COMPLETION OF STORY (hope you enjoy! Carolyn)
They stood leaning on the railing together and watching the beautiful vista of white-capped blue-green ocean swells and azure sky stretch out before them, while the limestone cliffs and beach grew smaller behind. Hercules and Iolaus studied the horizon closely for sign of the dragon returning, but more so to try to recall exactly where the balloon had hit the water and gone under. Hercules recalled that when he had first taken his bearings to haul the unconscious man back to shore, the point of the headland that hid the village almost exactly lined up with the higher promontory to the south. He eyed his partner and Iolaus said, 'Yeah, this looks right.'
'This is far enough, Tyron,' Hercules called to the fisher captain. The deeply tanned, stocky little man hurried forward, watching his two younger crewmen drop anchor. All three then turned and looked expectantly at the passengers. I bet this is a lot more interesting than sitting around waiting for the fish to bite, Hercules thought ruefully. It's always fun to watch a couple of madmen at work.
''I hope the water's not as cold as yesterday,' Iolaus said as he peeled out of his vest and boots.
'The current doesn't look to be running out as hard, at least.'
'Not late enough in the day,' Tyron put in tersely as he moved by them to the prow. 'I hope the boat does not attract sharks.'
'Sharks?' Iolaus said, not particularly worried - he and Hercules had taken on far worse carnivores.
Tyron seemed impishly pleased and was deliberately trying to unsettle them. But his face fell as he read the genuine lack of concern in Iolaus' response. Still, he added over his shoulder, 'They are accustomed to us throwing the guts of our catch overboard.'
'Oh.' Iolaus said, his hand checking the secure fit of the knife at his belt.
'What?' Jayk wanted to know.
'Nothing. Just talking about fish,' Hercules said.
'Big fish. With teeth,' Iolaus elaborated.
Jayk frowned. 'I did not think of the dangers. You have already -'
Iolaus snorted and clapped the man on his undamaged left shoulder. 'That's what this is for,' he said, patting the knife sheathed at his belt. 'Don't worry, me and the big guy have taken on a lot worse than a shark or two and won the fight. We'll be fine.'
Jayk didn't look much happier. 'I do not doubt that you are capable warriors. I doubt my right to ask you to do this thing.'
Hercules looked up at him from where he'd sat on the deck to pull off his boots. 'Iolaus lost his sword down there yesterday, too' he said with a wry smile. 'Trust me, he doesn't go anywhere without it.'
Iolaus laughed. 'Sleep with it every night! And the last time I saw it was right next to that anchor chest of yours. Which should be -' he leaned over the side of the boat and eyed the water as if he could see through its depths. 'Straight down there.' A sudden shiver went through him, a vivid image of that impossibly far off beckoning sunlight high above a cold blue void weighing him down, and the intense pressure in his lungs, aching for open air. He swallowed hard, shook himself a little, and looked up to see Hercules had, as ever, understood.
The big man gripped his shoulder, gave him a reassuring smile, eyes locked with his as he said, 'Together.'
The moment's chill foreboding was gone, washed away in that warmth, and Iolaus flashed a genuine grin, said, 'Race you!' and took off in a smooth dive over the railing.
At the ship's port rail, Jayk lifted a hand to shade his eyes, and squinted against the glare of dazzling sunlight on blue water. The two men stayed underwater so long that his mouth ran dry with fear until finally they resurfaced. They yelled that they hadn't found anything yet, swam wider out from the boat, and disappeared underwater again. This procedure was repeated several times, in ever widening circles away from the boat. Jayk began to despair of finding the wreckage. Then suddenly, Iolaus erupted out of the sea, something held in his upraised right fist reflecting light brilliantly . The sword! He whooped, 'We found it!' and Jayk waved happily back. He saw Hercules surface for air, then dive back again. Iolaus swam somewhat awkwardly back to the boat, the sword slowing him as he was forced to maintain his grip, having left his scabbard aboard ship.
Iolaus threw the sword on deck and climbed nimbly aboard, shaking seawater from his hair, and dripping more from his body, creating a mini pool on the weathered wooden decking. He slapped a wet hand to Jayk's good arm and grinned bright victory as he said, 'They were both there, Jayk. They hadn't moved, my sword, your chest. Hercules is hauling it up for you.' He moved forward a couple of paces, picked up the scabbard he'd left with his clothing, and happily resheathed the sword and buckled it at his hips. He straightened again to call to Tyron, who immediately yelled orders to his men. Iolaus turned about and translated, 'We're going to fix a line from the boat to the chest, so it'll be easier to haul on board.'
'My thanks.' Jayk nodded heartfelt gratitude, wondering how he could have managed if he had not found these two quietly gracious, generous friends. Not to mention an entire village of hospitable people who had taken him in without so much as a question. He must see to it that he did whatever possible to keep them safe from dragons. Maybe, now he had the mirror back, if he could find Estelle and change her back, the purple dragon would go elsewhere in search of a mate.
'Iolaus!' Hercules shouted from the water. Jayk saw the big man had surfaced, one hand tightly holding the anchor chain that was still wrapped about the chest. Jayk's eyes widened in delight as he saw it again. It was hard to tell from here, but it didn't look to be badly damaged. The anchor chain must have stopped it being dragged about by the current. Hercules' strength never ceased to amaze him - how the man could hold that weight and still stay afloat was incredible.
On deck, Iolaus picked up the coil of rope, one end of which had been secured to a metal bracket fixed into the deck boards. He swung it high above his head, gathering momentum, then let it go flying out over the water. It dropped accurately at Hercules' side, and he tied it off to the chain, then signaled they could start hauling in. Iolaus and Tyron's men heaved. Jayk wanted to help, but knew he'd only hinder them, even if he didn't have a broken shoulder. In the water, Hercules kept the chest upright and moving smoothly, guiding it with an upward shove now and then when it threatened to twist the rope and sink.
Then, seeing it under control of the crew and close to the boat, Hercules yelled up at Iolaus, 'I dropped my knife by the wreck! I'm going back for it.' Iolaus waved a hand to indicate he'd heard, and the big man turned about and swam back some distance before diving again.
With the men concentrating on hauling in the chest to an accompaniment of rattling chains and loud scraping and lots of yelling, Jayk was first to notice the approaching sound. The thump-beat of huge wings pushing at the air. Dragon! Even as he looked up, its shadow fell across the boat and he shouted warning in unison with Iolaus who had swiveled about as the sunlight was blocked. 'It's attacking!' Jayk cried, more than familiar with the pattern. It was the big male, the one Jayk had gotten a closer than he wanted look at yesterday. Its purple hide flashed magnificent iridescence in the brilliant sun as it banked and dove, swooping smoothly down on the boat.
'Take cover!' Iolaus shouted and grabbed Jayk's arm, hauling him toward the forward hold access hatch. Tyron and his men had already disappeared into the stern hatch. Jayk moved hurriedly but awkwardly onto the hatch ladder, slowing Iolaus who had no time to pull the hatch shut over them before the dragon let loose a gush of flame. The heat seared downward and Iolaus yelped and dropped from the ladder to land atop some bales of supplies not much further down.
'Are you hurt?' Jayk called, cursing his useless arm as he tried to move faster.
'No,' Iolaus called, 'Just a little warm.'
Jayk breathed relief, hearing the dragon's wing beats change as its speed carried it beyond the boat. It would bank and turn swiftly at them again. Already Iolaus was moving, aware that those few moments were all they had to save the boat and its crew. He grabbed a line that hung down into the hold and shimmied up it as nimbly as a monkey. 'What are you going to do?' Jayk asked, following him back out into the hot glaring sunlight.
'Get my bow!' Iolaus said breathlessly, moving along the charred deck boards carefully, his bare feet avoiding the hottest spots. Jayk noted the small wheelhouse was on fire and the crew were dousing it with buckets of sea water. Jayk picked up one of the empty pails and bent to scoop water from below the stern rail. He could see Hercules swimming urgently toward them, but too far off to reach them before the dragon could return.
The sound of wing beats rent the air again, and Jayk frowned puzzlement. It was coming from the wrong direction, and it sounded different - familiar in another way... He squinted up into the dazzling blue sky and saw it - a flash of green , rapidly growing larger. The crew had left off fighting the fire which was all but drowned, and instead were moving to adjust what must be some kind of weapon on the forward deck. Jayk peered more closely, horrified when he realized it was a huge spear, fixed to what looked something like a catapult.
'No!' Jayk cried urgently, aware they too had seen the newcomer. Iolaus had taken up position, bow and arrow in hand, quiver on his back, on the other side of the wheelhouse, and was tracking the distant approach of the purple dragon. He turned away to see what was happening behind him, and Jayk heard him utter what must be a curse. He put down the bow and came round the wheel house to yell at Tyron. The small seaman looked up at Iolaus, his expression annoyed and disbelieving. He shouted something, shook his head, and urged his men to ready the spear. Iolaus took a pace forward, and Jayk hurried toward them, hearing Estelle's wingbeats coming closer, closer. He looked desperately up at her, waved his good arm and yelled, 'Estelle! No! Keep back!'
'That's her?' Iolaus called, distracted. At that moment the male dragon's giant shadow fell across them once more. Iolaus said 'Look out!' and leaped forward to knock Jayk aside just as the purple dragon came in for the kill, talons extended. Iolaus rolled smoothly to his feet, sword drawn, his hair flung back from his face as he hacked at the clawed forelegs and was buffeted by the wing beats. The monster bellowed in pain as the blade bit into the scaled flesh of the left talon. But the other talon closed about Iolaus' upper left shoulder and pulled him off his feet. The dragon hauled him up and into the air. It shook him fiercely, causing Iolaus to yell in pain and drop the sword which clattered to the deck.
'No!' Jayk shouted.
Tyron and his men yelled in dismay, trying to turn the spear about, then, stopping, aware they might as easily harm Iolaus as the dragon. A shadow fell over the boat, and Jayk looked behind, saw Estelle hovering watching. She had seen Iolaus save him from being taken by the male.
Jayk did his best to hold her gaze, hoping something human remained, as he called pleadingly, 'Help the man! Estelle - go! Get him back!' Jayk waved his uninjured arm urgently forward where the purple dragon was rapidly receding from view toward the sea cliffs, Iolaus hanging helplessly from its talons.
The green dragon's head dipped, but whether in acknowledgment or simply because she was banking to turn away, Jayk could not say. Then, there was a loud thud and the deck shook as Hercules jumped aboard. His firm hand grasped Jayk's good shoulder so hard that he winced. The big man spun him about to face him, and Jayk read horror and frantic hope in those piercing eyes. Seawater fell in torrents from his clinging hair and drenched clothing, yet his face seemed chiseled from rock, desperately controlling emotion.
'That was your lady?' he asked. Jayk nodded, tears filling his eyes, both for Estelle and for Iolaus. 'Did she understand? Will she help?'
Jayk met those burning, frantic eyes and answered truthfully, 'I don't know. Maybe. I'm not sure she remembers...'
'Get the damm mirror, and follow me!' Hercules snapped. He took a pace forward to collect Iolaus' fallen sword and cut a piece of rope, wrapped the weapon's hilt and tied it about his waist. 'Tyron knows the cave.'
He turned, and flung himself in a smooth dive over the railing, knifing into the sea and coming up again some distance forward of the boat. The crew had finished hauling in the chest which was sitting in a pool of water on the port deck. Jayk looked up to tell Tyron what had been said, but could see the man had figured it out for himself. He and his crew were moving urgently about, hauling sail, and already the ship was turning against the tide, nosing for shore.
High above, Jayk could see the green dragon winging steadily to shore, gaining slightly on the purple who was slowed by its burden.
The ever-spinning view of sea, sky and cliffs was nauseating, and Iolaus gave up struggling and punching - it was having no affect whatever on the fearsome strength of the creature holding him in its claws. All he had managed was to cause himself deeper wounds. And he'd need all his strength for the battle to come. He wished he'd taken the time to put his vest back on when he'd returned to the boat - the leather would have given him some protection. The leather strap that secured the quiver at his back was still in place - on the opposite shoulder - and he doubted it would have survived being shredded by the talons if the dragon had grabbed him there. The specially made metal-barbed heavy bolts were still in the quiver and might make handy weapons even without a bow to fire them. Much to his dismay, he'd been forced to drop his sword, though he still wore the scabbard. He had only his belt knife, and the arrow-bolts. Not much by way of defense against a fire-breathing dragon, but he'd make do. All his weight hung from the digging points of the cruel talons. He could feel warm blood running down his otherwise cold chest. The unpredictable air currents combined with the regular thrust and updraft of the wings to create a constant icy turbulence that pulled him back, then forward in the dragon's wake. He gritted his teeth over the agony as the talons dug ever deeper.
He couldn't afford to pass out now, had no intention of being an easy meal when the dragon delivered him to its den. Somehow, he'd have to buy time until Hercules could arrive to help him kill the thing. He seriously doubted he'd be fit enough to go it alone; his left arm hung numb and useless, and he wondered if the initial impact had broken the collar bone. The agonizing grip crushed as much as cut, and he could feel various ribs protesting the strain. It was becoming ever harder to draw breath, and the overpowering stench wafting from the creature's hide wasn't helping. It was so thick that he could taste as well as smell it. Or maybe what he was tasting was its blood, dripping stickily from the wound he'd hacked in the left forepaw. He took savage satisfaction in the thought, and looking down at himself, saw that indeed there was a greenish ichor splattered from his chest to his bare feet. The creature suddenly banked into the wind and began to drop swiftly lower, the sea cliffs immediately beneath seeming to rush up toward them.
Iolaus craned his neck, tried to search the sea for sign of Hercules, but was too dizzy to do more than spot the dusty white sails billowing on the boat as it too headed for shore. Knowing Hercules, he wouldn't have waited, but would be in the water, and probably making better time.
He gasped as the dragon suddenly dove steeply for a dark opening in the cliff wall, and it seemed to Iolaus that the huge body could never clear the narrow entrance. Then the leathery wings were closing on him, tucking into the sides, the talons lifting him nearer the belly. Between the scaled forelegs he caught one terrifying glimpse of shadowed rock walls rushing at him. Was the dragon planning to dash him against the hard limestone, smash him open, make easy pickings? But no, it braked suddenly, wingtips scraping over dirt and stone beneath them. Iolaus' stomach lurched as the motion brought fiery pain searing through him. The talons released to drop him with a bone-jarring thud on solid rock and blackness took him.
Groggily, desperate, he shook his head, aware of the creature's putrid hot breath pulsing and hissing about him. He struggled to his knees and lifted his head to see the purple dragon crouching not far off, its cunning golden eyes narrowed, studying him voraciously. There was cruel intelligence in those eyes, the thing wasn't stupid, was using its bulky body to block the exit. Iolaus could see bright daylight streaming about its silhouetted form, gleaming and flashing about the cave, reflected from the creature's blue-green scales. He tried to turn his head to see what lay behind him deeper in the cave, but could only gasp over the pain of movement. All he could manage was to catch a glimpse of a deeper darkness.
He seriously doubted there was another way out, and he was in no shape for climbing fast enough to outrun a dragon. And it was far too dark back there to see if there might be narrow ledges under which he could find refuge from the thing's teeth. Still, he got to his feet and backed up hopefully, stumbling with the pain and weakness of his wounds. He bent dizzily and pulled his knife from his belt. Its blade caught the light as he hefted it in his fist and the dragon hissed and roared so angrily that its very breath sent him reeling backward.
Wait, not the knife! Need to keep that for later, he decided and shoved it back in his belt. I can throw the arrows. I hope. Awkwardly, gritting his teeth over the agony of it, he reached up his good arm, and drew out as many of the unusually heavy, thick shafted bolts as his fist would hold, then dropped them at his feet. He sank back to his knees, unable to stand upright for the dizziness making the cave seem to roll about him.
The creature took a cautious pace toward him, hissing a challenge, aware he was preparing to fight. Yellow eyes flashing in the gloom, huge teeth bared, it lowered its long neck and swung its head toward him. Flames flickered at its nostrils, and Iolaus' heart leaped with sheer dread. He stood no chance against fire, not in these confined quarters. Desperate, he turned his head, hoping to make out some kind of shelter, boulders, anything. But it was too dark, or he was too close to unconsciousness to find what might aid him. He heard the creature give a belching roar and flinched, but there was no heat, no burst of flame. Then he remembered its attack on the balloon yesterday - it had leveled just the one burst of fire. Maybe that was all it could release without refueling? It had already tried to burn Tyron's ship out from under them.
Carefully, Iolaus picked up several arrows, ramming their fletched ends into his belt where they would be ready to aim and throw in rapid succession. Repeatedly bending down was definitely not in his range of can-do-without-passing-out at the moment. Still, the dragon sat, hesitant, studying him, and he wondered what was holding it back. His narrow view of the light at the entrance suddenly disappeared in complete shadow, throwing the cavern into total darkness. There was the hiss-thump of wing beats, and then the stirring of dust and the sound of the purple dragon shifting about.
Iolaus braced for battle, then the thin light returned and he gaped, watching in disbelief as the green dragon made her entry. She was much smaller than the purple who had stood to one side to give her room, and she moved further forward, closer to Iolaus. In this confined space, the extra body meant neither creature could use its full reach to best advantage. Nor was the cavern roof high enough to allow either to take off and lunge at him from above.
The big male roared greeting and challenge, the sound so loud, so intense, reverberating from the rock walls, that Iolaus was sure his eardrums would burst. He stood wavering, uncertain, watching his captors. Was the purple angry at the intruder? No, it lowered its head in a submissive gesture, its nose prodding the green's flank in what could be either caress, or invitation to dinner. Or both.
Oh, fine, I'm the wedding gift and the feast. What a way to die!
Both dragon heads swung about to regard him now, hunger in every line of the purple's scaled face. Hunger and lust. The male took one thundering step forward, stumbled on its bad leg, and bellowed pain and hatred. Reminded of its injury, and blinded by pain, it seemed to forget its companion. Its neck stretched forward, its head lashing viciously at Iolaus, teeth bared.
Iolaus ducked swiftly aside, and threw his first arrow which pierced the flesh about the creature's nostrils. It shrieked in shock and pain and pulled back. That has to hurt, Iolaus decided with satisfaction, noting the arrow remained embedded in the soft spot. The dragon's eyes narrowed and evil light flickered in their depths. It bowed its head and lifted a forepaw to dislodge the arrow.
The green hissed, and lifted her head, eyes settling on Iolaus as he turned toward her with alarm. Was that fire flickering about her nose? Damn it, she hadn't used up her store yet. Or had she? Could female dragons breathe fire? Whatever, he had to find cover. He stumbled back in the shadows, his useless left arm hanging, but able to give him information as it brushed against rocky surfaces. There was a boulder, or something like it at his back. If he could just -
Taking advantage of his divided attention, the purple dragon lunged again. Yelping a curse, Iolaus rolled backward, hearing the thing's teeth snap shut way too close over his head. Now he was at least partially covered by the boulder, feeling it shudder as the dragon, unable to pull up in time, slammed into it snout first. There was another tremendous bellow of outrage and pain. Iolaus could tell the male had no more patience, was no longer interested in impressing its prospective mate.
Crouching on his knees, Iolaus pulled another arrow from his belt, and stuck his head above the boulder to make his target. At the same time, the male struck out with its forepaw, using all its force to smash the boulder and drive it and the man back. Rock fragments splintered and flew, cutting Iolaus' chest and face, and the force of it sent him sprawling on his back. Winded, barely conscious, he lay defenseless.
He opened bleary eyes to see the purple dragon's huge scaled head lowering toward him, a dusty halo of gold shining from behind it in the disturbed air. A long, thick forked tongue flickered out, tasting, smelling human blood, fear, and sweat. Groggily, Iolaus shoved his fist upward, arrow in hand, but the creature was too quick for him, swinging its massive head aside and knocking the arrow from the fist. The green hissed at him from the other side of the cavern, and took a shuddering step closer. The purple hesitated, its chest rumbling with sound, flanks heaving as it panted with bloodlust. Then the male's head lowered again, reluctant but obedient. It moved back a fraction, and the green moved forward, coming between it and Iolaus.
Iolaus stumbled to his feet and grabbed for his knife, hoping to slash at the eyes as the thing lowered its head to feed. There was silence but for the harsh rasp of the dragon's hot breath. Abruptly, it sat back on its haunches and tail.
Iolaus looked up and up, met its eyes, and froze in disbelief and puzzlement. Why was it waiting? Maybe he could make a break for it, run under the thing's bulk and make it outside. Back to life and light. Maybe. If he was uninjured, and if he only had the one dragon to dodge. He looked again into the green's face, trying to figure her intent - he wasn't sure how to read her expression. This was Jayk's formerly human lover... Was there any hope that some of that person remained buried in the reptilian mind?
The purple had lost patience. Its tongue flicked out again, this time licking blood from Iolaus' chest and causing him to stumble backward. Its forepaw reached for him, talons extended. Iolaus felt bare rock against his back. There was nowhere else to go, it had him trapped.
Iolaus lunged, hacking and cutting, but only nicked the tough scales. The next he knew, he was pinned on his back, the talons encircling his torso without touching him, caging him in. The purple gave an odd puffing sound, and Iolaus looked up to see what he would swear was amused cruelty in those golden eyes. It wanted to toy with him, drag out his death, repay him for the wounds he'd inflicted. Iolaus gulped, his mouth dry, his heart racing. He could not reach his pitiful weapons, lay helpless, exposed beneath a creature many times his strength. He heard the talons shift. One claw lifted, gleaming black-red, razor-edged, curled, ready to disembowel.
Abruptly, the forepaw was shoved aside as the green pushed hard forward, and the male was forced to give way. Furiously, it turned, teeth bared to snap at the green, but she dodged his attack, lowered her head, and licked his flank with a long, soothing tongue. The purple rumbled, lust aroused. It eyed Iolaus one last time and stepped back. It seemed that the female must be allowed to feed first if there was to be a mating.
Again, Iolaus looked up into the face, hoping against hope. He met and held the green's glowing eyes, and felt that hope suddenly flare to full strength. There was intelligence in that gaze, concern, awareness. It was like looking into a pair of human eyes. And, as Iolaus watched in groggy amazement, one of those eyes slowly closed in what could only be a wink.
She shifted again, moving to completely block the purple's path, and his view of what she was doing with the human. She lowered her head but did no more, simply watching him, gentleness in her regard. Gentleness and something else, an urging of him to play along. Iolaus nodded and obliged with a loud scream. Again, the green winked and her lips curved as if with amusement. Iolaus gaped a little, wondering if maybe he was already dying, being eaten alive, and his mind was playing games with him. A dragon had come to his rescue?!
But the game couldn't last long. The purple would want at least some share of the feeding. If Iolaus could somehow make the green understand his need for distraction, could have her block the purple as he made a run for it -
'Hercules!' Iolaus' answer was a whisper of surprise. And shock. Never could he recall hearing such despairing grief and terror in his friend's voice. He had called as if not expecting an answer. Then Iolaus remembered his fake scream. Damn! The demigod would come charging in here, gone berserk, ready to kill and be killed in a grief-fueled orgy of vengeance.
'Herc!' Iolaus shouted, or tried to shout. He drew breath again, defying the choking, fiery pain in his chest to bellow with all his might, 'Herc! I'm okay!'
'Iolaus?' came the reply, shaken with hope and relief.
'Join the party! I saved some for -'
The purple snarled, lunging, trying to push the green aside. The two dragons grappled a moment, teeth snapping, forepaws lifting to tear at the other's hide, but not really doing any damage. The purple was hoping to keep his mate intact and the green had never fought like this before. Iolaus edged sideways along the rock wall, hoping to get clear, mindful of thrashing legs and tails. He glanced up as the light flickered in the entryway.
There was Hercules, Iolaus' sword shining in his upraised fist, his powerful form back-lit by the dying day's blue-gold sky. Go, Herc!
'Iolaus?' he repeated, unable to see his friend for the dust and the struggling reptilian forms.
'Here!' Iolaus yelled, and gasped over the pain of it.
He moved forward only to be sent stumbling as a dragon wing tip caught at him. He went to his knees, panting over weakness and pain, his sight swimming and darkness threatening the edge of his awareness. Through a blurred haze he saw Hercules hurrying toward him. And the purple dragon saw him, too.
'Watch it!' Iolaus shouted, and threw his knife with all the strength left to him. It hit the dragon's face, by sheer chance nicking the multifaceted eye. It swung back toward him, deadly earnest, mouth agape. No more games, it would snap him in two.
Just as suddenly, the purple monster recoiled, giving a gargling cry of agony. It reared up and Iolaus saw Hercules was under it, stabbing again and again with the sword. The dragon slammed down, attempting to pin its attacker. Hercules rolled clear, but left the sword embedded in the creature's belly. Ichor spilled out from its gut, making the footing slippery. Hercules stumbled as he came to Iolaus' side. The purple dragon swung back, its flashing teeth swooping down to take Hercules' head from his shoulders. Somehow, the green blocked him, bringing down one wing protectively, covering both men with its leathery hide. The purple did not pull its attack. Its teeth bit hard into the wing, and Iolaus flinched as the green gave a remarkably human cry of pain.
'She saved me...' Iolaus panted. 'Coupla times.'
Hercules nodded, his hands reaching hesitantly, wanting to drag Iolaus to safety but unsure for all the gore that covered him. 'How badly are you hurt?'
Iolaus shook his head. 'Scratches. Herc, she knows ... who she is. We gotta... help her.'
'Later. First we get -'
The purple dragon swung back, trying to block any escape. Its shoulder slammed into both men, sent them sprawling to be brought to a slamming stop by the rear cave wall. Iolaus lost consciousness completely for a few instants, and when next he opened his eyes and propped himself up, he saw Hercules had rejoined the fight. The big man was sitting astride the male dragon's neck, slamming a huge rock down again and again onto the skull.
Groggily, Iolaus swayed to his feet, blinking as he realized the green dragon was nowhere in sight. Why had she left the cave so suddenly? Iolaus gave up on that puzzle, looked back to the fight, saw the male dragon had managed to lift a hind paw to try to claw at Hercules, seeking to dislodge and trample him to death. Iolaus could see his sword still sticking in the belly. He took a few staggering steps, intending to retrieve the weapon and lop the thing's head from its body.
'No! Stay back!' Hercules yelled.
Iolaus frowned, he could tell by the tone of voice that the words were not directed at him. And glancing up at his partner, he could see Hercules was looking at someone back at the cavern mouth. Iolaus took another stumbling pace and at the same time, the purple dragon moved to give him a clear view of the entry way.
Jayk was standing there, one arm in a sling, a knife in his good hand, but looking very uncertain as to what to do next. He had what looked like a shield strapped to his back, and behind him, trying to peer into the cave, was the green dragon.
'Leave this to us!' Iolaus said, and charged in under the male's body to grip his sword hilt and pull it clear.
Hercules was wearing the creature down, Iolaus could tell it was barely conscious, its brain taking a mighty hammering. It staggered and Iolaus hefted his sword, rammed it hard up into the arteries in the lower throat. A spurting flood of hot, thick blood and ichor rained down on him, steam hissed as it met cold rock.
Scalded, Iolaus yelped and jumped clear, gripping his sword tightly. Hercules thudded another massive blow to the monster's head and with a gargling, sighing groan it collapsed. Iolaus fell to his knees, panting, exhausted, but ready to level a killing blow if needed. The purple hide quivered, shuddered, then fell still and did not breathe again.
Hercules jumped clear of the scaled neck ridge and hurried to place a steadying hand to Iolaus' arm. Gently, he pulled Iolaus to his feet and they both stood, Iolaus wavering dazedly, each meeting the other's eyes.
Iolaus grinned tiredly and said breathlessly, 'That takes care of that problem.'
Hercules tried to say something, but it came out a strangled croak, and Iolaus saw with surprise that his friend's eyes shone with unshed tears. Then, Hercules tugged him hard against his warm chest, and held him secure a moment, struggling to regain control of his emotions.
'Hey...' Iolaus said softly. 'It's over.' He felt the big man nod, and draw a steadying breath. Iolaus added wryly, 'You can let me breathe again anytime now.'
'Oh, yeah.' Hercules let him free, but kept one tight hand on his good arm, for which Iolaus was grateful. He was pretty sure he'd fall flat on his face without help. Slowly, Hercules smiled, and said, 'I thought you were dead. Again.'
Iolaus snorted. 'I thought I was dead! Again.'
Predictably, Hercules began studying his injuries, his face drawn down in a worried frown.
'Where's Jayk?' Iolaus asked.
'Here,' the man answered.
Hercules and Iolaus turned to regard him and saw relief and admiration in the man's expression. 'I was so sure I'd be too late.'
Iolaus looked at him quizzically. 'You were too late. Sorry. Herc didn't leave any for you. '
Jayk laughed and shook his head. 'That's not what I meant.' He came into the cave, moved to Iolaus' other side, supporting him as Hercules began leading him out. 'Is he always like this?' Jayk asked.
Hercules chuckled. 'Always.'
'I have no idea what you two... whoa!'
Iolaus came to a halt as he stepped clear of the cavern mouth at last to be met by a dizzying view. He had not realized how high up the cavern was situated. Far to the west he could see the sun sinking lower on the horizon. Immediately below was a rocky shoreline, an impossible jumble of boulders and rock-pools, continually pounded by rolling breakers. Standing off shore a little way was Tyron's boat. The crew were waving and cheering like mad, having caught sight of the survivors.
'That's quite a climb,' Iolaus said faintly. It was ridiculous, but somehow, being out here in the warm sunlight and fresh air again made him much more aware of how much he hurt. Hercules' grip tightened, and Iolaus looked up at him to say wearily, 'Do you mind if we camp here the night?'
'You're not going anywhere until I get this bleeding stopped, at least,' Hercules said. 'Sit down before you fall down.'
'Good idea,' Iolaus agreed.
Hercules eased him down to sit in a drift of warm sand close against the cliff wall. Iolaus could feel hard and brittle pieces of something that felt like bones half-buried in the sand and decided he didn't want to find out if they were animal or human.
'Here,' Jayk said, giving a package to Hercules. 'I grabbed this when Estelle came for me. Thought you could use it.'
Iolaus realized his eyes weren't working too well, everything was losing focus. But he could swear Jayk held the box of bandaging and medicines Tyron kept on the boat.
'Where? How?' he asked, blinking at his new friend.
Taking a clean piece of cloth, Hercules began gingerly wiping away some of the muck and gore to get a better look at the wounds on Iolaus' shoulder and chest.
'Ow,' he said absently, still trying to figure the other puzzle. 'How did you get up here so fast, Jayk?'
'Estelle gave me a ride,' Jayk grinned down at him. 'Don't ask me how, but she heard me yelling to her from the boat. I told her I had to get up here fast. It was wonderful - like - like really flying, at last.'
'Oh.' Iolaus decided he was too far out of it to decipher much of that image right now.
But he could see the dragon eyeing him, concern in her eyes, from behind Jayk's shoulder. She had to be standing on a ledge lower down, her neck craned to watch them. Iolaus decided muzzily that it was amazing how one dragon could show such gentleness and the other such savagery. Then, groggily, it came back to him again.
'Estelle? That's her name?'
Jayk nodded, distracted as he handed over some kind of ointment from the supply box. At his back, the shield moved, flashing golden light as it reflected the sun's rays. No, not a shield - a mirror!
'So -' Iolaus gasped as his partner's gentle fingers began smearing ointment on the deep gashes. 'So, is that the mirror? When are you gonna try it?'
Jayk grunted as if in pain, and his face stiffened. 'I already did. I held it while she looked.'
'But -' Iolaus said, looking back to where he could see the green dragon's inquisitive eyes watching them.
Jayk shook his head and Iolaus heard him give a gulping breath as he fought tears. 'It doesn't work.'
Iolaus swallowed hard, thinking, No! We can't leave her like that! It's just not fair! 'Maybe,' he said hesitantly. 'Maybe it only needs more time.'
'No.' Again, Jayk shook his head. 'The oracle promised me it would change her back in an instant. It doesn't work. It was all a lie.'
Hercules took the bandaging Jayk had collected for him and began unwinding it about Iolaus' shoulder and ribs. 'What exactly did she tell you?' Hercules wanted to know. 'Sometimes it's like a riddle. She says one thing, but means another.'
'Then it is a cruel riddle,' Jayk said, anger giving a sharp edge to his words. 'To trick someone when they come to you seeking help.'
'There might be another way, another answer in what she said,' Iolaus supported, even though he was not at all sure he wanted to give false hope. 'We've heard of other dealings with the oracle. She rarely disappoints completely.'
Jayk sighed heavily and sat down at Iolaus' side. He gazed up at the dragon watching him so knowingly. 'Then I will tell you, exactly as the oracle tells me. The moment Estelle looks into the mirror of the soul she will see her true self reflected there. And seeing will return to you in her original form, just as you remember her.' Jayk blinked back tears and turned away to look out at the sunset. 'Lies.' He let the mirror slip from his shoulder to fall with a dull thud into the sand. It lay there, reflecting the last of the day's light.
'The mirror of the soul,' Hercules said softly, 'That's exactly what she called it?' Jayk nodded, too choked for words.
'The gods say the eyes are the mirror of the soul,' Iolaus added.
'The eyes?' Jayk repeated, his tone flat and dispirited.
'It's a long shot, but...' Hercules said. 'Call her to you. Get her face as close to you as possible.'
Jayk's eyes widened, his expression lit with desperate hope, and he looked up at Hercules and Iolaus.
'Go for it,' Iolaus said. 'Show her how much you love her.'
Swallowing back emotion, Jayk called, 'Estelle? Come, my love. I would hold you in my arms.'
Slowly, the green dragon brought her great, green-scaled head lower, lower, until her jaw rested on the ledge on which the men sat. Carefully, she edged forward until Jayk could hold her head in his lap. The man was crying openly now, his tears falling on her upturned face. He leaned down, lay his face against hers for a moment, then drew back to look long in her eyes.
Watching, Iolaus could see the man's face reflected in the dragon's many faceted, glistening eyes. Jayk's gaze spoke eloquently of love, of the long months in desperate search, of yearning to be reunited with the one he held most dear.
'Hey!' Iolaus said, grunting a little over the pain. Hercules had seen it too, was propping him up. There was something subtly different about the dragon's face. As if her shape was shifting melting, reforming.
'Estelle?' Jayk said in surprise. His arms had been wrapped tightly about the giant head, but suddenly no longer touched her.
Then, with a flashing sparkle of light, she was gone. He held nothing. 'Estelle!' he cried in alarm. 'Where are you?'
'Over here,' came a woman's lilting voice, sounding overawed, elated.
The three men turned about to see her standing above them, on the cliff rim, her slim form clothed in dazzling golden light as the sunset cloaked her form.
'Jayk!' she cried, tears of joy thick in the words, 'Jayk! It worked! I'm back! Jayk! Hurry! Come to me!'
'Well, would you look at that,' Hercules said.
'Yeah, the mirror of the soul. That was the trick,' Iolaus mused. 'But he had to pass the test first, by finding the other mirror.'
Laughing, Hercules shook his head. 'One miracle at a time, Iolaus. I mean, will you look at that!'
'Huh?' Turning stiffly about, Iolaus saw where his partner was looking. 'Oh, that's handy. I don't feel much like climbing for some reason.'
A set of steps had been neatly carved into the cliff face, invisible until the sinking sun caught them and threw them into a stark relief of light and shadow. Jayk was leaping up them two at a time, and reached his lover's side in moments. She moved into his embrace and they kissed, long and warm in the dying light.
'Now that's what I call the perfect ending to a day of dragon hunting,' Iolaus said with a sigh.
Hercules snorted and Iolaus felt the man's big hand ruffle his hair and settle on his good shoulder. 'Agreed, my friend, agreed.'