Iolaus propped his bow on his shoulder, squinting up at the brilliant blue sky. 'I can't believe you've never read Plato.'
Hercules let his breath out in a weary sigh. 'If I promise to read it, will you promise never to tell me the story about the cave again?'
'I just can't believe you call yourself an educated man and you've never- Whoa, there it is.'
Suddenly tensed for action, Hercules too scanned the sky. The dragon they'd been hunting for the last two days had indeed reappeared - he could make out its distinctive purple hide and wings gleaming in the midday sun. At least it didn't seem to have noticed them, yet. It had burned down two local villages before Hercules and Iolaus had been sent for, and much to their chagrin, had managed to burn down one more after they had arrived. Dragons were damn hard to stop when they were on a rampage. Standing close at his shoulder, Iolaus gave a heavy, dispirited sigh, and Hercules mentally braced himself. Any minute now, I know he's going to say it. Again.
'I don't know how I could have missed.'
Hercules winced. Here we go again. 'You didn't miss. It just -'
Iolaus picked up his bow and headed toward the rocky outcrop at the end of the beach. 'You know what I mean - I missed the kill shot. And now the damn thing's even more pissed than it was before. Come on, I'll take the high road, you go low.'
Hercules refrained from asking why Iolaus wanted to climb the cliff face lining the small cove. No doubt he thought he'd have a better chance of getting a bolt into the creature's eye or throat if he could get closer. Hercules hoped the thing would change its mind and head back out to sea, return to whatever land it called home. He broke into an easy, loping run, making toward the next village in line along the coast. It was about a mile and a half away around the scrub-covered limestone headland, and had been their original objective. Hercules was pretty sure the locals would have heard about the marauding dragon by now, but he and his partner intended to be there to protect them. And this time we'll get it right.
As he ran, he glanced to one side and saw his partner was already half way up the cliff face. Hercules squinted against the glare and looked back to where the dragon had been lazily drifting on the hot air currents that swirled up from the cliffs. Either it's searching for a likely cave to hole up in, or it's planning on finding some more fun and food first.
'Uh-oh.' Hercules stopped, watching until he was sure. 'Damn. There's something else up there.'
He shaded his eyes and tried to make it out. He'd never seen anything like it before. It was much smaller than the dragon, and didn't seem to be flying. Or at least it had no wings. Instead it had a tightly bloated, red and gold striped hide-covered spherical upper body. The largest part of the thing, it seemed to be holding the remaining parts aloft. It did not appear to have limbs, just some smaller rounded section dangling under the sphere.
'What in Hades...' Hercules muttered. He looked up at Iolaus and could tell by his partner's stance that he was just as puzzled. Iolaus waved down at him and headed on up the cliff. He moves like a mountain goat, Hercules grinned as he watched the hunter leap smoothly from rock ledge to boulder, his bow secured on his back.
The newly arrived sky dweller was now much lower in the sky. I do not believe it! Hercules' jaw dropped a little in sheer astonishment. There's someone on that thing! In it, whatever.
There was a woven basket slung by ropes beneath the sphere and a clearly human figure was moving about it, adjusting - some kind of flying controls Hercules supposed. A huge shadow suddenly darkened his view of the contraption.
Sure enough , the dragon too had spotted the thing and was making a cautionary first pass. For the first time in a long while, Hercules felt helpless. There was absolutely nothing he could do to help the person suspended like a packaged meal, defenseless in the open sky. He could only hope Iolaus could get a clear shot. Then the dragon dived toward the sphere, talons extended, fire flickering from its nostrils, ready to attack, to feed. And its trajectory put the sphere and its occupant right in Iolaus' line of fire. The heavier longbow bolts Iolaus had had made especially for dragon hunting could as easily rupture the sphere and send the rider crashing to his death.
The winged reptile swept down on him again, shooting flames, and Jayk ducked down as low as possible inside the flimsy protection afforded by the woven basket. The rush of hot air made the balloon jolt so violently that he was very nearly tossed over the basket's side, safety straps and all. The only weapons he possessed were a light weight short sword and a boot knife. The monster was coming at him again. Under other conditions he may have admired the sheer grace of movement; the male's wing span was awesome and he envied its ease of flight by comparison to the awkward, ponderous balloon. The basket's confinement made a neat package sandwiching him in as lunch for the voracious reptile.
Whoosh! it dove at him, belching gold-red flame that set fire to the balloon. The clawed tip of one wing ripped the fabric for good measure. Its huge shadow blocked the sunlight for a moment, and he felt the jolt as its claws closed briefly around the metal cables holding the basket to the balloon, then let go. The basket lurched and Jayk slammed into the side, getting a disorienting glimpse of the sea crashing against the rocks so far below. He scrabbled desperately for a grip on the wicker. The safety straps bit painfully hard into his shoulders and chest as they caught him. If he fell, he'd deny the monster its lunch. No, the cursed thing would probably snap him up on the wing, like a hawk taking its kill. He struggled to draw and hold his sword amid the unpredictable tossing of his air-ship. He determined to give the thing a wound for its trouble.
The big male banked steeply, purple hide flashing against the clear blue sky. Jayk was relieved to note it was no longer belching fire. But its jaws gaped wide, revealing unbelievably big teeth set to swallow him basket, supplies and all. He could only hope some of that might give the thing indigestion. It closed rapidly upon him, blotting out the sun. At the last moment Jayk lashed out, holding his breath against the sulfuric stench. His eyes closed against the rush of air, the cinders of burning balloon, and the sight of death coming for him.
His sword point sunk home into something surprisingly soft. A terrific shriek followed by a tremendous jolt and the weapon, lodged in the reptile's under-belly, was wrenched from his hand. At full stretch of the safety straps, Jayk was unsurprised when one snapped, leaving two intact. It hardly mattered, the balloon was now blazing in earnest. The basket lost altitude rapidly, and he was crashing, tumbling closer toward a rocky promontory in a heart-searingly beautiful azure ocean .
The dragon screamed again in pain and Jayk squinted up into the bright sky. The reptile seemed smaller now, appeared to be abandoning the attack . He could barely believe one tiny scratch from his sword had driven the thing away. Then, amazed, he caught sight of what could only be a metal-tipped arrow flashing after it, fired from below. Gaping disbelief, he peered down, ignoring the dizzying slow spin of the basket. Yes, there was the figure of a man silhouetted high on the cliff top, bow aimed, one hand moving to notch then fire another arrow.
Jayk tore his gaze from this unexpected aid to follow the flight of the arrow. The dragon, aware of the danger, banked suddenly and the arrow missed, but only narrowly. By the way the monster was now carrying its left wing, at least one arrow had struck home, no doubt the cause of the second cry of pain he'd heard. Given how far off was the target, the huntsman displayed remarkable ability. Jayk's pleasure in that success vanished as his sweeping view of the sky also gave him a lovely view of his now almost thoroughly ruined balloon. .
Dangling from the remnants of burning fabric and buckled cables, the basket drifted sideways as it fell, heading straight toward the jagged cliff-face on which stood the huntsman. Closing ever more rapidly, Jayk could almost see the helpless despair radiating from the man's form.
You tried, Jayk thought gratefully.
Though to no avail - the impact with the rock wall would surely kill him. From his point of view it appeared not so much that he was falling but that sea and rock were coming up to meet him, way too fast. The basket began spinning violently, and he closed his eyes against an upsurge of nausea and terror. Then, suddenly, there was a sharp tearing sound, and the basket jolted to a halt, hanging clear of the rocks. Every bone in Jayk's body screamed protest, and he felt his right collar bone snap with a sickening surge of pain. The safety straps held him but very nearly dislocated both shoulders and brought such agony that consciousness wavered. He fought the pain tenaciously, his head cleared and sight returned.
Abrupt silence, a faint stir of wind, and the roar of waves pounding the shore far below. Ominous tearing and ripping sounds came from above. Jayk turned his head painfully to find the basket wedged against the rocky cliff face. He could hear a man yelling, surprisingly close by, the words harsh with desperation, but unfamiliar, some strange language Jayk didn't recognize. Bleary eyed he followed the sound of the voice, his eyebrows climbing as he located the archer. The man was racing urgently closer, dislodging a rain of small stones and climbing up the bare cliff as nimbly as a mountain goat, his bow bouncing at his back. Surely he could not reach the basket before the last strand of balloon-sail let go its precarious hold?
Hoping against hope, Jayk squinted upward, saw the fire had been largely smothered by the rapid passage of air as the balloon fell. Still, only a narrow, blackened and weakened piece of old sail canvas was all that was keeping him from certain death.
He swallowed hard and bent his head, looking down at the jumble of roped supplies piled waist-high about him. A wicker work and wood-inlaid chest and anchor chain assembly was firmly secured against the opposite side of the basket. He fumbled to find the release buckles to the straps, and immediately realized they were hopelessly warped, twisted by the impact. He'd never get them open in time.
Where's my boot knife, dammit! Somehow, he must get free of the safety straps and make a jump for the cliff. Jumping would mean he must leave behind the chest and its precious contents. That would near break his heart. But he couldn't complete his quest if he were dead.
His first attempt at reaching for the knife caused another wave of darkness to wash over him as he forgot his broken shoulder. Cursing, he switched to reaching with his left arm instead, pushing at the clutter that buried his lower body. Blood trickled into his eyes and he swore again, realized the snapped safety strap must have cut him. He had no free arm to wipe away the blood. He fumbled for the knife by touch again, couldn't find it, felt tears of frustration filling his eyes along with the blood and blinked all the harder. The basket jolted, fell a few feet, snagged again, tilted harder to the left. His vision cleared in time to give him a terrifying glimpse of the drop and he gulped against a fear-dry throat. The dragon's teeth had been sharp enough, the rocks below looked no less deadly. Above, he heard the fabric tear further, the basket shuddered, held. This was torture. Still, he fought to reach the knife.
Then his heart skipped as someone yelled immediately at his head. He looked up, startled, to meet a pair of keen blue eyes that pinned him with fierce determination. The man repeated the one urgent word and lifted his fist into Jayk's line of sight. A knife!
Instinctively, Jayk reached with his right arm and could only gasp and screw his eyes against the pain. His would-be rescuer muttered what sounded a curse and pushed the knife hilt into Jayk's left hand. Nodding bleary gratitude, Jayk took it and reached up to awkwardly try to cut one strap as his rescuer set about hacking with a sword at the other The straps were made of leather studded with metal and the knife blade struggled to find its way between them.
Desperately, Jayk spared a glance for the other man who was now leaning dangerously out from the cliff, his upper body stretched over the basket's woven rim. Fair hair was plastered to a sweat-streaked brow, jaw set in iron resolve, shoulder and arm muscles bunched with strain. Somehow his left hand maintained a desperate grip on something - a tree root - protruding from beneath a boulder on the cliff face. The right arm, its wrist encircled by a leather guard, gripped the sword hilt, but could not get enough of an arc to land a cutting blow. Instead he could only saw away, cursing as the strap, which was no longer taut, pushed away from his efforts at severing it. The man let go his safety hold on the tree root to bring his left hand forward to hold the strap.
The torn balloon abruptly lurched free and the basket fell. Overbalanced, the archer toppled head first into the basket. Jayk closed his eyes in despair - he would be the cause of the valiant hunter's death.
Hercules' shout was no more than a hoarse whisper, his throat closed with cold dread. Rigid with shock, he could only stand, staring upward in horror, watching helplessly as his friend was snared by the flying contraption now plummeting toward the rock platform far below. A sudden breath of air pushed at the remnants of sail cloth and miraculously, rather than smashing to pieces against jagged stone, the basket hit the sea, sending up a mighty spray of foam flecked blue. Almost immediately, the thing overturned and sank. Hercules could not see either man, which meant they were still trapped inside. The ferocious impact would, at the least, have knocked them unconscious.
Hercules blinked as he found himself in thigh deep cold water - he hadn't realized he'd begun running. Fixing his gaze again on the spot where the basket had gone under, he took a flying leap into the water and began swimming toward it. The outgoing tide was already dragging at him, and no doubt the basket and its drowning occupants too. He must reach Iolaus before it was too late.