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The Way of the Hunter - The Strength of Friendship (Chapter Two)

Alya Elvawiel
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As she watches him stride casually away, as if going for an evening stroll rather than walking away from a big, crucial battle, a wave of relief crashes over her. If he had stayed, only the gods would know how she would be able to bring herself to fight him. Yes, she hates him for his betrayal back at Crossroads Keep, when he jammed their gate open to let in the stream of undead. Yes, he is a shifty, obnoxious bastard, and she wouldn’t trust being alone with him. Still, he had been a part of the gang for so long, the gang she has started to think of as one close-knit, dysfunctional family…and even though he’s the black sheep…

She glances around at her remaining companions, her eyes falling on Casavir. If looks could kill, the paladin’s would certainly tear Bishop apart. Then again, if Bishop had stayed, Casavir would have probably gotten to him first…

And what was he talking about? Feelings? For her?? She never thought Bishop capable of caring for anyone else save himself, and she oddly feels a little flattered. Still, he had some odd way of showing his affection, didn’t he? Snide comments and rude remarks are hardly romantic…

“You were never a true leader, even with the rituals and the Sword of Gith at your side.” Garius’ dark voice sounds confident again, after his brief hesitation and speechlessness at Bishop’s departure. “Do you think all your companions who follow you, would follow you to death? I think not.”

“I would die for Alya, without hesitation!” declares Casavir, the passion and conviction in his voice warming her heart.

“We are all here, are we not?” Elanee chimes in, stepping forward. “I think you underestimate us, Garius."

“Why would we leave?” asks Grobnar in his usual innocent way. “I say, for a minion of evil, this Garius fellow doesn’t seem to be very insightful when it comes to our friendship.”

Khelgar moves in front of her, battle axe raised. “From the Weeping Willow Inn to here, I’ve followed, followed gladly, and there’s no way in the hells I’m backing down now.” He looks as if he is ready to shield her from all the undead in Faerun.

“In this one who leads us, I have seen the strength I lacked so long ago,” Ammon adds, surprising Alya with his support. “And as for you, Garius, I do not see Lorne or Torio standing with you.”

“Know that the choice is a simple one, Garius,” Zhjaeve intones in her calm voice. “If you fight us, you fight us all.”

Alya remains silent, although her heart is bursting with a clamour of emotions. She feels honoured and so fortunate to have such friends, friends who are willing to fight by her side, all the way to the end. At the same time, she feels an overwhelming dread that she has indeed led them all to their deaths.

Garius seems to be watching this all with amusement. “Really, now? Well, let’s just see if I can change the minds of some of your companions with a little…incentive. And dear Neeshka,” he turns to the tiefling. “Let us start with you, just to drive the blade home.”

“What? Neeshka!?” Khelgar exclaims incredulously. He has finally begun to tolerate, if not appreciate, the fiendling’s presence, despite all his complaints. During his many long arguments with Neeshka, Alya has often seen the glint of enjoyment in his eyes as they bickered and squabbled until no one remembered what they were arguing about in the first place. Now, he looks desperately at the rogue, as though willing her to defy Garius.

Neeshka stands there wordlessly, her face pallid.

“I tortured her, it is true,” continues Garius, smugly. “But cutting open your fiendling ‘ally’ revealed some interesting truths. Your half-demon companion has just the right touch of demon blood in her veins to make some ancient Illefarn binding spells take root…provided you shed enough of the owner’s blood on the stones of this fortress, of course. And once she ran out of screams, she learned to obey.” He looks towards Neeshka. “Didn’t you, my dear?” he asks, as a faint glowing circle appears at Neeshka’s feet. Why didn’t anyone notice that before?

“You monster!” Alya whispers through clenched teeth. She doesn’t know much about binding spells, but she knows enough to realize that Neeshka is now bound – painfully - to Garius.

“You’ll see the hells soon enough, Garius, I promise.” Neeshka said weakly.

“Don’t struggle overmuch against the binding, tiefling,” Garius chides gently. “Save your energy, for the battle to come.” Suddenly, Garius clenches a fist, and Neeshka’s body twitches involuntarily in a spasm of pain. Her hands shoot up to her neck, and she struggles for breath, as if being choked by an invisible hand. “And really, I think the execution of this Knight-Captain is a small price to pay for your freedom,” he opens his clenched hand, and Neeshka hungrily takes in a huge lungful of air.

Alya doesn’t know whether to run to Neeshka’s side, or to attack Garius, then and there, enough with all the small talk, and she hates how she feels so helpless to help her friend.

“I am so…so sorry, but I…have to do it,” Neeshka gasps, as soon as she is able to speak. “It’s…it’s like the weight of this whole fortress is pushing down on me…all of Illefarn, all at once.”

No, she thinks. Not Neeshka. I can’t fight her! Yet, can she bring herself to convince Neeshka to stay on her side, knowing full well that the thief could be doomed to a horrible fate if she disobeys Garius?

“I need you, Neeshka, please don’t do this.” She hates the desperate, pleading squeak in her own voice.

“Come on, fiendling…” Khelgar urges.

“I, I…” Neeshka appears lost in indecision. Then, a glimmer of conviction lifts all signs of hesitation from her face. “I…can’t do this. I won’t do this!” Each statement seems to strengthen her resolve. “By the hells, I’m not going to turn on the one person who has shown me kindness – and if it costs my life, so be it!”

“That’s my girl!” Khelgar cheers, as Neeshka joins his side, both of them standing between Garius and Alya.

Garius appears momentarily flustered by Neeshka’s rebellion. His hollow eyes seem to grow darker as his anger simmers. “You will pay the price for your disobedience…shortly.” He warns Neeshka ominously. “But…” he slowly scans the group of adventurers. “There are others who even now question their loyalty.”

His empty eye sockets stop at the moon elf wizard, who has been uncharacteristically quiet.

“Sand…” Garius begins, his confidence returning. “I know you studied at the Hosttower…and what relics you saw there are nothing compared to the ones that lie here, the secrets of ancient Illefarn.” He spread his arms. “The power you seek is here…and I can allow you to rectify certain…inequities.”

Sand regards Garius in the same disinterested way one would regard an annoying merchant with nothing worth buying. “Yes, well, as tempting as becoming one of the many Shadow Reavers we’ve already slain is…I shall have to pass. Not much future, you see – for you or them.” Alya couldn’t help smiling at the sarcasm in his voice, and is mildly surprised when the wizard turns to her, and she sees more kindness and warmth in his eyes than most people ever thought Sand was capable of having. “Besides,” he adds, “the little girl here…she needs minding, else…well, else bad things could happen to us all. And I will not allow that to happen.”

Their eyes meet, and Alya mouths the words “thank you”. Trust Sand to make her feel like a naïve little fledgling, no matter how many reavers she has slain.

“Ah, and then comes the matter of restraint.” As if to hide his failure, Garius moves swiftly on, barely acknowledging Sand’s barbed rejection. “I can feel your indignation, Qara – your power rolls off as your anger grows, as those weaker than you claim to understand you, when all they want to do is drag you down.”

Qara steps up beside Alya, and she is about to express her gratitude for the sorceress’ loyalty when she realizes that Qara has carried out walking, straight to Garius’ side!

“Qara…” she says, but can think of nothing else to add.

“Even if Sand wasn’t against you, I’d still join you,” she tells the Reaver. “I’m tired of her, and all the rest, telling me what to do, and how…when I’m the one with true power!”

No, no, no, no, no…she has always known Qara to be impulsive, immature, overconfident…but downright stupid?

“The girl has become a child,” Sand says, sounding only mildly surprised. “And now, Qara, you are our enemy.”

Alya shakes her head sadly. She knows that she must soon do the unthinkable.

But Garius isn’t finished.

“And Ammon Jerro,” he says with renewed confidence, now that he has won Qara over. “Ammon, the infernal contracts, the hordes of githyanki…both can be easily broken with the power of Illefarn behind you.” He sounds almost empathetic as he continues. “And even your dear Shandra can be returned to you, the life that you missed replaced; in time, you could know of her again.”

Alya tenses, waiting for Ammon to respond. She has already lost Bishop, and Qara. What can she expect from this mysterious, unpredictable warlock? She remembers when they found Ammon standing over Shandra’s lifeless body. It took both Khelgar and Casavir to restrain her, keep her from tearing into him. Needless to say, she has never really grown close to the old man – will she finally have to fight against him now?

Ammon’s expression is unreadable, his facial tattoos glowing eerily. “You could promise all that and more, but for all your empty promises, I have seen the one I follow accomplish so much more.” Alya lets out an almost imperceptible sigh of relief. “And Garius,” the warlock adds coldly. “For mentioning Shandra, I shall enjoy watching you die.”

Garius utters something that could have been an inhuman cackle. “Well, don’t say I wasn’t trying to be reasonable.” All of a sudden, huge energy barriers shoot up around the Garius and Qara. “Just a precaution to protect our Lord from bloodshed,” Garius says casually. “After all, he is almost here.” Beside him, Qara recites an incantation, her hands glowing orange like they always do right before she rains fireballs down on unsuspecting enemies – only this time, her enemies are her old allies.

Somewhere behind Alya, Zhjaeve starts chanting a protective spell. Sand steps forward, seemingly ready to counter whatever Qara is planning on throwing at them. She hears Elanee’s musical voice calling the creatures of the forest for aid. Grobnar is giving orders to the Construct he so lovingly repaired. “Now, Construct, do you remember what I mentioned earlier about watching where you swing your blades? That’s a good Construct…”

In that split-second of calm before the battle, Alya sees Khelgar and Ammon, weapons drawn, ready to pounce at her command. Neeshka, appearing stronger now, unsheathes her twin daggers. And Casavir, dear Casavir, stands close beside her. His deep blue eyes seem to say “I am with you till the end, my lady.”

Suddenly, Alya realizes that all eyes were turned on her. They are all waiting for her to give the command, the command that would probably send them all to their deaths. As Alya looks back at their earnest faces, she has to force back an upwelling of emotion. This gang of misfits, they have come so far. She believes she has grown to love each of them in a special way – well, perhaps not Ammon Jerro. Still, it pains her to be the one to give the order. But they all knew as they stepped through the portal that this was a quest they would probably not return from. And yet these people willingly followed her, despite the fact that they were not the ones with some githyanki shard lodged in their chests, not the ones who need to bear the burden…

Her eyes are moist, but her voice is steely with resolve. “Let’s get this over with.”

The Way of the Hunter Chapter 2 - The Strength of Friendship © Alya Elvawiel

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