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About ValentineDavis21

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  1. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 12

    Lane’s thoughts were racing in so many different directions he thought he would go mad. Sara was probably at the hideout by now telling Barghast, Mara, and Rake what had happened with the crone. And what would Lane tell them when they demanded the truth - assuming they didn’t rip him apart first? Would telling them the truth only make the situation worse? All at once Lane felt small, like an atom. He didn’t belong in this place, he didn’t belong anywhere. This has been a day straight from the Abyss, he thought. The streets of Fruimont were beginning to quiet as people started to head home. Soon the curfew would sound and anyone who was not indoors by the time the chimes ended would be arrested and thrown in jail. Lane couldn’t help but wonder what their punishment would be. Would they be sentenced with death, crucified for defying the Chantry or would they be let out after a couple of days? It didn’t matter. As long as Lane had the Red Wraith uniform and tattoo on (the tattoo hadn’t even begun to fade yet) the city belonged to him. He could do as he liked. He would return to the hideout but there was something he wanted to do first. It was a foolish and dangerous thing really but it also felt necessary. And it wouldn’t be the first foolish thing he’d done today. Twice he’d walked around the City Hall building, making sure to stick to the shadows. He didn’t sense any wards around the place which hopefully meant he would only have to worry about getting past the guards. Turning off a main street, Lane went into an alley. If he was careful and quiet enough he would be able to get past the guards without alerting them by using a glamour spell. Glamouring was one of the most simple yet efficient skills a practitioner could learn. Unlike offensive magic it was the mastering of illusion: It could be used to alter someone’s appearance, make them look younger or older. Or they could mimic the appearance of another. In Lane’s case he would be using to blend in with his surroundings like a chameleon, all but rendering himself invisible. Of course if he wasn’t careful he could still be seen. No magic could turn someone completely invisible. Had the two guards been paying attention and turned around they would have noticed the blur that passed behind them, making the air ripple. Instead they were busy cursing with each other about the weather. Lane was able to get into the building easily without being noticed. With it being late at night and with the curfew just an hour away Lane suspected there would be few people inside, if any. What he wasn’t sure of was whether Benedik was even anywhere inside - it was very possible Lane was doing this for nothing. He was taking a huge risk, hoping he could trust Loras’s description of the man. For all Lane knew the man had been completely compromised and would alert the High Priest to Lane’s presence. ... Benedik stood on the balcony of his office, smoking his pipe. Due to his position as mayor his office was the only one that had a balcony. His office also served as a studio apartment with a kitchen alcove and sitting area. The sofa was a futon and comfortable enough to sleep on. There were many times he’d slept here after working too late; after three days it had proved to be the ideal refuge away from his family. He couldn’t fathom facing them again after the things he’d allowed to happen to this city and to the people who counted on him to do something. I’m not the man I used to be, he thought, tipping the ash out of his pipe; he watched the wind pick it up and blow it away into the night. I used to be someone who had honor, dignity, and courage. Now I’m just a coward too afraid to do what needs to be done. Benedik let himself into his office, making sure to lock the doors. The office was familiar and cozy - silent. No one was here expecting him to save the day and screaming at him in betrayal when he didn’t. However he wouldn’t sleep tonight just as he hadn’t slept for the last two nights. There were too many dead faces in his head. Too many ghosts. He had just poured himself a mug of jalasa tea when he thought he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He froze, cup half raised to his lips. His eyes swept slowly from one side of the office to the other. Though his eyes told him there was no one else in the office he could feel someone watching him. “I know you’re here,” he said. His voice sounded steadier than he felt. “I don’t know how you got past the guard but if what you wanted is to corner me you’ve succeeded.” He spotted a ripple over by the door, a discoloration in the wallpaper. How he hadn’t noticed it before Benedik didn’t know. A second later a man seemed to materialize out of the wall. He wore the uniform of a Red Wraith. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old with medium black hair and the common pale skin of someone from the north. There was eyeshadow smeared all around his eyes. Benedik recognized him. It was the kid from yesterday, the one who had crucified Cel Resnik earlier. “What do you want?” Benedik demanded. “Are you here to kill me?” The man rolled his eyes. “No, I’m not here to kill you. I’m a friend of Loras.” Benedik’s heart skipped a beat at the mention of her name. “So the Chantry got my letter then?” “They did.” “Are they going to send anyone? Where’s the calvary?” “Right now my squad’s it,” said the practitioner. “We’re trying to gather intel on what’s happening here and to make sure the Scarlet Church isn’t twisting your arm somehow. The Chantry doesn’t want to expend anymore resources than they have to.” “Of course not,” Benedik grumbled. “Even though I’ve been aiding Pope Drajen in his efforts for the past two decades. So they think Damen Orlys has brainwashed me somehow?” Lane went over to the futon and sat down. “Basically. And from the looks of it I’d say they’re right.” “This is coming from the kid who crucified a helpless old man?” Lane sighed. “Yeah, good point. I know what I did. I keep telling myself I did it for my squad, to keep our cover, but there really is no justifying it.” Benedik went over to his desk and sat down. He studied the strange young man sitting before him. The way he sat with his shoulders slumped spoke of someone who carried the world on his shoulders. What was he doing in this terrible place? “How old are you?” “Seventeen. Why?” “You just seem awfully young...” “I’ll be eighteen in a week. And don’t let my youth fool you, I’m older than I look.” Lane stood up. “I’d love to chat and get all buddy-buddy but I have to go. I’ve already risked too much by coming here. I just thought I’d let you know the Chantry knows about your situation.” “It’s not exactly the news I was wanting to hear but I appreciate the consideration.” Lane nodded. “You’re welcome.” Benedik stood, clearing his throat. “One last thing: You and your squad got in through the watchtower didn’t you? I just heard the report. Someone killed all the Red Wraiths on shift. I’d be careful if I were you. He’s on the hunt for whoever did it. I’d get out while you and your squad still can.” “Thanks for the information. I’ll let them know. Regardless of what they decide I can’t leave just yet.” “Why not?” Lane’s shoulders slumped. A look of utter exhaustion came over his face. Benedik didn’t think anyone so young could look so sad...or old. “I’m on my own private mission. D-Squad was just the ticket to get me here, a disguise.” “What is your mission?” Lane looked Benedik directly in the eye. “To kill the High Priest.” Benedik was too shocked to know what to say so. He could only watch as Lane seemed to vanish with the whisper of a word, though Benedik could still see the rippling shape of his outline. He watched the door open and shut. Once more he was alone. Benedik sunk back into his chair. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt so exhausted. I just might go to sleep after all, he thought. ... Lane knew he would have some questions to answer when he got back. In the end he decided to tell the truth. He’d fought with the Stray Dogs for a year - regardless of whether or not he was truly a member, that meant something to him. At the very least he owed them the truth. Four faces turned to look at him when he stepped through the door. Swearing, Mara was on her feet in an instant. She slapped him across the face hard enough to turn his head to the side. “What did you do, you bastard?” Lane’s face stung. “I save your girlfriends’ life and this is how you thank me?” Mara raised her hand to slap him again but before she could Sara was in between them. “Mara, stop!” Sara said. Fuming, Mara spun around and sat back down in her corner of the room, still giving Lane the death stare. “I think you have some explaining to do,” Rake said, stepping towards Lane with his arms crossed. Lane glanced at Barghast, perhaps expecting the Okanavian to come to his aid. The large man merely sat on his side of the room, staring at him, waiting, his expression unreadable. Lane felt his heart drop. You save a girl from a demon and everyone acts as if there’s something wrong with you, he thought. Some thanks. But he had always known this was how it was going to be, hadn’t he? No matter what he did, no matter who he saved or how many times he saved them he would never find true acceptance amongst the Stray Dogs just like in Annesville. So he stood there in the middle of the room and told them the same thing he’d told Loras. He looked down at his feet the whole time, feeling as if he was on trial. The idea of looking into their eyes and seeing their reactions frightened him. When he finished there was silence for a long time. He closed his eyes, ready to die at any second. “Who is this Ex’olku?” Sara asked. “I don’t know exactly,” said Lane. “I’ve never seen him. I’ve only heard him...in my head. He’s been around for a long time...since before the world even existed. The Chantry knows of him as the Light.” Mara snorted. “C’mon, Sara, you don’t really believe him, do you?” “You weren’t there,” said Sara. “None of you were except for Lane. I heard the crone. She said something about Ex’olku...not directly but she called him the demon bane. She was afraid of him. I’ve never seen a demon look frightened.” Barghast spoke for the first time since Lane had entered the room. “If what you say is true then you would have the mark on your back.” Lane gaped at him. How could Barghast possibly know about the mark? He was too stunned to ask so he simply turned around so his back was facing them. Slowly he lifted the back of his shirt until it was up around his shoulders and neck. Just as he expected he heard four collective gasps. “It cannot be,” Barghast said. His eyes were wide, filled with wonder. “I always just thought it was a superstitious story told by my people. Superstition.” He got up and went to Lane slowly. He reached to touch the scar that covered Lane’s whole back...and then pulled back as if touching it would burn him. He shook his head and sat back down. His reaction hurt Lane more than words could have said. “I don’t understand,” said Sara, sounding frustrated. “What does all this mean?” Lane sighed. “I’m too damned tired to explain it all to you people. I don’t know much myself. Ex’olku has a habit of not explaining himself. All I know is for some reason he’s chosen me to stop whatever the Scarlet Church is planning. With all the possessions happening over the past twenty years and the taking of Fruimont something is happening.” “How are you supposed to stop it?” Sara asked. The practitioner shrugged. “I don’t know. I was going to start with killing Damen Orlys.” Rake burst out laughing. “I can’t believe you’re all listening to this mystical bullshit.” He looked at Lane with utter disdain. “I always knew there was something about you...something that got under my skin...And then you bring up this madness...” “It isn’t madness,” Barghast growled. “The Chantry knows about this stuff they just don’t let on they know. Their entire theology is nothing more than a means to cover up the truth.” His expression softened when he looked at Lane with awe. Lane blushed and looked away. “So now what?” Mara asked after a long, awkward moment of silence. Somehow she seemed subdued, not the fury that had struck Lane just moments ago. Was she feeling guilty for slapping Lane, for how cruel she’d been to him over the past year? Lane doubted it but also found he wanted her to feel guilty. The practitoner frowned, his thoughts heading in another direction. There was something he was supposed to tell them, something Benedik had warned him about but he’d been so focused on telling them the truth he’d forgotten. His mind churned. It was something very important. After a moment it came to him. He opened his mouth to tell them what happened but before he could there was a sudden explosion that made them all jump to their feet. “What in the Abyss was that?” Mara asked, grabbing her rifle. The tattoos along Lane’s arms and shoulders began to tingle. “One of the wards just went off. There’s someone inside the building. Probably Red Wraiths.” “They’ve found us?” Sara’s voice came out as a croak. All the color had drained out of her face. “They know about the watchtower,” Lane said. He grabbed a duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder. He handed another one to Barghast. “It’d probably be good if we found somewhere else to hide.” “It could just be a vagabond or something,” Mara said. “It’s not,” Lane said, impatient with her stupidity. “We need to go now.” He went to the door, opened it, and peeked out just in time to see a Red Wraith come around the corner. Lane ducked back just in time to avoid having his head obliterated by a hail of bullets. Plaster fell onto the dirty floor. “Yep,” he said. “Red Wraiths.” He heard Barghast curse. “We’ve only been here for a day.” Lane stared at his squad for a moment and felt guilty. He couldn’t help but feel it was his fault they were in this predicament. He had to do something. The Red Wraiths would be on them in seconds. There was no way the Stray Dogs could properly defend themselves in this tiny apartment. Lane would be damned if he was going to let any of his squad members get hurt - not today. He looked at Rake. “I’ll cover you guys. Make a run for it.” Before anyone could say anything Lane drew on his mana, shrouding himself in a protective forcefield. The murky hallway was lit up with flashes of light from the gun fire. It was impossible to tell how many Red Wraiths they were. “Let’s go!” Lane shouted at his fellow squad members. In this tiny space he could barely hear his own voice. “Get out of here!” Just as Barghast, Sara, Mara, and Rake ducked out of the room a voice shouted something at the other end of the hallway. The fire immediately stopped. Ears ringing, Lane kept his forcefield up. He watched as a robed figure stepped out into the corridor. It was Damen Orlys, the High Priest. “Drop your force field,” he said to Lane. “I only want to talk.” “I don’t think so,” Lane said, trying to sound braver than he felt. His insides were full of wriggling worms fighting to get out. “I’m not really in the mood for a conversation.” Damen smiled cheerfully. “I’ll kill the rest of your squad if you don’t. You wouldn’t want that, would you? You wouldn’t want their blood on your hands.” Lane risked a glance over his shoulder. Sara, Mara, and Rake had made it to the stairway but Barghast was still behind him. Lane summoned a ward between himself and the High Priest. It wouldn’t do much but it would buy them a few seconds. “Go!” he said, baring his teeth at Barghast in frustration. “What the fuck are you doing just staring?” “I’m not leaving you by yourself,” the Okanavian said. “Come with us.” “I wish I could but I have to do this. I’m trying to protect you, damn it.” “Who’s going to protect you?” Barghast said. “No one,” said Lane. He could feel his eyes beginning to sting. He tried to shove Barghast towards the stairway but it was like trying to push a brick wall. “Go, damn it! I can’t do this if I don’t know you’re safe!” To his relief Barghast started to sprint towards the stairway. With his heart dropping, Lane wondered if it was the last time he would see the man. There were so many things I never got to say to him because I was too scared. Now it’s too late. Let this act of sacrifice show the love I feel for him. Lane turned to face the High Priest who was now leering at him directly from the other side of the ward. The Red Wraiths were gone which meant Damen must have dismissed them. He hoped Barghast and the others were running like hell. They were on their own now. “At long last we meet,” said Damen. “You have no idea how much I’ve been looking forward to this encounter.” “I wish I could say the same,” said Lane. “If you try to walk through the ward it’s going to blow up in your face. I wouldn’t try it if I were you.” Grinning, the High Priest of the Scarlet Church ran a hand along the outer edge of the barrier. With a hissing sound the ward rippled once and then disappeared. Lane gaped. He had never seen anyone make a ward disappear. Now they stood toe to toe, a few feet apart. “I knew there was something strange about you the moment I saw you,” said Damen. “I could tell. You see I’ve known you were coming for a while. Fort Erikson was a big giveaway. And then there was the spy I have stationed at Umstadt Station who gave me your description: a strange young man with black hair and eye makeup smeared all around his eyes. Now personally I love the look. Very gothic and melancholy looking if you catch my meaning, but it’s also a dead giveaway. I could tell you were here immediately.” “If you knew it was me why didn’t you just kill me when I was on the stage?” Lane asked conversationally. The longer he kept Damen distracted the more time he bought D-Squad. Damen smiled, his eyes glinting beneath the hood of his cowl. “I wanted to see what you’d do, if you would compromise your position and expose your friends. I was very surprised when you did it. I have to say I rather admire you.” The smile faded and his eyes filled with sorrow. “It’s why I’m ashamed we’re enemies and that I have to kill you. Now you can either come with me quietly to the Church and I’ll let your friends live...or I can kill you right here and then kill your friends.” Lane paused for a moment and appeared to think it over. “So either way I die?” “Sadly, yes.” Lane took a deep breath, drawing on his mana. His eyes misted over. “I’m not going anywhere with you - not without a fight.” He thrusted a palm outward and shouted, “Feri!” In a blinding flash of fire Damen was thrown down the hallway, his robes smoking. He smashed into a wall and tumbled to the ground in an explosion of flame and plaster. Lane wasted no time in seeing if Damen was going to get up; in a battle of power and will he was no match for the High Priest - not yet anyway. He dashed for the stairs, taking them two at a time. He prayed Barghast and the others wouldn’t leave without him. Terror clawed at him without mercy and though he was running as fast as he could time seemed to have slowed, the universe working to defeat him. He was just about to reach the first floor when a hand seized him by the throat from behind and lifted him off his feet with the strength of ten me. Somehow the High Priest had recovered and caught up with him. Lane struggled and fought, screaming mindlessly. He had never felt so trapped, so helpless. He punched and kicked at Damen but the High Priest merely laughed at him, unaffected. “There are benefits to serving the Primordial Caste,” he said, sneering. “You live for centuries and are almost impervious to death. I don’t know what Ex’olku was thinking, sending a young boy to fight his battles for him. Compared to me you hold the power of an insect.” “Fuck you!” Lane screamed and spat in his face. “Shhh,” Damen whispered almost tenderly. “Sleep.” Against his will Lane’s body betrayed him, his muscles going lax. The world dimmed until there was nothing, not even thought.
  2. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 11

    Lane was convinced he was in a dream though the chilly morning air invading his body proved the contrary. It seemed every eye in the square turned their focus on him, waiting to see if he would resist or obey. It was as if the entire world was holding its breath. For the moment he was the spectacle, not Cel. You know what you have to do, said Ex’olku. Damn you, Lane said back. Damn you why did you have to pick me? Why couldn’t you have picked someone stronger? Someone with the balls to do what needs to be done? Ex’olku’s reply: Trust me and know the path I have chosen for you. Cursing the mysterious entity who had chosen him for its purpose, Lane rounded his shoulders and tool a step forward. To his surprise Barghast took his shoulder. The Okanavian looked frightened. He’d never seen the man look this way before. “You don’t have to go up there,” he grated. “I do,” Lane said. “We’re undercover, remember? Best to play the part.” “This is madness.” Lane pulled free from Barghast’s grasp and began to make his way towards the stage. He kept his eyes focused on the High Priest, the real reason why he was here. I’m going to kill you, the practitioner vowed silently. I’m going to avenge all the lives you’ve destroyed. The crowd parted to let him through, avoiding him as if he was the plague. Lane was reminded of the frightened boy in the alleyway. Like him, none of these people could see past his disguise. After what seemed like an eternity of walking he finally climbed the steps of the stage and stood before the High Priest. As a group of Red Wraiths heaved the cross off the stage. Lane got down on one knee and bowed his head. He kissed Damen’s ringed hand and forced himself to look up at the High Priest’s hooded face. “My priest,” Lane said. “Are you worthy of the church?” Damen asked. “I am.” “Are you prepared to prove it?” “I am.” Damen waved a hand in Cel’s direction. He had been led off the stage and was now being tied to the cross, which had been set in between the man and woman. The woman had begun to make a horrible wailing sound that hurt Lane’s ears. “Then prove your worth.” Lane took the hammer offered to him. The square head with two flat sides was covered in congealed blood. Lane felt bile shooting up his throat and swallowed it back down. He nodded at Damen and stepped back off the stage. Cel looked down at him, his feet raised several feet off the ground. Whatever fight he’d had in him seemed to have extinguished itself. His chest heaved up and down. His breath came out in wet rattles. “Please,” he said. “P-Please. Y-you d-don’t have to do this.” Lane steeled himself to Cel’s pleas. He promised himself he would avenge his death and redeem his own sins by killing the High Priest. Was it not better to sacrifice one man for the safety of everyone in the hellscape? Someone grabbed his hand and pried his fingers open and put something metallic and cold inside. He looked down stupidly to see what it was: four nails. One for each hand and ankle. He forced himself to look into Cel’s frantic, frightened face. “I’m sorry,” he said. He could barely hear the sound of his own voice. His eyes burned with the threat of tears. While two Red Wraiths held Cel’s hands down Lane placed the sharp tip of one of the nails against the flesh of Cel’s palm. He had to reach over his head to be able to do it. It was snowing heavily now. He had to close his eyes down to slits to keep the flakes from blowing into them. His throat was parched to the point it was difficult to swallow. “Do it,” the High Priest said from somewhere to his right. “The Primordial Caste demands payment in blood.” Lane felt something inside of himself become unmoored and die. What it was he could not say but Lane knew he was crossing a threshold and there was no going back. With hot tears flowing down his cheeks he looked at Cel one more time - if he was going to do this he wanted to remember the look of agony on the old man’s face. He wanted to forever remember what he’d done. Then he brought the hammer down. Cel’s scream was long and high-pitched. It burrowed its way into Lane’s skull and embedded itself there, traveling down into his soul. He could still feel the impact from the hammer racing up his arm. It was not easy hammering the nail into flesh. There was nerve and muscle and bone he had to get through. Lane bared his teeth and brought the hammer down again. A spray of blood splashed across his forehead. He felt himself sinking deeper inside himself, distancing himself from reality. First he did the wrists and then he moved onto the ankles. The ankles were far harder and much more resistant. His arm ached. Cel screamed but there was no longer any life in it. He stared at nothing having fallen into some sort of stupor. Far worse than his screams was the sound of breaking bone, the feeling of it shattering. Lane stood up with blood on his face. The job was finally done. Without giving Cel another glance he walked back up the stage and handed the hammer back to the High Priest. “The Scarlet Church thanks you for your offering,” said Damen. Lane bowed to him and said, “Hail the Primordial Caste!” When the High Priest dismissed him, an odd smile on his face, Lane jumped off the platform and began to make his way through the crowd, away from the square. He didn’t know where he was going or what he planned to do and he didn’t care. The world could sink to the Abyss for all he cared. ... Barghast found Lane in a narrow alley sitting on top of a stack of milk crates, smoking a jalasa joint. He was shaking so badly he was having trouble bringing the joint to his lips. There was still splotches of blood all over his face. He looked as if he’d been through a warzone. He looked down at his feet, eyes distant. Barghast had never seen him look quite this shaken before. The Okanavian wanted to go to him, to hold him and comfort him as he’d wanted to do many times before. But like always he hovered in the background, afraid he would make things worse not better. You can joke around until the cows come home but you suck when it comes to emotions, he thought. It had always been this way for him. Back in the village where he was raised a lifetime ago boys were not allowed to show emotion. When they did they were beaten by their fathers. It was one of the reasons why he’d abandoned his tribe in search for a better far more adventurous life - the life of a robber. Go to him. Say something for the Light’s sake. He just crucified someone. “Lane,” he said but it was as far as he got. “I need a minute,” Lane said in a shaky voice, his eyes never leaving the ground. “I just need a minute and I’ll be okay.” Barghast felt his heart warm towards the kid. He knew the practitioner hated showing any signs of weakness. He was constantly trying to appear and act older than he was.“It’s okay if you’re not,” Barghast said. “I don’t think any less of you for having a heart.” “People who have hearts don’t crucify helpless old man,” Lane said. “You did an awful thing for the right reason. You did it for the squad.” Lane laughed bitterly, pitching his joint onto the ground; already he was in the process of waiting for another. “Yes I did it for our merry little band of misfits half of who hate my fucking guts.” “I don’t hate you.” “You don’t have to. Right now I hate myself enough for the both of us. Did you hear his screams? I’ve never heard a human being scream like that.” I have, Barghast thought. Of course saying this out loud would not be a good idea. He watched as Lane lost his grip on himself. His face scrunched up like tectonic plates shifting together and he began to sob. He tried to do it quietly, hiding his face in his hands. It seemed his body was trying to fold in on itself. Barghast felt his heart break for the kid and he went to him and took him in his arms. There was nothing else he could think of to do. To his surprise Lane didn’t try to push him away but wrapped his arms around him...or at least tried to. Barghast was reminded of just how small and bony the practitioner was. It was a rare moment: Lane had always shown Barghast hints of who he truly was but never before had he opened up quite like this. It touched Barghast in a way he didn’t think could ever happen again. He didn’t care how long it lasted he just wanted to take it in. All too soon Lane sat up and wiped at his face. “I’m good now. What’s next?” “We go back to the hideout.” “But we’re not supposed to go back until nightfall.” “I don’t care. We’ve seen enough for today. We know the High Priest is here for sure and that’s all that matters.” “Rake’s gonna be pissed.” “Rake is a fly on the wall. He’s not in charge of me.” Lane rose to his feet. “You treat him like he is.” “Because I don’t want to be in charge of things. I was a leader once and the power went to my head. I don’t want that happening ever again.” Barghast clapped Lane on the shoulder being careful not to do it too hard. “C’mon let’s go. I’m dying for a nap.” … By the time Sara, Mara, and Rake made it back to the hideout Sara was beyond exhausted, both physically and mentally. And emotionally too. Pretending to be a Red Wraith could drain you in ways nothing else could. It did something to you, warped you. Sometimes Sara had to struggle to remember who she was and what she was really doing in Fruimont. However, on a more positive note, Mara and she had made up. And the surprise of it was Mara had been the first to apologize, starting with, “I’m sorry for being such a bitch lately...” To her surprise Barghast was already in the apartment when they arrived. He was sitting by the bathroom door with a worried look on his face. The bathroom door was closed. “Where’s Lane?” she asked, pulling the strap of her rifle over her head and setting it on the floor. She made sure to keep her tone casual as if she didn’t already know where Lane was. “In the bathroom. He’s been in there for the last hour. He’s locked the door and won’t come out. I’ve knocked and tried talking to him but he won’t answer. I thought I got to him earlier but apparently not.” Sara didn’t like the sound of this. It meant something bad had happened. “What’s he doing locking himself in the damned bathroom?” Rake growled, going over to the door. “We’ve had a bit of a rough day,” Barghast said. “We’ve all had a rough day,” Mara muttered bitterly. “You don’t see us going into hysterics.” “Maybe we should give him a little longer,” Sara suggested. She didn’t like where things were going. She could sense tension within the room and it was building quickly. “He’s had long enough,” Rake said. He rapped on the door hard enough to make it shake in its frame. “C’mon, practitioner, the day isn’t over yet. We have things we need to discuss like a big happy family.” Silence answered back. Sara’s heart quickened a beat or two. What if Lane had hurt himself somehow and couldn’t answer back? “He had to crucify a man today, Rake,” said Barghast. “Give him some space.” Rake clenched his hands into fists. “He knew what he was getting himself into when he signed up to join the squad. If he doesn’t have the heart to do what needs to be done then he shouldn’t be here. Lane don’t make me break the door down!” To Sara’s surprise, Barghast rose to his feet, towering over Rake. His dark face darkened even further with fury, the scars webbing his face deepening like cracks in the earth. The Light help us, Sara thought, wondering if she should reach for her blades or not. What if they start trying to kill each other? She had a pretty good idea who would win: Barghast dwarfed Rake physically in every way. However Sara did not doubt Rake’s speed and cunning. He looked and thought like a weasel. He fought dirty and without compassion. A gleam flashed through Rake’s, glassy, bulging eyes. He pulled out a long bladed dagger with a serrated edge and held it up for Barghast to see. His lips spread into a grin that chilled Sara’s blood. “Out of my way, barbarian, before I unzip your stomach with my blade. We wouldn’t want your little boyfriend to see your steaming pile of guts on the floor, now would we?” Sara and Mara exchanged wide-eyed glances. Sara knew they were both thinking the same thing. Both women stood at the edge of the room, wondering if they should intercede. The last thing we need is them killing each other and drawing attention to our position, Sara thought. However the last thing she wanted was to get hurt trying to keep the two men apart.. Men were so stupid. Just when it seemed like Barghast and Rake were about to murder each other the bathroom door opened and Lane appeared in the doorway. He looked dreadful. His face was ghostly pale and his eyeshadow had smeared leaving black tear tracks down his face. He looked at Rake with a death stare that matched Barghast’s. “Rake, put the knife down before I turn you into a fucking pile of ash.” Sara groaned inwardly. Things just keep getting more interesting, she thought. Rake cackled. Sara couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him look this manic; usually he was cold and calculating, very rarely showing any emotion. “My, my we’ve grown some balls finally, have we? We need to talk about some things, boy. You can have your little mental breakdown later.” Lane expelled a long sigh. He seemed to deflate before Sara’s eyes. “You can have that conversation amongst yourselves. I’m taking a walk to clear my head. If I don’t I’m going to explode. I’ll be back before long.” “To hell you are,” Rake growled. “Fuck off,” Lane retorted, brushing past Rake. “Your knives don’t frighten me.” And with that he left the apartment, closing the door behind him. Silence hung over the room. Barghast slumped back against the wall. Rake cursed, slipping his knife back into his belt. Before Sara knew what she was doing she walked up and slapped him across the face as hard as she could. “You are the most despicable human being I’ve ever met,” she said, and spat in his face. “As far as I’m concerned you’re less than human.” She headed for the door. “Where are you going?” Mara asked. “I’m trailing after him to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself,” Sara said. … Sara did her best to follow Lane, making sure to stay close enough so he was in sight at all times. She felt guilty following him around like this, ducking out of sight whenever she thought he might see her, as if she was doing something wrong but she also wanted to give him his distance. Sara could only imagine how he must be feeling. Many times she’d felt the same way herself: the suffocation of guilt. Many times she’d tried to tell herself she was doing the wrong thing for the right reasons but it never eased the hate she harbored for herself. She’d killed people, often torturing them to get information beforehand; it was Mara who’d taught her how to interrogate hostages. She’d tasted blood on her lips. She’d stay awake for multiple days at a time until she was delirious from exhaustion. And the scary part was with each mission, each small victory, she felt a part of herself get stripped away bit by bit. Before long there would be nothing left of the young farm girl from the Javacial mountains. Though she hadn’t seen anyone in the process of being crucified she’d seen those who had been, while walking around the city - men, women, and children stripped naked, and nailed to a cross, exposed to the harsh elements of the Javacial mountains. If exposure to the cold didn’t kill them then blood loss, starvation, and the crows would. She understood how Lane felt more than she wanted to. Lane took her through crowded streets and narrow alleys. His passaged through the city was deliberately chaotic. It was clear he knew she was following him and he was doing his best to lose her. Not once did he look directly her way or tell her to go away. Several times Sara had to break into a jog to keep him in sight. He turned the corner of a busy avenue and veered into the opening of a gloomy alley. The sale pitches of merchants and impatient honks of vehicles soon faded out. The only sound was the lonely, desolate moans of the wind. Sara’s cheeks were numbed and wooden from the cold; not even the gloves she wore warmed her hands. She kept her eyes on Lane’s back. She didn’t see her attacker until it was too late. A shape lunged at her from the shadows of the alley. Before Sara could make sense of what was happening she was thrown violently to the ground. She landed painfully on her side, her head striking the concrete. For a moment she was blind, lost in an endless fog, her ears ringing. She could feel something warm and wet dripping down the side of her face. Reaching for her belt, Sara managed to stagger to her feet and face her attacker, a knife in hand. Her attacker was an old woman. Her dress, or what was left of it, was nothing but rags. Her skin was seamed like leather and had a sickly sheen to it. Her tangled white hair whipped about in the wind. Her cracked lips peeled back to reveal shattered teeth and blackened gums. Drool dripped down her chin. Her yellow eyes were full of preverse lust. “Young girl,” she said, stalking towards Sara. “Pretty girl. So ripe and perfect for my mistress, C’thla...” Again she lunged at Sara, toppling on her, knocking her to the ground. Her weight and strength was that of four men combined. Her gnarled fingers snagged themselves in Sara’s hair. The woman’s breath smelled of rotting meat, of a body slowly breaking down. Sara screamed and tried to shove the woman off her; she didn’t want to harm the woman anymore than she had to. Like a parasite a demon had hijacked her body and was using it for its will. But no matter how hard Sara shoved and kicked and fought the woman only cackled and latched on all the tighter like a leech. Sara’s only hope was Lane. She hoped he was close enough he would come to her aid. “Lane!” she screamed as loud as she could. “Lane, help me!” … Just when Lane was sure he had lost Sara he heard her scream. It cut through the air like a knife, shrill and full of pain and fear. He stopped, his breath pluming out before him, and turned around. He could see her dark outline in the alleyway. There was someone on top of her, an old woman. A demon. The crone had a hold of her hair and was licking her face all over with a blackened tongue. Again Sara screamed. Lane took a step towards her and stopped. Dealing with the demon would surely reveal him as an Agent of Ex’olku. The last thing he needed was to draw attention to himself. And yet he couldn’t just leave her there. Sara had always been kind to him, had always watched his back. Other than Barghast she’d been the only one to welcome him into the squad with open arms. Not only did he consider her to be a friend he cared about her. If you do this you’ll only put yourself in jeopardy, Ex’olku said. Secrecy is the only reason why you’ve been able to get this far. That’s your problem Ex’olku, Lane replied. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: For an ancient entity that’s existed since the dawn of time you don’t know shit about human beings or what it means to care about someone. I’m helping her, secrecy be damned. Lane blocked Ex’olku’s voice and sprinted towards the alley. ... There was no getting away from the crone. Her grasp was like iron, her fingers clamping themselves into Sara’s flesh. The demon’s tongue traced its away across her face, slimy and cold like bad meat. That wasn’t the worst of it though: Sara could feel the demon’s mental fingers sifting through her mind. It literally felt as if needles were stabbing into her brain. Sara was too exhausted to do anything. She’d fought until she couldn’t fight any more. Just when she thought there wasn't any hope, that Lane wouldn’t come for her, the crone suddenly looked up. She suddenly became rigid, her eyes wide with fear. “You,” she hissed. “Demon’s bane. Curse you!” Sara followed the crone’s gaze. Standing just yards away was Lane. Sara tried to find the words to warn Lane...and then realized the crone was afraid of him. Why was she afraid of him? “Let her go,” Lane said. “Curse you!” the crone screamed. “Curse you curse you curse you. May the Primordial Caste feast on your innards for what you did to Yov’olbh! You mutilated him!” “I do not have time to play games with you demon.” Lane’s eyes glowed white as he summoned two fireballs into his hand. “Put her down or I’ll do the same to you.” To Sara’s surprise the crone complied, releasing her with a grunt. The crone spat at Lane once before turning and running into the night. Sara coughed, glad to be free of the demon’s influence. She forced herself to stagger to her feet. She looked at Lane, tears streaming from her eyes. Had she gone insane? Had the encounter with the crone caused her to lose her mind or had he truly scared the demon away? She called him demon’s bane? What the hell did she mean by that? And who is Yov’olbh? “Are you okay?” he asked. He hadn’t moved from his spot. “Yes,” she managed to croak. Her throat felt bruised. “How…?” He smiled sadly. “I wish I could explain but I can’t. We all have our secrets. Go back to the hideout and don’t follow me anymore. It’s not safe out here.” Then he turned around and walked away. Sara didn’t dare follow him; part of her was afraid of what might happen if she did. Instead she began heading back in the direction of the hideout. Her mind was so foggy she was never quite sure how she got back. All she knew was she was glad when she finally felt Mara’s arms around her, heard the fear in her voice as she asked her what happened. Sara tried to find the words to tell Mara, Rake, and Barghast but couldn’t seem to put them together. In the end all she could say was, “Lane...I don’t think he is who he says is.”
  3. ValentineDavis21

    The Research Station

    XNCRZY I am getting ready to do a rewrite of the first part and then will finish the project as soon as I am done with the current project I'm working on Hellscape. There will be some changes made to Danni's character and he will have a better backstory. I'm just not happy with the first draft and Danni's character. I think he's kind of cartoonish. Stick around Part 2 will happen.
  4. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 10

    They found the entrance to the tunnels leading to Fruimont underneath the table. Next to it was an old generator. Rake bent down and pressed the red power button, pulling his head down; all of the Stray Dogs had changed into Red Wraith robes and tattooed the Red Wraith mark on their hand - the ink was of course temporary and would fade in a few days. Almost immediately it began to whir and rumble. “I’ll be damned,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. “I’m surprised this damned thing is working.” Sara looked down into the tunnel and felt her throat constrict. A ladder led down into the tunnel. Fluorescent lights flickered below. She was not looking forward to the long journey through the tunnels or facing what lay ahead afterwards when they reached the city. There was too much they didn’t know. This could very well be a suicide mission, she thought. Who knows what Loras is sending us into? While she’d always known, figuratively at least, she could die at any moment she’d never felt the imminence of that happening. Now she did. The fear of death lurked inside of her and in the tunnel below, a mysterious sentient thing. You could not go. You’re not a convict, you volunteered. You can unvolunteer, stay on the bus with Jack, eating cold beans and reading your mystery novels. Let the others do the fighting. You can walk away from this. But even as the thought entered her mind, disturbing her in the process, Sara knew she would climb down the ladder and follow the other Stray Dogs wherever they went. How could she not? Even if she was pissed at her she could never leave Mara. After all Mara was the reason, the real reason she had volunteered in the first place: to make sure Mara lived long enough to be free once more - so they could have a life, a real life. There were times when she wondered why she couldn’t have fallen in love with a woman who was easier to love or why she had to fall in love at all. The others were grim, silent. “Did I mention I hate closed in spaces?” Barghast said; his voice sounded like gravel grating against steel. He was trying to be funny Sara knew, always trying to offer comedy relief to relieve the tension within the group. But him saying this only deepened her fear. If the most infamous robber in the ‘scape was afraid what did this mean for the rest of them? “Let’s get this over with,” Rake said. If anyone didn’t look afraid it was him; in fact he looked like he wanted to go down there. What else could you expect from a homicidal sociopath? Mara set a large case on the ground and snapped the clasp open. Inside were flashlights and batteries. “These must have cost the Chantry a small fortune. I feel privileged. ” “Being a member of the squad isn’t always so bad,” Mara said, putting batteries into the flashlight. “We get all the guns and the technology.” Rake was the first to climb down into the tunnel, then Mara, then Barghast. Sara was next. She approached it cautiously, as if something would pop out and try to attack her. Already she was finding it difficult to breathe. She turned to Lane. He looked back. There seemed to be a sadness around him, his eyes full of ghosts she couldn’t comprehend. “I’m afraid,” she said. “I hate cramped, dark places. I hate the feeling of being trapped. What frightens you?” “These days almost everything,” he said. “But there’s one thing that frightens me the most.” “What’s that?” He handed her a flashlight. “Going mad.” The tunnels reeked of mold and rat shit. And there were rats in the tunnel, fat ones. Sara stepped around them, afraid they were bite her. In the back of her mind she knew this was very unlikely - they were just afraid of her as she was of them; but the fear of being trapped in this tunnel, whether the others were with her or not, was irrational, and like all irrational fears it was inescapable. It was everything she could do to keep breathing, to focus on Mara just a few paces ahead of her. After an hour of walking through the flickering lights of the tunnel the lights flickered once more and then died, pitching the Stray Dogs into darkness. Insanity-inducing fear crept its way up Sara’s throat, threatening to burst out in the form of a scream. Only by grinding her teeth together was she able to keep it at bay. She fumbled with the flashlight. Her hands were shaking so bad she almost dropped it several times. Somewhere a flashlight came on and Lane gently took her flashlight and switched it on; a second later three other flashlights blinked on as well. He handed the flashlight back to her. “Thanks,” she said, her chest heaving as she fought to catch her breath. His lip turned at the corner. “No problem. I’m afraid too. Like I said I’m afraid of everything.” “You don’t look it.” He sighed. “I’ve just been afraid so long it’s become natural.” “What keeps you going?” “Right now? Knowing there are people counting on us to bring a stop to this.” He cleared his throat. “My Aunt Lena, the woman back in the Plaesil mountains, died of a brain tumor. She was a healer just like you. Even though the townspeople hated her, hated the both of us, they came to her for healing - and she did it. It didn’t matter who it was or what they were sick from, she always did her best to help them. She must have helped too many people. By the time the village doctor told her the tumor was there it was already too late; the headaches had started and her memory started to lapse. She became delirious...and with no one to help me I had to take care of her on my own until the day she died. I remember feeling utterly helpless.” Sara was awestruck. Not once had Lane mentioned having an aunt or anything about his past. She couldn’t imagine having to take on such a responsibility - having to try and take care of a dying aunt. And he was just a kid - still is just a kid. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you probably hate it when people tell you that but it’s the-” “Only thing you can think of to say,” he said. She nodded. He shrugged, his face appearing ghostly in the dark. “It is what it is. I try not to let it bring me down too much, y'know? Right now I’m thinking about how the people in Fruimont are feeling. They must feel powerless, like there’s no hope. I don’t want anyone feeling how I felt when I took care of my aunt, under any circumstances. It’s why I’m here.” Sara was dumbstruck. How can Mara hate him? she wondered. She felt nothing but admiration and...just awe...for the young practitioner. It seemed like an eternity passed before Rake suggested they take a break and eat something. He reached into a pack and passed out granola bars and a large thermos of water. They passed it and ate in silence. Sara hated the granola bar but ate it anyway. It didn’t quench the hunger she felt growling in the pit of her stomach but it was enough to give her a little more energy. After they were finished eating they got up and continued their way through the darkened tunnels in silence. … We’re getting close, Lane thought. He didn’t know if it was just his fear tricking his mind but the further down the tunnel the Stray Dogs went the more frigid the air seemed to get. What awaited him on the other side? For the last year he’d kept his real mission a secret from the others. It hadn’t been an easy thing to do. Loras had been the only person he’d ever told but there had been so many other times when he’d wanted to tell someone else: Sara and Barghast. Barghast specifically. But something had always kept him from doing so; whether it was some form of instinct or Ex’olku he didn’t know. There was only one thing he was certain of: At some point he would have to split away from them and go his own way. The knowledge of knowing this was coming both frightened and saddened him. Though he knew a majority of the squad would rather he get killed by a stray bullet, he’d fought with them for the last year. He couldn’t help but feel it was his responsibility to look out for them. Even Rake. He was so lost in thought he walked into Barghast; it was like walking into a brick wall. Muttering a hasty sorry he looked about to see why Barghast had stopped. To his surprise they were standing underneath a sort of sewer grating with a ladder running up the wall. He could see illumination shining through the metal grid, hear the sound of vehicles passing by. How is it we’re already here? he thought. Sleet was falling down on him. The flakes caressed his cheek like a cool hand. Rake signalled for them to wait and then climbed up, lifted the grating and stepped out into the night. Going as fast as they could D-Squad took turns climbing up the ladder. Lane was the last to go up. He sighed in relief, inhaling the fresh air. All members of D-Squad stood in the middle of a narrow alley. Rake put the sewer grating back in place and gestured for the others to huddle close. He pulled out one of the maps Loras had given them and pointed at a spot circled in red marked Addison Street. “This is where we’re at, directly in the middle of Fruimont. “We need to find a place where we can duck without drawing attention to ourselves…” Rake’s words became lost in the echo of Ex'olku's voice. “There is an abandoned apartment building on Chamblin Street. Go there.” Lane looked at Rake. “There's an abandoned apartment building on Chamblin Street - the poor district. It isn’t the best lodgings but it's out of the cold and the Red Wraiths won't worry about it. It's safe.” “How do you know that?” Mara demanded briskly. “Loras mentioned it before we left Miffridge.” “Why would she say this to you and not me?” said Rake. “I don't know,” Lane said before he could stop himself, “maybe she just doesn't like you.” Seeming to find this funny, Barghast chuckled but said nothing. Sara exhaled impatiently, her breath misting in the air. “Let's just check it out. I don't like the idea of being out here anymore than we have to.” In the end it was decided they split up into two groups: Rake and Mara in one group and Lane, Barghast and Sara in the other. They would converge at the abandoned apartment building. The streets of Fruimont were deserted except for the Red Wraiths patrolling the streets. Though Sara, Barghast, and Lane were disguised Lane couldn’t help but feel exposed. The Red Wraiths they passed nodded at them in greeting and Lane made sure to nod back. His heart was pounding so fast he feared it would give him and the others away. The comfort of Barghast and Sara’s presence, wanting to keep them safe and knowing Ex’olku was counting on his success, kept him in check. The others were just as silent and composed. It was strange. This was usually the time when Barghast would tell a joke and try to break the tension. As Loras had instructed them to do, Lane had memorized the map of Fruimont. Years of hunting through the woods behind his aunt’s house had helped him with learning how to navigate; a year of being a member of D-Squad had only enhanced this. It didn’t take them long to find the apartment building. It was a shabby square building that appeared to have been abandoned for quite some time. Standing vigil in the dark, awash in silver moonlight, it was an eerie sight. With the shattered windows, peeling paint and graffiti it certainly look inviting. Rake and Mara had not showed up. “We should go ahead and go inside,” Lane said, glancing nervously up and down the street. “We don’t want anyone to think we’re just standing around.” “Agreed,” said Barghast. “What about the others?” Sara asked. She was also looking up and down the street. Lane sympathized with her; he knew she was worried about Mara even though they were fighting. Even when the two women were arguing they loved each other. “I’ll stand outside and watch for them,” Lane said. “It might not be a bad idea to scout out the inside of the building just in case there are squatters already inside.” “Another good idea.” Barghast gently nudged him with his shoulder. “You’re getting awfully good at this stuff.” Lane blushed. “I didn’t suggest anything you don’t already know, Barghast.” “I was merely pointing out the progress you’re making.” Lane grinned despite himself. “Get your ass in there before you blow our cover and kill us all.” Barghast saluted him, shotgun cradled in one beefy arm. “Aye aye, captain.” Lane flipped the Okanavian the middle finger and slipped back into the shadows so no one could see him. He turned his thoughts away from all else and turned his attention to looking out for them. As always, when coming to a new place, Lane felt out of place. A stranger in a strange place, sticking out like a sore thumb. In the beginning he had felt a sense of wonder. After leaving Annesville it had taken him six months to travel to the Chantry, doing odd jobs along the way (some of them things he would never tell a soul). Those six months had been frightening and wondrous at the same time. There had been times when he wondered if he would make it to Miffridge, when he wondered if he wasn’t just making a big mistake. Now there was no wonder to be had anymore. In the year he’d been with the Stray Dogs he’d grown up beyond the measure of years; he’d done things he’d never thought he would do. Some of those things kept him up at night, wondering just what else he would have to do to see the end of Ex’olku’s vision. Now every place the Chantry sent D-Squad was just a variation of some other place they’d visited. Lane lit a jalasa joint, shielding the glow from the match so as not to be seen, and chuckled inwardly. This is what happens when you hang around cutthroats, assassins, and thieves, he thought. You become cynical. But then I was already cynical. He spotted Rake and Mara coming out of a narrow alley across the street. He stepped out of the shadows of the building and waved them over. “Sara and Barghast are inside scouting the place out,” he explained. “Everything seems fine as of now.” Without another word he led them inside. He didn’t want to be alone with Rake and Mara. Being around them when he knew they didn’t want Lane around only made him feel more out of place. The building smelled of dust and mold. They walked down a long hallway with doors on both sides. Lane spotted several rats. Once upon a time he would have shuddered at the thought of sleeping in such a place but now he was grateful not to be outside. At least now they had a roof over their head, away from the elements. Lane, Mara, and Rake rendezvoused with Barghast and Sara at the next corridor. Lane caught the look of relief on Sara’s face quickly extinguished by an expression of stubborn defiance. He had to cough into the crook of his shoulder so she couldn’t see him laughing. “The place is clear,” Barghast said. “We have the place to ourselves. We could take separate rooms if we wanted.” “We’re all staying in one room,” said Rake. “It’ll be tight and uncomfortable with five people in one room but I’d rather us all be together if something happens.” If anyone objected no one said anything. At this point Lane didn’t care where they slept he was so tired. The others looked as exhausted as he felt. Lane went back and set up wards along the stairway so the Stray Dogs would be alerted should anyone try to climb up the stairs. They ended up staying in a tiny one room apartment on the second floor. With his eyes feeling heavy, Lane unrolled his sleeping bag. It no longer crossed his mind that he was sleeping in a foreign place. He was exhausted from the constant travel and fighting. There was no longer such a thing as feeling homesick. The life he’d lived before the Chantry he’d buried with his aunt. Like the rest of the Stray Dogs he truly had no home and no one to grieve for him if he failed his mission. He was asleep as soon as he closed his eyes. … When Barghast gently shook Lane awake the next morning the practitioner was cold and his back felt stiff. And to think Jack has the bus all to himself, Lane thought, with the heater. Lucky bastard. Everyone was silent, not saying a word. Breakfast consisted of cold, tasteless oatmeal. If Aunt Lena had been alive to see what Lane was eating for breakfast she would have been horrified. Lane ate what was given to him without complaint. It was better than going on an empty stomach. He rolled his sleeping bag up and set it in the corner of the room. Sitting back down on the dirty carpet he lit the first jalasa joint for the day. He might as well smoke one now for who knew when he would get the chance to have another. The others were watching Rake, waiting for him to give the orders. “As we did last night we’re going to split into two groups,” he said. “Sara you will be with Mara and I, Barghast you will be with Lane. Do what you have to do to blend in. Whatever you see don’t try to be a hero.” He glared at Lane as he said this last part. “We’re only here to observe and gather intel nothing more. We meet back here at sun down. Don’t blow your cover and watch your asses at all times.” Without another word the Stray Dogs filed out of the apartment. Their silence was thick with apprehension. When they were sure the coast was clear the two groups went their own separate ways: Sara, Mara, and Rake headed east and Lane and Barghast headed North towards the center of the city. Outside the sky was still dark and oppressive, with the sun just starting to show the barest hint of rising above the horizon. Merchants were in the process of setting up their booths for the day. The gloom Lane felt was was reflected all around him. Even a blind person would be able to tell there’s something wrong with this place, he thought. Lane wanted to say something to Barghast, anything to break the tension, but his tongue felt as if it was glued to the bottom of his mouth. Instead he walked beside Barghast, doing his best to keep his shoulders straight and look authoritative as a Red Wraith whould. Sitting in the mouth of an alleyway was a young boy, perhaps ten or eleven-years-old. His face was gaunt underneath the spots of dirt and grime. When he saw Lane and Barghast coming his way he shifted and looked away as if by pretending not to notice them they wouldn’t notice him. His fearful reaction tugged at Lane’s heart. It doesn’t matter that we’re spying for the Chantry. To him we’re wearing Red Wraith uniforms therefore we are Red Wraiths. No child should be out here in the cold like this, without food. But what could Lane do? He was undercover. It would look suspicious if he stopped to give the boy money for food; so he kept his eyes focused ahead of him and pretended not to notice the boy, as the boy had done with him, and just kept walking. “You’re doing great,” said Barghast. “Huh?” Lane said, barely having heard him he was so lost in thought. “With that kid back there. I know it’s hard seeing children suffer like that. We’ll avenge him and everyone else when the Scarlet Church is wiped out.” Lane snorted. “I don’t feel like I’m doing great. I feel like a useless piece of shit. I feel guilty above all else.” At that moment Ex’olku spoke up: Go to the city square. You’ll find what you’re looking for there. Lane didn’t bother to ask why. He’d learned not to ask Ex’olku questions a long time ago. “I have an idea,” he said, trying to sound as if something had just occurred to him. “We should go to the city square. There’s bound to be some interesting activity going on there.” “Might not be a bad idea,” Barghast agreed. Lane glanced at him for a moment. The Okanavian looked so odd in his Red Wraith uniform it was almost comical - but only because Lane knew better. Barghast played the part well: He was very good at looking intimidating. Even now people stepped aside to avoid getting in the way. Lane couldn’t help but wonder about Barghast’s past. He had heard stories about the outlaw - some of them painted a bloody picture that could chill the bone. In that regard Barghast and Rake were a lot alike. Lane chose to ignore those stories - even though he knew there was some truth in them. The difference between Barghast and Rake was Lane knew Barghast regretted his past and could be gentle and kind. It was these qualities which helped Lane to see past the Okanavian’s scarred visage and made him attractive. In the end whatever his sins were did not matter to Lane. Besides, he told himself, it isn’t as if you don’t have plenty of blood on your hands. And there will be more before you see this to the end. They didn’t have to walk far to find Fruimont’s square. The other Red Wraiths they spotted all seemed to be headed in the same direction, often in groups of two, threes, and fours. But it wasn’t just Red Wraiths heading towards the square, there were plenty of civilians too. Half way down the block Lane could hear the screams and a metallic sound that chilled his blood: the sound of a hammer hitting nail. So this was where Ex’olku wanted him to go and this was what he wanted him to see. As if seeing it for the first time wasn’t bad enough, he thought. A voice spoke, magnified through some sort of electronic device: “C’mon one and all! Don’t be shy, we are putting on a free show today! Come and see what happens to the sinners and blasphemers who deny and spit in the face of the Scarlet Church!” The voice had the gleeful maddened sound of someone insane. When mixed with the screams of agony that Lane had no idea human vocal cords could make, the sounds of nails being hammered into wood was nightmare music. And Lane and Barghast were heading towards that sound. The rapid drumming of Lane’s heart seemed perfectly in sync with the hammer falls. The terror he felt was magnified by the look of terror on Barghast’s face. They rounded the corner, turning onto the square. Lane had to reach up and grab Barghast’s shoulder to keep his legs from collapsing underneath him. What he saw before him was a nightmare tapestry in all its glory. Hundreds of men, women, and children stood around the square looking up at the upraised platform. In front of the platform a man and woman had been crucified, their hands and ankles nailed into the wood. Both had been stripped naked, flogged, and beaten until they were bloody and bruised. Lane thought he could see a hint of the man’s ribs and he was missing an eye. Off to the left, dressed in rags and shackled, seven unfortunate souls awaited the same fate. Sitting on the edge of the stage were the city’s officials. From Loras’s description he thought he recognized Benedik Matthiesen. The man who had once helped Loras in her revolt against the Chantry watched the horrid spectacle like someone trying to fool themselves into thinking it was all just a dream. There was a dullness to his eyes, a numbness. Sitting amongst the officials were half a dozen Scarlet Priests dressed in their scarlet robes, their cowls obscuring their features. Two of them appeared to be conversing about something and laughing quietly. And standing at the front of the stage dressed in a red cloak made of red leather was the High Priest, Damen Orlys. Lane’s focus zeroed in on him. Here he was finally, after a year of searching and waiting. Ex’olku had led Lane right to the man he was supposed to kill. The High Priest held a sheet of paper in one gauntleted hand and in the other a microphone. Two loudspeakers stood on tripods on either side of him. “Next we have Cel Resnik,” said the High Priest. “His charge: Assault of a Red Priest. The sentence of his charge: Death by crucifixion. Bring Cel up here, if you please.” The Red Wraith standing guard over the prisoners shoved an older man forward. The man fell to the ground with a cry, clutching at his knee. Every eyes in the square turned to watch his fate. When the man did not get up right away the Red Wraith kicked at him savagely in the face and ribs, cursing at him viciously. After a moment Cel managed to hobble to his feet; there was something wrong with his leg. Up on the stage two Red Wraiths were putting together another cross by nailing two pieces of wood together. Other than what was taking place on stage the square had become unnaturally silent. Lane risked a glance around at all the people and was reminded of the husks he’d encountered when he’d entered the Abyss. They really weren’t all that different, only their eyes were brimming with fright. Once more the Red Wraith shoved Cel towards the stage. To his credit the old man managed to stay on his two feet this time. He stumbled clusmily up the steps clutching at his stomach. His movements were jerky and awkward. It was agonizing to watch. He moved as if his whole entire body was twisted in ways it shouldn’t have been. What remained of his thinning white hair was blown around in a cutting gust of wind and sleet. His shackles dragged along the floor of the platform, As he had with the boy Lane wanted to go to him, to save them, to save them all, but once again he could only watch. He was surrounded by Red Wraiths and Scarlet Priests alike. It would be a fool to try and take them all on and he didn’t know if he was strong enough to take the High Priest one-on-one. Damen appraised Cel with a smile that was equal parts cruelty, madness, and cunning. He approached Cel, robes sweeping behind him. The old man’s torn lips peeled back from shattered teeth in a feral growl. One eye was completely swollen shut. The other bulged out of its socket, brimming with hate. “Do you have any last words?” Damen asked before putting the microphone in Cel’s face. Letting loose a howl of rage, Cel tore free of the Red Wraith’s gasp and lunged at the High Priest. Before he could reach Damen the chains binding his ankles together tautened and he stumbled. The Red Wraith stepped up behind him and knocked the old man in the back of the head with the butt of his rifle. A sickening thudding sound reverberated throughout the square. Somehow Cel managed to stay on his feet, yet the old man began to sob fearfully, what resolve he had left shattered. He turned to look at Benedik and the officials. “Why?” he croaked; snot started to ooze from his bloodied nose. Now he looked at Benedik only. “Why won’t you do anything to stop them? This is your city and we are your people! We stood by your side in the rebellion against the Chantry. Help us!” “Shut up you old gook!” the Red Wraith said. Another sickening thud sounded as he brought the muzzle of his gun against the side of Cel’s face, opening up a nasty gash. Immediately blood began to ooze rapidly from the wound. He stumbled forward and then fell. And yet he still remained conscious. A barrage of barbaric kicks got him crawling towards the cross. Damen turned to face the crowd once more, grinning like the perfect host. He’s enjoying this, Lane thought. He’s literally getting off on it. How does a man grow to be so cruel? “Can I get any volunteers?” Damen asked the crowd. “Does anyone want to do the honors?” Hundreds of eyes watched him fearfully. Several heads turned to look around to see who would volunteer. No one moved. The stillness was maddening. Damen’s almost playful expression shifted into one concentration. His head was slightly cocked to the side as if someone was whispering a secret in his ear. The hairs on the back of Lane’s neck stood on end. He could feel the tension in the square building like an electric charge. Those cowled blue eyes combed through the crowd, moving from one face to the next. They passed over Barghast’s face and onto Lane’s...where they stopped. Those eyes studied him with such intensity as if to pierce Lane’s skull and see his thoughts. Lane suddenly felt very naked - not just naked but violated. The High Priest’s lips spread into a slow, creeping smile. He pointed a single finger at Lane. “You there, young Wraith. Come up to the stage and prove you are worthy of the Scarlet Church.”
  5. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 9

    The bus’s engine belched out clouds of smoke as it climbed up the rising hill. Jack’s lips moved rapidly in the rearview mirror, whispering a silent prayer. His large blue eyes were wide behind his glasses, his forehead sheened with sweat. Barghast could understand his anxiety. Though he’d never been a praying man, he was praying now: Praying the bus didn’t give out on them and leave them stranded in the cold. Years ago, when he was young and stupid and everything was new to him, he’d been fascinated with the mountains. He found the black, craggy mountains, the white landscapes, and blood-red fields of jalasa, which was native to the mountains and grew all year long; it was a great source of income for the natives here in the mountain, for the plant did not grow anywhere else in the ‘scape. Barghast had quickly learned to hate the cold. He was from the desert where it was hot. You never saw snow and rain was a rare thing, making water sacred and something to kill for. The only thing the north and south quadrants of the ‘scape had in common was the primitive nature of the people, though in different ways. People in the desert lived in tribes and often resorted to cannibalism - they literally ate their dead; just thinking about the lifestyle he’d abandoned as well as the tribe he’d grown up with sent shivers up Barghast’s spine. People in the north tended to stick to their own, regarding outsiders with suspicion. After the Practitioner-Chantry war, Barghast could understand. Still he’d come to hate the mountains. It was always cold here, the sky always grey. No wonder the people here were always so damn pale. He glanced back at Lane. The practitioner was sitting back in his seat, looking out the window. He had a lit jalasa joint in his hand and was blowing smoke. He looked calm but Barghast knew this was only on the surface: The kid smoked a lot when he was nervous and he always became quiet and withdrawn. It seemed he had become more nervous the closer they got to the Plaesil mountains. It could have been the mission but Barghast didn’t think so - or at least it wasn’t the only reason. Like the rest of the Stray Dogs the practitioner had a past he didn’t like to talk about. It must be hell coming back here for him, Barghast thought. I wonder why. What made him leave? “You okay?” Barghast asked him. Lane rolled down the window long enough to throw the finished joint out into the cold wind. For a moment the wind blew back his hair. Exhaling the smoke, he glanced at Barghast. “I’m fine,” he said, though the look in his dark blue eyes said otherwise. There was the haunted look that showed up whenever they were in the middle of a mission. “It’s okay to be scared, y’know?” Barghast said. “My nerves are practically jangling?” “I didn’t think the best robber in all the ‘scape got scared,” Lane said. There was the flicker of mischievousness that came out whenever the two of them got to bantering back and forth. It was always these moments that made Barghast hard, sometime so hard it hurt - or when they’d just got done laying waste to a large group of Red Wraiths. “Even robbers get scared. My stomach used to get all in knots before a job - I was just good at not showing it on the outside.” Not true. You’ve shot people before. Men and women. That one kid you shot back in Tyran had to have been Lane’s age...You shot him because he wasn’t putting the money in the bag fast enough… “What’s our motto?” Lane asked. Together, in unison, they said, “You watch my back and I’ll watch yours.” They laughed. Lane appeared a little more relaxed. He lit a joint and offered it to Barghast. “Just take a hit,” said Lane. “Jalasa doesn’t have any harmful side effects. It’ll help with the nerves.” Barghast saw Sara glance at him curiously out of the corner of his eye. Just to humor Lane he took a drag from the joint and immediately began to cough. Lane and Sara seemed to think this was funny and laughed their asses off. Then once more, the bus became silent, each Stray Dog withdrawing into their own heads where individual demons waited. Rake oiled his knives with a grease-stained rag, Mara kept reassembling her guns and reloading them, Barghast tapped his fingers against his thighs because it was the only thing he could think of to do. Sara and Lane had brought books with them, Sara her by-the-dozen mysteries and Lane - well he wasn’t exactly sure what the kid read. Sara and Mara still weren’t on speaking terms. It was as if each were putting equal effort into not noticing each other; it was unlike them to not make up before leaving for a mission. Barghast would never say so out loud but he hoped this quarrel they’d had about Lane wouldn’t compromise the mission. Judging from the details Loras had given them it would be the most dangerous yet. “We’re here,” Jack said, breaking the silence. Already? Barghast thought. All at once it seemed they’d gotten there too early? Just seconds ago it seemed they couldn’t get there fast enough. They’d left the jalasa fields behind and were now surrounded by pine trees on both sides of the road. The pine trees were covered with freshly fallen snow. Golden rays of sun shone through the frigid mountain air. Each Stray Dog except Jack stood up to gaze out the windows. Of course the watchtower was not in sight. Jack would stop with plenty of distance where they could not be seen in case Red Wraiths had taken it over. And even if they hadn’t, the Stray Dogs would still have to break into the Watchtower to get into Fruimont. Jack parked the bus in between a narrow copse of trees. With maps of the mountains in hands, Rake and Mara marched off the bus and disembarked to search for the watchtower, armed to the teeth with weapons. Barghast, Lane, and Sara waited by the bus on standby in case something should happen to Rake and Mara. Jack as usual would wait on the bus should the squad need a quick get away. The eerie silence of the woods around them only made Barghast feel more nervous. It was so still, almost unnaturally so. It was as if the world has stopped turning on its axis. He kept waiting to hear the sound of gunfire, the cue that Rake and Mara had been spotted and were in trouble. Lane simply leaned against the bus, smoking. His presence provided a sense of comfort for the Okanavian. As long as the practitioner was by his side Barghast knew everything would be okay. After several minutes that seemed to drag on for an hour, Rake and Mara appeared, walking stolidly through the trees. “Loras guessed right,” said Rake. “The tower has been taken over by Red Wraiths.. There were two standing in front of the door and several more at the top of the tower so make sure you’re watching for those up top. Other than that it’s impossible to tell how many there are inside.” “Surely not as many as Fort Erikson,” said Sara. “If we can handle an entire fort we can do this. It’s inside the city that will be difficult.” “Who wants to take this one?” Rake asked. He produced a dented quarter from the pocket of his bulletproof vest. “We can always flip.” “I’ll go,” Lane said. Four pairs of eyes turned to look at him in surprise. Lane never volunteered to take a mission; usually he did whatever job Rake assigned him. Now, however, there was an eagerness in his eyes Barghast hadn’t seen before. He wasn’t sure if he liked it or not. “Me too,” he said. Wherever Lane went he went too. Someone had to watch the kid’s back “We’ll get it done quicker.” Rake sighed as if reluctant to let the both of them go. “Alright. Just don’t blow the place up. We don’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves. Sara, you best go with them just in case. Come back for us when you’re ready.” Sara nodded. Normally, at a time like this, she would have kissed Mara on the cheek, but she barely looked at her partner. Whatever Mara had said about Lane it must have really pissed Sara off. Barghast shook his head. Women, he thought. I’ll never understand them. Men aren’t nearly as complicated - maybe that’s why I’m attracted to them. … Lane, Barghast, and Sara made their way through the trees. Each gentle gust of the cold winter air brought unbidden memories, memories Lane had tried to distance himself from since joining the Stray Dogs: Aunt Lena and he sledding down steep hills, laughing together; setting rabbit traps and gutting them to make rabbit stew; the locals that came to visit Aunt Lena when they were sick, even though they hated her and would rather she be burned at the stake along with his parents. Being back reminded him of how clean the air smelled at this elevation. Deep down inside he could feel the fear that had engulfed him back at Fort Erikson. It was an old fear, one which had grown over time. The fear of failure, of being helpless, and never being able to find peace. It was the fear that woke him up in the middle of the night, sweating, peering in the corners for signs of danger. It was an irrational fear, the fear of everything. And yet it was the only thing keeping him going, one foot in front of the other. Barghast and Sara were right behind him, their presence punctuated by the brittle snow and twigs crunching beneath their boots. Lane, in the territory where he’d been raised and lived most of his life, made the least noise. Lane saw the watchtower first. Hiding behind the trunk of a large pine tree, he held a hand out to Barghast and Sara, signalling for them to stop. The tower, built like the castles in the medieval days of the Old World, was tall and made of limestone. As Rake had reported there were two Red Wraiths standing in front of the arched door, the only entrance and exit to the building from what he could see. He could see a few more Red Wraiths at the top. Several miles away, preceded by rolling hills of snow, were the walls of Fruimont. Lane felt a chill go up his spine. The dread resting in the pit of his stomach threatened to overwhelm him for just outside the walls he could see the victims who had been crucified. He was just far enough away he couldn’t see the full extent of what had been done to them and for this he was grateful. He latched onto the fear; it was his fear, his propellent. Remember, he told himself. If you think it’s bad now it’ll be worse if the Scarlet Church succeeds with whatever it is they’re planning. He went to step out from behind the concealment of the trees but before he could take a second step Barghast grabbed him by the hood of his robes and pulled him back. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the Okanavian hissed. His surprise was reflected in the wide-eyed look Sara was giving him, though she said nothing. Lane felt a stab of annoyance with the both of them. “There are people - innocent people - being slaughtered in that town, too afraid and confused to be able to defend themselves. Do you not see the people crucified out there right now?” He pointed towards the city of Fruitmont with a finger to drive his point home. “They’re counting on us. I’m done waiting.” “We don’t know how many Red Wraiths are in the watchtower. Let’s just think for a moment how we’re going to do this.” Lane’s eyes misted over as he drew on his mana. “Fuck that. You can stay here if you want but I’m doing this.” Without another word he stepped out from behind the trees and began approaching the watchtower. … As Lane walked stolidly towards the watchtower Barghast swore and turned to Sara. “We better go after him before he gets himself killed.” Sara merely nodded, pulling out her daggers. Barghast pumped his shotgun and jumped out from behind the trees. The two Red Wraiths guarding the entrance to the watchtower had spotted Lane and were fumbling with their weapons. Before either of them could fire a shot, Lane waved a hand and shouted, “Feri!” A blast of flame threw the two Red Wraiths off their feet and crashing through the door of the watchtower in a shower of splinter. The Red Wraiths at the top of the tower unleashed a torrent of rapid fire on Lane. The bullets bounced off the protective dome of mana Lane had encased himself in, kicking up dirt and snow. They were so focused on Lane they weren’t paying attention to Barghast or Sara. Barghast decided to use the opportunity to take out some of the Red Wraiths before they were inside. Each blast from the shotgun sent reverberating jerks of impact up Barghast’s arm. The top half of a Red Wraith’s head was vaporized by one of his shots and tumbled seventy feet to the ground. It hit the ground with a sickening splat, staining the snow with splatters of blood and brain. Directly ahead of him Sara dashed into the watchtower. Cursing in his head, Barghast ducked into whatever hellstorm was taking place inside. … Several Red Wraiths were hiding behind the cover of a wooden table which they were using as a barricade. A deck of playing cards lay discarded on the floor. Sparks exploded in the corner of Lane’s vision as bullets richocheted off his protective shield. Their bullets were useless against his magic and still they fired for all the difference it would make. He wasn’t invincible, but guns were obsolete when it came to magic. With rapid mutterings of “Sevna”, flashes of light shot from his hands, cutting into the table like knives. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a Red Wraith come lumbering down the stairs. Sara’s knives were a blur through the air, slicing the Red Wraith’s neck open. He went down, making a wet gurgling sound. Taking a shot in the chest from Barghast’s gun, a Red Wraith went tumbling over the side of the table. Lane began making his way up the stairs, which spiraled all the way to the top of the tower. With every Red Wraith that went down he could fool himself into thinking he was making a difference. Adrenaline shot through his body, making everything slow down and quicken at the same time. In these chaotic moments it was easy to fool himself into thinking his efforts weren’t in vain. With a wild war cry a Red Wraith lunged at Lane with a machete. He stepped out of the way, shoulders brushing up against the wall, and shoved her off the flight of stairs. Her blood-curdling scream was abruptly cut off with a sickening thud. The twin blades of Sara’s daggers sunk through the worn armor of another Red Wraith. Sara and I are the only ones here without a sentence, Lane thought. But it doesn’t matter. We’re killers all the same, our hands washed in blood. Once he would have seen a sort of tragic irony in this but now it no longer bothered him. Surely any life killed in the process of stopping the Scarlet Church was worth it in the end. Now at the top of the tower he blasted the door off its hinges with a ball of fire. It slammed into one of the two remaining Red Wraiths and sent him flying over the edge of the tower. The other raised his gun but before he could pull the trigger Barghast decapitated him with a shot from his shotgun. Like a blood-filled balloon, the Red Wraith’s head literally exploded. The warm feeling of the blood splattering Lane jarred him from his half-stupor. Once again, like so many times before over the last year, the impact of what he’d done hit him with the force of a sledgehammer. He was a killer. Killing was easy. And though he would never fully admit it to himself there was a part deep down inside that loved these missions. Not only did it give him the purpose his life had lacked back in the Plaesil mountains but it also made his blood rush - until moments like this when the guilt and regret pulled him back to reality. He looked at the corpses that littered the top of the tower and felt incredibly sick to his stomach. Even when you think you’re doing things for the right reason you still lose a part of your soul every time you kill someone. Every fucking time. What would Aunt Lena think if she were to see what I’ve become? Would she be proud of me or would she disappointed? Lane thought he knew the answer - but then again he really didn’t know anything anymore, did he?
  6. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 8

    Yes it's supposed to be hellscape. I will make sure to change it. Thanks for catching it. I'm glad you are enjoying the story.
  7. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 8

    Benedik Matthiesen lay in bed, listening to his wife’s breathing. Sheathia was laying on her side, head laying on the crook of his shoulder. Her breathing was regular, hinting no signs of nightmares. The same could not be said for Matthiesen. Though the room was dark and silent, nightmare images and sounds taunted him. Every time he fell asleep he awoke moments later with only Sheathia’s soothing voice and kisses to lull him back to sleep. Earlier today he had stood in Fruimont’s square and witnessed thirty-seven people, a mixture of men, women, and children being crucified by disciples of the Scarlet Church. He’d listened to their cries for mercy, their eyes boring into his, the sense of betrayal in their tormented faces. He saw crimson splatters of blood coloring the white snow like paint across a milky canvas, heard the metallic clanging sounds as the hammer pounded the nails deeper and deeper into flesh mingled with agonized screams. Their charges: for refusing to bend the knee and swear themselves to the Scarlet Church and their ways. The looks of confusion and betrayal was reflected in the crowd forced to watch, for to witness these punishments was now mandatory. He knew they expected him to put a stop to it somehow, some way. He was the mayor of Fruimont after all and it was his job to make sure they were protected. But there was nothing he could do, for he was no longer mayor. Damen Orlys had taken over the mantel, keeping Benedik and Sheathia and their two children, Nicholas and Elise, around to watch his city fall. Not even during the days of the Chantry-Practitioner War did Benedik think he would witness such a terrible event. You could try to do something. But you won’t because you’re afraid of the consequences: because he’ll kill your wife and children even though families are losing their children out there every day. The executions were bad but they weren’t the worst. Since the Scarlet Church had invaded Fruimont the wards that kept demonic threats at bay had been taken down. Within a week’s time there were already reports of several possessions. Any healers or Chantryman associated with the Chantry had been executed: crucified or flayed alive depending on what mood Damen was in so there was no one to help the inflicted. Benedik was haunted by his failures most of all. His own children were looking for him to do something, to get them out of this catastrophe. How could he explain to them he was utterly helpless? The most he’d managed to do was send a letter to the Chantry in hope they would send some relief. He particularly hoped Loras would find a way to convince Drajen to act. Now he was waiting...waiting for a response, trying to keep an eye out, hoping he could get the response - if there ever was a response - before it was intercepted. It all seemed hopeless. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt so old...so helpless. Within a month’s time, the well respected man that had aided Loras Gyrell’s campaign against Pope Drajen was but a cowardly caricature of himself. Benedik could no longer lay in bed. He had to get up and move around. His thoughts would not let him be. He’d given up on the prospect of sleep. He gently lifted Sheathia’s head and set it down on the pillow. He knew the peaceful expression on her face was just an illusion; she was just as emotionally exhausted as he was. He climbed out of bed and padded over to the wardrobe in the corner of their spacious bedroom. He slid into his bathrobe and slippers and stepped out onto the balcony of their large penthouse apartment, closing the door gently behind him to keep the cold night air from seeping into the room. Even in the late months of summer it was freezing cold in the North. Even as he looked at the squared buildings clustered together, snowflakes drifted silently from the sky, carried by ice-tinged gusts of wind. Tonight the streets were practically deserted. The eerie silence unnerved Benedik. Up until a month ago the streets within the downtown area would be crowded with merchants trying sell their plunder, cabbies, and prostitutes. How quickly the city he’d ruled and loved had changed under the cruel rule of Damen Orlys, High Priest of the Scarlet Church - within the blink of an eye. Now the only people who walked the streets were the Red Wraiths, armed with rifles. The number of men and women patrolling the streets had multiplied since many of Benedik’s patrol men had converted to Red Wraiths for fear of being executed. Though Benedik could not entirely blame them from converting so quickly (not after he’d done nothing to put a stop to the executions), their betrayal still stung. Some of them had been friends. Even the city’s officials who had worked closely and loyally with him were now in Damen Orlys’s pocket. Pulling out a wooden pipe from the pocket of his robes, Benedik filled it with a bulb of jalasa and lit it with a match. Smoke plumed into the wintery air as he took a drag and blew out the smoke. He was a tall, lanky man with broad shoulders and long salt-and-pepper hair which seemed to have more white in it with each passing day. Normally, under the unwavering guidance of Sheathia’s firm admonishments, Benedik kept himself clean-shaven. For the past seven days he’d neglected to shave and so now the lower half of his face was covered in bristly stubble. Why don’t you do anything? a voice teased him. Why do you just stand there, smoking your pipe, staring forlornly at a city that you no longer recognize? Because any attempt to stop it would only make it worse. Damen Orlys doesn’t just command his disciples and the Red Wraiths, but is in league with demons as well. This was what he tried to tell himself, a false reassurance. Every waking second of every endless day, this mental conversation warred within him. One second he would feel frightened for the lives of his wife and children and the next he would feel a fury so strong he feared he would explode...only for the fear and exhaustion to stomp out the flames. He saw a hint in the sky where the sun was starting to rise: a small light in an expanse of black. Over the first few days of this nightmare he’d seen the first signs of night turning into day as a good omen; this nightmare was temporary and would pass; the Chantry would send help and take back the city. When this did not happen and he didn’t get a response to the letter he’d sent off, Benedik accepted it for what it was: a false sense of hope. When Benedik could no longer stand the cold, he went back into the bedroom and crawled underneath the sheets. Not once while he’d stood outside had Sheathia moved. She had slept heavily for the last week and a half, sometimes throughout most of the day, leaving the kids in the hands of their nanny. Benedik was worried about her, worried about all of them. He wrapped his arms around her and settled his chin gently on top of her head, breathing in the smell of the lavender and vanilla shampoo she used and waited for the start of another nightmarish day to begin. ... Moments later he heard the door open. That would be Tilde, Nicholas and Elise’s nanny. Even with the state of chaos Fruimont found itself in, Tilde still showed up promptly at seven a.m. in the morning. Though Benedik and Sheathia told her there was no point in risking her life to be there, Tilde would shake her head adamantly and say, “There’s nowhere I’d rather be in these dark times.” Listening to the sound of her light but familiar footsteps, Benedik smiled sadly. If there was anyone who would remain loyal to his family it would be Tilde, even if it meant being crucified for showing her faithfulness. The kids loved her and she loved them immensely in return and though Benedik knew Tilde would never say it out of respect for their parents, she viewed Nicholas and Elise has the kids she never got to have. Benedik forced himself to get out of bed once more, being careful not to wake up his wife, and dressed himself. It took longer than it should have. His limbs felt as if made of hollow wood, his longer fingers, usually quick and graceful, fumbling clumsily with the buttons as he tried to get them in the hole. Depression, like glue, was the only thing that kept him from cursing in frustration. He ran a comb through his hair and stepped out of the bedroom, closing the door behind him. He found Tilde moving with ease and grace around the kitchen, already in the process of getting Benedik’s coffee ready. Even in her old age (she had at least a decade on Benedik and Sheathia), Benedik noted she was an attractive woman - not in a sexual way, but simply in the way she’d held her age well. She wore a long fleece which hung down to the back of her thighs and faded blue jeans. Her red hair, accented with streaks of grey, was piled on top of her head in a neat bun. She wore little makeup and didn’t need much to begin with; not with her high cheekbones, narrow, effeminate nose, and her mouth which had laugh lines engraved around it. No matter the hour of day or the weather, she always showed up looking impeccable. Even now, with everything that had happened in the past seven days, she seemed to have an infinite amount of comfort and love to offer. We don’t deserve her kindness, her devotion, Benedik thought. He didn’t know where the thought came from but it seemed right somehow - seemed true. “Morning Benedik,” she said, pulling a coffee mug out of the cabinet. She spoke in the curled accent common here in the mountains. “Sorry if I woke you.” He smiled, seating himself at the kitchen table. “You never wake me, Tilde. I was already awake. I couldn’t sleep last night.” “Neither could I.” It was only now, when she’d said anything, that Benedik noted the dark circles starting to form around her eyes. She smiled, a trifle sadly. “Too much on my mind. Too much worry.” “I’m sorry,” he said, guilt souring his stomach. “I’m sorry I’m not doing anything.” She arched an eyebrow as she passed him a steaming mug of coffee. “What can you do? You are but one man. This situation goes beyond the power of one man, no matter how strong his heart and mind are. I’ll wake the kids up and get their breakfast ready. Or would you like me to wait?” “Go ahead and wake them, please.” She nodded and went into the hallway. He listened to the soft sound of her voice, sipping thoughtfully at his coffee. It was only these sounds, the sounds of home, the sounds of those he loved, of all that was familiar, was the only thing which provided any sense of comfort. And lurking around it like a preying lion, was the constant threat and fear that came with knowing it could be torn from his grasp - and there would be very little if anything at all he could do all about it. The power of love for his wife and children, and for Tilde was beautiful and painstakingly fragile; it was the only thing that kept him going, kept him clinging onto his tenuous sanity. He knew if anything happened to them, especially the kids, he would kill himself without a second thought. Like an elderly duck, Tilde herded the children into the kitchen, her face filled with a light and joy that warmed Benedik’s heart. She truly loves them, he thought, eyebrows creased together. She belongs with us, not out there on her own...especially with everything going on. He’d come to a decision. He would bring it up before leaving for the meeting this month. His children looked more beautiful than ever. Benedik felt his heart swell with love and pride at the sight of them. With each passing day and year his love only seemed to grow for them, immeasurable, indescribable. Nichola’s dark brown hair stuck in tufts and cowlicks. He had his father’s long narrow face and dark eyes, while Elise looked just like Sheathia with her raven black hair, dark blue eyes, petite nose and rosy lips. Benedik knew without doubt Elise would grow up to be a heart melting beauty like her mother. If she survives this crisis with the Scarlet Church, he thought, his heart jerking with terror. The thought horrified him but it was there and there was nothing he could do to escape it. “Morning, Papa,” Elise said, having to stand on the tips of her toes to kiss his stubbly cheek. “Morning pumpkin,” He beamed and kissed her on the forehead. “Morning, Father,” Nicholas muttered hugging him. As always, Benedik mused at how his son only called him Father instead of Dad, as if lobbying for Benedik’s approval. One day Benedik hoped he could find the words to express the sense of pride he already felt towards the boy, who was quiet and thoughtful, strong and intelligent. Benedik could already see the man Thomas was starting to become, slowly emerging from the boy’s youthful flesh. “Morning, son,” he said, hugging the boy back. “Would you like anything for breakfast?” “No - I need to get going.” She gave him a motherly frown. “Now, what do I always tell you? It’s best to eat something in the morning. Even if it’s just a piece of toast.” “I know. You can lecture me about it later. There’s some other things I need to discuss with you in the living room if you don’t mind.” He saw confusion and worry in the way her slightly bushy eyebrows knitted together but nodded anyway. She followed him out of the kitchen and into the living room. The living room was large and spacious with brand-new expensive furniture. A window that took up the whole wall overlooked the city of Fruimont. Glancing towards the kitchen to make sure the kids weren’t eavesdropping, he dropped his voice to make sure only Tilde could hear him. “I want you to keep the kids away from the windows as much as you can. I don’t want them being exposed to these barbaric crucifications anymore than they have to. Also I’m worried about Sheathia. I know this is taking an emotional toll on her as it is on everyone but she has been sleeping far too much. Try to get her out of the bedroom and interacting with the kids if you can - don’t force her, of course, but just keep an eye on her, eh?” Tilde nodded. “I will do what I can.” “Also there’s one more matter that I’ve been giving some thought. In the end it’s up to you of course.” Benedik cleared his throat. “You have been good to my family and no amount of thanks can cover my gratitude...” Tilde blushed. “Tilde, there’s no need...” He waved a hand to shush her. “Yes, yes there is. You are a part of this family. The kids love you and Sheathia and I love you as well. And we could not have gotten through this last week without your help. I do not like the idea of you out on the streets on your own. You are a capable woman and very smart but I would feel comfortable if you would stay with us. Live with us, as it were.” Tilde’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Live…?” “Yes. This apartment is too big for our small family. Even after thirty years of living here it’s still much too big, even with the kids.” In saying this Benedik remembered how lucky they were to have not one but two kids. Many times Sheathia and he had tried to have children and there had been many miscarriages. He remembered the countless appointments he’d gone with Sheathia, as the healers tried to fix her womb with mana only for nothing to happen. Finally, when the both of them had given up hope of having any children at all, Sheathia had grown pregnant with Thomas, and Elise three years later. We have no business having children at our age, he thought, but it happened...it finally happened. The Light granted us our wish, bless Him. It made his family all the more precious. If only He would free us from this nightmare so I wouldn’t have to spend every waking moment in fear… “We have a spare bedroom. It’s spacious with plenty of space to put your things and an attached full bathroom. It’s yours if you want it.” Tilde beamed at him, smiling blissfully. Seeing her smile like this made the day worth living. “Do you really mean it?” “I do. I can have someone pack your things and transport it here if you wish. You won’t have to worry about a thing.” She nodded and wrapped her arms around him in a fierce hug. “I accept. I best make the kids’ breakfast. The little tykes are probably starving.” Benedik followed Tilde into the kitchen and gave the children a hug and a kiss. Just to make Tilde happy he grabbed a buttered piece of toast and gobbled it down as he left the apartment. Instead of taking the lift down to the bottom floor he took the stairs, wanting to savor the warmth he felt before reality of what was going on in his city hit him. … Benedik stepped out into the cold. Standing underneath the awning to protect himself from the snow, which was falling steadily now, he hailed for a cabby. The tires skidded on asphalt as it came to a stop before him. Benedik was grateful to climb into the cab’s toasty cabin. “Where to?” the driver asked him, meeting his eyes through the rearview mirror. “The City Hall building, please.” Benedik watched silently as the city passed outside the window. Steadily he felt his heart begin to grow heavy. The grey sky hung over everything like an oppressive monster. As always the streets were crowded with people trying to get to and from work but he detected a franticness he hadn’t seen before. Red Wraiths threaded their way through the crowd, their faces frighteningly blank and deceptive beneath their red caps. People shrunk away from them as if they carried a plague. Benedik spotted a young boy, no more than twelve years old, huddled under a blue awning. His face was pale and streaked with dirt, looking morose. They have tainted my city, Benedik thought, feeling a helpless fury. Where was his courage? Where was the man who had courageously stood by Loras Gyrelle? What would she say if she saw me now, the shadow of myself that I’ve become? The deeper the cab went into town the more close together and gritty the apartments became, some of them stacked on top of one another. Shutters were shut against the cold. Occasionally you could spot someone standing on their tiny balconies, smoking. Several times the cab driver pressed on the horn impatiently to get people out of the way. The cab pulled to a stop in front of the the City Hall a few minutes later; it was a round building standing three stories tall. Marble steps led up to the glass doors. Benedik’s legs seemed to work against him as he climbed clumsily out of the car after paying the driver. He walked up the steps jerkily, dread mounting in his chest. He was greeted by security. The men who he had been greeted by for the past three decades, give or take a replacement or two, had been replaced by straight-faced Red Wraiths who held no respect towards him. Though he held the title of mayor he was not in charge of this town - not anymore. He was just here as an ornament, a thing to be mocked by Damen Orlys. The security on staff checked him for concealed weapons and when he did not have any they cleared him through. A set of stairs led him to an elevator. He took the elevator up the the top floor and turned left, following the hallway to a set of white double doors; the plaque on the door read CONFERENCE ROOM A. Already he could hear the monotone murmuring of voices within the room. The room beyond the door was long and rectangular. A long black table took up the center of the room with twelve seats placed neatly around the table. Eleven out of the twelve seats had been taken. Five of Benedik’s hired advisors and officials sat on one side and five Scarlet Priest’s sat on the other side, dressed in their blood-red robes. Damen Orlys, the High Priest, sat at the head of the table. As always he was dressed in his red leather robes, with the gold cuffs; his hood was pulled up, obscuring his features. Forcing himself to take a deep breath, Benedik took the chair at the opposite end of the table, facing the High Priest. “Ah,” the High Priest said, regarding Benedik with a smile, “we were just waiting for you to arrive before we began. Your timing couldn’t be more perfect. As always we have much we must discuss.” Benedik nodded somberly but said nothing. “Shall we begin?” There were murmurs and nods of agreement from all around the table. As was the routine, everyone began with the declaration of their titles. When it came time for Benedik to say, “My name is Benedik Matthiesen, mayor of Fruimont”, the words left a bitter taste in his mouth, his face hot with embarrassment. He felt like a small boy at the butt of a cruel joke. He couldn’t help but notice the slight twitch of Damen’s lips, the gleam in his shadowed blue eyes. You bastard, Benedik thought, making sure the anger and hate he felt for the High Priest didn’t show on his face. One day all your sins will catch up to you and you will burn in the Abyss. I hope I live long enough to see the day. The High Priest cleared his throat, scanning each and everyone of the faces before him. “Have there been anymore prisoners taken in and charged with blasphemy?” “Yes,” said Lucijan Markelj, the man in charge of the city’s security and defense systems. Or at least he had been until the High Priest had given the job to the man who commanded the Red Wraiths in Fruimont; now, like Benedik, he was nothing more than a ornament. The only part of his job required of him at the meeting was to read words and numbers off a sheet of paper. “Twenty-nine to count. The security combing the streets continue to weed out any...” He cleared his throat. “Blasphemers. Also a group of seven people were arrested for trying to assault a squad of Red Wraiths. Two civilians were killed in the skirmish and several more were injured.” Benedik winced inwardly at the news. He did the math in his head. Twenty-nine blasphemers and seven resisters. That means thirty-six. Thirty-six executions. Sure enough the High Priest of the Scarlet Church cleared his throat. “Charge them all with treason against the Scarlet Church and have them executed first thing tomorrow, in the square for everyone to see.” Lucijan nodded. Benedik saw the way his lips tightened and knew the man was disgusted; but just like everyone else his hand was being forced. What could he do? For the next half an hour Benedik let his mind drift. He nodded and murmured in the right places, answering questions when asked, but was not completely involved in the conversation. This was his coping skill and it made the weekly meetings pass by quicker. Before he knew it Damen was bringing the meeting to a close and dismissing everyone. Eleven bodies got up from the chair, some of them carrying briefcases in their hands. Benedik was barely able to restrain his impatience. He was almost out the door - he could take a cab back home and spend the rest of the day with is family; he would make hot cocoa and make sure Sheathia got out of bed. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d spent time together as a family. And it would be even better now that Tilde was a permanent addition to it. But just as he was about to step out of the conference room, just as he’d sensed would happen, the High Priest cleared his throat and said, “Not you Benedik. There is something I must discuss with you in private.” A dull throb passed through Benedik’s head. All at once he felt incredibly nauseous. He turned to face Damen with a forced smile. “Of course.” The High Priest returned his smile but there was something eerie and unreliable behind it. From the first moment Benedik had seen him, he’d gotten the sense the High Priest was not entirely sane, just as he got the sense the High Priest had been around longer than the typical human being. His youthful appearance was simply a mask to cover his true face, as his seemingly cheerful demeanor was used to cover the level of his cruelty. Benedik sat in the chair next to Damen. Every bone and muscle in his body felt rigid. It was strange, sitting this close to the man. Even when just inches away, it was hard to make out much of the man’s face, beyond the fact that he was quite handsome. He hated the way those eyes stared back at him, as if Damen’s thoughts and feelings were completely transparent and everything he said and did was totally expected. It made him feel childish and clumsy. “I simply wanted to give you praise,” said the High Priest. “You have been very well...behaved...over the last month and have carried yourself with dignity. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for you.” Behaved? He says this as if I’m nothing more than a child. Benedik choked down his anger and forced down another smile. He did not want to underestimate this man. “Thank you for the high praise.” “It is well earned.” The High Priest stood up and turned to face the window overlooking the city. He began to pace slowly back and forth. “I’m sure you must be confused with what’s going on and that only adds to the fear. I want to alleviate some of your fear by answering some of your questions.” Benedik tracked Damen’s movements, giving the High Priest his undivided attention. He did not like the way Damen paced, his arms crossed and shoulders tensed. Within but a moment the man’s demeanor had changed. He now seemed anxious. Eager. Still Benedik felt himself straighten in his chair, for he himself was angry. It would be relieving to find out what was to come next. At the same time he dreaded the answers. While he couldn’t say he knew anything for sure, Benedik suspect the scourge of demon possession that had occurred over the past twenty years, increasing in number with each passing year, and the Scarlet Church’s activity was connected. The number of possessions happening within Benedik’s city only confirmed this suspicion. The dread he felt only confirmed something worse: Something big was getting ready to happen and whatever it was, it wasn’t good. It will be unlike anything yet seen, he thought. Not since the day the First Disciple remade the world. Few people survived those days to provide testament; any written records of the creation of the hellscape had been outlawed by Chantry and hidden within a steel vault. The few stories that were around were mostly inconclusive; some of them were pieced together from relics found in the Ubrios Wastes and Okanavi Desert. Whatever version you found yourself listening to, it always began with: The world folded itself inside out… Buildings were crushed, entire cities reduced to rubble. Continents shifted and were replaced. The world’s oceans literally rearranged themselves. People simply winked out of existence. By the end of it there was only a small percentage of the population: just enough for the human race to start over again. But the world no longer belong to the human race. It belonged to the demons, who preyed upon the living as if they were nothing more than cattle. In the end this was how the hellscape came to be. Benedik was brought out of his thoughts by the sound of Damen’s voice. Damen had stopped and turned to face the view outside the windows. There was a more melancholy set to his shoulders. “Do you have any idea how old I am?” he asked Benedik. “No,” Benedik said, forcing a chuckle. “I was always taught it was rude to guess someone’s age, My parents were very old fashioned.” Damen nodded. “Though I appear young enough to almost be your son I am over five hundred years old.” Benedik could only stare, wide-eyed. Five hundred years old? Surely he’s just joking. But Damen had not shifted from his melancholy stance nor had he sounded like he was joking. He sounded like someone who was telling the truth - or someone who believed they were telling the truth. Damen was not done speaking. “I was there the day the First Disciple remade the world. Back in those days the Scarlet Church was but a group of twelve men and women who were just beginning to realize the power they would yield later. I’d never seen anything like it before and I haven’t since. The world literally folded inside out. One minute the twelve of us were standing on a hilltop, looking at the city that was once called Los Angeles and then we were in the midst of oblivion, protected by the First Disciple and the magic my masters had granted him. We watched as the world began to shift, seeming to collapse in on itself, as if being sucked into a black hole. The rules of matter discovered by the scientists and geniuses of the Old World no longer existed. “Us lower disciples were in awe of, and a bit terrified of, the First if I’m being honest. I don’t think any of us truly believe the Primordial Caste - or the Ancient Ones as I sometimes call them - had granted him such power.” Benedik shivered at the mention of the Primordial Caste. Just saying those two words was considered blasphemy by the Chantry and punishable by death. “The First Disciple was defeated, killed by an Agent of Ex’olku...” Benedik frowned. “I’m sorry but a what? And who is Ex’olku?” Damen looked over his shoulder long enough to smile gloatingly at Benedik. “You do not know of Ex’olku or of his Agents? My, how the Chantry has kept you in the dark - and yet the Scarlet Church is considered the most evil of the two. Alas, those records are sealed in the Chantry’s vault along with all the others. “Ex’olku. The Chantry knows him and worships him as the Light.” Damen spat out this last word as if it brought a bad taste to his mouth. “He is an entity as old as the Primordial Caste itself and opposes them every chance he can get by anointing someone to fight for his cause. There have been two in the past and both of them died. The First Disciple killed the first and we killed the second after the First Deciple’s defeat. “For five centuries the demonscape has existed: civilization has rebuilt itself and is starting to expand. The Primordial Caste have grown restless. After centuries upon centuries of being trapped in the Abyss they are ready to rise up and rule the world that was once theirs. And they’ve anointed me to do it. There is no greater honor, and so I shall. With every passing moment demons pass into our world, in search of bodies. The Casteless will finally have shape, the Second Caste will be free from their chains, and the Primordial Caste will take their rightful place in the universe.” Damen turned to face Benedik and his smile froze the mayor of Fruimont’s blood in his veins. “And there’s nothing you or anyone can do to stop it.” … Damen Orlys was furious: He’d just been informed about what had happened at Fort Erikson by none other than Parvan Sanoe, the man he’d placed in charge of the Red Wraith base. And then there was the politicking. He hated politics and yet, at the moment, it was what his job required of him. And it wasn’t just the city of Fruimont he had to worry about but his own church as well. So there he sat on his throne, a beautiful chair made of gold with scarlet rubies encrusted into the arms and the back, fuming. Occasionally he could hear Sanoe’s agonized scream as he was being tortured to death for failing. Every once in a while a scream would break through Damen’s thoughts and a ripple of pleasure would go up his spine. The double doors to the throne room opened slowly, with the cranking of gears. A large portly man with two Scarlet Priests at his side began to walk in, gasping and grunting, trying to catch his breath. He wore a brown cowboy hat on top of his head and a flannel shirt with a Sheriff’s badge pinned to the front. The High Priest rolled his eyes. He didn’t know why but something about Sheriff O’Bannon’s presence annoyed him profoundly; maybe it was because he always insisted that he be called “Sheriff.” I could just have him sent to the torture chamber and not have to deal with him ever again, Damen thought. Two less imbeciles to deal with. But no, this would not do. Sheriff O’Bannon was quite useful as a spy. And the sheriff wouldn’t be here if he didn’t have something interesting to share. The two Scarlet Priests bowed before the High Priest dismissed them with an impatient wave of his hand. They stepped back silently but waited vigilantly in the corners of the chamber, their hands clasped before them. He forced a smile, turning his gaze to the sheriff. “How was your trip?” he asked, as if he cared. “Cold,” Sheriff O’Bannon said. “It gets colder the further North you go. I’m not used to it. I thought I was going to freeze my balls off.” Grinding his teeth, Damen nodded. “Do you have anything interesting to tell me?” Let’s hope you do...for the sake of my sanity and the sake of your life. I need something to bring this dreadful day to a pleasant end. Sheriff O’Bannon smiled, showing his tobacco-stained teeth. “I do in fact. I think it will brighten your day.” The High Priest waited but said nothing. “The group that did that number at the fort passed through Umstadt Station. D-Squad. They were an interesting lot you might say - most of them convicts. But there was one that caught my eye in particular. He looked like a practitioner.” Damen felt his back straighten up. Now his interest was snagged. “Can you give me a description of what this practitioner looked like?” Sheriff O’Bannon nodded. “It’d be hard not to. He was a strange looking young fellow, couldn’t be a day over eighteen. He had black hair and all this black shit smeared around his eyes. Looked like a fuckin’ racoon if you ask me. He had a northern accent just like you do.” Damen leaned back in his chair. Most curious. Who is this young practitioner? What kind of power does he have to be able to destroy a fort? I must consult with C’thla. He smiled. “You have made my day indeed, thank you. I’m sure you must be exhausted from your travels. You can stay here for the night. We will give you a room.” The sheriff bowed as the two Red Priests came to his side. “Always an honor, sir.” … Damen passed through the church’s many corridors, his thoughts going in a million directions at once. He hated feeling this way, all out of sorts. Over five centuries he’d been alive, and yet he hadn’t learned how to control his emotions and thoughts. If anything they became more erratic. Immortality was just as much a curse as it was a gift. These days it seemed more like a curse. He thought about his conversation with Benedik. For a moment he felt lonely, so incredibly lonely and vulnerable. He had opened himself up to Benedik for reasons he still couldn’t fathom. No matter how many times he turned the conversation over, like turning over stones at the banks of a river, he couldn’t find a rational explanation other than he needed someone to talk to. On the other side of things was the practitioner. Twice he’d popped up. He’d all but destroyed Fort Erikson and freed Galliart Fulko, the man the Chantry had sent to spy on the Red Wraiths. It coincided with the preternatural sense Damen had been feeling for the past several weeks, that someone was coming to thwart his plans. Damen clenched his teeth in determination. Well it isn’t going to happen. No one is going to stop my plan from coming into fruition. He turned in the middle of the corridor and stopped at the steel door off to the side. This was the place where Mael’s body - C’thla’s body - had exploded. The mess had long since been cleaned up, the floors and walls and ceiling scoured, but he could still see the bits of blood, gore, and flesh clinging to the ceiling, still smell the heat of internal body fluids: an illustration of his failures thus far. It mattered not. He would spend the next five centuries finding a compatible host for C’thla. She would have her flesh. He traced a finger along the outer skin of the door. Already he could feel her stirring within her tomb, alerted by his presence. Cheeks puffed out, he turned the wheel until the hinges popped open and stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind him. He stayed where he was, scanning the corners of the room, his eyes aglow with mana as he accessed his sixth sense. Though there were several candles lit, the room was thick with shadow and the smell of perfume and incense. Every time he stepped into this room it was like stepping back into a realm far more primal and predatory than the hellscape could ever be, a realm where no human being had ever wandered. At long last he his eyes came across a shape: an effeminate, humanly shape, though he knew the shape was false, a trick of the eyes; just as he knew she would remain in the shadows. To perceive her, to truly perceive her might drive him insane. “Something is bothering you,” C’thla said in an inquisitive voice. Damen could feel her watching him intently as he stooped down into a bow and said, “Priestess.” “You may stand,” she said. He rose to his feet. She was silent for a moment but the intensity of her gaze never left. The curious feeling of fingers combing through his mind passed over him. Only where demons had a tendency to rape the thoughts from his head without consideration of the pain it caused, she did so with a tenderness that often caught the High Priest off guard. “Curious,” she said after a moment, walking around the room, never once leaving the concealment of the shadows. Her bare feet whispered against the ancient concrete floor. “So you have heard of this practitioner before.” Damen nodded. “It seems Ex’olku has chosen another agent.” “It seems he has,” the demon priestess agreed. “A young practitioner who still remains a mystery. I’ve sensed him over the last couple of days. Three days ago one of my disciples, Yov’olbh, was defeated by this practitioner. Yov’olbh is a 38th ranking demon of the Second Caste. He does not possess the strength I do, a first ranking; however he is not a mere Casteless. Yet he was defeated. Lower ranking demons seem weary if not down right afraid of this young practitioner.” Now, from the sound of her voice, it sounded as if C’thla was smiling. “However I am not as weak and we will not be stopped. Right now he is young, unpracticed. He does not have the self control that comes with age and experience. As always, those who Ex’olku anoints tend to die under his vision. It is no different here. This practitioner will play right into our hands and when he does we will crush him.” Damen grinned to himself. “Then perhaps we should start setting up a trap for him, remind Ex’olku what the Scarlet Church does to his Agents.”
  8. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 7

    Coming back into his own body, Lane gasped like a drowning man finally breaking the surface of the ocean. For a moment he was confused, unable to remember where he was or how he’d gotten there but the sound of Loras’s voice led him back to coherence. Every breath he took sent pulses of agony through his back - he’d expended too much mana. He felt Loras lay a firm hand on his back and then cried out as she transferred some of her mana; it felt as if he’d been shocked. “Better?” she asked. “Yeah,” he said and laughed. The sudden pleasure and lifting of spirits was not unlike being high. Loras was giving him a look full of concern and relief in equal measures. “I was worried you weren’t going to make it.” She straightened up and examined the girl’s relaxed face. She glanced back at Lane, eyes wide. “She looks...better. The infection is receding. I can no longer sense the demon’s presence. How did you drive it out of her?” Lane had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from giggling. “Um...with a chain and a little bit of elbow grease. I think she’s going to be okay.” He stood up and cleared his throat. “Thanks for the ...you know...hand up.” They had left Greta’s room and were now walking down the dungeon’s corridor. Strangely all the demon-possessed souls locked away in their cells had become silent. Loras looked at Lane. “I am impressed. Not many practitioners can go toe-to-toe with a Second Caste demon. I can just barely hold my own against one. You have natural talent.” Lane chuckled dryly. “What I have in natural talent I lack in self-control? Whenever I use mana it’s addicting...it’s like being on a powertrip. Like I can do almost anything and no one can stop me. When I was in Fort Erikson thought, I panicked. I don’t know why, I don’t know what came over me. It was just total suffocating fear.” “It’s addicting for all of us practitioners,” Loras murmered. “When we use mana we feel invincible, we think we can defeat anyone and no one can stop us. For whatever reason, whatever keeps them from being able to use it to harm another soul, healers don’t have the same problem. It’s why people fear us practitioners...and I suppose they’re right to. But believe me Lane, when I say you will gain self-control as you get older and grow more powerful. We truly do learn with age. Let’s go up to my office and sit for a spell. I can make us some tea and then we can talk about your trip to the Abyss, which I am sure was very interesting, and then I will hail a cab and have it take you home.” Lane smiled. “Tea sounds really good.” Back in Loras’s office Lane sunk into the armchair across from the desk with a sigh of contentment. The armchair was very comfortable. It was a relief to be sitting down once more; though Loras had given him a pick-me-up, Lane was still incredibly exhausted. It would be a day or two before he was fully back to normal. I’ll sleep good tonight, he thought. Loras handed him a large mug of steaming jalasa tea before sitting in the chair opposite him. He took a careful sip. The tea was hot enough to sear his tongue but he didn’t care. Fingers of warmth slowly spread through him. The jalasa tea had a piney smell. Loras had added honey to the tea, giving it a sweet flavor to soften the bite. “This is good,” he said, holding his cup to her in thanks. She smiled. “I didn’t have much of an appreciation for tea until the Chantry-Practitioner War. My husband, Janif, used to drink it like crazy. He always tried to get me to as well but I always told him I just wasn’t a tea drinker. Of course the jalasa plant is indigenous to the Plaesil mountains so everyone drank tea back then. Now I can’t go a day without drinking it. Had I known how much I would’ve liked the tea I would have sat with Janif and Cara at the kitchen table every morning and every night just before it was time to tuck my daughter into bed.” A sad smile touched Loras face. Lane didn’t know how to reply so he just took a sip of his tea. Everyone knew the death of Loras’s daughter and husband was the true spark that had started the war between the practitioners of the Plaesil mountains and the Chantry. “Where are you from Lane? You helm from the northern mountains, do you not?” “I do. I was born and raised by my aunt in a small town called Annesville. My parents died not long after they had me. They were killed: burned at the stake by Chantry enforcers. My mother was a practitioner but my father wasn’t. They burned him alive as well for marrying her. The only family I had relatively close by was Aunt Lena, so naturally I was put in her care.” “And what does your aunt think of you galloping off to be a hero and fight someone else’s war?” Lane felt something inside of him draw back. For the last year and a half, since he’d left Annesville, he’d reamained tight-lipped about his past, evading questions whenever asked. It seemed safer to remain anonymous - then no one could use your past against you. But he trusted Loras. Though he was sure she had done questionable things her heart was in the right place. She was here, working with the very people who had coldly murdered her husband and daughter to put an end to a far greater threat. He’d always respected her but now had come to like her. In so many ways she reminded him of Aunt Lena. A thought occurred to him, so obvious he wondered why it hadn’t crossed his mind before: No wonder Ex’olku picked me. I’m no one and I have no one. There will be no one to mourn my death should I fail. “She died,” he said; saying the words out loud was like taking a stab to the heart. “I left Annesville to enlist for the Chantry the day after I buried her.” Loras’s face softened. “I would say I’m sorry but I know from personal experience it doesn’t do any good - it’s just something people say because there’s nothing else. It seems we have something in common: our life is defined by tragedy. And people don’t know the deepness of our scars. Did you find out anything from the demon?” Lane gritted his teeth in frustration and shook his head. “Not much. You know how demons are, they can never tell you anything straight. They always speak in fucking riddles. But something is happening. He said there’s going to be a reckoning...and the Primordial Caste is planning something.” Though she tried to keep her face from showing it, Lane saw the quick jerk the older practitioner gave in her chair. No one mentioned the Primordial Caste unless it was under someone’s breath. To say their name was to speak blasphemy. Only the deciples of the Scarlet Church seemed unafraid of them...going so far as to worship them as gods. “You don’t think the demon was lying, do you? Trying to frighten you?” From the look in her eyes, Loras seemed to wanted this to be the case. “He wasn’t. Something is coming. I can feel it. I sensed it back in Fort Erikson, I think. If it wasn’t happening I don’t think I’d even be here.” Lane leaned forward in his chair so he was looking Loras directly in the eye. “I have to get into Fruimont, to gather more information...somehow.” “That would be...very dangerous,” Loros said. “I know.” “You could get killed.” Lane felt his shoulder slump. All over again he was exhausted but not just physically. Once I was just a boy living in the Plaesil mountains. Now I’m...I don’t know what I am. “I don’t have a choice. I have to try.” “What can I do?” Loras asked. Feeling depressed, Lane said, “There is nothing you can do. There’s nothing anyone can do but me.” “This Ex’olku, whoever they are, I don’t like them. It’s too much to ask of one person. It wasn’t like I fought the Chantry on my own for ten years. I had followers, people who were willing to follow me and die under my command. Surely there is something I can do.” The smile Lane gave her was weary and belied his age. “You did plenty tonight. I can’t ask anymore of you...or anyone else. I’m going to give myself a few days to rest and then I’m heading to Fruimont.” Light knows, I don’t want to, he thought. I want to sleep...I just want to sleep. … The next morning Loras met Pope Drajen in his office. Her two most trusted advisors, Vorcas Lyn’drell and Strabetha Vacuity, were there as well. Pope Drajen also had his most trust advisors with him Ecgwald Kovat and Alfred Provost. Both men were so old Loras wondered when they were going to croak and fall over. Chauvinistic and misogynistic, both men were stupid and stuck in their ways; even after twenty years of trying to prove her worth, they took every opportunity to show how much they despised Loras and her people whether it was spiteful looks from across the room or trying to debunk any theories or suggestions she might provide. Even now, standing on Drajen’s right, they were glaring at her. Both of them had thinning white hair and wore round wire-rimmed spectacles but the resemblance ended there. Where Ecgwald was tall and lanky Provost was short and fat, with a large, round gut. Provost had squishy eyes and Ecgwald had large, round watery eyes with a flabby neck that made Loras think of a turkey gizzard. Pope Drajen is an idiot who picked two idiots to advise him, Loras thought. Therefore men are idiots - with the exception of a few. “I have tried to give this matter of Fruimont some thought,” said Drajen. There were dark bags underneath his eyes which meant he’d spent another night tossing and turning. “Sadly I could not think of a viable solution. Suggestions?” “Well, isn’t it obvious what we should do?” Vorcas Lyn’drell said. With his long shoulder-length black hair, perfectly shaped eyebrows, long narrow nose, and wide mouth he looked aristocratic. “We should send him aid, relieve his city. If what Benedik said in his letter is true then innocent people are being slaughtered - some of them children.” “But we don’t know anything,” Ecgwald said, stepping forward, chest puffed out. Every word he spoke made his flabby neck shake and jiggle. His wide, watery eyes bulged out of their sockets. Loras could only stare at his neck and picture a turkey; she had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. In her mind she heard him make gobbling noises. “We don’t know what Orlys is forcing Matthiesen to do or say. We need intel.” To her surprise, Loras found herself agreeing, though she never would have said it out loud. “We could do a reconnaissance mission,” Vacuity suggested. “We could send in one of the squads. Did Fulko overhear anything that could help us during his time in captivity?” “No,” the Pope said bitterly. “It turns out we sent him in for nothing.” “We could send in D-Squad perhaps. They’re the most expendable.” Loras’s heart gave a guilty jolt. She found herself remembering her conversation with Lane last night. In her thirty years she never thought she would meet anyone who had lived a life has hard as her own. But within Lane she saw a lonely and tortured soul who didn’t want the responsibility he’d been given but had taken it because things needed to be done. And he’s still practically just a kid, she thought. But she had agreed she would do whatever she could to help him. If D-Squad goes he won’t be going alone. He’ll have someone to watch his back. But what if they find out why he’s really here and who he really is? Will they hurt him, try to kill him? May I burn in the Abyss if I’m making the wrong decision. She cleared her throat. “I agree with Strabetha. It isn’t the fastest solution but if we know exactly what we’re dealing with then we’ll have a better idea of what we should do.” Provost made a retching sound. He zeroed in on Loras with his squishy eyes. “How can you suggest sending those animals? Four out of six in their group are convicts. A cutthroat, thief, bandit, and assassin. The practitioner, though he isn’t a criminal, is unable to control himself.” “All five of the squads are made up of convicts. Thieves and rapists, lost souls who have comitted petty crimes. The fact D-Squad is made mostly of professional criminals is exactly why we should send them,” said Lyn’drell. “Besides, the mission with Fulko was a success. The Red Wraiths at Fort Erikson are disoriented. Would it be such a stretch to say they are the best suited for this mission?” Loras felt she could have kissed both Lyn’drell and Vacuity. They had always stood by her side no matter what but not just out of loyalty. Both were clear headed, level thinkers, who were not only willing to look at a situation from all sides but also do what was necessary - and doing what was necessary wasn’t easy. Even if the squads were made up of - mostly - convicts, they were still sending men and women into a situation they might never return from. Pope Drajen was tapping his neatly trimmed fingers on the edge of the desk. His salt-and-pepper colored eyebrows were knitted together in thought. In the end, no matter who felt they had the best ideas, it was up to the Pope. If he chose he could reject everyone's’ ideas and order his own to be realized and no one could argue with him. Loras thought it was too much power for one person. In the days before the hellscape it was rumored the world had run under a different kind of government: a democracy, not a dictatorship. The public had been able to choose who was in office. Though they did not have complete power they at least felt they did. The First Disciple had destroyed that world in the blink of an eye. Now the Chanty dominated that world, basing the law on their beliefs not what the people believed; and fighting for the chance to rule was the Scarlet Church. The Chantry could be just as cruel and domineering as the Scarlet Church in their own way but at least they were making a concerted effort to try and protect the people of the hellscape. Looking miserable, the Pope cleared his throat. “I agree with Loras and her advisors. D-Squad is the best option. They have proven useful when it comes to reconnaissance missions and know how to work quickly. Send a Chantryman to notify them - we brief them tomorrow. This meeting is adjourned - except you Loras, there’s something I need to discuss with you.” Lyn’drell and Vacuity gave Loras concerned looks. Loras gave them a smile to show she wasn’t worried; she’d been working with the Pope for twenty years now, both in battle and in the office. She was more than capable of dealing with him. As always, Ecgwald and Provost flashed her scathing looks, making sure to puff out their chests in exaggerated self-importance; and as always, Ecgwald made sure to not-so-subtly knock his shoulder into hers. It never hurt. When he did this it made Loras want to laugh. It was like dealing with a young schoolboy. Seconds later, when all the advisors had filed out, the door closed softly. Loras and Drajen were alone. Loras sat down in the chair opposite the Pope and mentally prepared herself for whatever was to come next. “The guards on duty last evening reported that the young Practitioner on D-Squad...I forget his name...visited you late last night. I take it you had an appointment?” “Yes,” Loras said. Though she felt a nervous jolt inside it did not show on her face. “It’s unusual for you to meet with people so late at night.” Loras clenched her jaw. She narrowed her eyes at the Pope. “What are you getting at Drajen?” “Early this morning the healers came in to check on Greta. For three weeks they’ve been doing their damndest to get the demon out of her - the best healers we have here in Fruimont working night and day. They couldn’t do a thing. Then they find the girl sitting upright, talking in her normal tongue with no sign of the demon’s presence. Did you and the young practitioner have anything to do with this?” Loras leaned forward, challenging the Pope with a piercing look. “What if we did? Would you charge us to be executed?” Drajen inhaled. “My predecessor would have, yes. But that young girl was dying. The demon wouldn’t let her eat. She surely would have died within a fortnight. Now she is eating, her body slowly healing. If you and he did I wish to commend not to punish.” Loras blinked. There were times when the Pope could be arrogant and downright cruel. In those moments it was easy to hate him and want him dead for she still blamed him for the deaths of Janif and Cara; he hadn’t been the hand holding the torch but he’d given the order by passing the law. And then were moments like this when he could be graceful and kind...and these moments confused Loras greatly. It wasn’t always possible to turn a blind eye and forget about the facets she’d found within him over the last two decades. Not everyone is completely who we think they are. More often than not how we see them - how we want to see them - is compromised the more we get to know them and see the magnitude of their depth. Now it was Loras’s turn to clear her throat. “Lane Hardy is the one you should be thanking. He traveled into the demon’s mind and went to the abyss. He expelled the demon.” The surprise on Drajen’s face was evident. “Doesn’t that take an enormous amount of prestige and experience...and power?” “Yes.” “But he’s so young.” The corner of Loras’s mouth turned upwards at the corner. “He’s also extraordinary and talented. Exceedingly so. I think he will do great things.” … Lane was just getting ready to light a jalasa joint when Ex’olku spoke: Be on your guard, you have company. Not a second later there was a firm knock on the door. “Open up for the Chantry!” a deep male’s voice barked from the other side. Lane frowned, the joint hanging from his lips. What were the Chantry doing at his door? Had Loras and he been caught in helping the girl last night? He padded over to the door, gathering his mana, preparing for a fight. He would fight if need be. He opened the door. Standing before him, flanked by two stern faced guards armed with rifles, was Pope Drajen himself. “Good morning,” Pope Drajen said with a smile. His hands were folded behind his robed back. Lane took the joint out of his mouth and fought to keep the shock from showing on his face. He felt caught off guard, standing there in his black tank top, cargo shorts, and bare feet, his hair a tangled unkempt mess. He smiled back, leaning casually against the doorway. “Good morning Pope, what can I do for you?” “I was hoping I could have a quick word with you. May I come in?” The whole time he talked, the Pope’s eyes scanned the young practitioner from head to toe and back up; his eyes paused particularly at the runes tattooed along his arms and the bruise-like smears of eyelinder smudged around his eyes. “Sure. Excuse me if the place is a mess. I wasn’t expecting company.” He led the Pope inside, followed by the two Chantryman. Lane watched from over his shoulder as one of the guards closed the door behind him. He gestured for the Pope to sit down and seated himself on the couch while Drajen took the armchair. “This will be a short visit,” said Drajen. “Have you heard about what’s going on Fruimont?” Lane creased his eyebrows; he sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. “I haven’t.” Pope Drajen filled him in on what was happening in Fruimont. Lane nodded and made concerned sounds in all the right places. “My advisors and I feel it’s best to wait before making a move - we want information first so we can get a better idea of what’s going on. That’s where D-Squad comes in. We’re sending your in for a reconnaissance mission. At first I admit I wasn’t sure if your squad would be the right people for the job but Loras changed my mind. She really vouched for your squad.” Loras? Lane thought. Of course, she must have said something to the Pope. She had opened a way for Lane to get into Fruimont only he wasn’t going alone as he planned. This should have made Lane feel better but it didn’t. It made him angry. The idea of the others being in danger bothered him - particularly Barghast and Sara. He forced the anger down, maintaining his poker face. He couldn’t let Pope Drajen know why he was really here. “Right about now the other members of your squad are getting the same information,” said Drajen. “I though I would let you know personally.” Lane smiled. “I appreciate that. I feel honored.” He couldn’t have told a greater lie; the very sight of the man before him made Lane feel sick to his stomach. Here, sitting across from him, was the man who had killed so many. Not directly of course but it didn’t matter. Pope Drajen stood up and went to the door. One of the guards opened it. Before he walked out, Drajen turned to Lane once more. “Loras told me about what you did for Greta. She’s alive and healing now because of you. What you did was a brave thing. My question is how did a practitioner as young as yourself do it?” Though the Pope was smiling there was something sly behind his blue eyes. Be careful how you answer, Ex’olbu answered. “The Light was with me,” Lane said. “It’s the only explanation I can think of.” Drajen’s smile faded; his face twisted into an expression of suspicion. “I know you’re lying, Lane Hardy. How does a seventeen-year-old practitioner go toe-to-toe with a Second Caste demon and live? Who are you? What secrets are you hiding?” Lane lit a joint and took a drag from it. He blew out the smoke and looked the Pope directly in the eye. “Good question, Pope Drajen. I’ve been asking myself the same thing as well. I just chocked it up to youth and ignorance. But none of us know who we truly are, do we? Not truly.” Lane felt a jolt of triumph as he watched Drajen’s jaw clench in frustration. “Have a good day, Lane Hardy.” Then the Pope turned on his heel and left, slamming the door behind him. … At exactly eight o’clock the six Stray Dogs converged in the Chantry’s auditorium. Six metal folding chairs had been set up for them to sit in. Loras stood in front of a glowing projection, wearing violet robes. The others were already seated when Lane arrived. There was a chair opened between Barghast and Sara. Relieved, Lane immediately gravitated to it but noted that though they were sitting next to each other as per usual, Sara and Mara were not holding hands. In fact they were both stiff, not looking at each other. Lane brushed the thoughts away - whatever’s going on between them it isn’t any of my concern. He took the seat next to Barghast. The Okanavian was so big the chair seemed to barely hold him. Barghast smiled at Lane. “How was your two day break? Have any fun?” As always Lane felt his spirits lift when he was around the Okanavian. By fun do you mean taking a first class trip to the Abyss and fighing a Second Caste demon? What he said instead was, “Not really. I stayed home.” “You should get out, live a little, get laid.” Lane laughed, the sound coming out more bitter than he intended. “Who the hell has the time?” Loras cleared her throat, flashing them a stern look. Her eyes scanned the other D-Squad members and began. “Yesterday we recieved news via a letter from the mayor of Fruimont, Benedik Matthiesen, that the city of Fruitmont has been invaded and taken over by the Scarlet Church. Here is the letter...” With a shifting of papers the letter was slid into place so it was enlarged on the wall. A grim silence filled the room as the Stray Dogs scanned the letter’s passages. Even Rake, who Lane had labeled an emotionless psychopath, looked perturbed, his fingers gripping the side of his face, his eyebrows knitted together. Loras waited a few minutes, studying D-Squad’s reactions; her eyes seemed to stay a little longer on Lane. Was she trying to tell him something with her eyes? He didn’t know. He was too caught up in the others’ responses to give a damn. For the first time since astral projecting to Fruimont the magnitude hit him like a punch to the gut. But this time he didn’t just feel disquiet - he was afraid too. If only I could turn away, he thought. Just pack my things and leave this place and this war behind. I could go east to the Terheim Ocean. I’ve never seen the beach and I’ve always wanted to. But deep down inside he knew even if he truly had a choice he couldn’t have walked away. The guilt of not trying to intercede would have weighed on his conscious, haunting him to the end of his days. Why does everything have to be so fucking hard? Loras continued. “I don’t know if they know it, I assume they do for Damen Orlys isn’t dumb, but Benedik Matthiesen has been a big assistance to the Chantry-Practitioner Alliance. They have taken in refugees fleeing from the demonic scourge spreading steadily across the hellscape and provided weapons and supplies. Without their assistance we have lost a great asset. The Chantry, however, is hesitant to send aid directly, not without more intel. Your job, D-Squad, will be to get into the city and observe.” “Should we try and make contact with Benedik?” Barghast rumbled. “Negative.” Loras sighed and Lane could see the worry on her face; never had she shown such emotion in front of the squad. “We don’t know what he’s being forced to say or do. He has a wife and two daughters. For all we know they could be held hostage as leverage. And no matter what you may see, no matter how much you might want to, you are not to play heroes.” Now she looked directly at Lane, specifically meaning him. “How will we get into city?” Rake asked. Loras smiled. She removed Benedik Matthiesen’s letter and put up a map, showing the city of Fruimont and a small outpost several miles away from the city. The map showed detailed tunnels underneath the ground leading up to the town. “This outpost has several sentries on the lookout placed close enough to the city they can alert the security within the city of an emergency. The tunnels provide safe and quick passage for them to be able to do that. This is your way in. If the city has been overrun by the Scarlet Church they will have taken over the sentry tower as well, meaning you will have to break your way through. After entering the city you will have to devise things yourself. It’s a perilous mission - the most perilous mission you’ve ever been assigned. But we wouldn’t have given it to you if we didn’t think you were capable of doing it. “You leave first thing tomorrow morning. Lane hung back until he was sure the others were gone before approaching Loras. He was shaking with barely contained anger. “You talked Drajen into sending the entire squad didn’t you?” he demanded, voice quivering. Loras’s face was completely calm, her voice soft. “I did.” “Why?” He looked around, realizing he shouted. There was no one around, no one who could have heard but still he dropped his voice down to a whisper. “This is my mission, no one else’s.” “A mission too dangerous for any one person to take on their own...but especially a seventeen-year-old boy.” Lane crossed his arms defiantly. “You think I can’t take care of myself?” “I know you can...more so after knowing you fought a Second Caste demon and won. But that’s not the point.” Looking troubled, Loras expelled a sigh. “I can’t stand the idea of you going in there by yourself. At least if you go as a squad you will have someone to watch your back.” Lane pursed his lips and looked away. In that moment Loras saw through the mask he always wore, the one where he tried to appear braver and older than he truly was. In this moment he truly looked his age, a human being hovering at the threshold between being a boy and a man. “It’s just if something happened to them...any of them...because of me I’d never be able to forgive myself.” Loras put a hand on his shoulder and shook her head. “If anything happened to them it would be on my conscience not yours. I already have plenty of blood on my ledger, a little more won’t hurt. You don’t. I’d like to keep it that way for as long as possible.”
  9. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 6

    Before Loras left Lane’s apartment, they agreed she would meet him on the Chantry steps at precisely eight o’clock. At night no one would be in the dungeons, for not even the bravest most headstrong of healers would brave the gloomy corridors. Demons tended to be stronger, far more resistant at night. When he was sure Loras was gone, Lane sighed and crawled into bed. Telling her all the things he’d been hiding for the last year had been emotionally relieving, but it had also been exhausting. Besides, if he was to undertake the dangerous journey of traveling into a demon’s mind, he would need to be at his best. He woke up promptly at six, two hours before he was supposed to meet Loras. This gave him plenty of time to do a number of meditative exercises that would prepare his mind for tonight’s mission. He left an hour before it was time to meet her to make sure he had plenty of time to get to the Chantry. He slipped in between the city’s trash-filled alleys, dressed in his hooded black robes. It was still raining. It was always raining here in the north. Lane walked around the Chantry’s exterior, making sure to stick close to the surrounding shops where it was most crowded so the Chantry guards didn’t notice him. He was surprised when Loras appeared on the white steps exactly at eight, splendidly dressed in a black turtleneck and matching black leather waist-length coat. He went to her. “Are you ready?” the older practitioner asked when she saw him. He simply nodded. She led him up the steps, murmuring at the guards as she passed to let Lane through. Lane recognized the guard whose nose he had broken three days ago. His nose had been reset and looked perfectly realigned with the rest of his face. Lane gave the guard a toothy grin. “The healers did a good job fixing your a nose. What a shame, I thought it looked better the other day.” The guard said nothing. He only stared at Lane, wide-eyed and blushing. “Was it necessary to embarrass him like that?” Loras asked, stepping through the monastery's main entrance. “No but it was fun. Like all the other Chantry goons working for Pope Drajen, he’s an asshole.” Lane expected Loras to scold him but she said nothing. He took it to mean she agreed. They walked down the tall, green carpeted hallways. Every detail from the vaulted ceiling and curved arches was meant to impress not just those who passed through them but the Light himself. The few times Lane had been in the Chantry he felt sorely out of place; it’s overbearing opulence made him feel overwhelmed and dirty. He well knew the bloody history between the Chantry and practitioners; the malice between them still burned like the undying flames in the Abyss, simply set aside for the moment. Practitioners were still considered outcasts, their pagan practices condemned by the Chantry. Only within the conflict with the Scarlet Church was it acceptable, for the Chantry, without the help of the practitioners, was no match for Damen Orlys and his followers. The door leading down to the dungeons was in the east wing of the building. Bulbs hanging from the ceiling illuminated the staircase which spiraled down into darkness. Lane felt his nose wrinkle up at the turgid, stomach-churning smells of body excrement. Loras glanced up and down the corridor to make sure no one was coming in their direction before ushering him through the door. Judging from the stiffness in her back and shoulders, Loras wanted to get this done as quickly as possible. Lane stood off to the side at the top of the landing and let her lead the way. The moment they began to make their way down the staircase muffled voices began to howl and babble from behind the locked doors on either side. The thrumming power of wards mixed with the psychic attempts of the demons trying to get into his head was like an assault. The wards and his protective tattoos protected him from the demons but only just. It was all he could do to keep his eyes focused on Loras's back. He felt nauseous to his stomach. At long last they reached the door where Greta was being held. Loras had told Lane the basics about Greta back at the apartment but Loras had appeared reluctant to go into much detail. Now she turned to him, her face pale. Her lips, bright red with lipstick, formed a grim line. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked. “We can try finding another way.” I would love to just be able to turn around and wash my hands of it all, he thought. I never wanted to fight in anyone’s war. But I don’t have a choice. Or did he? It wasn’t like he’d ever tried walking away, not really. Mentally he shook the thought from his head. Ex’olku had chosen him for a reason. Besides there was a little girl on the other side of the door who was dying. Hadn’t enough children died over the years? “This is the quickest and surest way,” Lane said, hoping he sounded braver than he felt. “I accept the risks.” Loras nodded. “Very well. Let’s make this quick. If we get caught the Pope will have us both executed with the whole city watching - no matter out intentions.” She waved a hand over the door and said, “Alatae..” The wards placed over the door vanished and the two practitioners stepped inside. The room inside was so dark it was like stepping into oblivion; there was nothing in that darkness but the smell of filth and the girl’s ragged breathing. Lane fought the crawling sensation in his stomach and stepped carefully into the darkness. He swore he could feel Greta’s - no, the demon’s, he reminded himself, while the demon is inside her she is no longer Greta - eyes watching him. At any moment he expected to feel her child’s hands grab a hold of his neck and start squeezing the life out of him with the inhuman strength only demons possessed. He heard Loras mutter something. A second later a ball of fire the size of a stone appeared, lighting the room enough for him to be able to see. Lane had been too afraid to think of the spell. You’re seventeen years old, he thought, you’ll be eighteen in a month, and you’re still afraid of the dark. His fear was forgotten when he saw the girl. Greta looked like a ghost in the flickering light cast from the orb of fire, which hovered beside Loras, turning like a slowly revolving planet. The girls face was covered in dark bruises, her skin pale grey. Gnats buzzed around her, landing on her bare arms. If it wasn’t for the irregular rise and fall of her chest, Lane would have guessed with full certainty she was dead. Ex’olku spoke up, his voice echoing within Lane’s head. He sounded grim. Lane, you have but moments to save her life. If you wish to do so you must move quickly. If you do not succeed she will die by this time tomorrow. Lane approached her bedside. The girl eyes opened. She looked at him. Her eyes glowed with a demonic, yellow light. The girl bared her teeth at him in a feral cat-like hiss. “Get away,” she hissed in the leathery voice of an old man. “Get the fuck away from me. You have been touched by Ex’olku. I can smell his stink on you.” Lane ignored the demon. Loras was watching him now, her lips downturned in a contemplative frown. “What do I do?” Lane asked. “It’s just like astral projecting,” said Loras. “The only difference is your Aspect is going into Greta’s mind and essentially the demon’s. I would suggest putting your hands on her head, though.” Lane nodded and then said, “Don’t leave me.” He hated the way his voice shook, how small and alone he felt, but the fear was inside him like a fetid black tumor. “I won’t go anywhere,” Loras said in a gentle, almost tender voice. “When you find her and get the information you need I will pull you out.” The younger practitioner said nothing else - there was nothing left to say. He pulled the dagger he’d cut his thumb with three days ago and reopened the wound which was almost completely healed, and then did the same with his other thumb. Once the dagger was stowed away in his pocket again, he gently placed his thumbs gently on either side of Greta’s sweaty temples and spread the blood around in quarter-sized circles. Gathering his mana, he reached out to Greta and felt his mind connect with hers. Then, as if pulled by gravity, Lane felt hus Aspect leave his body and flow into Greta’s. … Loras watched as his eyes went milky and his head dropped down; his hands remained on Greta’s forehead. She caught the brief flicker of his Aspect (which would have been invisible to anyone else but practitioners or healers) before it appeared to be sucked into Greta’s head. Greta appeared to have fallen asleep once more. Loras felt a chill crawl up her spine. When Lane had approached the demon, the demon had flinched. The demon had been afraid. But why? What power did Lane possess that could make a demon afraid? And who was this Ex’olku? The doubt Loras had held towards Lane and his story no longer existed. She was overwhelmed by the sense something too big to comprehend was happening. A plan had been set in motion and it would change everything - again. Whoever Lane is, she thought, he’s too young. He’s too young to be in the Stray Dogs, fighting our war and he’s certainly too young to be entering into the playing field to battle a second Caste demon. He doesn’t have the control, the self discipline that comes with wisdom and age. Demon’s balls, why didn’t I go in with him? It was too late to scold herself now. All she could do was wait and be here when he was ready to return. … Lane was falling down a vacuum tube made of various colors and flickering images. Flashes of voices and sounds came from everywhere, so loud he felt as if his ear drums would explode. Where the exhilarating sense of flying he’d experienced back when he’d astral projected in his apartment had been pleasant, this was terrifying. His organs felt as though they were trying to detach themselves from his body and shoot up his throat. He wondered how his Aspect could experience such sensations? Was the body really so easily fooled by the mind? Suddenly colors changed from light to dark. He was falling through a red, alien sky and below was landmass. He was falling far too fast to comprehend what he was seeing: the strange conglomeration of colors that sent equal shocks of wonder and unease through his mind, quickly overcome by the panic of falling. He plummeted through a wispy white cloud, his black robes billowing behind him. The wind battered at him, slapped relentlessly at this face. It was impossible to breathe. How do you stop a train that seems to have no brakes? he thought. To his relief, Ex’olku answered: How does a bird learn to fly? They spread their wings. Riddles. Why does everything have to be riddles with you? Why can’t you just talk normally? But Lane got the meaning. Spreading his arms he exerted his mana. A shimmering ball of white light formed around him and he began to slow. He managed to get his body twisted around so he was falling feet first. The ground was slowly rising up to meet him. Lane grinned despite himself. There were times when astral projecting could be quite fun - even if it was dangerous. Finally his feet touched ground. He had to hold his arms out at his side to keep his feet from buckling underneath him. Lane closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. The air was turgid and smelled like a mixture of copper...and bananas? He opened his eyes and took in the strange world around him. The Chantry tells everyone the Abyss is a place of fire, Lane thought. A place where ash constantly rains from the sky and burns the flesh. They got it wrong. Before him, in the distance, black mountains rose into the air, more massive than the tallest mountain in the Plaesil region of the hellscape or any that had existed before the existence of the hellscape. Surrounding the mountains were plains of black grass. Dotting the foreign plains, the young practitioner spotted several temples. Something about their dark, ominous walls hinted they were far older than any he’d yet to lay eyes on, older than the relics found in the Ubrios Waste and Okanavi Desert. To the left were the crashing waves of an alien ocean; the waves were the color of dark blood. Blood, Lane thought with a sense of dream-like fascination and revulsion. The waves are made of blood. Stranger and more frightening yet were the strange aquatic like organisms crawling out of the waves, onto the sooty sands of the beach. Many of them were crustacean in appearance with multiple limbs. Bony ridges poked out from underneath pink, slick-looking flesh. The faces of these creatures were frighteningly very human looking; the eyes, milky and blind, searched sightlessly over the scorched sand; their round mouths yawned open and shut. The hissing moaning sounds coming from their mouths sounded desperate and agonizing. Lane had always been frightened (and slightly fascinated) by insects and arachnids, but these were like something out of a child’s twisted nightmare. When he turned around to see what was behind him, Lane was glad to see there was no more ocean, at least as far as he could see. Instead the landscape expanded with rolling hills of black grass; he was standing on top of one of those hills now. Twenty yards away was a single tree, its trunk dark and withered as if all the nutrients had been sucked out of it. Its branches were twisted. Standing around the tree were several naked forms. Chains snaked from the shackles around their necks and arms, their flesh as blackened and cracked as the tree they were chained to. At the center of the group, also chained to the tree, huddled before it, was Greta. And guarding her was the demon. Lane sucked in a breath and began to head towards the tree. Five minutes later he reached the tortured souls standing around the tree. The lifeless, white orbs of their eyes stared up at the scarlet sky; their mouths hung open in silent, voiceless screams. There were men and women, and a few children or what was now their husks. The very demon that had hijacked Greta’s body was feasting on her Aspect. Like the tree beside the demon, the life had been sucked out of the other souls until there was nothing left of them but their fear and eternal suffering. Lane reached the tree. Large black spores grew from its fetid trunk like rotten fruit or… Tumors, Lane thought. The demon, taking notice of him, hissed. It was a horrid mutated thing, half scorpion and half man. It stood upright, its outer shell glossy and hard like the exoskeleton of an insect. A long, dangerous looking stinger snaked from its high end. The tail now flicked back and forth, as if daring Lane to step forward. “Get away,” the demon hissed, making an odd chittering sound. It’s forked tongue slid out at him. Lane glanced at Greta. The rot that had consumed the poor souls standing around them had consumed most of her. Veins of black traveled from the tips of her toes, throughout both feet before fading underneath the nightgown she wore, and then started back at her hands, arms, and face where it ended. She stared off into the distance, seemingly unaware of what was happening around her. Though Lane knew the demon feared him and the one who had branded him, Lane also knew the demon would fight him to keep the innocent soul it had abducted. If I can get it away from the tree just long enough to get those chains off her and get away, hopefully this won’t be too hard, Lane thought. Lane did not respond to the demon’s threat. Instead he raised his arms above his head, and with a shout of, “Feri!” two balls of fiery energy shot from his hands. The demon was blasted into the air, it’s tail lashing. It let out a screech of surprise and rage as it landed in a heap in the dirt. Within seconds it was on his feet, charging at him. Like an insect its movements was a blur of motion and color. Lane backed cautiously away but already it was lunging in the air towards him. Lane managed to summon a wall of kinetic energy before him just a second before the demon could collide with him. Instead it slammed into the wall and was thrown once more into the blackened grass. Once more it thrashed, momentarily stunned, but then pursued Lane once more. The demon priest’s attacks were relentless, its tail a flash of movement. It took every bit of concentration Lane had to deflect its attack. Not only was it attacking him physically, but psychically as well. He could feel its mental fingers crawling along his scalp, trying to get inside his head. Already Lane could feel himself growing exhausted. Every second his Aspect spent outside his body he was using up his mana quicker than normal; blocking both the demon’s physical and mental assaults was making it go all the faster. This wasn’t a wraith he was fighting but a demon of the Second Caste who was far stronger. I’ve got to do something to get it off my back, he thought. I don’t know how much longer I can do this. Once more, Lane drew on his rapidly dwindling reserve of mana. Light flashed from his eyes, which had turned milky. A shockwave of mana exploded from all around him, kicking up clumps of the strange burnt-looking grass and soil. He saw the demon fly through the air, out of sight. Lane wavered on his feet. He felt drunk with exhaustion - but he couldn’t stop now; he’d bought himself only a minute, if that. He approached the slumped form of Greta, still tethered to the tree. The demon’s infection had spread up to the bridge of her nose and was now seeping upwards towards her eyes. Lane pointed a finger at the chains binding the dying girl to the tree. With a weary mumble of, “Sevna”, the chains dropped from around her. Lane managed to catch Greta in his hands before she could hit the ground. Her body was rigid and cold as ice. Lane hugged her cold body to him. Once more his body shimmered as he fed his mana into her. The act of giving his mana to heal her Aspect was not without cost: Each second he held on was agony. Black spots had formed in front of his eyes and blood was starting to dribble from his nose. His Aspect had begun to grow transparent, losing solidity. This will have to do for now, he thought. If I die it will at least buy the healers more time to try and exorcise this monstrosity. He set her back down gently so she was resting against the tree. The demon’s infection had receded so it was now below her neckline. He frowned. For all the mana he’d given it hadn’t helped as much as he hoped but it would have to do for now. A furious screech and the sound of multiple limbs scrabbling frantically over the ground alerted him to the demon’s charging approach. Lane grabbed the chain, now lying in the grass and staggered to his feet. He turned to face the demon. Lane gritted his teeth. With aching arms he lifted the chain. He counted to three and when he was sure the demon was within reach, Lane swung the chain with all the strength he could muster. The end of the chain connected with the demon’s back. A loud THWACK punctuated the air. The demon snarled at him. “I will enjoy ripping your entrails out with my teeth, yes,” the demon hissed. “We’ll see,” Lane said, feeling more courage than he felt. The fear of death at the demon’s claws was the only thing keeping him on his feet at this point. His only thought was: If I die I will have failed Greta and the Chantry. I will have failed everyone in the hellscape...The Scarlet Church will have won. “Right now,” he said, “I’m just having fun kicking your scaly ass.” “Gahhhhhh!” the demon screeched and charged once more. Lane managed to duck out of the way from its tail and swung the chain once more. The chain connected with another THWACK, flattening the demon into the ground. Lane let loose with another flurry of swings, always making sure to stay a safe distance away from the creature. THWACK THWACK THWACK! Each hit sent painful yet satisfying vibrations of impact up Lane’s arms. When the demon was no longer making any attempts to get up, Lane approached it with the chain still in hand just for good measure. He kicked it over. “No more,” the demon hissed. “Please...no more...” Even demons fear pain, Lane mused, his mind slow with fatigue. “What is your name, demon?” Lane demanded. “And you better tell me or I will keep doing this until there’s nothing left of your corporeal form, so don’t fuck with me.” “Yov’olbh, 38th ranking of the Second Caste.” So more powerful than a Caste but only just. Lane’s Aspect flickered. He had but moments left to get back to his body. It was time to wrap things up. The demon had willingly offered Lane his name, and with a demon’s name came a certain amount of power over them. “Tell me of the Scarlet Church’s plans, Yov’olbh. What is it they’re seeking?” “A vessel for my mistress, her name I shall not say no matter how many times you beat me with that chain,” Yov’olbh said. “She has been chosen by the Primordial Caste for a very special task. Once she finds her flesh she will give flesh to their retribution. They will rise from the pits of the earth and reclaim what was once there’s...” Lane...Lane…! Loras's voice was a distant echo, riding the sea-wind. You’ve been in there far too long! Get out of there before it’s too late! Lane looked down at his hands. They were transparent enough now he could see the ground through them. There was last thing. He glanced at the demon. It was still lying there, looking fearfully up at him. How could Ex’olku’s touch grant him such power? He was too exhausted to permanently destroy its physical body, so he would use its fear of him to its advantage. “Leave this girl,” he said. “Leave this girl and go bother someone else.” Once more his Aspect flickered and he began to rise, floating higher into the red sky with the Abyss and its blood-ocean sinking below him.
  10. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 27

    Thank you Cole, your comments are very helpful. Part of me I think just got tired with the story. I love it, at some point I'm going to finish it but there are other things I want to work on. At Stephen King tends to do I'm going to put it away for a while and then go back to it so I can refresh my brain a little bit.
  11. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 5

    Loras walked through the dimly lit passageways of the Chantry’s dungeons, where the unfortunate souls whose bodies had been hijacked, were kept. Though the nuns tried to keep it as clean and sanitized as they could Loras could still smell the excrement. Worse yet were the emotions her mana-enhanced senses picked up on: the agony of a soul being ravaged by the relentless cruelty of a demon. In all her years of life, the terrible things she’d seen and experienced, she had never felt anything worse. The runes tattooed all over her arms and back were working overtime to keep the demons’ out of her head. She could sense them, locked behind wooden doors, and in turn they could sense her. The runes and sigils were the only thing that kept them from seeing into her mind. That and the wards that had been placed over all the doors. The Chantry’s dungeon was a prison to hold in the demons, the ones yet to be exorcised from the physical bodies they’d hijacked. It was a brutal yet necessary method of trying to keep the world safe - not every attempt at exorcism was successful; in fact few were. Lately there’d been too many possessions to be able to hold them all. Her high heels clicked on the gritty stone floor. After walking down the dungeon steps they were starting to hurt her feet. When she was younger they hadn’t hurt her feet so bad. But I’m no spring chicken anymore and looking professional is starting to take its toll on my body, she thought. Loras kept her dark brown eyes focused resolutely at the door in front of her, ignoring the taunts thrown at her from both sides in the Demon’s Tongue. Her jaw was set in determination. Not a single platinum-blonde hair on top of her head was out of place. She tucked her long black fleece around her in an attempt to stave off the damp chill within the dungeon’s walls. At long last, when it seemed like the corridor would go on forever, she reached the door at the end. It was made out of thick wood and also inlaid with powerful wards to diminish demonic influences. Behind the door she could hear the sound of wistful voices lowered in prayer. Loras raised a fist and hesitated. Are you sure you want to do this? she asked. Why do you keep torturing yourself like this? She answered her own question: Because it needs to be done. Loras pursed her lips and rapped firmly three times on the door. The prayers stopped and a moment later the door cracked open. Emerald-green eyes studied her for a second before opening the rest of the way to let her in. Loras hastily slid inside the room. She turned and felt her throat constrict at the scene before her. The girl was young, perhaps only eight or nine. Her arms were tied to the bed’s metal headboard, the rope covered with blood from where she had rubbed her wrists raw when trying to escape the restraints. Her nightgown was filthy from where she had thrown up bile and Loras detected the smell of shit. The young girl’s hair was greasy, her forehead shiny with sweat, her flesh a pasty grey color. Her cheeks and eye sockets were sunken in, the flesh around her eyes black. There were many demons, like the Casteless, who did not have bodies, who simply possessed their host for the need of flesh - to finally have shape; and then there were the ones who possessed only to taunt and slowly torture until the victim wasted away. But there were two types of people demons loved the most: children and practitioners. Children because of their innocence. Demons loved to corrupt. Practitioners because of their mana, which made them more compatible. Loras had seen a possessed victim explode when a demon, too powerful for the body to contain it, tried to hijack them. It had not been a pretty sight. Loras felt her heart sink at the sight of the young girl. When are they ever pretty? When does the sight of their ravaged state not create nightmares? A cadre of nuns surrounded her, their heads bent in prayer. Bright, flickering light glowed around them as they exerted their mana to try and cleave the demon from the girl’s body. Though the girl appeared calm, like she was sleeping, Loras could sense the demon’s resistance. Loras managed to tear her eyes away from the possessed child and turned to face the head nun who had let her in, Sister Mariellis. Sister Mariellis, who was short and dumpy while Loras was tall and willowy, looked tired behind her wire-rimmed glasses...and resigned. Many times she had made it clear she didn’t like Loras’s presence at the exorcisms. While the Chantry and practitioners had aligned with the Scarlet Church when faced with the war, it was a reluctant alliance. “What are you doing here?” Sister Mariellis demanded. Loras flicked a glance at the possessed girl before looking back at Sister Mariellis. “I couldn’t sleep last night. I wanted to offer my assistance.” “We don’t need your help!” Sister Mariellis snapped. “It looks to me like you do,” Loras replied. “The demon is putting up a fight.” Sister Mariellis’s face softened, tears gleaming in her eyes. Loras could tell from the way she was clenching her hands around her crucifix that she was trying to keep it together. “Yes it is. We’ve been going at it for three days and it’s not going anywhere. This isn’t a mere casteless we’re dealing with. It’s a priest of the Second Caste. It’s corporeal form has shown up twice, a dreadful looking beast! It won’t let us feed her or bathe her! The poor girl is wasting away.” Loras couldn’t help but sympathize for the woman. “What is the girl’s name?” “Greta. Her parents brought her in when signs of demonic activity started occurring in their home. She has a bite mark high on her right upper thigh. The infection is starting to fester and spread. It won’t be long now before the infection consumes her and there’s nothing left.” Loras put a hand on Sister Mariellis’s shoulder; the nun flinched but did not step away from her touch. “I know there is still a great divide between the Chantry and practitioners. But I, like you, truly want to help. Surely we can set aside our animosity towards one another long enough to help this child.” Sister Mariellis nodded shakily. “Alright. I have a spare crucifix. Will you pray with us?” Loras hesitated and looked down at the crucifix, dangling from a necklace of wooden beads, being held out to her. She had never been one for faith. But in times such as this, one must set aside their own misgivings and pick up a sword, she told herself. She put the crucifix around her neck and together, she and Sister Mariellis, joined the other nuns in prayer. “...may the rays of the Light touch this innocent soul and cast the demon back into the Abyss where it belongs...” As Loras began to pray she felt the fibrous hairs on the back of her neck rise, as if from static. The runes and sigils tattooed along her arms and back began to tingle as she exerted her own mana; her eyes became white, a mist covering her irises and pupils. A web made of energy had formed between herself and the other nuns with Greta at its center. Loras could feel the demon wriggling around inside of the girl, thrashing about like a frantic parasite. Greta was thrashing about, kicking wildly with her dirty feet. Words hissed from her lips in the Demon Tongue, her head swinging from side to side. That was when Loras heard someone cackling behind her; it was a dry sound, like the crackling of bone. Loras turned her head to look but before she could Sister Mariellis grabbed her shoulder. “Don’t look!” Sister Mariellis whispered, her eyes wide with a mixture of fright and exhaustion. “It will only taunt you and try to get into your head!” Loras nodded and went back to praying. “To the Light I pray to thee if it is Your will vanquish this lowly demon and send it back to the pits of the Abyss from whence it came.” She heard the corporeal form of the demon cackle from behind her again. Even as she prayed she could feel its cold mental fingers trying to reach inside of her head. Even if her tattoos protected her from possession and its influence they could only do so much. She could feel its power closing in around her like a tide of the blackest pitch. She willed her mana to spread out but already she could feel the presence and power of the other nuns starting to become distant. He’s trying to isolate you from the others, Loras told herself. Without them you’re weaker, easier prey. “What are you doing here, silly woman?” the demon said in a voice dripping with malice and condemnation. “You don’t even believe. You stopped believing in the Light when the Chantry soldiers came to your village. They burned everyone at the stake: men, women, and children. You remember, don’t you? They even burned your husband and your daughter. They made you watch them burn and you were too distraught to do anything but smell their burning flesh.” No, Loras thought. No, you’re not going to play your mind games with me, so you just stay the fuck out of my head. But the more she tried to resist the stronger the demon’s influence became. She could feel him rooting around in her mind, raping her in only the way a demon could - not through physical touch but the worst way, mentally and spiritually. Though she was strong, had grown stronger with age and experience, living longer than most practitioners, the demon was ancient and therefore far stronger. It made her power look like a flickering candle flame in an ocean of darkness. It easily batted her feeble attempts at defending herself away. Suddenly it was not the smell of the dank dungeons or the continuous praying of the nuns she heard but the screams of villagers as the Chantry slaughtered them. She smelled burning flesh and hair. She opened her eyes and found herself standing in the middle of her village, Caldreath. Loras’ eyes widened. How can it be? They burned Caldreath down to the ground twenty years ago. She watched as a woman ran from a Chantryman, who rode on horseback. The woman was shouting at her child to keep running but the Chantryman was catching up far too fast. He had a machete in his hand. “No!” Loras screamed. “Watch out!” But it was too late. With a single swing of his blade the Chantryman cleaved the woman’s head from her body. Her lifeless corpse fell into the snow, blood sprouting from the stump where her head had been. The child, a little boy no more than three or four, fell into the dirt. The Chantryman bore down on him, bloody blade upraised. Mercifully, before the ghastly scene could play out, a hand grabbed her once more, wrenching Loras from the demon’s illusion. She could only blink in confusion as Sister Mariellis pushed her towards the door. Before her brain could register she was being dismissed from the exorcist, Sister Mariellis had shoved her back into the dungeon’s main corridor and slammed the door shut in her face. For a long, dragging moment, Loras could only stand there, staring at the door stupidly, trying to understand what she had done wrong. You were compromised. The demon got in your head… She hung her head. How could she have failed so easily? She was Loras Gyrell, the woman who had led the practitioners out of the ashes the Chantry had created, into rebellion. It was she who had swallowed her pride and anger - not to mention the pride and anger of others - when Pope Drajen suggested they set aside their differences long enough to deal with the mounting threat of the Scarlet Church. Twenty years of tenuous peace between the practitioners and the Chantry had passed as a result. People were still counting on her, as they’d done for decades. She had been defeated by one demon. And worse yet she had failed the innocent little girl in the room behind her, whose life dwindled with every second the demon was inside her. Tears threatened to overwhelm Loras. She could still hear the demon’s words ringing in her ears: They even burned your husband and your daughter. They made you watch them burn and you were too distraught to do anything but smell their burning flesh. Taunted by her own bloody flesh, Loras squared her shoulders, and straightened her back. There was no sense in crying over the ashes of the past. ... Her office was next to Pope Drajen’s. Thankfully his door was closed, which meant he wasn’t in. Loras was grateful for this: if she’d seen him she probably would’ve flayed his flesh from his bones with a single syllable. Her encounter with the demon had awoken her hate and cravings for revenge. Twenty years ago, Drajen had approached her in the middle of a field, each guarded by three of their own soldiers should one try to ambush the other. Both Drajen and Loras were exhausted: physically and emotionally. For a decade they’d fought constantly, each sending men and women to their deaths and carrying those deaths upon their shoulders. There was no winner in sight and so it seemed they could keep fighting until there was no one left standing. Loras had made herself a promise: An alliance until this threat with the Scarlet Church is over...and then I’m coming for your head and the Abyss is coming with me. It was funny in a bitter sort of way how complacent you could become over the years, you could forget about your promises. Twenty years had passed since she’d made that promise and since that day she and Pope Drejan had fought together, watching each other grow old and weary as they tried to drive back the Scarlet Church and their demon onslaught. They no longer had the fire, the driving passion they’d had thirty years ago, when the war between the practitioners and the Chantry had started. Loras, like Pope Drajen, had a spacious office. The floor was carpeted, the walls a calming creme color. She had a spacious desk to work at, which was well organized. Loras could not stand having a cluttered desk; she worked better and faster when everything was in its place. A large window provided an appealing view of the city. There was a large fireplace. Every morning and every night she made a large pot of jalasa tea. It helped to wake her up in the morning while keeping her mind calm. She was just sitting down in her plush comfy chair when there was a knock at the door. For fuck’s sake, what now? She thought as she expelled a sigh. “This better be good!” she snapped at the door. “Come in!” The door opened and three armored Chantryman pushed a hooded man into the room before filing inside. The hooded man looked at her, his eyes rimmed with eyeshadow. It was Lane Hardy, the young practitioner on D-Squad. What is he doing here, just showing up out of blue like this? Loras thought. She managed to keep the surprise from showing on her face by looking stern. His hands were shackled together. “What is the meaning of this?” she demanded, scanning the faces before her. The practitioner was the only one who looked perfectly calm. “This practitioner here, ma’am, said he had to get in to see you right away,” said the tallest of the three Chantryman. “When our shift leader refused to let him in because he didn’t have an appointment slip he punched him in the face and broke his nose. Now our shift leader is with healers, getting his nose healed.” Tough break. Loras had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing at that one. “Is this true?” she asked Lane. The practitioner nodded but offered no explanation. His eyes remained on her. His presence still mystified Loras and made her feel slightly uneasy. She’d seen him in briefings for missions but there was only one occasion in which she’d spoken with him individually: a year ago when he’d come into her office to be recruited. It had been the strangest meeting she’d ever had with a recruit and it had kept her up for several nights. Nights in which she turned it over and over in her mind, trying to make sense of it. And even when the memory became fuzzy and distant, it never completely left her, always lurking in the back of her mind as if for later consideration. Now it was at the forefront and vivid, as if it had just happened yesterday. She remembered how he’d sat down, wearing the same hooded cloak he did now, his eyes smeared with the eye makeup. Just like now. He’d brought nothing with him but a single duffel bag. At the time Loras had come up with a motherly speech to tell all the youngsters about the truth of joining a squad - and it differed greatly from the bullshit Pope Drejan told everyone: there was nothing glorious or exciting about it. Unless they had any real experience in battle they were going to die. Motherly don’t-throw-your-life-away type stuff. But Lane hadn’t looked excited at the prospect of going on an adventure, killing Scarlet Priests and Scarlet Blades and demons. He only looked tired, as if he carried the world on his shoulders...but also set and determined. There would be no dissuading him. Out of curiosity she’d tried to reach out and read his mind...only to feel a force cut her off. It had been like running into a brick wall. What kind of power and skill could a practitioner so young have to block her like this? Over the next several months, whenever she saw him at mission briefings, she would try again only for the same thing to happen. So she stopped trying. “Let him go, he’s fine,” Loras said after a moment’s consideration. The Chantryman gaped. “Leave my office, now!” she snapped. The three Chantryman guards saluted her and flicked uncertain glances in Lane’s direction. When she gestured for them to remove Lane’s shackles they moved nervously like little boys who had just been scolded by Mommy. She closed the door behind them and turned her critical gaze on the young practitioner, who was rubbing at his irritated wrists. And still he looked back at her, arms folded, not afraid but determined. There were many people who were afraid to stand before Loras and look her directly in the eye. Like Pope Drejan, there were moments when she’d been known to be formidable, especially when her temper was sparked. She didn’t know how to treat this situation and this baffled her - Loras had always prided herself for knowing what to do. She felt cornered. “Is it true you punched an armed Chantryman in the face?” she asked. “Yes,” he said. “Most people would have been shot on sight or thrown in the brig, marked for execution under the charge of attempting to assassinate the Pope. Luckily you were brought to me and not him. Why did you punch the guard?” Lane smirked. “He wouldn’t let me through and when I tried to walk by he shoved me. Quite hard. My ass still hurts. So I punched him. As it turns out it got me to you all the faster, so no regrets here.” My, my, my, isn’t he just cheeky today? Nevertheless Loras found herself amused. “Well you’re here now. I don’t want to rush you since you went through so much trouble to get to me but it’s already been a very long day and I’m very, very tired. Get on with it, will you?” Lane blinked. “Alright. May I sit down?” “You may not.” He rolled his eyes. “Alright, I was hoping I could ease you into this but I guess not. The city of Fruimont, which is in the Plaesil mountains...” “No need to tell me, thank you. I know where it is.” “...has been overtaken by the Scarlet Church. People are being slaughtered and crucified outside the city walls as we speak.” His words brought her up short. She could only gape at him. “What?” she said after a moment. Lane’s face made a pained expression. “Perhaps I could just show you...” He stepped towards her, reaching out a hand. Loras reacted out of fear. “If you think this is funny, it isn’t! Get out! Get out right now before I have the guards come in here and shoot you!” Lane put his hands in the air as if she was pointing a gun in his face. He moved quickly to the door. “Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.” And then, without another word he walked out the door and was gone. Loras stayed where she was until she was sure the younger practitioner was gone and then dumped herself into her office chair. Every muscle in her body ached. She raised the her tea mug to her lips only to have to set it back down her hands were shaking so badly. … Loras found out the young practitioner was telling the truth at the monthly conference meeting two days later. Loras hated these meetings. They dragged on for too long, sometimes three and four hours ( she always made sure to bring a pot of jalasa tea with her.) It would have helped if most of the meeting didn’t have to do with bureaucratic bullshit and male posturing. This was one of the many situations where both sides, the practitioners and the Chantry did their best to remind each other that though they were allies - for now - they were not and would never be friends. Sitting around a long rectangular table were twenty-four people - twelve belonged to the Chantry and twelve were practitioners. Loras was leader of the practitioners - the others loyal advisors. It was a job she didn’t want just as she’d never wanted or meant to be the leader of the rebellion against the Chantry thirty years ago; in those days she’d only wanted revenge for the deaths of her husband and daughter. But once again the people had spoken and placed the mantle in her hands, whether she wanted it or not. In the eyes of the practitioners she was the Pope. Loras took her seat at her end of the table, with her closest most admired advisors, Vorcas Lyn’drell and Strabetha Vacuity sitting on her left and right. Pope Drajen and his advisors had taken their seats as well. Loras went to take a drink from her tea and paused when she saw the stricken look on Drajen’s lined and aging face. In the name of the Light he looks as if he’s aged ten years since I saw him three days ago, she thought. His round face had taken on an ashen color and there were dark circles around his eyes. Loras got the sense this was not going to be a normal monthly meeting full of bureaucratic bullshit. He reached into the pockets of his robes and pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper. He unfolded it carefully before glancing at the twenty-three faces who stared back at him. “We are not going through the political city crap we usually start out with.” He paused to take a sip of water. Loras couldn’t help but be surprised. She’d never heard him talk this way before, so blunt and solemn. He usually gave off the facade he was a pleasant and cheerful man who was just following the path of the Light. He cleared his throat. “I have just received a letter from Benedik Matthiesen, the mayor of Fruimont stating the city has been overrun by the Scarlet Church.” There were gasps and murmurs of horror from all around the table. Loras felt her blood run cold. Strabetha grabbed her hand, trying to be supportive. Her lips moved but Loras could not hear what she was saying. She only had eyes for the Pope, who was giving a look that was both cryptic and knowing. “I will read the letter Benedict Matthiesen has written...” His words were lost in the pounding of Loras’s own heart. Occasionally words would break through the wall of shock that surrounded her: slaughter and crucify and imprison. Each word was like a stab in the heart. “ ‘...though I still retain my position as head of this city, it is only a farce,’ ” Pope Drajen read. “ ‘ The High Priest of the Scarlet Church, Damen Orlys, watches me closely, using me for his own ends. I’m doing my best to appease the High Priest if only to keep as many people alive as I can. As far as I know he does not know I’ve sent this secret letter. “ ‘ I know in the past we have had our differences, the practitioners and the Chantry. During the Chantry-Practitioner war I candidly supported Loras’ campaign to overthrow Pope Drajen’s rule and the Chantry itself. But over the past twenty years, seeing the Scarlet Church and their demonic spawn as the greater threat, I have done everything within my power to support and substantiate the Chantry-Practitioner Alliance’s efforts. I have provided funding and supplies, as well as taken in refugees. I beg, for the sake of my wife, two beautiful daughters, and their children, and the innocent souls of this great city, for help in our time of need, as we have helped you. “ ‘ Yours sincerely, Benedict Matthiesen. ’” The reality of what the Pope had read, like a punch in the gut, was reflected in the stretching silence. No one dared to speak, only exchanging glances with wide, glassy eyes. Usually at this point in the meeting everyone would be throwing themselves across the table, trying to strangle the person in front of them, Loras thought, and had to bite her lower lip to keep from bursting out in hysterical laughter. A kind of laughter borne of fear, her own way of coping. What made it all the worse was Drajen seemed to have shrunken in his high-backed chair, the ends embroidered with gold - Loras didn’t have any gold on her chair because she wasn’t the Pope. Now the chair seemed to have grown while he’d gotten smaller. Like the taste of something dead filling her mouth, the terror Loras had felt when facing the demon returned. … It wasn’t hard to find where Lane Hardy lived. All the practitioners living in or coming through Miffridge were put into a registry, with a photo, and the address of where they lived. Standing underneath an oppressive grey sky, Loras waited on the steps of the Chantry, an umbrella held in her hand. She had made sure to put on her best makeup. After a decade of running around stinking of sweat, blood and grit, she made it a point to look her best. She couldn’t stand the idea of having a hair out of place, or having something stick to her flesh or being out of place. The cab pulled up in front of the Chantry. The paint was slick as if newly put on, the windows tinted. The windshield wipers made smudging sounds as they swiped back and forth. The cab itself looked like something from the days of the Old World when cars were still considered a new invention. The cab driver came around to open the door for her. Quickly closing her umbrella, Loras ducked into the car. Once seated, the driver glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “Where to, ma’am?” he asked. She gave him the address and at once he pulled away from the Chantry and into the rain-soaked streets of Miffridge. Within minutes the cab driver pulled to a stop in front of an aging brick building with a peeling green roof. Loras thanked the driver, gave him a tip, and hopped out of the car. Pulling the door open she entered the building, glad to be out of the rain. She stood frowning at the OUT OF ORDER sign taped to the grey elevator doors in front of her. Great, she thought. Too bad mana can’t fix technology or I’d have it up and running in no time. She was not looking forward to the climb up to Lane’s apartment. I’m not as young as I used to be. If it was thirty years ago or even ten years ago I would’ve been able to do it without breaking a sweat. I’ve gotten too fat and lazy. Expelling a groan, Loras began to make the long ascent up the stairs. When she reached the top she felt as if her heart was going to burst out of her chest. She leaned against the wall, chest heaving. At long last she reached Lane’s apartment and knocked on the door. Somewhere on this floor she could hear the muffled sobs of a child crying. The sound made her skin prickle. She was beginning to recall the image she’d seen when trying to exorcise the demon out of Greta when Lane opened the door. “Hi,” she said, looking him up and down. This was the first time she hadn’t seen him in his black robes. Today he wore a black tank top that showed his arms - like Loras he had protective runes and sigils tattooed from his wrists all the way up to his shoulders. Almost all practitioners did. Today he hadn’t bothered to put on his eyeshadow. Seeing him in his more natural form, Loras noticed just how short and skinny he was. She stood at least three inches taller than he did and his arms were like twigs. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Excuse me,” she said, arching an eyebrow. “Well last time we talked, two days ago, you threw me out of your office and threatened to have me shot on the spot if I didn’t leave,” he said. Loras’s neatly trimmed eyebrows knitted together. She wasn’t used to anyone being so direct with her - usually it was she who was direct with everyone else. Take it within stride and do what you need to do. He obviously isn’t taking any of your bullshit. Which she had to admit she liked about him. Loras cleared her throat. What she said next was like coughing up nails. “I’m sorry. I should have listened to you.” His face softened. “So you know now?” “Pope Drajen got a letter today. Benedict Matthiesen...he’s a good friend of mine.” Loras hated how her voice cracked on this last part. “I know,” Lane said, more gently. He stepped back and opened the door wider for her. He turned and walked away, without saying a word. She took it to mean he was inviting her inside. Closing the door behind her, Loras looked around the sparsely furnitured apartment, which smelled pleasantly of jalasa and incense. Still she couldn’t get past the peeling walls and the Old World band posters taped to the walls. “Nice place.” she said, trying to hide her distaste and not doing a very good job of it. “Is it the best you can afford?” “Yep. The Chantry doesn’t pay much.” “I could talk the Pope into giving you a raise. You could get something with more space and in better condition.” Lane’s lips curled slightly at the corners. “It doesn’t pay me much...especially when you consider what I do. But I didn’t volunteer for the money. I had an idea of what I was getting myself into when I signed up. Would you like some tea? I have jalasa.” She nodded, sitting down on the threadbare couch. She watched him pull a saucepan from a cabinet, fill it with tap water, and set it on the stovetop to start boiling. He moved with an ease and calm she envied. Frowning, Loras reaching out with her senses. “I didn’t notice any wards when I stepped in,” she noted. “Though the wards around the city do their job pretty well for the most part aren’t you worried a demon could attack you?” He leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his bony chest. “No. Demons tend to be scared of me so I’m not worried about it.” Loras’s frown deepened. She was tempted to ask him to explain himself but decided to let it go for now - there was more important things to talk about. “Pope Drajen is waiting until tomorrow to discuss what action the Chantry-and-Practitioner Alliance is going to take. Until then I wanted to speak with you and ask you questions, if I may. How did you know about Fruimont?” As she’d been talking Lane had pulled out a jalasa joint. He stepped forward and offered one to her. “It’s been so long since I’ve smoked one,” she said with a chuckle. “I used to smoke ones so strong I hallucinated for hours.” He exhaled smoke from his nostrils. “These aren’t strong enough to make you hallucinate. They just keep you calm. I smoke them to help with my anxiety. Plus it might help to your open mind...because I’m going to answer all your questions and I’m only going to answer them once.” Loras nodded and accepted the joint. Using, a match he lit it for her. She took a drag from it and immediately burst into a fit of coughs. A full minute passed before she was able to get herself under control, eyes streaming with hot tears. “Fuck,” she said. The young practitioner smiled. He padded into the kitchen long enough to put the jalasa leaves in the pan of boiling water. When he came back she reached into her jacket and pulled out the letter read by Drajen, sent by Benedict. Lane shook his head. “I don’t need to read it. I saw what’s happening in the city. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to unsee it.” “How did you see it?” “I was shown. I astral projected and my Aspect was led to the city. I had an aerial view of everything happening. People being shot in the middle of the street, cut open like cows at a slaughterhouse, children crucified outside the city gates. Not a pretty sight.” “You said someone showed you this? Who?” “Let me get you your tea and I’ll explain everything.” When he handed Loras her tea in a large mug, Lane sat down cross legged on the floor. He tipped the ashes of his jalasa joint into a porcelain ashtray. “I didn’t join the Chantry’s war efforts because I was sick of my home life or because I wanted glory. I never had the desire to the first place. But I don’t have much of a choice either. I was sent into this. Chosen.” “By who?” “Ex’olku,” he said. Loras squinted at him. Demon’s balls am I high. “Who is Ex’olku?” He sighed, getting to his feet. “Perhaps it would be quicker if I just showed you.” Lane turned his back to her and lifted his tank top up enough so she could see his back. Lora grasped. There was an imprint in his flesh, between his shoulder blades, that looked as if he’d been branded. The mark was in the shape of a giant hand that covered the top half of his back. The flesh around the wound was particularly mottled. Loras couldn’t hold back the gasp that escaped her lips. There was no branding iron quite this large. Something had touched him. Something inhuman, something not of this world. He lowered his shirt. “Why are you here?” she asked. He laughed, smoke pluming around him. “I think I’m supposed to stop the world from ending. This thing happening in Fruimont is just a smokescreen for the Scarlet Church’s larger plan. I don’t know what it is but in my visions I saw the Scarlet Church.” Loras gaped. “You actually saw it? That’s impossible, no one knows the location of their headquarters.” “Ex’olku isn’t no one. I don’t know who or what he is. But he’s powerful. The Scarlet Church is in the Ubrios Wasteland, which hardly anyone has explored. Kind of a perfect place if you think about it. Whatever their plan is I need to figure it out and find some way to stop it. It’s the only reason why I’m here. I think it has something to do with the increase in demon possessions we’ve been seeing.” “How would you prove such a thing?” she asked. “There’s only one way I can think: entering the mind of the demon.” For Loras this conversation just kept getting more and more surreal. “You can’t be serious. That process was outlawed by the Chantry centuries ago. Healers used to do it because it was the most efficient way of purging the demon from someone possessed. But so often the person entering the mind got pulled in permanently, until their Aspect was completely gone and they were…soulless. All I can tell you is their fate is worse than death. To enter a Demon’s mind is to enter the Abyss itself.” “Then help me,” Lane said. “If you want proof and you want answers and you want to save your friend in Fruimont, help me get into the mind of a demon. And who knows, maybe we can save someone’s life in the process.” Loras stood, wondering who this strange boy was. She was both afraid and in awe of him. She did not doubt his words, as crazy as they sounded. She’d always sensed something strange about him, she’d just never known what it was. “Even at the cost of your own?” she asked. “Even at the cost of my own,” he said, and she was further frightened by the eager look in his eyes. He looked like someone who wanted to die.
  12. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 16

    Thanks Geobill
  13. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 4

    After three hours that seemed to drag on endlessly, the Stray Dogs finally reached the gates of Miffridge and were waved through. Lane was happy to be back in the city, even if it was only to rest for a week before being assigned another perilous mission. Jack slowly eased the bus through the streets of the Dirrefit District, the slums of Miffridge. Here the buildings were in the worst shape, the windows grimy with dust, the paint peeling off the walls or the gutters hanging off. The streets were crowded with lost souls: the sick and the starving and the slowly dying; and there were the thieves, prostitutes, and cutthroats, some of them Lane’s age and many of them younger. Seeing the district always made Lane feel incredibly sad. The Chantrymen were so busy fighting the Red Church and demonic possession that they’d forgotten all about the wayward citizens who wandered into the city expecting safety, only to be forgotten. The Chantry itself was located in the center of the city for all to see. Of all the buildings it was the grandest and the most well-kept. Its round, white marble walls, rose into the air, capped with a roof made of pure gold. Steps wrapped all the way around the monastery, leading up to the pillared entrance. Guards, dressed in armor with the Chantry’s insignia, guarded the entrances into the building day and night, working in eight hour shift. The Chantry was also guarded by powerful wards, making it virtually impossible to break into. Many had tried and failed, only to end up being executed publicly. Pope Drajen resided in the Chantry; very rarely did he reveal himself to the public. Sometimes he would appear to pray over criminals before they were executed. As such, he did not appear on the steps of the Chantry to welcome Galliart Fulko home. Instead a group of priests and nuns awaited, their white robes wafting around them, pushed by a cool northern breeze. They smiled, appearing benevolent and at peace, but Lane knew what they were capable of. Aunt Lena, sometimes half delirious, had told him stories. Once he’d even seen the scar on her back from where she’d been branded as a practitioner even though she was only a healer. Jack opened the doors and Sara escorted Fulko off the bus. From the window Lane watched as Fulko was escorted up the steps, the remnants of his thinning white hair sticking every which way, and prayed the Chantryman would be okay. Next Jack drove to the garage, an ancient brick building where the bus was held and maintenanced until the next mission. Unless an emergency mission came about, D-Squad would have a week or two of rest before they were assigned another. It was here the Stray Dogs would get off the bus and depart, going their separate ways. “Say,” Barghast said, elbowing the practitioner lightly. “You and I should go get some drinks sometime. Play some pool.” “We should,” Lane said, shouldering his duffel bag. “I know an excellent place. Great drinks, cheap prices. And they have pool tables.” And the dance continues, Lane thought. He offers to join me for drinks and I tell him we should when we both know it’s never going to happen. Because without our little dance this strange attraction we feel towards one another, the curious nature of it, would cease to be exciting and we’d have to show one another who we really are behind our false facades. “I don’t think you want to play pool with me,” Lane said, just to tease the Okanavian. It was fun, trying to guess how the big man would react. Barghast chuckled. “Oh, and why is that?” “I’d kick your ass in every game.” Now Barghast pointed his head up at the sky and laughed. Several passerby turned to look at him. “A lot of confidence for a small shrimp such as yourself, eh? I accept the challenge.” Just to egg him a little harder, Lane said, “Do you? Well when you’re ready to have your ass whipped you know where I live. Come and find me. Until then, I’ll say goodby.” Patting Barghast on the shoulder with one hand, Lane began to walk in the other direction. He could feel the Okanavian’s eyes on him until he rounded the next corner. He walked stolidly through Miffridge’s streets, enjoying the chance to be able to stretch his legs. He walked past shops and booths with colorful awnings. Merchants talked rapidly, trying to advertise their products to anyone who might listen: “...protective charms...handcrafted...you won’t find them for a cheaper price...protect yourself and your family from demon possession...” “...healing herbs...Get your healing herbs...Be well during the upcoming flu season...” “...lost relics of the Old World transported straight from the forgotten cities of the Ubrio Wastes...” A snatch of song from a chrome-faced radio: “Don’t worry...about a thing...because every little thing is going to be alright...” Walking through the center of the city always reminded him of the wonder he’d felt when he’d first walked through the streets, a skinny, starving boy, exhausted from his travels. And yet, after spending most of his life in the dreary Plaesil mountains, he’d fallen in love with the city: the bright colors and music, the aromatic smell of spices and sizzling meat, the merchants with their bright smiles and the devious truths they hid behind those smiles. Though it was never as powerful as the first time, he felt again that sense of wonder, the sense he’d come home - a place where he truly belonged. Lane stopped at a practitioner’s booth and bought a week’s worth of ground jalasa and incense, treating himself since the mission at Fort Erikson had gone well, even if he had lost control again...something he would never be able to fully forgive himself for. As he continued the journey home he made a mental note to see Loras. Her guidance always made him feel better, made him feel less alone. Working for the Chantry allowed him a modest lifestyle: He owned a small loft on Mumford Street, which was just two blocks from the Dirrefit District. His apartment was on the sixth floor of a worn brick building with a green slanting roof. In order to get to it he had to climb up the six flights of stairs (the elevator did not work and hadn’t since he’d moved into the building a year ago). With the cloth bag of jalasa and incense dangling from one hand, the practitioner let himself into the apartment. As always, when he first came home, Lane breathed in the smell of the place, and as always, after having been gone for several days, his apartment had a stale, slightly moldy smell to it. The incense would take care of that. The apartment was all one room, the kitchen and living/bedroom area separated by a small counter. A separate doorway led into a small bathroom. The walls had a peeling burnt look, as if the apartment had caught on fire and the landlord hadn’t bothered to repaint the walls. This appealed to Lane greatly. To him it brought character to the place. The apartment was furnished with a threadbare couch, glass top coffee table, and a bookshelf full of tattered paperbacks (Lane was an avid reader) and records. Lane went around the apartment, lighting incense and candles. It wasn’t long before a perfumey aroma filled the apartment. He sat on the sofa and began the relaxing, familiar task of rolling jalasa joints. After he was finished, Lane went into the bathroom, turned on the tub faucets. He stripped out of his clothes. Both of his nipples were pierced with silver rings. His arms were covered in runes and sigils that protected him from a demon’s influence. The tattoos went from wrist to elbow. On his back was a mysterious hand-shaped burn. It was this he stared at the longest, for it was the real reason he’d joined the Chantry’s efforts in the war against the Scarlet Church. He reached back and brushed a finger along the rigid flesh there. The process of its acquisition had been painful, a pain that had lasted several days. The burn was a mark. A label. He remembered the first time he’d heard Ex’olku’s voice, standing over Aunt Lena’s freshly dug grave, with the shovel resting across his shoulders, body aching from the long climb up into the valley and from all the digging. Ex’olku’s voice had come to him from the sky in a flash of blinding light: I anoint you for a long and miserable undertaking...Hear me and know that it is so… The next thing he’d known he was lying in the snow, feeling as if a hot branding iron had been pressed into the flesh between his shoulder blades. He had never felt such pain. Now, just recalling it sent phantom sensations across his flesh. He winced. Best not to think about it, he thought. Just take a bath and wash yourself clean. And then it’s time to do your job, you’re real job. Lane settled himself into the steaming water, head leaned back against the cool porcelain edge of the tub, and lit a joint. He brought it to his mouth and took a long drag, blowing the smoke out through his nostrils. Within seconds he could feel the influence of the jalasa: it felt as if soothing fingers were caressing his cheek, taking away the tension and imbuing him with calm. Almost an hour later the practitioner returned to the living room with a towel wrapped around his waist. He grabbed his duffel bag and sat down on the couch. Reaching inside the bag he pulled out a long black board and a sheathed dagger. He unfolded the board across the coffee table revealing a perfect rendition of the hellscape; the Plaesil Mountains and Okanavi Desert to the north and south, the Javacial Flatlands and the Terheim seas to the east and west and the mysterious yet-to-be-explored chain of islands further east. He dimmed the lights in the room so the only source came from lit candles, making his face look ghostly. It seemed to float in shadow. Eyes closed, he drew in his mana and reached out with his mind. With his eyes still clenched shut, he brought the sharp-tipped blade of the dagger to his thumb and made a cut. He barely flinched at the sting of the blade opening his flesh. Blood dripped to the board, hitting the spot labeled Miffridge. He dabbed his finger into the bloody spot and began to smear it around in concentric circles. He whispered a quick prayer: “Ex’olku, if it be your will, show me my next task. Show me what I need to see, tell me what I need to hear.” And with that he felt his mana depart from his body, taking shape to form his Aspect, a non corporeal version of himself. He looked back and saw his body, his real flesh-and-blood body, slumped back on the couch, eyes rolled back in his skull. This part is never fun, he thought, but it has to be done. His Aspect rose steadily, passing through the ceiling of his apartment, rising until the city of Miffridge was nothing more than a small dot. ... Sara could feel Mara eyeing her from behind the cover of her book. Since they’d left Umstadt outpost Sara had been in a silent if not obvious rage. And in that time Mara had been prying relentlessly at her. We are so different, Mara and I, Sara thought, trying to concentrate on the paperback book (a murder mystery) she held in her hand. Not only do we come from completely different quadrants of the ‘scape but we have different ways of dealing with anger. She can’t restrain herself and lashes out and I close myself off. It’s a wonder we haven’t killed each other yet. She went back to trying to read the book. Mara always teased her for reading her by-the-number murder mysteries, going so far as to call her a “bookworm”. She was just now getting to a murder scene, where the cynical detective had just found a dead body...and she couldn’t concentrate! Not when she kept thinking about that smug son of a bitch Rake. And it didn’t help that Mara kept trying to provoke her. She put the book back in her lap. They sat in armchairs across from each other in the sitting area of the modest studio apartment they shared. Sara glared at her partner. Mara was sharpening one of her knives on a block of wood, her own personal hobby. What would happen, I wonder, if we were to get all dressed up and go out for the night? Does she even know how to put on lipstick? “I can feel your eyes burning holes in this book,” Sara snapped hotly. “What do you want?” “Just wondering what’s got you all upset this time?” Sara picked up the tattered paperback and slammed it back down on her lap in aggravation “It’s that bastard, Rake! You wouldn’t believe the shit he was saying to Lane! How can someone be so judgmental…?” Mara nodded. “Yes, I know. We’ve had this conversation before.” Sara got to her feet and began pacing. “And I don’t know how you can treat Lane the way you do either.” “Because he’s a practitioner and all practitioners make me slightly uneasy. They possess a power not everyone has, making them very dangerous. But especially Lane because he can’t always control himself. I mean you saw what happened at Fort Erikson, Barghast had to knock him out to get him on the bus this time. What if he loses control and hurts one of us?” Sara shook her head. “He wouldn’t hurt us. You hate him because he has mana in his blood and yet you’re with me. You don’t hate me do you?” Face softening, Mara reached out and took Sara’s hand. She could be a hard woman, almost as tough as Rake, but underneath she could be tender and loving. The tenderness mostly showed itself when they were home, in a more domestic setting. Like now, Sara thought. It’s the softness, which occasionally peeks out from underneath the granite, that made me fall in love with Mara. Because when it reveals itself it’s breathtaking. “I could never hate you, Sara. But you’re not like him. You only use your powers to help. His causes pure destruction. I think the Chantry was trying to do the right thing by exterminating all the Practitioners.” Mara’s last words rang in Sara’s head, shaking her to the core. She couldn’t have said why it angered her so much, only that it did. Before she could stop herself the words were flying out of her mouth. “Perhaps they should’ve just executed you considering the things you’ve done! Perhaps then the world would be a better place!” Mara’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped into a comical mask of shock; she looked as if Sara had just backhanded her. “Sara...” Before Mara could finish what she was going to say Sara slammed the front door open, pulling on her jacket at the same time. She couldn’t stay in the room with Mara for another second. If she did things would get physical. Arguments between them had rarely turned into physical fights but when they did… She shook the thought from her head. She didn’t dare brood on it. It was raining. Rainwater splattered against the worn asphalt of the city’s narrow streets. Merchants were quickly trying to put their products away to keep them from getting wet. Instead of putting up her hood, Sara kept it down. The feeling of the rain against her flesh felt like a cooling hand against her brow. Tonight’s weather reminded her of her childhood in the Javacial Flatlands where it had rained more often than not. How different her life had been back then. Back then I was just a farmgirl. I wonder what Mama and Papa would think now, if they knew I was running around with cutthroats, assassins, mercenaries, and a young practitioner, risking my life everyday. For the past eight years she’d led her parents to believe, via the letters she’d sent, that she was an anointed nun of the Chantry. Why she went on with this lie she couldn’t quite say. Perhaps it was because she could picture the matching looks of disappointment on their face (especially her father, who she’d always felt a special kind of love for) if she told them the truth: She’d fallen in love with a woman and had joined D-Squad to make sure the woman lived long enough to be free from her sentence. What would happen the day Mara went free again Sara didn’t dare think about. She turned onto the brightly lit street of Larrson Avenue, now lost in the memories of her past. She found herself remembering the day she’d discovered that she would become more than just a farmer. The memory was vivid - it had been a day filled with revelation for it was also the day she became a woman. It had happened on a rainy day, in the middle of her eleventh year. Her father, Granath, had sent her into town pick up a bag of bird feed - she fondly remembered he’d somehow scrounged up enough coppers to get a chocolate from the sweets store. She was walking back home from town, the bag of chicken feed in one hand, the taste of chocolate and hazelnut still on her tongue. It had been raining on that day like it was now. She’d stopped, coming across four boys. They were standing in the middle of a dirt road kicking at something: an injured cow. The cow was injured in some way and was trying to get up but couldn’t. Something had happened to its legs, for two of them had snapped. The boys were laughing at it, kicking at it from all sides. It was the first time Sara remembered human beings could be cruel without the help of a demon’s influence. Especially children. Somehow - this part of the memory was fuzzy to Sara because it was irrelevant - she’d managed to chase the boys away from the cow. She’d dropped down beside the cow, not caring that she was getting her pant legs wet. The cow eyed her warily, mistrustfully. In her eleven years Sarah had never seen anything so pitiful. She knew that most cows were raised for food and what happened to them in the end. Once she’d watched the cow on her father’s farm give birth to a stillborn. But this was different because she was awestruck by the inhumanity of those four boys and furthermore, by the human expression within the cow’s eyes. And somehow, Sara thought fourteen years later, now in the middle of Larsson Avenue, I could sense it was dying, those boys had beaten it so. I could feel it in the center of my chest, like a heavy weight. I also knew, without being sure of how I knew, I could save her. I could take her pain away and heal her anew. The same time I put my hand against her side was also the first time I bled down there for the first time. Ironic that the discovery of the mana within me and the giving of it should trigger my first stage of womanhood. She stepped through the narrow door of a tavern at the corner of Stygas Street and stepped inside. In her melancholy mood she could appreciate the dim lighting and the low, mournful music coming from the speakers fastened in the corner. The tavern was practically empty on this night. Good, she hated crowded places. She took a seat at the counter and ordered a whiskey on the rocks. I’m getting drunk tonight. I’ve fucking earned it. She had just finished her drink and was about to order another when she heard familiar laughter coming from behind the room behind the curtain: it was deep and thundery and familiar. Barghast? She was more than certain it was him. She got off the stool, face already flushed from the drink, and pulled back the curtain. Sure enough there was Barghast, sitting in a wooden chair and someone was straddling his bucking lap. May the Light blind me, is that Lane? He’s… It could have been Lane’s twin. He had the practitioner’s black hair and he wore eyeliner, which was smeared all around his eyes the way Lane always did it. His face was thrown back, his breath coming out in soft pants of pleasure...no it wasn’t Lane. And Barghast was shifting his hips… Sara giggled. She couldn’t help herself. Barghast’s eyes widened when he saw her but he did not stop thrusting into the prostitute. “Sara, what are you…?” Still giggling, Sara said, “Come have a drink with me when you’re finished, Okanavian.” Moments later Barghast came out from behind the curtain while in the process of buckling his breeches. Sara had returned to her perch at the counter and was well into her second drink. She winked roguishly at him. “Did you have a good time?” she asked. “Charlie always provides a good time,” Barghast said, his voice slurred and grating. From the way he struggled to ease himself on the stool next to her it was clear he was already quite drunk. “And I make sure to pay him for it too.” “Order whatever you like, it’s on me.” “I’ll have whatever she’s having,” Barghast said to the bartender, hooking a thumb at Sara. Sara downed the rest of her whiskey and slammed the glass down on the pocked countertop. “And you pay this Charlie to dress up like our young practitioner - and fuck him?” Color bloomed across Barghast’s caramel-colored face. She’d never seen him look sheepish. “I wish you wouldn’t put it in such a way, but if you expect me to be honest, then yes. This is how I spend my time off between missions: Drinking and fucking.” “Only the whole time you’re imagining yourself with Lane?” Barghast, downing three-quarters of his whiskey in one gulp, grunted in reply. “Feel free to laugh. I know it’s pathetic. I used to be a fucking assassin for the Light’s sake. I was the best at what I did: killing people. And now I’ve been reduced to...I don’t know what I am...and I’m pining for someone who probably looks upon my scarred visage and sees me for what I am: a hideous monster who will go straight to the Abyss when death takes him.” Sara felt her heart plummet. My dear Barghast, if you would only look past your insecurities you would see the truth. You would see he doesn’t care. Of course he’s afraid of the same thing. At times I think you guys would make the strangest couple - you wouldn’t fit. Other times I think you would be perfectly matched because like you, and the rest of us, Lane has secrets he keeps close to the chest. Aren’t we just a sad bunch, us Stray Dogs? We may not all love each other but we sure belong together. “Where’s your other half?” the Okanavian asked. “We got into a fight.” “I’m sorry.” “It’s okay. It was over Lane. She said something I didn’t like it and I exploded.” “So I’m not the only one who cares about him.” She smiled up at him and said, “No, you’re not.” … Lane’s Aspect was flying above the ‘scape. Directly beneath him the Daminion and Dimonble Highways connected, splitting the hellscape into its four respective quadrants. He was filled with the exhilarating sensations that came with flying. Though his Aspect was not solid, but was in fact made of pure mana, he could feel the senses that his body would normally pick up: the feeling of the wind against his face, the sense he was weightless and that the normal rules of gravity did not pertain to him. He had left the city of Miffridge behind and was flying further north, towards the snow-capped Plaesil mountains. Where am I being led? What is it I’m supposed to see? A familiar voice spoke, seeming to come from the blackened sky: Soon you will see. Sorry, you know me. I’ve always struggled with patience. Just when it seemed like Ex’olku wouldn’t reply, he said, I know. Lane now flew directly over the Plaesil mountains. He watched the villages passing below, their tiled roofs covered in snow, their windows glowing with pale, buttery light. In this part of the ‘scape vehicles and technology of any sort was near nonexistent. The people of the northern quadrant lived a very primitive life. Lane spotted his hometown, Annesville, a cluster of one-and-two story buildings. Spread further away from the town were a mixture of cottages and barns: farmland. With his heart beating faster in his chest, Lane deliberately looked away. He couldn’t bare to look at the spot where the house he’d grown up in used to stand on its hill, overlooking the town. Ex’olku spoke up. Humans are so confusing, the way you can feel more than one thing at once. How can you miss a place and hate it at the same time? Yes, you aren’t very good at empathizing are you? Lane replied, though his mouth did not move; he was speaking completely from within. Even though you’ve been around since the dawn before time. I miss it because it’s where I was born. There was a sentimental value to it...and because I will probably never return. Ex’olku was silent for a moment, an unseen spectre. The pause was one of consideration. Is this why you burned down the house after you buried her? Lane felt his insides go cold. I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just get this over with. The Daminion Highway continued to cut its path through the mountains, sometimes zigzagging around. At the very edge of the northern mountains, before the Plaesil Mountains turned into the Ubrios Waste, was the gated city of Fruimont. Lane felt his blood run cold and it had nothing to do with the chilly air. What he saw before him was like something out of a horrifying, tragic painting. Or a nightmare. Men, women, and children fled through the streets, away from an army mixed with Red Priests and Red Wraiths. People were being slaughtered, shot or sliced open; others, outside of the cities walls, were being crucified to wooden posts, left out in the cold to freeze to death. Never before had Lane seen anything so terrible. I don’t want to see anymore, Lane told Ex’olku, but Ex’olku did not respond. He sensed that Ex’olku had gone elsewhere. You always leave me when I need you most, Lane thought. Still he flew further north, leaving the terrorized city of Fruimont behind. Now, like an eagle, he had a perfect aerial view of the Ubrio Wastes, or more aptly, the Graveyard of Forgotten Things. Like the Okanavian Desert, the tundra was full of empty cities, cities that had once stood prominent and tall in the days of the Old World. The frozen, metallic husks of vehicles dotted the icy landscape making Lane think of neglected children's’ toys. This is the world the First Disciple envisioned when the First Caste gave him the power to reshape the world, the practitioner thought. A world full of harsh landscapes, demons, and bloodshed. We are but cattle awaiting the wrath of the Abyss. Up ahead was a strange castle that looked new...or at least newer. Though Lane had never seen it before, he knew what it was: The Church of the Red Order. The church sat atop a ice-capped mountain of craggy stone. Built in the Gothic style of the early days of the Old World, it was both majestic and foreboding, a thing of awe and terror. And coming from its dark, spired walls Lane could sense terror and pain. Many souls had died here and were trapped inside, still waiting to get out, unable to move on. They screamed, screams that had gone unheard for years, decades. Centuries. This is where your next journey takes you, Ex’olku said, his voice ringing from the sky. I don’t want to go there. You don’t have a choice. The High Priest is planning something big, something demonic, and it could end this world. Perhaps it should end, Lane said, suddenly feeling tiny. Infinitismly tiny. You don’t really feel that way. Trust me and know the path I have chosen for you. It is inescapable. And then Lane was falling, falling, falling. Falling until his Aspect fell back into his body with a rushing sensation, his ears ringing with static. Somehow he was lying on his back, on the floor, looking up at the ceiling. His head throbbed from where he’d fallen and hit his head on the coffee table. He could taste blood in his mouth. He reached up and ran a hand over his face. When he looked at his hand it was bloody. Slowly he tried to get up, groaning from the effort. He’d used up a lot of mana while astral projecting. It would take some time for him to be able to replenish it. He forced himself to stagger to his feet and stumble into the bathroom. He studied his reflection in the mirror. A small gash had opened where he hit his head on the coffee table; already a nasty bruise was starting to form. He grabbed a rag from the tub and scrubbed the blood away. The cut could be worried over later. His business wasn’t finished yet, he thought. It was time to see Loora. He waited until morning, when first light showed itself. The sky was full of rain clouds. It looked like it was going to be another rainy, dreary day. The weather matched his somber mood. Several hundred miles away, in a city not so different from Miffridge, innocent people were being slaughtered by the Scarlet Church. Why they were doing this he could only guess. The Scarlet Church wasn’t exactly known for spreading goodwill. Funny that the Chantry is at war with them, Lane thought. They have so much in common. The entrance to the Chantry was guarded by several guards. “Hey,” one of them said, when Lane made to step past them. “What d’you think you’re doing?” Lane stopped. “I have to see Loras Gyrell.” “Show me your pass, then, assuming you have an appointment with her.” Lane sighed. “I don’t actually have one. But it is an emergency. Could you send someone to notify her?” The guard looked at the practitioner as if he was insane, his eyes mockingly wide. He couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Lane. “You must be joking - it’s the ass crack of dawn.” Lane bit back a snarky reply. He could feel his patience quickly waning. “Please. It’s very important that I speak with her as soon as possible.” The guard made a shooing gesture with a gauntleted hand; the other was supporting the rifle which sat snugly in the crook of his arm. “Go on. Get out of here. You don’t want things to get physical.” Lane smirked. “Or maybe I do.” The guard’s eyes narrowed. He planted his hand against Lane’s chest and shoved him hard enough to send him falling. At his wit’s end Lane sprang to his feet and punched the guard square in the face. Now it was the guard’s turn to fall on his ass, blood spurting from in between his gloved fingers. Lane couldn’t help but laugh as the guards surrounded him and slapped handcuffs around his wrists. He knew if Barghast had been here to see this the Okanavian would have gotten a laugh out of it.
  14. ValentineDavis21


    For those of you who have been following this story I have changed the story from Demonscape to Hellscape. Apparently someone is in the process of making an RPG called Demonscape (a title I thought was original and had been thought of only by myself) so I changed it. I have also edited te first three chapters and prologue so it is referred to as to hellscape instead of demonscape.
  15. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 27

    We went in Cassie’s yellow Volkswagen. The psychic lived in a bright blue two story house tucked away from the main road; you had to drive down a long dirt driveway to discover it was there. The house had a white wrap-around porch and was guarded on both sides by two healthy looking apple trees. A shiver went up my spine. Cassie flashed a nervous glance in my direction. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine,” I said, even though I really wasn’t. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d been so scared in my life. Ever since the moment I found Thomas Umstadt’s book at the public library I had the sense things were starting to come to a cumulative head, all the strange phenomenon I’d experienced since Duane and I had moved into the lighthouse leading up to this. The psychic - the word had embedded itself into my mind and I couldn’t think of her as anything else - was perched on the porch in a white rocking chair as if she already sensed we were coming and was waiting expectantly to meet us. I could make out her silver-and-white hair, all piled on top of her head, but the glare from the setting sun blocked the rest of her features. Just as Cassie parked in front of the house the psychic stood up and waited at the edge of the porch. Now she was fully visible. She was beautiful, tall and willowy with a face that was lined with age but mysteriously beautiful. She wore a long blue dress. Her eyes locked on mine through the window of Cassie’s car. Her lips spread into what I perceived to be a knowing smile. Cast everything you think you know at the door, folks, because things are about to get very strange, I thought. “You sure you want to do this?” Cassie asked. “I wouldn’t think less of you if you didn’t.” “The lighthouse I just moved into is haunted and the ghosts haunting it look like carbon copies of myself. I don’t feel like I have much of a choice. Are you sure you want to come in with me?” “For emotional support, yeah. And because I’m truly curious.” I smiled at her, grateful I wouldn’t be doing this alone. “Thank you.” She smiled back. “What are friends for?” Together we got out of the car. “Hi,” the psychic said warmly, coming down the steps. “I’m Cynthia.” She held a hand out to me. Gold bracelets dangled from her wrists, giving a little musical jangle as they swung into each other. “I’ve been expecting you Judas - or do you prefer Jude?” I shook her hand. “It’s Jude. You’ve been expecting me?” Cynthia nodded; her smile was so warm and friendly it was impossible not to feel charmed by her. “Since this morning. Right about the time I sat down to enjoy my first cup of coffee in fact.” I didn’t know how to respond to this and said nothing. Cynthia beamed at Cassie. “It’s good to see you again. I see you put that college degree to good use and became quite the journalist around here.” Cassie smiled, blushing. “Thank you.” Addressing the both of us now, Cynthia said, “I’ve been retired from this business for two years now. But Jude, when I saw you I knew I had to help whether I wanted to or not. I don’t know much about it but I get the feeling your case is very special so I’ll make an exception.” “I’ll pay you,” I said. Cynthia smiled craftily at me from over her shoulder. “I didn’t retire from the job because of money. I retired because of the physical, mental, and spiritual fatigue of it all. And I’ve been psychic my whole life.” She held the screen door open for us. “I’ll warn you my house looks like a total clusterfuck if you don’t mind my potty mouth. When I get into what I like to call my ‘depression spells’ the housekeeping goes to hell.” I understood what she meant perfectly. We went inside. She took us straight through the living room. I had a brief glance of the coffee table, taking note of the ashtray sitting in the middle of the table, and the coupons that had been stacked neatly and rubber banded together. I could hear the murmur of a TV and what sounded like an old sitcom playing. Is this what Duane and I will be doing when we retire? I thought, feeling as though I was walking through a dream. Couponing and watching old sitcoms? And then I remembered there was thirteen year’s difference between us - not a huge difference but significant enough. There would be a time, before my body caught up with his, when I would have to take care of him. And I would do it too. I would do what I had to to keep him with me. Cynthia took us into the kitchen. There were dishes piled in the sink. I quickly averted my eyes from the cockroach I saw crawling along the counter; I’d always had an irrational fear of bugs, cockroaches in particular. Cynthia gestured for Cassie and I to take a seat at the table. The table itself was round with three chairs. Cynthia scanned my face with that knowing smile. I could only stare back, both afraid and in awe of her. “You’re scared,” she said after a moment. “Don’t be. You were led to me for a reason.” “How much do I owe you?” I asked. It was the only normal thing I could think of to say and my mind latched onto it like as if it was a lifeline in the middle of the ocean. “How much do you have in your wallet?” I pulled out my billfold. Inside I had two twenties and a ten. “Fifty dollars.” “I’ll take it.” I gave her the money. She said, “What is going to happen is I’m going to pick up your hand...and if I pick up anything, which I can tell you already I will because you’re practically buzzing, I begin to repeat what I’m seeing. If I act strange do not be alarmed. The things I see and hear are kind of like a tide and they hit me fast. Now I sense you already have an idea what you’re stepping into. There is a threshold between our world and the spirit world and right now you have a foot in both worlds. I sense you’ve always had, since the day you were born, Jude. Are you sure you want to go the rest of the way? Because there is no going back from here, this you know.” I gulped but nodded shakily. “I’m sure.” The psychic held her hand out to me. “Then take my hand.” I glanced at Cassie once, just to make sure she was there, and took Cynthia’s hand. The moment her hand touched mine she gave a jerk and her eyes clenched shut. “Oh,” she crooned; I could see her eyeballs fluttering behind her eyelids. “There’s so much...so much...pain. No wonder...” Everything changed, plunging into an unknown territory. Everything that came next she said rapidly, and I could feel whatever energy she’d noticed inside flowing from and into her. “You’re whole life, Jude, you’ve felt like something has been leading you here, to Adermoor Cove. And so it has led you and so you are here. Everything you’ve been through, every moment of your life has led you to the lighthouse. I can see it all now. I can see your mother, Adeline. I can see you love and hate her in the same breath, miss her and wish she was dead… “When you were eight she overdosed on pills and you had to call the ambulance. You were alone and you thought she was going to die but you persevered… “When you were ten you found a sickly kitten left forgotten in the flooded alleyway behind your apartment. You begged your mother to take it in, to take care of it. You did for three days until one day you were playing with your action figures and you forgot about the kitten, as all kids forget about things sometimes, and you stepped on its neck and broke it...” I could hear it now, the snapping of its neck, the final mewling sound it made as it died. I remember bursting into tears then, dropping my action figures onto the floor and cradling the dead thing to my chest as if I could bring it back to life with my grief and sorrow. I could feel the tears now, stinging my eyes, and still the psychic spoke, a tide unending. “Your mother, she was in withdrawal and screamed at you...The things she said...They cause you pain until this day, for she has always had a way with words, hasn’t she? When you were thirteen she had a boyfriend. David was his name. Your mother was always bringing men into the house, wasn’t she? Strange men, men she had no business bringin around her son let alone any child. One day when you were all alone he came into your room and forced himself on you, force himself inside you...You were bleeding when you were done...bleeding...and your mother, she denied you, she waved away your pain and told you you were lying...” There were tears oozing from underneath her eyelids just as there were tears, hot and salty and sticky streaming down my face. I’d forgotten where I was and that Cassie was there with me. The only thing I felt was the pain inflating inside me, wanting to burst and be released, for the burden of it all to be lifted. “Thomas...Jude...Jude...Thomas...Johnny...Each life full of pain, so much pain and death. A life unfulfilled, a love deeper and more powerful itself sought for. It’s only natural, expected really that one life should end in pain and that pain carry you to the next one, and the next, and the next. And not just you but Duane too for he is Agamemnon and Phil Russo, just as you are Thomas and Johnny but also your own person. “But it’s not over...no it’s not. For what happens in one life happen in another. Not exactly the same, you understand, but it leads to the same thing, the same consequence.” Now she opened her eyes and looked directly at me, no through me. “The others, Thomas and Johnny, they’ve been trying to tell you...listen to what they are trying to tell you. They are trapped in the lighthouse, waiting to move on but unable to. You have to help them.” “How?” I asked. My whole body was shaking. Her hand was like a vice grip on my own. “How? How? How do I help them?” “Break the cycle,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “Stop what happened to them from happening to you. For if you don’t, you will be trapped in the lighthouse just as they are, and the cycle will continue until it’s stopped.” She let go of my hand. Cynthia’s eyes lost their glossy look and focused on me. She coughed. “Ugh, there’s a funny taste in my mouth...” … Cassie and I sat on the porch of the lighthouse, waiting for Duane to come home. We’d spent the last half an hour, sitting in silence, watching the sun finish its descent below the horizon. “What are you going to do?” she asked me finally. “I don’t know,” I said. “Are you going to tell Duane?” “He’d never believe me.” “What if you took him to Cynthia?” “A ghost could slap him in the face and he’d still try to rationalize it. I’m on my own on this one.” “Are you going to leave?” I shook my head. “I don’t think I could if I wanted to. I truly feel like I’m supposed to be here. I believed every word she said. Do you think I’m crazy?” Cassie smiled. “If you are then I am too.” “I did have a thought though. It’s crazy.” “What is it?” I grinned. “It would make a hell of a book.” Just then the Jeep pulled in the driveway. I stood up as Duane got out of the car and went to him. I threw my arms around his broad shoulder and hugged him as hard as I could. I kissed him. I would never let him go. Never. “Hey,” he said, pulling me against him, kissing me, embracing me. “What’s all this for?” “I missed you,” I said. He chuckled. “I missed you too.” We began to walk back towards the lighthouse hand in hand. My man was with me, the man I’d apparently reincarnated to be with twice. No matter what I would face in the future, only this mattered.

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