The story so far:
"Proposed Project: Sword and Sandal" -> "The Sons of Mighty Herkales: Tigasis vs The Hydra (Chapter 1: The Virgins of Artemis)" -> "The Sons of Mighty Herkalies: Tigasis vs The Hydra (Chapter 2: The Blessing)" -> "The Sons of Mighty Herkales: Tigasis Vs. The Hydra (CH 3)"
Adrinna bowed at Hera’s feet, flattered to be in her presence, but careful not to allow pride to taint her heart. “I have done as you commanded.”
“Splendid,” Hera responded. She observed an image floating atop the water’s surface in a bowl, but Adrinna dared not peek. If Hera wished to share her visions, so be it. Otherwise, it was honor enough to share these moments with the goddess. Hera continued, “You have done well. Now I ask you to indulge me once more.”
“Whatever you wish, m’lady.”
Hera’s lips pressed together and quivered, barely containing her glee. “Come hither, that I may accentuate your beauty.” She indicated that the virgin should rest her head in the goddess’s lap.
Adrinna obliged, closing her eyes as Hera procured a brush and stroked her golden hair with it.
Tigasis led his limping steed through a patch of wildflowers along a wooden fence until he reached the gate leading to an old farmhouse. He tethered the horse and approached the front door. Before he could knock, an elderly woman sprung from inside, wielding a pitchfork. “I don’t take kindly to strangers!”
He leaped backward before the steel prongs pierced his shoulder. She was deceptively quick for a woman of her age, but her anger subsided as she let her eyes roll over his physique. “Who’re you?” she demanded, punctuating her question with a stab.
“My name is Tigasis, and I come here on a quest.”
“I’ve nothing quest worthy. Leave me!” No matter how her vision wandered, the metal tines held level with his silver owl.
A glowing white mare charged from the barn and galloped toward the hero, trampling the grass between them, trampling the garden, front hooves lifting up, ready to trample him.... The woman froze, but Tigasis ducked beneath her fork and carried her into the house. The horse whinnied, reared, and ran into a copse of trees to eat low hanging fruit.
The woman regained her balance and steadied her weapon. “I did not invite you inside.”
Tigasis lunged and grabbed the shaft of the pitchfork, redirecting it safely away from causing him harm. “I don’t wish to belabor the point, my lady, but as I said, I am on a quest. Regrettably, my horse has fallen lame and I recalled passing your farmhouse. At that time, I hoped you might have a pack horse to lighten my burden for the travel. Now, considering the spirit I just witnessed, I believe your horse could serve a far better purpose. Grant me the reins for a fortnight and I will promise you riches beyond your imagination.”
“That mare,” the woman sneered, “has never been ridden by a man.”
“Ordinary men do are not assigned quests by the High Priestess Grizlediy.”
She nodded once, rolled her shoulders, and relaxed. “Riches, you say?”
“Indeed. Whatever your heart desires.”
The woman considered his offer, then retreated to another room, leaving Tigasis to view the horse out the window. It sniffed something on the wind and shook its head, blonde mane sweeping majestically. Indeed, this was a horse born for a hero. Tigasis had broken fiercer creatures than this one, and he was confident he could subdue its defiance.
Within moments, the home’s owner returned with a small cloth bag. She rattled it before pouring a handful of seeds into the hero’s hand. “Whatever my heart desires.”
“Ask, and it shall be yours.”
“I want but one thing, Tigasis.” She stepped slowly toward him, tracing her hands over his barrel chest and broad shoulders. Her fingers were cold to the touch, but he stood his ground and did not shiver.
“As surely as I shall complete this quest, I will fulfill your desire.”
She grinned slyly, appreciating the words in every connotation. “What I want,” she laughed, her face transforming to one more familiar, “Are the eyes of a virgin. To see the world through eyes that have not been tainted by mortal corruption.”
Tigasis recognized the goddess, but stayed stalwart as her lips approached his. Inches away, he felt her breath as she whispered, “These seeds will calm your horse. Satiate her appetite, for if she grows hungry, I cannot guarantee her loyalty. And I’d fear what could become of you.”
Hera slapped his cheek playfully and moved outside. Two clicks of her tongue summoned the horse. She took its long face in her hands, fed it a palm’s serving of seeds and spoke gently to it, “Obey Tigasis. Don’t be stubborn, for I’d hate to make an **** out of you.”
The equine appeared to acknowledge her, bowing its head. Rather that outstay his unwelcome, Tigasis led the horse to the fence to exchange the saddle and bridle. The white steed objected, but a handful of seeds diminished its rebelliousness. Once readied, Tigasis mounted the horse, gripped her mane, prodded his heels into her flanks, and galloped off toward Mount Tokai. He had a fortnight to collect a virgin’s eyes, but the hydra presented a more pressing issue.
Grasslands gave way to a swampy marsh, where the air reeked of sulfur and methane. On several occasions, Tigasis had to resort to his bag to keep the horse focused and progressing forward. His intuition warned him of dangers lurking behind the moist flora, but he refused to unnecessarily waste important energy on lesser encounters. Grizlediy wanted the hydra slain. Naught else mattered.
Vines dangled, shadows teased and threatened, but Tigasis plodded toward the mountain lair. Tendrils of warm, moist gasses emitted from the holes in the loam whenever the horse lifted a hoof, encircling both rider and mount in a brownish haze. Inhaling it made him feel sickly, so he spurred onward through the obstacle quickly, hoping to preserve his strength.
The horse waded through deeper marsh, where ooze reached to Tigasis’s thighs, then still deeper. Finally, the mare refused to go any further. Tigasis reached for his bag and discovered it had become submerged, the seeds leaking and floating away. He spotted a largish fish kiss the surface from below, swallow a seed, and vanish beneath the water again. According to the razor teeth that lined the fish’s mouth, it was not an herbivore.
He pushed off the horse’s back and stood squarely in the center of the saddle, unsheathed his sword and watched for ripples. It was no surprise that he splashed down as the horse shrieked and swam forward, at least spooked and most likely bitten. They were sitting targets in the water.
Tigasis grabbed the horse’s tail and floated backwards as they sped toward the opposite shore. The motion on the surface attracted the attention of a second of the teethed fishes, as both now followed the wake, jumping out of the water for a better look at their prey.
Thornfish: a disgusting breed of aquatic beast, they swam like sidewinders until they could attach themselves to their victims with their barbed scales and chomp away at its flesh until there was nothing remaining. Tigasis had heard stories – sometimes they’d even snare low-flying birds – but he had never seen one before these two. He yelled “Hyah!” to the horse and brandished his blade. As the leader neared, he timed the swing of his blade and swatted it sideways with a metallic clank. Their skin was thick and hard, and it reappeared quickly, almost taunting Tigasis to let him know no damage was done.
As the second vaulted into the air, he flipped the hilt in his palm and stabbed sideways, slicing down it’s open gullet and skewering it. He didn’t account for how heavy a creature it was; the weight pulled his arm, his sword, and the catch into the water.
The horse rose as it climbed the opposite bank, but the first thornfish didn’t slow. With renewed energy, it flew from the water. Tigasis released the tail and dove into the shallow edge of the swamp; the thornfish slapped the side of the horse, attaching itself and quickly burrowed its spines into the white hide.
Tigasis swung his sword with all his might, and the deadweight slung off like a loose scabbard. He charged the horse, avoided its bucking and kicking, and discovered the mouth was already attached like some lamprey. Wasting no time, he cleaved downward and tore a patch of horseflesh. Without its anchoring barbs, the thornfish fell to and squished on the loam. One mighty plunge impaled the fish’s mouth, instantaneously killing it. The horse found little comfort in the death of its attacker, whinnying angrily at Tigasis. Still, it was unable to turn back and unwilling to venture forward.
When it finally settled somewhat, Tigasis located and applied some salve from his pack. This side of the swamp wasn’t as green, favoring rocks and crags. In the distance, Mount Tokia stood taller than ever.