odor of burning wood reached him. Ahead, beyond the crest of a small hill, he could see black smoking lazily rising into the air. Hercules quickened his pace, jogging over the crest where he could see the remains of a small village that been burned to the ground. And recently, the demigod figured as he approached what was left of the settlement. He could see fires still burning here and there. The only partly standing buildings left had stone walls and even these were charred and cracked beyond repair. Everything else had burned to the ground.
The only thing missing was bodies. Hercules hoped this meant the population had had time to flee before whatever had destroyed their homes had come. He didn’t, however, disregard any ideas of slavers having ravaged the area.
“Anybody here?” he called.
In the blacksmith’s forge, a red-hot half-made sword still lay in the fire. Hercules carefully picked it up at the unfired end. “Looks like they all left in a hurry.” He dropped the hot weapon into the cooling bucket. The super-heated metal sizzled as it hit the cool water.
The demigod made his way slowly through the destroyed village. Pieces of charred wood dropped from burned-out framing. Other than that, the settlement was deathly quiet. No apparent survivors, but no human remains, either.
Just outside the village, in the soft ground that lay along the dirt roadway, Hercules found the tracks of many feet, heading into the forest beyond. He paced through the trees and undergrowth, finding the distinct passage of many people in the trampled vegetation and the broken branches of the lower-lying bushes. As he passed an old tree, its trunk split with age and disease, he thought he heard a soft crack, as if somebody had shifted in their hiding place. Warily, he backtracked to the tree, paused a moment, then swiftly reached into the open trunk. His hand closed on cloth, so he yanked.
What he extracted from the tree was a small, blond-haired boy dressed peasant’s clothing. The nine-year-old squirmed in the demigod’s double grip.
“No! No! Let me go!”
“Whoa! Whoa! Take it easy!” Hercules fought to keep his hands on the youngster.
“Let me go!”
“Okay, take it easy!” He set the blond youth gently on the ground.
The boy began to circle him, swinging a slingshot with one hand. “I”m not afraid of you!”
“Well, that’s good,” Hercules answered, “then you can tell me what happened back at the village.”
As he spoke, the demigod noticed that people began to emerge from their hiding places amongst the trees and shrubs. The peasants advanced, some angry, others wary. Many carried what worldly goods they could save before fleeing; most of the men bore makeshift weapons of rakes or pitchforks.
A pudgy man wearing a leather eyepatch stepped forward. “What more do you bandits what? You’ve taken everything we have!”
“I think you have me confused with somebody else,” Hercules told him. “Who’s everybody hiding from?”
From the crowd behind Hercules came a tall man. His hair was sandy brown; he wore blue pants and purple robes over his shirt. “Hercules? Is that you?”
The son of Zeus turned at the familiar voice. “Lemnos?” As he shook his friend’s hand, he could hear the crowd murmuring amongst themselves. “Lemnos! Diana!” he greeted the blond-haired woman, dressed in a blue skirt and striped tunic, beside Lemnos. She pushed her long hair back before giving him a hug. “Oh, and this--” he knelt beside the boy he’d taken from the tree “--must be Gyger.” He glanced up at the boy’s father. “He certainly has your courage.”
“Put the slingshot away, son,” Lemnos instructed. “Meet the man who helped us originally drive Adamis into the sea, many years ago.”
“Did you come to help us?” Gyger asked hopefully, tucking away his weapon.
“Tell me what’s going on.”
It was Lemnos who answered. “Adamis is back from exile on Tarsus.”
The demigod stood, his expression became very serious. “Adamis?”
“He’s attacking the villages that resisted him before, looting and destroying everything in his path,” Diana informed, her arm going unconsciously around her son’s shoulders.
“He plans to take all of Greece,” Lemnos said, “not just the provinces like last time.”
The man with the eyepatch stated, “We sent for help.”
Hercules looked at him, then at the rest of the villagers gathered around, staring at him expectantly. “Well, help is here.”
Hope rekindled, several of the peasants cheered.
Iolaus of Thebes, on his way to meet his best friend Hercules, stopped off at the local tavern of a small settlement. His rumbling stomach let him know it was time for some refueling. Of course, to listen to Hercules, one would think the gifted hunter was always hungry. A statement Iolaus couldn’t argue with, claiming that keeping up with his half-god partner in battle required a lot of energy. His mouth watered as he entered the tavern. If he wasn’t mistaken, it smelled like boar stew was on the menu.
He approached the long bar. The hefty man behind the bar smiled when he saw him. “Iolaus!”
The blond greeted the owner with a warrior’s handshake before taking a stool at the bar. “Velasarius, how are you?” He leaned his sheathed sword against the wood bar, by his feet.
Velasarius, a balding man with a long scar over his left eye, clasped his old comrade’s arm firmly. “Good. It’s been a long time, my friend. What’ll it be?”
“If my sense of smell hasn’t faded, it seems like it’ll be boar stew.”
Velasarius chuckled. “It hasn’t and it is.”
“Great!” Iolaus rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “Oh, and a mug of ale to wash it down.”
“Coming right up!” Velasarius stepped away to fill the order.
The hunter turned in his seat, looked around. Immediately, his eye caught the pretty figure of a woman, dressed in purple and blue, sitting alone at a table by the window across from him. Seeing her glance at him, he gave her a dashing smile. To his surprise, instead of smiling back, she burst into tears, turning away and burying her head in her hands.
Velasarius returned with a bowl, wooden spoon and mug. He set the items in front of Iolaus. “I see you haven’t lost your touch with women,” he retorted.
Iolaus turned back to the bar. “Yeah.”
“She’s been like that since she came in.”
“Really?” The warrior stole a glance in her direction--she had lifted up her head, but some tears still fell--then returned his attention to Velasarius. “Looks serious.” He’d just taken his first bite of stew when he heard a rough voice talking, voice raised as if to attract attention or impress his buddies.
“Cheer up, wench.”
Iolaus swung about to see three grungy-looking thugs standing at the lady’s table.
“Yeah,” a second one intoned, pushing a mug towards her, “a few of these and everything’ll start to look better.”
“Yeah,” stated the third, who was missing two fingers off his right hand. He and his friends sat down beside her, effectively blocking any escape route.
“Leave me alone!” The woman implored as Three Fingers sidled closer, reaching out to grab her chin.
Iolaus took a quick bite of stew before sliding off the stool. “Hey, buddy,” he called, getting their attention. He crossed the room, placed his hands on the table where they sat, then leaned forward. The sun sparkled brightly off his golden hair. “Is that your mouth? Or did ya borrow it from a moron?”
The second man, whom Iolaus had mentally nicknamed Braids due to the braided strands in his hair, gave the blond hunter a nasty look. “Go back to your lunch, little man, while you can still eat it.”
“Are you kidding? Eat lunch and look at your ugly faces at the same time?” Iolaus grimaced. “I think not.”
“Why, you little--” growled the one Iolaus called Hat, as he was the only one of the three wearing a hat. This thug leaped from his seat, threw a punch at the smaller man.
Jade amulet swinging wildly, Iolaus blocked the punch. His fist connected solidly with the other’s chin. As Hat fell back from the punch, Iolaus grabbed him, tossed him roughly aside.
Three Fingers’ fist met Iolaus’ face as the hunter turned back towards the table. He and Braids snared the purple vest and hauled him backwards. They heaved him, backside down, onto the bar. Velasarius deftly rescued the bowl of stew and mug of ale, setting them further down.
From his prone position, Iolaus’ booted feet lashed out, knocking both toughs across the room. Three Fingers flipped over a table; Braids crashed onto the floor at the feet of one of Velasarius’ serving women. Before he could get back up, she smashed a pottery jar over his head, effectively taking him out of the match.
The blond warrior back-rolled off the bar. Seeing the battle wasn’t yet over, he jumped onto the bar. The hatted one came at him with a short sword. Iolaus grabbed a short length of hard sausage links. Before Hat could slash at him, he flung the links around, catching the sword, knocking it loose from Hat’s hand. Using the sausages like one would a nunchucks, he whacked first one man, then the other. They fell hard to floor.
Iolaus relaxed his stance, though he kept his impromptu weapon at the ready. As he figured, they got to their feet, albeit woozily, and pushed towards him again. Clearly enjoying himself, Iolaus swung the links, hitting Hat, then Three Fingers, going back and forth between the two heavies for several rounds before they finally dropped, unconscious, to the floor.
Seeing he had no one left to battle, the hunter jumped lightly off the table. He laid the meat-turned-weapon onto the bar. He looked at the owner. “Sorry about the mess, Velasarius,” Iolaus remarked, taking a long draught from his ale.
The taller man grinned. “Almost worth it to see you in action again. Nice to see you haven’t lost your touch.” He gestured to the three thugs who still lay groaning upon the floor. Glancing around, he nodded towards the door. “Go on, before she gets away.”
The son of Skouros followed his friend’s eyes to see the lady whose honor hed saved walking quickly towards the door. He picked up his sword. “Nobody says ‘thanks’ anymore, do they?” he retorted. Velasarius just shook his head in amusement before heading for the main floor to clear up the broken furniture and hurting bodies.
Iolaus walked up to the woman. “Sorry about all the trouble.”
“You’re very brave,” she remarked, “but I have to go now.” She continued towards the door with a heay sigh. “It’s a long walk to Laurentia.”
Iolaus caught up to her. “Well, there’s a coincidence, you see? I’m meeting a friend there. You mind if I walk with you?”
“Suit yourself,” she told him. “It’s a free province.”
Iolaus smiled, then followed her outside.
Hercules helped his friends clean up some of the destruction that he found out had been made by a rogue dragon.
“He was about twenty cubits long with mean, red eyes and pointy claws.” Gyger informed the tall man. The boy swung his homemade slingshot. “And he breathed fire.”
“Sounds like a dragon, all right,” Hercules agreed, putting a heavy basket to one side.
“His name is Braxis.” Lemnos pulled a sword from the wreckage of his home. He set it with the few other items they’d managed to salvage from the ashes. “A plague that fell from the sky. We’re lucky we got everyone out before he set the fires. If he hadn’t made that first pass without letting lose with his flames....” He let the implications of the death that would have occurred hang in the air.
Hercules frowned. “A dragon helping to loot a village. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Some say Adamis cast a spell on him,” Diana supplied helpfully.
“You sure Adamis is behind all this?”
“I saw him myself, telling the dragon to destroy the village.” Lemnos answered. “He’s older, but it was him. He’s gathered an army. He had a look in his eye, like he’d stolen power from the gods.”
“Huh. It doesn’t sound like his years in exile changed him much.”
“If anything,” Gyger’s mother said, “they made him crueler.”
Lemnos agreed with his wife. “He’ll use Braxis to destroy us, unless we can find someone to kill that dragon. After this,” he gestured around him at the still burning destruction, “I’m tempted to go after him myself!”
The look of fear that crossed Diana’s face didn’t escape Hercules’ notice. He wouldn’t have let his friend risk himself, anyway, but his having a family gave the half-god another reason to keep the other away from the dangerous beast. “Let me go, Lemnos. I’ll have a little talk with Adamis first. I’d hate to kill this dragon if it’s only crime is being put under a spell. It may as much a victim of Adamis as your village, and other villages, were.”
“I’ll go with you!” Gyger stated eagerly. “I’m not afraid of warlords, or dragons!”
“I can see that,” the demigod placated his friend’s son, “but I’m sure your family needs you around here.” He glanced at the boy’s parents. “I’ll be back. I’m meeting Iolaus in Laurentia. He may worry if I’m too late.”
Lemnos laughed. “No, he’ll probably think you’ve been hi-jacked into helping someone else! Take care.”
“You, too.” Hercules walked away.
“Behold the flame’s beauty, Orenth,” Adamis encouraged his second-in-command. The man’s dark leather armor gleamed in the illumination of the command tent as he waved his hand over the dancing flame from the metal-sconced torch in front of him. He had long, dark hair that hung slightly below his shoulders; several of the front strands of hair were braided. He sported a thin moustache and goatee that made his face more menacing. “It cleanses, like a dragon’s breath.” He grabbed the man’s hand, held it over the flickering fire. “Embrace the pain, Orenth. It makes you stronger.”
Orenth quickly pulled his hand away from the strong grip of his commander. “I’m strong enough, already.” He glanced at his hand, checking for any damage.
“Strong enough to defeat Laurentia?”
“Why waste our time conquering pathetic little villages?” He gestured to the map on the table. “We need to secure a route to the sea! Use that dragon of yours to--”
Adamis pulled a long handled dagger from the sheath at his side. He put the serrated edge at Orenth’s throat. “I said...” he growled, before plunging the blade into the map. “Laurentia!”
Orenth took a step backwards. “All right! Laurentia! Whatever you want!”
The tent’s flap was pushed open. Two of Adamis’ men entered, a civilian between them. The peasant’s eyepatch marked him as the same man from the village Braxis had destroyed earlier that day.
“Toth,” Adamis asked, “what trifling bit of commerce brings you from your hole?”
“Big news, Adamis.”
“If it’s big enough, I’ll pay five dinars.” He eyed the man’s pudgy physique. “Or perhaps five dinners would be more to your liking.”
“It’s about Hercules. He’s here and he’s looking for you.”
Adamis gazed at the man for a long moment, as if questioning his honesty, then nodded slightly. One of the guards dropped a gold coin into Toth’s hand. The villager raised the piece to his face, lifted his eyepatch--revealing a fully functional eye underneath--scrutinized the coin for a moment, then grinned as he swiftly stashed it away.
“I’ll go now,” Toth announced. “I know you have villages to plunder, farms to pillage.” He quickly retreated outside.
Adamis walked back over to the metal torch beside the table. “Perfect. All the pieces are falling into place.”
Orenth dismissed the guards, then came up behind his commander. “How did you know Hercules would show up?”
“He’s so predictable. Threaten some innocents and Hercules comes running,” he spat out. Gazing into the flame of the torch, he said reflectively, “Ten years I spent on that island with nothing but dragons for company. Ten long years to plan my revenge. And now...” his voice held more conviction “...now, I’ll destroy Hercules and Iolaus, in the very place they once defeated me. Laurentia!”
He grabbed at the flickering flame, extinguishing it.
It was raining lightly as Iolaus escorted Cynea to Laurentia. As was his habit, Iolaus carried his sheathed sword in his hand instead of strapped to his belt. They left the woodland, entering a spacious meadow. As they made their way through the tall grasses, he picked a pretty white flower, then gave it to his traveling companion.
“Here you go. To cheer you up,” he said lightheartedly.
“I’m sorry, I’m just not in the mood.” She handed back the flower. She heaved a sigh. “See, my--finance, Zachariah, was killed. I’m coming back from telling his family.”
“Zachariah of Macedonia?”
Surprised, Cynea looked at the blond. “You knew him?”
“He saved my life at the battle of Thespis.” Silence reigned for a few moments before Iolaus wanted to know: “How’d he die?”
“He was killed by a dragon.”
“I’m sorry,” Iolaus stated sincerely. “He was a good man.”
Cynea wrung her hands in apparent frustration. “He wasn’t the first to die at the hands of this beast. It’s been ravaging the countryside for months.”
“Then, perhaps it’s time somebody did something about it,” the son of Skouros suggested.
She stopped to gaze at him. “You’re very brave, but no man can do it alone. It would take an army.”
“How about an army of two? My friend and I--”
“No! Please! I feel responsible for my Zachariah’s fate.” Cynea glanced at the ground, then back into Iolaus’ blue eyes. “You seem so nice. I-I couldn’t have both your deaths on my conscience.”
“Then you won’t.” Iolaus smiled at her, holding out the flower. Her fingers closed about the stem; she gave him a tentative smile. He continued walking, leaving her to watch him go.
Iolaus waited at the crossroads, watching for his best friend. He’d sent Cynea ahead; she’d wanted to get back home, get a few things in the marketplace so she could make dinner for them. In appreciation of his escorting her home, she’d told him. The blond warrior needed the time to think, without the distraction of Zachariah’s fiancee; also, when Hercules arrived, he wanted to use the time they spent walking the road to Laurentia to bring the son of Zeus up to speed on what’d been happening in the area.
People bustled to and fro, giving the scrappy warrior leeway. Iolaus watched a group of children run by, smiling at their giggling antics. He easily spotted Hercules’ tall form approaching from the northern road. Grip tightening on the sheathed sword in his hand, he hurried to intercept his friend.
“Hercules!” Iolaus casually fell into step despite the taller man’s longer stride. “I know who’s been killing our friends. It’s a dragon.”
“Braxis. I know. I heard the same.”
“Zachariahs’ fiancee told me. He’s been killed as well.” Iolaus paused, then stated matter-of-factly, “Herc, he saved my life once. I really feel like we should, you know, avenge his death.”
“I know how you feel, Iolaus, but this doesn’t... feel right. Dragons leave their lairs to hunt, not to burn villages or track down warriors.”
“These warriors weren’t tracked down,” the blond supplied. “They died in its lair.”
The demi-god filed that information away. “Adamis might be behind all this.”
“Adamis? Isn’t he in exile on Tarsus?”
“Not anymore. Supposedly, he’s back in Laurentia. And we both know that Tarsus is a breeding ground for dragons.”
Iolaus sighed heavily. He had a feeling he knew where this conversation was going and he wasn’t happy about it. “Hercules, what does it matter how Braxis got here? The point is he’s killing our friends. We’ve got to stop it!”
“I know,” Hercules agreed, “but we have to track down Adamis first and find out what’s really going on.”
The hunter stopped, just enough to allow his friend to get a few steps ahead. Clearly miffed, he began walking again, treading quickly to get back to Hercules’ side.
Adamis entered the cave that housed Braxis. He stepped into the circle of light created by the circular opening above him. A light rain fell into the cave through the hole. “Braxis?” he called.
From the dark shadows a large creature emerged. Although considered huge by human standards, Braxis was still only half-grown. The purple and red scales of his body gleamed in the light. Two white horns curved backwards on his large head; sharp, pointed teeth glistened when he opened his long snout. Two large, leathery wings lay tucked along his back. He stood on four legs, watching the human before him with green eyes.
What do you want, Adamis? An adolescent-sounding, but not overly young, voice sounded in the warrior’s head.
Used to the mind-speech of dragons, Adamis took the voice in stride. “Cynea tells me she sent Zachariah your way. Did you take care of him?”
If he had the purple scarf, I took him out, the dragon stated matter-of-factly.
There was a pause, as if the dragon were thinking through something. Braxis’ long tail whipped back and forth in aggravation as he stated, Adamis, I don’t like killing people.
Adamis stepped boldly up to the beast. “He came here to kill you, you were only defending yourself.”
He came because Cynea told him I was evil.
“Braxis, it’s all going according to our plan. We’re getting back at those assassins who want nothing less than the total destruction of all dragons.” Adamis’ voice softened. “I’ve done the best I can tryin’ to protect you these past few years since your mother’s death. Together, we could get rid of those murderers who plotted against your kind. One by one, we destroyed those enemies. And now, the very men who actually killed your mother are here, looking for you.” He paused. “These assassins, they’re tricky and clever. I need your help to get rid of them forever. Once you do that, you’ll never have to fear anyone ever again. And your mother’s death will be avenged.”
Adamis could almost see the thoughts running through the adolescent dragon’s mind. Family bonds were strong in dragons. And in a dragon Braxis’ age, which was the equivalent of a young human teen, the need to prove oneself was strong. That made it easy to use the unsuspecting beast for his own uses.
Will it be much longer?
“No, Braxis, not much longer. I promise.” He turned to leave. At the cave mouth, he paused, looking back. “Keep out of sight. I don’t want anybody seeing you.”
I need to hunt.
“Then do it later, after dark. I don’t want anybody seeing you unless I send them.” As the warrior left the cave, he “heard” a grumbling in his mind, but felt the beast would obey.
Hercules and Iolaus approached Laurentia. The small village was bustling with activity, people going about their business, though here and there, they could see people loading up wagons or smaller carts with their worldly goods. Word of the destruction of near-by villages must have reached the people’s ears and they wished to depart before suffering the same fate as their neighbors.
“I don’t get it,” Iolaus remarked. “Why don’t you want to go after a dragon that’s already killed so many of our friends? You wouldn’t hesitate to slay the big, bad beast in the past.”
“We knew those other beasts were hurting people deliberately,” the demi-god explained patiently. He understood his friend’s anxiousness in wanting to avenge his fellow warriors’ deaths. Something didn’t seem quite right to Hercules, however, and he didn’t want to go off without all the facts. “For all we know, Braxis was acting in self-defense. The warriors were all killed in the dragon’s lair. He didn’t hunt them down.”
“I’d rather not wait until it he starts hunting people down.”
“Iolaus, can we hold off until we have proof about Braxis? If he’s as bad as you think, we’ll fight him side-by-side.”
Before the blond warrior could comment, they heard a feminine voice call out: “Iolaus!”
A long-haired brunette approached them. Hercules gave his best friend a knowing glance.
“It’s not what you think,” Iolaus said.
“Of course not.”
“This is Zachariah’s fiancee.”
The disbelief in Hercules’ voice turned contrite. “Oh.”
The duo paused as they reached her. “Hi,” Iolaus greeted.
“Hi.” She eyed the taller man. “Is this the friend you’re meeting?”
“Yeah. Hercules, this is Cynea.”
“Hello,” Hercules replied. “I was sorry to hear about Zachariah.”
“Thank you. It’s been hard on all of us,” Cynea said sadly. A pause, then, “I, um, I’ve heard so much about you. Iolaus was kind enough to escort me home. I was going to fix him dinner. Would you like to join us?”
“Oh, thanks, but I’d hate to intrude.”
“You wouldn’t be intruding.”
“Not at all,” Iolaus insisted. “I just walked her home because--you know, bandits--anything can happen.”
“I know,” the son of Zeus nodded. “Anything can happen. Maybe some other time.”
“Okay, see ya.”
“See you later.”
Cynea nodded farewell to Hercules.
Hercules watched the two walk away. Cynea was a very beautiful woman, one his partner could easily become involved with romantically. Iolaus, however, didn’t make it a habit of taking advantage of the fiancee (or wife) of a just killed comrade, especially when said warrior had saved Iolaus’ life. He sighed, thinking of Zachariah and the others who had died, supposedly because of this dragon.
His musings were interrupted by another shout, this one of “Hercules!”
He turned to see Lemnos rushing towards him. The man stopped before the demi-god. “Hercules, thank the gods I found you! Something terrible’s happened.”
“What is it?”
“It’s Gyger. He took my sword and he’s run off to fight Braxis.”
“Any idea which way Gyger might have headed?”
Lemnos pointed the way he’d come. “They say Braxis lives north of my village. In the southern part of the mountain range.”
He clapped Lemnos reassuringly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring him back.”
Evening had fallen quickly, the full moon beginning to rise as Iolaus and Cynea strolled along a small path outside her home. The day-long drizzling had stopped, leaving behind the earthy smells that follow a rainstorm.
“I had no idea you were friends with Hercules,” Cynea commented, breaking the tranquil peacefulness that surrounded them. “Is he the second half of your two-man army?”
“Yeah, usually.” Iolaus answered. He sighed wistfully. “I’m not sure this time.”
“Good. Maybe he can talk some sense into you.” Silence reigned for a moment before she stated unhappily, “People are already fleeing Laurentia. I’ll be going soon, too.”
“Because of Braxis,” Iolaus grumbled.
“It’s only a matter of time before he destroys this place. I’m going to Plethos. I have family there.”
“Plethos,” the blond said thoughtfully, seriously. “That’s pretty far away.” He added light-heartedly, “How am I gonna run into you by accident?”
“Well, you wouldn’t, but... you could come visit on purpose.”
“I might just do that.”
Iolaus halted, grabbing Cynea gently by the arm. “Cynea, this is wrong. People should not be forced to leave their homes because of that monster. Someone has to do something about it.”
“No! I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I’ve already lost someone close to me.” She placed her right hand on his cheek, gazed into his blue eyes. “You are so sweet. I couldn’t stand it if...” Abruptly, she let her hand fall, then stepped forward. “We should get back. After dinner, I have to finish packing.”
Iolaus approached Cynea, reached up to put his hands on her shoulders in a comforting gesture. Before he could touch her, however, she continued down the path. All the blond warrior could do was drop his arms and follow.
Hercules raced towards the cliffs that lined the southern-most part of the mountain chain. The whole area was pock-marked with caves and ridges. The full moon lit up the cliff-face, but also cast shadows over much of the area at its base.
“Gyger! Gyger, can you hear me? It’s Hercules!”
Hercules’ keen eyes noticed a foreign object lying on the smooth rock beneath his feet. He picked it up, recognizing the dark amulet that belonged to the lad for which he was now searching. Concern flooded the demi-god’s heart as he scanned the rockface before him. “Gyger!”
Gyger had followed a footpath up the sloping side of the large rock formation. He was heedful of the sharp drop-off he now edged, careful to keep close to the large boulders further away from the edge. Unsteadily, he brandished his father’s heavy sword before him with both hands. “Come out, you overgrown lizard!”
Suddenly, a large form topped a near-by boulder. Large wings tucked close to his body, the sleek form of a dragon cleared the huge rock. Braxis’ teeth gleamed in the moonlight.
Gyger froze at the terrifying sight. “Y-y-you don’t scare me!” He gave the sword a couple of token waves in the dragon’s direction.
Unphased by the “threatening” display, Braxis moved closer.
Gyger took a couple of steps backwards. “Get away from me!” He poked the sword forward. “Stay away!” When his efforts failed to scare the beast, Gyger continued his rearward motions.
Suddenly, the lad had no more ground upon which to tread. His heel slipped off the edge; he tumbled off the cliff.
A split-second later, Braxis launched himself off the rocks. He swooped low, dropping beneath the falling human. Gyger landed on the dragon’s shoulders, between the wings that fanned out for an easy glide.
Once he regained his breath, Gyger chanced to look around. “Wow!” he breathed in awe, as the foothills passed by beneath him. There, he could see a river snaking through the countryside. White-peaked mountains glowed brightly in the moonlight. He pressed his knees tighter as Braxis canted slightly to one side, continuing to ride the thermals much as a raptor. The breath-taking view quickly replaced any fear the human child had felt just a moment before.
Gyger’s air-borne tour of the area ended all too soon. The great beast gently backwinged, landing back where they had started. Braxis crouched low, allowing Gyger to slide carefully off his back. The boy didn’t move as Braxis shifted backwards. Head tilted, Braxis met Gyger’s gaze for a long moment.
Then he turned and, with a strong thrust of his powerful hind legs, launched into the air. The breeze from the first downstroke of wings ruffled the boy’s hair.
“Whoa.” Gyger watched Braxis disappear into the night.
The boy turned at the familiar voice; he saw Hercules cresting the top of the cliff, the demi-god having climbed up the side. “Hercules!” he shouted excitedly. “Did you see what happened?”
“No, but I just saw Braxis fly off, so keep your voice down.”
“He saved my life!”
Stunned by the statement, the son of Zeus could only utter, “What?”
“I fell off the ledge. He flew down and caught me!”
“Gyger,” Hercules stated sternly, “you’re not makin’ this up, are you?”
“No, no! I swear it’s true!” Gyger pulled himself up to his full height. “And I wasn’t scared for a minute.”
“Well, you’re parents were. Come on, we’d better get you back to them.” Hercules lifted his friend’s son onto his back, then picked up the fallen sword. “How’d you get all the way up here, anyway? You didn’t climb--”
“Oh, no, there’s a path down that way.” Gyger pointed off to the side.
Heading for the trail down the slope, Hercules carefully scanned the skies above. As he walked along the, thankfully, moon-lit path, Hercules thought about what Gyger had told him. Monsters that destroyed villages would rarely go out of their way to save the life of a child. Snatch him out of the air so he could eat him, maybe, but not save him. Admittedly, he didn’t know much about dragon behavior, but something just didn’t seem right about the situation. It didn’t mesh with the stories he and Iolaus had heard of their friends’ deaths. Or that Adamis was possibly lurking around. If their former enemy did, indeed, have Braxis under a spell as Diana suggested, then the dragon wouldn’t have been in his right mind to save Gyger. If the spell was broken, then why didn’t the beast leave?
Hercules allowed himself to be momentarily distracted as he realized Gyger was fast sleep, softly snoring into the demi-god’s shoulder. He smiled. The lad had had a busy day.
After getting Gyger back home, he’d find Iolaus and run the scenario past him. Between the two of them, perhaps they could solve this mystery.
“That was stupid!” Adamis paused in his pacing; he brandished his long dagger dramatically as he turned a harsh gaze on the young dragon. “You should have killed him!”
There was no need. He’s just a little boy. He couldn’t harm me.
“Oh, Braxis,” Adamis tempered his rough voice, hoping to placate the large dragon. He knew he was stepping a fine line in keeping the adolescent beast on his side. “Braxis, can’t you see? By not killing the boy, the villagers will think you have a soft side. They won’t be afraid to come here anymore. You won’t be safe anywhere.”
I’m tired of all this waiting around! I want to do something! Braxis snapped his long tail, his wings rustled in agitation.
“I know, but you need to stick to our plan.”
I don’t like destroying villages. The people in those villages didn’t do anything to me.
“By destroying those villages, you’re hurting the people who encouraged your mother’s destruction. It’s also bringing the assassins running. It’s the only way we’re going to get revenge on those who hurt you by taking your mother away from you.” His expression thoughtful, Adamis stepped towards Braxis. “Your mother,” he stated wistfully, “if only she had been stronger, not so trusting, she wouldn’t have gotten killed. That’s why you have to be cold and hard, because the world is. People like Hercules and Iolaus don’t hesitate to take advantage of that.”
Are they the ones who killed her?
Adamis smiled inwardly as he heard the grief in the dragon’s thoughts. If the great beasts didn’t have as strong familial bonds as humans many times got, he wouldn’t be able to use Braxis now. Doing his best to look remorseful, the warrior nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
I’m sorry, Adamis. I should have listened to you and stayed out of sight.
“I’m only doing this for your own good. I just don’t want to see you end up like your mother. You do want to avenge her death, don’t you?”
Of course I do! Braxis growled.
Adamis held out his hands in a placating gesture. “Then stick to the plan. Together, Hercules and Iolaus defeated your mother, but individually, you can deal with them” he curled his hands into fists “and make them pay.”
Braxis sighed, the smell of sulfur floating on the air. Okay, we’ll do this your way.
Cynea laughed, watching as her guest finished the last of his meal. “Thanks for all your help. It feels really good to smile again.”
Iolaus mopped up the last of the gravy with a thick slice of bread. “It feels really good to eat again.” He popped the bread into his mouth, chewed and swallowed. “This is a meal fit for the gods.”
She tilted her head in acknowledgment of the compliment. “And I thank them for sending you.”
The blond smiled, pushing aside the empty plate.
“You know, you’ve cheered me up.” Cynea placed a caressing hand on his.
“You better be careful. I might get used to this.” Iolaus teased. His expression turned contrite when he saw Cynea glance down sadly. When she left the table to stand before the flickering flames of the fireplace, he rose to follow her. “I-I’m sorry. That wasn’t right of me...”
“No, it’s just that... I feel so guilty... enjoying you, while poor Zachariah....” she blinked back tears.
“Cynea.” Iolaus gently turned her to face him. “I can’t bring Zachariah back, but I can avenge his death for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“All I know is that if you want to go on, you have to put the past behind you. Braxis. All those terrible memories.”
“Iolaus, I didn’t mean to upset you,” Cynea answered. She ran a gentle hand up his arm. “You’ve been so kind and I’m just unable to deal with what happened.”
Determination crossed the hunter’s face. “Look, you suffered more than anyone should suffer. I’m going to put a stop to it, right now!” He strode resolutely across the room, gathered up his sword. Talking more to himself, he added, “The moon’s pretty bright, I should be able to track him from here. It’ll be slower, of course, take longer, but it’s do-able. I should be able to make it by morning.”
Alarmed, Cynea said, “Iolaus, don’t! If you have any feelings for me at all, you won’t risk your life for this dragon.”
“It’s not just my feelings for you,” he stated, stepping up to her, taking her hand. “I have to do this for Zachariah and for all the others. I owe it to them. I must avenge them.”
Cynea pulled off the purple scarf that hung from the belt of her dress. “Then take this with you.” Not giving him a chance to say anything, she tied the scarf around the hilt of his sword. “For luck.”
Iolaus smiled at her then, his eyes flashing, he left to track down a marauding dragon.
Dawn was creeping from the east when Hercules approached the house where Cynea lived. He’s spent most of the night talking to a few of the tavern’s patrons that hadn’t left yet, waiting for Iolaus to come. When he hadn’t, the demi-god had assumed that one thing had led to another and, Zachariah’s fiancee or no, the hunter had decided to stay the night. Cynea was, after all, very beautiful and Iolaus was only human. Perhaps they had found comfort in each other. Hercules certainly couldn’t fault them for that.
He stepped up to the solid wood door and knocked gently. A few moments later, a freshly dressed Cynea opened it. “Hello, Cynea.”
“Hercules. Good morning.” She gestured. “Come on in.”
“Thanks.” Stepping inside, he looked around. “Is Iolaus still here?”
“Why, no. He left a long time ago, right after dinner, actually.” Cynea gazed at him quizzically. “He’s not with you?”
“It’s not like Iolaus to eat and run. Did he say where he was going?”
Comprehension dawned on the woman’s face. “Oh, no, I didn’t think he’d go alone.”
Fear flooded Hercules’ heart. He had a pretty good idea what Cynea was talking about, but asked, “Go where?”
“To kill the dragon, Braxis. He was mumbling something about tracking him, that it could take all night.” Her brown eyes met the half-god’s. “You have to stop him!”
“Don’t worry, I will! I know where Braxis’ lair is, I can get there in time.” Without another word, Hercules dashed out of the house, leaving Cynea to stare after him.
The sound of slow applauding caught her attention. Turning, she spied Adamis coming from another room. The black-clad warrior looked very pleased.
“Another great performance, my love,” he crowed. “I doubt he’ll catch Iolaus in time, especially with what I’ve got planned, but if he does, well, we won’t be seeing Hercules or Iolaus ever again.”
Cynea picked up the two full wineglasses left from the night before. She handed one to Adamis, raised hers in a toast. “To our victory.”
Hercules raced down the road, his demi-god blood allowing him a ground-eating stride that would quickly tire any full mortal. Just as he rounded a bend in the road, he spied a tipped over wagon in the middle of the path. He halted, thinking perhaps somebody’s wagon had been attacked or there’d been an accident.
Suddenly, six dark-clad warriors jumped up from behind the wagon. They quickly scurried around the cart, brandishing various weapons, to block the way.
“That’s him!” One of them shouted. “Get him!”
Hercules sighed, agitated. “I really don’t have time for this.”
“It won’t take us long,” another remarked as the half-dozen men charged.
“So glad to hear it,” the demigod answered as the first of his attackers rushed him.
Deftly, Hercules took out the soldiers, singly and in pairs. Silently he wondered if the enemy ever got smart and thought to attack him by sheer numbers that they might just manage to overwhelm him. Temporarily, at least; perhaps long enough to get a bladed weapon thrust into him. Oh, well, I guess wicked and incompetent go hand-in-hand.
Flipping one warrior into another, causing them both to stumble into the brush at the side of the road, Hercules pivoted on his heel to grab a thrust spear from another of Adamis’ men. He whipped the spear low, cracking the man on the back of the knees. Before the man fell completely, he scooped him up and tossed him into another charging flunky.
An angry cry warned him of one coming from behind. The son of Zeus easily lifted the attacker in the air, then casually tossed him into the wagon. The man didn’t get up. The last soldier charged forward, a long-bladed dagger in hand. Hercules blocked the assault.
Flipping the knife away, he commented, “Didn’t your mother tell you never to play with knives?” He punched the man in the face. The man flew backwards several feet before collapsing unconscious to the ground.
Brushing dirt off his hands, Hercules glanced over his handiwork. All six men lay on the ground, knocked senseless or groaning in pain. “You’re right,” he nodded. “It didn’t take that long.”
Hercules sprinted down the road once again.
Adamis reined in his horse in the grassy stretch to one side of Braxis’ cave, then dismounted. There, his right-hand man and two other of his soldiers already waited. Orenth acknowledged Adamis’ approach with a nod as one of the others took the reins of their leader’s skittish mount.
“Word from our scouts say Iolaus will be here soon, Adamis,” Orenth reported. “He’s tracked Braxis quite quickly, considering.”
Adamis nodded. “Good, it’s all going according to plan. I sent an ambush for Hercules to slow him down. Together, he and Iolaus make a formidable team. Individually, Braxis should have no trouble dealing with them. You’ve sent for our spy?”
“They’re bringing him now.”
“Good, bring him inside when I call.”
“As you wish, Adamis,” Orenth bowed his head in acknowledgement.
Adamis strode forward, fighting to keep his exhilaration inside. He knew better than to call a victory complete, especially when it concerned the son of Zeus and his scrappy partner. That was how he’d failed the last time, by getting too confident in his victories. He’d planned too long and hard to mess things up now.
As he entered the grotto, he smiled when Braxis breathed out a column of flame. “Vigilance! Good, Braxis! I’m impressed.” He stepped forward, facing the dragon standing in the circle of light. “I’ve come with news. Hercules’ friend, Iolaus, is on his way. He’s only one man, but he fights like ten.”
Braxis pulled himself up proudly, his head towering over the human. I’m not afraid of anybody.
“Nor should you be. After you kill him, Hercules will follow. After ridding the world of him, you’ll have avenged your mother’s death.”
About time, too!
Adamis allowed himself a knowing smile. “I brought you a snack to--keep your strength up.” He turned his head and hollered, “Orenth!” Returning his attention to his dragonic pawn, he stated, “One by one, we’ve destroyed our enemies. Now with these last two, our revenge will be complete.”
Orenth approached, eyepatched Toth being forced along beside him. The peasant froze at the sight of Braxis. When he tried to back-up, Orenth blocked his progress. Having no other out, Toth pleaded, “Oh, no. No, please, Adamis, I beg you! No, I’m your friend.” He chuckled weakly.
“Well,” Adamis slung a friendly arm around Toth’s wide shoulders, but his voice was anything but friendly, “if you’d betray your neighbors, you’d certainly betray me.” He pushed the treasonous man towards Braxis.
Braxis reached out with a clawed foot, closed it about the villager’s rotund body, then lifted him off the ground.
“Oh, please!” Toth begged the dragon. “You don’t want me. I’ve got gallstones. You’ll chip a tooth.”
Smiling viciously, the dark warrior watched as Braxis backed slowly into the shadows. “Enjoy. We’ll be back.”
He and Orenth took their leave, Toth’s pleading voice following them out.
Iolaus emerged from the forest onto the rocky slopes of a mountain, his sheathed sword in hand. Cynea’s silk scarf fluttered in the slight breeze. The hunter paused. He lifted his head, caught the faint scent of sulfur. Braxis!
Iolaus had spent the night tracking, only stopping for a couple of hours to catch some sleep. He may have been anxious to rid the world of the marauding dragon, but he wasn’t foolish enough to head into any battle dog-tired if he had a choice. Sharp senses, as well as skill and cleverness, were the tools that would allow him to defeat this menace.
Following the smell of the dragon’s acrid breath, he finally came across a huge cave in the mountainside. Scorch marks on the rock, as well as deep claw scrapings, confirmed that this was the home of a dragon. Iolaus knelt next to a set of the claw marks. He touched the gouges, then cocked his head in thought. Something’s not quite right. These are dragon claw markings, but there’s just something not quite right about them.
He stood quickly, pulling his sword from the scabbard, when he heard a deep rumbling coming from the cave. Iolaus cautiously edged through the opening, keeping near the rock wall, his sword before him in readiness.
The sulfur odor was near stifling once he made his way inside. He noted the wide circular hole in the roof, noting it was definitely dragon-sized. His attention was drawn to the back of the cave, where more rumbling occurred. Suddenly, a blast of fire shot out from the darkness.
Iolaus nodded appreciatively. “Okay, you’ve got a fire-breathing dragon and he’s home.” He straightened his full height, gripped his weapon tighter. “No sweat,” he said confidently. He’d fought worse and won.
Adamis reined his horse to a halt; Orenth and his two men did the same. A rider was approaching from the direction they headed. It was Cynea, dressed in black trousers and a black blouse decorated with gold emblems on the front. She urged her mount forward, bringing the gelding up to the others’. Adamis gestured to his three underlings.
“Rejoin the troops. Once Hercules and Iolaus are taken care of, we’ll have free rein to take all of Greece.”
The three urged their horses through the meadow.
Adamis waited until his men had disappeared into a stand of trees. “It’s done,” he stated simply.
“They’re both dead?” Cynea’s eyes sparkled at the thought.
“No yet,” the dark warrior admitted, “but they’re separated, just as I planned. By the time Hercules gets there, Braxis will be picking his teeth with Iolaus’ bones.”
“How can you be sure Hercules won’t kill Braxis all by himself?” Cynea nudged her mount into a slow walk. Adamis followed suite; they rode side by side through the field, leisurely returning to Braxis’ cave.
“Even the mighty Hercules isn’t strong enough, or clever enough, to slay a dragon. Not by himself.”
“You did, once.”
Adamis snorted. “I spent ten years living amongst those beasts. They trusted me. I know how they live, breathe, and think.”
“I wouldn’t underestimate Hercules.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t.” The warrior looked at the woman at his side. “Mark my words. Iolaus’ death will destroy Hercules, this I know. With Iolaus’ death, so will die Hercules’ will to fight. This will give Braxis the edge to kill him. Then, I’ll drape your body in this country’s riches.”
Cynea smiled pleasantly. “As long as we rule equally, you can drape my body with whatever you want.”
Iolaus stepped further into the cave, noting where the best places might be to dodge if the need should arise. When Braxis stepped from shadows and into the sunlight streaming from above, he was momentarily taken aback. Braxis was indeed large and formidable; however, the dragon wasn’t as large as other dragons Iolaus had seen--which explained what had nagged him when he’d seen the claw scrapings. The marks had come from a smaller than usual dragon. But wait. The scales are brightly colored. Adults dragons have much duller scales, the colors aren’t as bright or distinctive.
Iolaus’ musings were interrupted as the dragon reared back his long neck before letting loose a salvo of flame. Dropping the scabbard, he quickly ducked behind a large crop of stones piled to one side. As the fire singed the sides of the rock, Iolaus could have sword he heard a voice say, “Die, murderer, die!”
He was unable to give that a second thought when the scrape of claw on rock came from one side. As Iolaus instinctively ducked sideways, away from the sound, a large head snaked around the pile of rock. Sharp, white teeth snapped shut right where he’d been standing. Iolaus swiped at the snout with the sword, making the beast jerk away. Growling filled the cavern.
“Yeah, I’m not as easy to kill as you thought I’d be, am I?” he shouted.
You’re dead meat!
This time Iolaus knew he’d heard a voice, and it was in his head!
The human hunter dodged the clawed foot that lashed his way. “Oh, really?” he taunted. “I guess we’ll find out who the best ma--uh, fighter is, won’t we?”
I’ll kill you! Braxis crouched close to the ground, his green eyes tracking the warrior.
Iolaus could hear the anger in the dragon’s mental voice. Why should a dragon, one that had been attacking innocent humans, be angry? Just because someone who knew what they were doing finally came to give him what he deserved? The thought made him even more furious about what had happened to his former comrades.
“You’ll kill me?” Iolaus snarled behind another pillar of rock “And what about all those warriors and villages you destroyed without a second thought?”
Don’t talk to me about killing without a second thought, you murderer!
The hunter cocked his head. That mental voice... it didn’t sound as deep as an adult’s. Braxis’ movements were quick, but not very co-ordinated, not the flowing motion a warrior picked up with experience. Those points, added with the smaller size and more vivid coloration, even the whiter teeth, made Iolaus realize he was dealing with a young beast. Certainly not a baby, but perhaps at the development age of a human teen. Iolaus snorted lightly. He certainly talks like an arrogant teen!
He turned his head, listening beyond the rock. He could hear Braxis rustling his leathery wings. There was a crack! sound that sounded to Iolaus like the dragon’s tail whipping through a pile of rock. Plumes of sulfurous smoke drifted on the air as Braxis breathed. “Braxis?” he called tentatively. “Can we talk?”
We are talking!
“No, I mean face to... snout.”
Silence. Except for the rustle of wings, the snort of breath and the scrape, scrape of (impatient?) claws on rock. Suddenly, angrily, the rocks were knocked aside. Iolaus ducked the second swipe of a huge draconic paw. Not wanting to attack Braxis in what he was beginning to think was a major misunderstanding--why else would Braxis keep calling him a murderer?-- Iolaus slapped the flat edge of his blade against the side of a foreleg.
Braxis reared up, bellowing more in humiliation than pain. He brought his head down, his green eyes sparking with outrage. He stretched out his large wings, then opened his mouth. I don’t make deals with murdering humans!
Iolaus only had time to throw himself sideways with a yell before the the flames incinerated the ground where he’d been standing. He rolled, pushed off with his feet to jump over a low pile of rocks. When he landed with a sickening crunch of bone and metal, he realized that behind the stones was a pit. A pit littered with the charred remains of humans and metal armament.
The blond warrior scrambled backwards a few feet, but stayed low so not to attract Braxis. Roasted human skeletons, blackened shields and swords. No, none of the swords had been touched with fire. They were all clean and shiny.
And all had a very familiar purple scarf tied to the hilts.
Iolaus, he berated himself, as he realized what this all meant, you are such a dolt! A pretty woman comes to you with a sob story and you fall for it. Hook, line and sinker. Won’t you ever learn?
Braxis’ angry words came to him. Come on out! Fight me, or are you too afraid?
The hunter ignored the taunts. Cynea sent them to their deaths... Zachariah... all of them... but why? Disgusted, he ripped off the scarf tied to his own sword. Could she be working with Adamis? As he heard the snorted breathing of Braxis, he realized the dragon had probably been duped, as well. After all, Adamis had spent several years in exile on Tarsus. It would be just like the lunatic to con an adolescent dragon to join his cause.
Iolaus sighed heavily. How was he going to explain it to Braxis before being turned into a live barbeque?
Hercules raced towards the entrance of Braxis’ home. He thought he heard a yell echoing within. A yell that sounded very much like Iolaus. This goaded him to move faster. He dashed into the cave, stopping quickly when he got his first real look at the dragon. Braxis stood on all fours, his tail lashing. In one very dexterous paw, he held Iolaus’ scabbard; head cocked, he examined the tooled leather.
The demigod felt rage boil inside him. What had this beast done to his best friend? “Braxis!”
The dragon looked up. Steam rose from his nostrils.
“What have you done to my friend?”
Are you Hercules?
It took a moment for him to answer. It wasn’t so much the mind-voice as the anger it contained. “Yes, I’m Hercules.”
Then you’ll die, too!
“No! Wait!” came Iolaus’ urgent voice. Both demigod and dragon turned to see the shorter warrior scrambling out of the pit.
“Iolaus! Are you all right?” Hercules asked.
“Yes,” he said, not moving to his friend’s side. Braxis was still volatile; two targets would be harder to pick off than one. “We’ve been set-up.” He moved his gaze to the dragon’s, then held up the scarf. “All three of us.”
No, only you’ve been set-up! So I could take my vengeance on you, you murderers!
“I wished you’d stop calling me that!” Iolaus lamented, irritated. “Who have we supposedly killed?”
You killed my mother! Now I’m going to kill you both! Braxis spewed forth the trail of fire towards Iolaus. The scrappy blond was already moving before the dragon could finish his promise. Hercules jumped behind the cover of a large rock.
“Iolaus! You okay?” he called.
“I’m fine! I found out that it was Cynea who set us up. Zachariah, me, the others. I think she’s working with Adamis!”
The sound of claw on rock warned Hercules; he duck-and-rolled just before his rocky shield was destroyed. Braxis’ long neck snaked out, teeth chomped too close for comfort. He tripped over a piece of old armor, falling onto his back. His splayed fingers closed on a discarded sword. A sword with a scarf, similar to the one Iolaus had waved at Braxis earlier, around its hilt. He swung the sword near Braxis’ snout. The dragon jerked back, reached up with a paw to rub the end of his nose.
It was enough time for Hercules to get to his feet and find another place for cover. He really didn’t want to slay another living thing if he had a choice. He certainly didn’t doubt Iolaus was right about them being set-up, but they had to subdue the raging beast before they would be able to get him to listen.
And what he found behind the rocky concealment would give them that chance.
Adamis and Cynea rode along quietly. She glanced over at her lover. “You’ve been quiet most of the day. What are you thinking about?”
“I’m going to miss him.”
“Hercules? But, you detest him.”
“And I’ll spit on his charcoaled remains.” Adamis answered with a vengeance. Remorsefully, he continued, “It’s Braxis I regret having to kill.”
Cynea twisted in her saddle to gaze at him. “Why do that? He’s a valuable weapon. We can go far using him.”
“After I take my revenge on Hercules and Iolaus, I won’t need him. He’s too powerful to risk losing to my enemies.”
“But he’ll do anything you ask him to.”
“For how long?” Adamis asked. “When he’s fully grown, he’ll have a mind of his own. He’s already starting to question my judgment.” He paused, contemplating. “What’s to stop him from turning against me, like his mother did?”
Comprehensive dawned for Cynea. “So that’s why she died.”
“She gave me no choice. I’ll wait ‘til he sleeps, then I’ll kill him. Like I killed her.”
What Hercules had found was a long length of chain. He peeked around the rock. Braxis had turned his attention back to Iolaus. The hunter executed a tuck-and-roll maneuver to avoid the lash of the dragon’s tail. Braxis brought down a forepaw, trapping Iolaus’ sword to the ground. A quick twist and Iolaus once again had both feet on the ground. If Braxis was human, he’d really be in trouble now! Iolaus is more dangerous without his sword than with it. The demigod allowed himself a quick smile.
Pulling together several feet of loose chain, he began to twirl it. “Braxis!”
When the dragon whirled to face him, the son of Zeus threw the length of chain. Links clinked as it went flying, wrapping several times around Braxis’ neck.
Hercules gave the chain a hard tug. Braxis stumbled forward, his head hit the ground, stunning him. Hercules leaped forward. He wrapped several loops around the white horns, about the top of the neck, then fashioned a halter around the nose. He tightened the chain like a muzzle to keep Braxis from opening his mouth, then circled a boulder before connecting the loose end to the halter.
Braxis struggled, but the chain held. Hercules grabbed the halter to keep the beast’s head at ground level. This further subdued him, for Braxis was unable to push himself up.
“Maybe now you’ll listen,” Hercules stated.
Let me up! Let me up! Wings rose and fell, tail lashed, claws scrabbled. All to no avail. The demigod’s renown strength was seeing to that.
“Braxis, listen to reason,” Iolaus came up, laid a gentle hand on the dragon’s nose as he gazed into a large eye. “You’re were being used, too! Adamis was using you to get revenge on the warriors that defeated him ten years ago! Hercules and I, we didn’t kill your mother!”
“Cynea and Adamis are using you for their own ends,” the demigod added.
“They’re right, you know. Adamis and Cynea are lovers.”
The two warriors stared at the overweight peasant who came out of the shadows. He wore an eyepatch. Hercules immediately recognized him as one of the men from Lemnos’ village. “What are you doing here?”
“I was--” Toth cleared his throat “--spying for Adamis. Playing both sides. Instead of thanking me, Adamis served me up as a dragon appetizer. Fortunately, Braxis is more honorable than I and did me no harm. But Adamis, I was a fool to trust him.”
“Are you paying attention here?” Hercules asked the young dragon. “Your friend, Adamis, uses people.”
Let me go!
“Not until you stop trying to kill us and listen for a change.”
You’re trying to fool me!
“Adamis is the one who’s fooling you. We’re not here to hurt you.”
I don’t believe that!
Hercules looked at the chain imprisoning Braxis. “Believe it.” To his partner, he asked, “Iolaus, could you fetch your sword for me, please?”
The smaller warrior retrieved his fallen weapon, handed it to his friend.
“If I wanted to hurt you, I wouldn’t be setting you free.” He raised the blade.
“Um, Herc, should you be doing that?” Iolaus asked uncertainly. “It still wouldn’t take much for him to take us out.”
“No, he won’t take us out.” Hercules looked into the dragon’s raging eyes. “Will you, Braxis? You’re not a cold-blooded killer. You have honor, just like the man said. This I know, because you saved Gyger’s life.”
I don’t kill little boys.
“I don’t think it’s gonna matter. We’ve got company.” The hunter nodded towards the cave mouth.
Adamis and Cynea walked in, stopping at the sight before them.
“They’re alive!” Cynea cried.
“Sorry to disappoint,” Iolaus answered sarcastically.
“And they’ve got Braxis!” Adamis stated. “You fool dragon! How’d you let them catch you!”
From his vantage point beside the huge creature, Hercules could hear Braxis growling at the remarks.
“Looks like I’ll have to deal with them myself!” Adamis drew his sword and lunged at Hercules. Still holding his friend’s weapon, Hercules put it to use, easily dodging the other’s swordstrokes. He hoped to capture Adamis alive, to bring him to trial for his recent crimes. They moved slowly around Braxis: Adamis desperately trying to make Hercules bleed, Hercules blocking the reckless moves with ease.
Cynea drew a long-bladed knife. Pretty eye narrowed, she stalked Iolaus, who backed a few steps. She darted forward, thrusting the knife towards his unprotected abdomen. Iolaus neatly stepped aside.
“Cynea,” he said, acting surprised, “after all we meant to each other?”
Her reply was another quick slash. When the swing was at full extension, Iolaus grabbed her wrist. Some pressure to the tendons forced her to drop the weapon. Swiftly, Iolaus swung her around, pulling her back up against him, his arm around her throat.
Cynea struggled, to no avail. “Let go of me!” she spat.
“Look, Cynea, look at your champion!” He turned them around, forcing her to see the other two still battling, close to Braxis’ tail. It was apparent, even to her, that Adamis was losing. Iolaus loosened his grip. She stepped forward, watching the fight closely.
When Adamis attacked again with his weapon, Hercules jumped aside. Adamis tripped on the dragon’s tail. He fell forward, his sword plunging into his lover’s stomach.
Horror crossed the dark man’s face, just as surprise covered hers. “Adamis!” she whispered, shocked, crumpling to the ground. Blood seeped onto the rocky cave floor as the blade slipped from her body.
“Cynea! What have I done?” He stared at her dead form.
Hercules stepped over Braxis’ tail. “Give it up, Adamis. Cynea is gone. Braxis is no longer under your control. It’s over.”
Adamis raised his head defiantly, his eyes blazing. “Not yet, it isn’t!” He ran to Braxis’ ensnared muzzle. He lifted his blade, placing it on the forehead, directly between the eyes. He glared at his enemies, who had come closer, but stayed back a couple sword-lengths. “Drop the weapon or I’ll kill him! You’re wrong if you think I don’t know how! I killed his mother the same way... just a simple thrust, right between the eyes.” Reflectively, he added, “If you’re quick enough, you barely get any blood on you.”
Braxis growled loudly. You killed my mother!
Iolaus gave his best friend a look, a quick nod towards Braxis. Hercules nodded, stepped forward, then sliced downward with the sword. With Hercules’ gods’ given strength behind it, the blade neatly cut through the links that bound the dragon to the rock. Braxis drew back, away from Adamis’ sword. He rose back on his hind legs; he ripped the chain from his nose, though it hung, still tangled in his horns. Wings flared wide.
“Kill them, Braxis!” Adamis urged. “Kill them now!”
You’re the traitor!
If he’d understood dragons as much as he’d claimed, Adamis would have known what Braxis planned to do next. As it was, he didn’t see what was going to happen until the burst of flame was headed towards him. The warrior went up so fast he barely had time to scream. Ablaze, he stepped backwards, falling into the pit with the men he’d had sent to their deaths. The smell of charred flesh filled the air.
Braxis settled back onto four paws. He looked at each warrior, his eyes sad. I owe you both an apology. I’m sorry I tried to kill you. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you about Adamis.
“That’s all right, Braxis,” Hercules said. “You were as much a victim as the others.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed, smiling. “We understand.”
That still doesn’t excuse what I did, killing those people, destroying those villages.
“Bring your head this way,” Iolaus suggested.
Expecting some sort of punishment, but knowing he deserved it, Braxis did as he was told. Surprise registered in his eyes when the hunter proceeded to disentangle the chain from his horns. Hercules began unravelling the length around his neck. Adamis never would have done this for him.
“From what Lemnos told me, you gave people the chance to escape before setting fire to their homes,” Hercules stated. “Villages can be rebuilt.”
“As for the warriors you killed,” Iolaus said as the last iron link came off, falling to the cave floor with a chink, “well, you were defending yourself.”
“The important thing now is to learn from what you’ve done and strive to be a better dragon.”
I have. Braxis stepped back, pulling his head up so he could see both warriors at the same time. I will.
“Good!” The demigod smiled. “Then I trust, Iolaus and I will never have to go against you again, right?”
What sounded like a chuckle sounded in their heads. Okay, but give me another ten years....
“In ten years, you’ll have been doing the right thing so long, it’ll come naturally,” Iolaus answered. “Take it from me, I’ve been there myself.” A pause. “So, where are you going from here?”
I think I’ll go back home to Tarsus. I miss my friends.
“Good idea.” Hercules nodded.
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed. “And if we’re ever in the area, we’ll drop by to visit.”
I’d like that. Braxis’ mental voice yielded happiness. Thank you for all you’ve done.
The hunter shrugged. “It’s what we do.” The words were spoken without arrogance.
The dragon glanced above him at the large “sunroof” in the ceiling. He gazed once again at his new friends. Good-bye, Iolaus! Good-bye, Hercules!
Braxis crouched low, leg muscles bunched, then launched himself straight upward. He cleared the hole easily. The two humans watched as his powerful wings snapped open, could feel the breeze from the first, vital downstroke. Braxis quickly wheeled around and was gone from their line of sight.
Iolaus picked up the scabbard, slid his sword into it. He glanced around. “Huh. Looks like the spy has skipped out on us.”
The friends left the cave. They walked companionably down the hillside, back to the road. Iolaus glanced skyward, hoping to catch a glimpse of their new friend. He smiled as he saw Braxis flying about, obviously enjoying the feel of flight, the rush of the air on his body. A part of him envied Braxis that freedom of flight.
“We need to find the rest of Adamis’ army,” Hercules was saying when the hunter returned his attention to those things bound to the earth. “Let them know their little war is over.”
“Yeah,” the blond answered. A moment later, he asked, “When am I ever going to learn? A pretty girl hands me a sob story and I end up in trouble.”
“Hey, you had no way of knowing Cynea and Adamis were lovers.”
“Yeah, yeah, but how come I feel like such a fool?”
“Because you’re a passionate, intense person. It’s part of your charm.”
Hercules chuckled. “No, I was just being nice.”
“About what part?” Iolaus retorted.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Look out below!
Hercules and Iolaus both ducked at the mental warning. Braxis breezed by closely overhead, wings tucked close to his body. His tip of his tail almost touched the hunter on the head as he swooped out of the dive. As they straightened to their full heights, they watched as Braxis rose gracefully into the air, flying in the direction of the coast, and Tarsus beyond.
“He could do some serious damage ten years from now,” Iolaus commented.
“No kidding.” The demigod agreed, thankful that for the most part, dragons were a peaceful species.
As they continued walking, the best friends could see the dragon disappearing into the distance.
“After we deal with Adamis’ army, where to after that?”
“Wherever the wind takes us, Iolaus, wherever the wind takes us.”
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