The Portals Of Hell – Snippet 04

Me? Dave felt dumbfounded, as his friends stared, goggle-eyed. Before smart-alec Angelo could comment, he said deprecatingly, “Perhaps those two years at Academy did me a bit of good after all.”

“All of you did well,” Bayn added. “Now, keep your places, stand ready, and be prepared for another attack.” Again he arranged the defenders, leaving two older men to tend to the wounded.

With a chorus of screams, a black mass of malitos spewed out of the portal once more, spreading toward the defenders in a horde. The sheer mass would have overwhelmed and killed them all had it been the first attack. With Bayn’s quick organization, the twenty or so defenders now opposite the hole were well prepared. The first of the black invaders was met with such a rain of arrows that a dozen fell almost at once. Others bulled their way over and around their own dead and continued the charge, impaling themselves on the spear-front and making room for others to attack the defenders.

Still astride Charger, Davin again sent arrows into the oncoming black tide. It seemed that they would be overwhelmed for sure; men were fighting at close quarters, and the keening of the malitos and the screams of men made it clear that defenders were hurt and dying. Several men fell beneath a tidal wave of black, clearly beyond any help. Some malitos stopped to gnaw at fallen defenders in the midst of the battle. In a perverted sense, Davin was grateful for the distraction. The dead could feel nothing (Deos grant they were dead), and it gave the defenders fewer of the besiegers to repel.

Malitos continued to spew from the fiery portal, but now they were pouring down the right side of the column away from Bayn and his awful, blood-draining sword, moving past Davin and the forward defenders that were still mounted, rushing toward the rear of the column. Toward Riala and the Aldronne coaches! Leaving Bayn to the frontal defense, Davin heeled Charger and set off after the malitos that were racing along the line of defenders toward the rear of the wagons.

The Hellport continued to drift away from Bayn and the forward defenders, putting extra pressure on those near the column center and rear. Bayn and his front defenses were beginning to move, to edge sidewise along the wagon train, as malitos focused their attack to the south. Even as they moved, Davin could tell that only he and a few of the older men would stand in the way of the horde when it reached the women and children.

As he rode, Davin managed to attract the attention of his friends. He reached the rear of the column just ahead of the mass of malitos, accompanied by a half-dozen of the younger men, including Angelo, Peto, and Geron. Riala, Meara, and Aliceia were out of their wagon, and each had managed to find a spear, joining nearly a dozen women and the few older men that were not at the front of the battle with Bayn. They formed a phalanx of defenders who were the last hope of the children, now all tucked away from sight in the family wagons. Merging with Davin’s group, they turned to make a defense.

Outstripping the other defenders who were still fighting their way south, the malitos fell upon Davin and his companions with boiling fury. Fell on them as if from the sky, and there was everywhere blood and sweat and death and the sounds and smells of battle. The awful stench of the malitos surrounded them as the bristly bodies sprayed black blood over their own kind and defenders alike as they died.

All but out of arrows, Davin could do nothing astride Charger. Dismounting and snatching a spear from one of the wagons, he edged into the battle line just as the onslaught of malitos collided with the prairie folk. Nearly two dozen malitos and not much more than half that many defenders. Much of the fighting was one-on-one, spear, sword and longknife against malito fang and claw. Danin nearly lost his arm, blood pouring down his side, Bacio’s leg was drenched in red, Juan would never walk again. Angelo fought like a demon with his sword, his side gaping open and bloody.

Without thinking, Davin took the spear position: kneel, brace, wait, thrust — and a malito was impaled on his spear-point, its keening cry reduced to a gurgle as it suffocated in its own blood. Jerking the spear out of the carcass, Davin barely avoided having his bowels opened by another attacker. He managed to crack the bristly head with the lance haft, then spun the shaft and hacked the protruding throat open wide. Spear training was compulsory at Academy.

Concentrating on the nearest assailant, Davin was still vaguely aware of the action on each side. To the left, Riala and Meara jabbed at a dying malito with spears, while Aliceia thrust at another as it attacked one of the older defenders. On his right, Angelo and Peto each fought two attackers simultaneously, worrying one and hacking at the other. Peto’s spear was lightning fast. If Angelo was the more aggressive, Peto had the most finesse. Both were keeping their besiegers at bay.

Simultaneously Davin caught a black blur of movement to his left, while he heard Peto cry “Davin!” The blur was a malito that had gotten past two defenders. Instead of attacking them from behind, it made straight for Davin — and Peto’s cry was all the warning he had. Pivoting, Davin was aware that his spear was pointed the wrong direction and he was unbalanced to the right. The malito in front of him was the biggest he had seen, fully the size of a pony, all fangs and claws. He tried to complete his pivot, knowing that his effort was too little, too late, and that nothing stood between him and certain death . . .

Except Peto, who lunged between them, sword now out, swinging wildly, cutting off the vicious charge. Before Davin could respond and assist Peto, he heard Riala scream. He let the pivot carry him fully around. (Deos! — Let Peto hold it!).

Riala, Meara, and Aliceia were holding off two more malitos; the older man that had stood beside them was down, his throat spewing a shower of red as he rolled and spasmed in the dirt. Once again, Davin didn’t think; he simply sprang between Riala and his sister and thrust his lance into the larger malitos. It shrieked and spewed a black circle as it tried to pull away, bowels leaking through the great slice in its belly. Jerking out the spear, Davin made to slash at the second . . .

And slipped.

The second malito swiped its claws within a hairsbreadth of his face before Aliceia brought her spear through its neck. Davin scrambled to his feet as another mass of bristly death, a dozen more malitos, raced toward them. Then from his left, a host of fighters swept between his group and the attacking horde. Bayn and the rest of the fighting men had finally arrived.

Bayn danced among the keening figures, while half a dozen other defenders slashed and jabbed with spears and swords into the latest charge from the Hellport. More rapidly than Davin would have thought, the remaining malitos were dead, with those defenders still on their feet staring around in wonder.

No fewer than seventy malitos carcasses lay along the lines of wagons, sprawled in pools of their repulsive blood, a few still twitching or struggling to crawl away. As his gaze swept to the right, Davin saw several tiny, bloody figures lying near the last wagons. Somehow, the attackers had managed to drag several children out of the covered wagons. All appeared dead — and to Davin’s horror, the two small girls that he had watched on their wagon were among the bodies sprawled on the dusty road.

Women were piling out of wagons to join those who had fought alongside the men, their cries of heartache and recognition so wrenching that he twisted away, forcing himself to survey the casualties toward the front of the line.

. . . And spied Peto. Down, bloody and still, Angelo and Geron beside him.

Peto was not the only one. Another half-dozen bodies lay in the dirt, some among the piles of black carcasses, many not moving and others obviously hard hit. Davin ignored them, diving to the side of his two friends who knelt beside Peto.

Angelo was still clutching his side. Claws had opened a series of long gashes to the ribs. Geron appeared whole, and Davin consciously registered that he himself was also untouched despite being the target of direct attacks by three separate malitos.

But Peto was dead.

Peto, who had trained with Davin as both learned horsemanship in Aldronne’s barnyard, who had waved and grinned at Davin earlier at the thought of some fun, lay face-up, eyes open blindly at the sky. Tears rolled down Geron’s cheeks as he held their friend’s hand. Angelo was drawn and pale, no expression on his face. Peto looked the most relaxed, staring placidly at his friends, as though he knew how well he had fought.

Davin wanted to join Geron in tears, but they wouldn’t come. Instead, there was a great hollowness as the harshness of life on the plains was pressed home.

“He saved my life,” was all Davin could manage. Kneeling beside Geron, he brushed a smear of dirt off Peto’s face. Very little blood stained Peto’s shirt; punctures from massive claws had made two small holes in the material. The swipe of the charging malito had impaled his heart.

Wiping his eyes, Geron gestured toward the pile of dead creatures to their rear. “And you saved the women. Peto covered your back. He would have taken that devil, but he tripped over someone that had fallen.” He gestured toward a rough pile of bristly fur. “That bastardo won’t kill anymore.”

They sat in silence. To their rear, screams and cries punctuated the morning as mothers mourned small, torn bodies. Many of the survivors worked on the wounded along the line of wagons, determining those beyond help. Bayn stood beside them, surveying the casualties, face somber but alert. Any of the attackers that still lived had escaped into the forest along the cliff face. The fighting was ended, at least for the moment.

To his right, now nearly parallel to their current position, the great circle of the Hellport hung, poised in the air, colored tendrils of mist trailing over its bottom edge. Staring intently into the hole, Davin saw . . . nothing. No buildings, no visions of a city. Vagrant flickering, like reflections of fire on the hearth.

Slowly he stood up and wandered toward the portal, suspended in the air only a short distance away. The morning was quiet, except for the moans of the wounded and the anguished cries of the living for the dead. No more malitos issued from the great, gaping wound in reality. It simply floated in the air, drifting ever so gradually to the south. Davin stopped near the edge of the hole and stared into the great circular portal, vaguely aware that should a malito burst forth, he would die instantly, yet so exhausted and drained that it hardly seemed to matter.

So this is a doorway to Hell.

Up close, a soft humming issued from the opening, its lower edge rounded like the crust of a pie. He smelled a vague, sharp odor, like the air after a rainstorm, pungent and biting. Then the mist parted, and he saw the great city once again. Spires of metal and blocks of crystal, buildings that shimmered in the light, beacons streaming from atop great pyramids of burnished silver. And those flying things, darting like dragonflies on a warm summer day, purposeful and beautiful in lustrous shining skins.

How can this be Hell? It came to Davin that the world he lived in was not nearly so pleasant-looking as the scene that had revealed itself. If that is Hell, where in the world I am living?

“Davin!” Bayn called sharply. Turning, Davin saw his father’s guest beckoning him away from the opening. “Avoid the area before the hole. It is death if another attack starts.” Silently, Davin backed away. The others had watched him in passive shock. He was suddenly, bone-chillingly aware of the fate he had tempted as he stared into the opening. He backed into Geron, who had also arisen.

“Did you see that?”

“What?” Geron and Angelo followed his eyes.

“In the Hole. The mist parted, and there was something there.”

Angelo shrugged — then groaned in pain from the effort. “I saw nothing.”

“Nor I,” said Geron. The hole had drifted past their position, and it seemed to have shrunk to no more than half its original size. “I think you mistook those fires for motion.”

Davin didn’t answer, staring back into the yellow haze that had returned to the circle in the air. Bayn was marshaling forces, arranging the still-erect defenders into two lines facing the Hellport.

Charger had stayed where Davin had dropped the reins. Stabbing his spear into the dirt repeatedly, Davin managed to remove most the malito gore. Bayn was right. The hole still existed, although continuing to shrink. As a precaution, he returned the spear to its scabbard and removed his bow and the one remaining arrow from the quiver. The defenders that Bayn had arranged were pacing the slow-moving Hellport, watching for another onslaught, ready to both fight and give the alarm. Bow in hand, Davin went back to stand with Angelo and Geron, a small honor guard beside their fallen friend.

Bayn joined them, staring down at Peto. “He was your friend?”

They nodded. He pursed his lips. “My regrets that I arrived too late.” He looked from one to the other, holding their eyes. “You all fought well, and your families should be justifiably proud. You, Davin, should be particularly proud. One day, I will write the hand-to-hand fighting coordinator, who expressed his doubt to me about your ability, and tell him he is an idiot. You fought commendably.”

He glanced about them. “But the cost… It has been very great. Your friend, many others, those children.” He shook his head.

He erased pain and concern from his face. “So be it. We cannot change what has happened. We must accept our loss and look to the needs of those wounded that survive. I will need your help, Davin, and that of your friends.” He glanced toward the Hellport, then turned back to Davin, Geron, and Angelo. “No more malitos come forth, and the hole is shrinking. I think we can assume that –“

He was interrupted by a shout from one of the men behind them. Whirling around, Davin did not at first understand the source of concern. Then his attention was drawn back to the Hellport.

No fires shone, no yellow mist issued from the opening. There was simply a darkness that seemed to shift and cast curious, blotched shadows across it.

Something was coming.

An enormous, clawed paw thrust into the hole, and a reptilian head as large as a malito’s body pushed into view.

“Deos mie.” The words were expelled almost in a whisper from Bayn. “GranMalo.”

And then it was upon them, climbing through the hole, stretching itself erect, blotting out the sky with its enormous size. And just as suddenly, Davin understood his premonition with icy clarity.