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The Way of the Hunter - Welcoming Party (Chapter Twenty-Eight)

Alya Elvawiel
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The ever-so-slight movements underneath the tarpaulin, that little twitch she elicited from under the sheet when her throwing star hit the cart…

It was all so obvious…

She curses herself for not realising the implication sooner.

As the wagon covering is pulled away, up springs a gang of similarly dressed people, weapons at the ready. They all wear black leather clothing bearing the distinctive markings of assassins.

Luskan assassins.

Alya does a quick mental calculation. Including Garrick and counting Karnwyr, they are outnumbered seven to three.

They’ve had worse odds before, but something about how these attackers are carrying themselves, with the smooth grace of those who have done this many times, tells her that they are seasoned killers.

This is not going to be easy…

Bishop sneers disdainfully. “This is your ‘insurance’?” he asks. “What, too much of a coward to fight me man to man?”

The duergar shrugs, unaffected by the ranger’s jeer. “You know us assassins: any unfair advantage for the upper hand.” He returns Bishop’s smirk with one of his own. “You, my boy, should appreciate it more than anyone else.” Garrick’s smile broadens even as his eyes sparkle with a sadistic glee. “It’s time for you to pay for what you did to me.”

Casually, he gives his order, “Don’t kill them too quickly.” The dwarf begins to unsheathe his blade, a rather lethal-looking rapier. Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “Oh, and try and make him watch his girlfriend die, first.”

Almost immediately, a couple of crossbows are trained onto her. She barely has time to spin out of the way of the bolts, as they whiz past her shoulder. A feral growl tells her that Karnwyr has joined the fray, teeth gnashing. She sees Bishop, his swords drawn, engaging two assassins.

Another bolt zips by, this one whistling past her ear, barely an inch away. She gasps involuntarily. Reaching for her throwing stars, she rolls away from her rather exposed spot in the middle of the road, and dives behind a copse of birches, the thin trunks of the small trees offering some protection from the incoming missiles. Holding a star between her index and middle finger, she peeks out from her behind a trunk, and with quick flicks of her wrists, lets two stars fly in succession. She dodges back behind her scant shelter in time to hear a bolt thudding into tree bark. Another furtive glance reveals that one of her stars has found the thigh of one of the marksmen, but that is hardly going to slow him down. If anything, the lanky man looks incensed, as he starts to approach her hiding place, limping only slightly, crossbow at the ready.

Time for the heavy artillery…

She produces a handful of throwing knives impregnated with elemental magic. Holding them by their blades, she fans them out like a pack of cards, the energy imbued within them causing them to thrum in between her fingers. She picks out two of the knives, turns around, and whips both of them at the sniper with the injured leg. They both find their mark in the man’s chest. One of them explodes in a ball of flames, and the other crackles with electricity, sending blue sparks conducting up and down his body. With a strangled cry, the man drops into the mud.

Alya is about to try taking out the other ranged attacker, when an almost imperceptible rustle right beside her catches her attention. From the corner of her eye, she spies the glint of metal, and only just manages to duck away, as a dagger slashes the air where her neck was a fraction of a second ago.

“What the –?“ Even as she watches, a dark elf materialises out of the shadows, her silvery white hair hidden beneath a black cape. Her red eyes burning with malice, she advances on Alya, her scabbard raised high.

These people are good…

Staying behind the birch trees to avoid being shot at by the one remaining crossbowman, Alya evades a lunge from the drow. Grabbing the assassin’s wrist, she tries to disarm her, but the other woman whirls around, swinging her free elbow into Alya’s gut. She exhales loudly, losing her grip on the elf. Before she could recover, she feels herself being pinned against the cluster of trees, the drow’s forearm leaning painfully across her neck, right under her chin, choking her. Alya’s lungs scream out for air as she tries unsuccessfully to draw breath. The dark elf’s other hand holds the gleaming scabbard, its tip hovering above her heart. Black spots swim around her vision as her oxygen-starved brain threatens to shut down.

Suddenly, the crushing pressure on Alya’s windpipe is eased, and she slumps to her knees, gasping as she breathes raggedly, greedily inhaling the sweet, rain-soaked air, allowing it to fill her empty lungs. As she regains her senses, it takes her a moment to realise that the drow woman is screeching in agony. She is cowering beneath a huge grey shadow as the beast savagely tears into her, all the while growling fiercely. Alya watches in mute horror as the wolf clamps his jaws down on the assassin’s neck, and starts to shake her violently from side to side, like a rag doll. The dark elf’s tortured screams turn to bloody gurgles as her throat is torn to shreds. The sight and sound of the brutal mauling send a shiver down Alya’s spine.

When he is done, Karnwyr looks up from his victim. His tongue lolls out as his lips part in a wolf smile, and he wags his tail, as if seeking approval for his actions. Apart from the deep crimson blood matting the fur around his face, he seems every bit the friendly, playful animal companion she has been travelling with, who has on many occasions gently gnawed on her hand with those same sharp fangs.

“Good boy,” she manages to croak hoarsely, as she gingerly massages her sore throat.

* * *

Bishop parries the oncoming blade with one of his own, and simultaneously drives his other sword deep in between his attacker’s ribs. When he withdraws it, it is coated in the assassin’s sticky blood. As the dying man falls to the ground, Bishop turns to face his other aggressor. He has managed to move around in such a way that there was always one of the swordsmen between himself and the other assassin, thus allowing him to fight just one at a time.

The second assailant is also a two-weapon fighter, equipped with a short sword and a dagger. As they clash, their blades collide in a shower of sparks in spite of the wet weather. From his brutish features, snout-like nose, and the lower canines jutting out from his bottom lip, the man is probably a half-orc, which explains his sturdy build.

And his immense strength.

With a grunt, the assassin gives a mighty push that sends Bishop stumbling backwards. As he tries to regain his balance, the half-orc swings his short sword at his head. As the ranger brings one of his own blades up to deflect it, the force of the other man’s blow knocks his weapon out of his hand. It sails briefly through the air before landing with a splat in the mud.


He ducks to avoid being beheaded a second time, both hands tightening around his one remaining sword. As he jumps back up, he lunges at the assassin, and their weapons crash together again, the sound ringing in Bishop’s ears. Their blades lock, and his arm muscles are straining as he tries to push the Luskan back, but the burlier, stronger man is unmovable. With a cruel grin that reveals his sharp orcish teeth, the assassin again starts to force the ranger backwards. Bishop senses a tree coming up close behind him, and he swears under his breath. If he gets backed into it, he would be in trouble…

Freeing one hand from his sword handle, he forms a fist and punches the other man in the nose. The half-orc is not expecting it, and so bears the full brunt of the blow. Bishop feels something give way under his knuckles, and he hears an ominous crack. As the assassin’s head snaps back, the ranger seizes the opportunity to strike, but again his attack is deflected by the powerful half-orc. Apart from the blood flowing freely from his broken nose, the assassin does not seem at all dazed by the blow, as his yellow eyes narrow in fury. He brings the hilt of his short sword down, catching Bishop in the temple. The impact sends the ranger sprawling onto the ground, splashing as he lands in a puddle. An explosion of stars cloud his vision, as his head throbs sharply in rhythm to his pounding heart. He tries to will himself not to black out.

As he rolls himself onto his back, his vision clears enough for him to see a hulking figure looming over him. A flash of light bounces off the assassin’s blade as it swings downwards, aimed at his throat.

With a gasp, Bishop scrambles out of the way, just as the sword digs into the ground where he was lying, sending up a shower of muddy water and moist dirt. Staggering unsteadily to his feet, his head still spinning, the ranger realises with dread that he has lost his remaining sword.

And the massive half-orc is rushing at him, both his blades raised.

He’s too strong! I can’t keep fighting him like this…

From somewhere in his thumping head, Bishop recalls something Alya had told him once, about one of her philosophies in a fight.

“Yield to the greater force.”

He had scoffed when she first said that; he would yield to no one, he remembers answering.

But with the powerful half-orc bearing down on him as he stands there, vulnerable and unarmed, he figures he might as well give it a shot.

The assassin thrusts his sword at Bishop’s gut, and in that split second before the blade would sink into his flesh, he steps aside. As he has seen Alya do numerous times in a battle, he grabs his attacker as the big Luskan rumbles past, and the ranger gives him an extra heave in the direction of his forward momentum. Thrown off balance, the heavy man is propelled ahead, and slams face-first into a solid oak. Bishop is on him in the blink of an eye. Wresting the momentarily stunned man’s sword from his loosened grip, he drives it deep between its owner’s shoulder blades with such force that it rips right through the assassin and into the tree. Without a chance to even cry out, the half-orc dies, impaled to the tree trunk.

Breathing heavily, Bishop retrieves his fallen blades, while at the same time surveying his surroundings warily. The wooden cart that carried the Luskans, still tethered to the horse, is now unoccupied. The first assassin he felled lies in a pool of his own blood. Further away, he sees another Luskan body. The man’s eyes stare lifelessly at the rainy sky, blood still spurting from a gaping hole where his throat once was.

Karnwyr’s gotten to this one, the ranger thinks proudly.

He hears an ear-splitting shriek. A few yards ahead, beyond the body of a crossbowman and behind a copse of birch trees, he sees a flurry of motion, as a black figure wrestles vainly against a large grey one. From between the trees, he sees Alya’s sitting form as she, too, watches the battle between the assassin and the wolf. After what seems like an eternity, with a sputtering cry, the Luskan stops moving.

Bishop’s well-trained hearing catches the sound of padded boots slipping into mud. Barely visible in the shadows, he spies another assassin, crossbow in hand, as he tries to sneak around the cluster of trees to get a better shot at Alya. The monk seems to be unaware, as she sits there, appearing to catch her breath.

Whipping out his longbow, Bishop quickly notches an arrow, aims, and fires. The flying missile lodges in the man’s head with a satisfying thunk.

Alya turns around in time to see the assassin, an arrow sticking out of his skull, a surprised look on his face, topple over dead.

Bishop jogs up to Alya and Karnwyr. She has a hand around her neck, her breath coming out in wheezes. He feels an urge to put his arms around her protectively. The words “Are you okay?” dances tantalisingly on his tongue before he pushes the thought away. Instead, he briefly scans her for any signs of injury. Satisfied and relieved when he finds none, he merely offers her a hand to help her up.

No need to let her know you were worried about her.

“You’re hurt,” she begins, as she reaches for the swelling on the side of his head, which is already turning an angry purple. Her fingers dance lightly on the bruise before he jerks away irritably.

“I’ll live,” he says curtly. They both scrutinise the carnage around them. At some point during the melee, the rain had intensified again, not as bad as before, but heavy enough to obscure visibility.

Their eyes meet, and she asks the question he is wondering in his head.

“Where’s Garrick?”

Both Alya and Bishop glance around cautiously. Through the drizzle, they can see no one amid the gloom and shadows of the trees. The constant sound of rain falling among the leaves makes hearing out for any telltale rustling almost impossible. They look to Karnwyr to sniff the duergar out, but the wolf merely growls in a low voice.

“Can’t you, like, tell him to fetch, or sic, or something?” she asks Bishop. The thought of the dark dwarf watching them unseen seems to be unnerving her.

“I could, if he knew where that bastard is,” the ranger scowls, his eyes darting about warily.

“But, why can’t he smell him?”

“Simple trick,” Bishop replies, his tone derisive, as if he were lecturing to a novice. “He’s masking his scent. Rolling about in mud usually does the trick. Better yet, if you manage to find any wild animal droppings…”

“Oh…” she says dumbly. “Eew…”

They wait in silence again, straining to see or hear anything that may reveal Garrick’s whereabouts.

When they still find nothing, Alya asks again, “Just how much should we be worrying about our missing friend?”

“If you’re thinking he’s run off like a coward, don’t bet on it. That’s precisely what he wants you to think.” Looking up, his amber eyes scan the tree tops as water drips onto his face. “He’s still here – somewhere.”

“You seem to be quite sure you know what he’s up to,” she remarks.

“Of course,” he replies. “Tricks of the trade. He taught them to me.”

Alya’s head snaps around, her eyes wide as she stares at him. “He’s your mentor??”

Bishop shrugs nonchalantly. “If you want to call him that.” To him, the word ‘mentor’ conjures up an image of a wise old teacher who is patient, kindly and nurturing in his teaching.

And Garrick possesses none of those traits.

“Gee,” Alya mutters, shaking her head incredulously. “If he’s as good as you are, then we should be worried.”

Was that a compliment?

Another spell of silence follows. The light has begun to fade as evening approaches, casting even darker shadows all around them, but they stay where they are, their backs against the copse of birches. At least from this vantage point, they have their rear covered. Frustratingly, all sounds appear to be drowned out by the drip, drip, drip of raindrops.

“So…” Alya begins, trying to sound casual, even though he can see the curiosity glowing in her eyes. “What happened between you two? He seems to be going through a lot of trouble to hunt you down…”

And here come the difficult questions…

Bishop is still trying to decide on how much he should tell her, when something crashes loudly in the bushes. They spin around just in time to see a massive shape springing out from behind the shrubs, completely black except for the glint of sharp fangs and claws, and a pair of glowing yellow-green eyes. The dark shadow hisses viciously as it pounces at them.

Even as they scatter to avoid the creature, Bishop knows that this is a decoy. Their attacker, a large, sleek black panther, dangerous as it is, is merely a means of diverting attention.

Keeping one eye on the big cat, which is having a snarling match with Karnwyr, Bishop urgently scans their surroundings, searching for what he knows would be there. He hears Alya’s surprised exclamation, as she is forced to tumble out of the way when the panther lunges suddenly at her. He barely notices that she has her throwing daggers in hand again, as she slowly circles the jet-black animal.

And then he finds it.

Nearly invisible to anyone who is not actively looking out for it, a drawn bow, partly concealed, peeks out from behind the leaves and branches of a tree. There is an arrow nocked in it…

And it is aimed straight at the monk.

“Watch it!” he shouts, as he starts running towards her. Alya looks up and around, seemingly confused as to what he is warning her about, but the panther swipes at her again, its fully extended, razor sharp claws barely missing her by a couple of inches, and she returns her full attention to the cat.


He reaches for his longbow, hoping to get off a shot before the sniper does.

But the twang of a taut bowstring tells him that it is too late for that.

And he sees the loosed arrow zipping unerringly through the air towards its unsuspecting target.

Shit, shit, shit...

Without thinking, he dives towards Alya, interposing himself between her and the oncoming arrow.

With a thud, the arrow is driven deep into his flesh. Staggering a few steps backwards from the force of the impact, Bishop feels a searing pain directly beneath his right collarbone where the missile has penetrated his armour. He hears Alya gasp from somewhere behind him.

Grabbing the protruding shaft, he grits his teeth as he pulls out the arrow, the serrated arrowhead making a ripping, sucking sound as it tears at his flesh on its way out, bringing a trail of crimson along with it.

“Bishop…” Alya’s voice is tinged with concern.

He is ready with his usual terse retort.

“I’m fine. It didn’t hit anything vital.”

At least, that is what he wanted to say.

But before he could get the chance, he is hit by a sudden wave of dizziness. The ground appears to tilt beneath him as the trees start to spin crazily round and round. He feels his knees buckle as he sinks onto the grass. He hears Alya call out, but he cannot discern what she is saying; her voice sounds muffled and far away. The pain from his fresh wound intensifies, and it changes from a sharp, piercing pain to a more malignant, burning, spreading one.

Poison! Garrick, you son-of-a-whore! I should have known…

And that is one of his last coherent thoughts.

The Way of the Hunter Chapter 28 - Welcoming Party © Alya Elvawiel

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