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The Way of the Hunter - Fire & Darkness (Chapter Thirty)

Alya Elvawiel
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Alya gasps in surprise when the bag of powder is tipped into her face. She inhales involuntarily, breathing in some of the dust through her mouth and nose, as even more of it flies into her eyes.

And then she starts to burn.

Every orifice that the gritty powder manages to get into begins to blaze with a blistering pain. Her eyes, her nose, her mouth, even her throat…it’s as if someone has rubbed hot, glowing embers into them. The prickly sensation tickles her airways, and she coughs uncontrollably.

With a hoarse cry, Alya brings both hands up to her face, trying to wipe the fiery dust out of her eyes. But the harder she rubs, the more it seems to sear her eyeballs. Hot tears start to flow reflexively, to attempt to flush out the caustic powder, but the salty water does nothing to relieve the excruciating sensation that her eyeballs have been set on fire.

Something hits her hard in the stomach, knocking the air out of her. She tries to look around, but her eyes refuse to cooperate. In fact, they refuse to even open, as if they have been welded shut.

Another blow, this time across the side of her head. The stunning blow, combined with her blinded state, causes her to lose her balance, and she falls heavily.

She hears Garrick’s cruel laughter, and she curses herself for being so stupid and naïve.

“And to think I was intending on saving that mustard powder to season my dinner tonight,” he chortles. From the sounds of his footfalls, she guesses that the dwarf has stepped right up beside her.

The steel-toed boot driven swiftly into her ribs confirms her suspicions.

Alya yelps as she feels a rib crack, the piercing pain shooting through her body, disabling her momentarily as she rolls helplessly on the ground, clutching at her injured side, coughing and gasping for breath.

Then she hears what sounds like a foot being dragged back for another kick, and she quickly tumbles away from the noise, hoping to put as much distance between the dark dwarf and herself as possible.

“You have been more trouble than I’ve bargained for, wench,” Garrick is saying. “And have you any idea how difficult it is to procure a decent panther? You’re going to pay dearly, sweetheart.”

She still sees nothing but bleary darkness, her eyes and throat are still burning, and her bruised ribs are throbbing. She winces as they protest painfully with every move she makes. She continues to stumble away from the dwarf’s voice, one hand gripping her side, the other held out in front of her, groping blindly. She forces herself to stay calm in spite of her dire situation.

Let’s hope all those blindfolded training works…

Keeping her breathing steady, she wills herself to ignore the pain from her broken rib, her raw throat, and her impaired sense of sight, and to concentrate instead on relying on her other senses to determine the duergar’s location. The soft squishing noise of a boot sinking into mud, the barely audible exhalations of breath…and Bishop is right; she smells the faint stench of animal droppings that Garrick used to disguise his scent from Karnwyr.

With the sensory information, Alya builds herself a mental image: the assassin is circling her slowly, perhaps trying to hit her from behind, or side on. She focuses on making sure she is always facing what she believes is his general direction.

A series of quickening footsteps tells her that the dwarf is rushing swiftly towards her. She steps to the side, her outstretched hand searching for and finding Garrick’s wrist. Knowing that his head is attached to the end of his shoulder, she uses his limb as a tactile guide, her fingers tracing a path up his arm until she finds the assassin’s neck.

With lightning speed, she chops at the side of his neck with the blade of her hand.

Garrick grunts in pain, but he doesn’t go down. Damn his toughness! She hears the dwarf back off hastily…

And then she hears nothing.

Alya freezes. Still holding her aching side, she strains her ears, hoping to detect a rustle, a footfall, any sound that could betray the dwarf’s whereabouts, but she can sense nothing.

Damn it! She thinks. He’s gone into stealth mode!

She rotates slowly in a circle, listening out for anything that may give the duergar away. Her pulse is pounding so loudly in her head, it is probably drowning out any telltale noise.

Thankfully though, her vision seems to be returning slowly, although her eyes are still stinging, and everything seems to be an unintelligible blur of light and darkness. She is glad that what Garrick threw in her face was merely mustard powder, and not something that could have had a more damaging, permanent effect.

A sudden clattering off to one side makes her whirl around, her body reacting before her mind could interpret the noise. By the time her brain grasps that the sound was that of a handful of pebbles being thrown against a tree trunk, a mere ruse to divert her attention and to throw her guard, it is too late.

She hears a more ominous sound coming up behind her.

It is the whooshing sound an object being swung hard at her head.

Something blunt crashes into the back of her neck, sending her sprawling into the mud. Her still cloudy vision is made worse by dancing stars, before everything goes black for a brief moment. Perhaps she momentarily lost consciousness, but when she regains a vague awareness of her surroundings, she finds herself staring into the cloudy sky, drops of rain falling on her cheeks, a dull throb at the base of her skull. Through a teary haze, she sees a dark, squat figure looming over her, wielding something shiny and metallic.

As her vision clears, she recognises the duergar and his rapier, which he has managed to retrieve.

Its sharpened point is aimed at her chest.

The true extent of her predicament finally dawns on her dazed mind, and she tries to move, to raise her arms in defence, but her limbs feel like lead weights. With a sneer, the dwarf raises his sword, then sends it plunging down towards her heart.

In the instant before the blade sinks into her flesh, she shuts her eyes, and waits for the pain to come.

She hears the whistling sound of something slicing through the air, followed by a hollow thud, and she flinches reflexively. Oddly, though, she feels no pain, nor the warm spray of her lifeblood spurting from her punctured heart.

Is this what it feels like to die? Do the dead feel no pain?

Cautiously, she opens one eye.

No blade protrudes out from the centre of her chest. No crimson blood stains the front of her garment.

She sees the rapier, suspended a hair’s breadth from her breast, and Garrick, standing over her, still clutching the hilt. He is staring down at her with an odd expression on his scarred face.

Correction: he is staring down at his own body.

At the shaft of an arrow sticking out from the middle of his gut.

An arrow with black fletching.

His own arrow?

Confused, Alya searches for the source of the missile…

And finds Bishop, propped unsteadily on one knee, his longbow in his hand. Their eyes meet briefly, before the ranger, apparently exhausted by his effort, crumples to the ground.

Alya is contemplating running to his side, when an inhuman roar stops her in mid-thought.

She looks up to see the duergar, his own arrow still stuck in his belly, shaking with fury and pain. The scar on his face burns a bright red, and there is a mad glint in his eyes.

With another enraged howl, Garrick raises his rapier again, and stabs it downward towards her. This time, though, she is clear-headed enough to roll out of the way, and the blade buries itself harmlessly into the ground.

Leaping to her feet, Alya strikes at Garrick before he could pull out his embedded sword, driving the heel of her palm into the side of his jaw. His head snaps around awkwardly as she feels his jawbone shatter, but still he stays upright.

Wrapping her arm around his neck, she attempts to throw him to the ground, but fuelled by his anger, the dwarf shoves her back with pure brute force, causing her to catch her balance. She hears another bellow as Garrick charges at her like a crazed bull.

Alya redirects his advance with a spinning kick to the side of the dwarf’s head. The force of the blow flips the duergar through the air before finally knocking him over. Pouncing on him, Alya makes sure he stays down by pinning his neck to the ground with her forearm.

“This is the last time I’ll be asking you nicely,” she pants. “Give me the antidote.”

Garrick’s eyes flash wildly as he struggles against her hold, his fractured lower jaw hanging slack, blood flowing freely from his mangled mouth.

He stops when Alya closes a fist menacingly around the arrow that still protrudes from his stomach, her eyes steely with cold determination and intent.

And to the monk’s consternation, he starts laughing again.

“You’re definitely a keeper, you are!” he rasps, spitting blood and dislodged teeth. “Never thought the lad had it in him to snare such a catch!” As he chuckles, red bubbles popping on his lips, he continues, “Do you seriously think I’ll be carrying the antidote to a poison I intend to kill someone with? Do you really think I’d give my target such a possible chance of survival?” He throws back his head, and his laugh is maniacal. When he finishes, his eyes are narrowed. “By this time, the poison has permeated every single part of his body. Even if you do find the cure, you’re way too late.” He smiles, his mouth a gaping hole containing a mass of bloody pulp. “Not exactly the revenge I was hoping for, but I’ll be satisfied with the knowledge that he’ll die a slow and painful death.”

Alya has had enough of his gloating. Giving the arrow a quick twist, she drives it deeper into the dwarf at an upward angle. Garrick’s laughter is cut short as his eyes widen. When she steps back, they remain staring lifelessly up at the falling rain.

* * *

Pushing himself up on his knees was hard, but drawing back the bowstring and concentrating on aiming straight had taken the last of his strength reserves. But he’d be damned if he was going to let Alya get hurt on his account.

Why didn’t she just leave when he had told her to? Why must she get herself involved? Stubborn girl…

He had been in a pain-induced stupor since he got shot, but he stirred when he heard Alya cry out. Craning his neck, he saw her lying prone on the ground, with Garrick standing over her, preparing to impale her with his rapier.

His eyes fell on the black-feathered poison arrow he still clutched in his hand.

Dragging himself off the ground, he cursed his own lethargic movements. With great difficulty, he notched the black arrow in his bow, and pulled the bowstring back. His vision was swimming, and he had to will himself to focus on his target, but he felt so tired…

When the dwarf thrust his blade downward, Bishop let go of his bowstring. The arrow’s flight seemed agonisingly slow, and he prayed that the missile would get there in time.

As soon as he saw the arrow thudding satisfyingly into the duergar’s gut, he let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. A sudden dizziness swept over him, and he allowed himself to go limp. He fell forward, and darkness consumed him.

Now, all he feels is pain, intense pain. He can feel the poison burning as it surges through his veins, enveloping his entire body in a searing agony. His blood feels like a river of lava coursing through him, and every ragged breath he takes sets his lungs on fire. His heart flutters in his chest, as it dances frantically, surrounded by licking flames.

Fire and darkness…this must be what the Hells are like…

It reminds him of Redfallows Watch, only more unbearably painful. Back then, he had suffered burns, stab wounds, arrow wounds...but they were all external. Now, he feels the pain inside of him, carried through his body by his own blood, wrenching his guts in a white-hot vice, extending deep into his heart, reaching into his very soul…

He feels himself being turned onto his back. He forces his eyes open. Through his haze of pain, he could make out Alya’s features as she bends over him. Her brow is creased with worry as she looks at him, and he couldn’t decide if he should be touched by her concern, or offended by her pity for him. She has a hand on his chest, her fingers lingering over his arrow wound. Her arm is splattered with blood, but it reeks of the duergar, so he is not too bothered.

In fact, he thinks he manages a slight smile at the thought that the dwarf is dead.

Alya’s hands start to fly around his chest. He glimpses a flash of metal. It may have been his skinning knife. He hears some ripping sounds, and somehow his poison-addled mind manages to register that the monk has cut through his armour and shirt.

A splash of cool liquid temporarily eases his burning wound, but not for long. Alya then proceeds to force something down his throat. It tastes like some form of healing potion, and he chokes when it goes down the wrong tube. The coughing fit seems to stoke the flames in his veins, and he hisses with pain, his body stiffening.

Alya is saying something. Her lips are moving, but he hears nothing. He feels her hands on his chest, then the cold tip of a blade…

Then her mouth.

It takes a moment for Bishop to realise that Alya had cut deeper into his arrow wound, and is now trying to suck out the poison. He watches through heavily lidded eyes, as she spits out a mouthful of his blood before placing her warm mouth around his wound again. He feels her soft lips pressed over his collarbone, and perhaps even a hint of her tongue.

Despite the excruciating pain, he finds the sensation more than a little arousing.

As his vision starts to dim, he thinks, This is not a bad way to die…

He absently wonders if she would miss him as badly as she missed the paladin.

Everything around him fades momentarily, but the touch of her hand on his face brings him back. She is holding his face in her hands, saying something he couldn’t hear. She wipes a drop of his blood off her lips, and then…

She leans over and kisses him lightly on the forehead.

What was that all about?

For a brief moment, he imagines an alternate reality, of what could have been had he not betrayed her, if he had only told her how he felt. He pictures himself embracing her, feeling her body pressed to his, stroking her smooth cheeks, his fingers running through her hair. He could almost feel his lips on hers, smell her womanly scent…

Then he remembers that he had experienced all that, only to have her push him away.

He is gripped by another wave of spasms, and somehow his hand finds one of hers. As his vision starts to blur, he sees her face, standing out clearly amid the failing light, a fiery haired angel come to take him away.

Again he wishes he had been more open with her.

You’ve got nothing more to lose…tell her now!

Instead, clutching her fingers tightly to his breast, he hoarsely whispers an echo of a past comment, one he had said teasingly what seems so long ago.

“I didn’t know you cared.”

With one final weak smile, he lets the darkness claim him.

The Way of the Hunter Chapter 30 - Fire & Darkness © Alya Elvawiel

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