Nebula was truly a rose among thorns. She was tall and lean, with flawless dark skin, full lips, seductive eyes, and a long mane of ebony curls. But as she moved with a feline grace among the group of swarthy, dirty, crude pirates, she did not feel out of place. On the contrary, the pirate captain felt right at home. It hadn’t been easy but she had proven herself to them and had won their respect and loyalty. Granted, sometimes she found herself wishing for a bit of intelligent conversation, but other than that she couldn’t have asked for a better crew. She was certainly happier on her ship with her rowdy bunch than she’d ever been in Sumeria. For she was the boss, doing exactly what she wanted with nobody to lecture her about propriety and remind her of her duties. She was free, and nobody ever dared tell her ‘no’.
With a smug grin of satisfaction, Nebula opened up the treasure chest that lay on the beach and ran her hand over the gleaming jewels that were fairly spilling over the sides. It was a priceless collection, but it wasn’t the fortune that delighted her, but rather the excitement of the heist and the thrill of victory and the ever present challenge of avoiding capture. Not to mention the gratification of knowing she had partially bankrupted a greedy, heartless king who valued people less than livestock. Unbeknownst to all but a few in the know, old Zolus was quite an active participant in an underground slave operation, and there were some pretty sick stories going around as to just what he did with his purchases. But Nebula speculated he’d have a hard time indulging his clandestine pastime with his assets buried under six feet of sand. And then once the heat died down and they retrieved the treasure, she would reward her men and then put the fortune to good use, making sure it got to people who really needed it. But in the meantime they had to get rid of the evidence so she closed the lid and locked the chest, tucking the key away in her cleavage with a deliberate gesture.
“Nice chest we got here, boys,” she purred.
“What about the legs, Captain?” one of the men shouted.
“Hey,” Nebula shot back, but her voice held more laughter than warning. After all, she had initiated the entendre and she never minded when her crew reciprocated. In fact, she preferred it that way, for it gave her a sense of belonging.
“Step aside, you mongrels.” The first mate shoved his way through the group to address his leader. “The island’s deserted, Captain.”
“Good. When King Zolas realizes we grabbed his... family jewels,” Nebula began, pausing as the men hooted with laughter, “he’ll have every bounty hunter from here to Hellespont looking for us. Unload the rest of it. We’ll bury it there.” She pointed to a cave up the beach.
“Aye-aye, Captain! Let’s move it.” As the men scurried to obey her orders, the first mate fell into step beside her, lowering his voice confidentially.
“You know I wouldn’t question you in front of the men, Captain,” he said hesitantly. “But the Charybdean Sea is a known graveyard for ships. And it’s our only way outta here.”
“That’s why Zolas would never look for us here,” Nebula reasoned, giving her friend an affectionate swipe to the back of the head. “Don’t worry. If we die, we die rich.”
He seemed reassured by her confidence and set out to oversee the unloading of the ship. For she was confident, completely. Nebula was a fierce warrior who had never been beaten, and she was hardly afraid of a fat, bloated king and a few killers for hire. No, it would take a lot more than that to get the best of her.
The crew of the Leviathan quickly broke up into groups and started efficiently tackling the various chores before them. Anchoring the ship and unloading their bounty and supplies, refilling water barrels, briefly exploring the labyrinth of tunnels that stretched out from the mouth of the great cave, and of course, burying their treasure.
“Captain! You’d better take a look at this!”
Nebula came to investigate, counting the number of steps it took her to get from the main room of the cave down the first tunnel to the burial site, so that they’d be able to find the exact spot upon their return. When she arrived she saw that the men in charge of digging the hole for the chests had partially uncovered something that was already buried in the sand.
“What is it, Captain?”
“No idea,” she murmured. Drawing her short sword, she experimentally poked the large object that was protruding from the nest of sand. It looked deceptively dry and hard, but her blade pierced it and sank in, causing it to ooze some sort of strange fluid. Her curiosity was piqued. “Dig it up.”
It was a decision Nebula would live to regret.
“Watch the boom! It’s about to give!”
But the demigod’s warning came too late as the mast cracked and pieces of timber thundered down to the deck, pinning an unfortunate sailor under a heavy chunk of wood.
Hercules ran to his rescue, as Iolaus ran to the bow, shoving the ineffectual sailor Paxxon out of the way and grabbing onto the ropes, putting all of his strength into securing them before the whole rigging could collapse.
“Pull him out of there!” the demigod shouted as he lifted the timber off of the trapped man.
Cercetes helped Bromius slide free and knelt down beside the sailor in concern.
“You all right?”
“Fine,” the big man replied gruffly.
“We’ve stopped the flooding, Captain,” Monicles reported as he came out of the hold. “But she won’t hold for long.”
“The storm’s moving this way, Cercetes,” Hercules pointed out, casting an eye to the dark clouds rolling ominously above their heads.
“We’re going to have to make some repairs,” Iolaus piped up, stating the obvious. “You think we can do it before the storm hits?”
“Let’s not push our luck,” the demigod urged. “We’ve already lost too many men.” He spared a sympathetic glance at Bromius, who had taken the death of one of his crewmates very hard.
“You’re right,” Cercetes decided. “We’ll put in and wait for clear skies. Sorry, Hercules, but I’m going to have to get you back to Corinth a little later than I hoped to.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Hercules assured him, turning his attentions to Bromius. But the sailor was big and brawny and tough as nails and had escaped the accident without any major injuries. So the demigod helped him up and went to see what he could do to hold the ship together long enough for them to reach shore.
“I’m just glad we’re on dry land,” Paxxon grumbled as he entered the mouth of the cave and dropped the load of supplies in his arms.
“I just hope our ship survives the storm,” Monicles added as he followed suit.
But for the two warriors, another concern was rapidly taking precedence.
“We’re not the only ones here,” Hercules murmured, taking in the stockpile of supplies that littered the cave.
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed. “Somebody’s been busy.”
“By the gods!” Paxxon gasped as he discovered a jewel bigger than his fist resting atop an ornate chest. “I think I found something!”
“There’s more over here,” Monicles exclaimed, discovering the second chest. But it was locked, so he helped himself to a handful of the glittering contents of Paxxon’s find. “We’re rich! We’re rich!”
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Iolaus asked his friend.
“Pirates.” The demigod’s voice held palpable disgust.
“So, where did they go?” Cercetes asked, for never in his long experience as a sailor had he ever seen a pirate that just abandoned his loot.
“Everywhere,” the hunter informed him, waving at the tracks in the sand. He shared a glance with his partner, both of them getting a bad feeling as Hercules voiced what they both knew to be true.
“And they left in a hurry.”
But not everyone shared the two heroes’ sense of doom. Monicles and Paxxon were too busy dancing in a circle like fools and cheering their good fortune, much to the demigod’s annoyance.
“Hey! Don’t celebrate yet, fellas. This treasure isn’t yours.”
“What? We found it!” Monicles said indignantly.
“Yeah, and finder’s keepers!” Paxxon added.
“These chests have Corillian seals,” Hercules pointed out, his tone indicating that his patience was waning.
“They belong to King Zolas.”
“Well, there’s no seal on my bag,” Monicles insisted.
“Yeah, mine neither!”
If the demigod’s patience was waning, Bromius’ was already gone.
“Shut up! Hercules is right,” he growled, grabbing Paxxon by the arm and shaking him roughly.
“Hey, listen, tree trunk!” Paxxon sneered, seemingly unaware that the big man was capable of crushing him like a bug and not even having the sense to flinch as Bromius raised a hand to him. “You’re not the captain!”
“No, he’s not. But I am,” Cercetes interjected quietly, but with authority. “We return the treasure, and that’s that.”
“Hercules!” Iolaus called out, less interested in the nonstop bickering than he was in investigating their surroundings. “There’s a lot of equipment back there. We could use it to repair the boat.”
“Yeah. But first, let’s find out who left it here, or at least why,” Hercules suggested. If they were going to be trapped in the cave while they waited out the storm, he preferred to scout around the area and minimize the chances of an unpleasant surprise. “We’ll split up and meet back here later.”
“I’ll stay here and set up camp.” Monicles thought he was being generous with his offer to take on the tedious chores, but Paxxon didn’t see it that way.
“Why does Monicles get to hang out and relax?” he whined when Cercetes ordered him and Bromius to accompany him.
“Now!” Cercetes barked, thinking that when they got back home to Corinth he was going to have to have a long talk with his wife about finding her little brother another line of work.
“Oh yeah,” Paxxon muttered under his breath as he grudgingly fell in line behind Bromius and the captain. “Looking forward to this.”
“Close knit crew, huh?” Hercules remarked as they traversed the dark tunnel.
“Yeah, like a family,” Iolaus sighed. “I guess the stress of the trip is getting to everyone.”
“This certainly hasn’t been a pleasant voyage,” the demigod agreed. It had seemed like a good idea at the time: catching a ride with a merchant ship bound for Corinth and thereby taking the quicker, more direct route and saving themselves weeks of walking. But soon after shoving off they lost half the crew to a deadly fever, and then a thick fog had caused them to navigate off course where they ran into a reef, damaging the ship and losing even more men as they fought to keep the vessel from sinking. And now they were forced to wait out a storm on a deserted island that held the possibility of an even greater threat.
“Remind me never to hitch a ride with strangers again,” the hunter declared.
“Actually, that’s pretty good advice.”
“Funny. I seem to remember giving it to you before we boarded,” Iolaus reminded his friend. “Maybe someday you’ll learn to listen to me, Herc...” The hunter’s lecture trailed off as they came to an immense object resting in the path. “What in Tartarus is that?”
They both knelt down beside the structure to examine it. Hercules ran his hands over the tough, membranous material. The substance was foreign to him, but the shape of the thing, split in half like a clam shell, was disturbingly familiar.
“It’s some sort of cocoon,” the demigod slowly deduced.
“What for? Giant butterfly?”
“Somehow I don’t think it’s going to turn out to be that friendly,” Hercules told his hopeful partner.
A scream echoed through the cavernous tunnel, and Iolaus turned an incredulous gaze on his friend.
“How come you’re always right?”
“It’s a half-god thing,” Hercules shrugged.
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed as they both got up and began running in the direction of the cry. Backtracking led them to a side tunnel where they found their companions standing over a dead man’s body. The unfortunate fellow was lying face down, with his sword still gripped tightly in his stiff hand. Hercules handed off his torch to Cercetes and knelt down in the sand to examine the corpse.
“Looks like he died defending himself,” the demigod observed.
“From what?” Cercetes wondered.
Not having an answer, Hercules gently rolled the body over, and to their collective horror they saw that the man’s flesh and most of the underlying tissue and muscle were gone from his face. It was too much for Paxxon, who dashed behind a large rock to empty his stomach. The other four men were equally disturbed, but reacted more stoically.
“What happened to his face?” Bromius asked.
“Looks like it just... melted off,” Iolaus replied quietly.
“We found something back there,” Hercules began, thinking out loud. “A cocoon.”
“What kind of cocoon?” the captain asked.
“I’m not sure,” the demigod answered. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Hercules,” the hunter tentatively speculated, “you know, what came out of that cocoon could have...”
“It’s possible,” Hercules agreed, although he was strongly hoping not probable.
“Aw, you’re kidding, right?” Paxxon demanded.
“I guess we know why those pirates left in such a hurry,” Cercetes said grimly.
“Well, we’re not gonna be going anywhere,” Iolaus countered as the rumble of thunder sounded through the stone walls, “with this storm coming on.”
“Oh, great,” Paxxon whimpered. “We’ll just sit around and wait for our faces to melt off.”
“If we stay together,” Hercules commanded in his best no nonsense voice, “we’ll be fine. As soon as the storm passes, we’ll get out of here. Now, let’s bury him.”
“What’s taking them so long?” Monicles grumbled to himself as he stirred the meager stew that was bubbling in the pot over the fire. He tried not to think about it, but inadvertently stole yet another glance at the treasure chest that was just sitting there, beckoning him. And temptation finally overcame him. He hurried over to the chest and flipped open the lid, picking up a string of pearls and admiring the way they gleamed in the firelight. “There once was a sailor named Monicles,” he began to recite, tucking the jewels away in the inside pocket of his shirt before reaching for more. “Who couldn’t be rich ‘cause of Hercules. As soon as he left, I started my theft...” A noise made him start guiltily and he quickly closed the lid of the chest. “And the rest will have to wait til later.” He moved away but failed to see his shipmates, or anyone else for that matter, so he called out a hello which went unanswered.
Lightening streaked over the churning sea and a clap of booming thunder drowned out Monicles’ scream as he was plucked from the ground and hoisted into the air. As his vision faded the last thing he saw was his glowing pearls landing far below him in the sand.
The rest of the crew returned to find a cheery fire, waiting dinner, but no Monicles. Hercules quickly spied the jewels glittering in the sand and held them up for inspection.
“Look what we have here.”
“I guess his pockets weren’t big enough,” Iolaus said scornfully.
“That snake!” Bromius spat, at his wit’s end with crewmates. Their actions were a direct reflection on their captain, and it filled him with ire that these sorry excuses for sailors were making Cercetes look bad.
“So where is he, huh?” Paxxon asked. “Maybe he tried to take his chances without us.”
“I don’t think so,” Hercules argued. “He may be greedy, but he’s not stupid.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Iolaus muttered, even though he knew stupidity was one thing, but to try to brave the storm alone in a sub-par vessel was purely suicidal.
“So, what are you saying, man?” Paxxon babbled as he grabbed Hercules by the front of his shirt. “Huh? He’s dead, isn’t he? He’s dead, isn’t he?! He’s dead and his whole face is melted off...”
“I’m so sick of your whining!” Bromius interrupted, stepping forward and giving his fellow sailor a shove as he finally snapped. It was the same whining that he’d been hearing from the moment Paxxon first boarded. And the exact same panicked whining that had prompted his best friend, Andreus, to volunteer to go over the side of the ship in Paxxon’s place to try and make repairs after they’d collided with the reef. Only Andreus had never come back up.
“But man, he’s dead!” Paxxon insisted. “His face is all melted off!”
“Grow a spine, you coward!” Bromius shouted, shoving the smaller man even harder. Only the fact that Paxxon was the captain’s brother in law kept him from putting him through the rock wall.
“Don’t push me, you great big oaf!” Paxxon shouted back, getting in a shove of his own. For only the fact that he was the captain’s brother in law and thus protected to a degree allowed him such a show of bravado.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Hercules interjected, taking charge since Cercetes seemed willing to let his tiresome relation get the beating he so richly deserved. He grabbed both men and pulled them apart until even Bromius was dangling helplessly in his grasp. “This isn’t helping us find Monicles!”
“Find him?” Paxxon echoed in disbelief. “Why bother to find him? He’s dead!”
“We can’t be sure of that,” Iolaus told him with an air of exasperation. “We’ve got to go look for him.”
“Oh, I’m not going anywhere!” Paxxon declared firmly. “Suit yourself,” the demigod said cooly. “Yell if you run into any trouble.”
“Bye-bye, Paxxon,” Cercetes taunted as he turned to follow Hercules.
“Have fun!” Iolaus called out cheerfully.
Bromius did not have any parting words, but he fixed a long, loathing glare on his shipmate as he slowly followed the others.
“No, I’m not going anywhere,” Paxxon repeated stubbornly. “Not anywhere. I’m not... going... anywhere!” A bolt of lightening streaking past the cave entrance and the accompanying crash of thunder almost made him jump out of his skin, and he immediately changed his mind as he began tearing off down the tunnel after them. “Hey, wait for me!”
Even if they didn’t show it, the other men were as apprehensive as Paxxon. The raging storm outside, the dark and creepy labyrinth of tunnels, an ominous, unseen threat, and their missing companion all combined to put them all on edge. But they pressed on, calling out for Monicles, until a scraping of rock made them all whirl around, immediately assuming battle stances.
“What was that?” Paxxon asked fearfully.
“I do believe,” Hercules said quietly, “we have company. Ok. Back up slowly.”
The sailors all retreated a few steps as the demigod advanced slightly, Iolaus at his back. But the attack came from behind them, and no one was prepared for Nebula as she appeared seemingly out of nowhere to take Cercetes and Paxxon down before they even knew what hit them.
“No, wait!” Hercules yelled, instantly realizing that this woman wasn’t their face melting cocoon denizen, no matter how hard she punched.
Nebula ignored him, sidestepping the sword that Bromius swung at her. He was twice her size, but a left hook and one good kick sent him sprawling to the ground. When he tried to get up, the pirate impaled his leg with one of her small, triangular daggers. She had more to spare and sent them flying at the demigod. He tossed his torch above his head, blocked the first two daggers with his gauntlets and plucked the next two out of midair, dropping them to the ground with just a hint of smugness as he caught the still burning torch as it fell. Nebula met his gaze, sizing him up with one word.
Then she was gone.
“You all right?” Iolaus asked, crouching beside Bromius.
“It’s just a flesh wound,” the big man replied.
“We’ll take care of him,” Cercetes promised as he pulled himself up painfully.
“Iolaus, let’s go!” Hercules shouted, and the hunter sped off down the tunnel behind him.
Nebula hopped up on a convenient ledge and hid herself until her two pursuers flew by. Congratulating herself on being smarter than the average male, she lightly leapt back down and prepared to disappear, but to her dismay she ran into a solid wall of muscle.
“Hello,” Hercules greeted her, although his tone was less than friendly.
Uttering a curse, Nebula turned, hoping to outrun the behemoth. But her path was blocked by Iolaus, who had been wise to her deception.
“Nice to see you again,” he remarked, more congenially than his partner. “How ya doing?”
In answer, Nebula spun around and did a handstand, catching the hunter hard in the face with her boots on the way up. As he fell, she quickly righted herself and swung at Hercules. He ducked her first blow and caught her wrist on the second, flipping her over his head and slamming her into the sand, finally succeeding in grabbing her attention.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“Who are you?” Nebula spat, angry with herself for being subdued so easily. “No, let me guess. Uh, sloping forehead, dragging knuckles... I’m thinking orangutan. Maybe gorilla?” She sat up and glared through Hercules’ legs at Iolaus who was gingerly fingering his split lip. “And that must be your little chimp.”
The demigod quickly bent down to look at his partner, ready to prevent any bloodshed. ‘Chimp’ Iolaus could live with, but the ‘little’ was simply unforgivable. But to his relief, the hunter did not seem to be entertaining serious thoughts of homicide.
“I’m laughing inside,” Iolaus told him sarcastically.
“We weren’t trying to hurt you,” Hercules informed Nebula as he righted himself and extended a helping hand, which she slapped away.
“Yeah, right,” she scoffed, getting to her feet on her own and dusting herself off. “Could have fooled me.”
“This is Iolaus,” the demigod began, indicating his partner who had risen but was still shaking off the stinging blow. “I’m Hercules.”
“I never thought the mighty Hercules would stoop to bounty hunting,” Nebula said scornfully, although inside she brightened a bit. She still wasn’t happy that he had beaten her, but the fact that he had the strength of the gods made it a little easier to bear. “What’s wrong? Hero business not paying so well these days?”
“Not as well as piracy, I take it,” Hercules replied icily.
“You stole the treasure, huh?” Iolaus asked conversationally, not wanting to jump to conclusions.
“Yeah, yeah,” she answered with a dismissive wave. “Look, whatever King Zolas is paying you, I’ll double it. But we have to get out of here now.”
“King Zolas didn’t send us,” the demigod told her. “We don’t take bribes. Especially from pirates.”
“So, you’re not after me?”
“No,” Hercules vowed as Iolaus shook his head in confirmation.
“Well, in that case, I’m Nebula,” she introduced herself with a formal bow. “Captain of the Leviathan. And you boys have come to the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
“This ought to stop the bleeding,” Cercetes murmured as he bandaged the wound on Bromius’ leg.
“I’m fine,” the sailor insisted. “Let’s go.”
“Take it easy,” the captain ordered, slipping a shoulder under Bromius’ arm. “Paxxon, give me a hand.” But help did not appear, and it was then that they both realized the cave was eerily silent. “Paxxon? Paxxon!”
“That coward probably got spooked by his own shadow,” Bromius grumbled, hoping he was right, at least for his captain’s sake.
Cercetes’ gaze swept the area, although it was hard to see past the small circle of torchlight. Warily he took a few steps forward, wondering how he was ever going to tell his wife that he had lost her baby brother.
“What in Tartarus are you doing?” Cercetes demanded angrily as Paxxon leapt out from behind a rock
“You jackass,” Bromius growled dangerously.
“Oooooh, man, the look on your face,” Paxxon laughed, taunting the big man but staying just out of arm’s reach. “Well, who’s the coward now, huh?”
“Paxxon, that’s enough!”
“I’m trying to make a point here, Cercetes.”
“If the point is you’re a fool, you’ve made it,” the captain snarled, hoisting him in the air and shaking him slightly. “We’re under attack, and you pull something like this? You’re lucky I didn’t run you through, you idiot! Now shut up!”
“I’m gonna tear your head off,” Bromius seethed, full of rage at the thought of this moron being alive in place of Andreus. “I’m gonna rip off your arms and beat you with them!”
“Yeah?” Paxxon taunted, seconds after being released. “Well, first you’ll have to catch me.”
“Paxxon, that’s enough!” Cercetes thundered, losing his last thread of patience when his brother in law failed to cease with his juvenile gestures and faces. “I said, that’s enough!”
He was more than ready to cuff the sailor into obedience, but something beat him to it. As Paxxon danced away from the circle of light and lingered on the edge of the shadows, he was struck with a powerful blow and went flying into the sand where his head collided with a rock, momentarily knocking him out. Cercetes immediately drew his sword and stood tense and ready, and he didn’t have to wait long. Some sort of appendage came at him, striking him in the chest but he stood his ground and slashed out with his sword.
“What was that?” Bromius asked.
But before he could answer, something sprayed Cercetes in the face and he fell to the ground with a bone chilling scream of agony. Bromius drew his sword and crawled forward to hover over the writhing body, determined to protect his captain to the death. But as their unseen adversary came forward into the light, he knew that death had just become a certainty for both of them. And the big man cried out in horrific terror.
The commotion brought Hercules and Iolaus, with Nebula following close behind. They entered the cave to find Paxxon dazed and confused, and typically panicked.
“It took Bromius!” he stammered. “Oh, man! It took Bromius!”
“It? What?” Nebula questioned him.
“I... I don’t know,” he replied.
Hercules and Iolaus ignored him and gathered around Cercetes, whose face was a mass of raw lesions.
“Hercules,” he rasped out, focusing on the demigod with filmy eyes. “Help me.”
“Hang on, Cercetes,” Hercules told him, squeezing his shoulder in comfort. “We’ll get you out of here.”
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Iolaus whispered to his partner.
“I have.” Nebula strode forward, shoving the hunter aside. “Out of the way.” She fixed an intense stare on the demigod. “I know you don’t want him to keep suffering.”
“Please,” Cercetes begged. “Anything. The pain...”
“You’d better know what you’re doing,” Hercules warned her as he stepped back.
“I do.” Nebula knelt down beside the prone man and before anyone knew what was happening she had unsheathed a hidden dagger from her gauntlet and plunged it straight into Cercetes’ heart, killing him instantly. Iolaus and Paxxon both gasped in shock, but Hercules grabbed Nebula and lifted her up, pinning her hard against the rock wall.
“Why?” he demanded furiously.
“Same thing happened to my first mate!” she explained defensively. “I did everything that I could, but he died slow and painful. Get it?”
“That must be the body we found,” Iolaus speculated.
“I did your friend a favor,” Nebula insisted, her dark eyes boring into the stormy blue ones of the demigod. “Get your hands off me.”
“With pleasure,” Hercules said in disgust, dropping her. “Keep talking.”
“I landed here with a crew of twenty,” she continued. “We found something in the ground and I told them to dig it up. Whatever that thing is took them all in less than a day. Because I was curious about what it was.”
“So, what happened to your ship?” the hunter asked.
“The hurricane set it adrift,” Nebula replied mournfully. “It’s at the bottom of the sea by now.”
“I’m sorry about your crew,” Hercules told her. “But where I come from, we don’t give up on people.”
“Is that right?” Nebula brushed past him and knelt back down beside Cercetes. “Well, I admire your idealism, Hercules, I really do.” She grabbed the body and yanked it up to pull her dagger free. “In case you haven’t noticed, the rules are a little different here. And by the way,” she went on, cleaning off the dagger on the dead man’s tunic. “If I end up like him, I hope one of you MEN has the guts to do the same for me.” She slid the dagger back into her gauntlet with a deliberate flick of the wrist.
“Hercules, look at this,” Iolaus called out, before his partner could tell the pirate captain just how thrilled he would be to grant her request. “There’s a blood trail. Cercetes must have wounded it.”
“And look what happened to him,” Paxxon mumbled, still a bit shell shocked.
“Did you see it?” Hercules asked, his commanding tone snapping the sailor back to reality.
“Well, it was too fast.”
“It moves in the shadows,” Nebula agreed. “We never saw it coming.”
“Then we’ve got no choice,” the demigod declared. “We find it, before it finds us.”
The two partners exchanged what seemed to be a quick glance, but what was in actuality a detailed conversation. Iolaus, being the established tracker, wanted to lead the way. But Hercules disagreed, wanting to put himself in front, and therefore, the line of fire in order to protect the others. He asked his friend to bring up the rear so that the other two would be shielded from all sides. And the hunter agreed with an eye rolling, since the spots of greenish, almost luminescent, blood their quarry was trailing would be hard to miss, even for Hercules.
They moved out, creeping through the tunnels in a silent line as they followed the blood trail. Three of them were battle ready, tense and alert for the slightest sign of danger. But Paxxon seemed to be in his own world, blissfully unconcerned of the deadly threat of the caves, and relatively untroubled by the violent death of his brother in law. His simple mind was easily amused, and his attention was quickly captivated by the myriad of symbols and drawings that were inked into the flesh of the pirate who walked in front of him. He reached out to trace a finger along the pattern that adorned her bare back and quickly found himself prone on the sand.
“Something I can help you with?” Nebula asked as she grabbed the hand of the stunned man and pulled him to his feet.
“Yeah, I was, uh, I was just looking at your tattoos,” he told her.
“Look,” she cautioned him. “Don’t touch.”
“Didn’t they hurt?” Paxxon asked in awe.
“Only the first time.”
“Poseidon’s trident,” Nebula replied, holding out her forearm so he could get a better look. “Keeps the wind at my back.”
“I see you have an Eastern calendar,” Iolaus said casually.
“Yeah.” She glanced down at the markings on her bicep and actually smiled at the hunter, feeling a bit surprised and slightly impressed. Well traveled, educated, and knowledgeable of other cultures - she hadn’t been expecting that from Hercules’ little chimp. “Helps me keep track of the seasons. You’ve been to the East?”
“Well, that’s where we both learned to fight, I take it.” Iolaus couldn’t help boasting a little, since his ego was still smarting a bit from letting her get the drop on him with that kick before, and he was hoping he’d get to prove himself and show her a few of his moves before all was said and done.
“How long were you in prison?” Hercules’ tone was accusatory, and a far cry from his partner’s congenial manner. “On your neck, that’s a Spartan prison marking.”
“Funny,” she began, self-consciously rubbing the tattoo. “I don’t remember seeing you there.”
“You could say I gave some people directions.”
“I’ll bet you did.” Nebula stepped forward to face the demigod, her expression like ice. “Something you want to say to me?”
“Only that I don’t trust you,” Hercules told her, not bothering to hide his dislike.
“That’s your problem,” she countered coldly. “But until we get off this rock, you don’t have much of a choice.”
“When we do get off this rock,” the demigod murmured, putting his emphasis on the ‘when’, “you and that treasure you took are going back to King Zolas.”
“If you can get us out of here alive, Hercules, I’ll think about it,” she snapped, her flashing eyes full of confidence that he’d never be able to bring her in.
“You do that,” Hercules said smugly, full of his own confidence that she’d never be able to elude him.
“Why don’t we keep moving?” Iolaus suggested, breaking the tension. He automatically took the lead and the others followed, with Hercules bringing up the rear this time. But they hadn’t gone far when the hunter stopped, his keen eyes failing to spot any more signs of their target. “Hercules, this is it. Looks like the trail ends here.”
The four of them began searching the cave, but Hercules paused, his half-god sense warning him of danger.
“Look out!” he shouted, grabbing Nebula and pulling her back as Iolaus dove out of the way, just a split second before a boulder came crashing down out of the dark shadows of the cave ceiling. No one was hurt, but the giant rock blocked the tunnel, leaving Paxxon separated from them on the other side. But as the three that were still together began to pick themselves up, their mysterious foe finally made herself known. They stared in horror at the creature that was slowly descending from the ceiling, growing more and more grotesque as she left the shadows and entered their small circle of light. She had a woman’s face and torso, but the abdomen and legs of a giant arachnid.
“That is one big spider,” Hercules murmured, voicing all their thoughts. He grabbed the torch from his partner and began swinging it in an arc, hoping to keep the monstrous spider woman at bay long enough to come up with a plan. She hissed at him, baring long, sharp fangs and raising elongated fingers that tapered into pointed claws, waving them menacingly as she crouched, preparing to attack.
“Hercules?” Paxxon called out plaintively from behind his rock prison. “Hercules, don’t leave me here! Please! Hercules, hurry up!”
The spider woman paused, realizing that one of her prey had been isolated, and with a maniacal laugh she rapidly ascended to the ceiling, disappearing into the inky shadows.
“Paxxon,” the demigod muttered, realizing that she was going after the easy target. He shoved the torch back into Iolaus’ hands and ran for the boulder, bracing his shoulder against it as he started to push.
“Herculeeeeees!” the sailor wailed, not having the sense to stay quiet.
“Paxxon, hang on,” Hercules grunted. The boulder moved an inch or two, then rocked back into place. He repositioned himself slightly and put all of his strength into it. “Don’t move, Paxxon! I’ll be right there.”
But a very large shadow darted across the cave and Paxxon went rigid with fear as he cast his eyes upward. It was too dark to see, but something very large and very fast was up there. The same thing that took Bromius and Monicles and melted the faces of the others. And now it was coming for him.
“Hercules, I’m outta here!” he screamed as he took off running down the tunnel.
“No, stay where you are!” the demigod shouted. He finally managed to roll the boulder away but there was no sign of their companion on the other side. “Come on,” he ordered, and the three of them began chasing the terrified sailor, calling out for him and begging him to stop running.
But nothing was about to stop Paxxon, who was dead set on getting out of that cave, storm or no storm. And he almost made it to an opening, but he tripped and fell face first into the sand. As he grabbed a nearby rock and pulled himself up, he saw a reflection in the water that was pooled in the ring of stone. Unfortunately, the reflection was not his own. Paxxon turned, getting his first look at the monster reaching out for him. He screamed out his terror as he was carried up into the air, his eyes desperately fixed on the storm raging on the other side of the crevice, the salvation he’d been denied. And then everything went black.
“I say we hop on that ship and take our chances,” Nebula voted, breaking the long silence that had descended over the three survivors.
“You want to sail through a hurricane in a leaky boat?” Iolaus asked in disbelief. No matter how dire their predicament, suicide was not the answer in his mind.
“You got a better idea?” the pirate demanded, turning away from the entrance of the cave where she had been watching the ship, the promise of freedom, tossing about on the stormy sea.
“Forget the ship, Nebula,” Hercules told her authoritatively. “We’d never make it.”
“At least we’d have a chance,” she protested. “We don’t even know what we’re up against.”
“I do.” The demigod sat down next to the fire, lifting up a burning brand and focusing on the flame licking the wood as he recalled a horrific story his father had told him long ago. “Her name is Arachne. She was a queen. Very vain, very cruel, very beautiful. But her daughter was even more beautiful than she was. So Arachne threw her own child into the sea.”
“So, the gods put a curse on her, right?” Iolaus concluded wearily.
“They did a good job, too,” Nebula sighed.
“When the gods curse people, why can’t they ever turn them into a gerbil or a hamster?”
“Yeah,” the pirate agreed, sharing a grin with the hunter. “Something we could drop-kick.”
“It’s going to take a lot more than that to stop her,” Hercules reminded them.
“Well, as long as we’re blundering around here in the dark, we’re at a big disadvantage.”
The demigod paused, realizing his partner had just inadvertently hit on something.
“Arachne moves in the shadows because she’s ashamed of her appearance,” he said slowly. “Light is her enemy.”
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Nebula asked, getting the same spark of idea she saw in Hercules’ eyes. The demigod stood up, holding the torch up in answer.
“Let’s light this place up.”
Paxxon jerked awake with a gasp. He hadn’t expected he would ever wake again, and he was full of confusion and surprise, especially when he realized he was bound up tightly and couldn’t move a muscle. But confusion quickly turned to fear as the giant spider woman appeared before him.
“Wearily the rose petals fell when the sun turned its back,” she recited theatrically.
“Who are you?” he managed to get out.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” she asked shyly, ignoring his question.
Paxxon was not a smart man, but he wasn’t stupid enough to tell her the truth.
“Yes,” he replied, hoping that it would be enough to satisfy her. “Please let me go?”
“There is nothing more exciting than the look on a man’s face when he knows he’s about to die,” Arachne told him, caressing his cheek with her long fingers.
“Please,” Paxxon whispered desperately. “I’ll do anything.”
But she shushed him, gazing at him almost tenderly.
“I want to give you a part of myself,” she cooed. “Something you’ll keep deep inside.”
Her lips gently brushed his, again and again. Then her eyes widened with maddened glee as she seized his face, pulling him toward her and her waiting mouth. She kissed him fiercely, brutally, and Paxxon could only let out a muted moan as he felt his doom entering his mouth and slithering down his throat.
“You sure all these tunnels lead through here?” Hercules asked as he put the last few oil lamps into a large canvas bag.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Nebula answered, looking up from the trench she was digging.
“All right. Keep those torches handy.”
“Don’t worry,” Iolaus reassured his partner. “Nothing gets in here, we don’t see it. We’ll be ok.”
“Yeah,” the demigod agreed, giving his friend a fond glance. “Well, don’t start the barbecue without me.”
“Yeah. Be safe.”
“You, too,” Hercules told him as they exchanged a warrior’s shake. He clapped the hunter affectionately on the shoulder and turned to leave, tossing out a ‘good luck’ to Nebula as he passed by.
“You, too,” she reciprocated, chuckling loudly.
“What?” Iolaus demanded as the demigod disappeared into the tunnels.
“Nothing,” the pirate insisted innocently as she dropped her shovel and came forward. “Quite a firm handshake between you two.”
“So I think it’s great.”
“Well, I’m glad you approve,” Iolaus said sarcastically.
“So, how long have you two been together?” Nebula wondered.
“We’ve been PARTNERS,” the hunter emphasized, knowing exactly what she was implying, “since we were kids.”
“Oh, partners,” she echoed with insinuation.
“Did you ever think anything you didn’t say?” Iolaus asked her.
“Oh, life’s just too... SHORT to mince words, Goldilocks.”
Men had lost teeth over such a grievous insult, but the hunter knew she was just trying to aggravate him and he refused to take the bait.
“You know, Nebula, if you’re trying to get a rise out of me, it ain’t going to work.”
The pirate stepped closer, pressing her body up against his.
“If I were trying to get a rise out of you,” she murmured seductively, eliciting a breathless little yelp as her hand clamped down firmly onto the hunter, “you’d know it.”
“Ah,” Iolaus sighed, forcibly removing her hand as he met her challenging gaze. “Now I recognize you. You’re the woman my mother warned me about.” And then he reciprocated her overly familiar gesture, giving her a rakish grin before he turned and walked off.
Nebula watched him go with a smile of satisfaction and a growing measure of respect. He wasn’t intimidated by her or put off by her boldness, and she found that refreshing in a man. Shaking her head slightly, she laughed softly to herself. He really did have a firm “handshake”, and she decided that when this mess was all over she might like to get a rise out of him after all.
But first there was work to do. Iolaus carried the heavy amphoras full of oil that had been unloaded from both ships all around the cave, dumping the cargo all over the rocks and the walls. Nebula filled up the trenches she’d dug, creating small canals of oil that would become rivers of flame when the time was right. And Hercules traversed all the tunnels that intersected the main chamber of the cave, lighting his oil lamps and tossing them to create burning road signs that lit up the darkness. When he had emptied his bag, he returned to the main area of the cave where his partner met him expectantly.
“Not a sign of her,” Hercules reported.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Nebula said in frustration. “She has to come through here.”
“Something’s not right,” the demigod muttered, getting one of his half-god feelings.
“Yeah, like maybe there’s a passageway you don’t know about,” Iolaus tossed over his shoulder, trying to get a rise out of Nebula.
“Look, this wasn’t my idea,” she snapped defensively.
An increasingly familiar scuttling sound made the three of them freeze in their tracks.
“You hear it?” the hunter whispered to his partner.
“Oh, yeah,” Hercules whispered back.
“But where is it?” Nebula asked.
“She’s here.” The demigod couldn’t see her, but he knew Arachne was very close.
“There’s nothing here!” the pirate insisted.
Hercules grabbed Nebula and they both fell to the ground, rolling out of the way of a deadly stream of the spider woman’s acidic venom. But as he hit the sand, the demigod lost his grip on his torch, and it landed in one of the trenches, igniting the puddle of oil. A wall of flame sprang up, cutting them off from Iolaus, and Arachne seized her opportunity. Before the hunter could react, he was caught up in her vise-like grip. He began struggling against the unnatural strength, trying to fight her off at least long enough to buy Hercules some time to come and give him a hand. But something stung him and he looked down to see a large barb from her abdomen impaling his leg. A burning sensation began to flood through him and he felt his body become limp and unresisting almost immediately. He had just enough time to call out his best friend’s name before the darkness overtook him.
Hercules dove through the fire, rolling to his feet to see Arachne dragging his immobile partner down one of the tunnels. He gave chase, calling his friend’s name, but when he got to the end they were gone.
“Hercules!” Nebula put a hand on his arm, stopping him as he prepared to follow. “He’s gone.”
“Then I have to find him,” the demigod told her simply.
“No!” The pirate halted him once more. “It’s over. Iolaus is dead.”
“You don’t know that,” Hercules shouted at her, his heart stopping at just the thought of it.
“I know what it’s like,” she retorted. “My crew was as close to me as family. But he’s gone, and he’s not coming back. And we have to get out of here while we still can.”
“I told you before,” the demigod said in a voice like steel. “Where I come from, we DON’T give up on people.”
“I know he was your friend,” Nebula countered dangerously. “But I won’t let you get me killed.”
“Then go,” Hercules told her contemptuously. “I’m not asking for your help. But I hope you can live with yourself.” He turned away and began sprinting down the tunnel after Iolaus.
Nebula watched him go, then went back into the main chamber of the cave, glancing out of the mouth to see that the storm was abating. She stepped out onto the wind swept beach. It was still drizzling, but the sun was trying to break through the thick, grey clouds, and more importantly, the ship was still floating on top of the calming waves. All she had to do was grab some supplies and she’d be home free. But for some reason it wasn’t that easy.
She didn’t owe Hercules or Iolaus anything. This wasn’t her fight, and she’d always made it her policy to stay out of things that weren’t her concern. But if she left now, abandoned someone that needed her help, then she would be nothing but the selfish, cold-hearted pirate that Hercules believed her to be. Not that she cared what he thought of her. But Iolaus... that was a different story.
Nebula had only known him a few hours, but it was long enough for her to see that he was different. He was the first man she’d ever met who didn’t try to dominate her or who acted like her subordinate. Iolaus treated her as an equal. And he wasn’t sanctimonious like his big pal, condemning her for not conforming to his view of who he thought she should be and how she should behave. She got the feeling he might have a skeleton or two in his closet, and as a result he didn’t judge her on face value, but rather who she was on the inside. And those infernal blue eyes that reflected both mischief and kindness could see right through her facade to her inside, of that she was sure. It scared her a little, but it also excited her because Iolaus liked her anyway, in spite of who she really was. Or maybe even because of it. And though she’d cut out her own tongue before she’d ever admit it out loud, something about that warm, inviting smile made her melt just a little.
She picked up a piece of driftwood and threw it angrily across the sand. Hercules was right. Her crew was lost to her but she couldn’t give up on Iolaus. Men like him were one of a kind and he was sorely needed in the world. If there was a chance, no matter how impossible it seemed, that he was still alive, she knew she’d never be able to forgive herself for not doing what she could to help him. And if nothing else were true, she knew in her heart that he would do the same for her.
Hercules cursed his progress, for it was taking him too long. But it was almost impossible to follow Arachne as she scuttled far above his head across the ceiling, for she left no trail for him to follow. He was running blindly, relying on some unknown instinct and the Fates to lead him in the right direction. But suddenly he stopped, feeling something drawing him to the tunnel on his right. He took a few hesitant steps down the path and something on the ground caught the light of his torch. The demigod knelt in the sand, picking up his partner’s beloved medallion. He ran his fingers over the cool stone gently, taking a deep breath and willing his friend to hold on until he could find him. Then Hercules slipped the object into his inside shirt pocket and resumed his chase, praying that he wasn’t too late.
Iolaus came back to the world, blinking his eyes into focus. He couldn’t move and at first he thought he was still paralyzed, but he quickly realized he was bound tightly head to toe in spider silk. A soft sound alerted him to the presence beside him and he awkwardly tried to get a look, but it was difficult since he couldn’t really turn his head.
“Paxxon?” he called out softly, getting enough of a glimpse to recognize the sailor who was similarly trussed up. The man didn’t answer and the hunter got a bad feeling, realizing that if Paxxon was silent, he was probably no longer alive. His fears were immediately confirmed as a thick, black fluid began oozing from the sailor’s mouth, and Iolaus watched in horror as Paxxon’s face split open as the larva that had been feeding on his organs writhed its way to freedom. The hunter had seen a lot during his years at Hercules’ side, but nothing compared to this and the sight freaked him out big time. “By the gods!”
“The gods won’t help you now.” A black, spidery leg slid around his shoulder, and Iolaus managed to drag his eyes away from Paxxon to meet a vision almost as horrific. “Your friend felt no pain,” Arachne promised him, stroking his face. “Neither will you.”
“Thanks,” the hunter told her. “That’s very comforting.”
“Do you think I’m beautiful?”
“Yeah,” Iolaus replied with utter sincerity, wiggling his fingers experimentally. “I like bugs.”
“So brave,” Arachne said with true admiration. “Willing to face death. You’ll be a loss to your kind. But a welcome addition to my family.”
She leaned in to kiss him, and the hunter knew he needed to act fast if he didn’t want to become host to an Iolaus Jr. He clamped his lips together and did his best to resist. Struggling was futile but he stretched his fingers, brushing against the hilt of the knife in his belt. If he could just somehow manage to get enough wiggle room to grab hold and pull it free...
She turned away from Iolaus to see Hercules standing on a ledge across the cavern.
“Get a room,” the demigod said in disgust. Not seeing any other choice, he leapt off the edge into the cavern, hoping it wasn’t as far down as it looked. To his surprise, a thick mat of webbing covered the floor of the cavern and propelled him back up to the top, where he landed beside his partner. “Hope I’m not spoiling the mood.”
“Well, you are,” Iolaus told him with a straight face. “I was just getting into it.”
Hercules shot his buddy a you’re-not-helping glare, but Arachne was not about to be ignored in favor of some light banter.
“Who are you?” she hissed.
“He’s Hercules,” the hunter was happy to point out.
“I can’t say I’m pleased to meet you,” the demigod murmured, looking the spider woman up and down.
“Oh, but I am pleased to meet you, Hercules,” Arachne said sweetly. “Son of Zeus, who cursed me with this form. You’ll pay for your father’s crime.”
“What else is new?” Hercules asked his friend with a shrug.
Arachne quickly swung, catching him off guard although he managed to duck under her blow. But she was fast and decked him with a mean left hook, knocking him backward and off the ledge. Hercules managed to grab the edge before he fell, and hung there precariously for a moment before pulling himself up to fix a hard stare on the spider woman.
“Hercules! Look out!”
Heeding his partner’s warning, the demigod pushed away from the ledge as a stream of venom came at him. Unfortunately there was only one way to go: down. He fell through the webbing this time and landed hard on his back in the sand, which knocked the wind out of him. As Hercules picked himself up painfully and tried to recover some air, he saw that the large cavern was covered in silk and it was full of cocooned bodies, most likely the remains of Nebula’s crew.
“This is one big web site,” he muttered to himself.
Satisfied that the annoyance was gone, Arachne turned back to Iolaus, grabbing him roughly.
“Where were we?” She leaned in once more, but jerked back abruptly with a squeal of pain as one of her appendages was severed with a small dagger
“I’m curious,” Nebula called out from the same ledge where Hercules had appeared. “How long does it usually take you to shave those legs?” She pulled out a small grappling hook and tossed it, securing it around a stalagmite and swinging herself across the cavern with a cheerful yell to plow right into Arachne, knocking her back against the wall. “Don’t bother getting up. We’ll show ourselves out.” The pirate turned to Iolaus, wrinkling her nose slightly as she took in his condition. “What happened to you?”
A strong hand clamped down on her shoulder, spinning her around. Nebula struck out, landing two of her best blows on the spider woman. Arachne barely registered the punches, licking the greenish blood from her lips as her severed leg regenerated.
“Now,” she seethed, grabbing Nebula by the throat and lifting her off the ground. “Let me show you how to damage a face!”
As Hercules struck his gauntlet against a rock to ignite a torch, he heard her threat as well as the sound of a brutal blow striking flesh.
“Hey!” he yelled up to the ledge. “I wouldn’t try that if I were you!”
Arachne paused, catching the glow of fire shining from below and deciding that stopping Hercules was a priority. She released Nebula and descended down to the cavern on a line of silk.
“You won’t kill your own men,” she said, testing him.
“Nice try,” the demigod retorted. “But they’re already dead.”
“True,” Arachne acknowledged. “But they didn’t die in vain. From each death comes new life.”
“Spreading hatred isn’t much of a life.”
“I prefer to think of it as spreading beauty,” she countered. “The world will know true beauty once again.”
“You’re fooling yourself, Arachne.”
“I will reclaim the throne!” she insisted. “My army, born from the bodies of these men, will see to that!”
“Sorry,” Hercules told her. “I’m going to pull rank.”
He thrust the torch at the body closest to him, setting it alight. With an enraged shriek, Arachne launched herself at him, knocking the torch from his hand and lashing out with furious blows.
Up on the ledge, Nebula picked herself up and turned back to Iolaus.
“Is this where you usually hang out?”
“Ha, ha,” he said drily, not finding much humor in his predicament. But he stiffened in his silken cocoon when the pirate whipped two mean looking daggers out from her seemingly endless supply. “Hey...”
“Trust me,” Nebula assured him before raking the tips over the webbing binding him and cutting him loose. However, being so abruptly freed didn’t leave the hunter a leg to stand on, and he fell forward onto Nebula, knocking her to the ground. But she merely grinned at him as he pulled some web strands away from his face. “I prefer to be on top,” she informed him, wondering if he would argue or acquiesce. But those thoughts took a back seat as something came rushing out at them from the shadows. “Look out!” They both rolled out of the way of the scurrying, chittering creature that resembled some sort of mutant insect. “Where did that come from?”
“You don’t want to know,” Iolaus vehemently promised her, cringing inwardly as he recalled the little beast’s “birth”. It came at them again, spitting a stream of smoking venom that appeared to be every bit as potent as its mother’s. Nebula and Iolaus rolled out of the way, not wanting to test that theory, and the pirate ended up straddling the hunter.
“Much better,” she murmured, enjoying her favorite position. At least until the pesky little critter came sailing through the air to land on her back. Nebula vocally announced her displeasure and Iolaus pulled the creature off of her, tossing it away in revulsion.
Down in the cavern, Hercules was not faring much better. Arachne was strong, and he was able to duck or block most of her blows, but when she was able to lash out with both fists and a few legs all at the same time, getting hit was unavoidable. He got in a few blows of his own, but she seemed to be shaking them off much better than he was.
“I’m quite enjoying this, Hercules.” The spider woman laughed gaily. “I could go on and on for days.”
The demigod shook his head slightly, glancing over at the shield that was next to him in the sand where he’d landed after she’d sent him flying. An idea hit him, and he got to his feet, gathering the shield in his hands.
“Sorry. But you’ll have to play with yourself.” Hercules approached her and held up the shield.
“Noooooooo,” Arachne screeched as she was faced with her own hideous reflection. She backed away, unable to look at herself, running into one of the burning cocoons. Instantly the flames engulfed her, and she let out blood curdling screams as the fire consumed her. Hercules watched until she was reduced to a smoking corpse.
“Well done.” He had to say it, since Iolaus wasn’t there to say it first.
Iolaus was busy, trying and failing to find the larval creature before it found him. It attached itself to his face, and he couldn’t refrain from yelping as he batted it away.
“I think it likes you,” Nebula told him as he scrubbed his hands vigorously over his face.
“You know,” the hunter began. “I think what we need is a really big shoe.”
She agreed, but they both became distracted by the sight of Hercules pulling himself up over the edge of the ledge. Just like Arachne, her offspring was not one to miss opportunity and it came sailing through the air again, latching on to Nebula’s throat.
“Get this thing off of me!” she yelled as the hunter rushed to help her.
“Iolaus!” Hercules shouted. “On three!”
“Ok, three,” the hunter called back, ripping the creature off of the pirate and alley ooping it over to his partner. The demigod caught it by the tail and swung it in a few broad circles before letting it fly. It hit the rock wall with great force and slid down to the floor in a pile of oozing blood and tangled, twitching legs.
“Overall, I’d have to say this has been a very disgusting day,” Hercules announced.
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed, thinking that he didn’t know the half of it. “Hey, nice throw.”
“Nice assist,” the demigod told him, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his friend’s medallion.
“Aw, thanks, buddy.” Iolaus took the medallion and slid the cord over his head, relishing in the feel of the weight of the stone around his neck, knowing that only Hercules knew how much he would have hated to lose it.
“I hate to interrupt this really lovely moment,” Nebula interjected, “but can we go now?”
“Yeah, sure,” Hercules agreed. “Why don’t you lead the way?”
The two partners followed her as she turned and headed down the tunnel behind the ledge. They didn’t know where it led but it didn’t matter, as long as they were moving away from Arachne’s lair.
Nebula sat on the railing of the ship, just enjoying the fresh sea air and the warm sun, a very welcome change after being trapped in the dark, musty cave for so long. But her peace was rapidly shattered as she caught sight of Hercules possessively carrying one of her treasure chests.
“Is it me?” she asked, sliding off the railing and moving toward him. “Or are you getting real comfortable with my goods?”
“This treasure’s going back to King Zolas,” the demigod replied in voice that brooked no argument, tying a rope securely around the chest. “Just like I told you.”
“Oh.” Nebula pulled out one of her daggers and instantly had it at his throat. “Now why’d you have to go and say a thing like that, huh? We go back there, he’ll hang me.”
“I said the treasure’s going back,” Hercules told her patiently. “Not you.”
“Oh.” She removed the blade and had a seat on the chest as he moved off to check the ropes of the mast. “Well, I guess it’s worth a ticket out of that cave. Don’t want to see any more of that.”
“I’m glad you changed your mind.” The demigod turned and fixed a thoughtful gaze on the pirate, realizing that he may have misjudged her. And his eyes softened as Iolaus wandered into view. Nebula had helped to ensure he got his best friend back, and for that he would always owe her. “About a lot of things.”
“Well, someone had to save your butts.” Nebula reached out and helped herself to a handful of the butt in question, secretly delighted that the hunter jumped and squirmed. She enjoyed unsettling him and keeping him off guard, although she couldn’t deny that there was a part of her that wanted to satisfy him as well. “Right?”
“Did I miss something back there?” Hercules asked his partner, who was actually blushing.
“All right,” Nebula called out, demanding their attention. It was not her ship, but she was a captain, after all, and the most qualified to give the orders, in her opinion. “Let’s get this bucket ship shape, huh? Hercules, trim the mainsail. Iolaus, hop up there and secure that mast.” Nebula fixed a smoldering gaze on the hunter that was part tease, part promise. “I’ll be waiting, monkey boy.”
Iolaus tried his best to hold back his giggles as he met his partner’s stern glare.
“Nah, Herc. You didn’t miss a thing.”
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