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The Way of the Hunter - The Canyon (Chapter Thirteen)

Author: 
Alya Elvawiel
Old Vault Category: 
fanfiction
Old Vault ID: 
366

They arrive at the edge of what looks like an immense canyon. The ground beneath their feet ends in jagged edges as it falls away into a bottomless abyss. The chasm is so wide, they cannot see the opposite side. It feels like they are standing on the edge of space itself, looking out into the nothingness beyond.



Bishop stands well away from the brink, his arms protectively tightening around Alya. Well, he thinks, at least it’s a change of scenery. He was beginning to think that they were wandering around in circles; the bleak, barren wasteland was flat, rocky and unchanging up to this point.



Khelgar chances a peek over the edge of the precipice and steps back, shaking his head of the effects of vertigo. “Now what?” he asks the ranger. Bishop opens his mouth, about to suggest they walk along the lip of ravine, but he is interrupted by a sudden growling coming up beside him. He ducks instinctively as a huge shadow sails over him, its sharp claws grazing the top of his scalp.



“What in the –?“ Khelgar starts to say, already drawing his battleaxe. Before Bishop could even raise his head, he feels something charging him hard in the back. He stumbles forward, teetering dangerously close to the mouth of the crater. Stepping back quickly, he reels around to face their attackers.



Hell hounds, a whole pack of them, form a semi-circle around Bishop and Khelgar, penning them in close to the edge of the sheer drop. Snarling, their razor-sharp fangs bared, their red eyes burn with an infernal light, and their breath reek of fire and brimstone. Their stooped shoulders are tense, and their pointed ears twitch in anticipation, ready to pounce. Bishop curses himself for having let them get ambushed in this way. Unwilling to set Alya down, he is unable to reach for his weapons.



As if sensing his vulnerability, two of the hounds spring at him simultaneously. He turns his back to them, hunching over Alya, using his own body as a shield. They hit him with a force that knocks the air out of his lungs. Falling to his knees, he sprawls on the ground, his body on top of Alya’s, the two hell hounds on his back. He can feel their claws and teeth tearing into his leather armour, their breath singeing his hair. With his face close to the dirt, he sees the lanky legs of a few more hounds, circling their fallen prey. One of them cackles, and he smells the stench of its breath.



Propping himself up on one elbow, he fumbles for his dagger with his other hand, and swings the blade wildly, slashing at the hell hounds’ legs. The searing pain in his back tells him that his armour has been breached, probably shredded; now they are digging through his flesh. A ball of fire breathed by one of the hounds causes him to curl up on top of Alya, protecting her. The acrid odour of his own scorched hair invades his nostrils.



A furious war cry makes him peer up again. Chunky boots fill his field of vision as Khelgar drives the hounds back. A yelp from one of the animals on Bishop’s back tells him that the dwarf’s axe has found a target. A second howl of pain, and the pawing on his back stops mercifully. The dead hell hound falls beside him, its last breath escaping in a tendril of sulphurous smoke.



With renewed vigour, Bishop hacks at the attacking hounds again from ground level. A well-timed upward swing sees his dagger embedded between the ribs of one of the hell hounds. It drops with a strangled yowl. Khelgar continues to swing his axe fervently, slicing into the pack of animals. With one final roar of bloodlust, the dwarf beheads the last standing hound. Its severed head rolls and stops inches away from Bishop’s face, its mouth still spewing noxious vapours.



“Is she okay?” Khelgar asks. As Bishop staggers to his feet, his raked back burning, the dwarf picks up the unconscious woman, checking her for signs of injury.



“Oh, she’s fine,” Bishop says sarcastically, wincing from his stinging wounds. He rolls a shoulder stiffly.



“Ha!” Khelgar whoops triumphantly, as he surveys the carcasses littering the ground. “Those mutts will think twice now before trying that on us again!”



“Don’t speak too soon, dwarf,” Bishop warns. In the near distance, hidden behind rocks and dunes, he spies the red glow of more pairs of eyes, some of them gradually coming closer. Whipping out his bow, he fires an arrow in their direction, and sees some of the burning embers scatter, only to regroup moments later.



“Move,” he tells the dwarf.



* * *



“By the gods,” Khelgar exclaims. “It must have been hours! Are they still followin’ us?”



Bishop glances over his shoulder. Like glowing coals, he sees the hell hounds’ eyes staring back at him. He has a dreadful feeling the creatures possess an infernal intelligence, and that they are tailing them, waiting until they inevitably need to stop and rest before striking again. The few scouts who dared venture too close were quickly driven back by Bishop’s arrows, but they are becoming bolder as their quarry begins to tire.



To make things worse, because whoever carries Alya is basically unarmed and defenceless, they have had to stick together, which means Bishop had been unable to scout ahead. He dislikes the uncertainty of not knowing what lies before them. For all they know, they are fleeing from the hell hounds’ jaws, into…



“Oh, great…” he sighs in an exasperated tone. A few hundred yards ahead of them, the edge of the canyon, which had been to their left all this time, suddenly veers directly into their path. As before, the chasm is so wide that they cannot see the other side. Their right is blocked by a wall of rock. The result: a path that tapers to a sheer drop off the edge of the cliff.



Dead end…



They turn around, hoping to retrace their steps before the pack of hell hounds catch up with them. But the creatures, as if recognizing their predicament, are already there, forming a barrier between them and their escape route. Fire dripping from their muzzle, they snarl as the pack begins to move towards them.



“Damn!” Bishop swears, as he looses more arrows. But though a couple of the beasts are felled, the rest continue their relentless advance. Khelgar stands behind him, seemingly at a loss as to whether to risk setting Alya down to draw his weapon, when one of these hounds could easily drag her away given half a chance.



As the pack of hell hounds slink ever closer, Bishop draws his twin blades in preparation for close-quarters combat. He counts the creatures. There are at least a score of them. Not good odds.



Why couldn’t I have just walked away?



Even as he thinks that fleeting thought, he feels no regrets for his decision. As certain death stares him in the face in the form of glowering eyes and sharp teeth, he gives a cry of fury, and rushes forward…



Only to be stopped in his tracks by a wall of flames, a wall that suddenly shoots up out of the ground in front of him, cutting the rabid pack off from them.



“Wha-?” he hears the dwarf say, just as a figure glides down from the wall above them. As it lands, both Bishop and Khelgar stare in disbelief.



“You…” he says, his eyes narrowing.



* * *



In her vast ocean of blackness, with vague recollections of the unpleasant experience she had the last time, Alya floats cautiously just beneath the surface of consciousness, not daring another attempt to break the surface. No thunder this time from the dim orb, but she hears voices, faintly familiar ones.



“What are you doing here?” says a gruff, hearty voice with an animated accent. The sound is not unlike a heavy hammer striking rocks, and it is comforting in its familiarity.



“Funny you would ask that,” A deep, resonant voice, with some slightly sinister undertones. The speaker sounds wise, and very, very old. “I was about to ask you the same question.”



“Don’t play games with us,” A third voice, grating, menacing and filled with distrust, yet not unpleasant. “Where in the Nine Hells are we?”



For a moment, her eavesdropping is interrupted as invisible arms wrap around her again, firm yet gentle, trying to coax her back into the deep nothingness.



Wait, she thinks, as she shrugs off the dark tentacles. Not yet. She is intrigued by what is going on at the surface, and wants to hear more. Obligingly, the grip around her loosens. She moves carefully closer to the light, and catches another snippet of the ongoing conversation.



“…she is dying,” the deep, old voice says.



Who is dying? She thinks, curious and concerned. This time, the black snakes coil around her with increased urgency. So tender, so warm…she feels so safe in those arms, as if nothing could ever harm her, so long as she gives herself in to the dark embrace. Her curiosity forgotten, she allows the tendrils to carry her away from the surface, and back to the depths of sweet oblivion.



* * *



Bishop eyes the newcomer suspiciously. Red eyes set into a lined, grey-blue face stare back at him in that frustratingly calm and confident way only supreme baatezu are capable of. His draconic ears twitch slightly, as if listening to their every move.



Mephasm…



“What are you doing here?” Khelgar asks incredulously, still cradling Alya in his arms. Was that a flutter of her eyelids Bishop saw, or just the flicker of light from the wall of flames the devil had summoned? “Funny you would ask that,” the pit fiend replies, sounding genuinely amused. “I was about to ask you the same question.”



“Don’t play games with us,” Bishop growls. He doesn’t trust the devil, not when he has so conveniently popped up in this gods-forsaken place. “Where in the Nine Hells are we?” He sees Khelgar tighten his hold on Alya warily.



With an ironic smirk, Mephasm answers, “That is exactly where you are.” With a wave of a blue, wrinkled hand, he adds in his calculating tone, “Welcome to my humble home. This is Baator, the Nine Hells.”



“Nine -?” Khelgar sputters disbelievingly, nearly letting go of Alya in his surprise.



The Nine Hells…



A shrill yip behind them makes Bishop glance around. The hell hounds are trying to breach the fiery barrier between them.



“Your hospitality is most gracious, demon,” he says sarcastically, “perhaps now you could call off your welcoming party.”



“Unfortunately,” says Mephasm, “I do not control those hell hounds before you. They hunt you of their own free will.”



“They’ve been a bit more persistent than the average pack of wolves,” he comments, as he looks again at the hounds, pacing restlessly from one end of the wall of fire to the other.



“That is because they detect the scent of fresh mortal blood,” the words send a chill down Bishop’s spine. “All the creatures here can smell it from miles around. In fact, it is what drew me here. The scent is very strong.”



Both Bishop and Khelgar look down at Alya’s pale form, still wrapped protectively in the old cloak. Bishop pictures the wound that lies underneath the cloak and bandages, raw and jagged and deep…he remembers the hell hounds clawing at his back…



They were trying to get through me to get to her.



“I see our dear friend here has not fared very well,” Mephasm comments, nodding in the monk’s direction. Momentarily, he closes his eyes, as if probing, sensing. “She is dying,” he declares in a monotone.



“No, she’s not!” Khelgar protests vehemently, clutching Alya closer, as if holding her tighter would make his words true. “Her wound has started to heal –“



“But she will not survive in this plane,” Mephasm interrupts coldly. “The atmosphere here is…oppressive to those from the Material Plane.” As much as Bishop hates to admit it, he knows the pit fiend speaks the truth. The subtle life-sapping effect of the place is almost unnoticeable, but it is there, waiting for the slightest trace of vulnerability, before striking. He has felt traces of the bleakness, especially right after his earlier close call with those demon hounds. His mauled back protests painfully at the memory.



“So…what can we do?” he asks cautiously, knowing the folly of asking a devil for advice.



“You need to make haste to your own plane,” the baatezu says. “And I can assist you.” Bishop couldn’t believe his ears. A demon is offering to help them?



“I don’t feel comfortable consortin’ with a demon,” Khelgar whispers, echoing his thoughts.



His twin blades raised menacingly in front of him, Bishop asks warily, “And why would you do that for us?”



The baatezu’s lip curls up in a sinister smile. “Such distrust,” he chides mildly. “Is it so hard to imagine that I would want to return the favour after your leader has released me not once, but twice, from servitude?”



“Yes!” Bishop and Khelgar say in unison, prompting a blue eyebrow to cock up in amusement.



“Well,” Mephasm shrugs, “I guess there is only one way of convincing you of my sincerity…” raising both arms, he summons a whirlwind of energy that tugs violently at Bishop’s cloak, stirring up dust and grit, forcing him to shield his eyes. Khelgar wraps the cloak tighter around Alya protectively as a tornado of dirt and supernatural energy swirls around them. When the sandstorm finally settles, a shining portal is formed at the end of their path, a few hundred yards away, right where their trail drops off into the canyon below.



Uncertainly, Bishop looks at Khelgar. The same doubt and suspicion he is feeling is reflected in the dwarf’s eyes, along with a look that seems to say, “Only one way to find out…”



Never have I agreed with the dwarf on so much until these past few days…



“I have connected the portal to somewhere I sense you have a strong affinity to,” says the pit fiend. “You may use it now to return to your plane. But…”



“I knew it!” cries Khelgar. “There’s always a catch!”



“But as long as I am concentrating my powers on keeping the portal open,” Mephasm continues, unfazed by the dwarf’s outburst. “I will be unable to assist you against them…”



As if on cue, the wall of flames that separated them from the hell hounds sputters out. The pack of dogs look momentarily confused with the disappearance of the blockade, but then, sniffing the air, they emit a cacophony of howls as they resume their hunt.



“Run,” Bishop says, giving the dwarf a nudge.



They dash for the gleaming portal, a couple of hundred yards before them, as Khelgar, in a stream of dwarven profanity, curses the fact that their exit lies so far away, no doubt intentionally, all part of the game they are being forced to play. Bishop stops every few yards to loose some arrows into the ever advancing pack of hell hounds, while waiting for the dwarf to catch up. Encumbered with the unconscious monk, Khelgar is even slower than usual. In an awful moment of realization, Bishop sees the distance between them and the hounds closing, yet the portal remains cruelly out of reach. And, true to his word, Mephasm just stands there, unable – or unwilling – to help, merely watching neutrally as the beasts stampede past him.



“We won’t make it at this rate!” he yells, firing off another round of arrows. One of the hell hounds fall, but it is like felling a tree in a forest. The others keep coming. He chances a glance at the dwarf, who has stumbled to a stop behind him, a strange look on his stout face.



Something about that look makes Bishop stop in mid-aim, an arrow fitted in his bow. The dwarf’s face is an unreadable mask, as if in a state of inward contemplation. Bishop was about to snap at him to come back to his senses, to stop standing there gawking, but there is something in his eyes that stays the ranger’s sharp tongue.



Then, as if he has made a mental decision, a look of grim determination descends on the dwarf’s face. His jaw set in a tight line, he thrusts Alya into Bishop’s arms, forcing him to sling his bow uselessly on one arm. The glint in those mud brown eyes gives Bishop no room for argument.



“Go,” the dwarf says, as he purposefully pulls off one of his gauntlets, leaving one hairy arm bare. With a steely glint in his eyes, the dwarf adds, “And yer best take care of her, else I’ll personally come after ye.”



What in the hells does he think he is doing? Bishop wonders mutely, as Khelgar steps calmly towards the charging horde of hell hounds, his battleaxe drawn. It is only as Khelgar brings his axe slashing down on the inside of his own exposed upper arm that the horrible realization of what the dwarf is doing dawns on Bishop.



“They detect the scent of fresh mortal blood…”



“Come on!” He hears the dwarf taunting now, as blood spurts from his fresh cut. “Ye want a piece of me, dogs? Come get it!” The hell hounds pause briefly in their advance, their nostrils twitching. Then, a feral lust sets their eyes alight with an evil glow, as they smell the coppery tang of dwarven blood. Snarling and yipping, they converge on the shield dwarf, fangs gnashing.



With a roar of fury, Khelgar hurls himself into the midst of the legion of demon hounds, his axe flashing wildly as he swings it around him. One of the creatures drops dead, nearly sundered in half by an especially strong cleave. Another clamps its fiendish jaws around the dwarf’s bleeding arm, but in his frenzy, the dwarf appears not to notice the huge dog dangling from his limb.



For a split second, Khelgar turns away from the carnage to see Bishop still standing there dumbly with Alya in his arms.



“GO!” his bellowing cry snaps the ranger into action. He starts to run down the narrowing path, towards the shifting portal at the end. With the monk cradled awkwardly in both arms, his progress is agonizingly slow, and a quick look behind him reveals that a hell hound has broken loose from the pack, and has started to chase them down, fiery slobber drooling from its immense jaws.



“Damn!” he curses, as his backward glance causes him to stumble. Allowing his momentum to carry him on, he hurtles onward, fighting to keep his balance. It would be bad, very bad, to fall down now…the portal is just a few yards away. Somehow, he manages to free a hand temporarily to regain his equilibrium. A gnash of teeth directly behind him tells him that the hound is practically nipping at his heels. Despite his hunter’s fitness, he is fast tiring from the sprint with the load he is carrying. His lungs scream out for more air as his breath starts to come out in ragged gasps.



Come on…he urges himself, the portal excruciatingly close now. With his last reserves of strength, he dives forward, headlong towards the shimmering gateway. In the instant both his feet leaves the ground, it dawns on him that behind this thin, almost two-dimensional circle of light, is the steep drop into the bottomless chasm.



Let’s just hope that demon is not fooling with us…



Everything seems to be happening in slow motion, as if the very air around them has suddenly turned into a thick, viscous liquid. Right before he hits the portal, he twists his body enough to look behind him. A snout lined with dagger-like fangs, dripping venom, dominates his view. Their pursuer had pounced the same time he had jumped, and is almost on top of them. He can smell its foul breath, feel the heat emanating from its hellish claws, claws that are reaching out dangerously close to him.



Somehow, he has the presence of mind to look over the attacking hell hound’s broad shoulder. He watches the rest of the horde piling on top of each other in a frenzy as they descend on their prey. All he can make of the dwarf is his bald head, and a momentary glimmer of his axe. He hears Khelgar’s battle cry. Mephasm stands calmly on the sidelines, a disturbing look of entertainment on his blue grey face.



As the bright aura of the portal surrounds them, Bishop shuts his eyes, and utters a silent prayer to any god who would heed him.



The Way of the Hunter Chapter 13 - The Canyon © Alya Elvawiel

Migrate Wizard: 
First Release: 
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