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ValentineDavis21

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  1. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 23

    Lane hadn’t meant to bring the building down around his ears but the fear had magnified the effect of his power. The possessed had all started closing in on him at once, their courage bolstered by their numbers. There hadn’t been time to do anything else but act out of desperation. Some Agent of Ex’olku I am, he thought. I destroy everything I come in contact with. The edges of his vision had started to darken. Second by passing second he could feel his hold on the world slipping away. The only things that tethered him to consciousness was knowing if he passed out he would die. He would either burn to death or C’thla would get him; he doubted his spell had killed her - she was the most powerful demon he’d encountered thus far. And then there was Barghast, the feeling of his arm around Lane’s waist, pulling him along. He’s here. He’s really here. But how? Daylight. Air. They were out of the inferno finally. Lane fell to his knees, gasping. It had never felt so good to breathe, the pressure in his lungs easing. “Oh, thank the Light,” he heard a familiar voice say and looked up to see Loras running towards them. She looked relieved. “ I thought you were both dead for sure.” Lane staggered to his feet and turned towards the remains of the saloon. Together the three of them watched the remaining walls of the saloon fall in on each other, spitting embers and smoke into the sky. Where’s C’thla though? he thought. What’s she waiting for? “Are you okay?” Barghast’s voice, his presence so close to Lane, tugged at his attention. “I’m fine.” And then he remembered how Barghast had rejected him, the sting of it. He still felt it and it made him angry and uncomfortable and vulnerable at the same time. He looked between Loras and the Okanavian. “I’m not going back. You can say what you want but I’m done with the Chantry.” “Well the Chantry isn’t done with you,” said Loras. “You’re wanted a man. You can come with us and we can deal with this together or a platoon of Chantrymen can take you before Pope Drajen in shackles.” Before Lane could respond the sound of snapping wood alerted him; in response he held up a hand, straining his ears. He prayed he was just being paranoid. But the others had turned their heads and were doing the same. A piece of burnt board fell. C’thla emerged from the wreckage, covered in soot from head to toe. The flames had burned off her hair and dress; what remained of her flesh was blackened. The only thing which was truly visible were her eyes, which burned with the silver cunning of a fox. Her hips swayed from side to side with the feline grace of a predatory animal. “I liked that dress,” she said. “It will take me the whole day to grow back my hair.” Barghast was the first to react. He pumped his shotgun and pulled the trigger. The explosion of sound it made filled the deserted station. C’thla’s chest was ripped open in a spray of flesh, bone, and blood. She fell back, her arms pinwheeling. There were several more blasts before the shotgun clicked dry. Blood fell from C’thlas wounds as she made a sickening sound that was half gurgle and half laugh. “You’ve bought yourself a few minutes at most,” she croaked. “You better start running.” “I suggest we do as she says,” said Loras. Lane, Barghast, and Loras broke into a run, sprinting back in the direction of the station’s gate. … The nerves all over Cthla’s body were firing away. Her brain - my brain, not Sara’s, she had to remind herself - alerted her to every sensation. She pressed her hands to the large wound in her stomach where her insides were seeping out. She felt woozy from loss of blood. Everything burned. The Okanavian had done a number on her. Her wounds weren’t a concern to her. Within minutes she would heal, her body good as new. However, for the moment at least, there was another problem: For the first time since C’thla had hijacked this body, Sara’s presence was strong. Frantic. Angry. She was pushing at the demoness, shouting: Leave them alone, you bitch! You just leave them alone! Her voice echoed like a bell chiming within the walls of C’thla’s mind. Clenching her teeth, C’thla sucked in a breath and clutched her head in between her hands. The fact her host was fighting back, trying to regain control of her body, infuriated C’thla. There’s nothing you can do to stop me! she screeched back. I’m going to kill everyone you ever cared about. You are powerless to fight my will, as she drove Sara back into the recesses of her subconscious with the viciousness of a rabid animal, until Sara was silent once more. With that taken care of C’thla turned her focus back to her body. While she’d been distracted in a mental tug-of-war with her host, her body had slowly begun to heal. Muscles building themselves back together, bones reforming, flesh restitching itself. Bullets pushed themselves from out from various wounds and fell to the ground. She rose slowly to her feet. Time’s up, she thought. … Barghast, Lane, and Loras sprinted through the gate of Umstadt Station. Barghast was relieved to find the bus was where they had left it, with its engine idling and its doors open. They jumped on, Lane at the front, then Loras, then Barghast. “Punch it!” Barghast roared. Jack didn’t need further encouragement. Slamming on the gas pedal, he reversed the bus and spun it around. Within seconds they were back on the Daminion Highway; dandelion fields and trees passed them by in a blur of colors. “What in the Abyss happened?” Jack asked, eyes bulging behind his spectacles. He reached up long enough to push them up off the bridge of his nose. “C’thla,” Barghast, Lane, and Loras said all at the same time. “You mean Sara?” said Jack. “Sorry to tell you, buddy, but she’s not Sara anymore,” said Barghast. “She’s long gone. Whatever’s left of her is gone.” “What the fuck is going on?” Jack cried. “How could things change so quickly? Where are we going anyway?” “I don’t know. I figured anywhere’s good as long as it’s away from C’thla,” Barghast said as he loaded shells into his shotgun. “Everyone just shut up!” Loras barked. “I can’t think with everyone prattling about!” She looked at Lane; the two practitioners had moved to the back of the bus where they could watch for C’thla. “Are you ready for a fight?” Underneath his mask of soot and smeared eyeshadow Lane looked completely calm. He nodded once but said nothing. He looked out the window once and said in a toneless voice, “Here she comes.” Barghast joined the two practitioners at the back of the bus. Sure enough, after a few seconds, he spotted a dark shape flying through the air like a bullet. Just when you think you’ve seen it all they do something new, he thought. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end as the two practitioners gathered their power around them. His flesh broke out in goosebumps. He instinctively took a few steps back, not wanting to be too close to the practitioners when they did their thing. Somehow he sensed a contrast - a very slight one - in the levels of their power. Loras had a better sense of control; she’d had decades to hone her skills. Lane’s was more wild and raw. In a few years who knew where he would be. Having seen all he was capable of thus far, the thought made Barghast feel slightly uneasy. Barghast felt another shift in the air, this one coming from above. C’thla was coming towards them, a titaness of terror and power. Though it was impossible to fully deny the truth, Barghast was still having trouble accepting it was Sara’s body being used as a vessel for destruction. They’d fought side by side for three years. He’d come to see her as an equal, a member of their ragtag family. Now she was gone. The sky darkened around C’thla’s form, as if she was sucking away the daylight. “Be ready,” Loras murmured. Barghast had just enough time to blink when Loras let loose, a lance of dark energy shooting straight for the bus. He gripped the tops of the seat on both sides of him and braced for impact. ... A strange sense of calm came over Lane. I don’t have a choice. I can’t just walk away from this, wring my hands of it - I’m stuck with it whether I like it or not. Perhaps this realization was the source of the calm. A second before the beam of dark energy hit the bus, Lane brought up a shield of blue mana. The mana spread around the outside of the bus, wrapping it in a protective bubble. Lane hoped between Loras’s and his combined power, the shield would be strong enough to protect the bus from potential damage. The dark mana hit the bus with the force of a freight train. All around him he sensed the bus shaking, felt it bounce off the ground, before thumping back down. It felt as if every bone in his body was trying to fall apart. The force of C’thla’s attack took him completely off guard. Already he could feel his body starting to ache. If she hits us again I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this a third time, he thought. Jack swerved to the left, narrowly avoiding another beam of dark mana from C’thla. The ground shook and rumbled, fissures opening in the cement before the bus. Jack avoided them deftly, turning the bus this way and that. Lane thought he heard Loras shout a curse but he couldn’t be sure with the deafening throbbing within his head. It wouldn’t be long before the headaches started. Up above, twin orbs of red light shot from C’thla’s hands. Lane gritted his teeth and pushed more of his will into the ward. It wasn’t enough. The sound of the dark mana was like a bomb going off. One second Lane was standing upright, holding on for dear life and the next the bus was spiraling around and around. He bounced, feeling as if two giants were batting him back and forth in a cruel game. At some point he thought he heard Barghast shout something but he couldn’t be sure. For a moment everything was black. When Lane came to everything was still, silent. Everything hurt. Somehow the bus had completely flipped over so he was lying on the ceiling and the seats were above him. Someone was screaming in pain. He looked up in time to see Jack pull Loras through the shattered windshield. A jagged piece of glass stuck out of her leg. The rapid fire of Barghast’s gun split the air, making Lane’s ears throb. Everything was still wrong. He crawled towards the windshield. Something felt broken, like he’d cracked several ribs. Despite his attempts to avoid doing so, he cut his hands on shards of glass; more cut through his jeans. Barghast stopped shooting long enough to help pull Lane through the windshield. “My ribs,” Lane gasped, “I think there’s something wrong with my ribs.” It hurt just to talk. “Can you walk?” “I think so.” Barghast cast a glance towards the sky. He actually look frightened; Lane had never seen the Okanavian look frightened before. “We got to go. She’s still comin’.” Lane craned his head back to look up. Sure enough C’thla was flying towards them - she wasn’t done yet. He looked at the others. Jack was trying to wrap a piece of torn fabric from his shirt around Loras’s wounded leg. Already blood was starting to seep through the fabric. With Loras wounded Lane knew they didn’t have a chance of escaping. Movement from the North caught Lane’s attention. A platoon of five Chantry trucks were heading in their direction, the sides and fronts of the vehicles covered in armored plating. Each vehicle had the Chantry’s insignia painted on the side - a sun. “Fuck me,” said Loras. C’thla must have seen them too for she had stopped her flight and now hovered in the air. The air seemed to crackle as she drew in her mana. Even before he sensed this, Lane had known what she was going to do. He drew on his own mana and summoned a ward around the oncoming group of trucks as C’thla unleashed a torrent of dark mana. The truck hit the brakes as the dark mana collided with the ward; the ward absorbed the impact before evaporating. The second truck hit its brakes but it was already too late. It hit the first with a deafening crash. Lane watched with a feeling of mounting dread as the third crashed into the group. One of the trucks flew through the air before landing on its back and was sliding across the pavement straight towards the upturned bus. With just a second to react Lane summoned another ward to stop the truck in its tracks. The other trucks had stopped. Chantryman were stepping out, armed with rifles. More were trying to crawl their way out of the wreckage. There was glass everywhere. Lane thought he smelled gas. Fumes rose from beneath the hood of one of the trucks. Blood started to flow from his nose. One of the Chantryman shouted and pointed up at the sky. Lane didn’t have to turn around to know he was pointing at C’thla. In seconds Lane’s ears were ringing relentlessly with the sound of gunfire. C’thla landed on the ground just yards away from him. Bullets tore into her from every direction; her flesh was still blackened from the fire. Sprays of her blood splattered the Daminion Highway’s cracked pavement. She merely laughed, firing a torrent of dark mana in their direction. Lane couldn’t bring himself to watch the havoc being done; the sound of agonized screams was enough. “Lane,” Loras said, getting to her feet with Jack’s help, “we have to do something. Throw everything we have at the bitch.” He nodded and drew on his mana. Pain shot through his head like a hot bullet but he ignored it, pushind it back inside himself. “Feri!” he shouted. Flames flew from his hands and hit C’thla, making her stumble back several steps. She grunted and righted herself. She opened her mouth to fling a spell back but before she could Loras attacked her with her own spell. The two practitioners flung everything they had at C’thla. Within seconds blood was flowing from Lane’s nose and ears. His belly started to cramp. No matter what he and Loras threw at C’thla or how much they put into the spell it barely seemed to cause her any damage. He had accepted they were just fighting the inevitable but it was better than standing around waiting to die. C’thla blocked one of Lora’s fireballs. It seemed to bounce off her hand and flew back at Loras. With a cry Loras spun through the air and hit the ground with a thud, her clothes smoking. Lane couldn’t tell if she was unconscious or dead. He opened his mouth to pour the last of what he had in him, for better or worse, but before he could, C’thla had him by the throat. With a strength that wasn’t human she lifted him off his feet, squeezing the air from his lungs. “You’re going to die today, Agent of Ex’olku,” she said. “I’m going to squeeze the life out of you.” Desperate, Lane tried reaching out to Sara, hoping she was still somewhere in there with Sara. Sara if you’re there, help us - please! And he felt something stir within C’thla. A familiar presence. Something answered, distant, but there: I’m here. She’s so strong...and I’m so tired, but I’ll do what I can. For a moment - just a moment - C’thla’s eyes turned from silver to blue. Sara had regained control for the time being. Grimacing, as if in great agony, she released Lane. “Go Lane,” she rasped. “I can’t hold her back for long. You must leave now.” And then she was levitating through the air, flying further and further away from them until Lane could no longer see her. He crawled over to Loras’s body. She was alive, just unconscious. He tried to rise, only to feel something hard press against the back of his head. He knew it was the muzzle of a gun. “Don’t move, practitioner,” a man’s voice said. “You are under arrest for blaspheming against the Chantry.” … The thing in the mirror staring back at C’thla barely looked human. Its flesh charred and blackened, its eyes stared back at her with barely restrained fury. Look at what they’ve done to me, she thought. They have damaged this body. But this wasn’t why she was furious. First, she had opened herself to attack more than she should have. By going after Lane she had showed one of the few, more direct vulnerabilities she had, which led to the real, true reason for her fury: Sarah. For a moment Sarah had gained control of her body, overthrowing C’thla. It hadn’t taken C’thla that long to overpower Sara - it never did. While Sara was certainly powerful she could not match C’thla. And yet...Lane had reached through to Sara, had communicated with her and Sara had come through, bolstered by her love for Lane and the others. What if he found some way to do it again? I was a fool to go after them the way I did. Her flesh was starting to heal in places: the burnt spots peeling off like paper mache, hair starting to sprout back into place. Still, she couldn’t stand the sight of herself. She was grotesque looking. She wanted to break the mirror, shatter the glass with her fist. She resisted the urge. I have to do something. It’s a good thing I have another plan in place. The plan she was thinking of had been in the making for many millennia. As with finding a host who was compatible with her, she’d had to wait for the perfect partner. She’d waited patiently and now the moment was here. Naked, she stepped away from the mirror and turned to face Damien. They were alone in his bedroom together. He slumbered silently in the canopied bed, his glamour gone for the moment, showing his true state. The bed, with its scarlet curtains hanging from the oak wood canopy seemed to swallow him, the matching red blankets pulled up to his wrinkled chin. His arms were like wrinkled white twigs; his face, once so handsome, sagged. There was a part of her that looked upon his with disgust, at war with the mixture of pity and compassion she felt towards him that was growing more and more into love. She couldn’t tell if this feeling of revulsion was Sara or herself. C’thla knew from having searched through Sara’s memories that her host was not a lover of men. It doesn’t matter. All women's’ bodies are designed for one purpose, This body is no different. C’thla padded silently over to the bed and sat down, being careful not to wake him. She loved to watch him sleep. It was the only time when Damien wasn’t smiling, wasn’t trying to hide his true face. It was time to tell him the truth: the real reason for why she was here. She reached over and gently stroked the flesh of his cheek with the tip of her finger. His flesh felt coarse beneath her own, like leather. The corner of his eye creased slightly beneath her finger. He stirred and opened his eyes. He looked at her and let out a frightened moan. He jerked away from her, trying to climb off the bed. “Damien, it’s me,” C’thla said gently. He went still. He looked at her, lower lip quivering. “C’thla what has happened to you?” “I imagine I look quite grotesque right now.” “No more grotesque than I.” She smiled, her lips crackling like dead leaves. “Then we’ll be grotesque together. You have been in bed since I left. It’s time to get up now. Come take a bath with me. I promise you’ll feel better.” Gently she coaxed him out of bed, leading his frail naked body into the bathing chamber. She went about filling the basin with hot water, pouring perfume and soap into the water. When the basin was full enough to her liking she helped him into the water. The heat of the water hurt her burnt flesh but C’thla ignored the pain; more blackened flakes started peeling off, floating on top of the water’s surface. “Will you wash me?” she asked, handing Damien a sponge. “But your flesh...” “It will hurt but it will also speed the process. Underneath the damaged flesh is new flesh.” “As you wish, my priestess.” With a shaking hand he began to gently rub the spong along her back, scraping away the dead flesh. The process was slow and painful but C’thla remained silent. Underneath, new healthy flesh appeared. “Do you like this body?” she asked. “Yes, it is very attractive.” She leaned against his body gently. She reached down, searching until she found his penis. She took it in her hand and squeezed it hard enough to make him gasp. She felt it harden between her fingers. It was a good length. Slowly she began to stroke it. “I fight this war on two fronts,” she said as she pumped her hand, beginning a steady rhythm. “Against Ex’olku and the Chantry, and against the Primordial Caste.” Accept for Damien’s quickening breaths he offered no reply. Somewhere inside herself C’thla could feel Sara’s discomfort. You don’t like this, do you? You’ve never been with a man before, have you? This is what you get for crossing me. This is your punishment. “For as long as I can remember I have been a slave to the Primordial Caste,” she said. “While I am the leader of my own caste I am not at the top of the totem pole, as the saying goes. Even after I complete this mission I’ve been sent here for, I will be a slave, cowering at the Primordials’ feet. Compared to them I have no power, I might as well be human. I want to be free - completely free of my chains. Do you love me, Damien?” “Yes,” he croaked. She turned to face him, letting go of his erection. She kissed his wrinkled lips, her eyes glowing in the dim light that filled the chamber. “Do you love me enough to stand by my side forever and always?” “Yes. I would follow you wherever you go,” he said. “But how could we possibly stand against the Primordials? Even with us standing together how could we possibly overthrow them?” “We have a child together,” she said. “You and me.” Damen’s eyes widened. “Is that possible?” “In this body and with you at my side, anything is possible. But if I’m to be free of the Primordial Caste I cannot do this on my own. You must help me. With a child we can do that. Together we can create a child that can tear open the sky and bring the Primordial Caste and everyone else down to their knees.” She kissed him once more, this time deeper, tasting his spit. Damen wrapped his arms tighter around her waist and pulled her in so she could feel the head of his erection pressing against her belly. Inside her head, C’thla could hear Sara screaming. To you this must feel like rape as I force your body to do things you don’t want to do, C’thla said as she guided Damen inside her. There’s nothing you can do - so I suggest you sit back and enjoy the ride.
  2. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 22

    Two days after Lane Hardy left Miffland, Pope Drajen called for an unscheduled emergency meeting. Loras was just sitting down to drink her tea when Strabetha Vacuity came into her office to give her the news. “Whatever for?” Loras asked. “Has something else happened with the Scarlet Church?” Strabetha shrugged. “No one seems to know anything. I’m just passing along the message. We meet within the hour.” Loras set her mug firmly on the desk. “No rest for the wicked, is there?” “It would seem so,” Strabetha said with a weary sigh. “See you there.” For the next hour Loras wondered what the reason could be for Pope Drajen so abruptly calling a meeting. A dark cloud already loomed over her thoughts. Her insomnia had only gotten worse since she found out Lane Hardy had left Miffland. Every time she went to sleep she woke up with a start, having dreamt of things she wished she could forget. Without Lane what would happen? Where had he gone? Where would he go? What would he do when he got there? Thinking of his absence made her heart feel heavy. She had come to care for him in a short amount of time. She left her office five minutes before the meeting time. The jalasa tea had done little to calm her nerves. A premonition had come over her that something bad was getting ready to happen, a feeling in the air. Fighting in wars and politics had taught her to trust her gut. When she stepped into the meeting room the table was already full, everyone in their seats. She felt eyes follow her as she took her place at the head of the table, opposite the pope. He and his two advisors, Ecgwald Kovat and Alfred Provost, were deep in conversation, keeping their voices down to a whisper. Pope Drajen looked stricken. Perturbed. Loras wondered what was happening that would have him so aggravated. The rest of the room was silent, waiting for the meeting to begin. The tension was thick. Loras wasn’t the only one nervous. Several people fidgeted. At long last Pope Drajen turned to face the rest of the room and cleared his throat. “It has come to my attention,” he said in a voice trembling with anger, “that we have a traitor in our midst.” He paused for a moment to let words sink in. Then he stood and held up a wanted poster. Loras felt as if her insides had fallen out. On the front of the poster was a sketch of Lane Hardy. The inky eyes stared back at her with the same intensity the real life version would have. “I received word from a member of D-Squad yesterday revealing Lane Hardy to be a spy for the Scarlet Church. I want him found. I want copies of this poster spread throughout the ‘scape. All of Fruimont will see how we punish those who conspire with the Scarlet Church. Dismissed.” Standing on legs that felt made of jelly, Loras slid past Ecgwald Kovat and Alfred Provost. “That boy is not a spy, Pope Drajen,” she said in her most earnest voice. “The woman who told you this - and I suspect I know who it is - is lying. She’s twisted by her anger, blaming him for something that isn’t his fault. Please, you must believe me.” Her chest was tightening. She felt as if someone had seized her heart in their fist and was squeezing it. The look he gave her was full of dull stubbornness; she knew there was nothing she could say to convince him to leave Lane Hardy alone. “I never liked him,” the pope said. “There was always something about him...I didn’t know what it was but I could it sense it. Now I know. He will have a chance to explain himself, Loras Gyrell. Right before the executioner’s axe separates his head from his body.” … Loras stormed into her office and slammed the door behind her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this angry. The air was thick around her and crackling with static energy, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She wanted to lash out at something, anything, to make this anger go away. It was too dangerous. She needed to alleviate it. And she knew just who to alleviate it on, too. She summoned Strabetha into her room. “I want Barghast, Mara, and Jack in my office right away,” Loras said. She was hunched over her desk, her hands clenched into fists. Her voice shook with barely suppressed anger. She could sense Strabetha’s anxiety. Something about the way she pursed her lips, eyebrows knitted together, only annoyed Loras further. “Go. Get them. Now.” “Right away,” said Strabetha, and fumbled with the door before getting out of the room. Loras sunk into her chair and tried to keep the atomic bomb of anger from exploding inside her. A half an hour passed, in which she did not move from her slouched position, before the door opened, and the three people she summoned came traipsing into her office, Barghast first, then Jack, and Mara, followed by a Chantryman armed with a rifle. “Out,” she told the Chantryman, pointing at the door. “But...” the Chantryman said. “No. I said get out. If I have to tell you again you will not like the consequences.” The Chantryman shrunk back from her gaze. Like Strabetha had done he fumbled with the door before rushing out. She slammed it shut behind her before turning her fury on Mara. Before she knew what she was doing, she threw herself at Mara, shoving Jack to the side in the process, and grabbed Mara by the throat, slamming her up against the wall. Mara let out a cry of pain. “What the fuck are you doing?” Barghast growled, coming towards Loras. Loras speared him with her eyes. “Get back. Trust me, if you knew what this bitch has done, you’d want to kill her too. In the end you just might.” She craned her head to look at Mara. “You bitch. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Her fingers had tightened around Mara’s face. The woman pulled at her fingers but it was no use. Loras clung to her with all the strength she possessed. Mara’s face had turned a deep shade of red. “Nothing would satisfy me more than to flay you alive,” said Loras. “I could do it too, with a single word. It would be painful - very painful. When I get done cleaning up your mess I just might.” She released Mara, stepping back. Mara fell to her knees, gasping for breath. Loras turned to the other two remaining members of D-Squad. Their group has really shrunk down, she thought. “Right now Pope Drajen is putting out posters for Lane,” she panted, fighting to catch her breath. “He will be brought back and executed. All because this woman here” - she pointed at Mara - “told the pope Lane is a spy for the Scarlet Church.” “What?” Barghast’s eyes widened, the cracks in his face deepening. “Mara, is this true?” “Yes,” Mara rasped. She rose to her shaking feet and leaned against the wall. Tears oozed from the corners of her eyes. “Because I hate him. It’s his fault what happened to Sara.” “How can you say that?” Barghast growled. His hands clenched into fists, his jaw set. “He did everything he could to try and help us. No - you’ve always hated him - just for who he is. If it wasn’t for the fact I’m so close to completing my sentence, and it wouldn’t erase what you’ve done, I’d rip you in half with my bare hands. You’re a miserable creature.” Mara buried her face in her hands, shoulders quaking. “We need to get him,” Barghast said, “before someone grabs him. I never should have let him go. I should have held him and told him the truth. I was too scared.” “I agree,” Loras said, thinking of Benedik again, the life she could have lived, the love she had given up for her revenge. Her face and voice softened. She put her hand on Barghast’s shoulder. “Let’s go get our boy. Jack, get the bus ready.” … Lane Hardy walked along the Daminion Highway, his duffel bag danglingling from one shoulder. His robes were sticking to his back. The soles of his shoes were starting to peel off. The sky was beginning to darken; soon it would be night. As of now the road was empty and the only sound was the occasional howl of a coyote. Soon the possessed would come out from behind the hills. The freaks always come out at night, he thought. His back and legs ached. His waterskin was only a third full. Fortunately he knew he was getting close to Umstadt Station. There he would get a room for a few days and rest up before moving on. Then he would just keep walking. He glanced around and spotted a small grove of trees. It looked like a good place to rest until morning. He loped over to the grove of trees and removed his bedroll, a gust of wind caressing his cheek as he unrolled it. It felt good to sit down after walking so many miles. The first thing I'm going to do when I reach Umstadt Station is take a long, hot shower, he thought, stretching out. He thought about all the things he could do with his life now. He wasn't responsible for anyone but himself. There was no one to save, no one to shoot him scathing looks, or blame him when things went wrong. Within moments he dozed off and there were no dreams, no nightmares, only bliss. … “It will be dark soon,” Barghast said, looking anxiously out the window of the bus. “It'll be hard to spot him in the dark. We don't even know what direction he went in.” “Are you always this grim?” Loras asked. Barghast grimaced. “Not usually. But I'm worried about him.” He glanced back out the window as if he could make Lane appear through will alone. Loras shifted in her seat, grimacing. Damn these seats - they’re killing my back. “It’s partially his fault.. If it wasn’t for him running off we wouldn’t be on the Light-forsaken bus right now. It was a stupid decision on his part.” “Had we not been so careless he might not have made that decision in the first place,” Barghast rumbled. “We ignored him...” That’s what happens when fate makes you a hero...whether you want it or not, Loras thought darkly, watching the hills pass. In minutes they would be nothing but dark outlines, barely perceptible. You’re given responsibilities bigger than yourself. You mete out more than you have to give and get nothing back in return. There were so many times when I just wanted to turn my back on everyone, say fuck ‘em, throw all my stuff in a duffel bag, walk away, and never look back. So many times. And for some reason I never did. I’m still in this role and these old bones are weary. Many times, when she couldn’t sleep, she laid in bed. She would picture herself as a withered tree, the leaves dying, the trunk twisted and gnarled, the bark peeling off, infested with termites. She would think, If someone were to look into my soul this is what they would see, this withered tree. Loras shoved these feelings to the side: the weariness in her bones, the secret need to go to sleep and never wake up - to see Janif and Cara again if such a thing was possible. She couldn’t think about herself right now. She had to think about Lane. He was out there in the ‘scape, in the dark, in danger, in pain. How can I be so hypocritical as to put the blame on everyone else when I am just as much at fault? I saw the pain inside of him, saw it plain as day - it was there for everyone to see. No one looked and no one cared and I did nothing to help him. Loras turned to look at Barghast once again and felt her heart soften. We’re all lost souls, aren’t we? None of us know where we belong. “We’ll find him,” she said again, trying to reassure herself as much as he. “We’ll find him and say all the things we should have said and grab a hold of him and never let him go.” He nodded. “That we will do.” “I will reach out to him,” Loras said. “It will be the quickest way to find him.” She closed her eyes and drew her mana around her, reaching out with her mind. Lane, where are you? It didn’t take her long to find him. He was somewhere up ahead; perhaps two hundred miles away. Even from this distance he was a beacon of power, a vibration in the air impossible to miss. He had made an impressive distance in a short amount of time. There was a slight tugging sensation as Loras left her body. Like a leaf carried by the wind, her Aspect-form was blown into the air, over the hills and trees, where the possessed were starting to emerge like nocturnal animals, their hair, skin and ripped remains of their clothes were covered in blood, dirt, and feces. For a moment Loras allowed herself to enjoy the pleasurable sensation of flying, of being weightless, then she spotted Lane. He slept uneasily beneath a grove of trees. With his face washed in pale moonlight she could see his eyeballs moving wildly beneath the thin flesh of his eyelids. Seeing Lane like this was like watching herself toss and turn, wanting to escape the trauma and nightmares but being unable to do so. I wish I could take your pain, young practitioner, she thought. I wish I could comfort you as I would my own daughter if she was still alive. But I’m afraid there is only more pain and suffering for us both. “Lane.” Her voice echoed as if traveling down a pipe. “I know you’re tired but you must wake up...” … He snapped awake. The fear he felt was suffocating. All-consuming. He didn’t know where he was. The last thing he remembered was falling in a pit of blood and severed body parts. Something howled in the night. The sound had come from close by, somewhere to his right. It was a terrible, primal sound. Not human. Somehow Lane had managed not to scream. He sat rigid and still, too paralyzed to move. At the moment he was not Lane Hardy but only a living thing that sensed danger. He squinted, trying to will the darkness to reveal whatever terrible creature had made that blood-curdling sound. Pale humanoid shapes darted through the night, illuminated by streams of moonlight. A man and a woman ran naked beside each other, covered in dirt. They conversed wildly back in forth in the Demon’s Tongue. Lane wondered if they would see him and attack or be afraid of him and the protection Ex’olku’s touch had placed upon him. He wished he could make himself smaller. He wished he could make himself disappear. After a time the two possessed souls moved on, their howls and shouts fading into the night. Lane let out a sigh of relief. And then a voice, distant but familiar: “Lane...I know you’re tired but you must wake up...” Loras appeared, standing before him in Aspect-form. “Go away,” he said, angry and tired at the same time. He stood up and grabbed his bedroll and duffel bag. “Please just listen...” “No,” he said, “there’s nothing you or anyone else can say that I want to hear.” “You’re in the danger.” “What’s new?” he began to hike back towards the highway. Demons be damned. Loras glided after him. “Pope Drajem has sent out wanted posters of you.” “What for?” Lane asked. “Some lies Mara told him. She convinced him you were a spy for the Scarlet Church. Barghast and I are on our way to get you. Stay where you are.” “Don’t bother. I don’t want to see either of you.” “Don’t be ridiculous. How far do you think you’ll make it before they drag you back to the Chantry kicking and screaming? They’ll execute you. I can help you. We can fix this.” “I don’t want to fix it!” he screamed, anger welling up inside him. “I just want to be left the fuck alone!” His eyes blazed white with mana and with a wall of kinetic energy Lane shoved Loras’s Aspect away from him. … With a shriek, Loras was thrown back into her body. She felt as if she had been hit by a giant fist. The sensation took her utterly by surprise. He can really pack a punch. And then she realized what had happened, what he had done, and was enraged. “That little shit,” she swore. “What happened?” Barghast asked, expressions of hope and worry at war on his etched face. Even Jack was glancing back at them through the rearview mirror as he drove through the night. “He pushed me away,” Loras said. “Who?” “Who do you think, you big idiot. Lane. I found him, told him we were coming, and he pushed me back into my body.” “Did you mention…?” “Yes, I mentioned you were with me,” Loras snapped impatiently. “He wasn’t having it. In the name of the Light I had no idea he could be this stubborn.” She inwardly kicked herself when she saw the crestfallen look on Barghast’s face. “We will get to him, Barghast, you have my word on that, even if we have to drag him on this bus. He isn’t far from us. I have a pretty good idea where he’s going: Umstadt Station. We can be there by sunrise.” She got to her feet with a grunt. She felt sore, winded. Supporting herself by holding the back of the seats, Loras pulled herself to the front of the bus. “Head to Umstadt Station,” she told Jack. “Get us there as quickly as you can.” He simply nodded and pressed down harder on the gas pedal. … C’thla stood on the balcony of what had once been Benedik Matthien’s apartment, underneath a velvety black sky speckled with twinkling stars. The cold felt wonderful against her skin. Below her the streets had filled with the possessed. Some of them wandered around in the daytime but most of them were irritated by the light. Damen lay in the bed behind him, recovering emotionally from the events that had taken place in the square. Though the city was now hers and they had more power than ever before Damen seemed to have fallen into a depression that no magic could fix. C’thla was torn between pity, love, and disgust for the man. How could he be feeling bad for himself at this moment when they had an army at their beck and call? She glanced at his sleeping form. He had burrowed beneath the covers so she couldn’t see his face. She sighed. She was bored. For all the power she had she herself was unsatisfied. What had transpired in the square had given her just a taste of the pleasure to come. She was prepping the world for the Primordial Caste’s takeover. And who knew what the world would look like then. She was sure it would be beautiful, more beautiful than it was now. And perhaps I will finally be free, she thought. For as long as she could remember she’d served the needs of the Primordial Caste, bowing at their feet. It was only through loyalty and perseverance she’d managed to rise to the top of the Order of Chaos, gaining the title of High Priestess. But it isn’t high enough, she thought bitterly, yearning for the freedom she couldn’t ever remember having. Her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden ripple of power; it stirred the air like a vibration. She could almost feel it in her bones. She felt Sara stir, and knew her host felt it too. They both knew who it was. Two thoughts ran through C’thla’s brain at the same time, one belong to each soul. Lane. The Agent of Ex’olku. C’thla’s lips stretched into a slow smile. She was impressed. It had been just a short burst, gone as quickly as it had appeared, but she had felt it from across the ‘scape. Impulsively she knew she had to see him, just to have a little fun. She would toy with him first and then kill him. With him out of the way there would be no one who could oppose her. No, said Sarah, her voice now no louder than a whisper. Please. It seemed this was all she had the will to say. Her presence was diminishing more by the minute. In a week, maybe less, there would be nothing left of her and C’thla would have this body all to herself. But first the matter of the Agent. C’thla glanced back at Damen. He was still asleep. She could be back before he got up. The Agent was powerful but inexperienced. She would deal with him quickly...well not too quickly, but quick enough. … Daylight now. With his body aching all over Lane finally spotted Umstadt Station’s gate. He let out a sigh of relief. I’m here. I’m finally here. He’d been walking for the past five hours, only stopping long enough to refill his waterskin at a stream he’d come across. It was only through sheer will alone he’d pushed himself this far. Closing the rest of the distance, he allowed himself to imagine what it would feel like to lay in an actual bed, to get a real night’s worth of sleep. When he woke up again, probably some time midday tomorrow, he would step into the saloon again and have another order of those biscuits. The thought made him smile. The thought quickly vanished when he remembered what Loras had warned him about. Pope Drajen has sent out wanted posters of you. How could he have been so stupid to forget about that? Nonetheless he needed somewhere to sleep. He needed rest if he was to keep going. If a platoon of Chantrymen came and arrested him now he wouldn’t put up a fight but he wasn’t just going to hand himself over to them either. Within seconds he altered his appearance enough to where he felt he could pass without anyone recognizing him. He wouldn’t need it long - just until he could get behind a closed door. The bored Chantryman standing in the guardhouse didn’t recognize him. “What’s your business?” he asked Lane, stifling a yawn. He barely glanced at the disguised practitioner. “I just need a room for the night and then I’m on my way,” said Lane. The guard nodded once and the gates to the outpost opened. Nothing about Umstadt Station had changed since the last time Lane had been here. It seemed just as calm as ever. A few people walked along the outpost’s single street but Lane sensed no danger from them. Since he was not here on Chantry business, Lane would have to pay for tonight’s lodgings; this was of no concern to him, he had plenty of money for the time being. Moments later he stepped into a small room with a narrow bed, which was on the second floor of an old three story building that looked as if it had seen better days. The room had a small desk and a closet. Moth-eaten curtains hung from the window. The room smelled of smoke. Lane threw his duffel bag and bedroll onto the floor, grimacing. The bed beckoned to him. He kicked his boots off and sat down on the mattress. The bed springs creaked beneath his weight. He was asleep within seconds of laying down. He woke up sometime the next day. His belly rumbled with hunger and his throat felt dry. His back and thigh muscles still felt tight and sore but he felt well rested. I can’t remember the last time I had such a good night’s worth sleep. Now it was time to grab breakfast. Taking the staircase down to the first floor, he stepped out into the daylight. The sky was a bright, denim blue. Judging from the angle of the sun it was a little past noon. He took a deep breath, filtered it in and out through his lungs. He began to make his way towards the saloon. He was halfway to the saloon when he began to feel something wasn’t right. It was too quiet. There was no one on the street. No one. The silence made him feel uneasy. It’s nothing, he told himself. You’re just being paranoid. And yet he knew he wasn’t. His instincts told him otherwise. Lane was overcome with the urge to turn around and leave this place, to get back onto the Daminion Highway and keep walking as far as his legs could carry him. He wouldn’t stop until he reached the sea, until he saw its waters. But he didn’t do that, couldn’t make himself turn away and head out the door. Instead he went to the bar and sat next to the sheriff. He stared at the wall, not daring to look at the sheriff or anywhere else. I just want to be left alone, in peace. I’m tired of the running. I’m tired of being in danger. I’m exhausted, he thought wearily. “The saloons closed,” said the sheriff, clearing his throat. “I didn’t see a close sign on the door,” Lane said. He sounded braver than he felt. “And you’re here. Where is everyone?” “Gone,” said the Sheriff, his voice slurred. Lane felt a chill race up his spine. Gone where? The question lingered in the air between them. Sheriff O’Bannon looked at him, his face a blotchy red, his eyes jaundiced. From where he sat Lane could smell the whiskey on his breath. Lane forced himself to stand on legs that felt like jelly. “Good day, then.” “You’re not going anywhere.” O’Bannon slammed a piece of paper down on the desk. A second’s glance revealed it to be one of the Wanted posters of Lane. “You’re under arrest.” “Are you going to take me back to the Chantry?” The sheriff chuckled. “Light, no. I don't give a fuck about that old geezer. There's someone else who wants you dead. It seems you have a lot of enemies, boy.” The door to the saloon swung open. Men, women, and children began streaming into the saloon. Several of the women were dressed in white healer's habits; Lane recognized Mother Abigail, the head of the clinic. A few of the men wore Chantryman armor, their rifles hanging casually from their shoulders. The rest held broken bottles, large rocks, meat cleavers, and knives. Their eyes glowed, a mixture of red and yellow. More were coming in through the door behind the counter. Within seconds Lane was surrounded by a circle of the possessed. It seemed every soul in the Outpost was here in the saloon. The crowd parted and Sarah - C’thla - stepped to the front, her high heels clicking on the wood floor. Lane gaped. She looked completely different from the woman he’d known. Her hair was pinned up and her dress hugged her slim yet muscular frame like a second skin and she was wearing makeup. Lane couldn’t remember a time when Sara had ever worn makeup or a dress. Her silver eyes gleamed with cunning. “I told you back at the Scarlet Church you haven’t seen the last of me,” she said. Lane couldn’t bring himself to speak or move. “Do you have nothing to say?” she said. She held her arms out to the crowd of possessed who watched her with wide-eyed respect. Some of them stooped into a bow, murmuring in worship. “Don’t you love what I’ve done with the town?” Again, when he did not respond, she made a disappointed tsssking sound. “I was at least hoping you would put up a fight.” “Try me and see just how much fight I have in me,” he said. Loras’ voice inside his head: Lane, we’re getting close. Don’t go anywhere! Loras stay away! he shouted back. C’thla’s here! She’s here - stay away - It was all the warning he could give. The circle of the possessed was starting to close around him, moving slowly like animals preparing to strike, their eyes glowing with malice. Lane clenched his eyes shut and drew in his mana around him. … Jack brought the bus to a stop. He turned his head to look at Loras, his eyes wide behind his glasses. He reminded her of a timid little mouse. His arms were wiry and it seemed his Adam's Apple was always bobbing up and down. “Something's wrong,” he said. “Where are the guards? No one's watching the gates.” Loras frowned. Her instincts was telling her the same thing. But she knew Lane was in there - she could sense his presence and distress as well as the presence of another force; one that was malignant. It hung over Umstadt Station like a black cloud, only felt, not seen. But there all the same. It frightened her. The fact she was frightened at all only made her feel more uneasy. Whatever was inside, whatever trouble Lane had gotten himself into, she didn't want to square off with it. She reluctantly turned to Barghast. In the end it would be up to him; whatever he decided to do she would follow. He was slinging the strap of his shotgun over one broad shoulders; he already had his bulletproof vest on. He was dressed for killing. I wouldn't want to fuck with him, Loras thought. “I'll open the gate,” the Okanavian said as Jack opened the doors. Without another word he stepped off the bus, his dark eyes full of determination. Loras stepped off the bus after him and watched Barghast approach the gate. “Stay with the bus,” she told Jack. She hated the way her voice wobbled. “I will,” he said. She didn't know why, but before she could stop herself, Loras asked, “Will you be okay?” He smiled, the lines around his eyes crinkling pleasantly. “I'll be fine. This isn't my first rodeo. I'll honk the horn if I see any trouble coming your way.” Her heart gave an odd little flutter, something she hadn't experienced in a long time. She wanted to say something else but she couldn't find the words so she merely smiled at him before heading after Barghast. “Bahhh!” Veins and muscles bulged as Barghast pulled at the large door. He backpedaled, gears turning as the door slowly slid open. They walked inside, taking the outpost's single street. There wasn't a soul in sight. The mixture of unnatural stillness and silence made the hairs on the back of Loras's neck stand on end. The bright sun and cheerful, denim blue of the sky only made the atmosphere seem more out of place. “Where is everyone at?” Loras asked, unaware she was whispering. “I don't know,” Barghast whispered. “Let's just find Lane and get the fuck out of here. Can you reach out to him again?” “I can try,” she said with a huff, “but if he bats me away like he did the last time he’s on his own.” She sensed his presence almost instantly. He was close by, very close. The closer they got to him the stronger his presence became - but then so did the presence of danger. Lane, she sent out, we’re getting close. Don’t go anywhere! Hardly a second later: Loras stay away! C’thla’s here! She’s here - stay away - He sounded frantic. She could feel his presence coming from just up ahead. He was in the saloon, directly at the end of the street. She burst into a run, calling after Barghast. “Lane’s in the saloon. Something’s wrong - ” With a deafening BOOM the saloon exploded. One second Loras was running, just a few feet away from reaching the door, and the next her feet left the ground and she was flying backward. Out of instinct she shielded her body from the impact with mana. Now she was lying her back. This had all happened within the blink of an eye. Her view was of the sky was obstructed by the rolling pillars of smoke. Such a beautiful sky, she thought stupidly. Her ears rung. Her body ached all over. She tried to stand and felt something in her back protest. Did I break something? She wanted to stay down, ride the pain out, but the sense of danger was still there, stronger than ever. There would be no resting until it was dealt with - if it could be dealt with. It took her two more attempts to get on her feet. She gaped at what was left of the saloon. The explosion had gutted the building, obliterating the entire front wall. She could see burning rafters. There was grass and debris everywhere, and worse yet there were flocks of people running out of the wreckage, burning, screaming in agony. Loras was too stunned to be afraid, stupid with confusion. The smell of smoke brought her back to her younger days, days filled with blood and death and grief, and the need for revenge. She could have been back in her village, watching helplessly as a platoon of Chantrymen drove through her town, burning down houses and slaughtering anyone who stood in their way. Burning humanoid shapes ran past her. Some fell, babbling madly in the Demon Tongue, and then fell to their knees. None of them seemed to care she was there. “Lane!” The trumpet of a familiar voice brought Loras fully back to herself. Barghast was running towards the burning wreckage. He ran with a limp; there was a bloody scrape on the back of his arm and a gash on the side of his face. It was impossible to tell how deep it was. His face was drawn in a naked mask of panic. He’s going to get himself killed, she thought. Men are so stupid. “No Barghast!” she thought but he had already vanished into the wreckage. Whatever physical pain Barghast was in was replaced by the possibility once again he was too late - when it came to the matter of Lane Hardy he had always been too late. He had been hoping for a chance to fix things. For Barghast, the physical pain such as it was, amounted to nothing. He was a collector of scars. The ceiling was falling in places. Embers stung the bare flesh of his arms like vengeful wasps. He pushed. A voice in the back of his mind told him he was committing suicide. I don’t care, he thought, clutching his shotgun in one bloody hand. Tears stung his eyes. He was half blind and choking on the smoke. A dark shape came stumbling out of the shadows. Barghast was about to raise his shotgun and blast the apparition away when he recognized the soot streaked face - he would have known it anywhere. Fighting for breath, Lane fell to his knees, on the verge of passing out. With a determined growl Barghast plunged forward deeper into the wreckage. He grabbed Lane by the back of his robes and yanked him to his feet. Barghast was too exhausted from lack of oxygen to fully carry Lane so he half dragged half carried Lane towards safety. To his credit Lane tried to walk with him. They stepped out of the way of a collapsing beam just in time to keep from being crushed beneath it. I’ve got you, Barghast thought and repeated the thought over and over.
  3. Update: I have Chapter 21 done and have just started on Chapter 22. I would like to get another chapter or two done before I post Chapter 21 so please be patient and thanks for following Hellscape. What does everyone think of the story so far? Thoughts anyone?
  4. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 12

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

    Chapter 8

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

    Chapter 8

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

    Chapter 27

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

    Chapter 5

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

    Chapter 3

    You just made my day, thank you. You have a happy holiday as well.
  14. ValentineDavis21

    Chapter 3

    The Daminion Highway cut a straight path through the hellscape for thousands of miles, connecting the north and south, before eventually intersecting with the Dimonble Highway, which went west and east. The two highways split the hellscape into four quadrants: The ice capped Plaesil mountains, and further out, the frozen tundra called the Ubrios Wastes (better yet known as the Graveyard of Forgotten Things); the Okanavi Desert, also home to many forgotten relics of the Old World; the muddy, rainy Javacial Flatlands to the east; and to the west was the coast, its vast oceans mostly unexplored. Between the quadrants one could travel through one climate to another within hours. For the next day Jack drove, leaving the Okanavi Desert and its blistering heat behind, seemingly intent on putting as much distance between themselves and the southern quadrant as he could. The Stray Dogs mostly rode in silence, barely exchanging words with each other, exhausted from the chaos that had taken place at Fort Erikson. Every few hours Sara would check on Fulko, giving him a little bit of her mana. Fulko appeared grateful but said very little. Sara could not blame him for his silence - she could only imagine what he’d been through, the pain he endured. She noticed, with amusement, the way Barghast stayed physically close to Lane without overly crowding him. Barghast did his best to hide his attachment to the practitioner but to the healer it was plain as day. The two had become close, like a moon gravitating around a planet. She found it both strange and endearing. She only hoped something would come of it, whatever it was. Everyone deserves to have someone and be happy, she thought. The practitioner had been silent the whole time, raising a wall around himself, that while invisible, was impossible to miss. Occasionally he would reach into his duffel bag, open the window, and smoke a jalasa joint, blowing the smoke out into the wind while shuffling his deck of discernment cards. Yet like Barghast, she was concerned for Lane. As the healer, she felt a responsibility to keep a close, watchful eye on everyone. How did you gauge someone’s inner turmoil when they had no obvious external injuries? I hate being able to heal the body but not the mind, she thought. Since leaving Fort Erikson, Lane had become quiet, even despondent. He stayed at the back of the bus, legs folded up towards his chest, hood pulled close, a distant stare on his face. Sara wanted to chalk it up to to exhaustion. The reserves of mana he had within him far exceeded her own, yet just like her, he could run out until he replenished it. And at Fort Erikson he had used a lot of mana. But this wasn’t the only reason for his silent withdrawal from the Stray Dogs and the rest of the world. Something had happened to him of a psychological nature back at Fort Erikson and the pain was clearly visible on his face. How can someone be so young yet look as if they carry the whole world on their shoulders? What secrets could he possibly have to hide at his age? Yet he was like the rest of the mysterious, battered group. He hid his past and revealed little of himself. To Sara, no matter how much Rake, Mara, and Jack tried to act otherwise, the practitioner truly belonged with them. … The Stray Dogs passed very few others as they headed farther North, except for a few merchant caravans, the sides of their vehicles heavily armored or protected by strong wards, and the wandering damned. Lane saw these things and numbly processed them, high from the jalasa which acted like an opiate. Fields of grass and stands of tall trees passed outside the window; the sky grew more cloudy as day got closer to night. They’d left the turgid air and the desert’s sandy hills behind. Coming up on the right, a woman shuffled drunkenly down the road. It was obvious she was possessed. No one in their right mind wandered the road alone, without protection of some sort, whether it be wards, an armored vehicle,or a mixture of the two. Out here, away from civilization, is demon territory, Lane thought. Out here the Light’s rays do not reach. The woman turned to watch the bus pass by, her head cocked slightly to the right. Her eyes bulged deliriously, a bright unnatural yellow. What remained of her teeth and gums, black with rot, were bared in a feral grin. Her dress was mostly torn rags; a gentle breeze blew what was left back against the bony contours of her body so he could see the sharp angles of her ribs and her saggy breasts, which looked like deflated balloons. Suddenly she began chasing after the bus, babbling wildly in the Demon’s Tongue, fist pumping wildly in the air as if in outrage. Up close Lane could see the fecund bite mark on her neck from where the demon had entered and then hijacked her body. She was close enough to the bus for Lane to sense the demon within her: a casteless demon, a wraith. No threat to us, Lane thought and turned his gaze away from her. Out of the corner of his eye he watched as Fulko turned around to face the woman’s diminishing form. He raised the crucifix hanging around his neck, a burning sun, and kissed it while whispering a prayer beneath his breath. After another hour of driving the bus passed a sign reading: UMSTADT OUTPOST 40 MILES ; and below that: POPULATION: 244. There the squad would more than likely stop to refuel and rest before finishing the journey back to Miffridge. Lane found himself looking forward to having a night to himself, away from the rest of D-Squad. Every time Sara or Barghast flashed him a concerned look (or in the case of Mara, Jack, Rake, and Fulko, one of disgust), Lane wanted to sink back into his seat and disappear. He hated looking weak - especially in front of Barghast. Why do you care so much about how you look in front of Barghast or what he thinks about you - or any of them for that matter? Good question. They reached Umstadt station close to evening, the sun just starting to make its descent below the horizon. The outpost was surrounded by electric fences to keep the coyotes and hyenas from getting in. Further protection had been placed around the outpost with wards to keep any demons at bay. Half a dozen guards with the Chantry sigil painted on the front of their heavily armored chests guarded the entrance. A brisk-faced middle-aged guard approached the bus as it came to a stop. Jack pushed the window open, license and other needed identification already in hand. “How many on board the bus?” the guard asked. “Seven. One of our passengers is injured.” Though he’d kept his face flat Lane thought he felt a brief flash of anxiety from the man. “Was he bitten by a demon?” “No. His injuries are serious, however. We’ve managed to keep him stable but he requires the attention of more than one healer.” The guard nodded. “We alert some of our healers and have them on standby. Head straight to the clinic on the west side of the outpost and they will give him the attention he needs.” He turned to the guards standing in front of the entrance, their faces awash in the bus’s headlights. “Let ‘em through.” The guards stepped out of the way. The engine made a high-pitched yeeyawing sound as Jack eased the truck through the entrance; fumes plumed from the exhaust pipe before quickly disintegrating. On the other side of the gate one and two story buildings were grouped together, surrounded by canyons of limestone. Spread out to the east were small shacks where people no doubt lived. A single road cut through the center of the outpost, marking the main part of Umstadt. As they passed, heading towards the west side of the outpost as the guard had instructed, Lane spotted several storefronts, their windows dark and curtained. There was a hardware store, a clothing store and an old cinema that appeared to have been closed down for ages. There was also a two story building with a balcony up top - the sign at the front simply read THE UMSTADT OUTPOST SALOON - with two quads parked out front. Lights glowed in the windows. The idea of going in for a drink or two - or more if Lane was being honest with himself - suddenly seemed very appealing. Not here. Maybe when we get back to Miffridge. Lane didn’t drink very often - he could count on the fingers of one hand the times he had. A man came out of a two story building across the street labeled CITY OFFICIAL. Something about him grabbed Lane’s attention. He felt his eyes zero in on him. The man wore a round-shaped hat, a tan button up shirt, faded blue jeans, and brown boots. A glint on the front of his shirt revealed a sheriff’s badge. The man stood at the front of the building, thumbs hitched in his belt. His head slowly swung from left to right as he watched the bus pass. He’s wary of strangers, Lane thought. Like an echo from far away he sensed trouble. Nothing immediate to be sure but he would keep an eye on him all the same while they were here. After two more minutes Jack stopped the bus in front of the clinic, a small single story building. Two healers waited in the parking lot, dressed in white habits. Their garb signified them as vowed nuns of the Chantry. One was elderly, well into her life, while the other was younger. A purple ribbon tied around her neck meant she had just taken her vows of celibacy. Underneath a sky that was now completely black they seemed to give off a preternatural glow. Their presence immediately made Lane feel calm. The younger of the two had a wheelchair. Sara helped Fulko off the bus. His steps were frail, his body still weak. Lane could sense the Chantryman’s exhaustion. Sara’s healing had done enough to get the man moving and keep him alive but his injuries were still severe. However, Lane sensed he was in capable hands with the two nuns. He heard the elder one say to Sara, “My name is Sister Abigail and this is Sister Felise. We have been assigned to this outpost by the Chantry. If you and the rest of your squad need lodgings until the Chantryman is healed I have plenty of spare rooms in the house just next door.” It didn’t take long for everyone to get off the bus. While Sister Felise wheeled Fulko into the clinic Sister Abigail led the six exhausted Stray Dogs to a large two story house. The porch steps sagged beneath her feet. Sister Abigail produced a ring of keys from the folds of her cloak. “Wait here,” she told the squad. “I will get some lights on in the house. It is an old house and certainly not in the best of shape. It was originally built in the days of the Old World before the First Disciple of the Scarlet Church rebuilt it in his image: the hellscape. Additions and changes have been made to it over the years and it is now used for spare rooms when we get visitors from the Chantry such as yourself.” She stepped over the threshold and was engulfed in shadow. Lane must have drifted off to sleep because Barghast gave him a gentle shake from behind and nudged him forward. Sister Abigail was smiling at him from the doorway, her face glowing merrily in the light of the oil lamp she held in her hand. Rake, Jack, Mara, and Sara in that exact order were climbing up the staircase in front of them, the steps creaking beneath their feet. Light help me, I’m so tired I’m falling asleep on my feet, Lane thought, bewildered. He followed Sara up the steps. His head felt like a hollow piece of wood. The house was indeed, old. The paint had begun the process of peeling off the walls long ago, giving everything a rotted look. With his mana-enhanced perception Lane could sense the age within its walls, see the shape of the footprints of those who had come through here recently. “You and the big man get the room at the end of the hall on your right,” Sister Abigail told him, meaning Lane and Barghast. The bedroom was sparsely furnished with a bunk bed and table. There was nothing else which was okay with Lane - the bed was the only thing that was important. He’d passed a bathroom back in the hallway. “Which bed do you want?” Barghast rumbled, setting his duffel bag on the ground. Was it just Lane or was there a hopeful expression on his face? We could always share a bed, Lane was tempted to say, wanting to explore the tension that had slowly been building over the last year. It was a dance they’d been doing, constantly revolving around each other, both too insecure to want to be the one to initiate the exploration: Barghast because he was afraid of his past and Lane because he was afraid of the future. I wish I could give you what you want Barghast. You think I draw back because I’m afraid of the scars that mark your face...and your soul. But I’m not. I could care less about those things because I see what you are not able to see within yourself: That somewhere deep within you is a good man. No, I draw back to keep us safe. Especially you. Because I’m not who you think I am. “I’ll be nice and take the top bunk so you have an easier time getting to the bathroom,” Lane said, climbing up the latter. “That and I don’t want the bed collapsing beneath your immense weight and crushing me to death.” Barghast blew out the lamp, enclosing them in complete darkness. Lane heard the bed creak as the Okanavian settled on the bed. “So the truth behind your so-called kindness comes to light.” Lane laughed. Bless the Light it feels good to laugh. Barghast is the only one who can make me laugh. Is that why I have these feelings for him...if that’s what they are? “You did good today, kid,” Barghast said just as Lane was about to drift off to sleep. “We couldn’t have gotten Fulko out without you. And the others know this...even if they don’t admit it aloud.” They’re afraid of me, Barghast. You would be too if you had enough sense. I don’t know how to control myself. Yet deep underneath the compassion Lane felt towards Rake, Jack, and Mara there was also a deeper, lurking resentment, a yearning for validation and appreciation. Instead Lane said, “Good night, Okanavian.” Barghast’s grating voice echoed: “Good night, practitioner.” Lane smiled and thought, Not everyone in D-Squad hates me; certainly not Barghast. And then, just as Barghast began to snore, he fell asleep. … Lane woke sometime in the early hours of the next morning and listened to Barghast’s rumbling snores. Morning light seeped through the filthy window; Lane spent a few moments immersed in watching a spider meticulously spin its web. He was both disgusted and fascinated by its quick, graceful movements. After he felt awake enough, Lane climbed down the ladder and studied Barghast’s sleeping form. The man was so tall his long muscular legs draped over the end of the bed, his socked feet hovering over the ground. Both had slept in their clothes, they’d been so tired. Lane climbed as quietly down the stairs as he could - he didn’t want to wake the others. He had plans to explore the outpost. Maybe he would go to saloon after all. He was surprised to find Rake up already, sitting at a low rickety table. He was dressed in his armor, leaning leisurely back into the wooden chair. He had a hunting blade in his hand and was flipping it through the air, before catching it in midair at the handle again. Lane did his best to pretend as if he hadn’t seen Rake sitting there. He walked past the living room, to the front door. Outside the bus was parked in the driveway and next door was the clinic. He was just getting ready to step out into the morning when Rake spoke. “Where do you think you’re going?” the cut-throat asked. He hadn’t looked up; he kept flipping and catching the knife as if it was the world’s best parlor trick. “Out,” Lane said, making sure the man could hear his own mutual dislike. “Make sure you’re back within the next couple of hours. Whether the Chantryman is completely healed or not we’re leaving - you’ll want to be on that bus or we’ll leave you behind too.” Lane gritted his teeth. For so long I’ve kept my feelings to myself - I can’t do it anymore. “Why do you hate me so much?” he asked. “Because of what you are,” Rake replied. “Because I have mana in my blood.” “Hmmmm-hmmm.” “You don’t hate Sara.” “She’s a healer. She’s not capable of the destruction you are.” Lane scoffed. “At least I’ve never killed kids.” At this Rake stiffened. He turned around, teeth bared, but before he could say anything, the practitioner was already out the door. … Unbeknownst to both Rake and Lane, Sara had stood at the top of the stairs and heard the whole conversation between the two. She waited until she was sure Lane was out the door, counted to five, and walked the rest of the way down the stairs. “Hey,” Rake said. He’d gone back to playing his knife catching game. Sara simply glared at him, arms crossed. “Is something wrong?” Rake asked, his young-old face twisting into a despicable grin. “Did I say something to get your panties all up in a twist?” “I heard what you said to Lane,” she said, “and I think you’re a piece of shit.” He nodded as if he’d expected her to say this all along. He gestured for her to sit in the chair across from him. Sara obliged, watching him the whole time. In the almost three years she’d been assigned to D-Squad she’d never liked Rake - or completely trusted him. Sure, they’d fought side by side , watching each others’ back; more than once she’d saved his life and he hers. But unlike her, he didn’t do the things he did out of nobility. He was here because it was either serve the Chantry or be put to execution. Two more missions and he will have fulfilled his sentence, she thought. He will be a free man, his record expunged. “I don’t like Lane and I’ve made that clear,” said Rake as if he was being perfectly reasonable. “Neither does Jack and neither does your girlfriend.” “Well my girlfriend, as much as I love her, has her views fucked up from the floor up and I’ll say it to her face. What I don’t understand is how the three of you can judge him for being a practitioner, something he can’t help - it’s not like we can help whether or not we have mana in our blood - while you’re here because you owe a debt to society for the horrendous crimes you’ve committed.” Rake shrugged. “The imperfections of the human heart. I’m prejudiced - so sue me. It’s not my worst crime.” Sara could only snort at this. “Look, it’s not like he doesn’t have people standing in his corner. You’ve practitcally got your teet in his mouth and then there’s Barghast who’s trying to get into his pants and butt-fuck him. Apparently he likes them young.” Just as Rake said this last part he threw the knife once more. Sara didn’t know why she did it, perhaps she didn’t know what else to say so she had to find some other way of besting him: she caught the knife in midair and stabbed the blade straight through the top of the table. Rake stared down at the knife, eyes wide. She was enjoying the look of surprise on his face. “Lane is the reason why our mission was successful yesterday,” Sara continued, as if nothing had happened. “He’s the reason why, within the last year, we moved from being the squad at the bottom to the squad at the top. And he’s not here because he’s a criminal, he volunteered - a selfless thing, an amazing thing when you stop and think he’s barely an adult. He deserves your appreciation and respect.” Sara got up and walked out the door, walking towards the clinic. She’d said what she needed to say, there was no point in dragging things out. … Lane stood outside the saloon, debating whether or not he wanted to go in. His growling stomach was what made the decision for him in the end. I want a good breakfast. Light knows I’ve earned it. Lane walked in through the shuttered double doors. The inside of the saloon was dimly lit with colored lights strung along the ceiling and walls. The bar counter, tabletops, and walls were made of dark oak. The stuffed head of a snarling coyote was fastened to the wall. Three men, dressed in camouflage, stopped their game of pool long enough to glare suspiciously at Lane. All three of them had long beards that ended at their chest. Lane nodded at them to be polite and went over to the counter. Behind it a middle-aged woman worked, wiping the counter down with a worn rag in one hand and a spray bottle of clear cleaning solution in the other. “Morning,” Lane said, sitting on one of the stools. “Mornin’,” the woman said, in an accent which placed her as coming from the Javacial Flatlands. “Can I help you, dear?” Dear came out sounding like der. “Do you have anything to eat?” “Anything you want. The question is whether or not you have the coinage to pay for it or not.” “I’ve got money. Do you have any biscuits with honey and apple butter?” “Aye, best biscuits you’ve ever had on this side of the ‘scape?” I doubt that, Lane thought, but I’ll take a gander. Just the idea of warm fluffy biscuits with honey and apple butter made his mouth water. Still, no matter how good they are none could be better than Aunt Lena’s. Aunt Lena. Thinking of her always made him emotional. The day he’d buried her seemed as if it had just happened yesterday and like it belonged in a different life simultaneously. “While I throw the biscuits in the oven would you like some coffee?” the woman asked. “Please.” While the woman rustled around in the kitchen, Lane sipped at his coffee. The coffee was strong with just enough bite to be pleasurable. He watched one of the pool players wander over to the jukebox and slide in a quarter. A moment later a familiar song started to play, sending chills up and down Lane’s spine: “Love is a burning thing and it makes a fiery ring...” The woman set a steaming plate of biscuits and a saucer with apple butter and honey in front of Lane. “That’ll be three dollars hon...” Lane produced the three dollars and gave her an extra dollar for a tip. The biscuits were very good, but just as expected, they were not as good as the ones Aunt Lena would make him on Sabbath Day. He left the saloon feeling pleasantly full and content. At the very least the taste of the biscuits had brought the bittersweet memories of the life he’d abandoned in the Plaesil mountains for the Chantry to mind. It seemed the distances he’d traveled since that time, the places he’d seen, and the thing he’d done that he’d never thought he would do (both good and bad), made his past seem distant and vague. It wasn’t like there was anything for me left after Aunt Lena died. What would I have done to survive? At least here I’ve given myself to a cause I can appreciate - even if no one else does. At least I’m not alone. He was so lost in thought he didn’t see the man walking towards him until a voice spoke, “Hey, you’re one of the the visitors that came in last night ain’t ya?” Lane turned to look. It was the man he’d spotted from the bus yesterday, the one with the sheriff’s badge. As if to confirm the sense of uneasiness Lane felt, a voice spoke within his mind, a voice that was not his own: Don’t tell him anything. This man is trouble. Whenever the voice spoke up at times such as this, Lane listened, so he nodded with a friendly smile. “That’s right.” “And you brought the Chantryman with you, in the clinic? He looks like he’s been beaten within an inch of his life.” The sheriff had his thumbs hooked in the waistband of his khakis. “Would you mind telling me about that?” “I wish I could, Sheriff…?” “O’ Bannon.” “Sheriff O’Bannon. But it’s Chantry business and I don’t have the authority. I’m just a man who’s the lowest on the totem pole.” Sheriff O’Bannon simply nodded. “What’s your name, son?” “Lane.” “Where you from, Lane?” “A small town in the Plaesil Mountains.” “Figured. You have the complexion of someone from up in the mountains. Is it true it’s always cold there? Not that it’s much better in the Javacial Flatlands - we get a lot of rain but never any snow.” “All year long. It snows more often than not.” And I can’t say I miss it much either, the practitioner thought. “Lane, if you don’t mind me asking, aren’t you a little young to be running around with those people. Not that I’m judging but they look like roughnecks.” Lane shrugged, fixing O’Bannon with a crooked grin. “I like to think I can take care of myself.” “I’m not trying to be nosy,” the sheriff said, scratching sheepishly at his nobby nose. “I guess it just gets a little lonely out here is all. Not many come out here in the middle of the ‘scape with the increase of demon activity an’ all.” “That’s alright, Sheriff. Not to be rude but I need to get going.” Lane stepped past the sheriff and began walking in the direction of the clinic. His skin broke out in goosebumps. He could feel the man’s eyes burning holes into his back. It was everything he could do not to break into a run. … The clinic had six rooms and six healers on duty per shift, one for each room. At the moment Galliart Fulko was the only patient. Sister Abigail, as the oldest of the healers and with the most experience, was in charge. While the other healers finished treating Fulko’s wounds, Sister Abigail invited Sara to have tea in her office. Though it was a simple request borne of courtesy, Sara was touched. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had asked her to do something as normal and domestic has having tea. Though they shared an apartment back in Miffridge, her relationship with Mara was anything but domestic. Sara glanced at the old grandfather clock in the corner of the office, fascinated by the tick-tocking sound it made; she’d heard of them and read about them but had never actually seen one. “Quite the curiosity isn’t it?” Sister Abigail asked. “Apparently it was found in the Ubrios Wastes, in almost perfect condition. Pope Drajen had it donated to our clinic, here at Umstadt Outpost. Back in the days of the Old World, before the hellscape, grandfather clocks were considered pretty common.” “It’s strange how some things, things like grandfather clocks and juke boxes and certain electronic devices survive,” Sara said, “but other things don’t.” Sister Abigail’s bright green eyes twinkled, reflecting both kindness and wisdom; Sara found it hard to look away. It was so rare to see these attributes in a person. “Isn’t it though?” the woman asked. “From old tomes it was said there were dinosaurs that lived long before we did, wiped out by a large rock from the sky and that we’re genetically related to apes and that we used to be able to travel to the moon. Now we can do none of those things. All of those things are gone, just as I’m sure the First Disciple and his demon masters wanted. May he burn in the Abyss yet, if you don’t mind me saying.” Sara chuckled. “May he burn.” She took a sip from her tea, which tasted wonderful: chai tea, with hints of vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. “So if a lonely old nun may ask, how does a pretty young woman such as yourself end up with a squad of prisoners?” “I volunteered, as did Lane.” “The young boy with all that stuff around his eyes?” “That’s the one.” Sister Abigail’s eyebrows creased in disapproval. “I don’t know why anyone would want to wear that stuff.” Sara laughed and wondered what Lane’s reaction would be if he was in the room for this conversation - or what Sister Abigail might say to him. “I didn’t just straight away volunteer. I started as a novitiate. I was getting ready to make my temporary vows and then changed my mind.” Sister Abigail leaned forward slightly in her chair. “May I ask why?” Sara grinned sheepishly. “The Chantry frowns upon it...” “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. But the Chantry’s view on things has changed over the years. If you need an obvious example just think: before the recent uprising of the Scarlet Church, and the influx of demon activity, the Chantry was burning anyone with the slightest amount of mana in their blood at the stake - except for healers of course. Men, women, and children, it didn’t matter their age. Sometimes there were even mass burnings. Now the practitioners and the Chantry are working together to rid the hellscape of the Scarlet Church and its followers - hopefully once and for all. A pivotal moment in history, this business between the practitioners and the Chantry.” “Well, when you put it like that...” Sara forced herself to face her own embarrassment and shame and met Sister Abigail’s face. “I was getting ready to make my vows when I fell in love with a...woman and she fell in love with me. But she’s also a convict serving her time with D-Squad...and so I volunteered in order to be with her. It wasn’t the only reason of course...but I’ve always had desires for women. But Mara is the one and only woman I have ever truly loved. She is my soulmate.” The lines around Sister Abigail’s mouth deepened into divots when she smiled. “I would say Mara is a lucky woman. If you are finished with your tea let’s check on Fulko, shall we? I think he should be sufficiently healed. He won’t be good as new, mind you, but he will live.” … The other Stray Dogs were already waiting on the bus when Sara arrived, pushing Fulko in his wheelchair. Though the man would have scars aplenty he no longer looked like a man about to walk through death’s door. The swelling from his eyes and the blackened bruises were gone. When Sara offered to help him on the bus he shook his head. “Thanks for the offer, girl,” he said, “but there is only so much help an old man can take before his pride is wounded.” Lane was sitting in his usual seat at the back of the bus, lost in his own thoughts. Why did Ex’olku warn me not to talk to O’Bannon? What threat could the sheriff possibly impose? The voice that he’d heard when talking to O’Bannon spoke up once more: Trust me and know the path I have chosen for you. Yeah, Lane thought. Easier said than done.
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