Who Let The Dogs Out
The air grew cool and moist as the trio descended into what had at one time been the dungeons of the castle. They felt their way along the walls which were cool and slick with a layer of moisture. Somewhere below, the sound of steady dripping could be heard.
At regular intervals, dark passages opened up on their left, vanishing into darkness.
"David?" Gabrielle whispered. "You wouldn't happen to have any more of those wonderful little sticks with you, would you?"
"Sorry hon," David apologized. "I wasn't planning on spelunking after Egypt."
"What sticks?" Hercules asked.
"He has these neat little sticks that glow in the dark," Gabrielle explained proudly.
"How far down does this go?" David whispered.
"Three levels," Hercules replied. "Prisoners were kept on the first two, and the torture chamber was at the bottom."
"Swell," David sighed. "Ever consider doing background checks on your students?"
A faint orange glow began to emanate from below as they moved into the vast underground chamber. The room was massive in size and roughly square, with a single, large stone altar in the center of the room. Torches burned at intervals along the perimeter, and a huge stone throne, adorned with bones and other remnants of human life rested on a large platform opposite the entrance.
"Well," Hercules commented. "This is different. It wasn't like this when Ioulas and I closed off this section?"
David felt Gabrielle's hand clasp tightly to his forearm. He saw the haunted look in her eyes.
"Hey," David whispered. "You okay?"
Hercules looked back at her and he frowned. "You recognize this place?"
Mutely, Gabrielle nodded. "We have to get out of here." She whispered almost desperately.
"Talk to me, baby," David asked urgently.
"This is just like the temple in Gaul," Gabrielle began, but suddenly something barreled into them from the side, sending them sprawling. Another, unseen force sent Hercules sailing back against the far wall.
David rolled over and saw Atrophis pulling Gabrielle up by her neck and pinning her against the wall.
"Like our father's temple in Gaul!" he growled. He put is nose inches from hers and snarled. "Daddy is so looking forward to seeing you again!"
"Hey!" David roared and he charged in, tackling the boy from the side. The two of them tumbled away. Gabrielle fell to the ground, clutching her neck and wheezing.
David and Atrophis rolled back to their feet. David's bowie knife was in his hand.
"Never mess with another man's wife!" He growled.
"Funny," Atrophis replied, grinning demonically. "I was about to say the same thing!"
The boy charged in again and David swung the blade. The boy caught it in his outstretched hand. The blade stopped cold without even breaking the skin. As David watched in horror, the smooth steel turned brown and flaked away as if years of neglect affected it in a matter of moments. It crumbled to rust dust in his hand.
"What the?" He managed to say before Atrophis's strike sent him flying back across the room. He landed in a heap near Gabrielle and rolled over, getting back to his feet.
"David!" Gabrielle begged. "We have to get out of here!"
Hercules looked up to see Quintis standing above him, grinning maniacally.
"Head Master?" he spat. He grabbed Hercules's tunic and sent him flying back across to the other side of the room. Hercules crashed through a stone pillar and tumbled away, slowly pulling himself back up to his feet.
Atrophis tossed a large table out of his path and stormed forward after David.
He got to his feet and met the young juggernaut head on. Fists and legs flew in a furious frenzy as David tried to slow the young man's onslaught. In the end, however, David was sent reeling back a second time and landed in front of Gabrielle. He picked himself up slowly, wiping blood from his nose.
"Oh yeah," David grinned savagely. "It's on now!"
"David! Stop!" Gabrielle pleaded.
David went berserk. If there had been any sense of him holding back before, it was gone now. Every move was a killing blow. Still, Atrophis seemed unconcerned as he engaged the larger man. Once again, David was sent backwards, slamming into the side of the throne with a bone jarring thud. He rolled over and shook his head, looking up at the young man in amazement.
A few moments later, Hercules crashed to the ground nearby, rolling over and looking at the two young men, unscathed and coming towards them again.
"At what point did we lose control, here?' David asked, rolling unsteadily back to his feet.
"I don't know," Hercules replied as he also got his feet back underneath him.
Gabrielle also rose and grabbed David's arm, holding him back.
"Stop!" She cried out. She stood before David, her hand out in a staying gesture.
The two boys paused, looking at her skeptically. "Why?" Quintis asked.
Suddenly, another voice from the opposite side of the room shouted.
"Hit the deck, kids!"
Hercules, Gabrielle, and David all dropped to the floor, while Quintis and Atrophis turned to face these new intruders. They each felt the arrows puncture their flesh and staggered back. Then two more arrows each and they fell to the floor, lying motionless in the settling dust.
Hercules, David, and Gabrielle all looked up and saw four more figures standing at the far end of the chamber, bows in their hands, arrows notched.
David smiled through bloodied lips. "Alia."
The Queen of the Amazons looked at him and smiled.
"Hi, hotshot," she said. "I got your message?"
Next to her stood Ariadne, her chief advisor and two other faces that David was overjoyed to see. Sindis and Yania.
Suddenly, the center of the massive altar erupted in a column of brilliant orange flame. An inhuman roar reverberated through the entire chamber. The sound of that filled Gabrielle with horror, and she felt her blood freeze in her veins.
"Let's get out of here," Hercules said quickly. The seven of them ran for the exit.
Gabrielle and Alia helped a battered David, despite his protests, up the steps while Hercules and the others led the way.
They reached the dining hall and Hercules grabbed Paulo. "Get all the students out of here, now!"
Paulo didn't ask questions. He ran off and a few moments later a bell was ringing from within the courtyard.
Within a few minutes, all the students were streaming out of the gate.
Gabrielle stopped half way across the courtyard.
"Rasten!" she said. She turned and bolted back toward the main building.
"Who the hell is Rasten?" Alia asked.
Gabrielle was half way across the courtyard when she saw Antonia, Kitia and Norena emerge from the building with a semi conscious Rasten.
"Come on!" she shouted.
Beneath their feet, the ground began to shake. Loose stone began falling from the upper battlements.
Hercules, David, Alia and the others watched as the castle began to crumble. They saw four figures emerge from the gate, followed by Gabrielle.
David breathed a sigh of relief as a large cloud of dust blasted forth from behind the walls, momentarily obscuring them from view.
They caught a glimpse of the last five survivors stumbling towards them when suddenly, a tongue of flame licked out and wrapped about Gabrielle's waist. With a startled cry, she went flying back into the dust.
"No!" David roared and he tried to run forward. Another blast of energy sent him flying back. He landed in a heap at Alia's feet.
He rolled over and looked in horror as the castle began to reform into a mockery of itself. Tall jagged spires formed out of the stones, looking like gigantic fangs, and the walls repaired themselves. Beyond, the main building became an edifice of dark, slimy stone and dark windows looked out like pits of eternal night.
David struggled back to his feet and would have charged in again if Hercules hadn't stopped him.
He roared with fury as he fought against the other mans strength, to no avail.
A single figure appeared on the battlements, looking down at the assembled students. Behind him, a second figure also appeared, carrying an unconscious Gabrielle in his muscular arms.
Both figures were knotted with wiry muscle, their skin a deep grimy brown. They smiled with pointed teeth. Prehensile horns protruded from their foreheads and their eyes were black as coals.
"Son of Zeus!" Quintis's voice boomed across the landscape with unholy volume. His hands stretched out, ending in sharp claws.
"We offer you a trade!" he laughed. "Join with our father and we will spare this miserable creature!"
"I got a trade for you!" David roared back. "Let her go and I promise you'll only end up with a permanent limp!"
Quintis laughed, and that laughter rolled across the landscape like distant thunder.
"What is your answer, Son of Zeus?"
"You can't do it!" Alia said quickly. "You know that?"
Hercules released his hold on David. "Done!" he shouted back. "Me for Gabrielle, unharmed!" He began walking forward
Alia stepped in front of David and stared at him knowingly.
"You stay here," she said evenly. "I'll go and get her."
Helplessly, David nodded.
"Sindis, Ariadne," Alia ordered. "Tend to his injuries. I'll be right back."
Hercules turned to the assembled students.
"Listen to me carefully," he instructed them. "There is a village, four miles that way. Elder students keep watch over the younger ones and make for that village. Do not come back here! Understood?"
Reluctantly, the students all nodded except for seven. Antonia and her girls, and Rasten, on his feet again, but weak.
"We're not going anywhere," Antonia replied evenly.
"This isn't a request," Hercules said sternly.
"So punish us later," Antonia retorted.
Alia smiled and looked at David. "She must be the one you mentioned in the message?"
David said nothing, his eyes fixed on Atrophis, holding Gabrielle in his reptilian arms.
"Hey, lover boy," Alia said sharply. David looked at her. "Relax. I have a plan." She looked at Yania. "Come with me."
Hercules watched as his students all headed down the path towards the village, then, with Alia and Yania in tow, he turned and walked towards the gate of the castle.
The huge gates groaned as they opened when the three of them approached.
Atrophis stepped into view, still holding Gabriele in his arms. He was grinning like a banshee, saliva dripping from his pointed yellow teeth.
Alia looked him up and down with disdain.
"Okay," Hercules said. "You've got me. Let her go." He nodded towards the unconscious Gabrielle.
"Of course," Atrophis replied, and he dropped Gabrielle at their feet.
"Hey!" Alia protested as she and Yania rushed to her side.
Alia looked up at him, noticing the unhealed puncture wounds from the arrows.
Atrophis looked down at her, his eyes wild and hungry.
"You know me, child?" he asked.
"Yeah," Alia replied as she and Yania lifted Gabrielle between them. "I know you. You're what happens when people fall in love with farm animals."
Atrophis's smile melted into a snarl of rage. "Take your little bitch and go!" he growled. Then he turned and followed Hercules into the castle. The gates slammed shut behind him.
Yania looked over at her queen and smiled. "You were testing him, weren't you?" she asked.
"Yes I was," Alia replied. "I also wanted a closer look at him. Did you notice the arrow wounds? They haven't healed."
"I saw," Yania replied. "They are vulnerable."
They got back, and David received Gabrielle as the two women gently lowered her to the ground.
"Sindis," Alia ordered. "We need a stretcher."
"Already have one," Antonia replied. She and Norena stepped forward with a crude bier, made from two spears and a spare blanket.
Alia nodded in approval.
"Get Gabrielle on it and let's get away from here," she said.
Kitia and Norena bore Gabrielle, while Antonia helped Rasten and Alia helped David. They moved out of bowshot from the castle and into a thick area of forest.
Alia's personal escort numbered eight. Yania, Sindis, Ariadne and five other warriors from the Northern Tribe.
Immediately, the seven Amazon warriors set up a perimeter and stood guard while the others set up a makeshift camp. Their provisions were meager, considering that they had only what they had been carrying on their backs when they escaped.
Gabrielle lay next to the small campfire, while David leaned against a tree, next to Rasten.
Antonia gently tended to David's wounds.
After everything was set, Alia stepped over and knelt down, checking Gabrielle before she went to David.
"She's just unconscious," She reassured David. She quickly inspected his injuries and sighed. "You really know how to get people pissed at you, don't you?"
Antonia finished cleaning David's injuries and moved back to Rasten.
Alia watched her for a moment. "She the one?"
David nodded and smiled. "Our little five foot fighting machine."
Alia grinned. "You know. You're little invite said something about watching a fight, not jumping into the middle of one? If I had known the truth, I would have showed up with a battalion?"
David shrugged. "I knew we wouldn't have enough beer for everyone."
Alia laughed. Then she looked at him and handed him a small water skin. "Check this out."
David winced. "Lady, I told you." He said. "Quit talking like me when I'm around. It's messing with me in the extreme."
Alia put a finger to her lips and then pushed the skin to him again. "Try it."
Skeptically, David popped the top and took a cautious drink. He coughed when the strong alcohol hit his throat. Then his eyes widened in surprise.
"Where'd you find this?" he asked, taking another sip.
"One of the girls found a grove of wild peach trees," Alia explained. "After that, we set about trying a few things and, shazam? Primitive Southern Comfort."
David took another drink and savored the semi familiar flavor. "Got a lot of wallop?" he asked.
Alia smiled and nodded knowingly. "Oh yeah." She patted his knee. "Drink up. I'll check on you later."
David smiled weakly and nodded. Then he leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes.
The sun settled behind the hills and the night shadows lengthened. As Antonia was preparing another batch of bandages for Rasten, Alia crouched down, opposite the small fire and looked at her intently.
"Hey," She said quietly.
Antonia nodded in greeting and continued her preparations.
"Took a lot of guts to stick around," Alia continued. "You and your girls."
Antonia shrugged. "David and Gabrielle stuck their necks out for us. We figured it's the least we can do in return."
Alia nodded. "His note said that you and your ladies were interested in signing on with me? Is that true?"
Antonia looked up at her in surprise. "Signing up with?" Suddenly, her eyes went wide with realization and she stood up at attention. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize that you were, um, that."
Alia waived a dismissive hand. "Oh, relax, kid. No need for that here."
She looked at Antonia intently. "So, are you?"
"I've thought about it," Antonia. "And I know that Kitia and Norena and a couple of others have too."
"Well," Alia said. "It's not like we don't need the extra help. Shoot, we're still a small batch of ladies, and we got a boatload of land to cover, but I don't think you understand what all's involved. It ain't no pleasure trip. We still have quite a few enemies out there, though not as many as before. It wouldn't be a milk run?"
Antonia frowned. "Forgive me, Queen," she said. "But why do you sound just like Master David?"
Alia's eyebrows rose in amusement. "Master David? Oh that had to do wonders for his ego, let me tell you." She looked at Antonia for a long moment. "Master David and I have a lot in common. Think of me as, I don't know, his evil twin?" She grinned. "Two different bodies with the same twisted mind?"
"I don't understand?' Antonia admitted.
"Once this is over," Alia smiled. "I'll tell you all about the Vulcan Mind Meld, okay? In the mean time, I need you to tell me everything that happened before me and mine showed up?"
It was long after dark when Gabrielle finally stirred. Her eyes snapped open, but they were not the lovely green that they should have been. Instead, they were black, lifeless orbs. Her head turned to one side and then the other as she surveyed the darkness around her. Nothing moved. Slowly, she reached into her skirt and drew out a short, wicked looking knife. Rising to her knees, she moved, like a cat up toward David and raised the blade to his throat.
"So that's how you were going to play it, huh?" A voice said from the shadows. "Slip in here and slit my throat? Not the most inventive way to assassinate someone? Am I that big a threat?"
The fathomless eyes turned and a growl issued from Gabrielle's throat as Alia, drawn bow in her hands, edged forward into the firelight.
"You're pretty sharp, Quintis," Alia said knowingly. Then she smiled. "Or should I call you Vashanka? That is your real name, isn't it? Didn't you see that nice long look that I exchanged with this Amazon Queen before I came up to get you? My body's too messed up to be much of a threat. I needed a new one."
Gabrielle's head darted back to look at the motionless David and then up at Alia.
Alia smiled knowingly. "The fun part is. I can go from person to person. You'll never know where I'm coming from when I finally get to you." She paused for a moment and then released the arrow. It punched through Gabrielle's left calf with a sickening crunch.
Gabrielle let out a demonic cry of pain and instantly, the illusion vanished and Quintis sat there, his orange eyes glaring up at Alia with rage.
Alia had another arrow notched in a flash. At the same time, more figures melted into view with weapons drawn.
"Very impressive," he managed to growl as he pulled the arrow from his leg.
"You think that's impressive?" Alia smiled. "You're gonna love this."
Suddenly, David's eyes snapped open and he wrapped his arms about the demon's neck, pulling him back. He whispered a few words in the demon's ear and then forced the small wineskin into his throat.
"I banish the demon Vashanka to the outer realms of the universe," David chanted. "I bind you to the ethereal. You shall not walk this earth again!"
The liquid poured down the demon's throat and burned through his body. David released this hold and rose. He stood above the writhing form. Then, making a cross, he splattered more of the alcohol over the body.
Quintis writhed in agony as the spell took hold. Then, in a flash of fire that stank of sulfur and venomous fumes, he was gone.
All about the fire, faces gazed down at the spot in horror. David leaned back against the tree and smiled at Alia.
"Pretty slick, babe," he nodded. Then he lifted the wineskin. "Holy whiskey?"
Alia took the skin and smiled. "It's not just for hangovers any more." She tossed the skin into the fire and it flared up as the remaining contents were consumed. "Besides. We didn't have wine?"
David winced in sympathy. "Oh man, what a waste."
Alia slapped his shoulder.
"Relax, you lush," She said. "I brought more."
"I thought you were hurt?' Antonia asked, still completely dumbfounded.
"Oh, I am," David nodded. "But not as bad as I let on."
"Okay," Alia said. "We know that the other one has Gabrielle and Hercules. What's next?"
David grinned. "Now, we let the dogs out."
Only Alia understood that reference and she nodded appreciatively. She turned to Antonia.
"I need you and your girls to relieve the guards. Take up the watch."
Antonia stood at attention and nodded.
David inclined an eyebrow. Alia merely smiled.
"I've been teaching my girls more than just how to build better homes." She said. "Between the two of us, I think we can generate enough energy to get what we need, but it'll take a full blown circle to maintain it."
"Right," David nodded, rubbing his hand together. "Let's get to work."
The seven Amazon escorts formed a rough circle around the fire while Alia and David made their preparations. Once they were done, the each crouched opposite the crackling flames and closed their eyes.
In one voice they began to chant quietly.
Guardian Spirits, hear our call.
Protect this circle, one and all.
Give us strength to face the foe,
Grant us power ere we go.
We summon forth ye Farie Hounds,
Sharp of fang and red of ear,
To hold our enemy's hearts in fear.
To hunt beside us in this night,
To spread the power of the light,
To protect us in the coming fight.
They chanted this three times before, somewhere in the distance, the sound of baying wolves could be heard rapidly approaching. About them, the seven Amazons slowly took up the chant and began moving around the circle.
At the same moment, a brilliant flash of light encompassed David and Alia for a moment. When it dissipated, the ground beneath their feet had been scorched, though they themselves were unscathed.
David breathed a shaky sigh of relief.
"Well, that's never happened before?" he commented.
"Don't knock it," Alia replied. "There are a lot of things that happen now, that didn't when Shilah was around. Nothing against our High Priestess, but magic apparently won't be what it is now."
The baying sounds were closer now and rapidly approaching.
"Better warn the kids," David said. He and Alia stepped out towards the perimeter. They found Antonia standing, gripping her spear tightly as she peered out into the darkness with growing concern.
"It's okay," David said as he stepped over to her.
"That sounds like an enormous pack," Antonia said nervously. Before she could say any more, they saw countless pairs of red eyes peering at them from the shadows.
"They're with us," David said quietly and he stood out from the circle, holding his hands out in a gesture of surrender.
From the shadows, a massive dog shape loped forward, its red tongue lolling out and smoke issuing from its nostrils.
David dropped to his knees and bowed his head before the animal.
"Thank you, My Goddess," he said.
The 'dog' was easily two hundred pounds of powerful canine muscle, and black as midnight, with short shimmering fur, long yellow teeth, and glowing red eyes. It's head rested even with David's waist. If it had stood on its hind legs, it would have looked him in the eye.
It growled like a demon as it stood before him, studying him. Then it sat down on its haunches and also bowed its head.
"Will you help us?" David asked the beast. It cocked its head to the side slightly, as if considering, then it bowed its head again and growled.
David rose and pulled his hood over his face. His long duster fluttered gently in the breeze, carrying the scent of sulfur through the glade.
"What are they?" Antonia breathed in wonder.
Alia smiled and crossed her arms. "Those are the Farie Hounds, my dear. Good company if you're on their side?"
David rose and nodded to Alia. The two of them began walking back towards the castle.
The Farie Hound watched them for a moment, and then it raised its massive head and let out a howl that shook the ground before charging off after them. All around Alia and the others, the sounds of countless feet could be heard galloping through the dense foliage.
Atrophis looked down at Hercules, bound to the massive stone alter. He smiled. Hercules pulled once more on the chains with no success.
"Even your God Hephaestus couldn't undo those bonds, Son of Zeus," Atrophis gloated. He turned back to Gabrielle, also bound against the cold stone, her eyes wide with horror.
"And you?" Atrophis said menacingly. "How could you betray your true family by taking another husband? You have always belonged to Dahok, surely you knew that?"
"I never belonged to him!" Gabrielle shot back with as much fire as she could muster.
Atrophis smiled. "Of course you did, Auntie. When you bore his child, you became his servant." He sneered, his pointed nose inches from hers. "Father has interesting ways of rewarding betrayal."
"Leave her alone!" Hercules shouted at him.
Atrophis looked down at the impotent demigod and smiled.
In a flash, his backhand struck Gabrielle in the face, knocking her head sideways. Then his head snapped upwards and a smile began to creep over his demonic features.
"We are about to have guests," he said. "It seems that my brother was unable to accomplish his task?"
Gabrielle felt the blood running from the corner of her mouth. She smiled in spite of the pain.
"You've done it now," she goaded him. "You haven't felt fear until you've seen my David angry."
That comment got her another slap across the face. Then Atrophis gestured, and they heard the slamming of the gates high above. Then another sound was heard. It was the sound of gentle rustling from the corridors at the corners of the temple. From the shadows, grotesque shapes shambled out into the light. Figures all in moldering cloth and rotting armor, bearing decaying weapons. Their fleshless faces leered at them as they moved through the temple and towards the stairs leading up to the main yard. The dark sockets of the eyes filled with an unholy, pale light.
"Go, my servants," Atrophis said gleefully. "Bring me their heads."
His laughter began as a low rumble and rapidly grew to an earth shattering bellow.
Far above, beyond the gates, Alia and David heard that laughter and paused.
"You think he knows we're coming?" Alia asked a bit nervously.
"Either that, or he found that last cask of good wine in the cellar," David replied.
They swallowed their anxiety and continued toward the gates only to find them locked.
David reached out and touched the ancient wood tentatively.
"Uh, maybe," Alia began, but it was too late. There was a flash of energy and David was hurled back several yards, landing with a grunt.
"You shouldn't do that," Alia finished knowingly. She moved to help the man back to his feet.
"Swell," David replied, dusting himself off.
"There's no way we're going to muscle past that one," Alia said knowingly. "Not if we can't maintain contact?" Then she looked at him and a smile crept across her features. "How's your spell casting?"
"I've had cause to practice recently," David nodded. Then he smiled.
Alia reached her hand out to him. He took it and smiled sarcastically
"Wonder Twin Powers, Activate?" he commented.
"Funny," Alia replied.
The two of them closed their eyes and gathered their strength, feeling the energy building up between them.
At the same moment, they stretched out their hands forcefully and cried out "Onobis Illuminotis!"
Two brilliant beams of pure energy blasted from their hands and slammed into the gates. They heard the ancient wood groan in protest.
Far below, Atrophis looked up at the ceiling again, this time with startled amazement.
Gabrielle and Hercules saw his expression.
"Not possible!" he growled.
Gabrielle grinned. "I told you."
"Silence!" Atrophis bellowed. The he stalked out of the chamber, heading up to the outside.
As soon as he was gone, Gabrielle began straining against the manacles wrapped around her wrists. Her eyes fell on the large ring of keys, lying out of reach next to the throne. She stretched her body, trying to reach them with her toes, but they were too far away. She cried out in frustration.
She looked down at the keys and then up at the manacles binding her wrists. She knew what it would take to get free, she just didn't know if she could manage it. She took a deep breath and prepared her self. This was going to hurt.
Alia felt the reserves of energy in her body falling away. She risked a quick look at her counterpart and read the same thing in David's eyes, except there was something else there as well, a fierce determination that she did not possess. His eyes blazed with rage. A growl began issuing from his throat rising slowly to a full throated bellow, even as Alia's spell weakened and finally ceased. At the last moment, the wooden gates exploded into bits of rotting wood and iron, wrecking everything behind them in the courtyard.
David breathed deeply and staggered forward a few steps.
"Damn, son," Alia smiled. "You have been practicing?"
"I told you," David said hoarsely. "Quit talking like me!"
Alia smiled and the two of them moved towards the open gates. They stopped as Atrophis stepped into view, barring their way.
"I underestimated you, priest," he said angrily. "You have more about you than you show."
"Call it a lifestyle," David replied, still weak, but defiant to the end. "You want to surrender now?"
Atrophis laughed out loud and stepped back. Immediately the myriad of reanimated corpses filled the space between him and the two intruders. He stopped when he heard David and Alia laughing right along with him, albeit weakly.
"You know," David said, looking at Alia. "I didn't know how we were supposed to feed all of them, did you?"
Alia shook her head. "Hadn't thought that far ahead, really?" She gave the demon a friendly salute. "Sure glad you did."
David turned and gave a long shrill wolf whistle. It was immediately answered by the baying of hundreds of canine voices.
As Atrophis looked past them at the rolling hills, he spied a thick cloud of shapes galloping towards the gates, with slavering mouths and fierce red eyes. They bayed and howled like rabid beasts. Their feet sounded like rolling thunder in the night. The oily color of their fur shimmered in the moonlight.
David and Alia stepped to either side of the gate, so as not to block the way.
David gestured grandly to the interior of the courtyard. Then he leaned in and looked at Atrophis with a fierce grin.
"I'd run, if I were you?" he offered.
The reanimated servants of Dahok met the charging Farie Hounds at full speed, but it was no battle at all. In a matter of moments, the bodies had been ripped asunder, and the pack was gnawing at the bones. Well, most of them anyway. The remainder of the pack, some several hundred of the beasts poured into the castle, searching for more prey.
David and Alia waited till the last of them had passed into the gates and then sauntered in after them, watching as the ones who had gotten a bone or two finished their meals and then leapt after the rest of the pack.
Gabrielle cried out in agony as she felt the bones in her left hand break, and the skin split under the strain. With a sickening squelch, lubricated by her own blood, her maimed hand slid out of the manacle. The chain binding her slid up as she reached for the key. She got to it easily, but the fingers of her broken hand barely lifted the object. She got the key to her mouth and then fed the end into the remaining manacle, turning with her head as quickly as she could until the manacle popped open.
Her stomach churned from the pain as she stumbled to the altar and began loosening Hercules bonds.
"Don't worry about me," He said urgently. "Get out of here!"
From above, they heard Atrophis's roar.
"My way out is past him," Gabrielle said thickly as she fought the bile down. Then they heard the yowling and baying of countless dogs.
"You really want to stay?" Gabrielle asked.
"Now that you mention it?' Hercules replied nervously. "Can you hurry that up a bit, please?"
Gabrielle grinned fiercely as she turned the key. Finally, the first manacle popped loose. Hercules took the key from her and finished freeing himself, while Gabrielle, overcome by the pain, sank to the floor, queasy and light headed.
Hercules sprang from the alter and scooped Gabrielle up, moving to one of the other side corridors behind the throne. No sooner were they out of sight when Atrophis ran into the room. He stopped short when he discovered his prisoners missing.
He let loose a bellow of rage that shook the foundations and then he looked skyward.
"Father!" He cried desperately. "Protect me!"
Canine shapes flooded into the chamber, howling as if they would shatter the ancient foundations. Many of them leapt at Atrophis, their yellow fangs sinking into his flesh. He roared in pain and desperately fought to get clear of the ravening animals.
David and Alia walked into the room, watching as Atrophis fought desperately. His flesh was rent in countless places as he fought to get to the dais and the throne, his clawed hands leaving deep gouges in the hard unyielding stone.
The Farie Hounds continued their savage assault until he reached the first step, then they fell back, yowling as if in pain. Several tried to approach, but something held them at bay, keeping them from getting any closer.
David's eyebrows rose in surprise, then his face settled into something far more dangerous. The Farie hounds could not approach the Throne of Dahok.
"I told you not to mess with me," David said angrily. He moved through the milling animals, his hands balled into fists. "Where is she?"
Then he saw Hercules step out of concealment, moving to stand behind the gasping demon.
"I think my friend, there, said it best," he said fiercely.
Atrophis looked up in surprise as Hercules grabbed him by his shredded vest and lifted him bodily off the floor.
"Never mess with another man's wife!" Hercules shouted and he threw Atrophis clear across the room.
The Hounds howled with delight and fell upon him again in waves of savage hunger.
Atrophis screamed, but only for a few terrifying moments. Then it was all over.
The hounds backed away from the remains. Amazingly, Atrophis was still moving. His flesh had been torn in a myriad of places, and black blood soaked the floor like oil.
He looked up at David with his one remaining eye and spat.
"You think this is over, priest?" he rasped.
David stepped over and rested his hands on the shoulders of two of the powerful Hounds. He looked down at the pathetic creature and smiled.
"For you?" He said fiercely. "Yeah, I think it is."
Blood vomited from the demon's mouth, even as it laughed.
"My father has many children, priest!" He gurgled. "Even you cannot fight them all!"
In a flash of sulfuric smoke, Atrophis gave a single, wailing bellow and vanished.
David looked down at the spot of blackened stone and burnt blood, wrinkling his nose in disgust. Then his eyes fell on the two hounds at his sides.
They looked up at him with fierce, expectant red eyes.
"Thank you," David said reverently. "Whether you choose to stay, or go, know that you have my love and gratitude."
They stared deeply into his eyes for a moment, and then one of them let out a deafening howl and the entire pack flooded back up the steps and vanished, yammering into the distance until the sound faded into silence.
David turned back and saw Hercules carrying a weak, but smiling Gabrielle in his powerful arms.
"Gabrielle?" David whispered in relief. He ran to her and took her in his arms, holding her close. "Oh, baby! I thought I'd lost you!"
"Not likely," Gabrielle replied, clutching at him with her remaining good hand. "I knew you'd come!"
The ground beneath their feet began to tremble slightly, and from somewhere deep beneath their feet came a massive inhuman roar.
"Uh," Alia said, hovering near the exit. "Can we get the hell out of here, please?"
"Come on!" Hercules shouted. The four of them ran for the exit.
Stones began to break free as they ran through the passages, falling all around them. They had just about reached the exit to the courtyard when the keystone gave way and large amounts of stone rained down toward them.
The dust settled and they saw Hercules holding the coming rock fall up with his bare hands.
"Get going!" He grunted. "This is pretty heavy!"
Alia, David, and Gabrielle darted past him into the courtyard.
Hercules waited till they were clear and then shoved upward with all his might before darting out of the archway as fast as he could. The rest of the passage fell behind him with a thunderous crash.
They didn't stop running until they had made it past the gates, then they all turned and watched as the remains of the castle came tumbling down in a cloud of dust and debris.
David still held Gabrielle in his arms, He turned away and, with Alia and Hercules aid, shielded her as some of the smaller bits rained down upon them.
When it was all over, Hercules and Alia rose, looking down at David and Gabrielle. They stayed there, Gabrielle's good arm still wrapped tightly about his neck as he held her, whispering into her ear.
Hercules looked over at Alia who stood smiling as she looked down at them.
Alia looked up at Hercules and shrugged. "What can I say? They're in love."
Hercules smiled and laughed quietly. He knelt down next to them and gently patted David on the shoulder.
"We better get going?"
Slowly, David rose, still holding Gabrielle, and they made their way towards the forest camp.
When they finally arrived, seven haggard Amazons, and six equally strung out students all rose and came forward to greet them.
"Nice job, girls," Alia said gratefully.
David set Gabrielle down gently against the tree, next to Rasten. The boy slid over a bit, to give the wounded woman a little space.
David looked down and gently lifted Gabrielle's maimed hand to inspect the damage. He winced when he saw it. The flesh was ruptured in several places and the bones within were probably mangled beyond repair.
"Oh, baby," David sighed in resignation. "This is going to hurt like a mother when I try and set these?"
Gabrielle nodded knowingly.
Alia stepped over and handed David another small wineskin. "Here," she said. "This might help?"
David took the skin and nodded. "Thanks." He popped the top and took a long drink.
Alia smacked him on the back of the head. "Not for you, you twit! For her!"
David choked at the impact but kept the liquor in his mouth. He swallowed and looked up at the Amazon Queen. "What about me?"
Alia grinned and handed him a second one. "After you're done."
Gabrielle smiled and took the open wineskin from David. She took a drink and nearly gagged when the potent alcohol hit her throat.
"Gods!" she choked. "What is that stuff?"
David smiled as he got ready to set her hand. He shrugged out of his coat and vest and then pulled his shirt off, ripping it into long strips.
"I'm gonna run out of shirts if this keeps up," he commented. Then he looked at Gabrielle, still grimacing from the taste of the booze.
"Drink it all," David said. "Trust me."
"No way," Gabrielle replied. "No pain can be worse than this stuff."
"Okay," David said understandingly. He gently wrapped her mangled hand in a layer of fabric and then placed a small, flat piece of wood beneath it and a second on top.
"Come here, baby." He said. He pulled her to him, wrapping her good arm about his waist and averting her eyes as she leaned her head against his shoulder. He winced in sympathy when he realized exactly what was about to happen.
A frightened whimper escaped Gabriele's lips as she tightened her grip around his shoulder and neck.
"On three, alright?" David asked, bracing himself. He felt Gabrielle nod.
Again, Gabrielle nodded.
"One," David said, and then he suddenly pressed the two flat pieces of wood together, sandwiching her hand between them. There was a sickening crunch as the damaged hand flattened back out to something more normal.
Gabrielle cried out in pain and shock, bringing the whole camp to a sudden halt.
Rasten turned away and groaned in sympathy, his expression a mirror of David's.
Gabrielle's good arm tightened around David's back, and he felt her tears against his skin. He held the two pieces of wood in one hand and quickly yanked each finger forward and out.
With each quick pull, Gabrielle cried again, sobbing in agony.
"Almost there," David said quietly. He felt her pounding and clawing his back desperately. He pulled the next digit, and then the next.
"Just one more," David continued. He pulled her thumb out and back and pressed the wood together even harder. He felt her body trembling as he tightened more strips of cloth around the outside of the makeshift splint, and then he let her sit back gently. Her face still bore the signs of the pain, and tears streamed down her cheeks, but she managed a weak smile.
"Didn't feel a thing," she lied.
David lifted the wineskin to her again. This time she took it and took a long swallow without hesitation.
David brushed her hair out of her eyes and wiped the tears with his fingers.
"Just relax now," he said. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
Alia watched him depart and followed.
"Hey, hero," She called quietly. "Going to say thanks?"
David paused and looked back at her. He nodded. "I think I should."
"Oh I agree," Alia replied. "Just keeping track of the children, you know?"
David smiled and nodded. Alia turned to go.
"Hey," David said quickly. The Amazon Queen turned back to him.
"Thanks for everything, Alia," David said gratefully. "I couldn't have done it without you."
Alia smiled and nodded. "I know." She turned and went back to the camp.
David smiled appreciatively and shook his head. "Stop sounding like me, dammit!" He called after her.
He stepped through the forest and found a small secluded clearing. Dropping to his knees he looked up at the stars shimmering between the interlacing branches of the trees.
"Thank you, My Goddess," he said quietly, and he bowed his head and closed his eyes in silent meditation.
Rasten looked down at the wineskin that David had left behind. Slowly, he reached toward it. A hand picked it up before he could grasp it and he looked up to see Antonia standing over him with an inquisitive look in her eyes.
Rasten leaned back and shifted uncomfortably. "I know," he sighed. "Student's aren't allowed to drink in the academy."
Antonia sat down across from him and popped the top off the skin, smiling.
"We aren't in the academy right now, are we?" she asked knowingly. She took a drink and winced when she tasted it. Then she handed it to the young man.
"You have to try it just to understand how bad it is," she said thickly.
Rasten took a swallow, wincing as the alcohol passed over his split lip. He swallowed it down and sighed. "It must get better, the more you drink?"
"Maybe," A voice said from beside them. They looked up to see Hercules staring down at them disapprovingly.
Rasten looked down at the wineskin in his hand. He replaced the top and handed it up to the Head Master. "Sorry sir."
Hercules smiled and received the wineskin. "I'm saving your life right now," he said, remembering the first and last time he had consumed a few too many. "Trust me."
"Yes, sir," Rasten replied.
Hercules looked at them for a moment, a smile playing on his lips. "Don't stay awake for too long. We have a long walk tomorrow."
Both of the students nodded and Hercules moved off into the shadows.
Once he was far enough away, he looked at the wineskin, considering. After a few moments, his curiosity got the better of him and he took a cautious drink. He was surprised at the fiery burn of the alcohol that went down his throat, but otherwise, it wasn't intolerable.
He looked at the skin appreciatively. "That isn't too bad," he said and he took another drink. "Maybe it does get better, the more you drink?"
Antonia and Rasten watched the Head Master go, and then Antonia turned to face Rasten. "I know why you did what you did," she admitted a few moments later.
"What?" Rasten replied. Then he sighed. "Yeah, I know, it was stupid and reckless and,"
Antonia cut him off. "And the bravest thing anyone has ever done for me." She smiled.
Rasten looked down at the ground and absently fidgeted with a few stray twigs.
"I just didn't want anything to happen to you, that's all." He admitted. When he looked back up at her, she was smiling at him. She leaned forward quickly and kissed him.
"Thank you," she said. She looked at him for a moment longer, suddenly embarrassed, and then quickly excused herself. Rasten watched her go, still in mild shock. Then a smile appeared on his face and he closed his eyes contentedly.
It was late into the night, and aside from the four sentries posted on watch, the fire was surrounded by sleeping forms, all curled up in blankets. A single figure stepped out from behind the tree where Rasten, David, and Gabrielle lay asleep.
The figure looked down at them, their faces warming in the glow of the torches she bore. A motherly smile played on her lips as she studied the sleeping form of David, with Gabrielle's head resting on his chest. At her sides, two of the massive Farie Hounds sat, silent as statues, watching the camp. In the distance, she heard the rest of them, circling the area. She looked down at the two hounds and nodded.
"Go," she whispered. "Watch over them tonight." The hounds sprang away, silent as disembodied shadows.
The figure turned her gaze to the young battered man, lying against the tree. She passed one of her torches over his sleeping form and then the other over Gabrielle's mutilated hand.
Her eyes fell on David again. "Well done, my child," she whispered. "Well done."
She turned and vanished the way she had appeared.
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