The Portals Of Hell – Snippet 03

Chapter 2: The Hellport

As Davin moved along the string of wagons, young men and some of the graybeards who drove the wagons were dismounting. Bows appeared in aged and wrinkled hands, and spears bloomed in the grasp of the young, eager to be tested. Several men tied horses to wagons and mounted beside the drivers, unlimbering bows and placing arrows in easy reach. Davin shifted around in the saddle as he rode, searching for familiar faces.

He found Angelo Martine first, still mounted, looking back at him in surprise. “Cadet, why are you home when the Academy year is two months shy of completion? I thought that the Academy chewed you up and swallowed you whole, never to be seen again!”

Davin laughed. “Angel, I’ve missed your wit. We can talk later, but now — get on up to the front of the wagons. You’re needed.”

Angelo looked sidewise at Davin. “Who says?”

“The commander my father left in charge. Hop to it.” Not waiting for a reply, Davin spurred Charger along, finding Peto Villarel, his best friend, two wagons later, along with Peto’s father. Quickly, Davin explained what was happening, and Peto’s father immediately gave permission for Peto to join Davin’s group.

Surprise still clouded Peto’s face. “When did you get home?”

“Good to see you. We’ll talk later.” And Davin was off.

Geron Oronne was next, a muscular, light-haired giant sitting ahorse by another old friend, Paulo Haldon. Geron registered the same surprise. “You? Home?” Shortly Geron and Paulo were galloping toward the head of the wagon train.

Nearing the end of the wagons and seeing no one else his age, Davin reined Charger around and hurried after his friends. The five of them should make a good fighting team — all of his friends were good with sword and bow, and Angelo and Peto were experts. Even Davin had studied malito combat at Academy.

Bayn had already arranged the four young men in a loose north-south line and proceeded on down the column looking for other fighters. Paulo, smaller and swarthy like Peto, spoke as Davin rode up. “What are you doing back at Aldronne?”

Angelo piped up before Davin could reply. “He missed me.”

“Great heavens,” came from Geron. “He hasn’t seen a girl in so long he’s sweet on Angel.”

 “Too late, Davin,” Paulo grinned back. “He’s pining over some entertainer in Cliff. It’s gotten so we hardly ever see him anymore from Meeting eve until Firstday morn.”

The remark got a growl from Angelo, but soon they were all laughing again, and Angelo commented that it was best to love an entertainer, since that sort of love was never permanent. “The one that’s really hooked is Peto,” he smirked at Davin. “He’s found true love. The way he pines for his lovely Donaia, you’d think he might not live until next Meeting Day to see her.”

Peto blushed and took a swipe at Angelo, who easily eluded it. Peto was the oldest — he had twenty-two years and was the most serious about becoming a rancher. His father could have easily afforded the University, but for Peto, it held no interest.

Davin remembered Donaia, a pretty girl from the city who had attended Meeting with her family. “They’re betrothed,” Paulo said. “He won’t even consider going to the entertainment houses in Cliff anymore.” Paulo was Nortes, his father another settler. He made a sad face at Davin. “Peto sits and mopes for Donaia, getting grouchier by the day. He hasn’t been with a woman in months, and the wedding isn’t until Festival.” That brought a gale of laughter, Peto joining in.

They threw around comments and insults a bit longer. Davin was happy to make Peto the target, because it delayed uncomfortable questions, but finally, Peto asked, “Dav, why are you home? Is someone ill? And Academy maneuvers take up most of summer vacation, don’t they?”

Davin nodded. True, Academy demanded all of a young man’s life. He had been home twice in two years, barely enough time to get reacquainted with Meara, console Aliceia and Riala on the loss of Aliceia’s father, visit friends once or twice, and suffer a few audiences with the General. He had not seen these friends — his best friends — but twice in all that time.

“I was asked to resign. They call it ‘tanked’ or ‘washed out’ at Academy. It means that I was expelled.”

That shocked them into silence. Finally, Peto, who knew him best, asked, “What happened?”

Davin shrugged. “I’m not officer material. Of course, I knew that. I didn’t want to go to Academy in the first place.”

 “I still don’t see how they could kick you out, Dav,” Geron said. “Your test grades in mathematics and science were better than Angelo and mine together.” Angelo nodded in agreement.

“It was the other things,” Davin said. “I’m clumsy with weapons and I’m short besides — Paulo, I’m even shorter than you. With my eyes, I’m no good at scouting or archery drills. The only reason I got into Academy was because the General and the commandant were close friends.”

With that, their conversation died. Davin had expected a few wisecracks from Angelo and maybe a jibe or two from Peto or Paulo, but all five were quiet for a while. Down the line of wagons, Davin could barely make out Bayn as he arranged his defenders. Finally, Paulo said. “What now, Dav? The University maybe? With your ability, you’ll do well there.”

“Maybe.”

Angelo roused himself, as usual, to slip in a verbal dirk. “I’ll bet Dav still wants to be the world’s greatest engineer.”

Geron grinned. “Maybe he did once, but I’ll bet the General has cured him of that.” Another laugh, but it pricked Davin to reply. “What’s wrong with being an engineer? They do more good than a lot of the priests who just sit around blessing people and collecting donations.” Peto appeared shocked, but Angelo looked at Davin admiringly.

Geron took the other side, probably just for the sake of the argument. “I wouldn’t want to be a priest, either, but they do a lot of good. They help the poor and tend the sick.”

 “There are healers in town who have no connection with the Church, you know that,” Angelo said. “For a fee, they’ll heal you of most anything short of a broken neck. You don’t need the Church for that.” Which started an argument about the good of the Church in general. Davin played along, mainly to direct the conversation away from himself.

Seeing Bayn approach from the rear of the wagons, Peto removed his saddle spear from its scabbard. Catching Davin’s eye, he grinned. He seemed to be looking forward to a fight.

Just as Bayn drew abreast of the five, a series of bright flashes almost blinded Davin. They were just off the road, in the trees which stretched up the slope.

The original Hellport must be directly above them about fifty meters and to the east maybe a few hundred. The problem was, if that last flash was what Davin believed, the Hellport was about to drift down and west, right into their lap. He edged his horse towards Bayn and caught his sleeve.

“Sir, that Hellport I warned you about. I think there is a chance it is about to form right here, near us.”

Bayn frowned. “Here?”

Before Davin could answer, the sound of hoof beats diverted their attention. A single horseman at full gallop came into view around the turn in the road. As he rode up, Davin recognized Karl, one of the older ranche hands. He sawed the reins of his mount as he approached, pulling up beside Bayn and Davin. It was Bayn that he spoke to.

“The General asks that we turn the column and proceed back down the road, sir. The Hellport is one of the worst we have ever encountered. It is drifting in this direction, and malitos continue to pour from it. With our help, the defense is holding, but the position of the hole blocks our route to Iglesa, so the General intends to retreat with the survivors.”

Bayn turned toward the wagons. His impatient summons brought all who were close by. In terse commands, he reordered the wagons, sent drivers scurrying, clustered the mounted defenders, and directed their positions. They quickly scattered as directed, full of purpose, as inspired no doubt by Bayn’s demeanor, poise, and self-control as by his commands. Very much like Father, Davin thought. Some of the nearer wagons, including the Aldronne coaches, pulled out and headed back down the road to be nearer the front end of the wagons as they retreated.

Bayn gestured for Davin, his friends, and Karl to remain. “Remain here as the rear-guard. I know you have had some training in facing malitos, and I assume your friends have experience with bow and sword.”

Angelo grinned his normal irreverent grin. “I’d be glad to give you a little exercise if you need it.”

Bayn merely stared at Angelo, and his grin faded. Davin broke in. “We’ve had a good deal of training. Peto and Angelo have won awards at the spring games.”

Bayn nodded. “Very well. Please stay here. If there is an attack, try to blunt it and retreat as slowly as possible until help arrives.” He turned to Karl. “If you would please return to General Blackthorn and tell him –“

He was interrupted by a most uncanny sound, a combination of windstorm roar and animal scream.

Though he had never seen one directly form close by, Davin did not have to ask what was happening — he knew. A Hellport, a portal to There, was opening before his eyes. The ground, the sky, the leaves on the trees — all seemed to distort, to bend, to bulge, and at last tear. Great cedars and oaks were ripped in two, their branches and trunks tossed like pebbles. A fierce yellow glow suddenly sprang up in the middle of this distorted chaos, and the shreds of here suddenly drew back to reveal There — another place, not of his world, that was filled with sulphurous yellow mist and blue-red tongues of flame. And just as suddenly, half a dozen malitos bolted through in one harsh, clawed-and-fanged mass.

Davin had heard about malitos all his life. He had seen dead ones and even studied how to face them in combat and how to form a defensive line to face an all-out attack. But nothing prepared him for what he saw, a writhing mass of talons and fangs that resolved almost instantly into the most terrifying creatures he had ever imagined, let alone faced.

Bigger than the General’s hounds, the malitos seemed to be covered with a coating of heavy black fur. They had wolf-like heads, the protruding jaws a cross between mouths and muzzles, jammed with long, sharp fangs, faces topped with a group of four red eyes with beady black pupils. Each had four wiry legs with paws that seemed all claw, and they made a hideous, high-pitched keening as they swept out of the hole and into their midst before Davin could even react.

Karl pulled his horse between Charger and the nearest malito, sword drawn. Before he could lift it, six-inch-long claws ripped out his throat and swung him aside, and for an instant Davin saw death in the dripping red claws and fangs as the malito sprang at him. Then the whistling arc of Bayn’s blade hewed the malito’s head with one mighty blow, its wielder taking no notice as he jumped from his horse to face more of the oncoming mass. With a yell, Davin’s friends and others from nearby jumped into action. Spears shifted and stabbed, swords swung in silvery arcs, and arrows flew at more targets emerging from the Hole.

Davin realized that he was holding an arrow in his right hand and the bow in his left — he had fired an arrow at one of the remaining malitos and drawn another out without thinking, at least one profit of two years at the Academy. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bayn rip the entrails from one invader with the flying tip of his sword, catching another across the eyes with the hilt of his weapon and smashing its head into pulp.

Releasing his second arrow, then a third, Davin began to feel an unfamiliar rhythm, his aim finding a home again and again in the frenzied movement in front of him, as more and more of the black beasts leapt from the Hellport. How can this be? I don’t feel either clumsy or inept, Davin thought, his quick grasping of arrows, fitting them to his bow, and finding a smooth release that was a comfortable mix of dexterity and ease.

Where his arrows hit deeply, spurts of a black fluid that might be blood gave evidence of his accuracy. Hitting the malitos seemed no problem at all — it was like aiming at the sea and trying to hit water.

The attackers grew fewer as they approached him, in part due to the arrows of Davin and those beside him, but as much to Bayn’s swordsmanship. Davin could see him whirling, spinning, beating, and hacking at them, only just able to pull his sword from one collapsing body in time to decapitate another. He was ducking and swaying and dancing¬≠, a grim smile on his face. Malitos tumbled into piles, they barricaded his back, they fell at his feet as if in worship. Nothing could withstand him.

And yet, through all of this, a feeling grew in Davin of imminent doom, of a dark cloud gathering. He tried to shake off these feelings, finding some tiny comfort in the grisly routine: fit arrow to bow string, aim, and release, fit arrow and release, fit arrow and release.

The battle lulled with only a half-dozen malitos left standing, and all of those being worried by two or more armed men. Most of the fighting had concentrated at the front of the wagon line. The men had rallied to Bayn, and they, Davin, and his friends had overwhelmed the two dozen or so malitos, but not without casualties.

Pon, another long-time rider for a nearby ranche, lay half out of his saddle, chest dripping red. Besides Karl, two or three others, friends and neighbors of Davin and his family, lay on the ground, gravely injured. One man looked dead. The uninjured gathered to help.

Glancing east, Davin realized that the Hellport had moved. The perfect circle, at least ten meters across, was no longer opposite his position but several paces south and closer to the wagons. For a moment, the fiery portal was clear of invaders. It simply seethed and simmered, blue and red flickers against a background of pasty, yellowish fog. Davin stared, fascinated, into the opening, no more than a few strides away. At first, he discerned nothing more than dancing colors. Then, as he scrutinized the opening, it cleared for a moment, the flames — if they were flames — dying away. The yellow mist parted, as though a dry wind had brushed it aside, and Davin was staring at the towers and pinnacles of a wondrous city.

Strange, winged objects flew through the sky, things under the control of intelligent minds, he knew instinctively. There were square towers of crystal, and sharp peaks of silver and bronze, many glowing from the interiors through myriad windows as if a thousand fires burned inside them. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the vision vanished in a wave of yellow mist.

Bayn appeared beside Davin, beckoning to his friends. “Everyone appears unharmed in your group.” Each nodded, and Angelo said, “About the practice . . . I think I’ll pass on that opportunity.”

Davin’s friends laughed, and even Bayn managed a fierce smile. “And you, my young friend, your accuracy with the bow was outstanding. I have seen few in my lifetime with the smooth release you displayed. You are becoming a master bowman.”