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  1. Whatever physical pain Barghast was in was replaced by the possibility once again he was too late - when it came to the matter of Crow 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. One such scar was his lover Lucas, the man he had told Loras about. That scar would never fully go away. It would forever be there, a mark of his guilt and the betrayal he’d committed against a man he had once loved more than anything in the world. And then, just when he thought he would never find love or redemption again, Crow had come into his life and wiggled his way into Barghast’s heart. To let him slip away forever would be the gravest sin he’d yet to commit. 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, Crow fell to his knees. His pale face was blackened by soot. Streaks of blood, already dried, trailed from his nose.. Barghast felt his heart skip a beat. After a week of traveling and searching, his mind and soul burdened by the weight of a constant panic, he had finally found Crow. He plunged deeper into the burning inferno and pulled the practitioner to his feet. Crow looked up, his eyes widening at the sight of the Okanavian. “Barghast?” he croaked, before bursting into a fit of coughing. “You shouldn’t be here.” “But I am here. We are leaving this place.” Crow’s eyes widened suddenly. He was looking at something behind Barghast. “Look out!” Barghast turned around just in time to see a burn apparition come at him with a pitchfork. Barghast had no time to step back. The pitchfork was already rushing towards his belly, about to impale him. Just when he was sure he would feel the sharp tips of the pitchfork pierce his flesh, Crow charged from the side, knocking the tool out of the attacker’s hand with a kick. Something silver in Crow’s hand flashed through the air once and the burning man’s head parted from his neck in a spraying fountain of crimson. Crow dropped the weapon onto the floor: a butcher knife. He grabbed Barghast’s hand and led him forward. Barghast was no longer sure what direction they were heading in or which way was out. Smoke came at them from every direction as if trying to blind them, block their path, keep them from getting out. The only thing he was truly aware of was Crow’s sweat slickened fingers inside his. Glowing embers flew in their face, burning flesh. Crow suddenly stopped, wheezing, hunched over. “It’s so hot. I don’t know if I can go any further...can’t breathe...” With a determined growl, Barghast grabbed Crow by the back of his robes and yanked him back into an upright position. Barghast was too exhausted from lack of oxygen to fully carry Crow, so he half dragged half carried Crow towards safety. To his credit Crow 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. ... Crow hadn’t meant to bring the building down around his ears but the fear had magnified the effect of his power. 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 Crow’s waist, pulling him along. He’s here. He’s really here. But how? Daylight. Air. They were out of the inferno finally. Crow fell to his knees, gasping. It had never felt so good to breathe, the pressure in his lungs easing. “Oh, thank Mercius,” 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.” Crow 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 Crow, tugged at his attention. “I’m fine.” Emotion flooded him at the sight of the Okanavian: Shame, anguish, relief. They hit him all at once. His eyes began to feel with tears. Once more his legs threatened to give out on him. Barghast caught him, his arms wrapped around Crow’s bony shoulders and pulling him into an embrace. Crow sobbed for a moment against the Okanavian’s solid chest. “I’ve got you,” Barghast rumbled, “and I’m not letting you go. Not ever again.” After a moment Crow parted reluctantly from Barghast’s embrace. He looked around at the chaos he’d caused. Smoking bodies and debris littered the snow. Black columns rose towards the denim blue sky from the burning wreckage of the pub. Everywhere he looked there was splatters of dark crimson on white. I caused this, he thought. This is all my fault. The people of this town were right to fear me because now they’re all dead. The sound of snapping wood alerted him; he turned towards the blaze, 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. Her swollen belly bounced. “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 town. C’thla’s chest was ripped open in a spray of flesh, bone, and blood. She fell back, her arms pinwheeling, letting out a shriek of rage and pain. 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. If you’ve killed my child I will make sure your deaths will be all the more agonizing.” “I suggest we do as she says,” said Loras. Her voice was tight with fear. … 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. The problem had nothing to do with her body: 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 out from various wounds and fell to the ground. She rose slowly to her feet. Time’s up, she thought.
  2. Seeing the town of Annesville brought back memories of Loras’ own hometown. With its wooden buildings and frost-covered windows it easily could have been mistaken for Caldreath. She was stuck in the past again, in a different time when she had been younger and powerless. She remembered the memory the demon who’d possessed Greta had shown her. Demons, if they were powerful enough, could show you memories but they could also twist the memory into illusions and make the memory seen real. What the demon had shown her had not been an illusion but the exact truth as it had happened. She remembered trying to run towards the little boy who had fallen in the snow, before the Eurchurchman on the horse with his sword could get to him; she remembered, with a heartwrenching twist of guilt that she hadn’t been able to get there in time, just as she had been too late to save Janif and Cara. This isn’t the same hometown. This isn’t my hometown. This is Crow’s town and he hated it. He did everything he could to leave it behind. Not that he left behind much from the looks of it. So why would he return to it even when he knows he’s being hunted as a criminal? She felt a shiver go up her spine at the sight of the empty streets. The horses were tense, swinging her head from side to side, the whites of their eyes showing in distress. It was no wonder Crow had left this place;to say it lacked charm would have been an understatement. “Something’s wrong,” Barghast said. “There’s not a single person in sight. Where is everyone?” Loras was glad to know she wasn’t the only one who felt this way. There should have been someone out andabout or at least a light in the window to indicate the presence of life. But there was nothing. The town was barren. Loras sensed danger despite the lack of evidence. Her experience had taught her instinct was evidence enough. Even Jack had one of his revolvers out. Seeing something half submerged in the snow, Loras climbed down from her horse long enough to pick it up: it was a doll. A single button eye stared at her; the other one was missing. The doll smiled at her, as if harboring some terrible secret. Loras shivered, a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold, and dropped it back in the snow wishing she had never picked it up; the rough-hewn patchwork dress was stained and torn in some places. Some little girl loved this ugly doll, Loras thought. She wouldn’t just leave it in the snow like this. She wouldn’t have just forgotten about it. Something has happened. Barghast was saying something under his breath, in Okanavian, in a voice so low she could barely hear it. His eyes kept scanning the area from left to right. Whatever pretenses he had tried to keep up were gone now. Loras gulped. Her throat felt incredibly dry. “Are you praying?” she asked. He nodded. “Are you as frightened as I am?” “I’m about to piss my pants. Who knew Crow came from such a charming little town?” Loras chuckled shakily. “All northern towns are pretty much the same.” “Can you reach out to him again, pinpoint his location?” Barghast’s voice turned into a low growl. “I’m not letting him slip away from me this time. If I have to throw him over my shoulder and carry him all the way back to the bus I will.” “I can try,” Loras said reluctantly. “But the last time I tried reaching out to him he literally threw my Aspect back into my body. It was not a pleasant experience.” She stopped, closing her eyes. She was about to step out of her body in Aspect form when Barghast grabbed her arms, his fingers tightening slightly. She stared dowm wide-eyed at the size of his fingers; they practically swallowed her hand whole. “Do you hear that?” She looked in the direction they were heading in. The wind moaned, making the ends of her cloak billow around her. Red bloomed across her dry cheeks. Dark circles covered her eyes from lack of sleep though at the moment she was not tired. But nothing else moved. Was Barghasat letting his nerves get the best of him? “I hear nothing...” She stopped. She did hear something. Voices. They were coming from somewhere ahead of them. They spoke in a rabid, nasal dialect that she recognized instantly. Her knees almost buckled from underneath her in sudden dread. She was hearing the Demon’s Tongue. And the words were being uttered by human vocal cords. Before she could sink into the snow, Barghast seized her and Jack by the arm and fled. She marvelled at the speed in which he moved for a man of his size. Loras and Jack had no choice but to run after him lest they be dragged through the snow like disobedient children. The trio pressed their back to the side of a two story building. For the next minute Lora listened to the voices get louder and louder. She carefully craned her neck to look around the corner. They came out of the gloom, armed with axes and pitchforks. They seemed oblivious to the cold. There were men, women, and children - too many to count. Some of them bore injuries: cuts, slashes, missing limbs and yet they still moved with a synchronized, predatory sort of grace. If they sense us we’re fucked, she thought. Their focus was directed on a single building, the pub. They surrounded it from all sides. They moved in as one, bashing through the windows with their tools and climbing inside, letting out cries of anger and excitement. “Loras, reach out to Crow,” Barghast whispered urgently. “Now!” Grabbing a hold of herself, Loras closed her eyes, searching for Crow. To her shock she found him almost immediately. “Mercius help us, he’s in the pub,” she muttered. Crow! We’re coming! Don’t move! “They’ve got him trapped in the pub,” she said to Barghast and Jack. “We have to go and get him. Are you prepared, Okanavian?” Barghast pumped his shotgun, the only answer he gave. It was the only answer she needed. The Stray Dpgs were just stepping out from behind the building when Crow’s voice filled her head, echoing like frantic bells. Loras, you must leave this place - now! C’thla’s here! C’thla’s - The thought was cut off abruptly. Loras stopped. The air seemed to draw around the pub. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Barghast’s shotgun boomed twice. A woman’s back exploded in a shower of blood; the shot spun her around on her feet before knocking her onto the ground with a feral wail. A man’s head exploded in a mess of crimson, shards of white skull, and pulpy brain matter. “Barghast!” Loras shouted. The shot gun went off twice more, drowning out the sound of her voice. Jack was firing off several shots of his own, dropping more bodies to the ground. She broke into a run. Barghast was already almost at the pub - too close to it. In the back of her mind Loras knew she was too late, there wasn’t enough time. But she ran after him anyway, The pub exploded outward in a concussion of flame, burning wood, and shattered glass. The blast slammed into Loras. She spun through the air, the world a blur of color, before slamming into the ground. The breath was crushed from her lungs. She couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Things were happening around her but she didn’t know what. At the moment she couldn’t even say where she was. All she knew was that she was in pain. She thought she heard screaming - shrill screams of agony and anger - but the alarms ringing in her ears muffled the sounds. Debris fell around her, sending up puffs of snow. A piece of wood fell on her hand. Pain lanced up her wrist, making her cry out. It was this pain that raised her onto her haunches despite the aches in her body, back into awareness. Suddenly Jack was by her side, pulling at her arms. He spoke but his voice was lost in the cacophony. The chaos happening around her was all too familiar. I’ve experienced this before, she thought. The sound of people dying, the smell of smoke and burning flesh. It seems our lives are nothing more than a repeating loop. 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 glass 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 Eurchurchman drove through her town, burning down houses and slaughtering anyone who stood in their way. A woman ran past her, babbling shrilly in the Demon’s Tongue. Her hair and flesh were burning; the explosion had turned her into a human torch. A man fell to his knees just feet away from her; he had been impaled by a large piece of wood that went all the way through his chest and back. Gouts of blood sprayed from his lips with every breath. Barghast. The thought of the Okanavian brought Loras out of her stupor. She craned her neck about in search for him, but there was too much happening around them.. Movement out of the corner of her eye alerted just in time to duck beneath the swing of a bloodied meat cleaver. A woman was coming towards her, flecks of spit spraying from her lips. “T’lala venet la’bar!” she barked. Loras had no idea what the woman was saying. All she was aware of was the hissing path of the meat cleaver in the air and the woman’s hate-filled amber eyes. Loras backed away, felt her legs strike something behind her. She fell back, scrambled on her hands and feet. The possessed woman kicked the thing aside, a smoking piece of wooden table, and ran towards Loras once more, the meat cleaver raised above her head. She was almost on top of her. She glanced over her shoulder, searching for Jack. His back was turned to her. He was letting off volleys of fire. A small army of the possessed was closing around them, too many to fight off on their own. The possessed woman was standing over now, raising the meat cleaver above her head. Loras summoned her mana and slashed a hand through the air. The top half of the woman’s body split open down the middle, as if bisected by a sword. Blood spouted from her body, raining down on Loras, soaking her hair and dress. The blood was shockingly warm against her skin. The woman fell into the snow heavily with a wet splat, Loras did not allow herself to feel the shock and revulsion that threatened to overwhelm her. She forced herself onto her feet once more. 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. “No Barghast!” she screamed but he had already vanished into the wreckage.
  3. The woods wrapped him in a cloak of familiarity. He breathed in the smell of pine coming from the trees, ran his hands over the rough-hewn bark of a trunk, feeling the grooves and cracks. Every little detail brought back a sense of the solitary child he'd once been. I used to come out here for hours, he thought. Aunt Lena would fix me breakfast, then I would leave the house. I'd climb trees, build traps, listen to the sound of nature. This was my church - my sanctuary. Crow hiked for an hour before stopping to scale a large tree. He climbed easily, his fingers seeming to know where to grip. There was satisfaction in the strain of his muscles. After a minute of climbing, when he was a good twenty feet in the air, Crow swung his leg around a particularly thick branch and leaned his back against the trunk. He pulled out a jalasa joint and smoked; for the first time in a long time he felt a moment's peace. "You best enjoy it while you can," he muttered to himself. "It won't last long. The good moments never do." Once he finished smoking and felt rested, he climbed down from his perch on the tree and continued his trek deeper into the woods. It wasn’t long before he came to the creekbed, marking the first half of his journey to what he was looking for over. The creek burbled as water sloshed over rocks. He refilled his waterskin, ate a piece of deer jerky, slaked his thirst, then moved on. It was midday when he came to the spot where he’d buried his aunt. The cairn he had made out of stone was still there; no one had disturbed it in the year since he’d left. He took a moment to take in the valley below. The woods continued on for as far as he could see, the green tops of the pine trees covered with the white of snow. Rays of sunlight caught the snow, making everything sparkle. It was a beautiful sight. I knew I chose this spot for a reason, he thought. So she could look at this view whenever she wanted and be enchanted. Then he saw the spot where it had happened and felt his blood run cold, the enchantment of the scene ruined. This was the spot where Ex’olku had anointed him; where his journey into darkness had begun. The memory was still fresh in Crow’s mind. He remembered standing up once the hole had been dug, after he’d dragged Aunt Lena’s body into the grave. He recalled wondering how he’d managed to drag her body on the cart, through the wild landscape, and dig a hole. Something had possessed him: determination...or guilt. Or the eagerness to be rid of her once and for all. He closed his eyes, conjured the memory before his mind’s eye - what had really happened, not what the demon had shown him had happened. … He threw the shovel down and pulled his way out of the grave he’d dug. His clothes clung to his sweaty, grimy skin. His hair was matted and wet. The wooden of the handle of the shovel had imprinted itself into his hand, creating blisters. Every bone in his body ached. He had never felt such exhaustion...physical or emotional. Dead bodies, he knew, were much heavier than live ones. “Aunt Lena,” he whispered. “Please forgive me...” After a moment he staggered to his feet; he had to use the shovel for help to accomplish the task. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket and looked up at the sky. That was when he saw it: a white ball of light falling from the sky. At first he couldn’t be sure what he was seeing or if it was really there. It fell slowly, past the clouds. He watched it, transfixed, unable to look away. Is this Mercius’s Light I’m seeing? he thought. Is this a miracle I find myself bearing witness too? Or perhaps it was Aunt Lena’s soul coming from beyond the grave to contact him. If so did she seek vengeance or was her intent to reassure him everything was okay, she was in a better place? He remained paralyzed but also frightened. He had never seen anything so beautiful, alien, and terrifying all at the same time. The sphere changed course: it was floating straight towards him. Part of Crow's mind screamed for him to run. He understood in some unfathomable way that his life was about to change incomprehensibly...even though it already had with the death of his aunt. The most he could do was raise a hand to his eyes like a visor to try and shield his eyes. He stood at the top of the valley, now framed in blinding white light that seemed to envelope the entire world. He cried out in a mixture of terror and wonder. He sensed a sentience within the light, could feel it infiltrating his mind. The ground rumbled beneath his feet, the sound deafening to his ears. Then the light spoke. "Do not be afraid." It's voice was a booming cadence, beautiful and deep. Though he was sure he was hearing it within his mind and not with his ears, Crow could feel his bone vibrate in tune with its every word. He could imagine himself blowing away into millions of little particles of dust; giving the phenomenon he was experiencing, it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. "I have chosen you to be my Agent," said the voice. "You will help me finish the war my brothers and sisters started with the Order of Chaos. You will succeed where everyone else has failed. I give you a power you could never dream of having…" "No," Crow croaked, only understanding on an instinctual level the gravity of what was being asked of him. It took great effort to speak, as if his tongue were made of stone. "I don't want it...This power...You can keep it for yourself or give it to someone else…" The voice of the entity took on a scolding tone. "I will not be denied!" the voice thundered. Crow winced, his head snapping to the side as if he'd been struck. "Your will is insignificant compared to mine, what little power you wield even more so, and life even more! You will be the hands and feet of my will!" And then Crow was driven to his knees by an irrepressible weight. Tidal gusts of wind blew at him, threatening to lodge him into the air. His fingers clawed into dirt as he tried to cling on for dear life; he needn't have bothered for the weight pressed him down. His knees sunk into the earth. Flecks of rock crumbled, floating through the air around him, colliding into each other like debris in the void of space. He could feel a hand pressing against the spot in between his shoulder blades, stronger and larger than anything a human hand was capable of; it seared him with the white-hot heat of burning iron. The smell of burning flesh - his flesh - awoke with him an unbearable and sickening hunger. So this is what it feels like to be touched by the Light of Mercius? Crow thought through the all-consuming fog of pain and confusion. It's not the cathartic experience everyone thinks it to be. The entity touching laughed and told him it was not and never had been known as Mercius. Then it showed him things: what the Scarlet Church was planning, the inevitable war between their blasphemous religion with that of the Eurchurch and the eventual rising of the Order of Chaos also known as the Primordial Caste; a war that would engulf the hellscape in a nightmare far worse than what the First Pope had created with the remaking of the world. And even worse, Crow had already accepted this impossible task the entity had asked of him and all the endless pain and misery that would come with it. Because the consequences of what would happen would be far worse if he didn't. "Alright, damn you," he rasped at last. "I'll do it…" Crow resurfaced from the memory and back into the present; his heart was full of a hate and anger he hadn't thought himself capable of. He now understood how Damen, the Agent before him who had fought the First Priest only to become what he hated most, could understand how such a thing had happened. How many times had Crow almost fallen to the same fate? He looked up at the sky now, his eyes burning. His soul burned too, so hot it seemed his body would combust with the inability to contain it. "Fuck you," he whispered, knowing Ex'olku could hear him even if the entity was unwilling to respond. Hot tears of emotion trailed down his pale face. "I rebuke you...I rebuke you and your stupid fucking war that I never wanted to be a part of in the first place. I no longer care what happens because I'm done. Either way I'm dead. But if I'm to die by the word of the Pope then at least it will be my choice. I'll finally get the rest I deserve." Ex'olku did not respond. Crow had not expected anything less. Crow went to Aunt Lena's cairn and kissed the top stone; the granite felt cool against his lips. "If all goes as planned I'll be with you very soon," he whispered before turning away and beginning the journey back into town. … Crow woke up in the early hours of the morning, smoked a joint, dressed himself in the clean robes Geese had kindly laundered for him, and packed what little of his possessions he had; a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He had come to the decision that he would turn himself into the first Eurchurch patrolmen he came across. They would arrest him and transport him back to Miffridge where he would stand trial before the Pope; though a trial was granted to every criminal, Crow knew the verdict was unavoidable. He would be executed. This too was a comfort. He gave the room one last look before leaving. He climbed down the creaky wooden steps, expecting to find Geese standing in her usual spot behind the counter. He realized, with a plummeting sensation in his breast, that he had come to like the presence of the round-faced woman. Crow stayed where he was at the foot of the stairs. Something was wrong but he couldn't tell what it was. Not immediately. It soon dawned on him that there was no one in the pub at all. An oppressive gloomy silence hung over the scene but for the howling of the wind, which made the building creak all around him. Something was wrong. He could feel it but he couldn't tell what it was. Someone should have been. "We are alone for now," a familiar voice said from behind him. "They'll stay away until I call for them." Crow turned around to face C'thla. She stood at the top of the stairs, looking at him with her silver fox eyes and Sara's face; but it was not truly Sara’s face, only a cold caricature of it. It was a face that had no capability of showing empathy he knew. She wore a flowing red dress, her pale flesh visible beneath the gauzy red fabric. Her skin glowed with a health and vitality no human being possessed.“Don’t you love what I’ve done with the town?” When he did not respond, she made a disappointed tsssking sound. “I was at least hoping you would put up a fight.” Crow said nothing, drawing in his mana around him. The air crackled with energy. C’thla laughed. “What is the point in fighting my dear, Crow? The Eurchurch wants you dead. I want you dead. Everyone wants you dead. No one will mourn your death. Would death not be a mercy?” A hand crashed through the window behind Crow in a spray of glass. There was a shout before bloodied fingers clamped around his throat; slivers of glass were embedded in the flesh of the hand. Crow was slammed up against the wall, his breath escaping his mouth in a choked wheeze. His feet left the ground. He kicked, trying to pull the fingers from around his throat, his eyes bulging from his skull. The top half of his attacker’s body appeared through the window. A man’s face glared at him, his eyes filled with the amber-eyed hate of the possessed, the bearded mouth twisted in a snarl. Crow was vaguely aware of other voices shouting, windows breaking, the door of the inn crashing open. Darkness was creeping in at the corners of Crow’s vision. He tried digging his fingers into the hand of his attacker but even this proved futile. He could feel himself growing desperate. This was not the death I had in mind, he thought. At last his hand brushed a large sliver of glass. He seized it, cutting flesh against the jagged edges, and stabbed the sharp tip into the man’s hands. At last the fingers released him and he fell onto the floor in a coughing heap. Even as he drew in his first gasping breath, he forced himself onto his feet and clambered down the rest of the stairs. More bodies were clambering into the building from all sides, glaring at them with the same demonic hate. They were armed with knives, axes, and pitchforks. And standing at the front of the crowd was Geese. Her teeth were bared in a grin of rage directed at him; her fat fingers were clinched around the wooden handle of a meat cleaver. The other hand was missing, nothing more than a bloody stump from which he could see the white hint of bone. Even now it bled dripping blood on the floor. Despite her bulk she moved with a feline sort of grace, her shoulders hunched. He turned to face C’thla. “What did you do to them?” She stood near the bottom of the steps now, her arms folded casually on the wooden banister. The left side of her mouth curled into a cold smirk. “They are possessed. Don’t look so sad. After all, didn’t you tell Geese you would destroy this town if you could? Well now you can. I’m giving you what I want.” There was nowhere to go, nowhere to run. They surrounded him from all sides, slowly closing in, gibbering in the Demon’s Tongue. This isn’t what I wanted for them, Crow thought despairingly. Not really. I said what I did out of anger. Mercius help me, look at the chaos I’ve caused. In the back of his mind he knew what had to be done: if not to save his own life then the rest of the hellscape. C’thla made a sound of surprise deep within her throat, her eyes widening. “You would destroy them all in the effort to destroy me - the people you grew up with most of your life? Even when you know it’s futile?” “These were never my people but yes I would.” Once more Crow drew his mana in around him. Currents of energy gathered in the center of the room around him. The hairs on the back of his neck and arms stood on end. He glared at C’thla with blue-eyed malice. “It’s a chance I must and will gladly take.” “No wonder Ex’olku chose you,” C’thla said in what might have been admiration. “It takes a cold soul to do what needs to be done.” “You’re one to talk.” Crow! Lora’s voice cut in, echoing through his mind. He could feel her suddenly, close to the inn. We’re coming! Don’t move! Crow’s eyes widened. An icy sliver of dread pierced his heart. No, no, no this was all wrong. What was she doing here? Loras, you must leave this place - now! C’thla’s here! C’thla’s - Geese, now almost on top of Crow, raised the meat cleaver high above her head, about to bring it down on his skull. Crow clenched his teeth together and unleashed the pent up energy that had been building this whole time. A ring of fire burst out from him, fanning throughout the inside of the inn, engulfing everything.
  4. Crow stayed off the main highway, sticking to the back roads where he thought he would have less chance in bumping into a passing Eurchurch patrol team. He let Broana move at her own pace, no longer in a rush to reach Annesville. He no longer truly cared if he made it to his hometown or not. The land was peppered sparse with abandoned homesteads like the one the Stray Dogs had slept in after escaping Fort Erikson; he slept in barns and hayloft, foraging through houses in search of food. Most of them were empty, having been cleared out by the owner of the home who had clearly left due to some unseen danger, but occasionally he found a forgotten can of beans or dried deer jerky. Within all the farms he visited he never found any sign of what caused people to move from their homes: no signs of conflict or death. He knew he should feel afraid or cautious but he felt every bit as barren as the cabinets he searched through, as if the ability to feel emotion had been torn out of him. The only other signs of life he encountered were rabbits scampering about or the occasional weary coyote. After a week since the incidents in Whifden, his thighs rubbed raw and sore, his clothes stinking of dirt and unwash, Crow reached his hometown. It sat in the center of a bowl, surrounded by the jagged tops off the Plaesil mountains. From where he stood he could see a cluster of wooden buildings to form the town’s center. If he shielded his eyes he could see more houses spread farther back. To the left of the town the woods which he had roamed often as a child, hunting rabbit and deer, went back for miles. Even now in his thorough state of exhaustion he yearned to lose himself in the surroundings of pine trees. He was well aware of the dangers that awaited him within the town. Eurchurch patrolmen would be combing the entire hellscape in search of him, turning over every town. It would only be a matter of time before they caught and arrested him. And then there was the Scarlet Priests and the Red Wraiths. He was close enough to their territory he might very easily encounter them here. He was fighting the inevitable. But he wanted to see his hometown one last time; he wanted to see what had become of it. Why though? he asked. It’s not as if there are a ton of good memories here. This is where your journey of pain started. But not all memories had been bad. He missed the house his aunt and he had lived in his whole life. He missed how Aunt Lena and he would sing together. He recalled fond memories of her teaching him how to build snares as a child. Besides where else was he to go? There was nowhere that would have him. If I’m about to fall from grace - not that I had much grace to begin with - it might as well be in the place where I was born and raised. What’s left of it. He carefully made his way down the slope, leading Broana down the steep, rocky decline by the reins, encouraging her with soft mumblings. Once at the bottom, he closed his eyes, channeled his mana throughout his body, working a glamour. He did not use the glamour to go unseen but rather to change certain aspects of his features: to round out his features and make his nose less longer. It wasn’t much but hopefully it would make it harder for him to recognize. Having a week long stubble helped. Few people were out and about. With winter quickly approaching and night falling the already chilly air had grown cold enough to numb his fingers despite the rabbit hide gloves he wore. What few souls he did see moved through the snow with a mixture of caution and grace, seeking to get somewhere warm. He spotted an inn called The Jalasa Grove. The sign hung from the door, showing a red Jalasa tree. He was tempted to walk inside and order himself a meal, wanted as a criminal or not be damned. He still had the coin he’d yearned the night he’d stayed at Madame Vorca’s. His belly growled painfully at the thought of having warm food - something otber than rabbit or the raccoon he’d caught. The decision was made before he had time to talk himself out of it. He walked across the wagon tracks in the snow to the door and pulled it open. Made of wood, the door was rather heavy. The inside of the pub was dimly lit. The walls, counters and table tops were made of wood. Frost covered the windows. A fire crackled merrily in the hearth at the front of the building, where several people sat around silently warming their hands and drinking from metal cups. Several pairs of eyes turned to stare at him in silent caution, searching his face in recognition. The glamour seemed to hold up because there were several curious murmurs before they looked away. “Can I help you, stranger?” a large woman asked. She stood at the bar, looking at him with tiny eyes from a large round face. She had her large hands placed on her ample hips. She watched him with suspicion. Crow had almost forgotten how primitive people in the mountains could be. They didn’t like strangers coming into town. Looking at her closely, he realized he knew the woman. Everyone called her Geese for some reason. Back before Aunt Lena had gotten sick, Geese had come to her with a lump on one of her breasts. My aunt healed her, made the lump go away. He swallowed the lump in his throat. Mercius help me. I was stupid to come back to this town. To just turn around and leave without saying a word would only draw more attention to him. She had already seen his face and if she looked hard enough she would recognize him. And he was much too hungry and tired to care about what happened after this point. “Do you have anything to eat?” Crow asked. “I have bread rising. I can put it in the coal oven. And I have plenty of cheese and mead to drink.” Lane reached into his pocket and pulled at several coins. He slid them across the greasy surface of the counter. “Keep the change.” Geese gave him an odd look before sliding the coins into a small pouch attached to her skirt. She poured him a tankard of steaming cider before disappearing through a thin door behind the counter. She returned moments later with a steaming loaf of bread sitting on a wooden plate and several slices of cheese and a small dish of butter. As soon as she set the plate down, Crow immediately began spreading butter on the bread. The bread was so hot to the touch it scalded his skin. “I take it you must have traveled a long way then?” Geese asked conversationally. Crow nodded cautiously. “For a little over a week.” Her eyes widened. “All by yourself? I don’t know anyone crazy or brave enough to travel in such a fashion. You must have a deathwish. Are you from around here?” “Used to be,” he said. “I left to fight with the Inquistion. I received an honorable discharge. I wanted to catch one last glimpse of my hometown before I moved onto bigger and better things.” Geese squinted at him; this time there was less suspicion in her beady-eyed gaze. “You do look familiar. Do I know you?” Crow did not answer but went back to eating. “Forgive me,” Geese said after a moment. “I don’t mean to ask so many questions. As I’m sure you know we up here in the north aren’t very good when it comes to hospitality. We tend to treat everyone with suspicion.” Crow smiled as he chewed as a piece of cheese. “I don’t mean to seem rude myself. I’m just exhausted from my travels.” “For a couple more shillings I have a spare room upstairs you can use. I keep it for just in case purposes. You can use it for as long as you need to.” Crow reached into his pocket once more and handed her three of the six shillings he had left. “I’ll take it.” … The room was not as luxurious as his lodgings at Madame Vorca’s, but Crow didn’t care. The mattress of the bed, while tough, was a lot more comfortable than sleeping on the cold hard ground. He slept straight through the rest of the day and evening until morning. His body was still sore from constant traveling but he felt refresh. With a pail of water he washed as much of the dirt and grime from his body as he could. By the time he threw the sponge into the pail the water was brown. He had just finished knocking when he heard a knock at the door. “It’s just me coming to check on you,” Geese’s muffled voice said through the door. Crow hesitated for a moment. He thought about putting another glamor spell on. No, he thought, I will not hide my identity away like an animal. If she decided to turn me into the Eurchurch then so be it. He opened the door. Her eyes widened in recognition; she let out a gasp of shock. “You’re Lena’s nephew! By the Light of Mercius I knew I recognized you!” He nodded. “You and she just disappeared,” Geese said, coming into the room. She sat on the edge of the bed, making it sag in the middle. “Everyone knew she was sick, knew you had been taking care of her, all alone in that big house. Then we saw the house. There’s barely anything left of the house but it’s foundation! You disappeared. What happened?” Crow leaned against a wooden support beam. “Well you know how it is for healers and practitioners both. After so long our minds begin to wear. Dementia. And it gets worse over time like a tumor. That’s what happened with Aunt Lena. After so long of curing cancer, tumors, illnesses, and cuts she started to go mad. But you know that,don’t you Geese? You came to her over that lump on your breast. Turns out you had cancer and my aunt made it go away. I took care of her for as long as I could. Fed her, bathed her, got her medicine from the town clinic, tried to get someone to come take a look at her. But no one would. Everyone hated her because she took me in after the death of my parents even though they needed her at the same time. No one helped me, no one checked on us. I did it all alone. By the end, right before she died, she was hardly human. I would have to tie her down to keep her from getting up and hurting herself.” He smiled bitterly. His eyes glittered with tears. “Right before she died she had one final moment in clarity in which she remembered who she was and who I was. She asked me to put her out of her misery. She told me what she was going through was worse than being trapped in the Infernal Depths. And so I did what she asked me to do. I made sure to make it as quick and painless as possible. I suffocated her with her favorite pillow.” “By the Light of Mercius,” said Geese. She had gone very pale. Crow showed no signs of having heard her, lost in memory. “After it was done and she was no longer breathing I packed my things. I knew there was nothing left for me here. I didn’t belong here, I never did even though this was the town where I was born. But then I’ve never really belonged anywhere. So I buried her and then burnt the house down. Now she’s at rest. But I’m not and I don’t think I ever will be.” Geese licked her lips. She spoke in a shaky voice. “You said you joined the Inquisition?” He nodded. “Not of my own choice.” “I don’t understand your meaning.” “It’s part of a much longer story. I’m too tired to go into it.” He fell silent. I’m tired down to my soul. “Why did you return?” she asked. “Were you homesick?” “Homesick.” He laughed more bitterly than ever. “I suppose a little. Which is strange because I hate this town with a passion. I’d burn it down to the ground if I could.” “Were we really so cruel to you?” Geese asked softly. “Yes,” Crow said sharply enough to make Geese flinch. “Unforgivably cruel. This town, after everything my aunt did for you people, turned a silent eye to her suffering. And in doing so I suffered more than anyone could understand.” He was shaking angrily now. He hated the round-faced woman sitting before him, hated the room in which they stood in, hated the whole town. If I had my way I would burn it all to the ground, he thought. And why not? I’m certainly capable of it. I never should have come back to this place. What a fool I am! “I’m wanted by the Eurchurch,” he said, clearing his throat. “They think I’m a spy for the Scarlet Church. Oh, the irony.” “Are you?” Geese asked. The practitioner scoffed. “Mercius help me, no. Not that it matters. It’s only a matter of time before I’m captured. I just wanted to pay my respects to my aunt before...” He couldn’t finish out loud, so he finished it in his head. Before I die. Geese rose to her feet. “Before you go I want to apologize. I was one of the people who used to gossip about your aunt. I hated her the same as everyone else, feared her, feared you...until the day I went to her and she took my cancer away. Because of her I’ve had two more beautiful years with my daughter and my husband. Without her I would not be here. I’m sorry for the pain I’ve helped create. I know it’s not much, I know it doesn’t change anything...” “It doesn’t.” He smiled at her. There was a great sadness in it this time but not anger. “But I accept it all the same. I don’t want to die angry or with regrets. Well I have a long walk ahead of me. I want to leave this place by evening.” “At least eat a little breakfast before you do,” Geese said, reaching towards him before stopping in her tracks. “And I can give you some food for your hike. It’s the least I can do...” Have I judged this woman too harshly? he thought. Did I lash out too hard? “That would be much appreciated,” he said with a nod. … After eating a hearty meal of fresh baked bread, cheese, and coffee, Crow set out for his aunt’s house - or what remained of it. Geese had packed him with provisions: more bread and cheese, dried deer jerky, and a flask of ale to help keep him warm on the hike. It was a slow journey. He was still sore from his travels and the snow that had fallen overnight had hardened in a brisk wind. Still he forced himself to push on, determined to reach his destination. He left the center of Annesville behind, passing houses that sat on acres of frozen farmland. Few cattle and horses were in sight, residing in the warmth of their barns. The houses here were small and primitive, built of logs cut from the sturdy tree trunks of the trees that grew alongside the town. The trunks had been cut and shaped into sturdy logs. The people of the north, while socially primitive, could never be outmatched when it came to building and adapting even in the harshest of climates.You could count on them to find a way. Passing a familiar looking house, Crow stopped long enough to remember the dream (illusion) the demon underneath the Scarlet Church had pulled him into; there was no cheery Barghast to offer him soup or warmth. Crow shivered at the memory but also felt a fresh pang towards the Okanavian. He missed him more than words could say. Crow moved on. He reached the remains of Aunt Lena’s just a little past noon. He was half hoping the harsh weather would have demolished what the fire hadn’t destroyed, but there it still stood on its hill, the last human dwelling before the wilderness took over, stretching on for miles. The blackened windows seemed to stare at him accusingly. Look at what you’ve done to me, the house said to him. Have you come to finish what you started? Yes, Lane thought, I just might have. This time I just might make sure you are nothing more than a pile of ashes. Most of the roof had fallen in, leaving the innards of the house exposed to the cold elements. The door hung awkwardly on its hinges like a drunk fighting to stay upright. The windows that he could see on the bottom floor had been shattered. But not all was gone: sitting on the porch was the rocking chair where his aunt used to sit on. He could see her sitting there now, despite the cold, perhaps knitting him a winter hat or a new pair of socks. She had tried to teach him how to knit and crochet but he had never had the patience for such things; his patience had always been in hunting, building traps, and tracking prey. He climbed up the porch steps carefully. They groaned underneath his feet, threatening to break altogether but held fast. He set his pack down in the rock chair; surely no one was around to bother it, except maybe a racoon or fox. He slid through the doorway into what had once been the living room of the house. The house had been old, built by an ancestor in their family. The walls were made of granite, which was commonly mined in the Plaesil mountains. He had been a fool to think it would burn all the way down with no more gas than he had used. The two armchairs his aunt and he had used to sit in the nights they would read before the fireplace were torn, the stuffing hanging out in places like exposed innards. The rest was charred black. The fireplace still stood but did not possess the reassurance of warmth and coziness it once had. There were scattering of various animal droppings littered around the floor. Intricately spun spiderwebs clung to the corners of the roof and bookshelves. To his right was the staircase leading up to the second floor. It still looked sturdy enough to climb up. Soot, grit, and pieces of broken glass crunched underneath the practitioner’s worn boots as he carefully made his way up the stairs. The baniser canted to the right when he leaned his hand on it. Up at the top of the landing Crow craned his head back to look through the roof; he had a perfect view of the sky. He watched wispy white clouds crawl lazily across the sky. A bird fluttered across the ceiling, landing in a nest built on top of a support beam. Baby birds cried hungrily, their heads craning blindly for food with desperate abandon. The mother dropped a worm into the nest. Crow smiled at the sight; it seemed the house was not fully devoid of life. Did his aunt’s spirit, perhaps, reside in this place? The thought both comforted him and frightened him. Regardless, even if the lift that resides in this place is nothing more than a dwelling place for a mother and her baby birds then how can I burn the rest of it down in good conscience? he asked himself. He couldn’t. He passed the door that used to his bedroom and went to the door at the end of the hallway. It was already halfway ajar. He barely had to nudge with his hand to get it open. On the way towards the door a huge lump had appeared in his throat. Now he swallowed it. If Aunt Lena’s ghost was anywhere, it would be in this bedroom, where she had died. If so would she be angry at him. She asked you to kill her, he told himself. You did what you did out of mercy and love. That’s what you want Geese to believe, a cruel voice whispered in the back of his mind, sneering. That’s what you try to tell herself. But we both know you didn’t kill her out of love. You killed in her in the end because you were weak. You resented her. How often did you think about killing her just so you could pack your things and leave this place? He entered the room. The bed where she had spent most of the last months of her life and died was mostly covered in debris where the roof had fallen in on it. The floor was covered in motes of dust and soot. But even now he could see every spot when she had dragged herself out of bed, vomiting on the floor or the spot before the window where he had found her kneeling with a knife in her hand, wrists bleeding from where she had cut herself. He remembered all the times he had lifted her back into bed, feeling the sharp edges of bone beneath the filthy white fabric of her white nightgown. When she’d been healthy, Aunt Lena had been a strong healthy woman but towards the end the madness had reduced her to a raving skeleton of skin and bones held together only by the thinnest layers of flesh. In the last moments of her life he recalled how she had looked at him, her eyes crystal clear, not full of rage and confusion. She had gripped his arm gently and firmly, her eyes wet with tears. “Please Crow,” she said. “You must do the impossible...I know I shouldn’t ask it of you but I can’t do this anymore, it’s worse than burning in the Infernal Depths. There’s nothing of me left...” When he pressed the pillow over her face it was as if she had already given in. Malnutrition had obliterated her health; it hadn’t taken more than a minute for her breathing to stop. Now in the present, little more than a year later, the memory drove him to his knees sobbing the way the guilt on that day had. Lane knelt in the dirt, sobbing breathlessly. He pressed his forehead into the soot, seizing it in closed fists. “I’m sorry,” he wept. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me...”
  5. Lora’s Aspect stood in Strabetha Vacuity’s office while her body remained hundreds of miles away. Strabetha’s office was not as large as her own, nor was it as furnished. Her advisor sat at her desk; her face was grim. “I have some bad news for you.” Loras sighed, squaring her shoulders. Preparing herself. “Alright, let’s have it.” “It’s official. Pope Drajen sent out the flyers a week ago. They are being passed throughout the hellscape right now. He has sent out a hundred patrolmen in squads to look for Crow. Just a few hours ago I received a report Crow was spotted in a town called Whifden.” Loras felt her heart skip a beat. “Whifden? That’s just an hour or two away. We’re heading that direction now. But that doesn’t sound like bad news - that sounds like good news.” “I haven’t finished yet. Apparently Crow was working at a brothel owned by a Madame Vorca.” Loras frowned. A brothel? As a prostitute? That didn’t seem like something Crow would resort to. But then if he was desperate enough she supposed he might. She wondered if this was something she should share with Barghast. Would it ignite his temper? “Just this last evening Vorca apparently tried turning him into the authorities.” Loras’ attention snapped back to Strabetha.“Was he captured?” Her voice came out as a harsh bark. “No. He fled.” Loras cursed, feeling a mixture of relief and terror. Time was of the essence. They had to get to Crow before he was captured. “There’s one more thing,” Strabetha said, her voice little more than a whisper. “It’s about Fruimont...” Loras felt her heart seize once more. Before Strabetha could speak she held up a hand to cut her off. “I don’t want to hear anymore. We will deal with everything when I get back to Miffridge. Right now I have enough plate as it is. I need you to continue keeping an eye on Pope Drajen without letting him know what we’re up to. Can you do that?” Strabetha nodded. “Of course.” Loras straightened in her saddle, wincing, her face glowing in the light of the rising sun. The aches of her aging body assaulted her, reminding the old woman of where she was and her mission. The sky was a water color mixture of dark blue and violet. Barghast and Jack were a few feet in front of her, standing at the crest of a hill. Jack was in the process of taking a long swig from his water skin. The Okanavian head turned his head in her direction. “Any news?” “Yes. I’m afraid most of it isn’t good.” When she was finished Barghast remained silent. She waited patiently for him to say something, her heart pounding in her chest.She didn’t know what she was expecting. Would he explode into a fit of rage and stalk off the first chance he could get? Seconds turned into a minute, then into two. He was looking at the sky now, his broad, scarred face expressionless. She couldn’t stand the silence any longer. Just when she was about to ask him to say something, he said, “You don’t have to worry about me Loras. I’m not going anywhere. I just want to get to him before he gets himself hurt.” “We’ll be there by noon,” Loras assured him. “We’re getting close.” True to Loras’ word, they reached the town of Whifden several minutes past noon. Handing the reins of her mare to Jack, the old practitioner climbed stiffly off her horse. Her thighs stung when they rubbed together, rubbed raw from long hours of riding. She was aware of the sour smell of sweat; her skin felt sticky. She wanted nothing more than to be able to take a shower but knew it would be a while before she had a chance to do so. She gave Jack orders to watch the horses while Barghast and she looked for this Madam Vorca. “We will not be long,” she assured him. She wanted to be back on the highway as soon as they could. Her stomach churned with nauseous anticipation. Barghast and she began making their way down the street cutting through the center of town. Loras’ boots made loud squelching sounds as they made their way through the mud. She cursed underneath her breath, knowing they would be caked by the time they found the brothel. I’m probably going to have to buy a new pair after this, she thought. These were not made to traverse through the countryside. She scolded herself for not thinking to bring a better pair, one that was actually made through travelling over rough terrain. People passing by gave Loras and Barghast weary looks, doing their best to stay out of their path. Loras could only imagine how they must look, faces and hands smeared with dirt, their bodies stinking from unwash. Barghast must look particularly intimidating. Loras’ thoughts darkened further when she saw the number of WANTED posters pinned to every wooden surface. The likeness of Crow’s face seemed to watch her intently from windows, door fronts, bulletin boards, and wooden posts. Pope Drajen isn’t just worried about catching a criminal that has endangered the lives of others, she thought. This is a bloody fucking witchhunt. She glanced at Barghast. He stared straight ahead of him, his face expressionless. There was no clue as to what he might be feeling. While he had assured her on the bus he would not do anything rash, she was still nervous? Had she been foolish to bring him on this crusade to find Crow? What would she do if he actually lost his temper? He was so big...practically a giant. If such a thing were to happen she would have no choice but to use her mana. You always assume the worst in people, Loras, she told herself. You can’t control everything no matter how much you might want to. The pieces will fall as they may. “Over there,” Barghast said. He stopped abruptly, craning his head to their left at a three story building. The windows just above the roof had been shattered. The front doors hung open. A young dark-skinned woman stood on the front steps, wearing a dark green dress. Her sizable breasts strained against the bodice of the dress as if trying to burst their way free. She smiled and waved at men as they passed by. She had the same dark complexion and similar broad features as Barghast. The woman’s smile faded as her head craned up to meet Barghast’s dark eyes. She stepped back but forced a twitchy smile. “M-Might I o-offer you a moment of pleasure?” she stammered. “A diversion from these trying times?” “You’re barking up the wrong tree, lass,” Barghast growled. The whore took another step back but did not give in. “Well if it is boys you desire we have those too...” “Where is Madame Vorca?” Loras interrupted impatiently. She wanted to leave this flea ridden town as soon as possible. “Her office is on the top floor,” said the girl. “Just take the stairs all the way to the top.” “Thank you.” Loras and Barghast strolled purposely past the whore. Several more prostitutes stood in the parlor: three female and three male. They were all young but well-fed, wearing skimpy clothing that showed off their anatomy. They all fell silent, their eyes falling on Barghast. Loras nor the Okanavian offered explanation or introduction as they began to march up the stairs. Loras thought she heard a hush voice whisper, “Demon’s sweaty balls that’s Barghast Blackshot Unalaq.” She heard a female’s voice coming from the room at the end of the hallway, marked by double doors. The voice sounded sharp and authoritative. Inside the room a tall, lanky woman dressed in a purple dress was pacing around the floor of a large circular room, talking to a large man who was almost as tall and broad as Barghast. “...and I want these bloody windows replaced right away.” She whirled around when she detected the presence of Loras and the Okanavian. “Who in the Infernal Depths are you?” Loras immediately stopped in her tracks, in the doorway of the room. She immediately disliked this woman. Perhaps it was the face, caked with some kind of white muck, and narrow almond shaped eyes that sparkled with entitlement that rubbed her the wrong way; perhaps it was the sharp tone that Loras herself used so many times against others to get what she wanted being used against her. Mercius save me, is this what I sound like when I’m dealing with other people? Loras took three steps towards her, puffing out her breasts. She drew herself to her full height, fully aware that her boots and the leggings of her breeches were covered in flecks of mud that had dried and fallen on the wooden floor. She prayed this would be of no consequence when it came to dealing with this harlot “My name is Loras Gyrell. I work with the Inquisition. I’m here to ask you about the incident that happened last night. The man who escaped from this place...” “There’s not much to tell,” said Vorca. “I found out yesterday he was wanted by the Eurchurch and alerted the authorities. He was the one who did this to my windows. And look what he did to the wallpaper!” She painted a long, pointed fingernail at a spot where the wallpaper was charred and peeling; there were several spots like this, some smaller and less severe and others more severe all around the room. “And you’re getting mud on my floor!” “Sorry to further inconvenience you,” Loras said sweetly. She bared her teeth in a dangerous grin. She could feel herself growing angry with each second she stood before Vorca. I need to get away from this bitch because if I don’t I might just kill her and end up standing before Drajen with Crow. “The sooner you answer my questions the sooner I can leave.” “He fled!” Vorca shrieked. “The patrolmen are on the hunt for him as we speak and good riddance. Look at the damage he did to my establishment. After I took him in, after I gave him food and water and a place to lay his head! The filthy practitioner! Why do you care so much about him?” “Because he was falsely accused,” Loras said. “He’s been charged with false crimes!” “It makes no difference to me in the end,” Vorca said indignantly. “I was just fulfilling my civic duty to the Eurchurch.” Loras closed the distance between them and backhanded the woman. The sound of flesh connecting with flesh filled the room. “Don’t talk to me of civil duty, you whoremaster, because you know nothing of it!” Vorca gaped at her in shock before her face scrunched up in rage; the place where Loras had struck her was quickly turning red against the white of the makeup smeared across her visage. “Brass, throw this bitch, along with her scarred brute out of here right now!” The man known as Brass stepped towards Loras but before Vorca’s mindless lackey could take another step forward, Barghast intercepted him. While brass was certainly large, the Okanavian towered over him and was broader. “Take another step towards her and I will rip your throat out with my teeth and eat it for breakfast.” Loras was uncertain if Barghast really meant it or not but judging from the way Brass’ eyes widened, and he immediately stepped back until his back pressed up against the wall it was clear he did. Loras turned to face Vorca once more. Her face was cold with anger. Vorca gaped at them in fright. Loras held out an open palm. A ball of flame appeared in her hand. “What are you going to do?” Vorca whispered. She had pressed herself against the front of her desk, as far away from Loras as she could get without being able to move elsewhere. “Finishing what Crow started.” Loras threw the fireball at the partially charred wall on her left.The flames instantly whoosed into life, beginning to crawl up the wall. Vorca let out an agonized scream as if it was she herself who was burning. “Let’s go,” Loras said to Barghast. “I need to leave before I kill this bitch.” At the bottom of the stairs the prostitutes had gathered, staring in a mixture of fascination and terror at Loras and Barghast. Loras reached into her pockets and pulled out a handful of gold coins. “Due to the fact that a fire has broken out in your employer’s office, you will no longer be able to work here. This should hold you over until you can find something else.” She emptied her pockets into open hands. The faces before her shifted from expressions of terror to amazement. They all ran out the double doors except a young round-faced boy who couldn’t be more than fifteen. “Are you looking for Crow?” he asked. Two floors above Vorca could be heard screaming at Brass. “Put out the fire, damn you - put them out!” “Yes. Do you know anything of his whereabouts?” “The night before he left he said he was going back to his hometown somewhere up north. A place called Annesville.” “Annesville?” Loras glanced at Barghast. Her hope had been renewed. “I remember him mentioning it being his hometown.” She beamed at the young man. “Thank you so much! May Mercius bless you!” Once Loras, Barghast, and Jack had climbed back onto their horses with Whifden shrinking at their backs, Barghast turned to smile at Loras. It was the first time she had seen him truly smile in some time. “Everyone thinks I have a temper because i’m big and mean looking...” “And because you rob banks,” Loras interjected. “And because I used to rob banks,” Barghast said. His dark eyes twinkled with good humor. “But yours is worse. You are bad tempered.” “Yes,” Loras said. “Yes, I am.” And how easy it is to remember that if I hadn’t been so fortunate I would be in the same position as you, a prisoner of the Pope. Sometimes she needed a reminder.
  6. Crow woke up the next morning and stretched. He yawned and looked up at the ceiling. The only thing that would make this morning perfect is a joint, he thought. He’d had several rolled up, stashed away in his pack but the thieves who had attacked him had probably smoked them all by now. The audible growl of his belly motivated him to get out of bed. He went to the wardrobe and pulled the doors open. Shit. What am I going to wear? Except for a few wire hangers the wardrobe was completely empty. As if someone had read his mind there was a knock at the door. He opened it to find Brass standing on the other side. The large man held out a neatly folded pile of clothes to Crow. The practitioner breathed in the smell of laundry detergent. He couldn’t imagine how his own clothes smelled. “Madame Vorca wants you to wear these,” the large man said in a voice that was absurdly high for someone of his size. It was the first time Crow had heard him speak. Fighting the urge to smile, Crow thanked him and took the clothes. Closing the door, he unfolded the garments to see what Madame Vorca had given him to wear. Crow made a sound of disgust deep in his throat. Sitting on top of the bed was a blue silk shirt with a long V that came halfway down the front and a pair of black leather breeches that laced up at the front. I suppose in order to work as a whore I have to dress as a whore, he thought. What did you expect? a cruel voice whispered in the back of his mind. You’ve done this before. If you’re going to play the role right you have to do it well. Once fully he dressed he turned to face the mirror. He ran his finger through his almost shoulder-length hair, trying to make it a little less disheveled. The V at the front of his shirt came just below his chest. He was so bony his collar bone was visible. The pants fit snugly, hugging his curveless hips. It was time to see if he could hunt down some breakfast. He stepped out of his room. He could smell coffee coming from somewhere. He followed his nose down two flights of stairs to the first floor, into the dining room. Several people, four females and four males, sat around the table covered with dishes of food: platters of scrambled eggs, sausage links, fried greens, biscuits, gravy, and fresh fruit, and juice. Crow was so captivated by the amount of good sitting in front of him that he was unaware everyone else in the room had gone quiet and was watching him curiously. “Hello,” a boy said standing up. He could have been Crow’s age and he could have been younger. It was hard to tell how old he was exactly; he had a soft boyish face, and round brown eyes. He was shorter and skinnier than Crow. Like the practitioner he wore almost the exact same outfit, on;y the top garment was purple instead of blue and black pants and sandals that showed his neatly trimmed toes. “We heard Madame Vorca had hired someone new. You’re just in time for breakfast. My name is Twig.” “Crow,” the practitioner said. “Is that your actual name?” one of the girls said sarcastically. The other girls laughed. The girl who had spoken was young with black hair and dark skin; she had the same accent as Barghast. Was this another Okanavian who had abandoned her tribal life to become a whore? “It’s the name I call myself.” Everyone went quiet but for Twig. “The customers would start rolling in after the ninth bell rings, which will be in a few minutes. You should eat while you still can. You can sit next to me.” Crow smiled. At least someone was making an effort to be welcoming.The practitioner helped him to coffee, eggs, sausage, a biscuit, and grapes. He forced himself to eat slowly. He didn’t need anyone making remarks because he ate like a pig. Twig introduced him to everyone sitting around the table. The other males nodded politely but said nothing. Crow was fine with this. “What happened to your fingers?” Twig asked. He was looking at the splint on Crow’s hand. “I was robbed while passing through town,” Crow replied. “They did this to me and stole my stuff.” “That’s shitty,” Twig said sympathetically enough. Over the next few minutes as Crow ate, Twig asked him questions. Crow answered them vaguely between mouthfuls of food, mostly telling half-truths. He explained he’d come from the city of Miffland and was intending to return to his hometown in the Plaesil mountains; he was just staying here long enough to make money so he could finish the journey. Twig exclaimed at how brave he was to be heading North considering the Scarlet Church was taking everything over. Crow shrugged this comment off. So far he liked Twig the best out of the others but he was exhausted after answering all the questions. The ninth bell rang. Everyone scrambled to their feet, carrying dishes through the swinging door into the kitchen. Crow followed suit, grabbing what he could. Madame Vorca came sweeping down the stairs, dressed in yellow silk, with Brass at her side. “Hurry up!” she barked in a shrill voice that grated against Crow’s nerves. Everyone took their positions in the parlor, the woman on one side of the room, the men on the other. Crow suddenly felt nauseous with anxiety. Have I really fallen into such misfortune that I’ve lowered myself into this position? he thought. Is it really worth it? Before he could answer his own question the door crashed open and a group of men came rushing in. Crow stood in the corner of the room, secretly hoping no one would notice him. He watched the others lead their patrons up the stairs one by one. Twig was flirting with a hawkish middle-aged dandy who had his hair tied back with a ribbon. Just when it seemed Crow had escaped degradation for the moment, the door crashed open once more and a large brute of a man came staggering in. Even from where he stood Crow could smell the sour burn of drink and sweat coming off the man. He was tall, not as tall as Barghast but taller than Brass, and was broad of shoulder and chest with hands the size of small plates. He looked Crow up and down with beady blue eyes. He wiped at his bearded mouth with the back of his hand. “You look like a nice, tight fuck,” the man said in a slurred voice. Crow swallowed the lump in his throat. He held out a hand, beckoning with a smile. “Come upstairs with me and find out.” The man followed him up the stairs, boots clunking against wood the whole way. No sooner were they in the room the man had stripped off his clothes. His cock, sheathed in foreskin, was hard. “Get over here and relieve me, boy,” he said gruffly. Crow, having stripped naked, knelt slowly down before the man. He felt a dizzying sense of deja vu. I’ve been in this position before - it’s not a position I’d ever thought I’d be in again, nor do I want to be in it. But this is the quickest way to get what I need so I can get home. It’s the only way I know how to get home. He wrinkled his nose at the stench coming from the man. He leaned closer, felt bits of his breakfast rise up in his gorge, swallowed it back down. He took the man’s cock into his mouth. Just imagine it’s Barghast, he told himself. Pretend you’re finally with him. … Crow stood before the window, looking down at the town of Whifden, naked and sore. He longed for a joint now more than ever. There were teeth marks on his neck from where one of the clients had bitten him hard enough to draw blood. The man who had done it had paid him well. In the morning I’m out of here whether I have enough money or not, he thought. He had a small bag full of coins. He turned to face the bed. The sheets were disheveled and wet with sweat. The spicy scent of sex and body odor almost completely drowned out the lavender. He was about to tumble back onto the mattress when there was a knock at the door. It was Twig, completely dressed. “Just wanted to see how you’re doing,” the prostitute said. “Also I was wondering if you smoke jalasa.” “You have jalalsa?” Crow asked excited, peering around the corner of the door with the rest of his body obscured from view. Twig smiled. “I rolled you a few just in case.” Crow grinned back,feeling his spirits lift.“My savior. Give me just a moment to put something on.” He closed the door long enough to slide a bathrobe on. The bathrobe felt smooth and silky against his bare flesh. When he opened the door once more all the way, Twig entered with a leather pouch in hand. They sat together on the edge of the bed. “Rough day?” Twig asked, undoing the silver clasp on the pouch. “If that’s the word you want to use to describe it,” said Crow. “One of my clients bit me hard enough to draw blood.” “Let me see,” Twig said. His voice wasn’t so much curious as it was concerned. Crow reluctantly pulled down the collar of his bathrobe, showing the inflamed teeth marks that marked the spot between his neck and shoulder. He looked away in hopes Twig couldn’t see how much the experience had rattled him. “You should have a healer take a look at it before it gets infected,” Twig said, handing the practitioner a neatly rolled joint. “We get quite a few freaks that come in here. I’ve handled a few myself. It’s a shame you had to experience it on your first day.” “It’s not my first day,” Crow said. He leaned over so Twig could light the end of his joint with a wooden match. “But it’s been a while, so I’m a little rusty. Tomorrow it won’t matter because in the morning I’m leaving this place.” He inhaled before blowing out the smoke through his nostrils. Twig made a choking sound, coughing out plumes of smoke. Once he was able to speak again he exclaimed, “But you just got here! How can you just leave?” Alarm and disappointment warred on his round, boyish features. Crow was touched by what he saw there. It slowly occurred to him that maybe he had finally found a friend. “This is not a profession I want to be in for the rest of my life.” A flush had bloomed across his pale, milky cheeks. “I don’t blame those who do but the life of a prostitute is not meant for me. As of today it’s just a means to get me to where I really want to be.” A place I know nothing of - this place I want to go to, assuming it isn’t Annesville, might not even exist. “It’s not the greatest life," Twig agreed, tipping ash into a marble ashtray, “but it’s much better than the life I was living. At least I have some measure of control and I’m making the money the way I want to.” Where are you from?: Crow asked. The room was smokey, piney smelling with the jalasa. For the moment Crow felt utterly content. “The Jalacial Flatlands,” Twig said. “Have you been there?” Crow shook his head. “Good. All there is out there are grainfields and mud because it rains nine months out of the year - mud literally coming up to your ankles.” “I like rain,” the practitioner said simply. “I do too,” the young prostitute agreed, “but when it almost rains everyday you begin to grow tired of it. I know life in the north can be just as tough but at least the air smells clean. Anyway my father is a grainfarmer. His house sits on acres of land. He’s a bit of a bastard - among other things. He could never reconcile with the fact that I am not attracted to the opposite sex. He used to call me a sodomite, said that I was possessed by a sexual demon. He tried to have it exorcised out of me and my mom just stood there and let him do it. As soon as I could I left and I have no intentions of going back.” He yawned. “Well that’s my cue to go to bed for the evening. Will you stick around long enough to have breakfast in the morning?” “Of course.” The two young men wished each other good night. … A heavy fist crashed against his door three times hard enough to make it rattle in its frame. Cursing, Crow dragged himself out of bed and shuffled towards the door. He slid his arms into his robe, quickly tied the knot, and opened the door. “Mistress wants to see you,” Brass said, casting a looming shadow over Crow. Before the practitioner could ask for an explanation the large man turned on his heel and disappeared around the corner. Crow followed after a moment, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He found Madame Vorca and Brass in the room where Vorca had examined just the other day. She sat at her desk, dressed in a robe, her face scrubbed free of makeup. “Ah,” she said in a light almost conversational tone. “Good, you’re up. I’m sorry to have dragged you out of bed like this but I’m afraid there’s something important we need to discuss.” She held something out to him, a piece of paper. “These are being passed out throughout the town and the rest of the hellscape. I figured you would like to take a look at it.” Crow took the piece of parchment and blinked down at it sleepily. After a second’s glance he felt his blood turn to ice. Abruptly, he no longer felt sleepy. At the top in bold black letters was the word WANTED; beneath this was a drawn sketch of his likeness, down to the long black hair and hawkish nose. He looked up, his mind spinning. “I don’t understand. I’m not a criminal.” “It seems you are being charged with treason as a spy for the Scarlet Church,” Madame Vorca said, rising to her feet. “While I usually don’t like meddling in such affairs I fee; it is my duty to the Eurchurch and to the Pope to make them aware of your whereabouts. Which is why a Eurchurch patrol is on their way here right now. They should be here any minute.” “I am not a spy for the Scarlet Church.” Crow felt as if he was choking on his own words. “I fought for them...” “Regardless of the truth it makes no difference to me,” said Madame Vorca. “The Eurchurch can deal with you.” There was a rapping sound somewhere downstairs. “Oh,” she said flippantly. “That must be them. Brass, go downstairs and let them in won’t you?” Brass left the room, his boots thudding heavily on the wooden floor until Crow could no longer hear them. A moment later he heard the sound of voices, authoritative and excited. He glared at Madame Vorca. Underneath the shock he could feel himself growing angry. I have given a year of my life to the Eurchurch, risked my neck on multiple occasions and this is how I’m repaid? Remembering his meeting with the Pope in his apartment, Crow couldn’t say he was surprised. Pope Drajen was a very paranoid, very petty man no matter how much he tried to appear otherwise in the face of the public. The Eurchurch really is no better than the Scarlet Church. The door swung open once more and Brass came in, leading three Eurchurchman. They wore the customary Eurchurchman uniforms and were armed with rifles. The one in the front was tall and lanky, his thinning dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. He looked at Crow with sharp blue eyes. “Is this the one?” he asked Madame Vorca. “Yes.” She came around the desk and handed him the flyer. “The practitioner the Eurchuurch is looking for. I didn’t even know he was a practitioner. If I had I never would have let him into my establishment.” As she passed by him, she spat in Crow’s face. Her spit felt cool against his skin. The man held up the drawing to Crow’s face. “Yep, it’s him. My name is Leutanent Wolff,” he said to Crow. “I, on behalf of the Eurchurch, are placing you under arrest for treason against the pope.” As he spoke, Wolff pulled out a pair of steel shackles. Crow thought he noticed specks of dried blood around the cuffs. The sight made him feel queasy. “We can either do this quietly or things could get violent.” Crow tilted his head back, his decision already made. He knew if he were to be taken for trial in front of the Pope he wouldn’t stand a chance. Within the narcissistic mind of a man like Drajen he was already guilty. His decision was based on simple self preservation. “I prefer violence,” he said, and spinning on his heels unleashed a ring of fire that fanned throughout the room. In an explosion of heat and flame, the three patrolmen, Madame Vorca, and Brass were thrown off their feet onto the floor. Dashing towards the broken windows, Crow jumped onto the roof. The ground spun below dizzyingly below but he knew he could make the jump without hurting himself. He cast a wide-eyed glance over his shoulder. Already Wolff and the other patrolmen were starting to get to their feet. Crow jumped through the air. With a cushion of wind, Crow managed to slow his fall before landing in the mud. Grunting, he righted himself. Gunfire cracked in the air. Bullets smacked into the mud around him. Ducking low, Crow broke into a mad dash with the sound of shouting in his ears.
  7. Crow and Broana continued their journey north. He was unsure of why he was heading in the direction of home rather than away from it. It was as if his heart’s desire had no say in the matter. When he stopped for the day to let Broana rest, he hunted. Building the snares brought a sense of nostalgia, reminding him of who he truly was and where he came from. I haven’t forgotten everything Aunt Lena taught me. At night he would sleep by a fire, breathing in the open air. Before going to sleep he prayed to Mother Moon: “Mother Moon, You’re light so gentle and cool, like water on my skin...” When he slept he dreamed vividly. He dreamed of his aunt’s house, sitting on top of the hill - was there anything of it left or was it completely gone? Other nights he dreamed of Barghast. These dreams were every bit as vivid, full of sensory detail and desire. These dreams often forced Crow awake, his heart heavy with guilt. It’s for the best, he would try to reassure himself. Things never worked out between us anyway. Our lives are too complicated. And yet there were numerous regrets that haunted him, popping up when he least expected it, when his thoughts would get the best of him. After five days of traveling he reached the town of Whifden. The Plaesil mountains were just in view, standing on the horizon. The sight of the town’s wooden buildings made him think of all the small towns he’d passed through just like it - even his own town was not so different looking, even if it was a bit colder. He passed unfamiliar faces on his way down the town’s main street. Horses pulled carriages along the avenue; voices hooted from alleyways and a man stood on the terrace of a building, woefully playing the violin. While the town did not possess the over abundance of colors, sights, sounds, and people Miffland did, Crow appreciated the activity after many days of being on the road. Even if he didn’t necessarily want to talk to anyone, the presence of people was a comfort. In the end, after he’d paid for a stall to house Broana in, his rumbling belly and sense of smell led him into the saloon, a cramped two story building that smelled pleasantly of sweat, booze, jalasa smoke, and frying meats. He sat at a greasy wooden countertop. A narrow eyed, heavy jowled man regarded him with a look of suspicion. “Never seen you around here before,” the man said with a heavy northern accent. “Just passing through,” said Crow. “Where you headed?” Crow was about to say, None of your damned business, but then stopped. The man was just curious. And there didn’t seem anything dangerous about him - if there was, Crow knew he would have sensed it. I’ve kept my secrets for over a year, not telling anyone about who I am or where I come from. I don’t want to live in the dark any more. “I’m headed towards Annesville,” the practitioner said. It was always so strange to say the name. Not for the first time he asked himself why he was going to a place where he’d only known pain, but even now he didn’t know the answer. It struck him not for the first time going north, back home, might not be a good idea. He would be closer to Fruimont and north had been overtaken by the Scarlet Church. But despite knowing this he also knew he would go to Annesville regardless; to see it with his eyes and say goodbye one last time. He owed it to Aunt Lena to visit her grave. “Quite a journey,” said the man. “Got any family there?” “Used to,” Crow said. “But not anymore, eh?” There was something like dislike in the man’s voice. Crow was liking this conversation less and less. “Do you always interrogate your patrons like this?” The man held up his pudgy hands. “Sorry - just making conversation is all.” He looked rather flustered. Crow’s anger receded. Had he made a mistake? Was this man truly trying to be friendly? If so, why? He wasn’t used to people starting conversation with him unless it was to spit in his face for being a practitioner. I might know how to survive out on my own but there’s still so much I don’t know about the world: how to interact with people for starters. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long day. I’m sore from traveling and hungry. I’m not in the mood for friendly chatter. Do you have meat?” The man leaned back. “Of course. We have beef, venison, a delicious rabbit stew...” I’ve had my fill of rabbit, Crow thought. “I’ll take venison. And a double shot of whiskey.” Inwardly he grinned. For the last year he’d been saving up his wages while with the Inquisition. Up until now he had no idea what he would spend it on - he’d presumed he would never have the chance. Now he knew. Moments later, stuffed with meat and bread and more than a little drunk, Crow staggered out into the night. He’d made a friend in Garrett, the man who owned the saloon, or at least an acquaintance. Garrett had gruffly but not unkindly given him in the directions to a boarding house where he could rent a room for just a few coins. “I’d give you a room if I had one but they’re all full tonight. You see a lot of refugees fleeing the north have been coming this way. I sort of thought you were one which is why I was asking you so many questions. People are running away from the mountains, not heading towards them.” For now Crow’s only thought was of only finding a bed to sleep in. While he didn’t mind sleeping on the ground it did wear on someone’s back after a while. He walked through a narrow backstreet. Except for a few people passing by there was hardly anyone else around. Now that his belly was full of food and drink, Crow wanted quiet. He wanted to let the pleasant buzz of his thoughts go on unimpeded. Color blazed on his usually pale cheeks. His eyes, usually hard and intense, had softened with contentment and sleepiness. For the moment he had no regrets for leaving Miffland and his responsibilities behind. He turned. The boarding house Garrett had described was within view, a dozen or so yards away. The house was small with peeling paint and crooked shutters. Just as he was about to head the rest of the way towards it a tall figure shot out from behind a wall. Crow had enough time to register it was a man before something hit him over the head hard. Glass shattered and he went down, sprawling on the ground. He laid there, too stunned to move or understand what had just happened. The man was coming towards him with something sharp in his hand - a knife. His face was bony, his dark eyes emotionless. Another man appeared, then a third one, and a fourth one. With blood dripping in his eyes from a gash in his scalp, Crow tried to raise himself up only to feel a boot crush him back down into the dirt before he could even get onto his hands and knees. “Stay down,” a sly voice said from behind him. “We won’t kill you unless you fight. We just want your coins.” Crow tried to wave a hand but another boot stomped on his fingers. He felt one or two of them snap. He cried out, tasting dirt and blood. He felt hands rummaging through his pockets, ripping his bag from his shoulders. He struggled but no matter how hard he wriggled he couldn’t break free. When the hands had taken what they wanted something kicked him from behind. The last thing he was aware of was the peels of cruel laughter steadily drifting away into darkness. … Crow stumbled into the saloon, his black robes covered in mud and filth. A sheet of dried blood covered the right side of his face. Three of the fingers on his right hand were twisted at awkward angles. The chatter in the saloon diminished as several pairs of eyes turned to look at him. Garrett, who had been in the middle of polishing a glass with a rag, set the glass down. “What in the Infernal Abyss happened to you?” he grated. Crow staggered over to the stall, looking dazed. With some difficulty he managed to scoot onto a stool. “Water?” he croaked. “Do you have any water?” “You don’t need water - you need whiskey.” Garrett looked over the cut with his eyes, then down at the practitioner’s broken fingers. “It’s on the house.” Crow nodded his thanks. His lips trembled. He blinked, trying to keep back the tears of humiliation that threatened to overwhelm him. Garrett set a glass of whiskey down on the stained countertop. Crow raised the glass to his lips, tipping the glass back with his good hand. The drink seared his throat satisfyingly as it went down. “I was heading towards the boarding house when I was attacked. They did this to me...took all of my money.” “Damn. You said you’re a practitioner, didn’t you? You weren’t able to fend them off?” “I was drunk,” Crow said sharply. “More drunk than I’d been in a long time.” Garrett refilled his glass. “I can send for a healer. I don’t know if she can do anything to the fingers other than splint them but she can definitely heal the cut.” Crow nodded shakily. “I owe you one.” Garrett waved a hand. “It’s the least I can do. After all I feel partially responsible for sending you in that direction. Did you see their faces?” “I didn’t get a good look,” Crow said. Garrett left the saloon, putting the bar in the charge of a younger woman. By the time he came back with an older man in tow, Crow was pleasantly drunk. The broken fingers and gash on his head still hurt but the whiskey helped make it easier to deal with. The healer introduced himself as Root. Root looked over the cut critically. “Nasty business,” he said fretfully, his voice a dry croak. “You look like you had yourself a night. Let’s deal with the cut first, then I’ll make a splint for the fingers.” Root cleaned as much of the blood as he could from around the cut before placing a wrinkly hand over the wound. His skin shimmered for a moment. Crow felt the wound begin to close up. The tingle of mana against his skin made him think of Sara; with a flash of guilt he realized how much he missed her. After several minutes Root managed to make a rough splint with pieces of wood. Root told him it could take up to several weeks for it to heal. Crow thanked him, feeling a mixture of appreciation towards Garrett and the old man, and humiliation. Other than Barghast and Sara it’s been a long time since I’ve experienced human kindness, the practitioner thought. Garrett smiled at Crow once Root had tottered out the doors of the saloon. “You look better - not perfect, but you don’t look like you’ve been flattened in the mud by a wagon. Do you still plan on heading to your hometown?” “Yes. But now I have no money so I’m going to have to find work.” Crow sighed heavily. “Know anyone who’s looking for work?” Garret shook his head. “Unfortunantly there’s not many places. I’d hire you as a dishwasher or bartender but I’m struggling to keep the doors open as it is. The Eurchurch keeps asking for more taxes each year. Mercius forgive me, but don’t tell me they ain’t corrupt. The only place I can think of is the brothel. Madame Vorca is always looking for...workers. It’s the quickest way I can think of you could make money...assuming you’re not above doing such work.” Crow’s face darkened with memory. “I’m not.” … Madame Vorca was a vain looking woman, her face powdered in white, her lips painted dark red. In a lot of ways she reminded Crow of Loras but without Loras’ moral streak. This woman was mean but also cunning. She was dangerous. I better be careful, Crow thought. I don’t need her backing me into a corner I can’t get out of. She sat at a desk, looking over him critically. She wore a frilly dress with long white sleeves. The end of the dress came down to just above her ankles. Crow stood before her, naked as the day he was born. He kept his hands at his sides, resisting the urge to shield his crotch from view. Standing off to the side, hands clasped before him, was a large brutish looking man with strawberry blonde hair and eyes spread a little too far apart. It seemed he was a bodyguard of some sort. Judging from the far away look in his eye there wasn’t much going on in his skull, Crow thought. “Turn around,” Vorca said briskly. Crow turned around so his back was facing her. A slanting ray of sun sliced across the room forming a diagonal line across his face. The red carpet beneath his bare feet felt reassuringly soft. Looking at the plush furniture and breathing in the smell of lavender, the lavish atmosphere was belied by the sound of shouts and moans and squeaking bed springs coming from the room across the hall. “Hmmm,” Vorca said disapprovingly. “Not much skin on your bones. But you’re young so I suppose you’ll do. I suppose I don’t have to tell you our clientele are almost all men. Very rarely does a woman ever venture in here.” “You don’t have to tell me,” said Crow. “Good. And do you have experience pleasuring other men?” She had risen to her feet and walked around to face him. She continued to look Crow quizzically up and down. “I do. As I’ve mentioned I worked in a brothel before. I know what to expect.” “You’re young. You have that going in your favor. Whatever tips you make by the end of the week - should you decide to stay so long - I take seventy percent. This covers your board and food. Is this agreeable to you?” This is how you keep your whores from leaving, Crow thought, silently detesting the woman who stood before him. You give them food and a nice room to sleep in. You give them the illusion of safety and comfort but really they are your prisoners. I will not be your prisoner. “It is.” Vorca nodded approvingly. “It is settled then. Brass, will you take our new guest to their room?” The large man standing in the corner of the room nodded, plodding out of the room without waiting to see if Crow followed. He led the practitioner up two floors, into a large room with a four poster bed, a wardrobe, a writing desk and an attached bathroom A window overlooked the town. The room looked and smelled clean. A beautiful prison cell, Crow thought. Vorca may be a manipulative, scheming bitch but stupid she was not. As soon as Brass left, Crow closed the door behind him. Even now he could hear shouts and curses, moans of pleasure, and squeaking bed springs. He turned to face himself in the mirror. In my short time I have lived many lives, he thought. I have been Crow, the healer’s nephew; I have been a soldier; and I have been a whore, a role I hoped I wouldn’t have to play again. But it seems some roles stick with us, no matter how hard we try to depart from them.
  8. Loras stormed into her office and slammed the door behind her. 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 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 Lydia, followed by a Eurchurchman armed with a rifle. “Out,” she told the Eurchurchman, pointing at the door. To Barghast she said, “You idiot. I told you to keep Crow from leaving the city.” Barghast’s shoulders slumped. “There’s nothing I could do to talk him out of it. If he wants to leave that’s his choice.” “He no longer has a choice. We need him whether he likes it or not. We’re going to get him whether he likes it or not. Jack, go to the stable and get three horses.” “What about Lydia?” Barghast asked. “What about her?” “Are we taking her along?” “No. That little bitch has caused enough problems as it is. ” … Broana and Crow traveled slowly down the Daminion Highway, his duffel bag dangling from one shoulder. His robes stuck to his back. The sky was beginning to darken. 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 ached from sitting in the saddle for so long. His waterskin was only a third full. He’d marked several spots on the map he’d brought with him, places where the Stray Dogs had stopped and camped. He was getting close to one of their spots. He glanced around and spotted a small grove of trees. Beside the trees was a small creek. Patting Broana’s neck, he slowly lowered himself down onto the ground, wincing. He’d ridden for hours, his nose and cheeks sunburned despite the chill in the air. His throat felt like sandpaper. He lowered himself beside the creek and drank until he felt he might burst. Afterwards he refilled his water bottle. 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. … After three hours, most of it spent running at full speed, trying to catch up to Crow, Loras thought her cushy job as a politician had done her more harm than not. In another life now it seemed, she remembered when the musk of horse and sweat had brought both a sense of danger and freedom, when it had made her feel power and indestructive. Now it made her nostrils flare, made her body ache, made her wish for the familiar comfort for her office, the warmth of a fire, and the tang of jalasa tea. “It will be dark soon,” Barghast said, bringing his stallion, Gunpowder - and what a hideous horse he was, Loras thought - to a stop. “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 scowled. Jack was worse, a shadowy presence who said nothing. Barghast grimaced. “Not usually. But I'm worried about him, walking out in the open like this, alone.” Loras shifted in her sattle, grimacing. “It’s partially his fault. If it wasn’t for him running off we wouldn’t be on this Mercius-forsaken highway 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 on both sides of the road. 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 Crow. 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. Crow, where are you? It didn’t take her long to find him. He was somewhere up ahead; perhaps sixty 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 Crow. 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 Crow 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. “Crow.” 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 Crow had managed not to scream. He sat rigid and still, too paralyzed to move. At the moment he was not Crow 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. From where she stood by the trees, Broan watched them wearily but made no sound or movement. Broana had always been smarter than the average horse, Crow thought. The demons continued to dance wildly about, conversing wildly back and forth in the Demon’s Tongue. Crow 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. Crow let out a sigh of relief. And then a voice, distant but familiar: “Crow...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.” “We need you.” “I don’t care. I’m done with it all.” He began to hike back towards the highway. Demons be damned. Loras glided after him. “We’re coming to get you...” “Don’t bother. I don’t want to see either of you.” “Don’t be ridiculous. Crow, if you truly are the Agent of Ex’olku then you are the only one who can fix this...” “I don’t want to fix anything!” 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 Crow shoved Loras’s Aspect away from him. … The force of the blow almost knocked Loras off her saddle, onto the ground. She grabbed the reins, rocking back, and just managed to remain upright. Her horse took a startled step back but remained steadfast. She was so shocked that she did not feel the cold brush of wind blowing strands of her silver-white hair back from her face. Her brown eyes were wide with shock that eventually turned into anger. “What happened?” Barghast asked, expressions of hope and worry at war on his etched face. Even Jack was glancing back at them from several feet ahead “He pushed me away,” Loras said. “Who?” “Who do you think, you big idiot. Crow. 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 Mercius 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 by lasso all the way back to Miffland.” … C’thla stood on the balcony of what had once been Benedict 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 belonging to each soul. Crow. 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.
  9. Thousands of people stood in the chill of the new morning - people of all ages. No one was exempt from seeing the bloody spectacle that was about to take place. An hour before, a platoon of Red Wraiths were sent throughout the city, kicking down doors. Most of the people didn’t need persuading: They’d already trekked out into the cold, unwilling to risk the might and wrath of the Scarlet Church. But of course there were those who refused and they were shot down in a hail of gunfire that echoed through the mostly-silent streets of Fruimont. Benedict was unable to keep the nightmarish images out of his head. He pictured an entire family laying dead on the floor, around the kitchen table: a man, a woman, and their two children. Perhaps even the family pet. A family not so unlike his own. He held Sheathia’s hand, not daring to let go. It was the only reassurance he had and a fragile one at best. He knew at any second it could be torn from his grasp. He had begged her to find a place to hide, to find a way to leave this city but she had refused. “I’m in this with you whether you like it or not,” had been her reply. “If I have a chance to make this world a better place for our children I’m going to take it.” And so here they were, sitting on the stage, with all the souls of Fruimont. Sheathia was on Benedict’s left, Damen Orlys on his right, and sitting next to the High Priest was the strange woman C’thla. Next to the stage were all the prisoners who were to be executed. Already Benedict could hear the sound of hammer pounding against nail, the high-pitched screams of agony, and the patter of blood falling against cobblestone. Crows circled the square, filling the frigid air with their carrion cries of anticipation. His nerves were tight. He was all too aware of the gun pressing against his side; he prayed no one would see its outline. The flesh of Sheathia’s hand felt clammy against his own. He stared ahead, concentrating on all the faces before him in hopes he might spot Rufus. Benedict glanced at C’thla. She wore a red sequin dress underneath a black wolf’s fur which was draped around her shoulders. Her hair was pinned up. If the cold bothered her she gave no sign of it but the flush on her cheeks. Remember, Benedict told himself, she and Damen are the objective. Get them and this nightmare just might hopefully end. Her head turned at that exact moment and she pierced him with her silver eyes. A small, knowing smile crossed her lips. A shiver he suspected had nothing to do with the artic chill in the air raced up Benedict’s spine. It’s as if she knows what I’m thinking, he thought. And then another horrible thought struck him - he was a fool not to realize it sooner. She’s a demon! That would explain the eyes. But she was nothing like the other demons he’d encountered. They usually acted insane, trying to infect whoever they could grab ahold of by biting them. He had to do something. Before he could slide a hand under his jacket and grab his gun, Damen stood up. “I’m sure you’re all very cold on this fine chilly morning,” the High Priest said, his voice echoing throughout the square, made louder by mana. “The sooner we get this show over with the sooner you can all continue on with your petulant lives. Can I get the list of names, please?” Lucijan stood up from his seat on the left side of the stage. He had a clipboard with several pieces of paper clipped to it. He handed the clipboard to the High Priest wordlessly before sitting back down. If he was as afraid as Benedict felt, he did a good job of not showing it. The High Priest, still grinning from ear to ear like a malicious clown, held the clipboard up for all to see. It was no doubt the names of the prisoners. He turned to C’thla. “Do you want to do the honors?” She stood up. Her eyes twinkled. “It would be my pleasure.” The High Priest passed the list of names to her. As soon as Damen was seated C’thla cleared her throat and read the first name. “Helga Ay’ines.” A young woman was shoved forward by a burly Red Wraith. Her ankle became tangled in the chain that shackled her ankles together and she went down with a cry of pain. “Get up!” the Red Wraith roared. Mist fumed from his mouth making Benedict think of a bull. The Red Wraith stooped, grabbed a fistful of Helga’s hair, and yanked her to her feet. As the woman let out another cry of pain Sheathia’s nails dug painfully into Benedict’s flesh. He glanced at her. His wife was the most welcome sight, beautiful and fragile in her terror. Like C’thla she had dressed for the “occasion”, her face lacquered in makeup. If only he could just look at her and not see what was happening. But he didn’t have a choice - until the signal was give he had to endure. They both did. The woman’s cross awaited her. The hole in which it would be set had been dug. Another Red Wraith, this one female, stood by with a hammer in hand, looking at Helga with an expressionless face. Helga was shoved to her knees. Her shoulders shook. She whimpered helplessly. The city of Fruimont watched in tense silence. Out of the corner of his eye Benedict spotted movement. He turned his head slightly to look. It was Rufus. He had moved to the front of the crowd and was looking directly at Benedict. Another man stepped up beside him - the man who said he had spent three days watching his wife die. Rufus nodded once. Benedict gave Sheathia’s hand a single squeeze. It was time. Benedict rose to his feet with the surreal feeling he’d stepped outside himself. He turned his complete focus on C’thla, shutting off all emotion, all thought. Somehow he knew she was the real threat; somehow he knew she was the reason why all of this was happening, the motivation for why the Scarlet Church had taken over his city. He had just pulled out his gun, a squarish chrome thing with a large muzzle, when C’thla turned to face him. Her eyes flashed cunningly - she knew what he was going to do and yet her face did not show the slightest hint of fear. Time slowed. He aimed at her head. He had the perfect shot. He pulled the trigger. The muzzle flashed, letting out a crack that exploded through the air. The gun jerked upward with such a force Benedict almost lost his grip on the handle. C’thla was thrown off the stage, blood streaming from her. The bullet had hit her collarbone, tearing open the flesh. She fell over the edge of the stage, disappearing into the crowd. Benedict didn’t allow himself a second’s thought to consider what he’d done. There wasn’t time. He turned and fired two shots at Damen but by this time the High Priest had already gathered his wits, having summoned up a shield of shimmering blue mana around him. The moment the bullets touched the protective forcefield they disintegrated. More shots were fired from behind Damen and the High Priest went down. Lucijan stood directly behind him, smoke billowing from the muzzle of his own gun. The rattle of gun fire, this time much more rapid, deafened Benedict. Numbingly he watched Lucijan, his colleague and friend of many decades, dance and shake in a cloud of red mist. All of this had happened in seconds. All hell broke loose. Gunfire erupted from all directions. People ran, screaming, trampling over each other. Everyone had completely taken leave of their senses in the need to survive. A Red Wraith about to shoot Sheathia took a bullet to the back of the head. Sheathia was holding her gun in both hands as Rufus had demonstrated to do. Acting off of reflex, Benedict grabbed his wife’s hand and together they jumped off the stage. With adrenaline pumping through his body Benedict barely felt the impact as his feet touched the ground. Sheathia squeezed his hand. She was pointing at something above them. Her eyes were wide with terror. Though he was more scared than ever before Benedict couldn’t keep himself from looking. C’thla hovered twenty feet above the square, her arms spread out at her side. Her eyes were closed. She appeared to be meditating. Her skin was crawling with thousands of insect-like black dots. Her eyes were beacons of silver light. Benedict’s mouth hung open. Sheathia and he were too awestruck to move. Around them people in the square were being gunned down. Already countless bodies littered the ground in a tangle of limbs, blank eyes staring lifelessly up at the sky or faces turned to the ground. Suddenly hands were shoving at Benedict and Sheathia’s backs. They were pushed and jostled without mercy. Sheathia’s fingers slipped from his and within the blink of an eye she was gone. “Sheathia!” he croaked for all the good it would do him, trying to push back against the tide of terrified souls that carried him further away from his wife. No one cared that he was in charge of the city, had been in charge for the last thirty years. In this nightmare his name had no meaning. Something wet struck him before landing at his feet with a wet splat. He didn’t want to know what it was. Blood fell in his hair. Someone made a sound that was part wretch and part scream. A flash of light drew his attention to C’thla. Still she hovered in the air like a puppet held up by invisible strings. Occasionally bullets would hit her, tearing at her dress, her flesh, only for whatever wounds her body endured to close up as if they weren’t there at all, leaving behind only smears of blood. Tendrils of red light flowed from her body, lashing at people, cutting them in half with a single touch. The dots that crawled across the skin fell from her, falling on the unfortunate souls beneath like a swarm of fleas. People were clawed at these things to no avail. Infecting them, Benedict thought. Possessing them. That’s what she’s doing. May the Light have mercy on us all. Never before had he seen anyone use such magic - if magic was what this was. Not even Loras. C’thla was the perfect titan of terror. Once more someone shoved him from behind and this time he went down. Feet trampled him from above, crushing him into the blood-smeared cobblestone. This is it, he thought with a distant sort of resignation. My own people are going to kill me. Is there no better example of irony? Just when he was on the verge of blacking out, a distant voice shouted, “Get up, damn you!” Hands grabbed the back of his jacket and pulled him roughly to his feet. It was Rufus. There was a three inch gash across his forehead and his nose was broken. His jacket was covered in blood to the point it was impossible to tell if the man was injured or if it all belonged to someone else. A scrap of someone’s scalp clung to his head. He seemed not to notice it. “Where’s Sheathia?” Rufus shouted. Benedict could barely hear the man’s voice over all the commotion. “I don’t know,” Benedict said. His voice was the voice of a stranger, a frog’s croak. How could I have lost my wife? he thought. He shook himself from his daze. “I need to find her...” Rufus planted a hand on Benedict’s chest, holding him back. He shook his head sadly. “Get off me, damn you!” Benedict shoved at the man, but Rufus did not budge. “Are you insane? You’ll never find her in this! Don’t you realize what she’s doing?” Rufus craned his neck to look back at C’thla. “She’s infecting them. Soon this city will be crawling with the possessed -” Before Rufus could finish a humanoid shape leapt onto his back. It was a woman and she was hissing like a rabid, starving animal. She had something shiny in her hand, a blade of some sort. Rufus spun around, reaching behind her, trying to throw her off. The woman clung to him like a tick. She cackled again. Benedict lunged forward to help Rufus but before he could reach him the crone brought the blade across Rufus’s throat. Blood jetted from Rufus’s neck, spraying Benedict with its putrid stench. Rufus fell to his knees, just one more body to join all the others. The woman turned to face Benedict, a thin haggard thing that barely looked human. She was covered in so much blood and filth it was impossible to make out much of her features. Her eyes glowed with a yellow, demonic fury. She held a butcher knife in one hand. The blood was covered in gore, most of it already half-congealed. With a screech she charged at Benedict. At some point he’d lost his gun. He had nothing left to defend himself with so he ran. … C’thla made her way towards the stage, stepping gracefully over the corpses. She was completely naked, covered in blood from head to toe. All her wounds had healed. A crow landed on one of the bodies and began poking at something with its beak. Its wings fluttered slightly. Damen Orlys was laying on his back, surrounded by the dead. Blood ran from the side of his mouth. His eyes shifted to the side and focused on her. His glamour had faded, showing his true identity. His skin was a sickly grey, hanging off the bone, lined with wrinkles like leather. His eyes were jaundiced and full of aching vulnerability and fear. “Five hundred and forty-one years I’ve been alive,” he said, “and I’ve never come this close to death.” He chuckled dryly. “Taken down by a couple of bullets.” C’thla stopped, frowning. She was awestruck by the emotion she felt. It was both distant and surprisingly close to the surface. Pity. Mesmerizing. In his dying Damen was suddenly beautiful to her and she found she didn’t want him to die. She had come to like his company. Were these emotions her own or were they Sara’s? She knelt down beside him. Tears pricked her eyes. Her breasts, which still felt new to her, hovered over him. He looked away, ashamed of his own weakness. “Don’t look at me,” he croaked. “Just leave me and let me die. I don’t want you to see me like this.” “Shhh,” she said, gently. She reached out and ran a finger along his cheek. She traced the cracks and divots in the flesh, leaving a smear of blood behind. “I’m not going to let you die. You’re too valuable. I need you by my side.” Her skin began to shimmer with mana. There was a pinging sound as multiple bullets fell from Damen’s wounds onto the stage. Within seconds his wounds closed. He sat up, bones crackling. He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow in concentration. When he stood up the illusion of youth was back in its place. “Thank you, your grace,” he said with a bow. C’thla nodded once and looked at the blanket of crows that covered the square, pecking dead flesh. The sky dimmed as clouds passed over the sun, making the square look even gloomier. People began to emerge from every corner of the square, their eyes glowing with a supernatural light. Men, women, and children, their clothes and flesh covered in blood. They held weapons in their hands: knives and pitchforks. They shouted in reverence at the sight of C’thla, dropping to their knees. With a smile, C’thla realized one of them was Sheathia. A flap of her cheek hung open, showing the muscle and bone underneath. Her hair had come down, hanging in front of her face. Her eyes glowed with red light. C’thla wondered if Benedict knew his wife had become slave to a demon and now served C’thla? If he doesn’t know he will soon find out, she thought. Before her the possessed dropped to their knees and bowed. As one they spoke: “C’thla, we are here to serve you, Mother of Demons.”
  10. Benedict watched the woman stand. She was beautiful - blonde hair, high rosy cheeks, good body. Very beautiful indeed. But there was something about her that made him uneasy. Frightened him even. Perhaps it was her eyes. They were almost silver. Inhuman. He exchanged a quick glance with Lucijan Markelj. The chief of security looked equally frightened. The woman spoke in a high clear voice. She held up a sheet of paper. “What are these names?” she asked Damen. “Those are people who are being executed,” the High Priest said. “Through crucifixion?” “Yes.” “What are their crimes?” Damen barely glanced at the paper. “Heretics. Blasphemers. People who have resisted and spat in the face of the Scarlet Church.” “There are forty of them,” she said, as if this surprised her. “That is a lot people.” “We do it to teach them a lesson. Do you want us to stop the executions?” C’thla shook her head. Benedict felt another chill go up his spine. There was a glint in her eyes he didn’t like. “No by all means keep them going. Do people watch these executions?” “Many do.” “But not all?” “Some people hide inside or at work. As long as enough people see what’s happening and get the message I don’t really care about a few stragglers.” “Well I do,” said C’thla. “These people go against the Scarlet Church and in turn myself. They will bend the knee and swear fealty to us one way or another.” She looked to Lucijan Markelj. “You are in charge of Fruimont’s security, yes?” “I am.” Benedict was impressed the man was able to keep his voice steady. He even looked C’thla in the eye. “Good. Everyone is to watch these executions. I don’t care if they are in their homes or at work. They are to bear witness to those who disrespect the Scarlet Church and its High Priest. You are to take every Red Wraith, every man on security detail and comb through the streets. Kick down every door, I don’t care what you have to do. Pull out every man, woman, and child at first light tomorrow.” “I will have it done,” said Lucijan. C’thla beamed, looking very pleased. … Later that night, two hours before curfew, Benedict and Sheathia took a cab to the poor district of Fruimont. They got out in the middle of Shrieden Avenue and took a back alley to an abandoned warehouse had been shut down for some time. Benedict had to pick the lock to get inside. “You’re sure this is where Lucijan said to meet him?” Sheathia asked. Even though there was no one around but Benedict who could have heard her, she kept her voice down to a whisper. She hugged her coat around her as if it could ward off evil. “I’m sure,” he said, handing his wife a flashlight. Walking down a hallway, they came to a door with a shattered window at the top. Benedict had to shove at the door several times to get it open. The hinges squealed like a tortured animal, setting off his nerves. Despite the fact Lucijan had ensured him earlier that security would not be near this sector of the district, Benedict was frightened. He would have felt better if Sheathia had stayed at the apartment where it was safer but she had insisted on coming along. There was broken glass on the floor. Judging from the clear, dust-free look of it, the window appeared to have been shattered recently. Taking Sheathia’s clammy hand they walked around it. It was pointless really. Anyone who was already here would have heard them come in. I’m too old to be getting this scared, Benedict thought. The inside of the warehouse smelled of mold and mice feces. In the center of the warehouse he could see a cluster of people grouped together; their faces were lit in the ghostly glow of oil lamps. When Benedict, Lucijan, and Sheathia had convened to form a resistance he knew there would be people - just not this many.There were at least fifty people here: men, women, and children Nicholas’s age. He felt a lump form in his throat. All of these people have come here to fight - and possibly to die. And I'll be the one leading them. By the Light how did Loras do this. I wish she was here to give me her advice, her courage. But she's not here. I have to do this on my own. At least Nicholas, Elise, and Tilde are safe, and Sheathia is with me. Several faces turned to face him and his wife as he guided her to the center of the room. They looked like somber ghosts, their faces hollowed out with a mixture of shadow and light. Their silence was eerie. Lucijan stood at a table with another man; both were hunched over a table, talking. Next to the table there were several crates stacked neatly on top of each other. Lucijan looked up at Benedict. The man didn’t look good: There were dark circles around his eyes from lack of sleep and his face was pale. “Ah, Benedict,” he said, “good to see you. I was worried you wouldn’t make it.” He nodded at Sheathia. “Ma’am. This here is Rufus Lemvolt...” He gestured to the man standing next to him. The man was tall and broad-shouldered with close-cropped blonde hair. He nodded at Benedict but did not offer a greeting. He looked like a hard man, the kind of person who would shoot first and ask questions later. Maybe that’s a good thing, Benedict thought. “Rufus Lemvolt has been working with me for years. I wouldn’t have approached him about what we’re planning to do if I didn’t trust him or think he had anything to offer. He has experience in combat and tactics.” “If you trust him I trust him,” said Benedict. He glanced at the circle of people that had crowded around the table. “How long has everyone been here?” “Not long. We’ve just been waiting for you to show up,” said Lucijan. “Rufus has been sharing information about what’s supposed to be happening tomorrow which he learned while working with the Red Wraiths.” Benedict nodded his approval. “Good, we can share it with everyone here. Gather around people, and listen closely.” Everyone closed around the table as best they could. Benedict looked over the map. His shoulder touched Sheathia’s shoulder. “So what do we know so far?” “I’ll let Rufus here do the explaining,” said Lucijan. Rufus cleared his throat, his hands clasped behind his back in a posture that was military. He spoke in a clear voice, his face emotionless. “From what we know - and do note this could change at any point - everyone will be gathered in the square.” He pointed at the spot on the map marked square. “Damen Orlys will be on the stage, as will the new woman he brought with him. I’m not sure what her name is.” “She called herself C’thla at the meeting.” “C’thla. They will be sitting at the center of the stage - front row seats to the show if you will.” There was no emotion in Rufus’s voice, not even a hint of disgust. Benedict wondered what the man’s motivation was for being here. Why was he betraying his superiors? Technically I am his superior, he reminded himself. “Benedict, Lucijan, and your wife here -” “Sheathia.” “Sheathia, forgive me - will be seated on the stage as well. There will be guards. Lots of them. They will be armed.” “Any idea how many?” Sheathia asked. “All of them,” Rufus said. “Enough to outnumber all of us. Really it’s futile, us trying to resist.” “So then why are you resisting?” Benedict asked, his voice hard. He glared at the man. “Because something has to be done,” said Rufus. For the first time since Benedict and Sheathia had entered the room there were murmurs of agreement from the other people. “These people have taken control of our city,” Rufus said once silence had fallen once more. “The number of possessions are rising with each day.” “And you’ve waited until now to stand up and do something?” Benedict demanded. “Yes. But so have you.” Benedict could say nothing to this. Rufus had made a valid point - and the truth hurt like a punch to the gut. For a month Benedict had done nothing but keep his head low for the sake of his wife and children while others lost their loved ones. So many people had died. Who are you to demand explanations? You are just as much the culprit. You’ve had your own part to play in all this, he told himself. “So what are we actually going to do?” a man towards the front of the group demanded gruffly, his voice starting to break. “I don’t care if we die doing this. It’s time someone did something. They’ve killed my wife because she refused to bend the knee to their cause. They crucified her in the square. I watched her hang there for three days, slowly - slowly bleeding out and freezing to death.” He looked at Benedict, a stocky man with broad shoulders and big hands, hands that trembled in grief and anger. “You did nothing. It’s your job to protect this city and you’ve done nothing.” There were nods of agreement from every direction. Sheathia’s fingers tightened around Benedict’s. He held his breath, his legs trembling. “The only reason why I’m not strangling you right now is because I’m saving my rage for that bastard, Damen Orlys,” said the man. This time there were cheers. All at once the room was filled with auras of grief and rage, and yearning for retribution. Even the younger resistance fighters seemed overcome with bloodlust. Benedict’s heart plummeted at the tragedy of it all yet he felt the same hunger for revenge they did. Benedict looked to Rufus. When the group had quieted down once more, he said, “Your the tactician. What are your thoughts?” Rufus looked over the map once more, frowning thoughtfully. “The square will be very crowded,” he said. “Everyone will be close together so it will be difficult for the Red Wraiths to spot resistance fighters. Obviously we don’t have the numbers to take on everyone so we need to focus on the High Priest and the woman. That could be your job, Benedict, since Sheathia and yourself will be closest to them. The rest of you” - Rufus glanced around the room - “can get as close to the stage as you can and spread out. Everyone’s focus will be on the stage and nothing more. We don’t have the resources for anything else.” “Do we have weapons?” Benedict asked. Rufus nodded and for the first time, something like a smile crossed his face. “We do.” He and two other men - one of them was the stocky man who had challenged Benedict earlier - began unstacking the crates, setting them on the ground. The crates must have been heavy, for even Rufus strained to lift them. They removed the tops of the crates. Slowly people gathered around the crates as if afraid something dangerous and alive would pop out and attack them. Inside were guns, knives, and ammo. Most of the guns were smaller, meant to be easily concealed. Benedict supposed it made sense but he still didn’t like the odds. There are fifty of us and hundreds of them. They have training - most of us have never fired a gun let alone held one. We’re practically walking into our deaths. But what else was there to do? Nothing. Perhaps if he had acted sooner, if he had actually tried to put a stop to Damen Orly’s plans then things never would have gotten to this point. It’s your own damn fault. Rufus lifted his hands, gesturing for everyone to wait. “For the rest of the evening I will be demonstrating to you how to hold a gun. We do not have time for actual training - just demonstration.” He continued to explain what they would be doing. The rest of his words were lost on Benedict. He knew how to fire a gun. He did his best not to sink into his own despair. It was clear in this meeting he was not the leader and this was fine with him. He’d always been a politician, not a fighter. Rufus on the other hand seemed like he was made to kill. Intimidating, both in physique and demeanor, he drew everyone’s attention. All eyes were on him. The only time anyone spoke was to ask questions. No one interrupted the speaker. For the next several hours Rufus went through demonstrations of how to hold a gun, load it, and switch off the safety, and how to hold and use a knife and the signals Rufus would give when it was time to act. Everyone, including Benedict and Sheathia and Lucijan went through the demonstrations. The severity of the situation was driven home further when Benedict watched as Rufus showed a boy not much older than Nicholas how to remove the safety on his gun. It made Benedict feel sick to his stomach. He was just glad Nicholas and Elise were out of Fruimont, safe. Nothing else mattered to him. Three times more Rufus took the group through the plan. It wasn’t much but Benedict felt slightly better knowing they wouldn’t be going in completely blind. They had a goal. Having a goal, a reason to fight, was better than just sitting around waiting for the nightmare to end. With only a few hours left before daylight, Rufus passed out the weapons and ammo: everyone would have two clips, no more no less. Every shot would have to count.
  11. C’thla climbed out of the basin, water dripping from her body. Her body, curvaceous and perfect in every way (apart from a few fading bruises from when Sara had inhabited this body), gleamed from the water. Her fingers were all pruney. She dried herself off with a towel. Back in her room C’thla put on one of her new dresses, one she’d yet to wear, made of a beautiful light blue satin. The bottom of the wardrobe was lined with shoes. She slid into a pair that matched the dress perfectly with silver buckles. She sat in front of the mirror and brushed the tangles out of her hair. By this time she was hungry and was looking forward to dinner. C’thla stepped out into the carpeted hallway, closing the door softly behind her. She walked slowly down the red carpeted hallways, enjoying the sound of the floor creaking beneath her feet. The hallway smelled pleasantly of oiled wood. She took the staircase down to the first floor, letting her hand brush along the marble railing. Her eyes took in the vaulted ceiling, the Gothic architecture that had been so prevalent in the ancient days of the Old World. The Scarlet Church had been built in this fashion but it was not truly Gothic. Any pre-existing architecture was nothing more than rubble and dust, its builders long forgotten. Now there was only the hellscape, the Abyss on earth. By channeling the power of the Primordial Caste, the First Disciple had remade the world. Several Scarlet Priests passed her as she walked down the long hall. Everyone bowed their heads towards her silently in respect. She could hear the buzz of their thoughts, feel their fear, the awe they felt towards her. Some of them knelt at altars, praying to the Primordial Caste, her brethren. For a moment she stopped, watching them, the men and women who stood on their knees with their head bowed. She tried not to hold it against her - how were they to know her own kind had betrayed her out of fear? Soon, things will be different, she thought. Soon enough the Primordial Caste will be no more and they will bow to me. She turned through the archway to her left, walking down another corridor. A small set of steps took her to another door, which was ajar. Damen Orlys was inside sitting at the end of a long oak table, sipping from a crystal glass what looked like wine. He stood when he saw she’d entered the room and bowed. “High Priestess,” he said reverently. She watched him for a moment, frowning. She noticed for the first time he wasn’t wearing his hood. He beamed at her from across the table. His outward appearance suggested he was an attractive man, youthful, somewhere in his early thirties. He had medium length dark brown hair, a long narrow nose, and diamond blue eyes. However his youthful appearance was every bit of an illusion as his pleasant, optimistic demeanor. C’thla knew beneath the glamour spell he conjured at all times he looked like a withered tree. She also knew he was weary, weary from the passing of years, centuries. Immortality could do that to you. If she wanted to she could peel back the glamour spell, see what laid behind it, pour the contents out of his head with a single thought, make him do anything he wanted. But she didn’t want to. After all he was her ally, an important one at that. It was because of him she had a body. “You’re lovely if it’s not too bold of me to say,” he said. “Your new body suits you.” “Thank you,” she said, taking the seat next to him. “Would you like some wine?” he asked. “Yes.” From a nearby table he grabbed a silver pitcher and a crystal glass. The sound of liquid pouring filled the room. He handed her the glass, watching her expectantly. The smile never left his lips. She raised the glass to her lips and took a sip. The taste of grapes sitting in a barrel for years, decades, exploded over her tongue. Tingles went up her spine. At first she wasn’t sure if she liked it. The sourness was overwhelming. She squeezed her eyes shut, gave herself a moment to adjust to the tang, and took another sip. This time the taste wasn’t so shocking. It was actually quite pleasant, the liquid chilled. She felt herself smile again only this time it wasn’t for formality’s sake. “It’s very good.” Damen sat down, looking pleased. “I had the best Brought up just for you. Dinner will arrive shortly. I’m sure you must be famished.” “I am.” For a moment they sat in silence, sipping their wine. C’thla didn’t like the silence, didn’t like the way it stretched on. There were downfalls to being in a human body, to feeling emotion. You couldn’t stop yourself from feeling the things you didn’t want to feel. She was not like the wraiths, capable of only meaningless destruction. With a human body came all the human emotions, the good and the bad. “Your priests,” she said. “They bow to the Primordial Caste.” He nodded. “It has been that way since the church was formed.” “It stings my eyes to witness it!” For a moment her composure slipped, revealing how she truly felt. Her hand tightened around the goblet. Wine sloshed across her wrists, the cold a shock against her new flesh. “Do they not know who I am, what I’ve been through? It was the Primordial Caste who betrayed me, who turned my body into ash!” Damen stared back at her calmly, his face not showing any emotion. “You cannot truly blame them. I have not revealed my true intentions; to do so could ruin everything. You have been asleep for a very long time. Since before the forming of the hellscape. There is little record of you.” She took a deep breath. “I suppose if all goes well it will matter little in the end.” He nodded and a gleam entered his eyes, the first true emotion he had shown since this conversation had begun. “I’ve waited for this moment for a very long time. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.” “Why?” she asked, truly curious. It would have been easier to pluck the answer from his memories but it was so much more entertaining to talk and interact. Before he could answer, two priests stepped into the room, balancing a silver platter on one hand and holding rolled up silverware in the other. They bowed, muttering, “High Priest” and “High Priestess” before setting the platters down on the table. Almost as quickly as they’d appeared they stepped out of the room. “Bon appetit,” Damen said, removing the silver top for her. C’thla looked down at her plate. She felt her mouth instantly begin to water. For dinner they were having smoked salmon which rested on a bed of roasted vegetables. The smell wafted up to her nose. She felt her belly growl. It was everything she could do to keep from grabbing her fork and digging in. Instead she watched as Damen unfolded his napkin and set his silverware down. She did the same, making sure to do exactly as he did. This was a custom completely new to her, some form of table etiquette. Perhaps she would ask him about it later. She mimicked his movements, holding down the salmon with the fork and cutting into it with her knife. The meat was perfectly spiced and succulent, the vegetables tender and crunchy at the same time. As with the wine the first few bites were full of overwhelming flavor that eased a little once she became used to it. “You never answered my question,” she said after a moment. “You know why.” His voice was little more than a whisper but there was reproach in it. “I want to hear you say it with my new ears.” He frowned at her, considering for a moment. “I have been a slave for most of my life, whether it be to your brother Ex’olku or to your old lover Mazog. I grow weary of wearing chains. I want to be free of them once and for all. I know you are the only one who can free me.” “How do you know I will not put chains around you in the end?” To this he said nothing; she thought she saw his jaw twitch. She chewed for a moment. She was taking great joy in jabbing at him, playing with his mind. Strangely though she could not read it and she could not think of why she couldn’t. “Tell me what the world was like before the hellscape, right before the First Disciple brought an end to it.” “There’s not much to say. The world was already dying before the First Disciple rearranged it.” “Enlighten me.” The High Priest hesitated long enough to refill her wineglass back up to the top. “The world was dying. Humanity was killing it: polluting it. Pouring their chemicals into the ocean, killing its animals, making it impossible to eat them. Poaching. Bears, tigers, lions, all of them pushed to the brink of extinction. Even bumblebees.” He chuckled. “Bumblebees, can you imagine? Everyone thinks the First Disciple damned this world, what’s left of it, but really he saved it. As I said the world was beginning to die. Seasons were changing, the weather was becoming more severe, the ozone layer around the earth fading. We would have pushed ourselves to extinction without help from anyone else.” “And then my very foolish brother chose you as his First Agent to stop it.” He nodded. “Yes.” “Then in your rage against Ex’olku you gave your life to the Primordial Caste?” “Yes.” “And now you want your life back from them as well?” At this Damen merely nodded. C’thla smiled. “You are a very complicated man, Damen Orlys.” She found she liked him. “What do you know of Mazog and the whereabouts of the other Caste members?” “Several years after the forming of the hellscape, the First Disciple dug up the remains of Mazog’s last vessel. He tried to perform the same ritual I did for you but before he could complete the ritual, Ex’olku’s second Agent intervened, killing the First Disciple and destroying what was left of the remains; the bitch did quite a bit of damage before I was able to kill her. We had to go into hiding afterwards. As far as I know Mazog remains trapped in the Infernal Abyss along with the rest of your brethren.” She beamed at him. “So there is no one to oppose me but Ex’olku’s new Agent. Things could not be more fortuitous. Tomorrow I want to go into the city, Fruimont. I want to see what the people are like and I want them to see what I am like. The world may have forgotten me but soon they will remember.” … The next morning C’thla and Damen Orlys left the walls of the Scarlet Church, heading for the city of Fruimont. They traveled on a sled pulled by dogs. The journey was not as gratifying as C’thla had thought it would be. The dogs stank and the frigid air stung the parts of her that was not swaddled in multiple layers of clothing. She had forgotten just how sensitive the human body was to its environment. Along the journey the High Priest explained they would be going to a meeting at the courthouse with the other officials of Fruimont. “Mostly politics,” he said. “You will be the center of it. I will be passing the mantle to you.” After a time they came to the gates of Fruimont. They opened and the truck trundled through. C’thla craned her head around, wanting to see everything there was to see. There were buildings everywhere, some of them tall, some of them not so tall. It was almost like being in the great city of Rome. There were people everywhere walking through the streets, their faces braced against the cold, wearing scarves and coats. She was glad to be away from the sled, away from the dogs. “I want to clear my nose from the smell of dog and never breathe it in again,” she said to the High Priest, not bothering to hide just how much she loathed the slobbering creatures. She was about to begin walking when she noticed her reflection in the glass window of a pub. She stopped with a gasp, startled. The face staring back at her, though beautiful, was not her face. It should be the face of the young woman Mazog had burned at the stake staring back at her - and yet it wasn’t. The eyes staring back at her were wide and no longer a foxy silver, but dark blue, the mouth colored dark red with the lipstick she had applied. She was vaguely aware Damen’s hands were resting on her arms, steadying her. Though his voice tickled her ear it sounded far away, as if coming from a great distance. She wasn’t sure if it was a trick of her own fractured mind or if it was really happening but she thought she could hear Sara laughing mockingly at her. Shut up you stupid bitch, she thought. This is my body, my mind. Soon you will be nothing. It will be as if you never existed. “I’m fine,” she said, trying to break from his gasp. She was embarrassed. She was supposed to be stronger than this. She was C’thla, the mother of demons.She had survived through the millenia, bringing men and women to their knees and now she was acting like a damsel in distress. This is the part about getting used to a body I hate, she thought. “I’m just getting used to this body. It takes a few days...depending on the host. Let’s go.” Before they left the truck C’thla glanced back in the mirror one last time. Her eyes had gone back to being silver - her silver. Sara was silent, had been silent for some time. They walked the rest of the way to the courthouse. Here, in the city of Fruimont the weather was not as hostile as in the Ubrios Waste. Within moments the episode of identity misplacement was forgotten. C’thla became enamored with the world around her. Every sound, sight, and smell was somehow new and familiar at the same time as her memories and experiences coincided with that of her host: the people who stopped at merchant booths, buying herbs, incense, crafts, and foods; the prostitutes who lurked underneath awnings and in the mouth of alleyways, men and women, young and old, offering themselves to Damen and C’thla for a price. They showed no signs of knowing what C’thla was. They looked into her eyes without really seeing. Of course she did not act mindless as most of her kind tended to do. She had been molded and tempered by her experiences through her other hosts. She was here for a mission - she knew how to act and mix in with these mortals. As she walked past them she searched through their minds. Underneath all their individual motives they were afraid. They knew something was coming, something big, something that had yet to reveal itself. Yet it was here already, the beginning of something cataclysmic. It would be bigger than the remaking of the world for it was to be remade again. They knew this on some instinctive level, these primitive people, and yet it was hidden underneath other feelings and fears. They were all starving, hungry, and cold. Tired. She pitied them and was disgusted by them at the same time. She had always felt this way about them; she wondered if Damen felt the same way. … Though Damen Orlys was speaking every eye in the room it seemed, kept glancing in her direction. C’thla sat at the head of a long table, surrounded by men. She was amused to find she was the only woman in the room. There had been a brief time in the days of the Old World when women had possessed just as much power and influence as men - even more. It seemed that age had come and gone. She smirked. I’ll have to do something about that. There was one man in particular she couldn’t take her eyes off - or he her. He was frightened of her and fascinated at the same time and he was doing his best not to show it. His head was a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. By human standards he was older, well past the prime of his life but also very attractive. He had introduced himself as Benedict Matthiesen. She tried to be respectful and pay attention to Damen but she kept finding herself going through his thoughts and memories. It was interesting, the things she was finding. Very interesting indeed. Benedik and I are going to have a conversation before all this is through, she thought. “And now,” Damen said with a flourish, “I would like to introduce to you, C'thla. She will be in charge of things from now on.” Every eye around the table turned their gaze on her; the surprise in the room was palpable. She grinned, loving the tension. She could sense their awe, their uncertainty, and their fear. The energy filling the room gave her a rush not unlike the one she’d had watching Roman soldiers being sacrificed in another life. “Good morning,” she said.
  12. ValentineDavis21


    The past several weeks had been damnation on Loras’ nerves. She couldn’t stop pacing, couldn’t stop thinking about what might be happening in Fruimont. It kept her up at night and no amount of jalasa tea could help her relax. She cursed the First Disciple day and night for it was his fault the technology that had existed in the days of the Old World was no longer of use. It was said in the days before the hellscape people could easily communicate within seconds across great distances. And while she had the ability to Aspect-travel, it was dangerous. She was sitting in her office wondering who else she could place blame on for her anxiety when she received news from one of her aides that D-Squad had returned from Fruimont - or what was left of them. Before she knew she was doing it she was running through the corridors of the Eurchurch and down the steps, hoping she might see D-Squad passing by. She’d heard only a few of the squad members had made it back - two of them had not. She found herself praying to the Light, praying Crow had made it back, that he was okay. Loras made it outside before she found she couldn’t run anymore. Her breasts heaved and her ribs ached. She was not as fit as she used to be. How I hate getting old, she thought. But there they were with their horses standing in front of the Eurchurch and there were people getting off: An old woman who looked to be Loras’ age and two young children, one of them close to being a teen; behind them the bespectacled Jack, the sour-faced Lydia, the humongous Barghast...and finally, to her relief, Crow. She would never admit out loud the flood of exhilaration she felt...she had feared it was he who wouldn’t return...however she couldn’t deny to herself it was there. It was the relief a mother might feel towards her child who has just returned from war. It was something she didn’t think she would ever feel again. The emotion frightened her...it wasn’t something she was supposed to feel. She had tried to separate herself from such vulnerable emotions. It seemed every time she found someone to care about they ended up being taken from her. Her heart skipped a few beats and then stopped altogether. No one coming off the bus looked good. They all looked beaten, like they had suffered greatly. But Crow’s face was like an oppressive black cloud. He walked with his shoulder slumped, as if the entire world rested upon it. He had always looked solemn but the way he looked now frightened her. His eyes looked down at the floor and there were black bags underneath his eyes. His face was covered in dirt and grime and his long black hair, now almost shoulder-length, was a greasy mop. He followed the others up the steps with the gait of someone who finds himself in a dream. She met the group in the middle. “What happened?” she said. It was the Okanavian who answered. “Things were worse in Fruimont than we anticipated. We had no choice but to return.” Loras glanced at the old woman and the two children. “And who did you bring with you?” “These are Benedict’s children, Nicholas and Elise. And this is Tilde, the woman who is looking after them.” For the second time in one day her heart did a double-take. How could she have been so stupid not to realize who the children were? The boy, who had to be at least twelve, was a spitting image of his father. He had the same narrow face, dark hair, and somber look. And though she assumed the little girl looked like her mother, who Loras had never met, she could see a small resemblance to Benedik. Seeing them filled her with a grief frightening in its suddenness and intensity. She was looking at what she could have had with Benedict if she hadn't been so focused on getting revenge for the death of her husband and daughter. I could’ve been happy again. We could’ve been happy. Benedik and Janif were so similar and yet so different at the same time. They were both quiet but Benedict was also a rebel. He went against the system. I loved that about him but I was also too consumed with my hate. I’m still so consumed about it...I’m just old and arthritic now. She smiled at them. It hurt to smile but she did it anyway. “Don’t worry. You’re going to be just fine. We’re going to take good care of you.” The two children just looked at her as if she was crazy. Which I am, certifiably. She waved over one of the guards, taking on her stern voice. “Find them living quarters - get them something nice. And get them food, toys, books, whatever they want - I don’t care.” The guarded nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” The older woman thanked Loras and then ushered the children after the man. Loras watched them go for a moment, feeling melancholy, and then remembered there were other things she had to attend to. There’s a shit storm coming. I can feel it. “Where is Benedict?” she asked Barghast. Already she was taking a deep breath, preparing herself for the news. “He chose to stay,” said the Okanavian. “Of course he did,” she said as if the answer had already occurred to her. Benedik was always trying to do the right thing...even when it was the stupid thing. “Okay, you go. You’ve traveled a long way. We’ll talk tomorrow and try to get things in order. Not you, though Crow, I need to talk to you for a moment.” The practitioner nodded but said nothing. He still had that dazed expression on his face. Barghast glanced at the boy with concern. He opened his mouth, about to say something, and then closed it. Finally he put a hand on Crow’s shoulder. Crow lifted his eyes briefly and they looked at each other. Loras watched the connection pass between them, a wordless thing she didn’t think even they understood. And then Barghast was walking away and Crow was back to looking dour. Loras had to grind her teeth together to keep from cursing in frustration. Men were so fucking stupid. They couldn’t tell the difference between their hearts and a rock. Or another word that rhymed with rock. “Come with me,” she said to Crow and led him towards the Eurchurch. … For some time she could only look at him, trying to see if something might change in him. Now they were alone Lora's could sense his pent up emotion. But there were fissures in his composure: the tenseness in his shoulders, the way his hands were constantly clenched into fists. And not once had he sipped the mug of jalasa tea she'd set before him. He'd barely even touched it. Lora's didn't want to push him too hard. She'd seen this reaction to trauma many times and had experienced it herself. But she could also feel the old impatience rising up in her, the voice that said, There are things that need to be done and time is short. “What happened?” she asked, forcing herself to be gentle. Crow shook his head slowly. When he spoke his voice came out raspy, as if he was swallowing back his tears. “I tried to do everything I could. I failed. There are no words - I'm exhausted.” “Then show me.” His eyes widened when he realized what she was asking. The passing of knowledge and experience from one practitioner to another could be an intense and painful experience. The recipient often became overwhelmed by the source's emotions, their every physical sensation. Loras hadn't done it in years and hated the experience but it was the quickest way to pass along information. “Are you sure?” Crow asked. “It will save us time,” she said. He nodded and reached across the table, taking her hand in his. She had just enough time to brace herself for what was to come before the transference began. All at once Loras was assaulted by a torrent of memories, emotions and physical sensations: cold, pain, hunger, fear, and sadness. She experienced these things as if they were her own memories and feelings. One moment she was standing in the middle of a snow topped valley, gripping the handle of a shovel with blistered hands. She watched a sphere of light falling from the sky; it was coming towards her. Beautiful, she thought. So beautiful. Then she was falling into a pit of severed limbs and body parts - someone was trying to drown her. Then she was watching her Aunt Lena being ripped apart - something was literally ripping its way out of her. Then she watched as Sara slashed Rake’s throat with a blade. And then she was standing before Lydia. “I curse the day you ever walked into our lives,” she was saying. “It should be you that’s dead not Rake…” Despair. Loras was feeling such despair. The despair of rejected youth, the despair of someone who knows they will never be accepted, never find the place where they truly belong. She couldn’t take it anymore. If she didn’t tear herself away from it all Crow’s thoughts and memories would drive her insane. She released his hand and leaned back in the chair, feeling breathless. Her breasts heaved up and down. Her breath came out in short gasps. Her chest felt as tight as a drum. She was dimly aware Crow was asking her if she was okay but she couldn’t find the words to answer. After a moment she said, “I’m fine...It’s just been a while since I’ve done that. We must tell Pope Drajen about everything you know - at once.” He shook his head. “I’m not doing anything. I’m done.” Loras gaped at him, trying to understand what he was saying. “What do you mean you’re done?” He waved a hand around the room, rising to his feet. “All of this. The Eurchurch, the Scarlet Church. D-Squad. I’m done. I’ve done all I’m going to do.” “So you’re just going to give up?” she asked. “Yes. And I’m going to live my life while I still can. You and the Eurchurch can figure out what to do and how to stop the war. I never should have gotten involved in the first place.” His voice had become acidic with bitterness and anger. “And don’t try to stop me. There’s nothing you can do or say that will stop me.” ... Barghast rented a small room on the second floor of a rundown building. It was the only thing the Eurchurch could provide him with - he supposed it was better than a jail cell or a grave. The room was just large enough for him to be able to fit a dresser and a bed barely large enough for him to be able to sleep on. There was a single bathroom across the hall. Very rarely was Barghast able to use it. Naked he sat on the right side of the bed, his arm pressing up against the wall. Charlie the prostitute lay next to him, his pale skin glowing in the pale morning sunlight streaming through the curtainless windows. As long as he had his back turned Barghast could easily pretend Charlie was Crow. Somewhere across the hall he could hear a baby wailing and the soft voice of the young mother trying to sing it to sleep. He wondered what Crow was doing right now, worried about him. Why was it Crow always made him feel so unsure of himself, the way no one else had been able to do? How did the practitioner have such power over him, to render him paralyzed? There was a knock at the door: a rapid, impatient sound. Barghast glanced at the sleeping boy next to him and quickly threw the blanket over him so that only his head showed. Barghast climbed off the bed, the mattress groaning beneath his weight. His head ached, while the room spun. He’d drank too much last night. More rapping at the door. “Hold your horses, damn it,” he growled, pulling on his breeches. For one pathetic moment he wondered if was Crow who was knocking on the door, wishing it was. The real Crow. What would the real Crow think if he saw the fake Crow laying in bed? Would he get a good laugh at it or would he be pissed? Barghast cursed under his breath and opened the door. It wasn’t Crow but Loras. All the same Barghast was surprised. What was she doing here, standing at his doorstep? As always she was dressed as if she thought she owned the world, her white-blonde hair tied back, her lips smeared with bright red lipstick that hurt Barghast’s head to look at. Her dark eyes looked him up and down for a moment, pausing on the multiple knife scars that marked his chest and torso. Then she saw the prostitute laying in the bed and looked back at Barghast. “I assume you know Pope Drajen made prostitution illegal in this city long ago,” she said. “Considering you’re already paying off a death sentence if I were to tell him about this you would be executed. That would be a shame considering your sentence will be up in less than two years.” Barghast did not blink. He was not intimidated by her. He knew she was simply flexing her powers, showing him it was she who was in charge. “Are you going to tell him?” She arched an eyebrow. “No. I could care less. We all have our vices and our pastimes. I do think it’s amusing and touching you pay him to dress like a certain practitioner we both know.” Barghast squared his shoulders, an unconscious defensive gesture on his part. Just a few seconds standing in his doorstep and she had peeled back his skin as if it was paper mache and was poking at some of his nerves. Damn practitioner. “Is there something I can help you with ma’am?” he asked, forcing his voice to stay pleasant. Her expression darkened. “Maybe. I don’t know. Wake him up and get him out of here.” He went over to Charlie and shook him awake gently. The boy stirred, opening his eyes, and saw Loras standing there. His face paled and he was out of bed and dressed before Barghast could pay him for the night’s services. Loras stepped inside the room and closed the door. “Good, we can talk in private.” Barghast gestured to the bed. “Feel free to have a seat.” She smiled tightly, arms crossed over her chest. “That’s alright - nothing personal but I’ll stand. I’m here because of Crow. I’m concerned about him and I think you might be the only one who can talk some sense into him.” Barghast frowned. There was a sinking feeling inside of his chest. Ever since they’d left Annesville there had been a dark cloud around Crow, thicker than ever before. I should’ve had said something to him. I should’ve asked him what was wrong. Why didn’t I? “What do you mean talk sense into him?” he asked even though he dreaded the answer. “After you returned to the city I spoke with him in my office. He showed me what happened in Fruimont. Perhaps you know this but anyone with mana, whether it be a healer or a practitioner, can transfer memories and experiences, just as they can communicate telepathically. It’s a method we don’t use often when communicating but it does have its uses. The thing is the recipient shares the source’s memories and feelings, and experiences them as if they were their own.” Loras sighed, her shoulders slumping. For the first time since Barghast had known her, her composure slipped and he saw the exhausted woman who lived behind the uncompromising surface. “I think I’ll sit down after all if you don’t mind,” she said. Stepping carefully around Barghast so her shoulder did not touch his, she went to the edge of the bed and sat down. “I saw what happened in Fruimont but more than that I felt what he felt. He’s leaving Miffridge. Perhaps he’s already left.” Barghast couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What do you mean?” “You heard me. I didn’t stutter. He’s leaving Miffridge.” “Why?” Loras laughed coldly. “Men are so stupid. So blind. They refuse to accept what’s right in front them. And the bigger they are the more stupid they seem to be. Why do you think? For the last year he has been a part of D-Squad. He has fought by everyone’s side, watching your and everyone else's back. With Sara now the host of a demon, the mother of all demons no less, he is the only squad member who hasn’t been convicted of a crime - has actually volunteered to be on the frontlines - and he doesn’t judge any of you. Yet he has been excluded, spat upon, pushed away for being a practitioner as so many of us are. After awhile that takes its toll on a person. You get tired of it, begin to resent the people you’ve risked your life to save. And I can understand how he feels. Whatever his true motives were for joining the squad they were selfless. You have no idea what he went through in that pit the High Priest threw him into.” She shuddered, her face turning pale. Barghast didn’t want to hear anymore of what she had to say but he was voiceless at the moment. It wasn’t like he could ask her to leave anyway - though he was bigger than her physically and could easily scoop her up and throw her out of the room on her ass - she had all the political power. And deep down inside he knew he needed to hear this as punishment for his own mistakes when it came to Crow - for not giving the practitioner the support he needed when Barghast could clearly see he was in pain. Now she looked at him, piercing him with the full intensity of her gaze. “You are the only one who he feels comfortable with...who helps him to feel any sort of happiness. He’s quite in love with you, though he’s too scared to admit it...just as I know you are with him. Believe me when I tell you, if we are going to have any chance of defeating C’thla we need him. Now while I find the idea of you two together odd and a little disgusting it could be the difference between him staying and leaving.” Loras stood up and stepped in front of Barghast, looking up at him. Though she just came up to his chin Barghast could see she was completely unafraid of him. Anyone not intimidated by his size intimidated him. He actually found himself gulping. “While I’ve come to care for the boy immensely my reasons for being here are mostly political. I know he told you all the truth of why he’s here. For whatever reason he’s been chosen by a powerful entity to oppose the Scarlet Church. I don’t fully understand what this means but I do know we need Crow. I’ve never seen anyone who possesses such natural talent as he does, such power. For whatever reason most demons literally fear him. With a little more training and time he could become a force to be reckoned with. Unstoppable. He could turn the very tides of this war with the Scarlet Church. Unfortunately we don’t have that kind of time. While we know more than what we did we still don’t know what Damen Orlys intends to do. I doubt it ends at just finding C’thla a body.” She reached up, grabbing Barghast’s shoulders in her hands. Her grip was surprisingly firm, powerful. Strength and confidence radiated from this woman. Barghast couldn’t help but respect her and start to feel a little afraid of her now. “Go to him. Tell him how you feel. Be brave for once and forget your insecurities. We need him and he needs you. Without him I have a feeling we will lose.” … Crow stood in the center of the living room of the tiny apartment he’d rented and tried to conjure up the feeling of missing it. He couldn’t. Upon looking at what little he had acquired during his time in Miffland, he knew he would be taking none of it with him. And where would he go? He didn’t know. He had seen much in his time with the Stray Dogs but he hadn’t really gotten the time to enjoy it, to truly experience it. He’d been south, where the forgotten cities of the Old World slowly rotted beneath the blistering heat of the sun and the tribes of the Okanavi desert lived their superstitious, primitive lives; he’d traveled along the roads of the Javacial flatlands where it rained constantly and the ground was muddy and the farmland grew abundant crops. He’d somehow survived the Ubrios Waste, an experience he didn’t want to repeat ever again. The beach. I’ve never been to the beach. I’ve never seen the ocean. I bet it’s beautiful. He decided he would go to the Terheim Oceans where the fishing trade was. He could become a fisherman and save up enough money to get his own yacht. He could see himself now, helping a group of sweaty sailors tug a net over the side of a boat, the net full of squirming fish. When he had his own yacht he would set sail for the chain of unexplored islands, perhaps. Many had tried to reach it and failed, either coming back with nothing interesting to tell or not coming back at all. Perhaps he would be the first to discover them or he would die trying. Or he could fall in love with another sailor perhaps, settle down, and live a calm life. There were so many possibilities. For the first time in a long time he found himself looking forward to the future. A future that belonged to him and only him. Not to Ex’olku or the Eurchurch or anyone else. A future that didn’t end with him turning into a tyrant as Damen Orlys had done or going mad like his aunt. He packed what he would be taking with him in a single duffel bag. He wouldn’t be taking much: Just two outfits, an extra pair of shoes, a book or two to read while he traveled, and his bedroll. Everything else would be staying here; he didn’t care what happened to it. He had plenty of money saved up for food. If he needed more it wouldn’t be hard to find work. But first, before he left, he had to say goodbye to Barghast. Barghast was the only one he was reluctant to leave behind. It would be painful but he couldn’t leave their friendship hanging in the wind. Maybe when he’s finished with his sentence he could come find me. No, Crow wouldn’t hang his hope on such a thing but he could still see his friend one more time before he left. He was just sliding his arm through the strap of his duffel bag when the door of the apartment flew open. Crow whirled around, the words of a spell on his lips, when he came face to face with Barghast. The Okanavian stood in the doorway, his chest and shoulders heaving. Sweat dripped from his broad face. His hands were clenched into fists. He looked Crow over, looked at the duffel bag dangling from his arm. “So it’s true,” he said. “You really are leaving.” “Yes,” Crow said. “I was going to find you and say goodbye before I left.” “But how can you leave after everything, after Sara…? She still needs our help.” Crow shook his head. His stomach was full of butterflies. “There’s nothing I can do for her, Barghast - there’s nothing anyone can do for her. Besides I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting, tired of trying to take care of others. I’m tired of pain and death and being afraid. I turn eighteen in three days. Eighteen. I’ll officially be an adult but I grew up a long time ago. I’ve yet to live my own life.” And I can’t keep waiting around for you to tell me the words I want to hear - the words we’re both too scared to say. But if you said them...I’d stay. For you I’d stay. Barghast walked up to him so they were standing only inches apart and for a breathless moment Crow thought Barghast would finally come clean. The moment he dreamed of would finally happen. “I know you don’t feel like you belong with the squad,” Barghast said, “but you do. You are one of us.” Crow sighed. He couldn’t hold back the truth anymore. It was fighting to burst out of him, the fear of rejection be damned. “Barghast, it’s not just Lydia and Rake and Jack and Sara. It’s you most of all. For the last year we’ve been doing this dance, one too afraid to admit to the other how we feel, both of us afraid of being rejected. I’m telling you now I have feelings for you. I’m not going to try and pretend like I know what those feelings mean but they are there and they have been for a while. I’m hoping that if you tell me you feel the same then I might want to stay. Do you?” Barghast said, “I...” Crow watched him struggle, sifting through his feelings. He knew the truth but he wanted to hear the words. He needed the confirmation. He also knew Barghast wouldn’t say them. He wasn’t ready and perhaps he never would be. “I know the truth,” he said, “just as you do. But just knowing isn’t enough for me right now. I’m in too much pain. And I’m tired 0f waiting. Waiting for you to find your courage, waiting for relief. Waiting for the nightmare to end. I’m just tired of waiting. I’m leaving Miffridge. I’m going to the beaches of the Terheim Ocean. I’ve never seen the water and I’ve always wanted to. Perhaps, when your sentence is up and you’re a free man again, you’ll have the courage to tell me then what you don’t have the courage to tell me now.” Barghast nodded shakily. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. They hugged, holding each other tight, breathing in each others smell. Crow tried to imprint the memory in his brain, the feeling of Barghast’s arms around him, the safety he felt when they embraced. He wanted to remember the bittersweet moment, which was almost unbearably agonizing, later when he traveled the roads of the ‘scape. Then they parted arms and Crow walked away, the door closing softly behind him. Less than an hour later, Crow watched the gates of Miffridge close behind him. For a moment he caught a final fleeting glance of the city, the Eurchurch at its center, and then the gates closed with a final thud. With a gentle cluck of his tongue he steered Broana around to face the Daminion Highway, the asphalt unfolding before him like a spool of thread underneath a bright blue, cloudless sky. A gentle wind stirred his thick black hair. It was a beautiful sight, the the sight of an uncertain future. Not a future filled with death but life. Ex’olku spoke. This is not the future I have chosen for you. Fuck the future you’ve chosen for me. This is my life. You cannot escape this - I have chosen you for a purpose greater than yourself. We’ll see about that.
  13. They all sat around the kitchen table: Crow, Barghast, Benedict, and Sheathia. Benedict had the older woman, who Crow assumed was either the grandmother or the nanny, take the children to the back bedroom. Benedict’s daughter kept glancing back at him with open-faced curiosity, the boy with suspicion. Crow took Benedict through a watered down version of what had happened at the Scarlet Church. Even as he went through the events, doing his best to keep them straight in his sleep-deprived mind, it was hard to believe any of it had happened. It was harder to believe that he’d survived and was here talking about it. It was harder still to believe what had happened to Sara. He would never be able to forgive himself for leaving her behind. Every time he felt himself losing focus he looked at Barghast. The Okanavian sat on his right; he was so big the chair he sat on looked comically small beneath him. As always, the sight of him was a comfort for Crow, anchoring him to the here and now. To their credit Benedict and Sheathia listened without asking questions, though they had both grown considerably pale. At one point Sheathia grabbed Benedict’s hand, lacing her fingers through his. Earlier when Benedict had led Crow and Barghast into the kitchen Crow had sensed an aura of love and unity in this room. He’d felt a warmth that was absent throughout the rest of the city. The kitchen, this apartment, was a sanctuary. And we’re desecrating it just by being here, Crow thought sadly. I’m about to ask Benedict and his family to leave their things and their home behind. I’m about to promise them safety when I’m not even sure if I can provide it. “We’re still not sure what the Scarlet Church is planning exactly,” said Crow, “but no doubt it isn’t good.” “I have an idea,” Benedict said, clearing his throat. “The number of possessions have been increasing in this city as well as in the rest of the hellscape. Damen Orlys said something about turning the world back the way it used to be. Something about the Primordial Caste.” “There’s still so much we don’t know,” said Crow. “That’s why we’re leaving as soon as we can.” Barghast nodded, grunting in agreement. “The sooner the better.” “I can’t guarantee anything but I wanted to take you and your family with us,” said Crow. “You’ll have a better chance of being safe in Miffridge where the Eurchurch is until they can figure out how to stop what’s happening.” “You mean run?” Benedict said. He had cocked his head slightly to the side, his eyes wide, looking at the practitioner as if he’d gone mad. “I know it’s not the ideal situation but what choice do you have?” Crow asked. It was an effort to keep his voice controlled, to keep from losing his patience. I don’t want to be having this conversation. I just want to sleep! “This place is a barrel of gunpowder ready to explode - and if what you say is true and the amount of demonic activity over the past twenty years is any indication then it just isn’t safe here. ” “But I just can’t leave all these people behind,” said Benedict. “I have a responsibility to them.” “Right because you’ve tried everything you can to help them, right?” Barghast said bitterly. “You know I used to hear stories about the great Edward Matthiesen, about how he so bravely endorsed Loras Gyrell’s campaign against the Eurchurch during the Eurchurch-Practitioner war, only it turns out his son is nothing like him. Your father would be out there, right now, trying to help the men, women, and children who are being butchered, not sitting here having breakfast with his family.” Crow gawked at Barghast, surprised. He hadn’t expected this outburst or the look of disdain on the Okanavian’s face. Instead of backing down, as Crow probably would have done, Benedict bristled, straightening in his chair. His eyes flashed dangerously. “You don’t have to remind me, robber.” Now it was Barghast’s turn to look surprised. Every eye in the room turned their focus on him. “Yes, I know who you are,” Benedict continued. “I recognize your face from all the warrant posters. Barghast, the great robber from the Okanavi desert, the tribesman who left his people for a life of crime. You’ve killed a few people yourself, which is why you’re now the Eurchurch’s lapdog. Do you honestly think I would send my children anywhere with you?” Crow watched Barghast slump in his chair, all the determination deflating out of him. The practitioner had always known about Barghast’s bloody past but it was strange to hear it mentioned out loud. Crow couldn’t stand to see him look so diminished. The practitioner cleared his throat. “Yes, he has a bloody past, as do I, as do we all. At the end of the day, with what we face, none of it matters. We can either sit here pointing the finger at each other or we can work together in finding a solution. There is no solution if we’re going to stay here.” Benedict crossed his arms over his chest. He clenched his jaw defiantly. “I’m not leaving my people behind to be slaughtered. You can take Sheathia, Tilde, and the kids.” “No,” said Sheathia, speaking for the first time since this conversation had begun. “I’m not leaving you, Benedict. I’m staying as well.” Now all the focus in the room was on her and Benedict. “No.” Her husband shook his head emphatically. “You’re going with them. You’re going to Miffridge where it’s safe.” “I will not. You need someone you know you can trust. Who could you trust more than your wife? Tilde can look after the kids until this is all over. I know she would never let anything happen to them.” Sheathia looked to Crow and Barghast. “Promise us - promise us you’ll get our children to safety.” “Nothing will happen to your little ones on our watch,” Barghast said. Though she didn’t look entirely convinced, Sheathia got up from the table. After a moment Benedict got up and did the same and together, husband and wife, they crossed the living room into the hallway. “I hope we’re doing the right thing,” Crow said to Barghast. “We’re doing all we can,” Barghast said. It’s not enough, Crow thought. Nowhere near close enough. Ten minutes later Crow and Barghast stood by the front door, watching as Nicholas and Elise said their final goodbyes with their parents. Sheathia was crying and Benedict stood with his shoulders and back rigid; he looked like someone who wasn’t sure if they were dreaming or not. Crow tried to imagine what it felt like to be a parent - the agony they must feel when they have to part with their children in hopes they have a better future. He tried and failed. The children looked stunned. Elise, the little girl, was hugging a teddy bear to her chest for dear life. Nicholas had the same rigid look as his father, the same confused expression. Tilde was tugging on her jacket and reassuring Benedict and Sheathia she would look after the kids, she wouldn’t let anything happen to them. Sheathia stooped and kissed Elise and Nicholas on the forehead. “We’ll be together again soon, I promise. Your dad and I are going to make things right. When things are back the way they used to be we’ll come and get you.” “You promise?” Elise asked in a tiny voice. “I promise. You be good for Tilde, the both of you, and you do what she tells you. We love you both.” Holding Elise’s hand, Tilde turned to Crow. “We’re ready.” Crow nodded and put on his best smile for Elise. “You wanna see a magic trick?” Her face brightened a little as she nodded. Crow waved a hand over his face. By the time he brought his hand down his features had changed completely. His nose had become longer, the eyes darker. He looked like a stranger. “That was cool!” Elise screech, hopping up and down excitedly. Even Nicholas was grinning. “Okay,” Crow said, “you guys have to stay quiet until we’re out of the building. The men watching the front of the building are bad men.” The group of six filed out of the apartment, Barghast in the front, Tilde and the kids in the middle, and Crow taking up the rear. He wondered if the children would see Benedict and Sheathia ever again. … As before Crow and Barghast stuck to the back roads and alleys where few people roamed. With Tilde and the children in tow the journey to the tunnels took twice as long. Crow had never felt so eager to leave a place in his life. “Bah!” Barghast grunted as he heaved the metal grating up and set it down on the asphalt. He grinned at Elise and Nicholas, the expression making the pitted scars on his face deepen. The look was supposed to put them at ease but judging from the way Elise hugged Tilde’s legs, it only made him look more intimidating. “Alright, I'm going to climb down, and then you kids, and then you Tilde.” Tilde groaned, looking down at the ladder that descended into darkness. “This is going to kill my old bones.” “The climb isn't as bad as it looks,” said the Okanavian. The older woman arched an eyebrow. “You're not sixty-two-years-old, now are you?” Crow watched both ends of the street. His heart hammered in his chest. One by one the group climbed down the tunnel. The children were surprisingly brave, not giving the slightest protest. Perhaps they sensed everyone's lives were at stake. Finally it was Crow's turn. The metal rungs of the latter were cool against the skin. Already the air was becoming cooler, the sounds of the city becoming distant. His stomach clenched as he realized he was going underground once more. The last time he had gone underground there had been monsters waiting for him - not just monsters conjured up by the imagination of a child, but real ones. His foot touched hard ground. He felt better knowing he wasn't alone, knowing he was closer to getting away from this place. And as soon as we get on the bus I'm going to sleep - the whole way to Miffridge. With a wave of his hand, Crow summoned a ball of fire the size of an apple. The ball floated by him wherever he walked, providing just enough illumination for everyone to be able to see by. Tilde was softly humming some sort of lullaby. The sound was eerily familiar. It made Crow think of his early childhood when Aunt Lena would sing lullabies to him when he had nightmares in the middle of the night. It wasn’t until later in life he realized adults were just as afraid of the dark as children and their imagination could just as easily play tricks. There’s nothing to be afraid of, he told himself. There’s nothing down here in the dark, waiting for you to stumble into it so it can attack you. And yet his eyes kept searching the corners, the dark spaces where danger might lurk, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He wasn’t aware he was hyperventilating until Barghast grabbed his shoulder and told him to stop. His chest had tightened and it felt as if his lungs were going to explode. No matter how hard he tried to make sure to inhale and exhale no oxygen seemed to be flowing through his body. The walls were closing in on him, threatening to crush him and keep him down here in the dark. I can’t stand this! his mind screamed helplessly. I must leave this place. I must- “He’s having a panic attack,” he was aware of Tilde saying. “Get out of the way so I can help him.” He felt her hands grab him gently but firmly. They felt warm and coarse with age; there was experience in those hands. “Sit down, boy,” she said. “You’re not taking in the air you need.” He did as he was told. He’d forgotten where he was or why he was there. All he knew was the feeling of suffocating. There wasn’t enough air in this space, not enough light. His ears strained, listening to the sound of the old woman’s voice. It was the only thing that cut through the blackened fog of fear that smothered Crow. “Take a deep breath,” she said. “Do not listen to the pounding of your heart but the sound of my voice. Hear what I am saying. Can you hear me?” “Y-yes,” he managed to gasp. “Good. Keep listening and trying to breathe. You - yes, you big lug, you. Get down here and help me get him to calm down. I got two frightened children I’m trying to look after. Take his hand, show him you’re here. It’s obvious you two are close and have a connection.” Crow was aware of someone bending down in front of him, a larger hand taking his own. “I’m here, Little Bird,” Barghast said. “I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.” “Keep talking,” said Tilde. “Don’t stop.” Barghast continued to talk, his voice soft and grating at the same time. No matter how hard Crow squeezed his fingers he did not take his hands away. Slowly Crow regained control of his breath. The pounding of his heart began to slow to a normal pace. He focused on the feeling of Barghast’s touch, the sound of his voice. “Sorry,” he gasped. He was far too embarrassed to glance at them, particularly the children. He couldn’t imagine how frightened they must be. With Barghast’s help he was able to get to his feet. The group continued their journey through the dark tunnels. The ball of fire Crow had summoned continued to illuminate the tunnel, following the practitioner wherever he went. Twice they stopped so Elise and Nicholas could take a break. Both times Crow drifted off for a moment only to be shaken awake by Tilde when she and the kids were ready to go. At long last they reached the door which would lead up into the watchtower. Waving for everyone to get back, Crow climbed up the ladder and lifted the door up enough to peek through the crack. He was surprised to find there was no one around to shoot at him. He waited another minute and waved the others up. Elise and Nicholas came up first, and then Tilde. Crow stood to the side and took their hands to help them up. Night was falling quickly, the sky a dark blue. Snow fell gently from the sky like white glitter. Crow immediately felt his spirits lift just knowing Barghast and he were finally out of the city. He just hoped Lydia and Jack hadn’t gotten tired of waiting and left without them. He had, after all, told them to leave after nightfall. Barghast laughed in relief when he saw Jack and Lydia waiting for them with Broana, Gunpowder, and Sara’s mare, already mounted on their own horses; his laughter filled the stillness of the forest. “Thank Mercius’ Light,” Jack said in relief, his eyes wide behind his spectacles. He was looking at Barghast, only giving Crow the briefest of glances as usual. “I didn’t think you would make it.” He glanced at Tilde and the children but said nothing; the confused expression on his face was question enough. “They’re with us,” Barghast said, gesturing for Tilde, Elise, and Nicholas to get on Sara’s horse. Lydia opened her mouth to object but Barghast waved a massive hand at her. Once everyone had mounted on their horses, Tilde, Elise, and Nicholas sharing Sara’s mare - Crow felt a tug of grief at the sight of the mare; it disturbed him to think he had abandoned Sara back at the Scarlet Church - their group began slowly making their way back towards the village of Umstadt. … They rode several hours past dark until the village of Umstadt was well behind them. When Tilde said they could go no further this night, the Strays stopped for the night behind the cover of trees. Even if they were clear of Fruimont there was still a chance a patrol of Red Wraiths could come across their path. The Strays worked together to gather wood for a fire; if not for Tilde and the children they probably would have endured the night without one. Crow, against objections from Barghast that he rest, insisted on taking first watch. Within minutes it seemed everyone was asleep. Everyone but Lydia. She kept watching him over the flames with her dark eyes; if looks were daggers hers would have cut into him. After a moment she came over to him. He tensed, ready for her to attack, but could do no more. He truly did not have the energy to defend himself. When she didn’t move he said, “I’m sorry about Sara and Rake. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to help them.” “I curse the day you ever walked into our lives,” she said after a moment. “It should be you that’s dead not Rake. You ever come near me again and I swear by the Light I’ll slit your fucking throat.” He expected her to slap him or slit his throat with a knife but she simply spat in his face and went back to her spot by the fire. There was a plummeting feeling in Crow’s chest. He could feel himself becoming unraveled, the mingled feelings of resentment and anger and guilt and the need for reassurance that Rake’s death and Sara’s possession wasn’t his fault pulling him beneath the surface. What did you expect, you idiot? he thought. Why do you think Lydia or Jack will come around? They hate you because you’re a practitioner. It doesn’t matter what you do or how many times you save them. They will always hate you. You will never be one of them. And he knew as he stepped into the room where he would spend the night - knew with all certainty - as soon as he got to Miffridge he was leaving. He didn’t know where he was going and he didn’t care, Rose’s prophecy be damned.
  14. With a shout at the dogs, Duncan brought the sled to a stop before the gates of Fruitmont. Several guards stood watch. Each was armed with rifles. The biggest one in the group, a middle-aged man with a greying red beard approached the sled, his breath misting the air. The hood of his jacket was rimmed with fur. Duncan got up, patting the head of one of the dogs, and grinned cheerfully at the sour-faced Wraith. “Good afternoon, sir. Cold, isn’t it?” The Red Wraith grunted and peered over the sled, studying Crow, Barghast, Jack and Lydia. Rose sat at the very back of the shed but the guard seemed to take no notice of her. “What all have we got here?” Each word spoken sent fresh stabs of agony through Crow’s head. It took every bit of concentration he had to maintain the glamour-spell. At this point all he could do was alter the appearance of the group’s appearance and garb. They were now dressed almost exactly as Duncan was: like scavengers who went out into the Ubrios Wastes everyday to recover artifacts from the Old World. To Duncan, the Red Wraith said, “I’m going to need you to show us what you have in the back.” Duncan nodded, his green eyes twinkling, and stepped out of the vehicle. He’s got a great poker face, Crow thought. Snow crunched beneath Duncan’s feet as he led the Red Wraith around the back of the truck; Rose was already stooping down to unfasten the hooks that held the tarp down. The other two Wraiths guarding the gate watched the sled closely, fingers resting on the trigger of their rifles. Crow felt Barghast shift nervously underneath him. He thought he heard the rustle of a tarp being thrown back but he couldn’t be sure with the ringing in his ears. I don’t know how much longer I can do this, Crow thought. Hurry… He heard the crunching of boots on snow again, and Duncan saying, “Thanks you have a great day, sir.” Duncan and Rose climbed back onto the sled. “We’re cleared.” The practitioner let out a sigh of relief. The sound of metal sliding against metal hurt Crow’s ears as the guards pulled the gate back and waved Duncan to head through. Barking, the pack of dogs broke into a run. Once they were through the gate, Crow let the glamour-spell drop. Once more he and the others were dressed in their Scarlet Priest robes. His flesh felt gritty and sweaty despite the cold. Right now he wanted nothing more than to be away from this city, away from the north, bath, and a place to lay his head down. But there was one more thing he had to do. I can’t leave here without Benedict, not without trying to get him to come with me. Crow didn’t know why he felt Benedict was so important. Perhaps he wanted to find some way to redeem himself for what had happened to Rake and Sara. No matter how much he tried to tell himself what happened wasn’t his fault, not directly anyway, he still couldn’t help but feel responsible. I was supposed to kill Damen Orlys - I was supposed to stop him from succeeding with whatever he was planning. I failed. “Can you stop the sled?” Crow asked. They were now driving through some backroad. “Sure,” Duncan said. He looked doubtful but brought the dogs to a stop in the middle of the street with the shout of, “Whoa...” “Where are you going?” Barghast demanded, as Crow jumped off the sled. “I’m going to try and get to Benedict Matthiesen,” said Crow. “See if I can talk him into coming with us. He’s too important to just leave behind. He could have valuable information to give to the Eurchurch.” At least that’s what I’m telling myself to justify this, he thought. “You just focus on getting Jack and Lydia out of here. Get the horses ready,” said Crow. “If I’m not back by nightfall leave without me.” Barghast swore and rose to his feet. “What are you doing?” Crow and Lydia said in unison; Jack wore a sleepy confused expression on his face, as if he had woken up from a deep sleep and found himself in the middle of a conflict. “The last two times we got split up I thought you were dead,” Barghast said to Crow. “That’s not happening again. And don’t you try and argue with me either, practitioner. I just hope this Benedict is worth it.” He glanced back at Jack. “Don’t leave without us.” “Loras and Drajen would both have my head if I did,” Jack said. To Crow he said, “Barghast is your responsibility for the time being. Don’t let him out of your sight” Standing side by side on the sidewalk, Crow and Barghast watched as Duncan’s sled was dragged out of sight by the pack of dogs. Rose’s pale blue eyes remained fixed on Crow until the sled was pulled around the next corner and out of sight; Crow hoped he never saw her again “Do you even know where he is?” Barghast asked as they turned down an alley. “He has an apartment where he lives with his family,” Crow said. “That’s where we’re going.” “And if it’s guarded?” “Sneak past the guards with a glamour spell. And if they try to stop us you can knock them out. You were the one who decided to come with me even though I told you to go with Jack and Lydia.” Even as Crow spoke he could feel his mind racing a million miles a second. It was hard to speak, hard to breathe. His eyes burned with exhaustion. “Stop for a second.” Barghast’s grip on his shoulder was gentle but firm. As always his touch sent a wave of reassurance and longing through Crow. When Barghast touched him or looked at him the world seemed to steady itself again, to find reason when otherwise Crow could never find any. Barghast was the only one who could make him stop, make him calm down. He was the only one who could make things right. “What happened to you down in that pit?” “What happened?” For the first time Crow thought about what happened in the catacombs: falling into the pit full of severed body parts, drowning in them, the taste of blood on his tongue; the woman he killed with the meat cleaver, each impact racing up his arm as he brought it down over and over; Sanoe’s death; the demon he’d confronted at the end of it all; the strange dream-like state he’d found himself in, which had felt so real. And you were there, he wanted to tell Barghast. You were there and Sara was too, and Lydia. But neither of you were as I know you now. You were like replacements for the real thing, my mind attempting to tell me something was wrong. And the demon posed as my aunt… The words almost left his mouth but then he remembered the terror he felt, and the guilt he was feeling now over Rake and Sara. The exhaustion. The fact they were still in this nightmare, surrounded by Red Wraiths. They had escaped the Scarlet Church and somehow they’d survived the Ubrios Waste through luck - but they weren’t safe yet. The only path I can walk is the path of madness. “I did what I had to do to get to you,” Crow said. He swallowed and winced - the inside of his throat felt like ground meat. “Maybe sometime I’ll tell you about it. But right now is not the time.” … The smell of frying bacon made Benedict’s mouth water. Tilde stood at the wood stove, frying bacon. He listened to the sizzling coming from the pan, the quiet whispering of the children coming in from the living room. How good it felt to be at home, the only place where things were familiar. Except for Sheathia. She’s still asleep. He glanced anxiously in the direction of the hallway. Almost reluctantly he came to a decision. She’s been asleep long enough. It’s time for her to come out of the room and spend time with the kids. We both need to spend time with the kids. He set his coffee mug down on the table and got up from his chair. He went to the end of the hallway and gently opened the door. His wife was curled up in the middle of the bed, her head turned away from him. She slumbered silently, her bare feet peeking out from underneath the blankets. She had very tiny feet. Pristine feet. He went over to her and gently took her foot in his hand, feeling the smoothness of the flesh. The softness of it. Inevitably his thoughts turned to Loras. More and more the moments in which he thought of Loras increased, especially when he was around his wife. Though he was married to Sheathia and loved her more than words could describe, there was a part of Benedict that was still very much in love with Loras - and always would be. There had been many times over the years in which they laid in this bed, naked and sweaty from just having made love. Their romance, while short-lived, had been filled with a ferocity, a kinetic energy that could feel like a lifetime. Even as a younger more eager man, Benedict knew there was no hope he could ever marry and have kids and settle down with Loras. There was too much fire in her soul, too much rage over what had happened to her husband and child. He knew she loved him but not in the way he wanted. Sheathia on the other hand was a completely different woman. Quiet, soft-spoken...but there was a great strength beneath it all that was easy to overlook...and underestimate. If I can just rouse her long enough to eat something I won’t be so worried... He bent down and kissed the heel of her foot. She stirred, groaning. She looked at him with her bright green eyes. “What are you doing?” He kissed her foot again, grinning mischievously. She giggled, pulling her foot away. “Stop, that tickles - you need to shave. What time is it?” “Well past noon. Tilde is making brunch. I thought you might like to come out for breakfast and join us.” Her eyes darkened. He remembered the first day he met her - at a dinner party among colleagues it was - staring into those enchanting eyes. Where Loras’ beautiful brown eyes had been full of vengeful fire and emotion Sheathia’s had been full of gentle yet resounding laughter. Up until now she had never been one to fall into depression. “I’m not hungry,” Sheathia said in a tight voice that said she didn’t want to be bothered further. “You need to eat something. You’ll feel better if you do. You’ve been asleep for too long. And I’m sure the kids want to see their mother.” Her head fell towards her lap and he knew she felt ashamed. “May the Light forgive me,” she said, her voice soft and thick with emotion at the same time. “I’ve shut myself in here this whole time while they’ve been...How bad is it out there?” “Not good,” he said. “It’s getting worse by the day and I’m too cowardly to do anything about it.” She raised her head to look at him. Tears were gathering at the corners of her eyes. “I’ve been a terrible wife and mother.” He went over to her and took her hand. “Not anymore than I’ve been a terrible father and mayor. Now it’s time to leave this room and love your children.” She nodded. “I’ll be out in a moment. Moments later, as Tilde was getting out the silverware, Sheathia came into the kitchen dressed, her hair gleaming with moisture. She looked more like herself, not the miserable wraith that had spent most of the last month in the bedroom. Elise let out a delighted little squeal that brought a smile to Sheathia’s lips and hurled into her arms. “You’re awake, you’re awake - it’s about time!” she said. Even Nicholas, who was always trying to act more mature than what he was, went to his mother of his own volition and hugged her. Kissing the top of their heads, Sheathia peeked cautiously at Benedict. It was impossible to mistake the look of relief on her face, as if she expected them to be resentful of her absence over the last month. Children hold a sacred, unshakable love for their mother that a father could never begin to comprehend, Benedict thought, taking a sip from his coffee. Seeing his whole family standing together in the same room eased the constant tension he’d been feeling over the last month. Sheathia and Tilde glanced at each other across the table, their eyes connecting. Sheathia’s eyes spread into a small smile, her eyes glinting in the morning light streaming through the window above the sink. Something was passing between them, a way of communicating only women possessed with each other. Perhaps Sheathia was thanking Tilde for watching the kids while she shut herself away from the world. Benedict observed this and felt his heart warm a little more. This is my family, he thought. And by the Light of Mercius they are beautiful. His thoughts were interrupted by a frantic rapping at the door. As if severed by a blade, the contentment Benedict had spent the last couple of minutes soaking up was drowned out by a sudden feeling of dread. A sort of premonition. The children were unaware but Sheathia and Tilde seemed to sense it too for they glanced anxiously at the door. Sheathia’s grip on her fork tightened and Tilde was wringing a dish rag in her hands. Benedict muttered something about getting the door. As he crossed the living room on legs that felt like stilts he told himself it was nothing to be concerned about - it could be nothing. They were all just overreacting. He opened the front door and felt his heart plummet. Standing just on the other side of the door was Crow, the strange young practitioner that had visited Benedict in his office the other night. He wore a Scarlet Priest uniform, which looked a little too big on him, the hood pulled up to hide his face. Without his eye makeup he looked younger, though there were dark bags underneath his eyes and there was a sweaty sheen to his skin. Benedict looked from Crow to the biggest man he’d ever seen in his life. Benedict stood six foot two and had to look up at the man to meet his eyes; next to him Crow looked like a toy doll. The man was dark skinned with dark brown eyes. His face was covered with vicious scars that looked as if they’d been done with a knife. If he were to try and break in here to get to my family the fight would be over before it even began, he thought. Then, with a chill crawling up his spine, Benedict realized who the man was: Barghast ‘Blackshot’ Unalaq, the notorious bank robber - and he was standing in his doorway. He glanced back at Crow, the source of his dread but also the only source of reassurance. “I was hoping I’d never see you again,” Benedict said. The practitioner gave him a bitter smile. “Sorry to disappoint. We don’t have a lot of time - we need to talk.”
  15. The four remaining Stray Dogs trekked through the snow, huddled together as one. The wind shrieked like a banshee, blowing snow in their face. It slapped at them as if trying to hold them back and keep them from reaching the dead city. It was everything Crow could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. A steady aching pulse had formed in the center of his skull. The blood and snot running from his nose had turned into sickles. He was using the last of his mana reserves to keep the others warm with his hands. It was an agony within itself - he’d yet to push himself this far. If I don’t quit I’m going to put myself into a coma, he thought distantly. But if he stopped they would all freeze to death. Still it was no easy task trying to keep four people warm. He turned his head to look back at the Scarlet Church. The church and the cliff it stood on had become a dark, shadowy outline. Rake was back there, dead, and so was Sara. She might as well have been dead. Her body now belonged to a powerful demoness. And we just left her there. Abandoned her. But what else could I do? Crow hated himself for trying to make excuses for his own cowardly choices, for letting his fear get to him. He told himself he’d ran to get Barghast, Jack and Lydia to safety...but he could no longer be sure what the truth was. He was colder than he’d ever been, exhausted to the point he almost didn’t care if he died or not, and he was filthy and hungry. Crow was just beginning to wonder how they’d made it this far in the cold when he felt his foot slide out from underneath him. He went rolling down a steep decline of snow. Each time he rolled over felt like his bones were knocking into one another. Finally he came able to stop, aching and cold. It hurt to breathe. He wondered if he’d broken something. He thought he heard Barghast shout his name but not even the Okanavian’s deep rumble could be heard over the brutal winds. Coughing, Crow forced himself to sit up. He tried to stand, only getting halfway before his legs gave out from underneath him, putting him on his ass. Barghast reached him and lifted him easily to his feet. “You’re exhausted,” said the Okanavian. “You’ve used too much mana. Let me carry you.” Crow didn’t have the energy to raise his voice above the wind so he shook his head. He hated himself for looking so weak in front of Barghast. Lydia simply stood off to the side, watching them, a dazed expression frozen on her face: Jack stood watching them and Crow saw the Eurchurchman did not have his glasses. The practitioner could not remember the last time he heard him speak. Crow ignored the pain and Barghast’s pleading expression and started walking into the wind. Crow didn’t want to be carried - he didn’t want to sink lower than he already had. The only place that might offer safety was the dead city: the Graveyard of Forgotten Things it was called, Crow now remembered. The shadowy outlines of skeletal buildings outlined against the cold white-and-grey gloom. He had heard tales of such places. Scavengers would come out and explore them in search of relics from the Old World; they would take them back and try to sell them. It was just like the necropolises in the Okanavian Desert, only this part of the ‘scape felt dead. At least in the desert there had been coyotes and snakes. Here there was nothing. Nothing to live off of. No place to get warm. Is there even a point in trying to get there? We still have to get back into Fruimont? How will we get pass the guards? How will we get through the city undetected? We still have so far to go...so very far. Jack stopped then and waved for them to do the same. “I thought I saw something!” he shouted, voice buffeted by the wind. “I thought I saw movement!” “There’s nothing out here but us!” Lydia called back. “You’re seeing things!” But Jack was not seeing things, Crow could see them too: Dark shapes moving towards them out of the murk. He thought he might have even heard the bark of the dog. He pressed the numbed palms of his hands against the hood of his cloak to try and keep it from flapping. The shapes were becoming more defined with every second: At first they were shadowy but then he could see that they were quadrupedal and there were six of them with harnesses attached to their bodies. They were pulling behind them a sled with two human shapes on top of them. Before he could stop himself he moved to intercept it. He did not give himself time to think why he shouldn’t do this because in his mind there was no risk in it. He shouted, an inarticulate scream without words. The sled the dogs pulled behind it kept on coming at full speed; he thought the dog train might even run him over. Then one of the shapes on top shouted “Whoa!” and with a response of yips the sled came to a stop. The two figures moved, pointing rifles in their direction. “Don’t move!” a man’s voice shouted. “Don’t think I’ll hesitate to put a bullet through your eyes!” Crow held his hands up in surrender. “We mean you no harm but we cannot stay here. We’re dying!” Dark eyes peered at him from beneath the brim of the man’s hood; the rest of his features were hidden within the shadow of his hood. Crow could not read the expression on his face. “You wear Scarlet Priest robes; I ought to shoot you right here and put out you miserable lives right here and now!” “If we were Scarlet Church would we be out here, trekking through the cold to our deaths?” Crow gestured wildly over his shoulder. “You don’t want to go that way! The Scarlet Church is that way!” The second figure, still aiming the gun at Crow’s chest, said something. The voice was that of a woman but Crow could not hear what she had said. The man looked over his shoulder for a moment before turning his head to nod back at Crow. “My wife says you are telling the truth. It will be a tight fit but we will have to make it work if we are going to get all four of you on there.” It was a tight fit to be sure. The man and woman had to throw bags of their loot in the snow to make enough room and Crow had to sit on Barghast’s lap; this made Crow feel like a ridiculous little kid but he was far too exhausted and cold to make a fuss over it. To his surprise the dogs darted through the cold snow and ice quicker than he expected; he had to grip the sides of the sled to keep from falling off. For a moment he drifted in a state of semi-consciousness, only aware of what was happening around him in the vaguest of senses. The temples of the necropolis towered over them, marking the snow with their shadow, like the world’s largest tombstones. They were magnificent in their immense proportions, indicating a time when such creations could be built. Crow could only wonder at the technology needed to do such things for nothing like these skyscrapers were created these days in the hellscape. But the evidence and technology, what remains of it, is all right here frozen under layers and slabs of ice, he thought. They were passing between the buildings now. Crow was amazed at the speed and determination with which the dogs pulled; the burden of pulling them along seemed nonexistent, the levels of their stamina inexhaustible. At last with a cry and snap of the reins from the man, the dogs came to a stop before a tall building with snow covered steps leading towards the entrance. Crow tried to get up, bringing one leg over the sled, but when he went to stand up he fell down into the snow. Before he could try to stand up once more, Barghast was pulling him to his feet. He was too embarrassed to say thank you so he went after Jack and Lydia who were climbing carefully up the steps of the temple, following their saviors. They passed beneath an empty archway, into a large dark cavern. There were shapes hidden within the snow but it was hard to identify anything. The man and woman set their packs on the ground and pulled off their hoods. The man was average height with long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, black almond shaped eyes, and high cheekbones. There were streaks of silver in his hair and beard but he looked youthful. The woman however had hair every bit as pale as the snow that covered the floor of the temple. Wrinkles bracketed her eyes and mouth and the skin at her throat sagged slightly, looking like a gizzard. She turned to face the Stray Dogs now. She held the rifle in her hands. Her unreadable gaze scanned their faces before stopping and lingering on Crow’s. Crow looked away, feeling inexplicably uncomfortable. Somehow he knew she wasn’t just looking at him but into him. The man turned to the woman. “I’m going to get the dogs as quickly as I can. Keep an eye on them.” With the last words he cocked his head in the Strays’ direction. The woman nodded then pointed the muzzle of her rifle directly at Barghast’s chest. Crow thought he saw the Okanavian gulp out of the corner of his eye. Crow leaned against the pillar, shivering. He was cold, so cold. It felt as if his insides were turning to ice. He wanted to sleep. He didn’t care if he had to lay down in the snow to do it, he just wanted to sleep. He was actually starting to drift off when he felt some shake him. “Stay awake, little bird.” Barghast’s voice was an urgent whisper, puffs of white mist streaming out of his mouth with every word. “Sleep,” he heard himself say. “I just want to sleep. So tired...” And he wanted to cry. Wanted to bury his face in something and cry. “I know. But you have to push on. I know you have it in you, little bird. You’ve brought us this far.” Crow jumped, startled, when he felt something wet and warm lick his numbed, frozen fingers. A dog stood between him and Barghast at his side, wagging its tail expectantly at the practitioner as if begging to be scratched behind the ears. The others circled around the man and the woman who were now in the middle of the room, building a fire. Jack and Lydia stood next to one another watching the two scavengers work. Crow must have drifted off again because Barghast was shaking him again, hoarsely saying his name. Crow thought he heard fear in the Okanavian’s voice. The others were all sitting around the fire, surrounded by dogs who lounged on the floor by the fire. The man said something unintelligible. In response the Okanavian said, “He used a lot of mana to get us here. We were out in the cold for hours and we walked miles. If it was not for him we would have all frozen to death.” Lydia snorted derisively, her eyes cut across Crow’s face scathingly, but she said nothing. Barghast helped Crow lower onto a pad made of blankets before the fire; the touch of warmth from the flames broke Crow out in a fresh wave of shivers. He held out shaking hands towards the flames, eyes narrowed into slits. He didn’t think there had ever been a time when warmth had felt so good. “You said you escaped from the Scarlet Church,” the man said. “How does one do such a thing?” “Luck. Lots of luck,” the Okanavian rumbled. “We lost two of our own. We were on a mission for the Eurchurch when we were caught.” The man said nothing for a moment, then cocked his head slightly. “I know you.” He looked at Lydia. “And you.” Back to the Okanavian he said, “I imagine with a face as scarred as yours, Barghast ‘Blackshot Unalaq, you would be impossible not to recognize even if dressed in disguise.” Barghast’s shoulders slumped visibly but he said nothing. “Don’t worry I do not judge you for your crimes. Others might but who in the hellscape is truly innocent. As long as you don’t harm me or the woman sitting next to me, or my dogs, I hold no animosity or harmful intent towards you. My name is Duncan and the woman sitting next to me is Rose. She doesn’t talk much but when she does people have a tendency to listen. We’ve been out here for weeks.” “Weeks?” Lydia said, her voice coming out as harsh as it always did. “You mean you’ve survived out here for multiple days?” Duncan nodded. “When we found out the Scarlet Church was overtaking the city we decided to come out here. We scavenge out here often...we know how to survive in these harsh lands. The Ubrios Wastes are not as empty as you might think: There are polar bears out here and you can hunt seal and fish if you know where to look and have the patience for it. The bears don’t make for the best meal but when you are desperate and starving anything to fill your empty belly will do.” “If you knew about the Scarlet Church then why were you heading their way?” Jack asked. He looked naked without his glasses. Crow found himself wishing he had a jalasa joint to smoke but those had been taken from him; the Scarlet Church had taken everything that belonged to the Stray Dogs. “We had no idea where their exact location was. No one does. They have a way of remaining hidden. Makes me wonder if they’ve been hiding here this whole time just waiting for the perfect time to strike. Besides I doubt they would bother anyone out here. It’s too damned cold.” Duncan reached into his pack and pulled out. “It seems Mercius was looking out for you lot. We went seal hunting recently and found ourselves quite the catch.” He passed out strips of seal blubber. Crow found himself stuffing the blubber in his mouth without thinking. His stomach gurgled and growled, coming alive after so long of being dormant from hunger. He remembered trying seal once as a boy and almost throwing it up as soon as he put it in his mouth; he’d been unable to stand the gamey taste. But now it saturated his tongue and he didn’t mind it one bit. As the group ate - Duncan continued to hand out parcels of seal meat and hunks of bread that had been toasted near the fire. The Stray Dogs were silent except for occasional groans of satisfaction. Out of the corner of his eye, Crow felt Rose’s eyes on him. Moments later he found himself lying back, comfortable and full for the first time since leaving Miffland. He could feel the threads of sleep pulling at him. Still Rose kept her eyes on him; she sat beside Duncan, still as a statue but for the tiny movements of her mouth as she chewed. What does she want? Why is her fascination with me? Crow wondered. In the end he was too tired to really care. He went to sleep with the sound of the fire crackling in his ears, the sour musk of dog and sweat in his ears, and the eyes of the crazy woman still watching him. … When he woke up everyone was asleep but for the old woman. She still sat by the fire, surrounded by the dogs and the sleeping form of Duncan. She turned her eyes on him, the palest shade of blue he had ever seen, on him. Crow found himself suddenly angry. Who was this woman and what did she want with him? It was not the explosive anger he was used to, the one in which he blew everything into cinders kind of anger. It was as calm and icy as the Ubrios Waste. He got up and went to her, stepping over sleeping bodies as he did. He did this slowly, awkwardly, for his body was still incredibly sore. He needed more sleep, more rest, but he knew he would not be able to do these things in these conditions. He wouldn’t be able to do such things until they made it back to Miffland. If they made it back to Miffland. He eased himself beside her, glared. “Do you have something you want to say to me?” He kept his voice low; it sounded surprisingly steady. “I’ve dreamed of you,” she said, her words echoing those of the woman he had encountered in Olmstadt; her words were raspy, as if her words were covered in cobweb. “I dream of a lot of things...when I’m awake and when I’m asleep. Always dreaming. Some of these are things that happened in the past, events long since forgotten; others are from the future. I don’t know why it is; it’s always been this way since I was a little girl. People often think me mad. Maybe I am.” Rose shrugged in a way that said what other people thought didn’t matter to her. “I have seen your future,” she said.”Not all of it, just the part that matters.” “What?” Crow asked breathlessly. “You walk a single road that branches off into two paths,” Rose said. “You must decide which path you choose to walk; there are no other paths to choose from. One leads you down the same path Damen Orlys walks and the other leads down the same path your Aunt Lena walked. You must choose between which one. Each one, I’m afraid, bears a heavy price, one you will not be able to pay in the end.” He believed her. He couldn’t say why or how but Crow believed her and he knew she was telling the truth. Still he wanted to negate it. “Madness?” he hissed angrily. “You’re saying madness is all I have to look forward to? That is my only reward?” “Doing the right thing rarely bears the fruits of reward. My ma often told me knowing you did the right thing is prize enough.” "It's not enough - it never has been. I've been doing the right thing for years. Why did Ex'olku pick me? He could have picked anyone in the 'scape but instead he picked me." He was talking more to himself than to Rose. "I cannot claim to understand what this Ex'olku wants or why he wants it," Rose said. "I imagine he picked you because you are the only one who can pay such a heavy price.”
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