The two men sat shoulder to shoulder on a narrow outcropping, feet dangling over a drop a mile deep. They'd been climbing, steadily, carefully, for nearly two hours, stopping only twice at the mouths of two caves. Leaving Daniel to rest, Dom had edged down the dark passageways, hoping to find a way out that didn’t require clawing their way out of Hell. One trail had ended at a waterfall of seething lava, the other at a gate with large deformed skulls impaled on the tip of each iron rail.
“The wall is cooler now and the air feels fresher,” Daniel mumbled, wiping the sweat off his face with the ragged edge of his shirt. At the first place they’d stopped, he’d torn strips off the material, wrapping his hands to ease the blistering from the heated rock, though he couldn’t do the same for his fingers, now burned and raw.
Looking up at the bright, golden haze, then down at the twisted scarlet ribbon of the River of Tears writhing far beneath them, Dom said, “We’re about halfway, I think.” Glancing at the condition of Daniel’s hands, he focused on the rock wall across the chasm from their perch before he asked softly, “Can you manage?” The intensity of Daniel’s glower felt like a physical slap on his face.
“You think I can’t handle this?”
“Did I say that? I just asked if you could—”
“Have I been holding you back?” Daniel snapped. “Pretty funny, considering an hour or so ago you were just going to roll over and martyr yourself in the fucking Pit of Doom!”
“Excuse me for trying to muster up some give a shit, you bastard!”
Dom saw the hurt flash in Daniel’s eyes as he bellowed, “Don’t call me a bastard!”
Heedless of the precarious position, they both surged to their feet, but Daniel slipped on a small stone and teetered to the side, forcing Dom to jerk him away from the edge. Nose to nose, they glared furiously at each other until suddenly Daniel smiled. “Good save, thanks.” He cocked his head, still smiling. “So this brother thing means pissing each other off on a regular basis?”
Dom reluctantly grinned, then shook his head. “Having to put up with a smartass like you might be worse than staying here.” He lightly punched Daniel in the shoulder. “It was just a word. I didn’t mean it personally.”
“Spent my whole life fighting it.” Daniel shrugged. “Can’t help taking it personal.” He looked up the wall, sighed and began to search for his next handhold. Hissing at the burn when he slid his fingers into a crack, he slowly began to pull himself upward, eager to reach the rim.
“Get down!” Dom shouted. Before he could react, Daniel found himself abruptly yanked back onto the ledge, Dom’s arm flung across his chest, slamming him against the rock.
“What’s wrong?” Daniel gasped, trying to catch his breath from the blow.
“Something’s coming,” Dom growled, his head tipped back. Following his gaze, Daniel watched as a small shape fell from above. Flattened to the wall, both men tracked the falling object as it dropped, its approach preceded by an interminable howling.
“I don’t believe it.” Dom recognized the Hound as it drew closer. Suddenly spying them, it screamed with fury and tried to crawl through the air toward them, stringy ropes of drool streaming from its jaws, eyes febrile as it altered shape from malformed ape, to misshapen man, back to frenzied Hound. Each mutation strained to reach them until it was too late and the creature soared past in its plummet to the River of Tears.
“Was that your father’s mangy dog thing?” Daniel asked, carefully peering over the edge to watch the beast’s descent. “How did it end up here?”
“I don’t know. Unless—” They stared at each other, then simultaneously looked above their heads. “Taurin.”
“Your eyes are obviously better than mine,” Daniel said eagerly, “do you see him up there?” He felt a momentary sense of relief that rescue might be at hand, even if that hand was intent on making him pay for stealing Lily’s book.
Disgruntled when Dom said there was no sign of the Warden, Daniel turned back to the rock, found his handhold again and was just about to resume his climb, when Dom said softly, “I’ve waited years to see the end of that fucking thing. Let me savor the moment.”
Daniel stood next to his brother and followed the creature’s flailing movements, listened as the screeches faded into the depths, and felt a profound solidarity with the man at his side, coupled with a bone-deep satisfaction at the imminent demise of the monstrosity that had killed not only their mother, but his father.
“Oh shit,” Dom hissed, leaning so far over the edge Daniel’s hand shot out to grasp his arm before he pitched off the ledge. Far below, he could just make out two skeletal, black-winged beings streaking from a fracture in the rock. He saw with dawning horror the long, clawed foot snatch up the Hound a moment before it plunged into the fiery river.
Silently the brothers watched the creatures until they disappeared from sight, then Dom said grimly, “We’ve got to get moving. That damned dog knows where we are. We probably don’t have much time before dear old Dad gets an earful.”
“Do those flying skeletons belong to him?” Daniel asked over his shoulder as he immediately began to lead the way upward.
“No clue. My father’s been gone for over a century. I don’t know what kind of power he has now, but even if those bat things aren’t his, they’ll belong to someone.” He took his place behind Daniel. “No matter what, we can’t be caught scrambling up the face of this rock when they come back.”
Nothing more was said as they concentrated on the arduous climb, urgency driving them at a reckless pace.