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  1. C’thla stood in front of the mirror, studying her new face, her new body, in the reflective surface. The mirror was beautiful, framed in gold. She slowly turned her head this way and that, running her fingers through her long blonde hair, feeling the softness of her skin. She wore a dark red dress, the gown reaching down to the tops of her ankles. Her shoulders were exposed, as were the tops of her breast, which were perfectly sized and plentiful without being too big. She liked to take her hands and feel their firmness. It always took time to get used to a new body. She’d inhabited it for three days now and she was just getting over the disorientation that came with it. There was so much to get used to: all the sensations and emotion after so long having no flesh. Sifting through the host’s memories and knowledge to readjust to the world’s changes. And how the world had changed in the time she’d slept. Civilizations had come and gone, technology had risen to the point of fantasy, only to be torn down until it was nothing more than a fleeting dream. She turned away from the mirror and looked around the room once more. It was a splendid room, large, with a canopy bed, a wardrobe full of the most beautiful dresses she’d laid eyes upon, an attached bathroom with a bathing basin, and a balcony that looked out over the frozen tundra of the Ubrios Waste. Now she turned the beautifully ornate knobs of the double doors, made out of the finest glass, and stepped onto the balcony. She could never stand in the cold for long. After a half a minute her entire body would be numb. But there was a deliciousness in the numbness, the pain, the sense of being alive. She felt it now, the way the cold clung to her like a possessive lover, making her flesh break out in goosebumps. It made her nipples hard, made her breath turn into a mist that quickly dissipated. She could hear Sara’s screaming in the back of her mind, her voice muted. Occasionally words would slip through but C’thla ignored her. This body was hers and soon Sara would completely cease to exist. When she could no longer stand the cold she went back into the room. She seated herself on a stool before the fire, and let the flames spread their warmth through her body. She felt the sensation return to her body, felt her shaking begin to slow. Now if only the priests would come along and fill the basin so I can take a bath, she thought. Then she asked herself why she had to wait for them. No one was in charge of her, she was in charge of herself. There were no restrictions being placed upon her. She could do as she pleased. The bathroom was a large square room with an oval basin in the center of the floor. A large gold faucet waited for her at the end of the basin, gleaming almost invitingly. Jars of bathing salts, perfume, and oils rested in clay pots on a shelf. Another, larger surface held candles and incense. The knobs squeaked slightly as she turned them this way and that, until the temperature of the water was where she wanted it to be. Water cascaded from the faucet. Already steam was rising from the bottom of the basin. C’thla dribbled perfume and oil into the water, and dropped in a handful of rose petals. While she waited for the basin to fill she lit the candles and incense until the room was lit with a calming glow. With the bath waiting for her, C’thla stripped out of her dress, flinging it carelessly to the floor, and descended the steps, wading into the pool of soapy water. She rested against the side of the pool and let out a sigh of contentment. She closed her eyes. Listened to the pounding of her own heart. Focusing on the warmth of the water against her skin. Marveling at the pleasure of being alive - truly alive. In time she would have to do the task the Primordial Caste had assigned her but for now she could enjoy the simple pleasures for a few days. She leaned her head back against the edge of the basin and closed her eyes. She began to drift off. Memories flashed through her mind, many of them her own from other bodies she’d inhabited. Many, many millennia ago she’d inhabited the body of an Egyptian queen. After that, a roman princess. Many powerful women, in high positions. For the longest time no one suspected her for what she was. She was camouflaged by the flesh she wore. Things were different now. Her kind ruled over the mortals, taking their bodys at will. Only the Eurchurch presented a viable threat. And of course there was Ex’olku - always Ex’olku and his Agents. However there were other memories: the memories of her host. Fleeting thoughts and feelings. C’thla saw a beautiful dark-skinned woman with almond-shaped eyes. Most of the times her face was uncompromising, the eyes like cut pieces of coal, but there were moments when she smiled and her face brightened. Her name was Lydia. Sara was longing for her, missing her touch. These emotions were creeping through her like toxic waste, invasive. Parasitic. Her eyes clenched shut, lips twisting in an animalistic snarl, C’thla batted these alien feelings away. My body! she screamed at Sara’s quivering presence. This is my body and my mind now! You are nothing more than a ghost! Sara offered no further resistance. … C’thla climbed out of the basin, water dripping from her body. Her body, curvaceous and perfect in every way (apart from a few fading bruises from when Sara had inhabited this body), gleamed from the water. Her fingers were all pruney. She dried herself off with a towel. Back in her room C’thla put on one of her new dresses, one she’d yet to wear, made of a beautiful light blue satin. The bottom of the wardrobe was lined with shoes. She slid into a pair that matched the dress perfectly with silver buckles. She sat in front of the mirror and brushed the tangles out of her hair. By this time she was hungry and was looking forward to dinner. C’thla stepped out into the carpeted hallway, closing the door softly behind her. She walked slowly down the red carpeted hallways, enjoying the sound of the floor creaking beneath her feet. The hallway smelled pleasantly of oiled wood. She took the staircase down to the first floor, letting her hand brush along the marble railing. Her eyes took in the vaulted ceiling, the Gothic architecture that had been so prevalent in the ancient days of the Old World - especially in Europe. The Scarlet Church had been built in this fashion but it was not truly Gothic. Any pre-existing architecture was nothing more than rubble and dust, its builders long forgotten. Now there was only the hellscape, the Abyss on earth. By channeling the power of the Primordial Caste, the First Disciple had remade the world. Several Scarlet Priests passed her as she walked down the long hall. Everyone bowed their heads towards her silently in respect. She could hear the buzz of their thoughts, feel their fear, the awe they felt towards her. Some of them knelt at altars, praying to the Primordial Caste, her masters. She marveled at how similar her church was to theirs. They were different churches but both worshipped the same thing. The difference was they had given their lives willingly to the Primordial Caste. Though she was revered as a queen here, in the wheel of the Order of Chaos C’thla was nothing more than a well regarded slave. Her only purpose was to realize the Primordial Castes’ vision. We all have our chains, she thought. She turned through the archway to her left, walking down another corridor. A small set of steps took her to another door, which was ajar. Damen Orlys was inside sitting at the end of a long oak table, sipping from a crystal glass what looked like wine. He stood when he saw she’d entered the room and bowed. “High Priestess,” he said reverently. She watched him for a moment, frowning. She noticed for the first time he wasn’t wearing his hood. He beamed at her from across the table. His outward appearance suggested he was an attractive man, youthful, somewhere in his early thirties. He had medium length dark brown hair, a long narrow nose, and diamond blue eyes. However his youthful appearance was every bit of an illusion as his pleasant, optimistic demeanor. C’thla knew beneath the glamour spell he conjured at all times he looked like a withered tree. She also knew he was weary, weary from the passing of years, centuries. Immortality could do that to you. If she wanted to she could peel back the glamour spell, see what laid behind it, pour the contents out of his head with a single thought, make him do anything he wanted. But she didn’t want to. After all he was her ally, an important one at that. It was because of him she had a body. “You’re lovely if it’s not too bold of me to say,” he said. “Your new body suits you.” “Thank you,” she said, taking the seat next to him. “Would you like some wine?” he asked. “Yes.” From a nearby table he grabbed a silver pitcher and a crystal glass. The sound of liquid pouring filled the room. He handed her the glass, watching her expectantly. The smile never left his lips. She raised the glass to her lips and took a sip. The taste of grapes sitting in a barrel for years, decades, exploded over her tongue. Tingles went up her spine. At first she wasn’t sure if she liked it. The sourness was overwhelming. She squeezed her eyes shut, gave herself a moment to adjust to the tang, and took another sip. This time the taste wasn’t so shocking. It was actually quite pleasant, the liquid chilled. She felt herself smile again only this time it wasn’t for formality’s sake. “It’s very good.” Damen sat down, looking pleased. “I had the best brought up just for you. Dinner will arrive shortly. I’m sure you must be famished.” “I am.” For a moment they sat in silence, sipping their wine. C’thla didn’t like the silence, didn’t like the way it stretched on. There were downfalls to being in a human body, to feeling emotion. You couldn’t stop yourself from feeling the things you didn’t want to feel. She was not like the wraiths, capable of only meaningless destruction. With a human body came all the human emotions, the good and the bad. “Say something,” she said, just to hear herself talk. “I’ve waited for this moment for a very long time,” he said. “For centuries. It’s all I ever wanted.” “Why?” she asked, truly curious. It would have been easier to pluck the answer from his memories but it was so much more entertaining to talk and interact. Before he could answer, two priests stepped into the room, balancing a silver platter on one hand and holding rolled up silverware in the other. They bowed, muttering, “High Priest” and “High Priestess” before setting the platters down on the table. Almost as quickly as they’d appeared they stepped out of the room. “Bon appetit,” Damen said, removing the silver top for her. C’thla looked down at her plate. She felt her mouth instantly begin to water. For dinner they were having smoked salmon which rested on a bed of roasted vegetables. The smell wafted up to her nose. She felt her belly growl. It was everything she could do to keep from grabbing her fork and digging in. Instead she watched as Damen unfolded his napkin and set his silverware down. She did the same, making sure to do exactly as he did. This was a custom completely new to her, some form of table etiquette. Perhaps she would ask him about it later. She mimicked his movements, holding down the salmon with the fork and cutting into it with her knife. The meat was perfectly spiced and succulent, the vegetables tender and crunchy at the same time. As with the wine the first few bites were full of overwhelming flavor that eased a little once she became used to it. “You never answered my question,” she said after a moment. “I was called. Chosen you might say.” Damen took a sip from his wine and smacked his lips in pleasure. “I was one of the original twelve disciples to make up the church. The First Deciple’s second-in-command.” “You were there when he remade the world?” “I was.” “And you saw him die at the hands of Ex’olku’s Agent?” “I did.” “And what of your life before the hellscape, before the Scarlet Church?” For a moment she saw a fracture in his pleasant demeanor, a twitch in his smile, a darkening in his eyes. C’thla had made him feel uncomfortable. She felt pleasure in knowing the fact, knowing he didn’t like to discuss the past. She also knew he would answer whatever question she asked whether he wanted to or not. “Let’s just say I was a normal man who hated everyday life,” Damen replied after a moment. “I wanted pleasure. I wanted power. I lusted for both. I hated the world such as it was. It was too large and I was too small. I did not have the power I do now. The First Disciple came to me, held me in his arms, and offered me the world. Through the Primordial Caste he gave me power I could never imagine having at the time. He transformed me from a gutter rat into the king. You did not see the Old World right before it ended, did you?” C’thla shook her head, not wanting to divulge just how long it had been since she’d last inhabited a body. The High Priest paused long enough to refill her wineglass back up to the top. “The world was dying. Humanity was killing it: polluting it. Pouring their chemicals into the ocean, killing its animals, making it impossible to eat them. Poaching. Bears, tigers, lions, all of them pushed to the brink of extinction. Even bumblebees.” He chuckled. “Bumblebees, can you imagine? Everyone thinks the First Disciple damned this world, what’s left of it, but really he saved it. The world was beginning to die. Seasons were changing, the weather was becoming more severe, the ozone layer around the earth fading. We would have pushed ourselves to extinction without help from anyone else. “And then there was day-to-day life. I was a normal man, just like everyone else. There was nothing special about me - nothing to distinguish me from anyone else. I had a wife, children. I loved them in my own way. The woman I married was beautiful, the children we made more beautiful still - it shames me a little to say I can’t remember their names, their faces are blurry and it shames me even more that they were not enough for me.” “There was always this sense deep within me that I wanted something more. More than what my boring life would give me. It’s funny how little of it I can remember.” His eyes had grown distant, sad. C’thla realized she was seeing the real Damen, the one that lurked behind his carefree smile. “Only in my dreams are things clear. I wanted power. I wanted to be something more, someone who stood on a hill, looking down at the masses. The Primordials, they must have felt my hunger, my lust for power, and they sent the First Disciple. You couldn’t imagine what that day was like...or the day he died. The despair we felt as a Church. I couldn’t just let his death be the end of all we built. When the others cowered I stood tall. I bent the knee and promised I would fulfill their dream.” “You’ve done very well,” said C’thla. “I have. But there is so much I don’t know. What is your plan? What is it you’re here to do?” C’thla downed the rest of her wine and smiled across the table at Damen. “You will know soon enough - I promise.” … The next morning C’thla and Damen went to Fruimont. They traveled in a horse drawn carriage. Along the journey the High Priest explained they would be going to a meeting at the courthouse with the other officials of Fruimont. “Mostly politics,” he said. “You will be the center of it. I will be passing the mantle to you.” C’thla pretended to listen and be interested but she could barely contain her excitement. In the three days since she’d come into the world she’d been stuck at the Scarlet Church. I want to see more of the world with these new eyes, she thought. After a time they came to the gates of Fruimont. They opened and the truck trundled through. C’thla craned her head around, wanting to see everything there was to see. There were buildings everywhere, some of them tall, some of them not so tall. It was almost like being in the great city of Rome. There were people everywhere walking through the streets, their faces braced against the cold, wearing scarves and coats. Suddenly she couldn’t stand to be in the carriage anymore. It made her feel claustrophobic, the walls closing in around her. Her stomach was full of butterflies trying to get out. “I want to walk,” she said. “Wherever we’re going I want to walk there.” “But High Priestess, it’s cold,” Damen said. “You will freeze by the time we get there.” “I don’t care - I can’t breathe in this tiny space. Driver, stop this vehicle!” she shouted. Damen sighed. “Do as she says.” With the sound of snapping reigns the carriage came to a stop.. C’thla struggled to get the door open, starting to grow frustrated; Damen had to get out of the carriage and come around to the other side to open it for her. He gingerly took her hand and helped her down the step to the ground. The cold wind brushed up against her legs, bringing a chill up her spine. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and felt a nauseating sense of disorientation. She stopped, studying the woman in the glass. Her cheeks were red, her blonde hair pinned up. She wore a beautiful wolf skin coat, the edge stopping at just above her ankle; the collar of the coat was rimmed with white fur. For a moment she thought she might scream and try to break the glass. The face staring back at her, though it was beautiful, was not her face. It should be the face of the Druid priestess staring back at her - and yet it wasn’t. The eyes staring back at her were wide and no longer a foxy silver, but dark blue, the mouth colored dark red with the lipstick she had applied. She was vaguely aware Damen’s hands were resting on her arms, steadying her. Though his voice tickled her ear it sounded far away, as if coming from a great distance. She wasn’t sure if it was a trick of her own fractured mind or if it was really happening but she thought she could hear Sara laughing mockingly at her. Shut up you stupid bitch, she thought. This is my body, my mind. Soon you will be nothing. It will be as if you never existed. “I’m fine,” she said, trying to break from his gasp. She was embarrassed. She was supposed to be stronger than this. She was C’thla, the High Priestess of the Second Caste. She had survived through the centuries, bringing men and women to their knees and now she was acting like a damsel in distress. This is the part about getting used to a body I hate, she thought. “I’m just getting used to this body. It takes a few days...depending on the host. Let’s go.” Before they left the truck C’thla glanced back in the mirror one last time. Her eyes had gone back to being silver - her silver. Sara was silent, had been silent for some time. Together they began to make their way down the street. Within moments the episode of identity misplacement was forgotten. C’thla became enamored with the world around her. Every sound, sight, and smell was somehow new and familiar at the same time as her memories and experiences coincided with Sara’s: the people who stopped at merchant booths, buying herbs, incense, crafts, and foods; the prostitutes who lurked underneath awnings and in the mouth of alleyways, men and women, young and old, offering themselves to Damen and C’thla for a price. They showed no signs of knowing what C’thla was. They looked into her eyes without really seeing. Of course she did not act mindless as most of her kind tended to do. She had been molded and tempered by her experiences through her other hosts. She was here for a mission - she knew how to act and mix in with these mortals. As she walked past them she searched through their minds. Underneath all their individual motives they were afraid. They knew something was coming, something big, something that had yet to reveal itself. Yet it was here already, the beginning of something cataclysmic. It would be bigger than the remaking of the world for it was to be remade again. They knew this on some instinctive level, these primitive people, and yet it was hidden underneath other feelings and fears. They were all starving, hungry, and cold. Tired. She pitied them and was disgusted by them at the same time. She had always felt this way about them and in this feeling she knew Damen and she were very much alike. … Though Damen Orlys was speaking every eye in the room it seemed, kept glancing in her direction. C’thla sat at the head of a long table, surrounded by men. She was amused to find she was the only woman in the room. There had been a brief time in the days of the Old World when women had possessed just as much power and influence as men - even more. It seemed that age had come and gone. She smirked. I’ll have to do something about that. There was one man in particular she couldn’t take her eyes off - or he her. He was frightened of her and fascinated at the same time and he was doing his best not to show it. His head was a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. By human standards he was older, well past the prime of his life but also very attractive. He had introduced himself as Benedik Matthiesen. She tried to be respectful and pay attention to Damen but she kept finding herself going through his thoughts and memories. It was interesting, the things she was finding. Very interesting indeed. Benedik and I are going to have a conversation before all this is through, she thought. “And now,” Damen said with a flourish, “I would like to introduce to you, C'thla. She will be in charge of things from now on.” Every eye around the table turned their gaze on her; the surprise in the room was palpable. She grinned, loving the tension. She could sense their awe, their uncertainty, and their fear. The energy filling the room gave her a rush not unlike the one she’d had watching Roman soldiers being sacrificed in another life. “Good morning,” she said.
  2. ValentineDavis21


    They all sat around the kitchen table: Crow, Barghast, Benedik, and Sheathia. Benedik had the older woman, who Crow assumed was either the grandmother or the nanny, take the children to the back bedroom. Benedik’s daughter kept glancing back at him with open-faced curiosity, the boy with suspicion. Crow took Benedik through a watered down version of what had happened at the Scarlet Church. Even as he went through the events, doing his best to keep them straight in his sleep-deprived mind, it was hard to believe any of it had happened. It was harder to believe that he’d survived and was here talking about it. It was harder still to believe what had happened to Sara. He would never be able to forgive himself for leaving her behind. Every time he felt himself losing focus he looked at Barghast. The Okanavian sat on his right; he was so big the chair he sat on looked comically small beneath him. As always, the sight of him was a comfort for Crow, anchoring him to the here and now. To their credit Benedik and Sheathia listened without asking questions, though they had both grown considerably pale. At one point Sheathia grabbed Benedik’s hand, lacing her fingers through his. Earlier when Benedik had led Crow and Barghast into the kitchen Crow had sensed an aura of love and unity in this room. He’d felt a warmth that was absent throughout the rest of the city. The kitchen, this apartment, was a sanctuary. And we’re desecrating it just by being here, Crow thought sadly. I’m about to ask Benedik and his family to leave their things and their home behind. I’m about to promise them safety when I’m not even sure if I can provide it. “We’re still not sure what the Scarlet Church is planning exactly,” said Crow, “but no doubt it isn’t good.” “I have an idea,” Benedik said, clearing his throat. “The number of possessions have been increasing in this city as well as in the rest of the hellscape. Damen Orlys said something about turning the world back the way it used to be. Something about the Primordial Caste.” “There’s still so much we don’t know,” said Crow. “That’s why we’re leaving as soon as we can.” Barghast nodded, grunting in agreement. “The sooner the better.” “I can’t guarantee anything but I wanted to take you and your family with us,” said Crow. “You’ll have a better chance of being safe in Miffridge where the Eurchurch is until they can figure out how to stop what’s happening.” “You mean run?” Benedik said. He had cocked his head slightly to the side, his eyes wide, looking at the practitioner as if he’d gone mad. “I know it’s not the ideal situation but what choice do you have?” Crow asked. It was an effort to keep his voice controlled, to keep from losing his patience. I don’t want to be having this conversation. I just want to sleep! “This place is a barrel of gunpowder ready to explode - and if what you say is true and the amount of demonic activity over the past twenty years is any indication then it just isn’t safe here. ” “But I just can’t leave all these people behind,” said Benedik. “I have a responsibility to them.” “Right because you’ve tried everything you can to help them, right?” Barghast said bitterly. “You know I used to hear stories about the great Benedik Matthiesen, about how he so bravely endorsed Loras Gyrell’s campaign against the Eurchurch during the Eurchurch-Practitioner war. Where is that man now? He certainly isn’t out there” - he nodded at the front door - “trying to help his people, the men, women, and children who are being butchered.” Crow gawked at Barghast, surprised. He hadn’t expected this outburst or the look of disdain on the Okanavian’s face. Instead of backing down, as Crow probably would have done, Benedik bristled, straightening in his chair. His eyes flashed dangerously. “You don’t have to remind me, robber.” Now it was Barghast’s turn to look surprised. Every eye in the room turned their focus on him. “Yes, I know who you are,” Benedik continued. “I recognize your face from all the warrant posters. Barghast, the great robber from the Okanavi desert, the tribesman who left his people for a life of crime. You’ve killed a few people yourself, which is why you’re now the Eurchurch’s lapdog. Do you honestly think I would send my children anywhere with you?” Crow watched Barghast slump in his chair, all the determination deflating out of him. The practitioner had always known about Barghast’s bloody past but it was strange to hear it mentioned out loud. Crow couldn’t stand to see him look so diminished. The practitioner cleared his throat. “Yes, he has a bloody past, as do you Benedik. I have sins of my own as do we all. At the end of the day, with what we face, none of it matters. We can either sit here pointing the finger at each other or we can work together in finding a solution. There is no solution if we’re going to stay here.” Benedik crossed his arms over his chest. He clenched his jaw defiantly. “I’m not leaving my people behind to be slaughtered. You can take Sheathia, Tilde, and the kids.” “No,” said Sheathia, speaking for the first time since this conversation had begun. “I’m not leaving you, Benedik. I’m staying as well.” Now all the focus in the room was on her and Benedik. “No.” Her husband shook his head emphatically. “You’re going with them. You’re going to Miffridge where it’s safe.” “I will not. You need someone you know you can trust. Who could you trust more than your wife? Tilde can look after the kids until this is all over. I know she would never let anything happen to them.” Sheathia looked to Crow and Barghast. “Promise us - promise us you’ll get our children to safety.” “Nothing will happen to your little ones on our watch,” Barghast said. Though she didn’t look entirely convinced, Sheathia got up from the table. After a moment Benedik got up and did the same and together, husband and wife, they crossed the living room into the hallway. “I hope we’re doing the right thing,” Crow said to Barghast. “We’re doing all we can,” Barghast said. It’s not enough, Crow thought. Nowhere near close enough. Ten minutes later Crow and Barghast stood by the front door, watching as Nicholas and Elise said their final goodbyes with their parents. Sheathia was crying and Benedik stood with his shoulders and back rigid; he looked like someone who wasn’t sure if they were dreaming or not. Crow tried to imagine what it felt like to be a parent - the agony they must feel when they have to part with their children in hopes they have a better future. He tried and failed. The children looked stunned. Elise, the little girl, was hugging a teddy bear to her chest for dear life. Nicholas had the same rigid look as his father, the same confused expression. Tilde was tugging on her jacket and reassuring Benedik and Sheathia she would look after the kids, she wouldn’t let anything happen to them. Sheathia stooped and kissed Elise and Nicholas on the forehead. “We’ll be together again soon, I promise. Your dad and I are going to make things right. When things are back the way they used to be we’ll come and get you.” “You promise?” Elise asked in a tiny voice. “I promise. You be good for Tilde, the both of you, and you do what she tells you. We love you both.” Holding Elise’s hand, Tilde turned to Crow. “We’re ready.” Crow nodded and put on his best smile for Elise. “You wanna see a magic trick?” Her face brightened a little as she nodded. Crow waved a hand over his face. By the time he brought his hand down his features had changed completely. His nose had become longer, the eyes darker. He looked like a stranger. “That was cool!” Elise said. Even Nicholas was grinning. “Okay,” Crow said, “you guys have to stay quiet until we’re out of the building. The men watching the front of the building are bad men.” The group of six filed out of the apartment, Barghast in the front, Tilde and the kids in the middle, and Crow taking up the rear. He wondered if he would see Benedik and Sheathia ever again. … As before Crow and Barghast stuck to the back roads and alleys where few people roamed. With Tilde and the children in tow the journey to the tunnels took twice as long. Crow had never felt so eager to leave a place in his life. “Bah!” Barghast grunted as he heaved the metal grating up and set it down on the asphalt. He grinned at Elise and Nicholas. “Alright, I'm going to climb down, and then you kids, and then you Tilde.” Tilde groaned, looking down at the ladder that descended into darkness. “This is going to kill my old bones.” “The climb isn't as bad as it looks,” said the Okanavian. The older woman arched an eyebrow. “You're not sixty-two-years-old, now are you? Yi yi yi.” Crow watched both ends of the street. His heart hammered in his chest. One by one the group climbed down the tunnel. The children were surprisingly brave, not giving the slightest protest. Perhaps they sensed everyone's lives were at stake. Finally it was Crow's turn. The metal rungs of the latter were cool against the skin. Already the air was becoming cooler, the sounds of the city becoming distant. His stomach clenched as he realized he was going underground once more. The last time he had gone underground there had been monsters waiting for him - not just monsters conjured up by the imagination of a child, but real ones. His foot touched hard ground. He felt better knowing he wasn't alone, knowing he was closer to getting away from this place. And as soon as we get on the bus I'm going to sleep - the whole way to Miffridge. With a whisper of, “Feru,” Crow summoned a ball of fire the size of an apple. The ball floated by him wherever he walked, providing just enough illumination for everyone to be able to see by. Tilde was softly humming some sort of lullaby. The sound was eerily familiar. It made Crow think of his early childhood when Aunt Lena would sing lullabies to him when he had nightmares in the middle of the night. It wasn’t until later in life he realized adults were just as afraid of the dark as children and their imagination could just as easily play tricks. There’s nothing to be afraid of, he told himself. There’s nothing down here in the dark, waiting for you to stumble into it so it can attack you. And yet his eyes kept searching the corners, the dark spaces where danger might lurk, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He wasn’t aware he was hyperventilating until Barghast grabbed his shoulder and told him to stop. His chest had tightened and it felt as if his lungs were going to explode. No matter how hard he tried to make sure to inhale and exhale no oxygen seemed to be flowing through his body. The walls were closing in on him, threatening to crush him and keep him down here in the dark. I can’t stand this! his mind screamed helplessly. I must leave this place. I must- “He’s having a panic attack,” he was aware of Tilde saying. “Get out of the way so I can help him.” He felt her hands grab him gently but firmly. They felt warm and coarse with age; there was experience in those hands. “Sit down, boy,” she said. “You’re not taking in the air you need.” He did as he was told. He’d forgotten where he was or why he was there. All he knew was the feeling of suffocating. There wasn’t enough air in this space, not enough light. His ears strained, listening to the sound of the old woman’s voice. It was the only thing that cut through the blackened fog of fear that smothered Crow. “Take a deep breath,” she said. “Do not listen to the pounding of your heart but the sound of my voice. Hear what I am saying. Can you hear me?” “Y-yes,” he managed to gasp. “Good. Keep listening and trying to breathe. You - yes, you big lug, you. Get down here and help me get him to calm down. I got two frightened children I’m trying to look after. Take his hand, show him you’re here. It’s obvious you two are close and have a connection.” Crow was aware of someone bending down in front of him, a larger hand taking his own. “I’m here, Crow,” Barghast said. “I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.” “Keep talking,” said Tilde. “Don’t stop.” Barghast continued to talk, his voice soft and grating at the same time. No matter how hard Crow squeezed his fingers he did not take his hands away. Slowly Crow regained control of his breath. The pounding of his heart began to slow to a normal pace. He focused on the feeling of Barghast’s touch, the sound of his voice. “Sorry,” he gasped. He was far too embarrassed to glance at them, particularly the children. He couldn’t imagine how frightened they must be. With Barghast’s help he was able to get to his feet. The group continued their journey through the dark tunnels. The ball of fire Crow had summoned continued to illuminate the tunnel, following the practitioner wherever he went. Twice they stopped so Elise and Nicholas could take a break. Both times Crow drifted off for a moment only to be shaken awake by Tilde when she and the kids were ready to go. At long last they reached the door which would lead up into the watchtower. Waving for everyone to get back, Crow climbed up the ladder and lifted the door up enough to peek through the crack. He was surprised to find there was no one around to shoot at him. He waited another minute and waved the others up. Elise and Nicholas came up first, and then Tilde. Crow stood to the side and took their hands to help them up. Night was falling quickly, the sky a dark blue. Snow fell gently from the sky like white glitter. Crow immediately felt his spirits lift just knowing Barghast and he were finally out of the city. He just hoped Lydia and Jack hadn’t gotten tired of waiting and left without them. Barghast laughed in relief when they saw the bus waiting for them; his laughter filled the stillness of the forest. Jack must have heard them because the doors folded open and Jack and Lydia came stumbling off the steps. “Thank the Light,” Jack said, his eyes wide behind his spectacles. He was looking at Barghast, only giving Crow the briefest of glances as usual. A three day beard had grown around his mouth and chin “I never thought I would see you guys again. Lydia told me about everything that happened. Sara and Rake...Who are these guys?” He had just now noticed Tilde and the children. “They’re with us,” Barghast said, gesturing for Tilde, Elise, and Nicholas to get on the bus. “How’s Lydia?” “She’s asleep right now,” said Jack. “She cried a lot before she finally nodded off. I’ve never seen Lydia look so shaken. Is it true...is Sara?” “Yes,” Barghast said sadly. “It’s true. Let’s get on the bus. The sooner we get back to Miffridge the better.” Crow watched them talk, trying not to feel the old feelings of resentment towards Jack. Like Lydia Jack had always made sure to show his dislike for Crow whenever he got the chance. If Crow had actually done something to personally piss the man off it wouldn’t have hurt so bad - but there was nothing more painful than being cast out for what you were, what you couldn’t help being. And without Sara here I’m the only member of the squad that hasn’t been convicted of a crime. I’m not a bank robber, I’ve never killed anyone in cold blood. I went through hell to get out of the Scarlet Church, I did everything I could to make sure we survived and all I get is dismissal. The emotions welled up inside him, threatening to overwhelm. He could actually feel his eyes start to brim with tears. He hated the flood of emotions. He told himself he was just being stupid. But most of all he hated the jealousy he felt towards Barghast, the look of respect he was getting from Jack as if Barghast was now the leader of the squad. Crow turned away, doing his best to push these feelings down as far as they could go. He climbed up the steps of the bus. The muscles in his thighs protesting painfully. It had been at least two days since he’d gotten a decent sleep - dozing off for a few minutes didn’t count. Tilde and the children had all squeezed into a seat at the front of the bus. Tilde had her arms wrapped protectively around Elise. Nicholas stared silently out the window, his brow creased. Crow wondered what the boy was thinking, if he was worried about his parents. He couldn’t imagine how afraid the children must be, how confused they were. Lydia was curled up in one of the seats, hunched underneath a blanket. Her face was colorless from exhaustion. Crow immediately felt ashamed. They had just lost Rake and Sara, the love of Lydia’s life, and all he could think about was wanting gratitude. It doesn’t matter now, he thought, taking a seat in the very back of the bus. We’re safe now. That’s all that matters. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. … Sometime later Crow woke up just as Jack was pulling through the gates of an outpost. For a moment there was an alarming feeling of disorientation. He was looking through the window at a small cluster of buildings. This outpost was even smaller than Mendes. Crow glanced at Barghast who was sitting in the seat next to him. “What are we stopping for?” he mumbled. “The old woman says the bus is hurting her back and her and the kids need to sleep in a real bed,” Barghast said with a hint of aggravation. “I want to keep going until we get to Miffridge but I suppose it won’t hurt to stop for the night. We’re out of Fruimont and that’s all that matters.” Crow nodded and said nothing. He didn’t care either way. The children looked miserable. Nicholas was trying to keep up a brave front but he kept yawning and Elise kept rubbing at her eyes. Tilde simply looked irritable. Crow’s entire body was still sore. Rainy mist fell from the night sky, shrouding the few buildings that made up the outpost in a light mist. Street lamps made the mist appear to glow with an eerie supernatural light. The air was cool but in a refreshing way that soothed the skin, not at all like the frigid air in the Plaesil mountains. The door of a saloon opened and a man and woman came stumbling out, their arms linked, laughing merrily. From the way they weaved Crow could tell they were drunk. There was a two story building next to the salon simply marked LODGINGS. The doors were painted red with brass numbers. A man stood at a window marked REGISTRY. He was elderly with a wrinkled face and a shock of white hair sticking up from his liver-spotted scalp. His eyes widened when he saw Crow and Barghast coming and he realized they were still dressed in their Scarlet Priest uniforms. Immediately Crow pulled it off. If I had a match I’d burn it. It felt good to take it off. The shirt underneath didn’t look much better. It was crusty with dried blood and gore from when he’d been in the catacombs. He couldn’t imagine how he smelled right now. As soon as we get our rooms I’m taking a bath and going to bed. The man at the window visibly relaxed when Jack produced the papers saying they were from the Eurchurch; normally Rake would have had them but he hadn’t taken them with him. Even with all that had happened it was still hard to believe Rake was dead. He remembered the last thing the man had ever said to him: Crow, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the way I treated you...Crow knew all the things he had experienced while in Fruimont would haunt him for the rest of his days. At long last they were all given keys to a room. Tilde and the kids would be sharing a room. Crow let out a sigh of relief. It would feel to good to sleep in a real bed again, to let his mind go and not think about things. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Lydia was lagging behind. She looked miserable and alone all by herself. Crow couldn’t remember a time when she’d appeared vulnerable. A voice in the back of his mind told him he should leave her alone but he found himself walking towards her anyway. When she saw him coming she stopped and stiffened like a cornered animal. Her hands clenched into fists and her eyes narrowed. Despite his instincts which warned him to walk away, he said, “I’m sorry about Sara and Rake. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to help them.” “I curse the day you ever walked into our lives,” she said after a moment. “It should be you that’s dead not Rake. You ever come near me again and I swear by the Light I’ll slit your fucking throat.” There was a plummeting feeling in his chest. He could feel himself becoming unraveled, the mingled feelings of resentment and anger and guilt and the need for reassurance that Rake’s death and Sara’s possession wasn’t his fault pulling him beneath the surface. What did you expect, you idiot? he thought. Why do you think Lydia or Jack will come around? They hate you because you’re a practitioner. It doesn’t matter what you do or how many times you save them. They will always hate you. You will never be one of them. And he knew as he stepped into the room where he would spend the night - knew with all certainty - as soon as he got to Miffridge he was leaving. He didn’t know where he was going and he didn’t care. Everyone could go fuck themselves for all he cared. The past several days had been damnation on Loras’ nerves. She couldn’t stop pacing, couldn’t stop thinking about what might be happening in Fruimont. It kept her up at night and no amount of jalasa tea could help her relax. She cursed the First Disciple day and night for it was his fault the technology that had existed in the days of the Old World was no longer of use. It was said in the days before the hellscape people could easily communicate within seconds across great distances. She was sitting in her office wondering who else she could place blame on for her anxiety when she received news from one of her aides that D-Squad had returned from Fruimont - or what was left of them. Before she knew she was doing it she was running through the corridors of the Eurchurch and down the steps, hoping she might see D-Squad passing by. She’d heard only a few of the squad members had made it back - two of them had not. She found herself praying to the Light, praying Crow had made it back, that he was okay. Loras made it outside before she found she couldn’t run anymore. Her breasts heaved and her ribs ached. She was not as fit as she used to be. How I hate getting old, she thought. But the bus was there - it had pulled in front of the Eurchurch and there were people getting off: An old woman who looked to be Loras’ age and two young children, one of them close to being a teen; behind them the bespectacled Jack, the sour-faced Lydia, the humongous Barghast...and finally, to her relief, Crow. She would never admit out loud the flood of exhilaration she felt...she had feared it was he who wouldn’t return...however she couldn’t deny to herself it was there. It was the relief a mother might feel towards her child who has just returned from war. It was something she didn’t think she would ever feel again. The emotion frightened her...it wasn’t something she was supposed to feel. She had tried to separate herself from such vulnerable emotions. It seemed every time she found someone to care about they ended up being taken from her. Her heart skipped a few beats and then stopped altogether. No one coming off the bus looked good. They all looked beaten, like they had suffered greatly. But Crow’s face was like an oppressive black cloud. He walked with his shoulder slumped, as if the entire world rested upon it. He had always looked solemn but the way he looked now frightened her. His eyes looked down at the floor and there were black bags underneath his eyes. He followed the others up the steps with the gait of someone who finds himself in a dream. She met the group in the middle. “What happened?” she said. It was the Okanavian who answered. “Things were worse in Fruimont than we anticipated. We had no choice but to return.” Loras glanced at the old woman and the two children. “And who did you bring with you?” “These are Benedik’s children, Nicholas and Elise. And this is Tilde, the woman who is looking after them.” For the second time in one day her heart did a double-take. How could she have been so stupid not to realize who the children were? The boy, who had to be at least twelve, was a spitting image of his father. He had the same narrow face, dark hair, and somber look. And though she assumed the little girl looked like her mother, who Loras had never met, she could see a small resemblance to Benedik. Seeing them filled her with a grief frightening in its suddenness and intensity. She was looking at what she could have had with Benedik if she hadn't been so focused on getting revenge for the death of her husband and daughter. I could’ve been happy again. We could’ve been happy. Benedik and Janif were so similar and yet so different at the same time. They were both quiet but Benedik was also a rebel. He went against the system. I loved that about him but I was also too consumed with my hate. I’m still so consumed about it...I’m just old and arthritic now. She smiled at them. It hurt to smile but she did it anyway. “Don’t worry. You’re going to be just fine. We’re going to take good care of you.” The two children just looked at her as if she was crazy. Which I am, certifiably. She waved over one of the guards, taking on her stern voice. “Find them living quarters - get them something nice. And get them food, toys, books, whatever they want - I don’t care.” The guarded nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” The older woman thanked Loras and then ushered the children after the man. Loras watched them go for a moment, feeling melancholy, and then remembered there were other things she had to attend to. There’s a shit storm coming. I can feel it. “Where is Benedik?” she asked Barghast. “He chose to stay,” said the Okanavian. “Of course he did,” she said as if the answer had already occurred to her. Benedik was always trying to do the right thing...even when it was the stupid thing. “Okay, you go. You’ve traveled a long way. We’ll talk tomorrow and try to get things in order. Not you, though Crow, I need to talk to you for a moment.” The practitioner nodded but said nothing. He still had that dazed expression on his face. Barghast glanced at the boy with concern. He opened his mouth, about to say something, and then closed it. For the last year Loras had watched these two do their dance. It was painful to watch, awkward, but at times endearing. They were both like two clumsy birds, trying to come together...and just when they were about to collide they always pulled back. They made such an odd couple. Barghast was older and much larger than Crow, who was younger and smaller built. Loras often tried to picture how such a relationship could work in the bed and often found herself unable to imagine it. But there was something between them, a connection. If only they would both quit being cowards and explore it. Still, she filed this detail away. There was something about it...something important. I might be able to use it later. She watched Barghast put a hand on Crow’s shoulder. Crow lifted his eyes briefly and they looked at each other. Loras watched the connection pass between them, a wordless thing she didn’t think even they understood. And then Barghast was walking away and Crow was back to looking dour. Loras had to grind her teeth together to keep from cursing in frustration. Men were so fucking stupid. They couldn’t tell the difference between their hearts and a rock. Or another word that rhymed with rock. “Come with me,” she said to Crow and led him towards the Eurchurch. … For some time she could only look at him, trying to see if something might change in him. Now they were alone Lora's could sense his pent up emotion. But there were fissures in his composure: the tenseness in his shoulders, the way his hands were constantly clenched into fists. And not once had he sipped the mug of jalasa tea she'd set before him. He'd barely even touched it. Lora's didn't want to push him too hard. She'd seen this reaction to trauma many times and had experienced it herself. But she could also feel the old impatience rising up in her, the voice that said, There are things that need to be done and time is short. “What happened?” she asked, forcing herself to be gentle. Crow shook his head slowly. When he spoke his voice came out raspy, as if he was swallowing back his tears. “I tried to do everything I could. I failed. There are no words - I'm exhausted.” “Then show me.” His eyes widened when he realized what she was asking. The passing of knowledge and experience from one practitioner to another could be an intense and painful experience. The recipient often became overwhelmed by the source's emotions, their every physical sensation. Loras hadn't done it in years and hated the experience but it was the quickest way to pass along information. “Are you sure?” Crow asked. “It will save us time,” she said. He nodded and reached across the table, taking her hand in his. She had just enough time to brace herself for what was to come before the transference began. All at once Loras was assaulted by a torrent of memories, emotions and physical sensations: cold, pain, hunger, fear, and sadness. She experienced these things as if they were her own memories and feelings. One moment she was standing in the middle of a snow topped valley, gripping the handle of a shovel with blistered hands. She watched a sphere of light falling from the sky; it was coming towards her. Beautiful, she thought. So beautiful. Then she was falling into a pit of severed limbs and body parts - someone was trying to drown her. Then she was watching her Aunt Lena being ripped apart - something was literally ripping its way out of her. Then she watched as Sara slashed Rake’s throat with a blade. And then she was standing before Lydia. “I curse the day you ever walked into our lives,” she was saying. “It should be you that’s dead not Rake…” Despair. Loras was feeling such despair. The despair of rejected youth, the despair of someone who knows they will never be accepted, never find the place where they truly belong. She couldn’t take it anymore. If she didn’t tear herself away from it all Crow’s thoughts and memories would drive her insane. She released his hand and leaned back in the chair, feeling breathless. Her breasts heaved up and down. Her breath came out in short gasps. Her chest felt as tight as a drum. She was dimly aware Crow was asking her if she was okay but she couldn’t find the words to answer. After a moment she said, “I’m fine...It’s just been a while since I’ve done that. We must tell Pope Drajen about everything you know - at once.” He shook his head. “I’m not doing anything. I’m done.” Loras gaped at him, trying to understand what he was saying. “What do you mean you’re done?” He waved a hand around the room, rising to his feet. “All of this. The Eurchurch, the Scarlet Church. D-Squad. I’m done. I’ve done all I’m going to do.” “So you’re just going to give up?” she asked. “Yes. And I’m going to live my life while I still can. You and the Eurchurch can figure out what to do and how to stop the war. I never should have gotten involved in the first place.” His voice had become acidic with bitterness and anger. “And don’t try to stop me. There’s nothing you can do or say that will stop me.” … Barghast rented a small room on the second floor of a rundown building. It was the only thing the Eurchurch could provide him with - he supposed it was better than a jail cell or a grave. The room was just large enough for him to be able to fit a dresser and a bed barely large enough for him to be able to sleep on. There was a single bathroom across the hall. Very rarely was Barghast able to use it. Naked he sat on the right side of the bed, his arm pressing up against the wall. Charlie the prostitute lay next to him, his pale skin glowing in the pale morning sunlight streaming through the curtainless windows. As long as he had his back turned Barghast could easily pretend Charlie was Crow. Somewhere across the hall he could hear a baby wailing and the soft voice of the young mother trying to sing it to sleep. He wondered what Crow was doing right now, worried about him. Why was it Crow always made him feel so unsure of himself, the way no one else had been able to do? How did the practitioner have such power over him, to render him paralyzed? There was a knock at the door: a rapid, impatient sound. Barghast glanced at the sleeping boy next to him and quickly threw the blanket over him so that only his head showed. Barghast climbed off the bed, the mattress groaning beneath his weight. His head ached, while the room spun. He’d drank too much last night. More rapping at the door. “Hold your horses, damn it,” he growled, pulling on his breeches. For one pathetic moment he wondered if was Crow who was knocking on the door, wishing it was. The real Crow. What would the real Crow think if he saw the fake Crow laying in bed? Would he get a good laugh at it or would he be pissed? Barghast cursed under his breath and opened the door. It wasn’t Crow but Loras. All the same Barghast was surprised. What was she doing here, standing at his doorstep? As always she was dressed as if she thought she owned the world, her white-blonde hair tied back, her lips smeared with bright red lipstick that hurt Barghast’s head to look at. Her dark eyes looked him up and down for a moment, pausing on the multiple knife scars that marked his chest and torso. Then she saw the prostitute laying in the bed and looked back at Barghast. “I assume you know Pope Drajen made prostitution illegal in this city long ago,” she said. “Considering you’re already paying off a death sentence if I were to tell him about this you would be executed. That would be a shame considering your sentence will be up in less than two years.” Barghast did not blink. He was not intimidated by her. He knew she was simply flexing her powers, showing him it was she who was in charge. “Are you going to tell him?” She arched an eyebrow. “No. I could care less. We all have our vices and our pastimes. I do think it’s amusing and touching you pay him to dress like a certain practitioner we both know.” Barghast squared his shoulders, an unconscious defensive gesture on his part. Just a few seconds standing in his doorstep and she had peeled back his skin as if it was paper mache and was poking at some of his nerves. Damn practitioner. “Is there something I can help you with ma’am?” he asked, forcing his voice to stay pleasant. Her expression darkened. “Maybe. I don’t know. Wake him up and get him out of here.” He went over to Charlie and shook him awake gently. The boy stirred, opening his eyes, and saw Loras standing there. His face paled and he was out of bed and dressed before Barghast could pay him for the night’s services. Loras stepped inside the room and closed the door. “Good, we can talk in private.” Barghast gestured to the bed. “Feel free to have a seat.” She smiled tightly, arms crossed over her chest. “That’s alright - nothing personal but I’ll stand. I’m here because of Crow. I’m concerned about him and I think you might be the only one who can talk some sense into him.” Barghast frowned. There was a sinking feeling inside of his chest. Ever since they’d left the outpost before returning to Miffridge there had been a dark cloud around Crow, thicker than ever before. I should’ve had said something to him. I should’ve asked him what was wrong. Why didn’t I? “What do you mean talk sense into him?” he asked even though he dreaded the answer. “After you returned to the city I spoke with him in my office. He showed me what happened in Fruimont. Perhaps you know this but anyone with mana, whether it be a healer or a practitioner, can transfer memories and experiences, just as they can communicate telepathically. It’s a method we don’t use often when communicating but it does have its uses. The thing is the recipient shares the source’s memories and feelings, and experiences them as if they were their own.” Loras sighed, her shoulders slumping. For the first time since Barghast had known her, her composure slipped and he saw the exhausted woman who lived behind the uncompromising surface. “I think I’ll sit down after all if you don’t mind,” she said. Stepping carefully around Barghast so her shoulder did not touch his, she went to the edge of the bed and sat down. “I saw what happened in Fruimont but more than that I felt what he felt. He’s leaving Miffridge. Perhaps he’s already left.” Barghast couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What do you mean?” “You heard me. I didn’t stutter. He’s leaving Miffridge.” “Why?” Loras laughed coldly. “Men are so stupid. So blind. They refuse to accept what’s right in front them. And the bigger they are the more stupid they seem to be. Why do you think? For the last year he has been a part of D-Squad. He has fought by everyone’s side, watching your and everyone else's back. With Sara now the host of a demon he is the only squad member who hasn’t been convicted of a crime - has actually volunteered to be on the frontlines - and he doesn’t judge any of you. Yet he has been excluded, spat upon, pushed away for being a practitioner as so many of us are. After awhile that takes its toll on a person. You get tired of it, begin to resent the people you’ve risked your life to save. And I can understand how he feels. Whatever his true motives were for joining the squad they were selfless. You have no idea what he went through in that pit the High Priest threw him into.” She shuddered, her face turning pale. Barghast didn’t want to hear anymore of what she had to say but he was voiceless at the moment. It wasn’t like he could ask her to leave anyway - though he was bigger than her physically and could easily scoop her up and throw her out of the room on her ass - she had all the political power. And deep down inside he knew he needed to hear this as punishment for his own mistakes when it came to Crow - for not giving the practitioner the support he needed when Barghast could clearly see he was in pain. Now she looked at him, piercing him with the full intensity of her gaze. “You are the only one who he feels comfortable with...who helps him to feel any sort of happiness. He’s quite in love with you, though he’s too scared to admit it...just as I know you are with him. You dressing up the prostitute to look like him as if he was a rag doll only proves this. Now while I find the idea of you two together odd and a little disgusting it could be the difference between him staying and leaving.” Loras stood up and stepped in front of Barghast, looking up at him. Though she just came up to his chin Barghast could see she was completely unafraid of him. Anyone not intimidated by his size intimidated him. He actually found himself gulping. “While I’ve come to care for the boy immensely my reasons for being here are mostly political. I know he told you all the truth of why he’s here. For whatever reason he’s been chosen by a powerful entity to oppose the Scarlet Church. I don’t fully understand what this means but I do know we need Crow. I’ve never seen anyone who possesses such natural talent as he does, such power. For whatever reason most demons literally fear him. With a little more training and time he could become a force to be reckoned with. Unstoppable. He could turn the very tides of this war with the Scarlet Church. Unfortunately we don’t have that kind of time. While we know more than what we did we still don’t know what Damen Orlys intends to do. I doubt it ends at just finding C’thla a body.” She reached up, grabbing Barghast’s shoulders in her hands. Her grip was surprisingly firm, powerful. Strength and confidence radiated from this woman. Barghast couldn’t help but respect her and start to feel a little afraid of her now. “Go to him. Tell him how you feel. Be brave for once and forget your insecurities. We need him and he needs you. Without him I have a feeling we will lose.” ... Crow stood in the center of the living room of the tiny apartment he’d rented and tried to conjure up the feeling of missing it. He wouldn’t. It had never felt like home to him - not truly. He hadn’t felt he had a home since leaving Aunt Lena’s house and burning it down. No, this room had simply served has a place to keep his things. His books, his records, his posters. Things he wouldn’t be taking with him, wherever he went. And where would he go? He didn’t know. He had seen much in his time with the Stray Dogs but he hadn’t really gotten the time to enjoy it, to truly experience it. He’d been south, where the forgotten cities of the Old World slowly rotted beneath the blistering heat of the sun and the tribes of the Okanavi desert lived their superstitious, primitive lives; he’d traveled along the roads of the Javacial flatlands where it rained constantly and the ground was muddy and the farmland grew abundant crops. He’d somehow survived the Ubrios Waste, an experience he didn’t want to repeat ever again. The beach. I’ve never been to the beach. I’ve never seen the ocean. I bet it’s beautiful. He decided he would go to the Terheim Oceans where the fishing trade was. He could become a fisherman and save up enough money to get his own yacht. He could see himself now, helping a group of sweaty sailors tug a net over the side of a boat, the net full of squirming fish. When he had his own yacht he would set sail for the chain of unexplored islands, perhaps. Many had tried to reach it and failed, either coming back with nothing interesting to tell or not coming back at all. Perhaps he would be the first to discover them or he would die trying. Or he could fall in love with another sailor perhaps, settle down, and live a calm life. There were so many possibilities. For the first time in a long time he found himself looking forward to the future. A future that belonged to him and only him. Not to Ex’olku or the Eurchurch or anyone else. He packed what he would be taking with him in a single duffel bag. He wouldn’t be taking much: Just two outfits, an extra pair of shoes, a book or two to read while he traveled, and his bedroll. Everything else would be staying here; he didn’t care what happened to it. He had plenty of money saved up for food. If he needed more it wouldn’t be hard to find work. But first, before he left, he had to say goodbye to Barghast. Barghast was the only one he was reluctant to leave behind. It would be painful but he couldn’t leave their friendship hanging in the wind. Maybe when he’s finished with his sentence he could come find me. No, Crow wouldn’t hang his hope on such a thing but he could still see his friend one more time before he left. He was just sliding his arm through the strap of his duffel bag when the door of the apartment flew open. Crow whirled around, the words of a spell on his lips, when he came face to face with Barghast. The Okanavian stood in the doorway, his chest and shoulders heaving. Sweat dripped from his broad face. His hands were clenched into fists. He looked Crow over, looked at the duffel bag dangling from his arm. “So it’s true,” he said. “You really are leaving.” “Yes,” Crow said. “I was going to find you and say goodbye before I left.” “But how can you leave after everything, after Sara…? She still needs our help.” Crow shook his head. His stomach was full of butterflies. “There’s nothing I can do for her, Barghast - there’s nothing anyone can do for her. Besides I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting, tired of trying to take care of others. I’m tired of pain and death and being afraid. I turn eighteen in three days. Eighteen. I’ll officially be an adult but I grew up a long time ago. I’ve yet to live my own life.” And I can’t keep waiting around for you to tell me the words I want to hear - the words we’re both too scared to say. But if you said them...I’d stay. For you I’d stay. Barghast walked up to him so they were standing only inches apart and for a breathless moment Crow thought Barghast would finally come clean. The moment he dreamed of would finally happen. “I know you don’t feel like you belong with the squad,” Barghast said, “but you do. You are one of us.” Crow sighed. He couldn’t hold back the truth anymore. It was fighting to burst out of him, the fear of rejection be damned. “Barghast, it’s not just Lydia and Rake and Jack and Sara. It’s you most of all. For the last year we’ve been doing this dance, one too afraid to admit to the other how we feel, both of us afraid of being rejected. I’m telling you now I have feelings for you. I’m not going to try and pretend like I know what those feelings mean but they are there and they have been for a while. I’m hoping that if you tell me you feel the same then I might want to stay. Do you?” Barghast said, “I...” Crow watched him struggle, sifting through his feelings. He knew the truth but he wanted to hear the words. He needed the confirmation. He also knew Barghast wouldn’t say them. He wasn’t ready and perhaps he never would be. “I know the truth,” he said, “just as you do. But just knowing isn’t enough for me right now. I’m in too much pain. And I’m tired 0f waiting. Waiting for you to find your courage, waiting for relief. Waiting for the nightmare to end. I’m just tired of waiting. I’m leaving Miffridge. I’m going to the beaches of the Terheim Ocean. I’ve never seen the water and I’ve always wanted to. Perhaps, when your sentence is up and you’re a free man again, you’ll have the courage to tell me then what you don’t have the courage to tell me now.” Barghast nodded shakily. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out but a muffled sob. Tears leaked from his eyes. They hugged, holding each other tight, breathing in each others smell. Crow tried to imprint the memory in his brain, the feeling of Barghast’s arms around him, the safety he felt when they embraced. He wanted to remember the bittersweet moment, which was almost unbearably agonizing, later when he traveled the roads of the ‘scape. Then they parted arms and Crow walked away, the sound of Barghast’s sobbing growing more distant as he walked down the hallway. … Crow watched the gates of Miffridge close behind him. For a moment he caught a final fleeting glance of the city, the Eurchurch at its center, and then the gates closed with a final thud. He turned and faced the Daminion Highway, the asphalt unfolding before him like a spool of thread underneath a bright blue, cloudless sky. A gentle wind stirred his thick black hair. It was a beautiful sight, the the sight of an uncertain future. Not a future filled with death but life. Ex’olku spoke. This is not the future I have chosen for you. Fuck the future you’ve chosen for me. This is my life. You cannot escape this - I have chosen you for a purpose greater than yourself. We’ll see about that.
  3. Crow, Barghast, and Lydia trekked through the snow, three people huddled together to make one. The wind shrieked like a banshee, blowing the snow in their face. It slapped at them as if trying to hold them back and keep them from reaching the dead city. It was everything Crow could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. A steady aching pulse had formed in the center of his skull. The blood and snot running from his nose had turned into sickles. He was using the last of his mana reserves to keep the others warm with his hands. It was an agony within itself - he’d yet to push himself this far. If I don’t quit I’m going to put myself into a coma, he thought distantly. But if he stopped they would all freeze to death. He turned his head to look back at the Scarlet Church. The church and the cliff it stood on had become a dark, shadowy outline. Rake was back there, dead, and so was Sara. She might as well have been dead. Her body now belonged to a powerful demoness. And we just left her there. Abandoned her. But what else could I do? Crow hated himself for trying to make excuses for his own cowardly choices, for letting his fear get to him. He told himself he’d ran to get Barghast and Lydia to safety...but he could no longer be sure what the truth was. He was colder than he’d ever been, exhausted to the point he almost didn’t care if he died or not, and he was filthy and hungry. Crow was just beginning to wonder how they’d made it this far in the cold when he felt his foot slide out from underneath him. He went rolling down a steep decline of snow. Each time he rolled over felt like his bones were knocking into one another. Finally he came able to stop, aching and cold. It hurt to breathe. He wondered if he’d broken something. He thought he heard Barghast shout his name but not even the Okanavian’s deep rumble could be heard over the brutal winds. Coughing, Crow forced himself to sit up. He tried to stand, only getting halfway before his legs gave out from underneath him, putting him on his ass. Barghast reached him and lifted him easily to his feet. “You’re exhausted,” said the Okanavian. “You’ve used too much mana. Let me carry you the rest of the way.” Crow didn’t have the energy to raise his voice above the wind so he shook his head. He hated himself for looking so weak in front of Barghast. Lydia simply stood off to the side, watching them, a dazed expression frozen on her face. Crow ignored the pain and Barghast’s pleading expression and started walking into the wind. Crow didn’t want to be carried - he didn’t want to sink lower than he already had. It took them another hour to reach the dead city. The buildings were half buried in snow and ice. There’s history underneath our feet, Crow thought. Countless artifacts buried under all this ice and snow and we’re just walking over it all. Barghast grabbed the frozen folds of his robe suddenly, bringing him to a halt. Crow looked at him questioningly but the expression on Barghast’s face stopped him. The practitioner turned, trying to see what the Okanavian could see, but all he saw was blowing snow and the shadowy outline of the city. Then he did see something - a strange shape moving towards them. He squinted, trying to make out what it was. Then he heard something: A bark. Dogs? he thought. Something was racing towards them, taking shape, becoming larger. He realized what it was. A sled. There was more than one of them. He counted two. Two packs of dogs pulled the sleds with leather straps attached to their collars. They moved gracefully through the snow. Clouds of white powder puffed out behind him. The human shapes behind them were heavily garbed in seal skin; due to the hoods they wore it was impossible to tell what they looked like. Crow cold see they were armed with guns. He cursed silently. I don’t have enough mana to defend us adequately, he thought. He heard the sound of knives being unsheathed. Lydia stood in battle stance, blades at the ready. Barghast’s hands were clenched into fists. The people on the sleds - Crow counted six of them - tensed, exchanging looks. One of them grabbed a rifle and pointed it at the three Stray Dogs. Something inside Crow groaned, something tired and ancient. I can’t take anymore bloodshed. I’ve had my fill of it. “Wait,” he croaked. The inside of his throat felt as if it had been frozen with ice. He held his hands up in the air. “Please...we need help.” “You want to tell us what you’re doing all the way out here?” the figure sitting in front said. Judging from the broad shoulders and deep voice the speaker was a man. “We’re in trouble.” Crow hooked a gloved thumb over his shoulder. “We’re not really priests...we had to grab these for warmth. The Scarlet Church is back that way. We barely escaped there alive. Some of our friends are dead. We’re trying to get back to Fruimont.” He was shaking so bad his teeth chattered together. The man looked over their shoulder from the direction in which they’d come. “Mercius must be with you to have had made it this far,” he said after the moment. “We have room on the sleds.” He waved a hand at the sleds and the other figures shifted to make room. Crow nodded gratefully. “Thank you.” He glanced at Barghast and Lydia. We just might make it out of this alive after all, he thought. … The dogs were very fast, pulling at the sleds easily. They barked and yipped, heading in the direction of The Graveyard of Forgotten Things. The buildings stood like massive tombstones beneath a mercurial blue sky, silent and monolithic. Crow was ensconced between Lydia and Barghast. His back pressed up against the Okanavian’s chest. It was like sitting up against the trunk of an oak tree. He shifted in and out of consciousness, his head aching, his body spent. If not for Barghast he would have slipped off the sled into the snow. He was unsure of how much time had passed when the sled came to a stop. He nodded awake, looked around. They were surrounded by the frozen buildings. Everyone had begun to get off the sled, removing tarps and sliding the straps of bags over their shoulders. Crow tried to get up only to feel his legs give out from under him. Before he could fall in the snow, Barghast gently but firmly grabbed a hold of his arm to keep him steady. “Easy does it,” the Okanavian rumbled, nudging him towards the ancient ruin everyone was heading for. Crow staggered through the snow, up the slick stone steps, too cold and tired to care what dangers might lie ahead with these people. If they wanted to kill us they could have done so by now, he thought. Quite easily. The building had once been a library of some sort. There were rotting, dust-covered shells and books everywhere. Most of them had moldered into unrecognizable shapes from water damage. Five out of six of the Stray Dogs’ rescuers were working to create a fire. The leader of the group had pulled off his hood and was examining the Stray Dogs critically with dark almond-shaped eyes not so different from Lydia’s. It was at Barghast he studied the longest. “Barghast ‘Blackshot’ Unalaq,” he said, “I thought you recognized you. I would have thought Pope Drajen had hung you from the noose long ago by now.” Barghast looked mildly annoyed. “They gave me a deal: fight in the war against the Scarlet Church for a chance to live or get my head chopped over by an axe. You can guess the deal I took. And who in the Abyss are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” “My name is Duncan. My compatriots here...” He waved a gloved hand at the group sitting by the fire. “...are my fellow travelers.” “Do you have any idea what’s going on in Fruimont?” Crow asked. Duncan nodded gravely. “Why do you think we’re out here? When we found out that the city was being taken over we decided to come out here. We’ve braved the Wastes many times...figured we would have a better time out here in the middle of nowhere than in the city. Please, sit down by the fire and warm yourselves. We have food, too, plenty of it.” Crow sat down next to an older woman and held his hands out towards the fire. Out of the corner of his eyes she could feel her watching him intently. Her hair was pure white, her pale face etched with lines and wrinkles. Her eyes were a pale, ghostly blue. He kept his gaze focused on the fire. The practitioner felt uncomfortable - he got the feeling she wasn’t just looking at him but inside him. If this was the case what did she see? Duncan made introductions of the rest of his crew. The woman sitting next to Crow was Maggie. There was another younger woman named Cassandra. The other three men’s names were Abdul, Twig, and Dancer. Mumbles of greeting were exchanged, but mostly everyone stayed silent except for Duncan. He passed around seal jerky, explaining to the Stray Dogs there was a specific spot where you could find them. “It takes all day to catch them. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to be patient - and you have to be quick. But if you catch one they’ll eep youfed and warm.” The jerky was rubbery and strong tasting but Crow, Barghast, and Lydia ate without complaint. Duncan kept cutting pieces of seal meat and passing them around. Within minutes Crow felt pleasantly full and overwhelmingly exhausted. Duncan gave him a rolled up tarp to sleep on. Crow thanked him and was asleep almost as soon as he closed his eyes. … Crow snapped awake suddenly to find Maggie, the old woman, standing over him. She stood as still as a statue. Crow watched her, his heart pounding in his chest. Everyone else was asleep, their slumbering bodies gathered around the glowing embers of the fire. Outside the building the wind howled like a ghost. “What do you want?” Crow demanded. He sat up. Only the movement of Maggie’s eyes revealed she was a human being and not a statue. Then she sat down on the floor next to him. Her skin glowed with mana. I am a healer, she said, speaking with him telepathically. Duncan failed to mention this. I would speak aloud if I could but I have no tongue. Crow said nothing, waiting. I know who you are, she said. I have dreamt of you. I know the difficult path that lies ahead of you. I can feel the pain you’re in. Crow looked down at his feet. Sara’s face flashed before his mind; he’d done his best not to think about her but there was no escaping the guilt he felt. “You know nothing of the pain I’m in.” Maybe not. But I know about anger and self-pity. I’ve been angry for most of my life. I also know what it’s like to have an addiction. Her lips curled into a smile at the look of surprise on Crow’s face. In your case it’s power. I know you absorb the lifeforce of demons and use it to fuel your power. “And you’re here to judge me, is that it?” Crow’s voice was tight with anger. Not to judge you - I have no right. No one does, except maybe for Mercius. My only intention is to warn you. If you keep continuing down the path you’re on you will be no better than the High Priest of the Scarlet Church or Pope Drajen. Absolute power corrupts. Crow scoffed. “You’re a little late to be making your point now. I tried to defeat Damen Orlys and failed. Thanks to him I’ve lost my friend...she’s now the vessel of a powerful demon. Therefore whatever Ex’olku had in mind for me was for not. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going back to sleep.” … With a shout at the dogs, Duncan brought the sled to a stop before the gates of Fruitmont. Several guards stood watch. Each were armed with rifles. The biggest one in the group, a middle-aged man with a greying red beard approached the truck, his breath misting the air. The hood of his jacket was rimmed with fur. Duncan got up, patting the head of one of the dogs, and grinned cheerfully at the sour-faced Wraith. “Good afternoon, sir. Cold, isn’t it?” The Red Wraith grunted and peered over the sled, studying Crow, Barghast and Lydia. The other scavengers had stayed behind in The Graveyard of Forgoteen Things. “What all have we got here?” Each word spoken sent fresh stabs of agony through Crow’s head. It took every bit of concentration he had to maintain the glamour-spell. At this point all he could do was alter Barghast and Lydia’s features, as well as his own, and their clothes. They were now dressed almost exactly as Duncan was: like scavengers who went out into the Ubrios Wastes everyday to recover artifacts from the Old World. To Duncan, the Red Wraith said, “I’m going to need you to show us what you have in the back.” Duncan nodded, his green eyes twinkling, and stepped out of the vehicle. He’s got a great poker face, Crow thought. Snow crunched beneath Duncan’s feet as he led the Red Wraith around the back of the truck. The other two Wraiths guarding the gate watched the sled closely, fingers resting on the trigger of their rifles. Crow felt Barghast shift nervously underneath him. He thought he heard the rustle of a tarp being thrown back but he couldn’t be sure with the ringing in his ears. I don’t know how much longer I can do this, Crow thought. Hurry… He heard the crunching of boots on snow again, and Duncan saying, “Thanks you have a great day, sir.” Duncan climbed back into the sled. “We’re cleared.” Lydia let out a sigh of relief. The sound of metal sliding against metal hurt Crow’s ears as the guards pulled the gate back and waved Duncan to drive through. Once they were through the gate, Crow let the glamour-spell drop. Once more he and the others were dressed in their Scarlet Priest robes. His armpits felt gritty with old, dried sweat. Right now he wanted nothing more than to be away from this city, away from the north, bath, and a place to lay his head down. But there was one more thing he had to do. I can’t leave here without Benedik, not without trying to get him to come with me. Crow didn’t know why he felt Benedik was so important. Perhaps he wanted to find some way to redeem himself for what had happened to Rake and Sara. No matter how much he tried to tell himself what happened wasn’t his fault, not directly anyway, he still couldn’t help but feel responsible. I was supposed to kill Damen Orlys - I was supposed to stop him from succeeding with whatever he was planning. I failed. “Can you stop the sled?” Crow asked. They were now driving through some backroad. “Sure,” Duncan said. “Where are you going?” Barghast demanded, as Crow jumped off the sled. “I’m going to try and get to Benedik Matthiesen,” said Crow. “See if I can talk him into coming with us. He’s too important to just leave behind. He could have valuable information to give to the Eurchurch.” At least that’s what I’m telling myself to justify this, he thought. “You just focus on getting back to Jack,” said Crow. “If I’m not back within an hour of you getting on the bus just leave without me.” I can’t believe I just said that. I can’t believe I’m even thinking about doing this. Barghast swore and rose to his feet. “What are you doing?” Crow and Lydia said in unison. Lydia had moved upright in her seat, her eyes wide. It was the first sign of emotion she’d shown since they’d fled from the Scarlet Church. “The last two times we got split up I thought you were dead,” Barghast said to Crow. “That’s not happening again. And don’t you try and argue with me either, practitioner. I just hope this Benedik is worth it.” He glanced back at Lydia. “Don’t leave without us.” “I won’t,” she said before scooting over enough to close the truck door. Standing side by side on the sidewalk, Crow and Barghast watched as Duncan’s sled was dragged out of sight by the pack of dogs. “Do you even know where he is?” Barghast asked as they turned down an alley. “He has an apartment where he lives with his family,” Crow said. “That’s where we’re going.” “And if it’s guarded?” “Sneak past the guards with a glamour spell. And if they try to stop us you can knock them out. You were the one who decided to come with me even though I told you to stay on the bus.” Even as Crow spoke he could feel his mind racing a million miles a second. It was hard to speak, hard to breathe. His eyes burned with exhaustion. “Stop for a second.” Barghast’s grip on his shoulder was gentle but firm. As always his touch sent a wave of reassurance and longing through Crow. When Barghast touched him or looked at him the world seemed to steady itself again, to find reason when otherwise Crow could never find any. Barghast was the only one who could make him stop, make him calm down. He was the only one who could make things right. “What happened to you down in that pit?” “What happened?” For the first time Crow thought about what happened in the catacombs: falling into the pit full of severed body parts, drowning in them, the taste of blood on his tongue; the woman he killed with the meat cleaver, each impact racing up his arm as he brought it down over and over; Sanoe’s death; the demon he’d confronted at the end of it all; the strange dream-like state he’d found himself in, which had felt so real. And you were there, he wanted to tell Barghast. You were there and Sara was too. But neither of you were as I know you now. You were like replacements for the real thing, my mind attempting to tell me something was wrong. And the demon posed as my aunt… The words almost left his mouth but then he remembered the terror he felt, and the guilt he was feeling now over Rake and Sara. The exhaustion. The fact they were still in this nightmare, surrounded by Red Wraiths. They had escaped the Scarlet Church and somehow they’d survived the Ubrios Waste through luck - but they weren’t safe yet. Will I ever be truly safe again? “I did what I had to do to get to you,” Crow said. He swallowed and winced - the inside of his throat felt like ground meat. “Maybe sometime I’ll tell you about it. But right now is not the time.” … The smell of frying bacon made Benedik’s mouth water. Tilde stood at the stove, frying bacon. He listened to the sizzling coming from the pan, the quiet whispering of the children coming in from the living room. How good it felt to be at home, the only place where things were familiar. Except for Sheathia. She’s still asleep. He glanced anxiously in the direction of the hallway. Almost reluctantly he came to a decision. She’s been asleep long enough. It’s time for her to come out of the room and spend time with the kids. We both need to spend time with the kids. He set his coffee mug down on the table and got up from his chair. He went to the end of the hallway and gently opened the door. His wife was curled up in the middle of the bed, her head turned away from him. She slumbered silently, her bare feet peeking out from underneath the blankets. She had very tiny feet. Pristine feet. He went over to her and gently took her foot in his hand, feeling the smoothness of the flesh. The softness of it. Inevitably his thoughts turned to Loras. More and more the moments in which he thought of Loras increased, especially when he was around his wife. Though he was married to Sheathia and loved her more than words could describe, there was a part of Benedik that was still very much in love with Loras - and always would be. There had been many times over the years in which they laid in this bed, naked and sweaty from just having made love. Their romance, while short-lived, had been filled with a ferocity, a kinetic energy that could feel like a lifetime. Even as a younger more eager man, Benedik knew there was no hope he could ever marry and have kids and settle down with Loras. There was too much fire in her soul, too much rage over what had happened to her husband and child. He knew she loved him but not in the way he wanted. Sheathia on the other hand was a completely different woman. Quiet, soft-spoken...but there was a great strength beneath it all that was easy to overlook...and underestimate. If I can just rouse her long enough to eat something I won’t be so worried... He bent down and kissed the heel of her foot. She stirred, groaning. She looked at him with her bright green eyes. “What are you doing?” He kissed her foot again, grinning mischievously. She giggled, pulling her foot away. “Stop, that tickles - you need to shave. What time is it?” “Well past noon. Tilde is making brunch. I thought you might like to come out for breakfast and join us.” Her eyes darkened. He remembered the first day he met her - at a dinner party among colleagues it was - staring into those enchanting eyes. Where Loras’ beautiful brown eyes had been full of vengeful fire and emotion Sheathia’s had been full of gentle yet resounding laughter. Up until now she had never been one to fall into depression. “I’m not hungry,” Sheathia said in a tight voice that said she didn’t want to be bothered further. “You need to eat something. You’ll feel better if you do. You’ve been asleep for too long. And I’m sure the kids want to see their mother.” Her head fell towards her lap and he knew she felt ashamed. “May the Light forgive me,” she said, her voice soft and thick with emotion at the same time. “I’ve shut myself in here this whole time while they’ve been...How bad is it out there?” “Not good,” he said. “It’s getting worse by the day and I’m too cowardly to do anything about it.” She raised her head to look at him. Tears were gathering at the corners of her eyes. “I’ve been a terrible wife and mother.” He went over to her and took her hand. “Not anymore than I’ve been a terrible father and mayor. Now it’s time to leave this room and love your children.” She nodded. “I’ll be out in a moment. Moments later, as Tilde was getting out the silverware, Sheathia came into the kitchen dressed, her hair gleaming with moisture. She looked more like herself, not the miserable wraith that had spent most of the last month in the bedroom. Elise let out a delighted little squeal that brought a smile to Sheathia’s lips and hurled into her arms. “You’re awake, you’re awake - it’s about time!” she said. Even Nicholas, who was always trying to act more mature than what he was, went to his mother of his own volition and hugged her. Kissing the top of their heads, Sheathia peeked cautiously at Benedik. It was impossible to mistake the look of relief on her face, as if she expected them to be resentful of her absence over the last month. Children hold a sacred, unshakable love for their mother that a father could never begin to comprehend, Benedik thought, taking a sip from his coffee. Seeing his whole family standing together in the same room eased the constant tension he’d been feeling over the last month. Sheathia and Tilde glanced at each other across the table, their eyes connecting. Sheathia’s eyes spread into a small smile, her eyes glinting in the morning light streaming through the window above the sink. Something was passing between them, a way of communicating only women possessed with each other. Perhaps Sheathia was thanking Tilde for watching the kids while she shut herself away from the world. Benedik observed this and felt his heart warm a little more. This is my family, he thought. And by the Light they are beautiful. His thoughts were interrupted by a frantic rapping at the door. As if severed by a blade, the contentment Benedik had spent the last couple of minutes soaking up was drowned out by a sudden feeling of dread. A sort of premonition. The children were unaware but Sheathia and Tilde seemed to sense it too for they glanced anxiously at the door. Sheathia’s grip on her fork tightened and Tilde was wringing a dish rag in her hands. Benedik muttered something about getting the door. As he crossed the living room on legs that felt like stilts he told himself it was nothing to be concerned about - it could be nothing. They were all just overreacting. He opened the front door and felt his heart plummet. Standing just on the other side of the door was Crow Hardy, the strange young practitioner that had visited Benedik in his office the other night. He wore a Scarlet Priest uniform, which looked a little too big on him, the hood pulled up to hide his face. Without his eye makeup he looked younger, though there were dark bags underneath his eyes and there was a sweaty sheen to his skin. Benedik looked from Crow to the biggest man he’d ever seen in his life. Benedik stood six foot two and had to look up at the man to meet his eyes; next to him Crow looked like a toy doll. The man was dark skinned with dark brown eyes. His face was covered with vicious scars that looked as if they’d been done with a knife. If he were to try and break in here to get to my family the fight would be over before it even began, he thought. He glanced back at Crow, the source of his dread but also the only source of reassurance. “I was hoping I’d never see you again,” Benedik said. The practitioner gave him a bitter smile. “Sorry to disappoint. We don’t have a lot of time - we need to talk.”
  4. Crow stopped, leaning against the wall of the corridor. He was dizzy with euphoria. The demon’s lifeforce flowed like honey through his veins, making his skin glow. How much did I take? The rush he felt was even more powerful than when he had fought Yov’olbh. Just then he heard two voices coming down the hallway towards him. Two Scarlet Priests were heading in his direction. Before they could see him, Crow appeared to vanish into the wall, but really it was only a glamour spell. Crow followed close behind the two Scarlet Priests, making sure to stick to the shadows. With the help of the dimly lit corridors and the glamour spell it wasn’t too difficult to remain unseen. For a moment he wondered if he should take advantage of their ignorance to his presence and take them out. In the end he decided not to. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He had a difficult enough task trying to find his squad in a place this large. The priests came to a four way intersection, the hallways cutting both left and right. Leisurely they turned right. Crow waited until he was sure they were out of sight before peeking around the corner. Although the priests had turned right, instinct told him he needed to cut left. If I don’t want to get caught I need to keep moving. The corridor eventually changed so that he felt he was in the catacombs again. Electric lights turned to torches and the walls turned into rough rock. He could hear someone pounding on something as if trying to get someone to hear them. He came to a black door not unlike the one he’d encountered in the catacombs before going into the demon’s lair. Again he heard someone slapping at it from the other side and a muffled voice. Frowning he pressed his ear to the door. He could hear the voice enough to know who it belonged to. Sara! He had to bite his tongue to keep from shouting, Hold on Sara, I’m coming! It took all the strength he had to turn the wheel and pull the door open. She tumbled out of the room with a cry, her face streaked with tears. He bent down and took her into her arms. “Oh Crow,” she breathed, holding onto him tightly. “Thank Mercius. I thought you were dead. How did you make it out?” “It’s a long story,” he said, helping to her feet. “Are you okay?” “I’m not hurt or anything. The High Priest drugged me and threw me in there to be the vessel for some demon.” Crow glanced at the sarcophagus in the center of the room and shuddered. “C’mon we need to get moving. Can you walk?” She nodded shakily. “They’re holding the others in a cell somewhere here in the dungeons. I can’t remember how to get there though.” “That’s okay, we’ll find them one way or another - here take this.” He gave her the machete. Together they began walking down the hallway, Crow in front, Sara taking up the rear. Crow waved a hand, signalling her to stop when he heard the sound of voices. The pressed themselves flat against the wall, neither one daring to breathe as a Scarlet Priest passed by them, whistling, pushing a trolley with three bowls of mystery slop on it. Had the priest turned his head there was no way he wouldn’t have seen them. “He’s probably going to the cellblock where they’re holding Lydia and the others,” Sara said when the priest was out of earshot. “Agreed.” They followed behind the priest through the next turn. Crow remained tense. There was no telling when another priest would come along and sound the alarm. At long last the Scarlet Priest turned and pushed the trolley through a doorway. Crow and Sara waited until the Scarlet Priest came back through the doorway. With his heart thundering in his chest Crow seized him from behind and held him in place while Sara came from the front, jamming the machete to the hilt in the priest’s stomach. The Scarlet Priest made a wet gurgling sound muffled by Crow’s hands and then went still. Crow dropped him to the ground and grabbed the set of keys looped around his belt. His fingers were shaking with anticipation at the idea of seeing Barghast. “Who’s there?” Lydia cried from inside the cell. Crow couldn’t hide his grin as Sara and he stepped around the corner. “Surprise, surprise. We’re here to break you out of jail.” Rake, who had been looking down at his feet, quickly raised his head. “Sara!” Lydia cried, letting out a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob; she strained against her restraints, trying to get as close to the bars as she could. Barghast looked up slowly, his shoulders hunched like a child’s. Then his eyes widened when he saw Crow and he rose to his feet but said nothing. It took longer than Crow would have liked to find the correct key for the cell door. He pulled the door open and freed Lydia first. She ran to Sara and planted a kiss on her mouth, biting back a sob. “How in the world are you alive?” Rake asked him. Crow shrugged grimly, inserting the key into the lock of Rake’s shackles. “Guess I’m just hard to kill.” The cutthroat frowned. “Crow, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the way I treated you.” “It doesn’t matter,” was all Crow could think of to say. At long last he reached Barghast. The Okanavian held his massive arms out. Crow grinned up at him. “Are you alright? They didn’t rip your tongue out, did they?” He dropped the shackles onto the floor. Barghast seized the practitioner in his arms and crushed Crow to his chest. Crow didn’t try to push him away but wrapped his arms around Barghast’s waist - or at least tried to. “I thought I’d never see you again,” said Barghast. “Why? Why did you bother coming for us? You could’ve gotten out of here.” “Because you’re my friend,” said Crow. “You don’t leave the ones you care about behind - not ever.” “Are you okay?” the Okanavian asked, looking Crow up and down. “You’re covered in blood.” “It’s not mine - most of it isn’t anyway. As far as whether or not I’m okay, ask me again when we’re on the bus heading back to Miffridge. We have to get going, okay? We’re not safe yet.” “How do we get out of here?” Lydia asked when everyone had gathered in the center of the room. She looked to Rake. “Do you remember how we got to the throne room?” Rake nodded grimly. “I do. Beyond that I don’t know how we can get out of here. This place is huge. Crow, you weren’t kept in a cell. Can you remember anything useful about how to get out of here?” “Not much. They kept me in this room. But I can tell you one thing: After the shit I’ve been through I’ll die trying to get out of here.” “Weapons,” said Lydia. “We don’t have any weapons. How in the Abyss are we going to break out of this place?” “From what I saw there are no Red Wraiths inside,” said Crow. “I asked Damen Orlys specifically and he said he didn’t need any. We’re in the middle of the Ubrios Wastes so the chances of anyone escaping are slim. The nearest ghost city is miles away - I couldn’t tell from the room because of all the snow. As far as the Scarlet Priests go they don’t seem to be armed with guns. They might have blades though but still...” “I’ve got my bare hands,” Barghast growled, cracking his knuckles. “These are the only two weapons I need - it’s been a long time since I’ve snapped some necks.” “We need to collect proper clothing too,” said Rake. “We’ll freeze to death if we don’t.” “Let’s deal with this shit as we get to it,” Lydia said impatiently. “I’d feel a lot better if we were on the move than standing around having a fucking committee meeting.” “Agreed,” Sara said. … They moved in a single file line, Barghast at the front, Crow taking up the rear. Sara still had the machete. There were no words to describe how good it felt to be on the move again. Now he had reunited with the others Crow didn’t feel so helpless - not like he had in the catacombs. He wasn’t under the illusion they would make it out of this alive: Even if they made it out of the Scarlet Church they would still have to trek through the Ubrios Waste. The chances of reaching the ghost city before the cold killed them were slim to none. And even if they managed that they would still have to find a way into Fruimont and then to the bus. To die fighting is better than to die doing nothing at all, Crow thought. Peeking around the corner of the next turn, Barghast held up a large palm, and then his second and third finger. Two are coming, he mouthed. A second later two Scarlet Priests stepped into view. Barghast and Rake moved quickly, grabbing one Scarlet Priest each and snapping their necks. Barghast let out a grunt of satisfaction, spitting on the corpse before him. Within seconds the two priests were stripped naked. Since the robes were closer to their size, Crow and Sara pulled them on. They appeared to be insulated. The extra layer would keep them warm and the boots would help when trekking through the snow. They went like this through the next four hallways, crossing four more priests. The Stray Dogs dispatched them before they could raise alarm. Soon they were all dressed in the robes - even Barghast had one that was close enough to his size. This is too easy, Crow thought. Either that or you’ve blessed me for once Ex’olku. If the entity had heard he did not respond. With Rake now leading the way they came to the throne room. Damen Orlys was not sitting on his throne. There was no one in sight. “Where is he?” Lydia said in a hushed voice. “Where is everyone? I don’t mean to be negative but I don’t like this? We’ve hardly bumped into anyone.” Crow didn’t offer an answer. He was too busy scanning the walls and corners of the room, searching for the signs of a glamour spell. He didn’t get the sense there was hidden eyes watching him...but he did sense a trap. The question was where it was. “There’s nothing in here,” said Sara eagerly. “We should keep moving.” Crow spotted the trap door he’d been pushed through, and on the wall next to it, the lever that opened it. Seeing it, remembering the way his stomach clenched as he fell, sent chills up his spine. What had followed in the catacombs had been worse. He wondered how long they’d been in this place? It couldn’t have been more than a few days. It felt like a lifetime. Ex’olku why did you pick me? he thought. What did you see in me that made you think I could take on this mission? This isn’t a mission for a seventeen-year-old. This isn’t a mission for anyone. If Ex’olku cared enough to answer it would always be with the same reply, a riddle. Ex’olku was incapable of giving a straight answer. Another lever opened the doors to the throne, revealing the long carpeted hallway which Crow and Damen had walked through earlier, with its high vaulted ceilings and many altars. Somehow he could feel they were almost there - almost out of the Scarlet Church anyway. Perhaps Ex’olku had blessed them after all, sent them some sort of protection. Crow would make sure to offer the entity thanks later by visiting the Eurchurch chapel if they all got home in one piece. If it wasn’t for Ex’olku he never would have defeated the Second Caste demon. If it wasn’t for Ex’olku I never would have been in this situation in the first place. But the blessings it seemed, quickly came to an end. The appearance of escape from this awful abattoir was nothing more than an illusion. At the end of the long chamber was the entrance out to the Ubrios Waste and standing before the entrance was Damen Orlys and a small army of fifteen priests. They fanned out before the double doors, blocking the path. The High Priest smiled at them like an opponent who knew he’d already won the game. Crow hated his smile. The doors leading outside of the church were open, showing the edge of the cliff on which it sat and the dark outline of the ghost city some miles away. Flurries of snow and icy gusts of wind blew into the church, ruffling the robes of the Scarlet Priests but if they noticed the cold they showed no signs of it. “I thought I killed you,” Damen said to Crow. “You and everyone else,” Crow said with a sigh. He found he was not afraid. He was too tired to be afraid. He’d done nothing but fight for the past several hours and wanted the fighting to stop. He wanted to go to sleep and not be bothered. If he was going to have any peace he would have to fight for it. The endless cold at the High Priest’s back was inviting. Far too inviting. “So you got past the demon,” Damen said to Crow, as if the others did not exist. “I did,” said the practitioner. “He screamed like a bitch. I absorbed his power then cut off his head with this machete.” He pointed at the machete Sara was holding. Damen’s blue eyes flickered to Sara briefly. “Hmmm. I guess C’thla wasn’t interested in you. Lucky for you in some ways. Her attempt to hijack you would have most likely ended with your body torn apart anyway. That’s what happened to the other girls.” Sara said nothing. Crow frowned. Her expression was blank...dreamlike. Something wasn’t right about her but Crow couldn’t say what it was at a single glance. It didn’t matter, there was no time to ponder on it now. “I don’t know why the lot of you would bother trying to escape,” Damen said, grinning. His skin and eyes shimmered as he drew on his mana. “The Ubrios Waste would just kill you. I wouldn’t have to say a single spell. But what would be the fun in that.” He began to levitate in the air, fire balls taking form in his hands. “Too bad you won’t live long enough to learn this trick, Agent of Ex’olku!” Crow swore, shaping his mana into a forcefield a fraction of a second before the twin fireballs hit. He felt the impact travel up his arms and shoulders. Everyone was springing into action around him but he could only worry about Damen. The other priests didn’t have weapons because in the end they didn’t need weapons. Damen was a weapon. Crow dove for cover behind one of the alters as more balls of fire flew at him. Already he could smell smoke. The chamber was filled with the deafening sounds of people fighting. There was no time to see how the others fared. Like a bird of prey the High Priest swooped over Crow’s head, unleashing spell after spell. He flew as easily as a bird might fly. All Crow could do was run and use protective spells, wishing more than anything at the moment he too had the ability to fly. But levitation was something very few practitioners lived long enough to learn how to do. It took training and discipline. Many practitioners died from brain damage as a consequence from excessive use of mana - just as Aunt Lena had died from a brain tumor after all the illnesses and injuries she’d healed. Of course thanks to the Primordial Caste Damen Orlys had had centuries to perfect this skill. “Is this the best you’ve got?” Damen taunted, shouting over the commotion within the church. “Is this all I get from an Agent of Ex’olku?” “You’re the one flying around,” Crow grunted. “If I’m so easy why don’t you come down and fight me on my level?” Damen chuckled. “As you wish.” … After the day Barghast spent playing spy and however long he’d been chained up and imprisoned, it felt good to be in the thick of things. Even if it was for the last time. There was nothing quite like the rush of adrenaline that came with the presence of danger, the satisfying sound of snapping bone when he grabbed one of the priests by their necks. It was so easy to snap the bone, like breaking sticks. Was I ever meant for anything else? he wondered. Am I capable of doing anything else but this? Stealing, killing, and fighting? One of them jumped on his back with a shout, trying to cling onto him like a mosquito. Brave but stupid. Barghast grabbed the priest by the back of his robes and brought his back down on his knee. The crack of bone was like the snap of kindling. He dropped the paralyzed priest to the ground. A single stomp to the face turned the head into crushed skull, spilling out the pulpy contents inside. The two priests coming towards him stopped, exchanged frightened glances, and then went running for the entrance of the church; apparently they’d rather brave the cold then stick around for the fight. Very smart. Barghast had a moment to glance at the others. Rake and Lydia were fighting side by side, holding their own against three or four of the priests. None of the priests seemed to be very good fighters. The biggest danger of this place was the isolation, the fact it was in a frozen tundra in which there was no shelter for miles, and the High Priest himself. He spotted Sara crouching behind one of the pillars. There was a confused, dreamy expression on her face. Barghast frowned. What in the Abyss was she doing just standing around like that? He was distracted by a bright flash of light. He turned his head just in time to see a flash of silver light shoot from the High Priest’s hands. The light spun like a boomerang, heading straight for Crow. Crow managed to lunge out of the way just in time to avoid it. The streak of silver light cut through the pillar where Crow had just been standing. The pillar fell in an explosion of rubble. The explosion caught Crow and sent him sprawling to the floor. The falling pillar groaned, crashing into the next one, making the ground shake. If the bastard keeps going like this he’ll bring the whole building down around their heads, Barghast thought. Crow was trying to get up but kept falling back down. Blood was starting to pour from his nose. A gash had opened up on his cheek from where rubble had cut it. Damen was strolling leisurely towards him. Grinding his teeth in anger Barghast charged silently at the High Priest. He hated it when bigger people picked on the smaller. … Everything hurt. Crow kept trying to get to his feet but every time he tried his body would fail him and he would find himself back on the ground. I’m dead, he thought. I got this far only to die now. “This time you’ll stay dead,” the High Priest said, sneering down at him. “Fuck you,” Crow said. It was all he had, his last shred of defiance. I am such a failure. Two massive hands suddenly seized the High Priest from behind and flung him headfirst into one of the pillars. Damen crashed into it and then fell to the ruined floor. “Pick on someone your own size,” Barghast said, gently pulling Crow to his feet. “Take cover somewhere,” he told the practitioner. “I’ve got this.” Crow shook his head and straightened, wincing. Everything everywhere ached. He felt as if someone was driving the sharp end of a hammer into his skull. “Take care of the others.” Before the High Priest could fully rise to his feet Crow summoned his mana. A hundred flashes of white light seemed to explode from Crow’s body and gather around Damen, who was just now rising to his feet. Crow held out his hand before him, clenching it into a fist. His expression was grim, the mouth downturned into a frown, his eyes narrowed so that only a glimmer of white showed. When he opened his fist the shards of lights shot towards the High Priest, slicing through the air. They embedded themselves in his robes, sticking to him. Crow spread his arms and one by one the shards of light exploded, making Damen dance on his feet before collapsing on his back. “I’ve never seen you do that one before,” said Barghast. “I doubt he’ll be down for long.” Crow spat blood onto the ground. “Now would be a good time to leave.” “STOP!” a voice shouted, filling the chamber. Everyone stopped. Scarlet Priests lay either unconscious or dead on the floor; there were only three more left standing. Lydia had a split lip and her left eye was beginning to swell shut. The other bulged in surprise. “Sara? What are you doing?” Sara stood in the center of the group. She had an arm wrapped around Rake and was pressing the blade of the machete to his throat. Rake had grown very still. If he was afraid his eyes didn’t show it. Crow looked from him to Sara and felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Her eyes were no longer blue but silver. Crow felt his heart plummet. A realization hit Crow like a bucket of cold water. I was so worried about getting to the others I never checked to see if she was bitten… Sara was possessed. Lydia seemed to come to the same conclusion for her face drained of all color. “Oh no,” was all she said. Crow had never seen her look so devastated, so vulnerable. “Sara...” “Kill them,” said a triumphant voice. The High Priest had risen into a crouching position. Blood stained his lips but he looked very much alive. “Kill them, C’thla.” Her eyes flickered to Damen for a moment. She had the eyes of a fox. “As you wish,” she said with a slight nod, and then drew the blade of the machete across Rake’s throat. Crow knew he should move, do something, but he could only watch as Rake’s body spasmed, blood jetting from his throat in an endless torrent. It was in this moment Crow knew there was no chance of getting through to Sara. He had to do something...he had to get Lydia and Barghast out of here. And he would have to leave Sara behind. “Barghast, grab Lydia and get out of the church,” Crow said. “Now.” Barghast didn’t object. He simply moved around to Lydia and began to drag her away. None of the Scarlet Priests tried to stop him. Lydia tried to tear herself away from Barghast but the Okanavian simply picked her up and began carrying her towards the door. Crow ran after them. Before he could reach the door, C’thla said, “Oh and Crow?” Crow couldn’t help but stop and turn to look at her. She had Sara’s face and had spoken with Sara’s voice but she did not speak in Sara’s voice. She knew his name because Sara knew his name. It all felt so unreal, like a dream. How could things get any worse from this point? “We have unfinished business, you and I,” she said, dropping Rake’s useless body to the ground. “We aren’t finished. Go and live while you can.” He fled. C’thla stood at the top of the steps leading into the Scarlet Church and watched the Agent of Ex’olku and his friends flee for their lives. In the very back of her mind she could hear Sara’s muted cries as she screamed in frustration. It was strange seeing everything with these new human eyes: to see the sky again, the sun poking out through darkening clouds, the arctic beauty of the snow around her, the chill on her flesh. She pressed her hands against her cheeks and realized she could not feel the flesh because her fingers and hands were numb. She had meant what she said. She was not done with Crow Hardy. The cold might kill the other two but she sensed with certainty he would live. She sensed a particular fire inside of him, one that could not be so easily dimmed. He had killed Yov’olbh who was nowhere near as powerful as she but also not a wraith; he had also defeated Ed’threh, who ranked 5th amongst her cabal. And Ex’olku helped him to do it. He has taken a particular interest in this boy that he did not take with the other two Agents. The idea of a future confrontation frightened C’thla a little but more than anything it excited her. Until we meet again.
  5. The woods were still and silent, the trees standing tall like vigil guardians. Crow moved through them, snow crunching beneath his feet. Two dead rabbits dangled from a piece of cord strapped to his belt. As soon as he got home he would skin them and prepare them for stew. After dinner he would give Aunt Lena a bath and get her ready for bed. For almost a year it had been this way, day in and day out. He got up and fixed Aunt Lena breakfast and put the record player on - he always made sure to play songs he knew she liked: Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, or Patsy Cline. Johnny Cash was her favorite though. Playing music was one of the few ways to get her to calm down when she was throwing one of her fits. He would read to her, sitting by the bed and then he would go downstairs to do his chores. His life had become a repetition of tasks all geared towards keeping Aunt Lena and him alive. Though town was just two miles away they were isolated, alone. The only time Crow went into town was when he absolutely had to. He loathed to leave Aunt Lena alone for long periods of time as she’d started trying to hurt herself lately and even more he loathed to brave the disgusted looks and whispers the townspeople threw his way when they saw him coming. Within the blink of an eye he’d been thrown into adulthood. He’d stopped telling himself it wasn’t fair long ago. No one else was going to help Aunt Lena. The town healer had only visited once to tell him Aunt Lena would die - there was nothing she could do, nothing she would do was what she really meant. Crow had no choice but to step up whether he wanted to or not,. Aand Aunt Lena was all he had left, all he’d ever had. Yet with each passing day, week, and month he wished more and more death would take her. He was ashamed of these feelings but he didn’t know how much longer he could go on like this. At long last he reached the wood’s clearing, coming out just beside the chicken coup. He followed his footsteps still imprinted in the snow up to the back door of the white cedar and pine house and let himself into the kitchen. He set the dead rabbits in the pail he kept by the door. He would skin them in a moment but first he wanted to check on his aunt. He went through the dining room to the parlor and climbed up the steps. Aunt Lena’s bedroom was at the end of a long hallway just past his bedroom. He crept carefully down the hallway so as not to wake her in case she was asleep. He peeked inside. She was laying on her side in her four poster canopied bed. Her back was turned to him. It seemed she was asleep and had not woken up since he’d left. He let out a sigh of relief. He went back down the stairs to the kitchen and began the process of skinning the rabbits. With a large, sharp knife he made a long vertical slit in their bellies. With one and then the other he pulled off the skin and then the legs. Two of the most important things Aunt Lena had taught him was how to make rabbit traps and skin what he caught. It was a good survival skill to use year round but it was especially important during the winter months when temperatures tended to plummet below zero. Within minutes he had the rabbits fully skinned and ready to cook. He’d just finished tossing the remains in the trash can and wiping down the counters when he heard the sound of shattering glass from upstairs. “Shit,” he said. He slammed the knife down on the counter. Wiping his hands with a dish towel, he ran into the parlor and took the stairs three at a time. He found his Aunt Lena sprawled on the floor. She had broken a pottery vasce and was now cutting her arms with it. “I want to die!” she wailed; blood was streaming from the cuts. “It hurts, my head always hurts! I’m tired of the pain! I want to dieeeee!” Crow went to her and tried to pry the shard of glass from her fingers without cutting her further orand cutting himself. It wasn’t easy. Though the tumor had affected her mind it didn’t stop Aunt Lena from fighting. When she threw her fits she could be very strong and violent. “Let go!” Crow shouted. The glass was biting into his fingers and palm, cutting them both. Blood was dripping on her nightgown. “Leave me alone!” she wailed. “Let me die!” “Get back in bed,” he said. With bloody fingers he started scooping up shards of the glass. He was bleeding everywhere - they both were. With a howl Aunt Lena threw herself at him, slapping at his back. “Get out! Get out, get out, GET OUT!” In the end Crow had to wrestle her over to the bed and sit her down. Scooping the glass back up he went into the bathroom and threw it in the bathtub along with the remains of the bvase. He cleaned and bandaged his cut hands. When he went back into the bedroom to do the same with Aunt Lena she seemed to have calmed down. Her cheeks were flushed from crying. He led her into the bathroom, cleaned the wounds, and bandaged them up. With a sponge and a bucket of a soapy water he cleaned up the blood and helped her change into a fresh nightgown. He put on Otis Redding for her on the record player for her. After several minutes Aunt Lena seemed to come back into herself. “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” she said, “I don’t know what got into me. “You didn’t hurt me too bad.” She shook her head. “You’re just a sixteen-year-old boy, Crow. You shouldn’t have to take care of me. The lapses are getting worse. I’m a danger to myself and to you. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did anything to you.” “Nonsense. I’m going to take care of you. I have nothing better to do.” “I can’t do this anymore.” There were tears in her voice again. “Not another day.” Crow looked at here. His lips trembled and his eyes had gone glassy with tears. “What are you saying?” Aunt Lena clenched her jaw, obviously determined to keep the tears at bay. “You know what I’m saying.” Crow began to weep. He stood up. Suddenly he hated this room, this house, and this town. He hated his life. He wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else. “You can’t ask me to do this.” “I am asking you. Begging you.” Gently she took his bandaged hand in her bandaged hands. For years, decades I’ve healed people, their injuries, their illnesses. This is the cost and I must pay it. Either way I’m going to die. I know I shouldn’t be asking you this but I am.” Crow knew his aunt spoke the truth and deep down inside he knew, like her, he couldn’t do this much longer. Each day seemed to drag for an eternity, its own private hell. More and more he found himself resenting her, resenting her illness. But also he was afraid. What would he do when she was gone? How would he survive in this town, where everyone hated him? There was nothing for him here. Her death was inevitable; there was no magic in the world that could prevent it from happening. It was only a matter of time. “How?” he asked. “Go to see the town apothecary,” she said. “She can give you something that will make it quick and painless. It will be just like going to sleep.” He went to the window and looked out. Pale daylight lit one half of his face while the other was in shadow. His face was anguished, haunted. He couldn’t bring himself to look at his aunt though he could feel her eyes burning a hole in his back. I’m not really thinking about doing this, am I? A voice spoke in his mind, answering. It was a familiar voice, seeming to come from a great distance: Crow, you need to wake up. This isn’t real. Crow frowned. Where did that come from? He forced himself to look at his aunt. “I’ll do it. But I hate you for asking me. I’ll be back as quick as I can.” She nodded and laid down. Crow tucked her in then pulled on his coat and boots. With all the snow it would be a long walk into town, one he wasn’t looking forward to. He stopped in the doorway, looking back at her. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His eyes bulged out of his head and for a moment he was sure he might scream. It was not Aunt Lena that lay in her bed but a monster. Mostly goat but part human it looked back at him with red eyes, its hooves dangling over the edge of the bed. The curves of its antlers were covered in blood. Crow heard another distant voice echoing inside his head: It gets in your head and makes you see things. There’s been times where I’ve seen my victims...the people I’ve killed. They taunt me. And other times it’s like I relive things. Memories. And it feels so real. Only there are...discrepancies… Crow clenched his eyes shut and shook his head. “I’m not really seeing what I think I am,” Crow said. “I just need some more fresh air. A walk into town will do me some good.” He opened his eyes again. Just as he suspected it was not a demon that lay in bed but Aunt Lena and she had fallen asleep. … The road into town was covered in snow that had become compacted and hard. Since Crow had returned from the woods with the rabbits a cruel wind had picked up. Though he wore several layers of clothing including a wool pair of gloves and a scarf - both of which Aunt Lena had knitted herself - the wind seemed to cut right through him. Within minutes his cheeks were numb. Along the way he passed several cottages. Smoke spiraled out of brick chimneys. Windows glowed with the light of fires burning within. A man was making his way out of a barn, a silver pail in his hand, the wind whipping his scarf around. He looked at Crow and smiled, waving. Crow stopped and waved back, frowning. He wasn’t used to people around here being so friendly. The man came up to Crow, separated by a fence post. “A bit cold isn’t it?” he said. For a moment Crow could only stare. The man looked so...familiar. He was very tall, close to seven feet, and broad shouldered with dark caramel skin and a muscular build. He was big enough he looked like he could snap Crow easily in half. His face was lined with scars. His eyes were dark and friendly and despite the cold he was grinning. Crow was dizzy with the feeling of deja vu: ...you know something’s wrong. There will be a detail out of place. In the beginning your mind’s foggy. You tell yourself you’re just seeing things and then you move on. Only the discrepancies get more and more noticable. Crow could feel his mind about to seize around something, a revelation. He looked at the man. The man must’ve been new around here. He didn’t look like a northerner but more like he came from the Okanavian Desert. And yet the man looked familiar. “Do I know you?” Crow asked. The man chuckled. “Can’t say I do. The name’s Barghast. You sure you want to be walking into town during this kind of weather? I have a nice fire and a kettle of soup going if you want to come in and have some with me. I would sure love the company.” Crow was tempted to say yes - the word was right on the tip of his tongue. He was immediately comforted by Barghast’s presence. To sit before a fire with a bowl of soup and talk with someone other than his dying aunt sounded more appealing than words could describe. But there was also the sense that something wasn’t right here. Everything around him felt surreal, dreamlike. Am I really standing here? Crow asked himself. Am I really having a conversation with this man, standing out in the middle of the cold? Of course he was. Dreams never felt this real. Shame flooded him. While he was talking with this man his aunt was in constant agony, waiting for him to end her suffering. Sadly, reluctantly Crow smiled. “I wish I could but I have to run in town and grab something for my aunt.” The man nodded. “I understand. Well if you ever need a friend you know where to find me.” Crow smiled and wished Barghast a good day. I always need a friend. Another voice spoke in his head, this one also familiar: Wake up Crow...you need to wake up. Crow stopped and turned around to look at Barghast but the man was already gone. … The center of town consisted mostly of one and two story buildings with a single road that cut through it. Around this part of the region vehicles were a rare thing - unless someone had a jalasa farm no one could afford the money it took to keep up on the maintenance or the oil and gas it took to run it. Instead most people traveled via carriage. Almost no one was about. Most people would be indoors, taking refuge in Anneville’s local pub The Golden Stein. For this Crow was grateful. This meant there was no one around to gawk at him fearfully or whisper about his aunt and him. The apothecary had an office in the clinic, a small square building with three other rooms in it. There were three healers on staff but none of them had had the skills or experience Aunt Lena had had until she got sick. The inside smelled of herbs and disinfectant. Crow sat in a small waiting room, watching as the three healers on staff walked into a room, dressed in their white robes with the the crest of the Eurchurch hanging from around their necks. Even here he felt out of place for he had the power to destroy not heal. Many times he’d wished he had the power to take the pain of others away the way his aunt did. “Hello, can I help you?” a voice asked him, tearing him from his thoughts. Crow turned to see who it was that had spoken and felt his heart skip a beat once more more, overwhelmed by the same sense of deja vu he’d felt with Barghast. She had long blond hair and blue eyes and a pretty smile. Instead of wearing a white habit like the healers wore she simply wore a white coat and slacks. An image flashed before his eyes of this woman being attacked by an old woman in the alley of a place he couldn’t recall going to. The crone was possessed, her eyes flashing yellow. Where did this image...this memory come from? Something isn’t right here. What’s happening to me? Am I going insane? “I’m here for my aunt,” he said, rising to his feet. “She’s very sick.” “Did you go to see if a healer could help?” “We did. They told her there’s nothing they could do...she’s dying. I just want something that will take away the pain…permanently.” To her credit Sara’s face saddened with the realization of what he meant. “I’m sorry. I think I might have something. Please, come into my office.” Sara’s office was neatly kept. Next to the door was a shelf full of jarred herbs of various types and colors. The bottom was full of leather-bound books no doubt full of plants and how to identify them. There were several calming pictures nailed to the wall behind the desk. In the corner of the room was a grandfather clock. Crow stared at it, fascinated, momentarily forgetting why he was here. “Is something wrong?” Sara asked “You have a grandfather clock,” Crow said. “Oh yes. It was given to me by Pope Drajen.” “I’ve heard of them and seen drawings of them but never a real one.” “In the end days of the Old World they were extremely rare. Now they are practically nonexistent. I feel lucky to have it.” Sara beamed at him from across the desk. “It reminds me to be grateful for each day I have to live.” “I could use a daily reminder,” Crow said. “But you are so young,” Sara said, looking slightly startled. “Surely you have many days.” He smiled sadly. “I don’t feel young. For the last year I’ve been taking care of my aunt and I haven’t had any help. It’s just me. This last year felt like it’s lasted a century.” “It is a terrible burden to have to care offor someone, especially when you need taking care of yourself,” Sara said, nodding as if she understood perfectly. “I know you will miss her terribly and in the end you will feel guilty for her death. We all do in the end - we take responsibility for the things that aren’t our fault. For a long time it will hurt, you will feel like you can’t breathe, like someone has crushed you with their hands. But you will also feel relieved because the only burden you will have is yourself.” Crow nodded and admitted a truth he hadn’t dared to admit out loud up until now. “Yes, I will be relieved.” She stood up. “I will give you what you need to end your aunt’s suffering. There is a rare plant that grows here in the north called the Silver Death. It is called such because the leaves are silver and it grows in dark places. I have it in liquid form - it comes in a vial. Make your aunt some tea and mix it in. She won’t taste it. It will not bring her pain - instead she will simply fall asleep and never wake up.” Sara went over to the shelf, grabbed a tiny vial and brought it to him. “Before I give it to you I need to know that you have the money for it. It’s not cheap.” “Whatever you’re asking I can pay it,” said Crow. On the way back home he couldn’t stop looking at the vial. Inside was the prettiest liquid he’d ever seen: silver. Was it possible a plant could look silver when turned into liquid? Every few yards or so he would stop and pull the vial out of the paper bag Sara had given him and hold it up to the light...only to put it back in the bag and tell himself he wouldn’t touch it again until he was back in the house. How could something which would cause death be so beautiful? Crow...Crow...wake up...This isn’t real...This is a dream… He stopped and frowned, looking around. There was nothing around him save the low-topped pine trees and cottages. Something over his head caught his eye. He looked up and veiled his eyes. A glowing ball of white light was streaking towards him like a comet. Seeing it sparked something within him; a torrent of images and memories passed through his head: Aunt Lena begging him to end her pain, holding out a pillow to him; digging her grave and building her cairn. He remembered Barghast and Sara and the other Stray Dogs. The last thing he remembered was witnessing Sanoe’s death and entering a black door. Ex’olku hovered before him, rays of light touching upon Crow’s skin. Remember who you are, he said. Remember what you must to do. The demon is waiting for you. You must defeat it if you are to free yourself from its spell. Crow looked down at the paper bag he held in his hand and pulled out the vial. “I never went to see the apothecary,” he whispered to himself. “I smothered her with the pillow. All of this...Sara, Barghast...they were never here. They were...” Clues. Your subconscious trying to wake you up. Your friends are waiting for you. Crow threw the vial onto the ground and stomped down on it as hard as he could. He watched the liquid slowly spill out over the snow before walking away from the shattered vial. … The house stood like an oppressive fortress on top of its hill, overlooking the town of Annesville and its farmland. In truth it was no longer standing there - Crow had burned it when he set out for the Eurchurch the day after he’d buried Aunt Lena. The windows stared like blackened eyes which seemed to focus on him. Crow thought he could see someone watching him from the windows but he couldn’t be sure. Anger rose inside of him like a slowly rising fire. How could I have been so stupid to think any of this was real? Crow thought. How long has this demon been playing with me? He climbed up the steps of the porch, passing Aunt Lena’s rocking chair. It was covered in snow. In the beginning, before her dementia had gotten bad, Crow would bring her down to sit in the rocking chair and bring her a mug of hot cocoa. Many times he would sit with her and together they would just stare at the wilderness. They couldn’t sit out for very long because of the cold but Crow always remembered it as a bittersweet time - things hadn’t gotten bad just yet; in those days he never suspected just how bad it could get. He let himself in without bothering to close the door behind him. One way or another he wouldn’t be here long. He could hear Johnny Cash playing from upstairs: “I fell into a burning ring of fire...” Slowly Crow began to climb the steps. Even with his determination and anger fueling him forward he dreaded what he would find waiting for him upstairs. He remembered briefly seeing the demon lying in her place. As it had in the catacombs of the Scarlet Church it must have assumed her form. The board at the top of the landing creaked. The door to her bedroom was open but he couldn’t yet see her. He wasn’t aware of the fact he was holding his breath. “Love is sweet when two hearts meet...” Crow did his best to tiptoe quietly down the hallway but the house betrayed his every step, the floor creaking beneath his feet. Finally he reached the doorway and peered inside. She was dancing in the middle of the room, just out of sight of the door, her nightgown swishing lightly behind her. She danced with the grace he remembered as a child, when they would dance to her singing. Though she was still gaunt she looked just like he remembered her. Spotting him she said, “Come dance with me Crow. Come dance with me like we used to.” “You’re not Aunt Lena,” he said, managing to sound braver than he felt, “so quit pretending like you are.” She stopped dancing and when she did she stopped singing as well. The bright smile she gave him made the hair on the back of Crow’s neck stand on end. She began to clap. “Impressive. It didn’t take you as long as it does others. Sometimes it takes them days depending on who I’m dealing with and how smart they are. It only took you a few hours. Unfortunately for you, you have to deal with the real me now.” There was a terrible ripping sound. A clawed hand was tearing its way out of Aunt Lena’s stomach, tearing through the fabric. Crow watched as in horror Aunt Lena’s mouth stretched open in a silent scream, her eyes staring glassily at the ceiling. Her flesh seemed to fold in on itself like paper being crumpled into a ball. Sheets of blood splattered the floor; it seemed there was no end to how much there was. Finally what remained of Aunt Lena’s skin was flung to the side. It hit the wall, marking the wall paper with blood, and then hit the floor with a splatting sound Crow would never forget. The demon stood before him in its goat form. It kicked its hoof once and then charged at him, its passage seeming to make the entire house shake around them. Crow drew on his mana but before he could make an attempt to defend himself the demon had him by the throat and was lifting him off his feet. Its clawed hand crushed the air from his lungs. All around them the walls were shifting, the color bleeding out of it, the wall paper turning to stone, the floor turning to stone. Even the demon’s shape was changing, its flesh turning to smoke to reveal the red robes of a Scarlet Priest. Now Crow found himself looking at the hooded face of a man who stared at back at him with red eyes. Where the dirt did not cover it, the flesh was pale, the lips peeling back from yellowed teeth. His breath smelled of rotting meat. Somehow the demon had hijacked the body of a Scarlet Priest. Like the half-scorpion form of Yov’olbh, the goat form of this demon had just been a projection. No one truly knew what form demons took. They were not in Aunt Lena’s house but the middle of a chamber. They were in the catacombs beneath the Scarlet Church. For a split second Crow wondered how any of this was possible, how it was he had walked miles into town when he was inside this room. The thought was completely forgotten by the need for air. “Yov’olbh was afraid of you, Agent of Ex’olku,” said the Second Caste demon. “I’m not.” Crow chuckled; the sound came out garbled. When he blinked his eyes turned cloudy white. His face had turned a darkened shade of red. “You should be.” With the last of his strength he grabbed the side of the possessed priest’s hands in both of his own and began to suck the lifeforce from it. Golden light seeped into his body, filling him with power. As he did, the priest’s head burst into flames. Crow held on until he couldn’t anymore. He dropped to the ground. Gasping in oxygen, his eyes streaming tears, he watched as the demon sprinted in circles around the room, arms flashing up and down as it tried to beat out the flames. But the flames only spread faster, eating the red fabric of the robes until all Crow could see was flame. The screaming voice coming from the vocal cords sounded mostly human but there was a high-pitched sound beneath it that was not. Crow couldn’t stand the sound. It hurt his ears, made them feel like his eardrums would burst and permanently deafen him. Face scrunched up in pain he picked up the machete lying next to him - vaguely remembering having it in his hand when he stepped through the door leading into the chamber - and scooped it up. On aching legs he stood up and came up to the burning form before him. He brought the machete back and swung as hard as he could at where he thought the neck would be. He was close enough the flames stung his face and arms. The blade sliced through flesh and bone and tendon, separating the head from the rest of the body. Blood and smoke arced up from the stump. The burning head rolled across the floor of the chamber. Choking on smoke, Crow made his way across the chamber, the machete still in hand. He prayed the door would lead him to the dungeons as Sanoe had said it would - he had never wanted to leave a place behind as much as the catacombs. He pulled the door open and to his relief saw a set of stairs that went upwards. Crow looked back at the smoking body once more and then closed the door behind him. He thought of Barghast and the others and wondered if they would be glad to see him or if they simply thought him dead. Don’t worry, he thought. I’m coming for you.
  6. Crow stood on the hill, looking down at the grave he’d just dug. He’d made a cairn out of stones. He hated the sight of the grave: it was crude and he didn’t feel it was fitting for Aunt Lena but it was the best he could give her. The town Eurchurchman had refused his Aunt Lena a proper burial. Now he threw the shovel down, his hands blistered. He had never felt so thoroughly exhausted. He turned away from Aunt Lena’s grave and looked around the valley. The mountains huddled around him. It was the perfect place to bury his beloved aunt. He looked up at the sky just in time to see the clouds part and the sun peak out. The snow seemed to absorb the sun’s radiant waves and reflect them back. He watched as something bright fell from the sky. No, flew. It was bright and round like a ball. It was flying straight towards Crow. He watched, eyes wide in awe. Whatever it was, it was beautiful. He’d never seen anything like it. It stopped just feet away...and just floated. You can’t give up, a male’s voice said, coming directly from the sphere of light. You still have work to do… Groaning, Crow forced himself to sit up. His whole body hurt: His head, his back, everything. The last thing he remembered was being shoved into the pit and the terrible feeling of falling, the bottom of the pit coming up to meet him. He’d had just enough time to think, I’m going to die, when everything went mercifully black. He didn’t remember striking the bottom. Now he forced himself to get to his feet and look up. His head pounded as if an icepick was being driven into the back of his skull. He had to lean against the wall to keep from falling again. When the pounding slowed down enough that Crow was sure he wouldn’t faint again he focused on the ceiling once more. He could barely see the door which he’d fallen through. How do I not have any broken bones? he thought, amazed. How am I not dead from the fall? It didn’t matter, he was still alive...for now at least. If there was a way out of here he had to find it and get to the others. Crow found himself standing on the landing of a stairway. The steps were steep and cracked, descending down into a corridor lit with torches in rusty brackets. The walls of the corridor were made of rock, the walls smooth. With his heart pounding in his chest, Crow took stock of the situation. He didn’t like the looks of it but there was no way but forward. Ex’olku, are you with me? he thought, reaching out for the comforting presence of the entity with his mind. Always, said the entity. Don’t leave me. I haven’t left you yet, have I? Yeah you haven’t exactly helped much either. Look at where I’m at. Crow grabbed one of the torches from the brackets, being careful not to burn himself. He had to use both hands to hold it as the torch was heavier than he expected. Carefully he began to descend the steps, listening for sounds of danger. The corridor meandered onwards with no apparent end in sight. It was slow going. His body was bruised and aching and each step he took was painful. His throat was parched; the last time he’d had anything to drink had been back in the room where he’d woken up. It hurt to swallow. Luckily the torches on the walls provided warmth. Careful, Ex’olku cautioned him. There is danger ahead. Crow stopped, looking ahead. He couldn’t see anything or anyone else ahead of him but that didn’t mean the danger wasn’t there. At some point the corridor branched off to the left into another corridor. Crow peeked cautiously around the corner and found a rounded archway leading into a room. After a moment’s consideration Crow decided to go down the left tunnel towards the room. The room at the end of the tunnel was cavernous. Several meters away was another archway just like the one he was standing under. The only problem was there was someone in the room. Crow stifled a gasp and pressed his back up against the wall. He prayed in Ex’olku’s name Mercius his torch wouldn’t give his presence away. His hands were shaking so badly he could barely hold the torch. After a moment, when he was sure it was safe, he peeked around the corner. The man looked like an emaciated corpse. His skin barely seemed to stretch over his skeleton, the arms and knees all knobs and veins, the flesh paler than Crow’s own. The man’s receding hair stuck out in wild tufts. He babbled rapidly in the Demon’s Tongue, the lower half of his face smeared with blood. He wasn’t the only one. Standing on the other side of the room was a pale-skinned woman with black hair pinned up in a ratty bun and squinty almond-shaped eyes. Except for a tattered shoe she was completely naked and she held what looked like a meat cleaver in her hand. The blade of the meat cleaver was covered in dry blood. Crow wondered if they would be scared of him the way Yov’olbh and the crone that had attacked Sara had been or if he should go back and continue going down the other tunnel. Something about going this direction seemed right even if it was more dangerous. Besides if there were other demon-possessed people down here he had to know if they were going to be a problem. He stepped into the room cautiously. The woman saw him first and snarled. Babbling incoherently she charged, the meat cleaver raised in the air. Crow had enough time to wonder where she got the meat cleaver when she swung it at him. Crow managed to duck out of the way just in time to keep his head from being cleaved in two and grabbed her arm. She squealed, jerking away as if she’d been burned. He heard the man coming up behind him and whirled around, waving the torch at the man. The torch hissed as it cut through the air. The man stepped back, hissing, his back bent, his head cocked to the side. “Demon’s bane,” he said to Crow. “You are all alone down here. There’s only one of you and there are many of us. We will enjoy tearing you APART!” Before the demon could charge again Crow pushed the torch against him. The demon screamed, clutching at his chest. Crow threw the torch at him and lunged down the hallway. He heard the man and woman scream in unison, heard the sounds of their footfalls on the tile, and knew they were chasing after him. His heart felt like it was trying to beat its way up his throat. He threw a glance over his shoulder. The man and the woman ran with the fury of a rabid animal - they were closing in. If he couldn’t get away he would have no choice but to use magic, something he’d been trying to avoid so he could conserve it. Crow let out a shout and skidded to a stop. Right in front of him was a nightmare pit of severed limbs and heads; he’d been so busy running for his life and looking over his shoulder he’d overlooked it. Lifeless faces looked at him with glass eyes and silent screams. From what he could see it was a five foot drop. Beyond the pit there was another archway. If Crow was going to get to it and get away from these demons then he had no choice. Just as the woman was about to pounce on him Crow jumped feet first into the pit. Like a drowning man he disappeared beneath the surface of body parts. It seemed as if the pit itself was trying to swallow him whole. He screamed, breathing in the stink of rot and blood, clawing at the heads and arms, trying to lift himself only to sink deeper. Multiple eyes stared into his own, reflecting the raw terror he felt and perhaps his own fate in the end. His head just broke the surface when the woman dove in behind him, making a hooting sound. Her fingers snagged themselves into his hair being careful not to touch his actual flesh. She still had the meat cleaver. Once again Crow was drowning in the sea of red while trying to wrestle the meat cleaver from her hand. It was impossible to breathe. Acting out of desperate fear he sunk his teeth into her wrist, clamping down hard enough to draw blood. The woman howled in pain. The meat cleaver fell from her hand. Crow gabbed the meat cleaver and brought it down on top of her head. The blade cut an inch into her skull. Blood seeped from the wound. The pain did not stop the demon but seemed to enrage her further. She fought harder, her fingers clawing at his face. With a scream Crow pulled the meat cleaver free from the top of her skull and brought it down once more. Each cut sent tremors of impact up his arm as he used all his strength to hack through her skull; it was not as easy as one might think. By the time she stopped moving he’d cut so far into her skull he couldn’t pull the meat cleaver free. He’d been holding his breath so long everything was starting to go black now. He gave a great kick and broke the surface once more, taking in a deep breath. Rivulets of blood ran into his eyes and mouth, making him gag. He gasped in a deep breath, grabbing the edge of the pit; somehow he’d made it to the other side. He turned to look over his shoulder to make sure the man wasn’t a threat. The demon had stood on the other side of the pit watching nervously as Crow and the other demon fought the whole time. Now he snarled at Crow and dove into the pit the same way the woman had. Crow didn’t have the energy to fight the man. His neck was bruised and he was still trying to catch his breath. It took strength he didn’t know he had to pull himself up out of the pit. He had to brace his feet against the stone and lift while pulling with his arm. Finally he rolled over to his side. Every muscle in his body burned with exhaustion. He was covered from head to toe in crimson, his black hair slicked back. There was no time to rest: Already the demon was starting to pull himself over the edge of the pit. Crow pulled himself to his feet and lashed out at the creature with a grunt. His foot connected with the demon’s head and the demon disappeared underneath the pool of legs, arms, torsos, and heads. There will be more coming, Ex’olku said, speaking up. You must hurry! Crow didn’t have to be warned twice. With a charley horse forming in the back of his thigh the practitioner limped in the direction of the archway. The thought of finding a way out of this network of caverns was the only thing that kept him moving. The room he came to was almost exactly like the last one; only this one had three steps which led up to an altar. The scene he found there was the most grisly yet. Crow’s stomach jerked painfully. If there was anything in his stomach it would have landed in a puddle at his feet. A woman’s head was placed on the golden altar. Dried blood dripped down the altar, pooling on the floor, permanently staining the stone. Her empty eye sockets gazed up at the ceiling, the holes where her eyes should have been seeming to recede back forever. Written in blood on the wall above her head were the words: IN THE NAME OF THE ORDER OF CHAOS AND THE PRIMORDIAL CASTE! The sound of multiple footsteps coming from the corridor he just left made Crow turn his head. A horde of demons were running down the hallway he’d just left. Just paces away was a door. Praying it would open he began prying at it with his fingers. The door was heavy but he managed to get it open. Without bothering to see where he was going he ducked inside and closed it behind him just as several demons came running into the chamber. He felt the door shake as one of them ran shoulder first into the door. Crow drew on his mana and waved a hand over the door. The ward appeared over the door in a shimmer of light. It would keep the demons from getting inside - for a while at least. No sooner did he turn around when Crow felt someone’s fist smash into his face. The blow sent him crashing to the floor. Crow lunged out of the way as a man charged at him with a butcher knife. Crow saw that his eyes did not glow as those possessed typically did. The man almost tripped but then turned and came at Crow, bellowing like a madman. Crow ran around what looked like a table of some sort, trying to get something in between them. The man was middle-aged, more closer to fifty, with red-blonde hair that had darkened with grime. There were dark circles around his maddened eyes and what was surely blood around his mouth. He wore the torn remains of a Red Wraith uniform. His shoulders trembled with rage and hate. “Wait!” Crow shouted, holding up his hands. “I’m not a demon! I haven’t been possessed! I’m trapped down here just like you!” “You,” the man said, pointing the knife at Crow. “I’m here because of you.” Crow held up his hands. His mind was racing too fast and he was too afraid to think about what the man meant. “I don’t understand...” “You were at Fort Erikson. I was stationed as commander there. The High Priest threw me and all the others down here because of what you and your fucking squad did.” Crow’s eyes widened in recognition. “Viktor Sanae.” Viktor’s eyes became distant, his voice coming out raspy. “I’ve been down here for days...maybe weeks...I can’t remember. There were a dozen of us but then everyone got bitten and possessed. We tried to find a way out but got lost. There’s no end to this place. I’ve finally found the exit but it’s being guarded...and now I’m the only one. I’ve had to eat human flesh just to survive and it’s all your fault.” His words struck a chord within Crow. Before Crow could stop himself he said, “Good, this is exactly what you deserve you heartless bastard. For all the people you tortured and killed, for following Damen Orlys. So don’t blame me for your fucking problems.” “Ahhhhh!” Viktor screamed. “I’m going to kill yooouuuu!” He charged at Crow around the table, knife upraised. Crow drew on his mana and hit Viktor with a fist of kinetic energy. Viktor was thrown off his feet and over the table. He landed in a heap on the ground, groaning. Before he could get to his feet, Crow scooped up the knife Viktor had dropped and held it to the man’s throat. Viktor went still, eyes bulging out of his head. Crow was pressing the blade down hard enough to draw blood. “The only reason why I’m not cutting your throat is because I thought I heard you say you know of a way out of here.” “I-It’s i-impossible,” Viktor said. “Every time we tried people died. T-There’s s-so many of them down here, the possessed. T-They get in your head a-and m-make you see terrible things.” “I have protective runes so they’ll help.” Viktor shook his head. “Not when you have over a dozen of them trying to get into your mind. And even if you get past them you have to get past the demon guarding the exit.” The practitioner gritted his teeth in frustration. “Well I’m not just going to stay down here - not without a fight. I have to get to my friends even if it means I have to die trying. Assuming you know the way out of here you can either come with me and help or I can just put you out of your misery.” “I-I want to l-live.” The practitioner nodded. “That’s what I thought.” He held the knife out for Viktor to take. Viktor looked down at it warily as if he suspected Crow was trying to trick him. After a moment he took the knife. Crow stood up and took full stock of the room for the first time. The “table” rose out of the ground, cube-shaped, the edges perfectly straight, the edges sharp. What its purpose was Crow couldn’t guess or who could have carved it. There was so much about this place that defied reason; to try and make sense of it was impossible. A blood hand print was stamped on the side. In the corner of the room was the half-eaten corpse of a man. In his limp hand he held a bloody machete. His shirt had been cut away and the white of his ribs were showing. There was no telling how long he’d been dead but Crow suspected this was who Viktor had been eating to survive. The thought filled the practitioner’s head with disturbing images; it also reminded him of how hungry and thirsty and tired he was. Viktor Sanae had risen to his feet. Now he cleared his throat, flattening his bloody uniform in a comical attempt to regain some of his lost dignity. “I guess it would be logical to join forces until we got out of here. And then what?” “I don’t care what you do afterwards,” Crow said coldly. “You can freeze in the cold for all I care. But I’m going back into the church to get my friends.” Viktor nodded shakily. “You don’t know what it’s like down here, in these tunnels, unable to tell night from day. I keep telling myself the Infernal Depths would be worse but if it is it can’t be by much. The High Priest had us thrown down here like broken toys even though we served him, raped for him, and killed for him. I’ve raped women. I’ve rejoiced as I’ve watched the life leave their eyes. For him, for his vision.” Crow laughed hysterically, the sound coming out cold as ice. “And you thought he would give you salvation? You’re a fucking idiot.” Viktor’s head silently dropped to the ground. Perhaps it would be better if I just killed him and be done with it, Crow thought. If only I didn’t need a way out of here. “Well if you get out of this alive consider it a chance to do things differently,” Crow said. “It’s more than you deserve - don’t waste it.” Crow went over to the dead man and took his machete, quickly muttering an apology. He still had the feeling he would need to conserve his energy as much as he could. Think of this as just another mission assigned by the Eurchurch, he told himself. Even if it’s a suicide one. “Are you sure you know the way out of here?” Crow asked Viktor. Viktor smiled dryly, tapping at his temple. “All up here. I’ve spent hours, maybe days...it’s impossible to know down here...wandering the corridors, marking them.” Crow sighed. I’ve got to be insane trying to rely on him, he thought. “I don’t have to tell you what will happen if you’re playing games with me. Let’s go.” Crow turned to face the door. With a wave of his hand he made the ward over the door disappear. He took a deep breath and glanced at Viktor. The man held his knife, tensed, and ready to fight. When he gave the nod Crow opened the door and together they stepped out of the room. ... They moved through the maze of hallways cautiously, always stopping to peek around the corners to make sure a legion of the possessed weren’t waiting for them. Every second was excruciating, nerve-wracking. The catacombs were too silent for Crow’s liking. He followed Viktor, hoping the former commander of Fort Erikson wasn’t leading him deeper into the catacombs in an attempt to trick him. If someone had told me I would be relying on a Red Wraith for survival I would have told them they were insane, Crow thought. Once again he found himself doing things he’d never thought he would ever do - things he would avoid doing if he had the choice. “We aren’t far from the exit,” said Viktor. “You’ll know we’re close because you can feel the guardian demon’s presence - you can feel him trying to enter your mind. The exit will lead straight up into the dungeons.” Crow frowned. “Is this not the dungeons?” Viktor shook his head. “We are below the dungeons. The dungeons are over our heads.” Crow glanced over his shoulder. “Where are they? I don’t like this - this silence and calm. It feels like they’re playing games with us.” “That’s exactly what they’re doing,” said Viktor. “The wraiths may act mindless but they’re smart and they’ve been around a lot longer than we have. Chances are we’ll encounter them as we get closer to the Second Caste, so be on your guard.” They turned into another cavernous room. This one had three altars in the middle; a skeleton lay on top of each one. Their mouths seemed forever open in silent screams. A large rat scampered over them, its tail resting on bone. “What is with the all the altars?” Crow asked. “Damen no doubt had it built for the demons,” Viktor said with a shrug. “Or maybe the demons built it themselves. This is a sacrificial chamber where they worship the Primordial Caste.” “I saw something about a Church of Chaos,” Crow said, gazing around the room. There were ancient vases everywhere, and statues of demons. Many of them were carved in nightmarish detail: one looked just like Yov’olbh, part scorpion and part human, and another looked like it might be part octopus, with tentacles. The flickering lights and shadowed corners created the eerie illusion that the tentacles were moving. Somehow the eyes of the statues seemed to be focused on him. They’re not alive, Crow told himself, though he couldn’t truly be sure. They’re just statues made of stone. “I never heard of such a church before today.” “The demons have their own church? So the Scarlet Church and the Church of Chaos are two separate churches that worship the same thing?” “Essentially.” Crow made a face. “I want to get out of this room - it makes my skin crawl.” “Careful,” Viktor said urgently, his eyes wide as Crow began to cross the room. “There are booby traps in this place.” Just as Viktor was saying this, Crow felt a tile sink beneath his feet and the click of something moving. A second later the room was shifting around them. The altars shifted aside, revealing blackened pits; Crow thought he heard gears turning beneath his feet. Dust fell down from the ceiling. The possessed crawled out of the floor, in the space where the altars had been, gibbering in the demonic tongue; some of them were armed with hammers, knives and other sharp tools. The women made moaningm gasping sounds that sounded almost sexual as they staggered to their feet. Many of them wore tattered, blood-stained Red Wraith uniforms. An iron gate was slowly starting to lower over the door Crow had been walking towards. Viktor made to run for it but before he could a demon intercepted him. Viktor ducked under the attack and slashed the demon’s throat open. By the time Viktor reached the gate it had closed all the way shut. “Fuck!” he shouted. Crow was surrounded by the possessed. Their shoulders were tensed like starving wolves ready to spring in for the kill. Two of them looked at each other uncertainly. They’re still afraid of me, Crow thought. He chose the moment to strike, slashing at one of them. The blade sliced the man’s chest open. He shouted in pain, blood spurting from the wound. Crow took the opening and lunged across the room. One of the demons reached for him but Crow was already climbing over the altars, scattering bones as he leapt to the ground. There was nowhere to go. Crow and Viktor were trapped in the room. The room was full of possessed. A few of them chased after Crow but most of them went after Viktor. The man held his own well, the blade of his knife constantly slashing through the air. He seemed sufficient in hand to hand combat, ducking and dodging attacks. “What do I do?” Crow asked as he stabbed one of the possessed in the backs. He hated having to kill in defense but there was simply no way to defend himself without drawing blood. Viktor grabbed one of the vases and bashed a charging demon over the head with it. The vase shattered, shards of glass fell on the floor. “Look for a lever! It would be on one of the walls!” Crow began searching frantically for a lever, dodging between statutes and demons. He kicked vases out of his way, shattering them sometimes, and shoved statues out of the way. “Hurry practitioner!” Viktor roared, leaping over an altar to avoid an enclosing horde of demons. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up!” Crow at last spotted the lever in the corner of the wall. Let this be it! he thought and pulled it. He let out a shout of triumph as the room began to shift once more: the altars slid back into place and the gates blocking off the room slid back up into the ceiling. He ran through the opening and turned in time to see Viktor disappear behind a horde of the possessed. For one terrible moment Crow thought about continuing on and leaving Viktor behind. It’s what he deserves, the practitioner thought, for all the men he killed, the women and children he raped. But I need him. Swearing, Crow summoned his mana. There was an explosion of fiery light in the center of the room. Rubble, bones, and demons were thrown into the air. The explosion made the whole chamber shake. Crow ran through the smoke to Viktor who lay sprawled on the floor. The former Red Wraith had a gash on his cheek but otherwise he looked unharmed. Crow tugged on his arm until the man stood up and together they sprinted across the chamber. Already some of the demons had gotten to their feet and were giving chase. As soon as they were through the door Crow summoned a ward through the doorway. A demon woman threw herself at the shimmering blue forcefield, cursing at them in the demon tongue. “That should hold them,” Crow said. “There’ll be more,” Viktor croaked warily. His face had grown milky pale. Somehow the circles around his eyes had only grown darker. “There’s always more.” “Then let’s hurry,” Crow said. “You said it’s not far, right?” Viktor nodded. “Not far - but things will only get harder from here.” … They’d been walking for an hour when Viktor, panting, leaned against the wall and said, “I have to stop. I have to sit.” Crow shook his head. “We have to keep going. You said we’re almost there. Besides...who knows when we’ll run into more...” “It’s really not going to matter if we get to the Second Caste demon,” said Viktor. He slid down the wall and sat down on the ground. “Every time someone tries to get past him they go insane and kill themselves or the demon kills them.” Instead of insisting they keep moving, Crow sat on the floor across from Viktor. He didn’t realize how exhausted he was until he actually sat down. I’ve been going nonstop. He was thirsty, hungry, and it was chilly in these hallways. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going like this. “What happens to them? What does this demon do?” “What they all do.” Viktor tapped his temple. “It gets in your head and makes you see things. There’s been times where I’ve seen my victims...the people I’ve killed. They taunt me. And other times it’s like I relive things. Memories. And it feels so real. Only there are...discrepancies.” Crow frowned. What an odd word to use. “Discrepancies?” Viktor nodded slowly. “You know when you’re walking down a street or just doing something normal and you get a feeling of deja vu? You feel like you’ve done that exact thing before, standing in that exact spot at that very exact time? It’s the same thing only you know something wrong. There will be a detail out of place. In the beginning your mind’s foggy. You tell yourself you’re just seeing things and then you move on. Only the discrepancies get more and more noticeable. At least it was so for me - this was how I was able to wake myself up and get the demon out of my head. And then I just ran. Are you sure you want to try and go through it?” Crow cleared his throat. “I told you I don’t have a choice. I’ll try it even if it kills me.” “It just might,” said the Red Wraith. The practitioner gave him a pointed look. “What in the Abyss is that supposed to mean?” Viktor scoffed as if Crow had asked him the most stupid question ever. “I saw you at Fort Erikson - you didn’t see me, I saw you. The others in your squad don’t have the power you do. And I saw you lose control. You literally couldn’t stop yourself, could you? This is why the Eurchurch tried exterminating all the practitioners in the ‘scape. Too much power for one person to handle. But even by practitioner standards you’re different aren’t you? Demons are afraid of you. Why?” Crow sighed. “It’s a long story and I’m tired of telling it. You said practitioners have too much power, what about the man you were serving? The one who threw you and your people to die. You don’t think he has too much power? It’s because of the Scarlet Church any of this - the hellscape, what’s going on Fruimont - exists and is happening. I’m not sinless but I am trying to stop Damen Orlys. You and all those who were under your command willingly joined him...so don’t talk to me about power.” To the practitioner’s surprise, Viktor nodded shakily. “You’re right. Everything that’s happened to me down here I deserve. I deserve to burn in the Abyss.” For a moment Crow watched the Red Wraith. He hadn’t expected Viktor to look guilty. There’s still hope for you, Crow wanted to tell him. When we get out of here you can start over, try and make up for the things you’ve done. How could Crow have run around with the likes of Barghast, Lydia, Jack, and Rake and not believe in redemption for Viktor? “If we get out of here you’ll have a chance to do things differently,” said Crow. “I don’t know if there’s redemption for someone who’s done the things you’ve done but I suggest you take it.” Ignoring the protesting ache in his thighs and back. “Let’s move on. I think we’ve sat long enough.” A few minutes later they came to a corridor full of dead bodies dressed in Red Wraith uniforms; at the end of the corridor was a black door. Crow stopped, staring at the door. He could hear voices whispering around him but there was no one around. The sound chilled his blood. An invisible pulse seemed to emanate from the door. He could almost sense the demon behind it, waiting for them to enter. “That’s it,” Viktor said. His face had paled and he was shaking. Crow realized the man was afraid. “Beyond the door is the demon and the entrance to the dungeons.” Wondering why he had never bothered asking before, Crow said, “If no one has been able to get past the demon then how do you know the door it guards leads to the dungeons.” “Why else would the demon guard it?” Viktor asked. And then his eyes widened in horror. “May Mercius help me.” Crow turned to see what Viktor was looking at and came face to face with Aunt Lena. She stood in front of the door dressed in the white nightgown she’d worn more often than not during the last year of her life. In Crow’s youth she had been beautiful but the tumor and dementia had turned her into a haggard caricature of her former self. It was this version that stood before him. Her black hair was tangled and streaked with grey. Her face was gaunt, the skin barely seeming to stretch over her skull. Her eyes, the same dark blue as Crow’s own stared with a sickly dullness, full of accusation and madness. Crow was dimly aware that someone was screaming, “No...no, I’m sorry...I’m sorry for what I did!” Who it was he didn’t know, could no longer remember. He couldn’t remember where he was or how he’d gotten here or why he was trying to get away. All he knew was somehow she was standing before him when he’d buried her over a year ago. Seeing her again caused him more pain than he ever could have imagined. “You killed me,” she said. “I was sick and you were supposed to take care of me. After all I took care of you after your waste of a father and my slut of a sister, your mother, was burned at the stake by the Eurchurch. Instead you killed me when taking care of me was too much for you, burned down the house, and went off to have an adventure.” Crow blinked, tears streaming down his cheek. “You asked me to end your pain...You begged me...” “I was sick!” she screamed, hands clenched into fists at her sides. “Delirious! I didn’t know what I was saying and you took advantage of it!” In his head Ex’olku spoke: That is not your Aunt Lena. The demon is tricking you by taking her form. You must fight it. Don’t let it get into your head. Before him Aunt Lena’s image rippled and for a moment Crow saw the demon’s true form: it looked like a monstrous goat but stood upright like a human with big great hooves for feet and clawed hands. It glared at him with molten red eyes. “Demon’s bane!” it roared. “Agent of Ex’olku! You will never leave this place!” Then it turned and sprinted through the door, hooves clopping on the floor. The door slammed shut. Crow turned to face Viktor, his head spinning. The man stood in the middle of the hallway, face buried in his hands. He was sobbing so hard his shoulders were shaking. Crow was just getting ready to tell him to quiet down when he saw movement. Crow shouted, sprinting towards Viktor, but before Crow could reach him the possessed woman who had snuck behind Viktor thrust the blade of her knife forward. Viktor’s whole body seemed to give a shudder and a wet choking sound emitted from his throat. His hands fell from his face. Crow’s eyes widened at the grisly spectacle before him. The blade of the knife had gone through the back of Viktor’s head and now poked out through his mouth. The possessed woman pulled the blade out with a wet sliding sound. Viktor’s body fell to the ground with a thud. Again Crow had the feeling of losing a part of himself, a piece of his sanity forever lost. He knew he’d never forget the memory of Viktor’s death, the way his eyes had widened in an almost comical expression of pain, the way his mouth had yawned, stretched open to take the blade. The sight was almost sexual in its perversity and gore. How much will I see and go through before I actually lose it? Crow thought. The woman charged at him, knife raised. Crow knocked her blade to the ground with a sweep of his blade and swung once more. The blade of his machete cut through her neck, all the way to her vertebrae. She dropped on top of Viktor’s already still corpse and took in her final breath. Crow didn’t wait to watch her die, for he knew it would not be the eyes of the demon staring back at him but the eyes of the unwilling soul who the demon had possessed. There would be confusion and pain in those eyes. Or perhaps there would be relief. Crow didn’t want to see any of it. He’d seen enough death in his short life to last more than one lifetime. He stepped through the door to face the demon.
  7. ValentineDavis21


    Ever since she’d woken up in her cell, Sara was unable to tell if she was dreaming or awake. Things had not been great to begin with. The things she’d seen in Fruimont - the things they’d all seen - were the things nightmares were made of. And just when she’d thought things couldn’t get any worse they had. Surely the Infernal Depths can’t be much worse than this, she thought. She gaped at the spot where Crow had been standing just seconds before. Though she had seen one of the priests come behind him and shove him in the pit her brain couldn’t register it. Her brain didn’t want to register it. The reality was made even worse when Barghast fell to his knees. It was like watching a mountain fall; mountains weren’t supposed to fall, they were supposed to stay tall. The look on his face, the horror and the sorrow and the pain only reflected what she felt. This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening- The High Priest was still standing. He threw his head back and laughed. He actually laughed. How could he think this was funny? Where was the punchline? The High Priest stopped laughing and turned serious. “Take them back to their cell,” he said. Then he glanced at Sara. “Except her. Keep her there.” What? No! “Sara!” Lydia cried. Now it was her turn to try and fight her way through the priests to get to Sara. “You can’t have her you bastard!” she shrieked, pushing and clawing. “I’ll kill you, I swear on the Light I’ll fucking kill you-” Hands were pulling them apart, dragging them away from each other. Sara reached for the woman she had sworn to protect but it might as well be like trying to cross the ocean for all the good it did. When one of the priests kicked Barghast, the Okanavian stood without fighting or giving the slightest protest. Lydia and Rake were being dragged away. Lydia was still screaming, her voice shrill and full of anguish. “No-Sarah, noooo! Sara, I love you, I love you so much! Don’t worry I’ll find some way to get out of this, I’ll find a WAY-” She was gone out of sight. Barghast followed close behind like an overgrown child who has no place in the world. The double doors shut. Now Sara was alone amongst the Scarlet Priests. She looked at the High Priest and felt all the color drain out of her face. Her eyes bulged out of her head. He came down the throne steps, moving gracefully, and walked across the chamber to her. His footfalls echoed softly. There was an almost paternal expression on his face. He stopped just inches away from her. If her arms didn’t feel like they weighed a ton she could have struck him, done something to try and defend herself. There was no point. She was surrounded. Trapped. So she kept her mouth shut and prayed in the name of the Light (no, Ex’olku, she reminded herself) that her death be a quick one. “I sense mana within you,” he said, “but you’re a healer not a practitioner.” Sara managed to nod shakily. “Interesting.” Damen cocked his head as if conversing with someone. “Yes - it might work.” He’s insane, she thought. “You could be the vessel we’re looking for. I’m a fool to have not thought of it before. It’s a toss of the coin really” “A-A v-vessel for what?” she stammered even though she had a good idea. “For C’thla, the High Priestess of the Second Caste. Give her a sedative. I want her prepped for the procedure.” Damen clamped a hand on her shoulder. She felt an alien calmness wash over her, taking her down into darkness. ... Sara woke up sitting in a wheelchair; her hands and feet were strapped down. Her body felt as if she was floating but whenever she tried to move her arms at all they seemed to weigh a ton. The most she could do was clench her hands into fists. She was looking up at the ceiling, the dark corridor lit by torches. The wheels creaked on the smooth concrete floor. Everything was dark with the feeling of desolation. “Oh good, you’re awake,” said a familiar voice. It was the High Priest, he was pushing the wheelchair. If she was capable of opening her mouth Sara would scream for all the good it would have done her. Where are you taking me? she wanted to ask. Slowly she began to remember what happened: she remembered the sting of the needle in her shoulder and the plans Damen said he had for her. Damen was going to offer Sara as a vessel for a powerful demon, a sacrifice of sorts. She thought of the crone who had attacked her in the alley of Fruimont a lifetime ago and realized her words had been a prophecy. So ripe and perfect for my mistress, C’thla... How? Sara thought. How did she know this was going to happen? Could demons see the future or had the crone just been trying to mess with her head? But what the crone had said was happening right now so it couldn’t have been a trick. Around her and the High Priest the walls changed from smooth cement to roughtened stone within the blink of an eye. Where were they? Just how big was the Scarlet Church? Sara somehow sensed they were underground. There was a mustiness in the air that only existed underground. There was no sense of time. Everything beyond this moment, before Fruimont, was fuzzy and distant. She thought of Lydia and tried to draw her face up in her mind. In the past thinking of the woman had always made her feel safe; no matter what situation she found herself in, Sara knew she would find her lover waiting for her in the end. Now there was no warmth in the thought. Sara was utterly powerless in a way she never thought she would be. She’d always told herself she would kill herself before she let herself experience the helplessness she felt now. No matter where she looked the sense of doom was everywhere, “Here we are,” Damen said cheerfully. He winked down at her, grinning broadly. They had arrived at a thick, black vaulted door with a wheel in the center. Somehow it had been fashioned into the rock. It was strange that it should be placed here, surrounded by all this rock. It didn’t belong. It frightened her more than she already was. She stared at it wide-eyed, her heart a dull throb in her chest. Damen went over to it, robes sweeping behind him, and turned it easily. The door opened with an audible popping sound. Damen undid the straps and helped her stand. His hands were surprisingly gentle and warm. Somehow he helped her walk towards the door. His fingers tingled with a light buzz. The buzz passed through her body like an electric charge, making her hair stand on end. He was controlling her body through magic as if she was a puppet and he was her marionette. This didn’t stop her mind from being aware of everything that was happening - and it was pure torture, No matter how hard Sara tried to gain control over her own body she couldn’t. This is a form of rape, she thought. “Almost there,” the High Priest said. He talked to her as an adult would a toddler taking their first steps. “That’s it, keep going.” Sara could smell scented candles and incense coming from beyond the door. The perfumes made her feel light-headed. She would have normally found such things pleasant but there was something deceptive behind the aromas coming from inside the doorway. With Damen holding her hands she stepped over the doorway and into the room. Her eyes went straight to the sarcophagus standing in the center of the room. She was mesmerized by the detail given to the woman so exquisitely carved on the stone lid: the flowing curly locks of hair, the way the dress seemed to flow as if blown back by a gentle gust of wind, the way the light from the candles and incense on the altar made her face seem alive. “Look at her,” Damen said, gently running his fingers through Sara’s greasy blonde hair. “Isn’t she beautiful?? She’s been asleep for thousands upon thousands of years, the body she inhabited now nothing more than dust. And for those thousands of years she has waited for someone compatible to come along and give her new flesh. You could be that person, Sara. You. See, she isn’t so scary, is she?” The fear was mounting in Sara. She opened her mouth to beg but all that came out was garble syllables. She began to cry. She couldn’t stop herself if she wanted to. If only she could be with Lydia. Even if that meant being locked in a cell for the rest of her life as long as she could see and talk to Lydia, she would trade it for this. He shushed her and sat her down so her back was pressed up against the wall and she was facing the sarcophagus. Then he turned and headed for the door. Wait! she wanted to scream. Don’t leave me in here! This time she managed to lift her arm. Did this mean the drug was starting to wear off? But it was too late. She heard the door shut and the locks slide into place; she heard his fading whistles as he walked away and then silence. Now there was nothing to do but wait. ... For many a millenia C’thla had existed in a dream-like state. Though the previous body she’d inhabited had turned to dust long ago her mind and soul were very much alive. Mostly she traversed the terrain made of memory and dream. These memories were often altered by her subconscious (if demons truly had a conscious or if that only came with having a human body she didn’t know). The dreams were vivid enough she felt as though she was reliving these moments. For C’thla the waiting was torturous but dreaming was a way of passing the time until Damen Orlys found her the right host. In this dream - or memory? - she was a druid priestess or rather she’d inhabited the body of one. This was in a time long before the hellscape ever existed. Her followers were sacrificing captors from Caesar’s army in her name. There was power in this, an orgasmic ecstasy in the spilling of their blood. She stood in the center of a grove of trees, surrounded by lit torches, and watched as five of her followers approached the five kneeling captors before her. The druids held knives made of bone in their hands. Their tunics glowed in the light thrown by the torches. The Roman soldiers, now nothing more than lambs for the slaughter, had been bound and gagged. They watched her, their eyes wide and glassy fright. Twice their group had tried to escape only to be dragged back, beaten and flogged mercilessly. One of them had had their tongue cut out from biting one of C’thla’s followers. Another of the soldiers was a boy of thirteen years old; he’d seen his first and last battle. Her disciples pulled back the heads of their captors so their necks were exposed to the cool night air. In the Demon Tongue, as C’thla had taught her followers to speak, they said, “In the name of C’thla, the High Priestess of the Second Caste and the Order of Chaos.” The blades were drawn back and the necks of the soldiers yawned open, liquid crimson jutting from their wounds. C’thla felt utter rapture - she’d felt rapture like this many times but the pleasure was never lost on her. The sight of their writhing bodies made her wet and warm inside but the sight of the dying boy fascinated her in particular. She could sense his confusion at how this could be happening to him and his relief that this nightmare was finally coming to an end. C’thla masturbated underneath the black velvety sky, laughing in pleasure. At the exact moment the final Roman went still she burst into the final orgasm. C’thla sensed a change in the air. With a rushing sensation she let her mind travel back to the chamber where the High Priest of the Scarlet Church had set her sarcophagus. She felt a ripple pass through her Aspect - almost as if she had an actual body - however it was not the real feeling and nothing compared to what the human body could feel. Damen had brought her another woman! This one was beautiful. All the women Damen Orlys brought C’thla to “try on” had been beautiful but the demon priestess found this one to be exceptional. This one had blonde hair and blue eyes. Like the sun and sky, C’thla thought. The other two women had been dark haired. Normally C’thla would have reached out right away but now she hesitated, cautious. The last two rituals had failed, there was always the chance this one would too. The woman was too beautiful to be wasted so soon. C’thla was content to watch and wait for now. … Slowly Sara could feel the sedative of Damen’s magic begin to wear off. Eventually she was able to wiggle her toes and lift her arms. She wasn’t sure how long she sat there with her back pressed against the wall and her clenched hands resting on her lap. It could have been an hour - it could have been longer. At least the chamber was warm and didn’t smell of mold. After a time Sara began to feel as if someone was in the room with her, watching. Her eyes searched the room. There were shadows behind the sarcophagus where the light didn’t touch. She thought she saw a humanly shadow lurking only for it to be gone in the blink of an eye. Sara knew better than to tell herself she was just seeing things. While Sara waited for the drug to finish wearing off she tried to think of a way she could try and get out of the room. There was no obvious way that she could see but it seemed better to try than just sitting there waiting to die. The ceilings and walls looked solid; she couldn’t find any cracks or signs of wear. She wished she was a practitioner like Crow instead of just a healer - she could have at least tried busting her way through the door. Her heart tugged painfully when she thought of Crow. She still couldn’t believe he was gone. After what felt like another hour of waiting Sara staggered to her feet, leaning against the wall for support. Her muscles and limbs still felt heavy but she could move. “Sara.” Sara froze and looked around jerkily. The voice had come from her right. It had sounded like a woman’s voice. Like a frightened animal, Sara hunkered down slightly. The shadows were thick, almost pulsating. They seemed alive. At last she was able to discern a lithe womanly shape - it seemed she was in fact made of shadow. “Do not be afraid,” the shadow-woman said. She spoke with a velvety, slightly scratchy voice. “I mean you no harm.” Sara knew this was a lie. She could feel the demon rooting around in her head, pulling out her thoughts. And yet...there was a part of her that wanted to go to the demon. Don’t do it, she told herself. Don’t believe her lies. It’s all a trick. But what could she do? Where could she go? She was trapped in this room with no way of getting out. “Sara...do not fight me. There’s nowhere you can go, nowhere you can run. There is only me.” The demon stepped towards her and the shadows seemed to come with her. Sara stepped back. The demon took another step towards her. Sara walked back until her back was pressing up against the wall. The shadows took up one whole half of the chamber now, just shy of reaching the altar. When the shadows did touch the altar the candles were snuffed out as if by a giant black hand. Seconds later she was surrounded by a black so thick she couldn’t see her own hand in front of her face. Sara hyperventilated, hugging herself. The room had grown cold. The demoness laughed tauntingly at her, the sound coming from right in front of her. Sara screamed mindlessly, screamed like she never had in her life. Her sanity gone she hunkered down and clenched her eyes shut and began to sing the lullaby her mother used to sing when Sara had woken up in the middle of the night from nightmares: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine...you make me happy when times are grey...” “You will never see the sun again,” C’thla whispered in Sara’s ear. And then Sara felt teeth sinking into her shoulder.
  8. Barghast slowly surfaced from the darkness with the sensation he was rising. At first his mind was foggy, unable to comprehend what his eyes were seeing. Then the terrifying realization something was wrong, he was not where he should be. His body began to catalog senses: He was laying on a cold, hard surface. His body ached all over. Before he realized it was happening bile surged up his throat. He was quick enough to roll over and vomit on the dusty floor on which he lay. Just this simple physical motion took a surprising amount of effort, not unlike pushing a boulder up a steep hill. It left him breathless and aching. “Barghast?” a tentative voice said, followed by what sounded like the clinking of chains moving. He managed to raise his head and look at the woman chained to the wall across from him. At first he didn’t recognize her. Her blonde hair was a tangled mess and her eyes were red and puffy from crying. Am I in a dream? he wondered. “Sarah,” he managed to croak. His voice did not sound like his own voice but the voice of a stranger. He tried to go to her but couldn’t. His arms and legs had been shackled together and there was another one around his neck. He tried to pull at it with his hands but there was no give; he couldn’t even get the tips of his fingers through the collar. “It’s no use,” Rake said from his left. He was slumped on the floor over by a barred window and was shackled in the same way Barghast and Sara were; just several feet away, almost within arm’s reach of Rake, was Lydia. “There’s no getting out of these chains. Believe me I’ve tried everything.” Still feeling disoriented, Barghast looked around. They were in some kind of cell. He stared at the rusty bars on his right and the dark stone wall beyond. There were several candles sitting on a rickety table with two chairs; the candles provided enough illumination to see by. Sunlight shone through the window but it was a weak light. Beyond he thought he saw the edge of a snow encrusted cliff. “Where are we?” he croaked, managing to get to his feet. “The Scarlet Church,” Lydia said. She too had risen to her feet and was peering out the window. The light touched her face. One eye was puffy and swollen completely shut and her lower lip was split. “It’s kind of hard with all the damned snow and my fucking eye being useless but I can see buildings beyond the cliff. Not Fruimont though. These look old, like parts of them are missing. I think we’re in the Ubrios Waste.” She grunted. “For years the Eurchurch has searched for the base of the Scarlet Church and they never thought to look here. Dumb fucks.” “What happened?” Barghast asked. “You don’t remember?” Lydia croaked. “They must’ve hit you over the head really hard. The Red Wraiths got us. We almost made it to the tunnel when they closed in around us from all sides. I thought we were dead for sure but then the High Priest showed up and told them he wanted us alive. That’s when I felt someone hit me from behind. Then I wake up and we are all here.” Memories now began to reassert themselves. Barghast remembered catching up with Sara, Lydia, and Rake. They’d taken the alleys, winding through them, running as if their lives depended it on it. They had almost made it when a large group of Red Wraiths surrounded them. And then Damen Orlys appeared and told the Red Wraiths not to shoot. Barghast’s rifle was taken from him and the next thing he felt was being hit by something hard in the back of the head. He’d tried to fight only to be surrounded by Red Wraiths, being hit from all directions. There was no getting away from it, no fighting his way out. And then, blissfully, nothing. With a jolt he remembered something else. “Crow?” he whispered. “What happened to Crow?” Sara shook her head. Her face had reddened and Barghast knew she was fighting back tears. “We don’t know...There’s no way to know.” Barghast couldn't believe the words he was hearing. It couldn't be possible. The idea of Crow's death was inconceivable. For the past year he'd joked with the kid, watched his back, and fought by his side. He'd seen the side of the practitioner that no one else saw or appreciated. The way his lip upturned at the corner and his eyes brightened when he smiled; the way he relaxed around Barghast and the ease Barghast felt when around Crow. Gradually he'd fallen in love with him, something he didn't think could ever happen again. When Sara had come back to the hideout and told the squad about what had happened in the alley, Barghast had felt betrayed. He couldn't stand the idea Crow was an imposter, perhaps even a spy for the Scarlet Church. And when Crow had stepped in through the door Barghast had been afraid of what he might do if he got his hands on the young Practitioner. Betrayal had never sat well with Barghast and he'd been betrayed one too many times. The moment Crow pulled the back of his shirt up and showed them his scar the shock was like remembering a childhood long forgotten. Barghast remembered sitting around the fire with his parents and the rest of the tribe, listening to Steig, the tribe leader, telling stories. The story of the Agent defeating the First Disciple was a favorite and Barghast grew tired of it. Then Barghast grew up and left that life behind, sick of the superstition, wanting to be something more than a barbarian. A life he had forsaken and could never go back to. As it turned out it wasn’t superstition. It was real and Crow was proof of this. A sorrow unlike anything he’d ever felt filled Barghast’s heart. It was impossible not to think of all the things he’d wanted to say to Crow but didn’t have the courage to - and now it was too late. “Good,” Lydia said. “It’s his fault we’re in this situation.” “Lydia,” Sara said reproachfully. “Well it is.” Barghast didn’t have the energy to defend Crow’s name. He was too tired. He wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and go back to sleep. “Shut the fuck up Lydia,” Rake said. Barghast looked at the man. Had he just heard what he thought he did? The mutual looks of surprise on Sara and Lydia’s face told him he wasn’t. “Regardless of what secrets he hid from us he stayed behind so we could have a chance at getting away - and he was just a kid. We don’t even deserve to be alive. I was wrong about him.” “Are you sure they didn’t hit your head too hard?” Barghast said. “Maybe,” Rake said. “We should have treated him better.” “Well it’s too late,” said Barghast, relishing the anger he heard in his own voice. “He died even though you couldn’t see past your own damned nose.” He was speaking to himself just as he was to Rake. … Crow sat by the window, looking at the dead city miles away. There was a dead beauty in the Ubrios Waste. There was so much white - nothing but white. Anyone exposed to the cold for more than a few hours, without adequate clothing, would die. The only ones who came out here were scavengers. They would venture out into the Wastes in snowmobiles and camp out in the rotting buildings, looking for whatever artifacts of the Old World they could find and then go back to Fruimont to sell their findings. Crow doubted they came this far though. It was the perfect place for the Scarlet Church. Up until he’d told Loras, no one had known where it was. The room he was in was luxurious with a four poster canopied bed, a wooden wardrobe, writing desk, and a pail of water. There was a floor lamp in the corner of the room. He’d awoken from a deep sleep on the bed. For the longest time he simply laid where he was, his head resting on a pillow so soft it was like a cloud, looking up at the ceiling. For the first time since his Aunt Lena had died he wasn’t afraid, quite the contrary in fact - he was at peace. He didn’t care he was in the Scarlet Church and he would probably die. Dying meant finally being able to rest. Dying meant being at peace. He no longer had the will to fight. At some point he’d tried the door and found, to his surprise, it was unlocked. Well of course it was. There was no chance in him escaping from this place and Damen Orlys knew it. Who knew how many guards were in this place not to mention wards. An hour later a Scarlet Priest brought him a silver platter, knocking politely on the door. He was a cherub-faced youth named Yoravich. He looked at Crow and talked to him without fear. Then he left Crow alone to eat. The meal was roasted brisket and vegetables, a buttery roll, and the sweetest coldest wine Crow had ever tasted. Never once did he wonder if the food was poisoned. He had been ravenous! This had been two hours ago. The sky was starting to darken. It always darkened early here in the north compared to the rest of the hellscape. Crow found he could look out the window at the Waste for the rest of his life. The stillness of it was arresting. He fantasized about exploring the dead city, picturing what wonders he would find: Records of famous rock bands, batteries, books that had survived the cataclysm. It was nice to be able to think about these things, the wonder of it. Before there had never been time. I’ve never had time to think about what I want my future to be, he thought with dawning revelation. For two years I took care of Aunt Lena, watching the tumor slowly drive her mad and kill her. And afterwards there was the D-Squad. Now there’s no time. Death is my only future and I’m fine with that. His thoughts were interrupted by a light, cheerful rapping at the door. “Come in,” he said. The door opened. Damen Orlys stood in the doorway in his scarlet robes smiling at him. Crow looked at him and did not feel the mindless fear he had back in Fruitmont. For this he was grateful. It was nice not to feel...anything. What is this place doing to me? Crow thought. Is it some kind of magic or drug keeping me calm? Did they drug me before they brought me in? Oh well, it didn’t matter. “You look rested,” said the High Priest with an appraising look. “I see a nap did you some good.” “It did,” Crow said. “Good. Yoravich says you’ve been sitting over by the window for a while.” “I was just enjoying the view.” The High Priest crossed the room, arms crossed regally before him. He looked out the window, frowning. “Yes I suppose there is a cold sort of beauty to it. I suppose an Agent of Ex’olku would enjoy the silence and stillness of it. A relief from having Ex’olku yammering on in your head all day long, making his demands.” “You have no idea,” said the practitioner. The High Priest laughed. His demeanor seemed much more relaxed than the last time Crow had encountered him. Back at the abandoned apartment building he’d seemed manic. “As a matter of fact I think I do.” Crow watched blankly as Damen unbuttoned his robes. The High Priest turned so Crow could see his chest. For a man who had lived for centuries his chest was lean and well muscled, the skin smooth except for the large puckered scar that marked his flesh: A giant handprint that matched the scar on Crow’s back exactly. “I was his first Agent...the one that he chose before you.” Somewhere deep inside his sleepy, fugued state Crow felt a deep horror. “It’s not possible. You’re supposed to be dead.” “Come with me,” Damen said, buttoning his robes up. “I will explain everything.” Crow took a step towards him and then hesitated uncertainly. “I’m not going to kill you,” Damen said. “I don’t believe you,” said Crow. “If I wanted to kill you I would have done so by now.” This seemed like a reasonable point and so Crow followed him. Damen led him down a long hallway with red walls and matching plush carpeting. Brass lamps lined the walls on both sides, lighting the hallway with a soft golden glow. Interspersed between every few lamps were golden-framed oil paintings. The faces of the twelve original disciples of the Scarlet Church looked down at Crow; the details of their faces were so perfectly rendered they looked lifelike. There were six men and six women. Spaced a little ways from the group of paintings was a thirteenth painting: Crow recognized Damen’s portrait almost immediately. He was the only one of the twelve who did not wear a brooding expression. In fact he was smiling mischievously as if he hid a wondrous secret behind his lips; the man in the painting looked exactly as the real man did. Of course there was no telling how old the painting was. The portrait at the front was no doubt the First Disciple. Fascinated, Crow stopped to study the painting; his eyes were wide and he was unaware his mouth hung slightly open in wonder. Of course he could only see the bottom half of the First Disciple’s face because of the cowl he wore, but what Crow saw was enough to build an impression. The First Disciple had a long, aristocratic nose, the firm cynical set of the mouth, the lined face forever preserved by the painting. Damen said nothing, waiting patiently while Crow studied the painting. When he did speak, it was in a quiet, musing tone of voice. The voice of remembering. “Long ago I was like you. An ordinary man. I lived in the Old World, when the world was ruled by technology and magic was so rare as to be a dream. I was happy. I had a wife and a daughter I loved dearly. In those days there was no such thing as demons and the Eurchurch or the hellscape. The world was vast and ever changing.” “What happened?” Crow asked, still trying to process what the High Priest had revealed to him. “Ex’olku. He chose me the same way he chose you; he touched me the same way he touched you; he plucked me from my life. He showed me what would happen: the shifting of the world, the end of our civilization and the start of the hellscape. He showed me the Scarlet Church and the Order of Chaos. He showed me everything. It wasn’t a burden I didn’t want to bear but I bore it anyway. I tried to stop the First Priest and his disciples...and I failed. I remember the day the First Disciple made the world so clearly. I fought him but he wielded a power far stronger than anything Ex’olku could grant me.” “He didn’t kill you?” Crow asked. Damen smiled. “No, though there were many days in the beginning when I wish he had. Rather than kill me he forced me to watch as billions of people died in the cataclysmic event...including my wife and child. It drove me insane.” “Is that what caused you to join the Scarlet Church? The death of your wife and child?” “It was the start of it. The despair, the incalculable sense of loss, the unbearable shame that I failed, and unbearable anger I felt towards Ex’olku. In the end I blamed him for everything...I still do.” Damen’s voice had grown bitter. He was gazing into the painted eyes of the First Priest, his lips quivering with emotion. “The First Priest cultivated that anger, shaped it - shaped me into a weapon. He showed me the Primordial Caste, showed me the power they wielded, showed me that through them I could get my vengeance on Ex’olku. He was grooming me to take over for him. He knew his time was limited. In the end Ex’olku sent another Agent to defeat us. The Agent was more successful than I had managed to be, more skilled...” “He killed the First Priest,” Crow said. “She did.” Damen grinned. “And I killed her, thus taking The First Priest’s place. Let’s move on.” They walked down a staircase to the main floor. Crow mulled over the details Damen had given him. I thought I knew everything, Crow thought. I thought I knew the truth. But as it turns out I know nothing. I am as ignorant as ever. He glanced thoughtfully at the High Priest. The First Priest perverted him. Reflected the power Ex’olku gave him back at the spirit. I refuse to let the same thing happen to me. Crow was amazed with the architecture. It seemed the architects who had built the church had been trying to compete with the design of the Eurchurch though they had the similar theme of high vaulted ceilings, archways, and ornate candelabras. The spaces were lit with electric lamps as well and occasionally they would pass a Scarlet Priest kneeling at an altar with burning scented candles and incense. The Scarlet Priests were no doubt praying to the Primordial Caste. Crow couldn’t imagine praying to a demon for anything no matter how powerful that demon might be. “You look surprised,” the High Priest said conversationally. “What were you expecting, cobwebs and mold?” Crow shook his head. “I don’t know what I was expecting. It certainly wasn’t this.” Still he looked around, frowning. He spotted no Red Wraiths with their guns and armor: they were the might and muscle of the Scarlet Church. Though he knew there was blood and death in this place it had not yet presented itself. When he asked why there weren't any guards Damen merely chuckled. “We don’t need guns. We have demons and magic. If I thought there was any chance you could escape, this place would be full of guards.” Crow said nothing, feeling foolish. They came to a tall set of doors which went half way up to the ceiling. They opened with the sound of gears clanking behind the wall. Crow and Damen stepped into a large oval shaped chamber. Three beautifully carved steps led up to a throne. Crow wondered if the First Disciple had ever sat in the chair or if it had been carved from stone after his death. Though he was curious the practitioner couldn’t find the words to ask. For the moment it seemed he’d lost the ability to speak. Curiously he watched as the High Priest seated himself on the throne. With a single gesture Damen summoned two Scarlet Priests. He looked down at them with the authority of a king. “Bring them to me.” The Scarlet Priests bowed in unison and went off to complete the task he’d given them. Who “they” were, Crow was too exhausted to care about. He looked down at his feet and simply waited. Moments later he heard the sound of chains dragging along the carpet and the deep, rumbling curses of a familiar voice. Upon hearing it Crow seemed to come back to himself, the stupor he’d woken up in gone. He looked at Damen’s devious, grinning face and then turned. A half dozen Scarlet Priests were leading Sara, Lydia, and Rake into the chamber. Their arms and legs were shackled, their faces grimy with dirt and their hair oily and unwashed. Six more priests were struggling to restrain Barghast who tried to wrestle his way through them. Up until now Crow thought he would never see his squad again. Even if he had failed at everything else he could make peace with knowing they’d gotten out of Fruimont safe and were alive. Seeing them again, Barghast in particular, brought the old fear and doubt back that had smothered him for the last year. This isn’t a surprise, he thought, this is torture. But he couldn’t bring himself to look away from the man he’d come to have fallen in love with. When Barghast saw Crow he stopped fighting - the whole world had stopped. Even though Crow knew they shared the same feelings for each other deep down inside, the look of relief he saw in those dark brown eyes surprised him nonetheless. That relief ran from Barghast’s eyes in the form of tears, the scars marking his face deepening like cracks in the earth. And there was love in those eyes. Crow was both afraid of it and drawn to it. The paralysis that had held the practitioner in complacence split open like a net. He had to get to Barghast, the only true friend he had ever really known and say what he had never been able to say, before it was too late. He was almost within arms length of the Okanavian when hands closed around Crow and pulled him back. From out of nowhere it seemed two priests had appeared. Crow fought them. His mind was in too much of a frenzy to think about using magic so he sunk his teeth into the hand closest to him and clamped down hard enough to draw blood. The priest screamed. A fist collided with the side of Crow’s head hard enough he was seeing stars. “You bastard!” he heard Lydia screamed. Distantly he could hear Barghast’s grunts and curses as he tried to fight his way through the priests. Crow had no choice but to walk in the direction the hands were dragging him. It was all he could do to stay conscious. Now he stood in front of what looked like a trap door. Several paces to the left of the chamber, a priest stood before a lever with his gloved hand on the handle. He was looking up expectantly at the High Priest. Damen nodded. With a grunt the Scarlet Priest pulled the lever towards him. The double doors opened. Crow found himself looking down into a dimly lit pit. He wasn’t close enough to be able to tell how far it went down. They’re going to throw me in there, he thought sluggishly. Whatever’s waiting for me at the bottom it won’t be good. “You better hope this fall kills me,” he told the High Priest. He meant every word. Never before had he wanted to kill someone like he did Damen. “There’s a legion of possessed souls down there,” Damen said, rising to his feet. “We also have a new resident - a Second Caste demon, 5th rank. Good luck killing this one.” Then Crow was shoved into the pit.
  9. Crow’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, Lydia, and Rake what had happened with the crone. And what would Crow 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 Crow 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 Infernal Depths, he thought. Still he couldn’t help but feel giddy. He’d exorcised the demon that had possessed the woman. While the Casteless had not been as powerful as the demon priest he’d freed Greta from - not even close - it was enough to make his blood rush. The streets of Fruimont were beginning to quiet as people started to head home. Soon the bells for curfew would sound and anyone who was not indoors by the time the chimes ended would be arrested and thrown in jail. Crow couldn’t help but wonder what their punishment would be. Would they be sentenced to death, crucified for defying the Scarlet Church or would they be let out after a couple of days? It didn’t matter. As long as Crow 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, Crow 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 Crow’s case he would be using it 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. Crow 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 Crow 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 Crow was doing this for nothing. He was taking a huge risk, hoping he could trust Loras’s description of the man. For all Crow knew the man had been completely compromised and would alert the High Priest to Crow’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 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. 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. It was the second time today this had happened to 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. 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 Eurchurch 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 Eurchurch doesn’t want to expend any more 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?” Crow 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?” Crow 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.” Crow 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 Eurchurch knows about your situation.” “It’s not exactly the news I was wanting to hear but I appreciate the consideration.” Crow 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?” Crow’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?” Crow looked Benedik directly in the eye. “To kill the High Priest.” Benedik was too shocked to know what to say. He could only watch as Crow 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. ... Crow 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, Lydia 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?” Crow’s face stung. “I save your girlfriend’s life and this is how you thank me?” Lydia raised her hand to slap him again but before she could Sara was in between them. “Lydia, stop!” Sara said. Fuming, Lydia spun around and sat back down in her corner of the room, still giving Crow the death stare. “I think you have some explaining to do,” Rake said, stepping towards Crow with his arms crossed. Crow 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. Crow 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 Crow. “He’s been around for a long time...since before the world even existed. The Eurchurch knows of him as the Light.” Lydia snorted. “C’mon, Sara, you don’t really believe him, do you?” “You weren’t there,” said Sara. “None of you were except for Crow. 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 Crow had entered the room. “If what you say is true then you would have the mark on your back.” Crow 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 Crow slowly. He reached to touch the scar that covered Crow’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 Crow more than words could have said. “I don’t understand,” said Sara, sounding frustrated. “What does all this mean?” Crow 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 Crow 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 Eurchurch 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 Crow with awe. Crow blushed and looked away. “So now what?” Lydia asked after a long, awkward moment of silence. Somehow she seemed subdued, not the fury that had struck Crow just moments ago. Was she feeling guilty for slapping Crow, for how cruel she’d been to him over the past year? Crow doubted it but also found he wanted her to feel guilty. The practitioner 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?” Lydia asked, grabbing her rifle. The tattoos along Crow’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,” Crow 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,” Lydia said. “It’s not,” Crow 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. Crow 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.” Crow 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. Crow 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 Crow 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!” Crow 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, Lydia, and Rake ducked out of the room a voice shouted something at the other end of the hallway. The fire immediately stopped. Ears ringing, Crow 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 Crow. “I only want to talk.” “I don’t think so,” Crow 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.” Crow risked a glance over his shoulder. Sara, Lydia, and Rake had made it to the stairway but Barghast was still behind him. Crow 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 Crow. 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, Crow 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. Crow 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 Crow. “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. Crow 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?” Crow 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 Scarlet Church and I’ll let your friends live...or I can kill you right here and then kill your friends.” Crow paused for a moment and appeared to think it over. “So either way I die?” “Sadly, yes.” Crow 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. 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. Crow 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 men. Somehow the High Priest had recovered and caught up with him. Crow 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!” Crow screamed and spat in his face. “Shhh.” Damen whispered almost tenderly. “Sleep.” Against his will Crow’s body betrayed him, his muscles going lax. The world dimmed until there was nothing, not even thought.
  10. Crow 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. If they want a spectacle, he thought darkly, I’ll give them a spectacle. I can take him on the stage right now. You know what you have to do, said Ex’olku. In the end Crow knew this to be true - he was not ready to take on the High Priest of the Scarlet Church. Not yet. Damn you, Crow 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, Crow rounded his shoulders and took a step forward. To his surprise Barghast grabbed 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,” Crow said. “We’re undercover, remember? Best to play the part.” “This is madness.” Crow 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. Crow 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. Crow 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,” Crow 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 Crow’s ears. “Then prove your worth.” Crow took the hammer offered to him. The square head with two flat sides was covered in congealed blood. Crow 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.” Crow 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, Crow 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.” Crow felt something inside of himself become unmoored and die. What it was he could not say but Crow 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 Crow’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. Crow 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. Crow 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. Crow bowed to him and said, “Hail the Primordial Caste!” When the High Priest dismissed him, an odd smile on his face, Crow 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 Crow 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 were 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. “Crow,” he said but it was as far as he got. “I need a minute,” Crow 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 men,” Crow said. “You did an awful thing for the right reason. You did it for the squad.” Crow 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 Crow 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 Crow 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: Crow 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 Crow 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.” Crow 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 Crow 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, Lydia, 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, Lydia and she had made up. And the surprise of it was Lydia 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 Crow?” 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 Crow 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,” Lydia 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 Crow 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. Crow 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 Lydia 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 Crow 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.” Crow 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,” Crow 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?” Lydia asked. “I’m trailing after him to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself,” Sara said. … Sara did her best to follow Crow, 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 Lydia 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 Crow felt more than she wanted to. Crow took her through crowded streets and narrow alleys. His passage 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 sales 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 Crow’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 seemed 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 perverse 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 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 Crow. She hoped he was close enough he would come to her aid. “Crow!” she screamed as loud as she could. “Crow, help me!” … Just when Crow 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. Crow 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, Crow 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. Crow 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 way 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 Crow 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 Crow. Sara tried to find the words to warn Crow...and then realized the crone was afraid of him. Why was she afraid of him? “Let her go,” Crow 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! You raped him!” “I do not have time to play games with you demon.” Crow’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 Crow 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 Crow, 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 Lydia’s arms around her, heard the fear in her voice as she asked her what happened. Sara tried to find the words to tell Lydia, Rake, and Barghast but couldn’t seem to put them together. In the end all she could say was, “Crow...I don’t think he is who he says he is.”
  11. The entrance to the underground tunnel had been under the table. Rake, Lydia and he, having arrived from the bus, pulled the grating loose. 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. Sara looked down into the tunnel and felt her throat constrict. A ladder led down into the tunnel. There was nothing but darkness 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 just 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 Lydia. After all Lydia was the reason, the real reason she had volunteered in the first place: to make sure Lydia 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? Lydia set a large case on the ground and snapped the clasp open. Inside were oil lamps and containers of oil. “These must have cost the Eurchurch a small fortune. I feel privileged. ” Once the lamps had been lit, Rake was the first to climb down into the tunnel, then Lydia, 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 Crow. He looked back. There seemed to be a sadness around him, his eyes full of ghosts she couldn’t comprehend. She thought of the strange things the poor woman in Olmstead had said to him. What had she meant by it all? And why did Crow keep avoiding the subject? She knew there were things he wasn’t telling her, wasn’t telling any of them. Did his secrets pose any danger to the group. One day I intend to find out, she thought with a sudden pulse of determination. The shadows of lies are always revealed by the light eventually. “I’m afraid,” she said to Crow. “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 lamp. “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 would bite her. In the back of her mind she knew this was very unlikely - they were just as 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 Lydia just a few paces ahead of her. After an hour of walking through the dripping tunnel, with nothing but the illumination of the lamps, Sara wanted to scream. She couldn’t stand the claustrophobia. Insanity-inducing fear crept its way up Sara’s throat, threatening to burst out in the form of a scream. Once she dropped her lamp. As it hit the ground the glass shattered and oil spilled out. The flame went out. She cursed, thinking she might weep, when Crow handed her his lamp. “Thanks,” she said, her chest heaving as she fought to catch her breath. His lip turned up at the corner. “I’m afraid too.” “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. “Do you remember me telling you about Aunt Lena? During the Eurchurch-Practitioner War, the people of Annesville hated her for taking me in after the death of my parents. 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 Crow 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. She felt guilty for being suspicious of him. “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 Lydia and Rake hate him? she wondered. How can anyone hate him? 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, Crow 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. Crow 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.” Crow 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?” Lydia 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,” Crow 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 Lydia in one group and Crow, 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 Crow were disguised Crow couldn’t help but feel exposed. The Red Wraiths they passed nodded at them in greeting and Crow 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, Crow 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 looked uninviting. Rake and Lydia had not shown up. “We should go ahead and go inside,” Crow 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. Crow sympathized with her; he knew she was worried about Lydia even though they were fighting. Even when the two women were arguing they loved each other. “I’ll stand outside and watch for them,” Crow 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.” Crow blushed. “I didn’t suggest anything you don’t already know, Barghast.” “I was merely pointing out the progress you’re making.” Crow 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.” Crow 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, Crow 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 Eurchurch, 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 Eurchurch sent D-Squad was just a variation of some other place they’d visited. Crow 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 Lydia 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 Lydia. Being around them when he knew they didn’t want Crow 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. Crow 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. Crow, Lydia, and Rake rendezvoused with Barghast and Sara at the next corridor. Crow 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 Crow didn’t care where they slept, he was so tired. The others looked as exhausted as he felt. Crow 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, Crow 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 Eurchurch 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 Crow awake the next morning the practitioner was cold and his back felt stiff. And to think Jack has the bus all to himself, Crow 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 Crow was eating for breakfast she would have been horrified. Crow 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 Lydia and I, Barghast you will be with Crow. Do what you have to do to blend in. Whatever you see, don’t try to be a hero.” He glared at Crow 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, Lydia, and Rake headed east and Crow 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 Crow felt was reflected all around him. Even a blind person would be able to tell there’s something wrong with this place, he thought. Crow 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 would. 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 Crow 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 Crow’s heart. It doesn’t matter that we’re spying for the Inquisition. 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 Crow 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?” Crow 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.” Crow 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. Crow 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. Crow glanced at him for a moment. The Okanavian looked so odd in his Red Wraith uniform it was almost comical - but only because Crow 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. Crow 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. Crow chose to ignore those stories - even though he knew there was some truth in them. The difference between Barghast and Rake was Crow knew Barghast regretted his past and could be gentle and kind. It was these qualities which helped Crow to see past the Okanavian’s scarred visage and made him attractive. In the end whatever his sins were did not matter to Crow. 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 Crow could hear the screams and a metallic sound that chilled his blood: the sound of a hammer hitting a 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 by mana: “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 Crow had no idea human vocal cords could make, the sounds of nails being hammered into wood was nightmare music. And Crow and Barghast were heading towards the sound. The rapid drumming of Crow’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. Crow 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. Crow 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 Eurchurch 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. Crow’s focus zeroed in on him. Here he was finally, after a year of searching and waiting. Ex’olku had led Crow 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 eye in the square turned to watch his fate. When the man did not get up right away the Red Wraith kicked 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. Crow 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 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 Crow wanted to go to him, to save him, to save them all, but once again he could only watch. He was surrounded by Red Wraiths and Scarlet Priests alike. It would be foolish 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 father's side in the rebellion against the Eurchurch! We remained loyal to your family! 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, Crow 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 of 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 Crow’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 Crow’s...where they stopped. Those eyes studied him with such intensity as if to pierce Crow’s skull and see his thoughts. Crow 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 Crow. “You there, young Wraith. Come up to the stage and prove you are worthy of the Scarlet Church.”
  12. 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, beautiful; it was a great source of income for the natives here in the mountains, 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-Eurchurch war, Barghast could understand why. 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 Crow. 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. Crow 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,” Crow 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, sometimes 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 Crow’s age...You shot him because he wasn’t putting the money in the bag fast enough… “What’s our motto?” Crow asked. Together, in unison, they said, “You watch my back and I’ll watch yours.” They laughed. Crow appeared a little more relaxed. He lit a joint and offered it to Barghast. “Just take a hit,” said Crow. “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 Crow he took a drag from the joint and immediately began to cough. Crow and Sara seemed to think this was funny and laughed their asses off. The small Northern village of Olmsted, Sara thought, looked like it had seen better days. She looked upon the drab one-and-two story buildings and the people who shuffled through the snow-covered streets, eyeing her curiously from the corner of their eyes. She was dressed in dark clothing, the same as Crow, to look the part, but she still felt like she didn’t belong. No one looked at Crow because he did look the part, a true Northerner of the Plaesil Mountains with his dark hair, pale skin and sharp boned features. The laughter they’d experienced earlier on the bus had been short-lived. The mood was now grim again. She kept her eyes focused ahead as two Red Wraiths passed by. They walked stolidly, their shoulders square and back straight with confidence. Why should they be afraid? It was clear these people were in no shape to revolt. They had no weapons, no mode of transportation to escape. They were secluded in the mountains. They thought their seclusion would keep them safe, she thought. They were wrong. They’re more in danger than anyone. She turned to look at Crow. His face showed no expression, not the sense of discomfort or anxiety he’d expressed earlier. Sara wished she could say the same. She decided to say something, to break the silence. To distract herself. “Does the town you come from look like this?” she whispered. “Mostly,” he said after a moment. “It’s bigger, more spread out.” He took a deep breath and let out a sigh of nostalgia. His breath misted the air. “I forgot how the air smells up here. How clean it is.” “How does it feel to be home?” she asked. “Do you miss it?” “No.” His voice came out sounding sharp. The vehemence of his reaction startled Sara. Upon seeing the wide-eyed expression on her face, his softened. “I’m sorry. I don’t have very many fond memories of the mountains. It’s always cold here...always snowing. I lived with my aunt. She gave me the best life she could until she got sick. When she got sick was when things turned their worst for me. She was a healer just like you.” Sara was astonished...and a little touched. This was the most the practitioner had shared about himself...with anyone, unless of course he had told Barghast. But she doubted it. Crow was a curiously tight-lipped soul for one his age. They followed the road, their boots sinking into snow and hardened soil. They were approaching what might have passed for the village square. In the center of the village was a single well, made of limestone and mortar. The well looked alone, dejected in the middle of this run-down place. To the right of the well Sara could make out a sign for the Golden Ale Inn, a three story building - one of the taller in the village - only slightly more inviting than everything else around it. A sudden wailing sound, followed by a confluence of shouts, broke the sudden hush of the village. Sara turned her head towards the sound and wished she hadn’t. To her right was an old wooden church with crystal glass windows. A man with a crucifix around his neck had been nailed to the doors of the church by his hands and feet. He had been stripped naked and castrated. Dried blood marked the stone steps leading up to the church. A woman knelt before his corpse, rocking back and forth, hands clasped before her face. She prayed, her voice obstructed by garbled sobs. A duo of Red Wraiths came up behind her and yanked her violently to her feet. “Alright, that’s enough lassie,” one of them grated, shoving her away from the church. “Off you go unless you want the same to happen to you.” “Let’s get this over with,” said Sara. “The sooner we get away from this place the better. Besides we don’t want to keep Barghast and the others waiting on the bus, do we? Our contact is at the inn, correct?” Crow nodded at the inn. “This would be the place.” The inside of the inn was gloomy, lit with burning oil lamps, but warm. Sara took off her gloves so she could feel the warmth on her hands. Several pairs of eyes turned to watch them curiously but there were no Red Wraiths inside, much to Sara’s relief. A man sat in the back of the inn. He had an unassuming presence mostly, except for his long greying hair, which was tied back in a ponytail. His eyes lingered on them intently even after everyone else had looked away. Was this their guy? She looked to Crow for confirmation but he was already walking towards the man. Sara followed cautiously behind. “Is your name Rolliard?” Crow asked. “The one and only,” the man said with a grin. “Loras sent us,” said Sara, lowering herself into a rickety wooden chair. “Your squad is going into Fruimont. It’ll be a dangerous endeavor.” “Nothing we haven’t done before,” said Crow. “Loras said you found a way in?” ”Yes,” said Rolliard. “There’s a watchtower several miles outside of the village. Inside is a tunnel that leads underground from there to Fruimont. Back in the days of the Eurchurch-Practitioner war the tower was used to smuggle supplies and refugees in and out of Fruimont. Quite useful. It’s your ticket in. You’ll have to take care of the mercenaries to get in of course, but it shouldn’t be too difficult. You can catch the Red Wraiths off guard - they won’t be expecting anyone to try and break in. So far no one has tried to oppose them. Here is the location marked on the map.” He quickly slid a folded piece of paper in Sara’s hand and she tucked it in her pocket. “Thank you,” she told him gratefully. “This will help us greatly.” Crow and she got up to leave. They were just leaving the pub when she saw the woman from the church, who had knelt at the feet of the dead man, leaning against the wall, sobbing in her hands. Sara knew that she shouldn’t, but she approached her, making sure there were no Red Wraiths within view. “Ma’am, are you okay?” What a stupid question, Sara scolded herself. Of course she’s not okay! The woman looked up at Sara cautiously. Her face was pale and wrinkled. Her hair, tied back, was mostly white with a few streaks of dark. “You’re not from around here,” she said. Her voice was thick with tears. She glanced at Crow who stood by Sara’s side. “Neither of you. What are you doing here?” Sara couldn’t think of a reasonable lie so she stayed silent. “The Scarlet Church with their demonspawn have spread through the ‘scape like a plague,” the woman said. “Things have always been bad, but never like this. The man they mutilated and hung up on the door for the crows to feed upon, he was the village’s priest; he helped take my daughter, Mael, under his wing when she was inaugurated as the village healer. She loved him. The Scarlet Church took her three years ago. I don’t know if she’s dead or alive...I hope she’s dead, may Mercius have mercy on my soul.” The woman looked at Crow as if she suddenly recognized him. “I know you,” she said, stepping towards him. Her eyes were wide with reverence. “I’ve dreamt of you...Mercius came to me in a dream, to comfort me. He’d said you would come and rid us of the demon filth one day. He said you would avenge the death of my daughter Mael, of all our husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. Please, you must avenge them!” Crow seemed to have frozen. After a moment he nodded, and said, “I’m sorry for your loss. But we must be going.” He looked at Sara, making it clear he wanted to leave this place, then started walking away. She waited until leaving the village before asking, “What in the Infernal Depths was that about?” “I don’t know.” The tone and expression on the practitioner’s face said otherwise. … Crow, Barghast, and Sara made their way through the trees. Each gentle gust of the cold winter air brought unbidden memories, memories Crow 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; since bumping into the grieving woman at Olmsteadt, the fear had returned. 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; the fear at failing at a responsibility far too great. 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. Crow, in the territory where he’d been raised and lived most of his life, made the least noise. And then there was the fear he would be exposed to the Stray Dogs. Sara kept looking at him suspiciously, not saying anything. How long would it be before she started asking questions? And how long would it be before he could no longer evade them? They can’t find out. It would ruin everything. But it was getting more and more difficult to keep his secrets. Crow 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. Crow 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, and lurking beneath the fear, his anger; these emotions were his propellant. 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. Crow 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.” Crow’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 Crow marched purposely 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 Crow and were fumbling with their weapons. Before either of them could fire a shot, Crow waved a hand and a blast of flame threw the two Red Wraiths off their feet and crashing through the door of the watchtower in a shower of splinters. The Red Wraiths at the top of the tower unleashed a torrent of rapid fire on Crow. The bullets bounced off the protective dome of mana Crow had encased himself in, kicking up dirt and snow. They were so focused on Crow 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 Crow’s vision as bullets ricocheted 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. 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. Crow 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. Or so he told himself. With every Red Wraith body he dropped, there was an underlying sense of excitement and satisfaction. The woman from Olmsted’s words flashed through his mind: He’d said you would come and rid us of the demon filth one day. He said you would avenge the death of my daughter Mael, of all our husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. Please, you must avenge them! And so I will, he thought, even if it means I have to make every Red Wraith and Scarlet Church bastard bleed. With a wild war cry a Red Wraith lunged at Crow 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, Crow 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 Crow 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 be disappointed? Crow thought he knew the answer - but then again he really didn’t know anything anymore, did he? … Loras knelt in the dimness of her office, in a circle of candles; she’d drawn the drapes over the windows and lit several incense sticks. She breathed in the smell of perfume and lavender and jalasa. I shouldn’t be doing this, she thought. It’s dangerous. For all I know he’s been turned to their cause. But then he wouldn’t see her, would he? She had to see him. She focused and felt her Aspect leave her body. It traveled through the roof of the Eurchurch headquarters, over Miffland, and the hellscape. She was far too nervous to enjoy the trip. It had been several years since she last saw him. She was sure there would be changes to his appearance and character. To both of ours, she thought. A few moments later - it was hard to say how much time had passed - her astral body floated through the roof of his office. He was sitting in his chair, hands buried in his face. She could feel the weight of his guilt resting upon his shoulders, making them sag slightly. He lifted his face after a moment and she could see how much he’d aged. His hair had turned grey and there were lines of stress and worry etched into his face. His eyes had reddened with tears. My dear Benedik, she thought, what have you done to yourself? Loras’ heart lurched with pain. Somewhere within the cynical caricature she could see the man she had once loved. Back then he had been full of wit and bravery, a man who wore his morals on his sleeve. Like Matthias, (who had given her and the people who fought with her asylum in the city of Fruimont) he had supported her cause, but in a completely different way. He comforted her on the nights when she doubted herself the most, providing her encouragement and clarity when she needed it the most; and holding her, kissing her, loving her when she couldn’t do any of those things herself. When their affair had first started her heart had been cold. She was only in it for the touch. She would lay awake at night still haunted by the guilt of her husband and daughter, sick with feelings of guilt that she was betraying Janif, with Benedik’s slumbering form next to him. But she couldn’t stop herself from loving him, no matter how hard she tried to. Upon seeing him in his brokenness she loved him still, now more than ever when it was apparent that picking up his father’s duties had whittled away at him like a thick branch reduced to splinters. “Benedik,” she whispered. “Hang in there. Help is on the way. You only have to be strong a little while longer.” He looked up then, right at her. He squinted. She froze. Could he see her? Surely not. Only those with mana in their blood would be able to see her. But he was looking intently in her direction, head cocked as if he’d seen something. Time passed before he sighed and muttered, “You’re losing it old man.” Then he stood up, grabbed his jacket, and left his office, closing the door softly behind him. With a flash Lora felt her Aspect crash back into her body. She fell back, gasping for breath, her body shaking. Her heart stung with grief and longing.”Benedik,” she whispered, resting a hand on her breast. “Oh Benedik...”
  13. Benedik Matthiesen lay in bed, listening to his wife’s breathing. Sheathia was laying on her side, head resting on top of 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 were reflected in the crowd forced to watch, for to witness these punishments was now mandatory. What would his father have thought if he were to see his son today? What would he say? 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 - that’s what Matthias Matthiesen would have told him. You do what needs to be done for your people, no matter the cost. How many times had Matthias told him that, his breath stinking of whiskey, before taking his last drink and never taking another? Matthias would have done more; he wouldn’t have just sat around feeling sorry for himself while his city burned and rivers of blood ran through his streets. But there was nothing Benedik could do now, or his father, for he was no longer mayor and Matthias was dead. Damen Orlys had taken over the mantle, keeping Benedik and Sheathia and their two children, Nicholas and Elise, around to watch his city fall. Not even during the days of the Eurchurch-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 Eurchurchman associated with the Eurchurch 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 Eurchurch 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 son of the respected man who had aided Loras Gyrell’s campaign against Pope Drajen was but a cowardly shadow of his father. 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 to 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 Eurchurch 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 as 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, that 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 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 for them only seemed to grow, 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. “Benedik, 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. Mercius 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 them 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 the horse came to a stop beside him. After paying the driver, Benedik paid the driver. He was glad to be out of the cold. The clopping of hooves sounded as the horse broke into a light trot. 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? Her and my father both would be laughing at me in scorn. 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 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. He climbed up several flights of steps before reaching the council 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 Infernal Depths. I hope I live long enough to see the day. The High Priest cleared his throat, scanning each and every one of the faces before him. “Have there been any more 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 an ornament. The only part 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 their chairs, 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 his 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 suspected 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 Eurchurch 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 the 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 belonged 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 was not among their ranks - not yet. But I remember watching as the world began to shift, seeming to collapse in on itself, as if being sucked into a black hole. The rules of matter and gravity discovered by the scientists and geniuses of the Old World no longer existed. Ever since then I have been in awe of and terrified of the power the Primordial Caste can wield. But it is a truly awesome power, one that should be respected.” Benedik shivered at the mention of the Primordial Caste. Just saying those two words was considered blasphemy by the Eurchurch and punishable by death. “The First Disciple was defeated, killed by the 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 Agent? My, how the Eurchurch 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 Eurchurch’s vault along with all the others. “Ex’olku. The Eurchurch knows him and worships as Mercius.” 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 has only been one Agent in the past. No one know what happened to him...After the defeat of the First Disciple he just...disappeared. My guess is he’s around no longer. Though I do expect there will be another in his place.” “For five centuries the hellscape 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 Infernal Depths 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 Viktor Sanae, 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. 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? Is this the Agent Ex’olku has anointed? 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 Eurchurch 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. 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. 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.”
  14. Thank you for your comment. I am glad you are enjoying the story and that you like Crow.
  15. Coming back into his own body, Crow 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 Crow, 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?” Crow 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 Crow. “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.” Crow 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 power trip. Like I can do almost anything and no one can stop me. When I was in Fort Erikson though, 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 murmured. “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 Crow, 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. Not to mention we need to get the blood off your face.” Blood? He was only now tasting it on his lips. Crow smiled. “Tea sounds really good.” Back in Loras’s office Crow 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, Crow was still incredibly exhausted. It would be a day or two before he was fully back to normal. I’ll sleep well tonight, he thought. Loras handed him a large mug of steaming jalasa tea and a wet rag before sitting in the chair opposite him. After wiping the blood from his face, 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 Eurchurch-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. Crow didn’t know how to reply so he just took a sip of his tea. Everyone knew the death of Loras’ daughter and husband was the true spark that had started the war between the practitioners of the Plaesil mountains and the Eurchurch. “Where are you from Crow? 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 Eurchurch 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?” Crow 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 Eurchurch 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?” Crow 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, Crow 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 disciples 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 want 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.” Crow 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.” Crow 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, Crow 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 Eurchurch 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 Crow 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. … Something had been different about Crow after he’d come back from the Infernal Depths. Loras had felt it. Most people would have been drained after taking a trip to the Abyss. And he had fought a demon priest of the Second Caste. No mere Casteless, not a lightweight, she thought. He had come back reinvigorated. She had felt the expanding of his power: it had made the hairs on the back of her arms and neck stand on end. She knew she should have said something about it but she’d simply been too relieved to see he had returned back alive. Now, as she paced around her office once more, her mind wouldn’t leave it alone. She kept thinking about the expression on his face: the look of euphoria, the illusion that with mana you could do anything your heart desired. She had seen it on many faces over the years and knew she had worn the mask of power while walking through miles upon miles of the blood she’d spilt. It was something every practitioner dealt with throughout their life. Some conquered it, but many did not, giving into the power, using too much, until they lost their minds. Because of this they died slowly. Their bodies lived but their minds did not. Over the years she had tried to distance herself from it as best she could. There was power in control and patience; but there were times when it could be just as draining. There are times when I just want to let go, be damned of the consequences. Loras sunk into her chair suddenly fuming. Pope Drajen’s face rose up before her mind’s eye. Not so long ago I promised I would bring your beloved church to the ground; I promised I would rip your bones from your body and crush them into sand. It would be a slow, agonizing death. It’s only fair after everything you took from me and my people. But sometimes when I stop long enough to sit down, I realize how tired I feel and how hard it is to keep hating someone, how it breaks down body and soul - until I see your face again and then it brings it all back. One day, when all of this is over, I will keep my promise. 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 trusted 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 Crow last night. In her thirty years she never thought she would meet anyone who had lived a life as hard as her own. But within Crow 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 Infernal Depths 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.” “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 the world, basing the law on their beliefs not what the people believed; and fighting for the chance to rule was the Scarlet Church. The Eurchurch 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 Eurchurchman 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. “Crow 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.” … Crow 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 Eurchurch!” a deep male’s voice barked from the other side. Crow frowned, the joint hanging from his lips. What was the Eurchurch 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. Crow 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. “Sure. Excuse me if the place is a mess. I wasn’t expecting company.” He led the Pope inside, followed by the two Eurchurchman. Crow 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?” Crow 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. Crow 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 you 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? Crow thought. Of course, she must have said something to the Pope. She had opened a way for Crow to get into Fruimont only he wasn’t going alone as he planned. This should have made Crow 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 thought I would let you know personally.” Crow smiled. “I appreciate that. I feel honored.” He couldn’t have told a greater lie; the very sight of the man before him made Crow 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 Crow 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’olku said. “Mercius was with me,” Crow 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, Crow 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?” Crow 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.” Crow felt a jolt of triumph as he watched Drajen’s jaw clench in frustration. “Have a good day, Crow 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 Eurchurch’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 Crow arrived. There was a chair opened between Barghast and Sara. Relieved, Crow immediately gravitated to it but noted that though they were sitting next to each other as per usual, Sara and Lydia were not holding hands. In fact they were both stiff, not looking at each other. Crow 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 Crow. “How was your two day break? Have any fun?” As always Crow felt his spirits lift when he was around the Okanavian. By fun do you mean taking a first class trip to the Abyss and fighting a Second Caste demon? What he said instead was, “Not really. I stayed home.” “You should get out, live a little, get laid.” Crow 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 received 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 Crow 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 Crow. 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 conscience, haunting him to the end of his days. 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 Eurchurch-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 Eurchurch, 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 Crow could see the worry on her face; she had never 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 Crow, specifically meaning him. “How will we get into the 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 lookout duty. They are close enough to the city that they can alert security of any 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." Crow 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.” Crow 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.” Crow 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.”
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