Note:Zachariel (Zach) is a fallen angel. He was originally sent to Sheforat (Hell) almost 13 thousand years ago for daring to love a "fallen one," and he escaped a few months/weeks before this story takes place. Zach hasn't been able to say the name, Sheforat, since he arrived back on Illdirin. He calls it "down under." He suffers from PTSD because of his time in Sheforat, and a couple other symptoms of his condition are occasional flashbacks and, sometimes, a short temper.
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The chilly autumn air sizzled as Zachariel sat on the back deck of his brother's home. He braced himself for Archan's overly dramatic appearance. Sure enough, there came a bright flash of light accompanied by a clap of thunder, then the hulking celestial hunter stood before him, arms folded across his massive chest.
"What you want?" Zach asked.
"Who says I want anything?" Archan sat down on the opposite side of the small table. The diminutive chair creaked under the weight of his bulk. "Got any brew?"
Zach ran a hand through his short, dark hair and rose to his feet. "Hang on," he said, and he went inside to fetch a couple bottles of brew. When he returned, he handed one to Archan, then sat down and opened the other one. He took a big swig and set it down. "What you want?" he asked again.
Archan sat forward, his elbows on his knees, the brew in one hand as he looked out over the back yard, his profile stern as he spoke, the deep baritone of his voice soft and low. "I've been thinking — wondering what scares you."
"Yeah, I mean, I just saw something I know would scare the Hell out of any mortal, but you're not mortal. You're a celestial, like me, and —"
"Not like you. My powers are still bound."
"Be that as it may," Archan continued, "you've seen a lot during your time in Sheforat —"
"I ain't goin' there," Zach said, stiffening. "I jus' wanna forget everythin' 'bout it."
"I know." Archan took a long swallow from his bottle, then he met Zach's gaze. "I'm not trying to dredge up the past. I'm just wondering, is there anything that scares you?"
Zach shrugged. "I've seen it all. Done it all. Had it all done to me. I'm still here, ain't I? Nothin' scares me anymore."
A small smile crept across Archan's rugged face, and his azure eyes sparkled with mischief. "Care to make a bet on that?"
"What kinda bet?" Zach gave the hunter a suspicious look.
"Nothing big. I just want to see if I can scare you."
"Scare me — how?"
"If I told you that, it wouldn't scare you, would it?"
Zach gave the idea some consideration. After weeks of sitting around with little to do and no way to prove himself to anyone, at least this gave him one option. But what was in it for him? "So, you hopin' to freak me out at my expense? Where's the fun in that?"
"Tell you what, if I scare you, you have to serve me for a whole day. If I don't scare you, I have to serve you."
Zack stared at Archan. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. You yankin' my chain or what?"
"No, seriously. Call it an experiment." Archan again looked out across the yard. The shadows had grown longer in the few minutes he'd been sitting there, and the golden sun now hovered over the distant horizon, though he couldn't see it at the moment for all the trees. "This is a good time of year for it, y'know. Give me this one month to come up with something. Sometime in the next few weeks, I'll make my move. It'll either scare you or it won't. What's there to lose?"
"Dunno. Nothin', I guess."
"And if you win, you can have me as your slave for a day. What's not to like about that?"
Zach allowed a devilish grin to form on his face. "Yeah, 'n' the first thing I'll do is slap a leash 'n' collar on you, 'n' I'll ride you like a dumb ass mule. I'll wear spurs to make it more interestin'.
"Sadistic little bastard, aren't you?" Archan laughed.
"You know it. So, when do we start?"
"You're on the clock, Buddy. Anytime over the next month, I'll do it. It's got to be good though, because I know you fancy yourself a hardened, street smart guy who's not afraid of anything. And you're probably right about that, except that I'm good at everything I do." Archan stood and stretched. "I look forward to making you shine my armor, spit shine my boots, and — oh, whatever whims I have that day."
"Never happen. I can't be scared. You'll find that out soon enough."
"Or you'll find out how wrong you are. There's some pretty terrifying things out there you haven't encountered yet. I know I can pull this off. Just got to think about it for a bit."
"You do that," Zach laughed. "We both know I'll win this bet. You'll be eatin' crow by the end of the month."
"Nope, not me," Archan said. He downed the last of his brew and set the bottle on the table. "Thanks for the brew. Talk soon." In the next moment, he vanished in his customary flash of light and thunder.
Zach shook his head. "Actually, the first thing I'll do is make you get rid of that stupid thunder."
I heard that.
"'Course you did," Zach laughed.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A couple of nights later, Zach and his girlfriend, Andrea, headed over to Selanar Singh's house to watch a game. Selanar always badgered Zach to watch the big Domination games with him, and this was the semi-finals. Two teams of eight players competed to gain control of a castle. Selanar relished the hand-to-hand combat, Andrea most enjoyed the air rifles, and Zach was a swordsman through and through. All three enjoyed the action on horseback, a throwback to the days when horseback and real battles went hand in hand. No longer adorned by heavy armor and fighting to the death, the game warriors wore sport uniforms, colored to match their team logo. The weapons were as fake as the battles, although it took a good amount of skill to win the game.
The first team with three members inside the castle would win the game, and right now, Selanar's favorite team, the Regal Crusaders, took the lead. Zach and Andrea routed for the Brute Pirates, the current all-around favorites.
After about five minutes, the Brute Pirates gained entry into the castle when Derek Walsh "skewered" Aerendyl Triswynn with his fake sword. Derek did a victory dance, and Zach and Andrea rose as one and did the same in Selanar's living room, singing the few lines to the bawdy pirate shanty that accompanied it.
Selanar glowered at them. "That's right. Rub it in."
Zach sat back down, unable to completely erase the grin from his face, and patted his friend on the shoulder, then flicked his pointed ear lightly. "Don't worry, Sel. The RCs will bounce back — maybe."
An eerie sound arose from somewhere outside. Selanar picked up his remote control and muted the media center. "Did you hear that?"
Zach nodded. "Yeah, what was that?" He'd heard that sound before many times, but he feigned ignorance for their sake, not wishing to scare them.
Andrea went to the patio door and peered out between the vertical blinds. "I don't see anything."
Zach went and gently pulled her away from the door. "You two, stay put. I'll go check it out."
"You can't!" Andrea said, shaking her head. Her pink hair swayed with the movement, and her bright eyes widened with worry. "Whatever it was, it sounded dangerous, and you're not armed."
"I can handle myself. Jus' stay put." He pointed at Selanar. "Lock the door, 'n' put some salt in front of the doors 'n' windows. Back in a few."
With that, he left the apartment.
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Zach froze. That smell. He'd smelled it constantly for nearly thirteen millennia when he'd been down under. But why would a hellhound be here? Why now? And why would he and the others have heard it unless—?
He shook his head. No, it couldn't be. It wasn't after him. It had to be one of Archan's hellhounds. Archan was trying to freak him out because of the bet.
He wasn't sure how the hellhound would react to Selanar and Andrea. The beasts could be temperamental at best. One wrong move, and Selanar or Andrea would be dead in a matter of moments.
He could lure it away, but how? He didn't have any treats on him, no meat, no dog toys. And he couldn't see it, so how would he know if it followed him?
He got his answer and wrinkled his nose at the foul odor that accompanied the hound. Sulfur was disgusting. He'd never gotten used to it the whole time he'd been down under. That was one odor he'd hoped never to smell again.
His mind began to drift, but he caught himself before it got too bad. He couldn't let his mind take him back there. He had to stay focused. He held a hand in front of his face, forced himself to count his fingers, then he counted them again, and then again for a third time.
Finally, he felt his focus return. As his confusion waned, he studied his surroundings. He saw nothing out of the ordinary — a good sign, which meant it wasn't there to kill him or take him back down under — but it was there. He could still smell it.
He whistled, and moments later, he heard the soft padding of dog feet — the footsteps of a monster of a beast he couldn't see.
The stench grew stronger as it panted, and Zach walked away. His skin crawled as he listened to make sure it followed him. The smell wafted along with him as he made his way down the main street. At such a late hour, the street was eerily quiet, allowing Zach to hear every sound the hellhound made.
A lone car drove by and splashed muddy water all over Zach, soaking him.
"Damn!" he muttered. Not only was he walking around a dangerous part of Kanduyar, unarmed, late on a chilly autumn night — with a hellhound for company, no less — but now he had to deal with mud and water, too? He cast an angry glare skyward. "I swear, Archan, you'll pay for this."
The hellhound took off after the car, and before Zach could tell it to stop, the car, which had only gotten about a block up the road, flipped over on top of a truck.
"Crap!" Zach exclaimed. "This hound must be huge!"
He jogged over to where the car was lying with its hood on top of the truck. The driver's door had a huge dent in it, but it didn't look so bad that it couldn't be opened. He reached up to grab the handle and tried to open it. It wouldn't budge. The man inside was struggling to undo his protective gear, but it seemed to be locked up. Zach knocked on the window, motioned for the man to unlock the door. He did, and Zach was finally able to get the door open. He glanced in toward the back seat to see if there was anyone else inside. The man appeared to be its only inhabitant.
"Lemme get it," Zach said, pulling a small folding knife out of his pocket. He braced the man with his left arm while he flipped open the knife and sliced through the fabric. Once that was done, he flipped the knife closed and supported the man with both arms. "C'mon, nice 'n' easy," he said, easing the man from the vehicle.
Once the man was back on his own two feet on the ground, he grabbed Zach's shirt. His eyes widened in terror. "Something hit my vehicle! What was that?"
"Dunno," Zach lied.
The man noticed for the first time that Zach was wet and muddy. "What happened to you?"
"Um — you should probably watch where you're drivin' from now on."
"Huh?" the man asked, uncomprehending.
"You in a hurry to get somewhere?" Zach asked.
"Give yourself extra time to get where you're goin' from now on, yeah? You never know what'll happen if you don't."
The man glared up at his car. "Tell me about it."
"You gonna be okay if I leave?" Zach asked.
"I-I don't know. This isn't the safest part of town."
"Got someone you can call to come pick you up?"
The man nodded, already pulling his mobile communications device — MCD — from his pocket.
Zach fell silent while the man dialed and had a brief conversation with someone, then he waited with him for his friend to arrive. While they waited, they pushed the man's vehicle off the truck, then flipped it back over and pushed it to the side of the road a little ways ahead.
The man's friend arrived, and he thanked Zach for the umpteenth time for all his help.
"What about your vehicle?" Zach asked as the man climbed into his friend's SUV.
"I'll call the law enforcers from home, let them know what happened. I got their plate number, so I can' give that to them, too."
"Good deal," Zach said. "Stay safe," he added before closing the door behind the man.
The new vehicle peeled out, then sped away, splashing Zach with more muddy water.
He stared down at his pants. They'd been damp when the latest car arrived. Now they were soaked through again.
"Can't catch a break," he muttered.
Now that they were gone, Zach could hear the hellhound panting beside him. Apparently, it had kept its distance after its violent outburst. Now, it approached Zach and waited calmly.
"Where to now?" Zach asked it.
It let out a soft whine.
Zach glanced around and saw a woman walking along the opposite side of the street. She was alone and bundled up against the chilly night's breeze in a long, lightweight jacket.
"Is that what all the whinin's 'bout?" Zach asked. He smiled. "Ain't no danger there."
But as soon as he got the words out, the woman disappeared into an alley, and not by her own free will. Someone had grabbed her and dragged her into the narrow space. It took him a moment to realize that the smell of sulfur had quickly begun to dissipate. He listened for a moment and heard the soft padding of feet on pavement. The hellhound was moving quickly across the street and toward the alley where the woman had disappeared.
Zach followed in silence, unwilling to alert the woman's abductor. The hellhound held no such compunction, however, and it barked loudly, the sound more of a roar than anything.
Next, Zach heard a man cry out, then scream as the hellhound attacked.
Zach reached the opening of the alley just in time to spot the man's sleeve tearing. Blood seeped from a set of deep gashes on his forearm. The man spotted Zach and pleaded with him for help.
Zach shook his head. He couldn't get involved, lest he become yet another victim. If there was one thing in this world he didn't want, it was to be dragged down under for a second time. "There's nothin' I can do, man. Play dead, maybe that'll help."
The man continued fighting his invisible attacker, kicking and flailing about as the hellhound pulled his jacket off, jerking the man first left then right as it did so, and leaving him even more exposed than before.
The man screamed again as invisible jaws clamped down on his side. Blood began to flow in a weird arch as it made it's way through the hellhound's mouth and throat, and down it's maw. The man was flung this way and that like a rag doll, and Zach heard bones snap. For the briefest of moments, he heard a rattling sound emerge from the man's chest, and in the next breath, the man stopped fighting as death took him.
Zach heard the braying of more hellhounds, and he hid in the shadows. They'd still see him, but if he stood perfectly still, they wouldn't see him as a threat. From there, he watched as the invisible predators tore the man apart, limb from limb, then dragged him away, disappearing farther down the alley.
He glanced around. The woman had wisely fled the scene as soon as the attack had started, not wanting to be the next victim of the invisible monster. But this hellhound wasn't a monster, at least it wasn't tonight. It had saved the woman from a hellish ordeal, killing her would-be rapist. Then others had come to drag his carcass down under. Zach couldn't say he sympathized with the man. Play with fire, you're gonna get burned. Try and commit rape, get torn apart by hellhounds and wake up in your own special kind of hell.
He heard the padding of the hellhound's feet as it approached, the blood dripping from its maw the only visible sign that there was anything there. Slowly, he reached out to see if he could touch it. It shied away.
He shrugged and lowered his hand to his side. "C'mon," he said quietly, moving further into the alley. He wanted to see what he could find. Did the man bleed all the way down to the end of the alley, or did he vanish before then? Did the hellhounds leave scorch marks on the pavement? His current companion hadn't, so far, so maybe they didn't either?
He stayed in the shadows and moved along the side of the building. Scorch marks started a few yards down, and he followed them until they abruptly stopped by a large trash bin about three quarters of the way down. It overflowed with garbage and reeked of sour food and mold, among other things.
He was about to turn and say something to the hellhound when there came a scraping sound, like lead on tarmac. Three rough looking young men stepped out from behind the bin. They wore tank tops, leather jackets, and holey jeans, with sneakers on their feet and knitted caps on their heads. None of them looked old enough to be out of school, as evidenced by their lack of facial hair and an overabundance of blemishes on their otherwise smooth skin.
One of them held a metal pipe in his hands and a mean scowl on his face. Were it not for his threatening demeanor and gang outfit, he could pass for a Domination player. He certainly had the physical build for it.
Zach cursed himself for leaving his weapons at home. What was supposed to have been be a fun night out had turned out to be anything but fun.
He held up his hands. " Hey, I don't want no trouble."
"Well, you found it," said the second kid, a bit smaller than the first, but no less dangerous as he held out a nasty looking knife.
"I ain't got no beef with you, man. Any of you. Just lemme go, 'n' we'll call it good, yeah?"
"Yeahno," said a third guy, who was a bit on the chunky side. "Give us your money and valuables, and we might let you live."
Zach held his arms straight out to his sides. "What you see is what you get. I ain't got no valuables on me."
"You're a liar," said the second kid.
"Don't believe me? Search me."
Zach resigned himself to the fact that he would have to fight them. They were mortal. He didn't want to accidentally kill one of them, but neither did he want to be killed, even if his death would only be temporary.
The smell of sulfur grew exponentially stronger as the hellhound growled low in its throat and moved past Zach, taking up a position in front of him.
The first kid took a step forward, then grimaced, clearly offended by the odor.
"What the Hell is that?" the third guy muttered.
"Dude!" The first kid laughed and pointed at Zach. "The dweeb farted!"
"Silent but deadly," the second kid chimed in. All three had a good laugh at Zach's expense, but he just stood glaring at them.
Their laughter died quickly as the hellhound's growl grew louder and more threatening. The first kid readied his pipe for defense.
"I wouldn't do that if I was you," Zach said calmly, trying to prevent what would most likely be a very violent and deadly bloodbath. Hellhounds were notorious for tearing people apart — literally — as he'd seen so recently. It wasn't a pretty sight, and it was extremely painful, as Zach knew from firsthand experience from when the hellhounds had taken him down under many millennia ago.
The hoodlums must have heard the hellhound approaching them, because all three turned and ran away as fast as their legs would carry them. The first one dropped his pipe and didn't bother to stop and pick it back up.
That was good for Zach, because now he could arm himself against any more threats that came up. He picked it up, dragging it along the tarmac as he did so. It had some good weight to it. He could do some damage with it if he had to, but that would be a last resort.
He turned back to where he thought the hellhound currently stood, due to the sound of its panting.
"Where's Archan?" he asked the beast. He heard a small whine, then more panting, which brought with it another foul breeze that again made Zach wrinkle his nose.
He wasn't sure what to do. He couldn't have this beast following him around everywhere. Grateful for the fact that it wasn't here to hurt him, he nevertheless wanted to be rid of it. But how?
The beast had originally made him extremely nervous, but now, he crouched down and held out a hand toward it.
"Come here," he said quietly. "I won't hurt you."
He nearly laughed at that preposterous statement. There was nothing he could do right now that could hurt the hellhound, but the hellhound could cause him a world of pain. Still, he wasn't sure what to do in this situation. He'd never faced a hellhound that didn't want to rip him to shreds.
"C'mon," he said, lightly snapping his fingers.
The hellhound let out a rumble deep in its throat.
"Don't be like that. I said I won't hurt you. Come here."
Suddenly, the hellhound howled, and in the next moment, Zach heard its feet running toward him. Could he have been wrong about the beast's intent?
He turned and hightailed it out of there, and in the next moment, a massive invisible force knocked him down onto the tarmac. His hands and knees hit the pavement hard, and he grunted as the hellhound ran right over him. A few seconds later, it was gone. No more sulfur. No more growling. One second, it was there, and the next, it wasn't.
"Ow," Zach said, still on his hands and knees on the gritty pavement. "That was — not fun."
He rose to his feet and brushed the grit from his hands and knees, then picked up the pipe and inspected it. He laughed as he realized that the hellhound really hadn't been there to hurt him.
"Yup, gotta be one of Archan's," he said to the silent alley. The hellhound would return, and when it did, he'd be waiting for it.
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He barely stepped out of the alley when a vehicle pulled up beside him, its window rolled down.
"Hey, can we talk to you for a minute?" the law enforcer on the passenger side asked.
Zach stopped and approached, looking the l.e. over carefully. "'Bout what?" he asked.
The l.e. slowly got out of the car, his hand near his weapon, but not on it. "We got a call there was some kind of disturbance down here. You hear anything?"
"I was jumped in the alley, but they ran away. That's all I know," Zach said, preferring not to mention the events that had happened earlier.
"Where'd you get that?" the l.e. asked, eying the pipe in Zach's right hand. "Did you beat them with it?"
"Naw, one of 'em had it 'n' dropped it when they ran. I picked it up in case I get jumped again."
"Uh huh," the l.e. said, clearly not believing him. "How many were there? Why'd they run?"
"Three, none of 'em old enough to be outta school. Guess they got spooked by somethin'."
The other law enforcer got out of the car and came around the front to stand beside the first. He remained silent, but he kept his hand near his firearm and his eyes on Zach's metal pipe.
"You don't look old enough to be out of school yourself. What are you doing out here?"
"Takin' a walk," Zach lied.
"In this neighborhood? Nobody 'takes a walk' around here. It's too dangerous."
"I wouldn't know 'bout that. I live outside of town."
The first l.e. reached for a pair of cuffs in his pocket and pulled them out. "We'll need you to go downtown and answer more questions."
Zack looked from the first l.e. to the second. "For what? I ain't done nothin'."
"We'll be the judge of that," the l.e. said, frisking Zach. He snapped one of the cuffs around Zach's right wrist. "We'll need this, too," he said, taking hold of the pipe. Zach released it without a fight, and the l.e. handed it to his partner.
"Fine, whatev. I don't need it," Zach said as the l.e. turned him around and snapped the other cuff around his left hand so that both hands were both cuffed behind his back.
The second l.e. read Zach his rights while the first helped him into the car.
"Do I get a call when we get there?" Zach asked.
"You'll get your call," the l.e. confirmed.
At that, Zach decided to keep quiet. He wasn't about to give the law enforcers any real reasons to detain him. Sam wouldn't be happy when he learned what had happened, but Zach would explain the whole thing later. For now, he'd play along.
They drove him to the local law enforcement headquarters, walked him inside, and cuffed him to a chair. They let him make his call, then went to get some quava before resuming the interrogation.
How could he explain the hellhound without them believing he was completely insane? Hellhounds were creatures of legend, never seen by anyone but those who were doomed to die and get dragged down under. He decided to stick with the story that he'd been out taking a walk. It was his best option, at the moment.
The law enforcers returned, and one of them set a cup of quava on the desk in front of him, then the first l.e. sat down and started asking questions. The second one sat on the edge of the desk near Zach, eying him with intense suspicion.
Zach picked up the cup and drank deeply from it, then the interrogation continued. The l.e. hadn't gotten far in his interrogation when the smell of sulfur wafted over them. He looked around. "What is that smell?" he asked in disgust.
"Smells like sulfur to me," his partner said, still eying Zach. "You feeling okay, kid?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. The smell, it's—"
"Yes?" the first l.e. asked.
Zach looked from one l.e. to the other, unsure of whether he should proceed. "Never mind. It's nothin'."
"Out with it," the l.e. ordered.
"It's why I was out walkin', but you won't believe me."
"Try us," the second l.e. said. A very small smile played at the corner of his mouth as he watched Zach more closely than ever.
"It's a hellhound. You've heard of Archan the Hunter?"
"Yeah, isn't he a myth?"
"No, he's real, 'n' he's got a pack of hellhounds. We made a bet, 'n' this hound is part of it."
"Explain," the first l.e. said, still clearly not believing a word that came out of Zach's mouth.
"He wanted to see if he could scare me. I told him he couldn't."
"So he sent one of these hellhounds after you? Seems thin to me," the second l.e. said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Why would this Archan care about you?"
"'Cause we're friends. At least we are now. I was one of his fugitives from down under a couple of years ago."
"Sheforat?" the first l.e. asked, his eyes wide in alarm.
Zach nodded, swallowing hard and wanting to forget the place existed.
The l.e. studied him more closely. "Hey, you're that — that guy that tried to take over the world, right?" He glanced up at his partner. "What was his name?"
"Right. I knew there was something familiar about you. Just didn't know you were the psycho that was all over the news," the l.e. said, returning his gaze to Zach. "You and this Archan character, you're friends?"
"We are now, yeah. And I'm not a psycho. I didn't want to take over the world, either. I wanted to destroy it."
The second officer shifted his weight and leaned on the desk again. "Whatever. So, you expect us to believe this story? What proof do you have that any of it's true?"
"None, but my brother can confirm it when he gets here."
All three looked up to find Sam approaching.
"Samandriel. You're his brother?" the second l.e. asked.
"Yes, what's he done?"
"That's what we're trying to find out. He swears he was taking a walk downtown in a dangerous area. Now, he's giving us some cock and bull story about a hellhound and a bet he made with Archan. You know Archan?"
"Yes, he's a friend of ours," Sam said. "And he does have hellhounds." He looked down at Zach, who was still cuffed to the chair. "What's going on here?"
"Remember I told you 'bout our bet?" Zach asked.
"Yes, but I wasn't there when you made it."
"No, but I told you 'bout it. So did Archan, remember?"
Sam nodded. "Yes, but why are you here tonight? What have you done?"
"I ain't done nothin'!" Zach exclaimed in frustration. "I was jumped, but the hellhound chased the punks away. One of 'em dropped his pipe 'n' I picked it up. Figured I'd need it if I got jumped again. I had that pipe for, maybe, five minutes, tops. I ain't done nothin' 'cept get mowed down by a damned hound of hell."
"All right," Sam said, looking up at the law enforcers. "I'll vouch for him. My brother isn't a troublemaker. If he says he was jumped, and they ran away, that's what happened. And from the smell in here, I'd say he's telling the truth about the hellhound, too. Will you be pressing charges?"
"No, he can go," the first l.e. said. He gave Zach a penetrating stare. "But if we catch you out on the streets in that neighborhood again, this late at night, things might go down a lot differently. You might be an angel, but that doesn't exempt you from the law."
The second l.e. unlocked the cuff, and Zach rubbed his wrist, then held up his hands. "You won't catch me in that neighborhood again, 'least not at this time of night. You have my word on that."
"Good," the l.e. said. He turned his gaze toward Sam, and a smile crossed his face. "Have a good evening, Sam. Catch you later."
"You too, Jack, Tom," Sam replied with nods toward each of them. "C'mon, Zach. You've got some explaining to do."
The smell of sulfur followed them all the way out to Sam's truck, and they got in. The hellhound growled long and low, and Zach reopened his door.
"Look, the mutt's still followin' me, so I gotta go. Can you let Selanar and Andrea know I'm okay?"
"Where are you going?"
"Gotta lead it away 'n' figure out what to do 'bout it."
"Where will you go? Have you got your MCD?" Sam asked, clearly not liking Zach's plan in the least.
"Yeah, I've got it. I'll call 'n' let you know where to pick me up. Andrea's with Selanar at his place, by the way."
"Okay, I'll let them know what's going on. You be careful."
"I will," Zach said. He got out and slammed the door behind him. He watched Sam drive away, then he looked around, trying to figure out where the hellhound currently stood. He couldn't figure it out, so he just turned and walked away. "C'mon, buddy," he murmured, speeding up his pace a little.
The stench grew stronger, so he knew the hellhound was still following him. A grim smile crossed his face as he thought about that. Never in his wildest dreams would he have hoped a hellhound would follow him anywhere.
A low stone wall stood up ahead, and Zach scaled it. The hellhound followed suit, evidenced by the scorch marks along the grass that followed in its wake, as well as the foul smell that accompanied it.
"That's right," Zach murmured. "Keep followin' me." He glanced around, not really noticing where he was. "If I was a hellhound, where would I wanna go?"
As he moved, he considered what to do next. Where should he lead the beast?
He turned around to ask it. He wouldn't get an answer, of course, but if he talked to it, maybe it would grow more familiar and feel more at ease with him.
The ground was burning, but it didn't catch fire, thanks to the recent rains. "What do hellhounds do when they're not tearin' people apart?" he asked aloud.
A low rumbling answered his query, but it didn't come from the hellhound in front of him. Zach's eyes opened wide. For the first time all night, a sense of genuine terror filled him. His heart beat faster, and his breathing grew more difficult at the thought that he'd just encountered a new hellhound, and it most likely wasn't one of Archan's. At that thought, his blood ran cold.
He looked up, and for the first time, he noticed the gravestones before him. He currently stood along the edge of the cemetery, and the lines of gravestones started about five yards ahead of him.
"Crap," he muttered. If he'd been paying attention, he never would have scaled the wall. Now he had to deal with a real hellhound. Not that the original wasn't real, but it clearly wasn't out to kill him. This new one, though—.
His mind started drifting back to that time millennia ago when a pack of hellhounds had attacked and torn him apart. Their intent had been to take him down under. He recognized the signs of the coming flashback, but he had a hard time getting a grip this time as a real sense of horror took hold of him. He kept telling himself that he wasn't back there. That had been a long time ago. He'd done his time. This hellhound wasn't going to drag him anywhere, least of all down under. It was just guarding the cemetery. It wouldn't back down from a fight, but it wasn't going to tear him apart if he didn't confront it, either.
Slowly, his focus returned, and with it, a clarity as to what his next action should be. He lowered his hands to his sides and promptly sat down in the moist grass. Can't be less threatening than this without being dead, he thought. He heard the first hellhound approach and sit down in front of him. Even saw the grass flatten there. He reached out to touch it and was surprised when his hand felt fur. The fur was hot, but it didn't burn him, and he ruffled it a bit.
"Hey, buddy, are you a good hellhound?" he asked in a voice he'd use when talking to a young child, feeling utterly foolish the entire time, even though there was no one around to see him. "Yeah, who's a good hellhound? Are you a good hellhound? Yes, you are! You sure are!"
A moment later, he heard the low rumble of a growl close to his right ear. The pumping of his celestial heart stopped for the briefest of moments, but he forced himself to focus on the original hellhound and let the other one sniff him. The smell was nearly unbearable by this point, so that he barely noticed when the second hellhound growled again. This growl was a little louder, a bit more menacing, so that Zach wondered if he'd done the right thing in sitting down. The position had him completely vulnerable, and suddenly, he felt an urge to get up and run.
Before he had a chance to do anything, there came a flash of bright light and a clap of thunder as Archan appeared a few feet away from him.
"Bet's off," the hunter said. He snapped his fingers, and the first hellhound moved away from Zach.
Relief flooded Zach in that moment, but it didn't last long. Once Archan's words registered in his mind, he grew angry. Slowly, so as not to alarm the second hellhound, he rose to his feet. He tried to keep the rage out of his movements and facial expression as he approached the hunter, and when he finally reached him, he drew back and hit him in the jaw as hard as he could.
There was a yelp from the second hellhound, as it leapt toward Zach. Zach dodged to the side and felt hot fur brush up against him.
Archan stumbled back a step or two, held up a hand to halt the hellhound, then he glared at Zach. "What was that for?"
"That's for the hell you put me through tonight. 'Cause of you, I've had to deal with a hellhound attack on a would-be rapist, gettin' splashed with mud — twice — gang bangers, law enforcers, 'n' now this second hellhound. You couldn't have jus' jumped out from behind somethin' 'n' yelled 'boo!' 'n' leave it at that?"
"Hey, you'd deal with most of that stuff on these streets anyway, but how was I supposed to know you'd run into a cemetery? Everyone knows they're guarded by hellhounds."
Zach got all up in Archan's face, jabbed a finger at him. "No way you're callin' it off, man. I won fair 'n' square. You're gonna be my slave for a day, like it or not, 'n' I'm tempted to make it a day on the Agaean for all the crap you put me through tonight."
"Okay, you win," Archan said, holding up his hands in defeat. "But it's a day on Illdirin, not on the Agaean. No way will I serve you for five thousand years. Couldn't if I wanted to. I've got things to hunt, you know."
"Fine. 'N' you can start tomorrow mornin' by bringin' me my paper 'n' quava while I lounge around in bed doin' nothin'."
"Bed? You don't sleep. And since when do you read the morning paper?"
"I might attempt sleep tonight for your benefit," Zach said thoughtfully. "Might even try a shower. You can warm my towels for me. I don't read the paper, but you can bring it to me anyway. 'N' after that, you can get me a nice, expensive, dry red wine from the cellar, add a little Sapphire, 'n' bring it to me while I host lunch for Selanar 'n' Andrea. Tonight was supposed to be spent with them, but you robbed me of that privilege, so you'll need to grovel at my feet and beg for my forgiveness."
Archan rolled his eyes. "I should have known I'd create a monster with this. You're so melodramatic."
"Whatev. It's only for one day, right?" Zach hit the back of the hunter's shoulder with the flat of his hand. "But you'll survive. You're a celestial hunter, right? The leader of the order. You've suffered worse."
This sobered Archan. "So have you. I'll serve you, and I'll do it with pride. You've been through a helluva lot more than I have, and I can appreciate that. You won fair and square, like you said. I'll be at Sam's bright and early, and I'll do your bidding."
"Good. Maybe next time, you won't be so cocky," Zach grinned.
"Next time?" Archan laughed. "Who says there's going to be a next time?"
"With you, there's always a next time."
"True, that," Archan grinned, then he snapped his fingers, a sure sign that he was about to vanish.
"Wait!" Zach exclaimed.
"Can I — can you show me the hellhound? I'd like to see who I've spent the evenin' with, if you don't mind."
Archan waved his hand, and a hellhound shimmered into view. His hair was black and shaggy, and his legs and chest were powerfully muscled. His red eyes glowed brightly, and as he panted, his mouth and throat appeared to be lit with fire from the inside.
He knelt down and stretched a hand out toward the hellhound. "Come here —" He glanced up at Archan. "What's his name?"
"Come here, Drogg," Zach said with a small smile.
Drogg rose from his place beside the hunter, padded over to Zach, and sat down. Drogg was big, but not nearly as big as he believed the second hellhound to be. He might have been the size of a large calf, so he couldn't be more than a pup.
He laid his hand on Drogg's neck, sinking his fingers into the fur there. "You've been a good hound tonight. I'm gonna miss you. Take good care of yourself, yeah?"
Drogg tilted his head to the side, watching Zach with eyes aflame.
"Can he understand me?" Zach asked without looking away from the hellhound.
"He understands every word."
"Good. You take care of yourself, 'n' don't forget me, 'kay?"
Drogg turned his head and licked Zach's forearm.
Zach laughed and scritched Drogg behind the ear. "I'll see you around — I hope."
"I'll make sure of it," Archan said. "Far be it from me to keep a budding friendship from growing."
"You can take him now," Zach said, still scritching Drogg behind the other ear and under the chin.
"Drogg, come," Archan said. Drogg moved to sit beside the hunter, then Archan again snapped his fingers. He and the hellhound vanished in a flash of bright light, this time without the thunder.
"Thanks for that," Zach laughed as he gazed up at the dark sky.
You're welcome, Archan said from the aether.
Zach took out his mobile communications device and dialed Sam's number. "Yeah, I'm ready to come home," he said, then told his brother where to find him. After that, he sat down in the moist grass to wait, fully aware that the guardian hellhound was again seated beside him. For now, at least, it seemed to have stopped treating him as a threat. Maybe it wasn't such a bad hound after all?
He slowly reached out and touched it. He could tell from the feel of it that it was a bit larger than a cow, maybe closer to the size of an Agrian buffalo. It's fur was shaggy and hot, and muscles rippled beneath the surface. It began to pant as Zach sank his fingers deeper into its fur. "Who's a good hellhound?" he asked it. The hellhound let out a low whine, then lay down and rolled onto its back. Zach continued to pet it, rubbing its stomach with gusto. A smile came to his face at the thought that he'd made a friend in this beast – and not only this one, but another one besides. He looked forward to seeing Drogg again. If he was lucky, maybe he'd even see the pup grow up to be an adult. It surprised him to learn that he liked that idea. He liked it a lot.