Fort Erikson sat atop a tall hill which overlooked the ghost city below, a city whose name had long since been forgotten. Its walls were heavily fortified. In order to get in one had to go through the metal gates; in order to be approved the person had to either have the tattoo of The Scarlet Church or the tattoo of the Red Wraiths. Anything else was an immediate cause to be shot down. Guards stood atop of Fort Erikson’s walls armed with assault rifles and dressed in Kevlar armor. Fort Erikson, a base for the Red Wraiths, was well protected. But that didn’t mean it was impossible to get in.
Mime Ferine sat at the counter of Fort Erikson’s only bar, The Red Wraiths Tavern. She’d ordered a couple of drinks just to look like a woman who was enjoying her free time. She wore the Red Wraiths’s customary red jacket, her hair tied back into a ponytail. Her hair clung together, shiny from grease and being unwashed. All part of the disguise. There were several other patrons sitting at rickety wooden tables, playing pool or flirting with the tavern’s prostitutes; taking a break from the desert’s relentless heat. Mime decided she would have one more drink. Any more and she would be more than just a little tipsy.
She watched the bartender, a round-faced middle-aged man with a disgruntled looking expression on his face, polish the crystal glasses and set them on a tray. He looked up and frowned at her. Apparently he didn’t like people gawking. “Can I do something for you, miss?” He spoke with a strong Plaesil accent. His face was blotchy and greasy with sweat; his forehead and nose was badly burned and starting to peel. The heat this close to the Okanavi desert was not doing his complexion much good. His apron, once white, was marked with grease stains. His belly drooped over his belt buckle. It was strange seeing someone from the north, so far away from their homeland.
“No,” she said a little more sharply than she meant to, smiling at him. She downed the last finger of bourbon in the glass and swallowed it; the bourbon stung her throat going down. She watched the bartender take the glass in his pudgy short-fingered hands and waddle over to the sink. The water hissed as it came on, stinking of minerals.
Time to go, she thought.
The chair creaked when she stood up. Several curious glances were thrown in her direction before quickly turning back to whatever it was they were doing. Fly papers hung from the rafters with dead insects stuck to them. Their silky wings glittered when they caught the light. Gnats circled a table with several dirty dishes stacked on top. The heat in the tavern was stifling.
The wooden floorboards underneath Mime’s boots creaked as she stepped out into the turgid heat. Golden spokes of sunlight beat down on Fort Erikson’s square courtyard without a single cloud to provide any sense of relief. A gust of wind blew strong enough to blow the door to the tavern wide open.
“Close that fuck’n’ door!” someone screamed from within.
Glaring from over her shoulder, Mime felt like shouting something of the kind back but clenched her jaw. Drawing such attention would not be a good thing. Filthy old buzzard, she thought. She glared at the old man who’d shouted at her, and shut her mouth firmly with the palm of her hand. It was a thin door, cheaply made. She feared if she closed it too hard the door would fall off its hinges, and then someone would really be upset.
The mingled smell of roasting meat and reeking piles of animal dung pervaded the air. Red Wraiths passed through the courtyards in both directions, face grimy with dirt, their red uniforms weathered by the harsh sun. Some occasionally stopped at one of the stalls, their curiosity snagged by the silver-tongued merchants brave enough to see what profit could be made from the outlawed Red Wraiths. Of course you couldn’t expect merchants to be loyal to the Inquisition, Mime thought. They would go where they were most likely to make the most money. The last few years, since the resurrection of the Scarlet Church and the start of the war, had been hard times - the hard times didn’t look like they would be letting up anytime soon.
No one paid any attention to the raised platform where the corpses of two men and a woman, their affiliation with the Inquisition made obvious by the Eurchurch tattoo on their necks and arms, hung from the gallows by their necks. Their bodies were grotesquely bloated from the body’s natural fumes. All three unfortunate victims had had their eyes pecked out by carrion birds. Their vulturous shadows drifted over the sand as they circled over the corpses hungrily, waiting for the perfect moment to take more of their fill of dead flesh.
It was knowledge of what had happened to the woman that bothered her the most. Before being hung it was clear the woman had been beaten severely and assaulted. The front of her shirt had been torn open so her breasts hung out for everyone to see and her pants torn off. Even as she walked across the courtyard, trying not to look at her, Mime was constantly aware of the body's presence out of the corner of her eye. All it had taken was one look at the woman’s corpse for the sight to be forever etched into the flesh of her mind, along with the knowledge the same could happen to her should she be caught or the mission failed altogether. No, she thought, I would kill myself before I ever let any man touch me.
Who knew how long they would be left up there to decompose under the sweltering heat of the sun. Mime felt a pang of sadness upon realizing they wouldn’t get a proper burial after giving their lives for the Inquisition. They deserve better, Mime thought. May Mercius shine the Light of his Rays on them in love and mercy.
She barely glanced at the merchants when they approached her, already spouting their sale pitches. If she was back in Miffridge on leave between missions, she would have stopped and looked at her leisure. But here she had to play the part of a Red Wraith mercenary, affiliated with the Scarlet Church - she was no longer Mime, official healer of D Squad. She made sure to walk steadily, shoulders relaxed, head held high and slightly back as if she was proud of what she did. Night time was hours away. Might as well be days away, she thought bitterly. The bourbon had helped relieve some of the strain that had been building up for the past two days but she could feel it constantly hanging around her shoulders like a drape.
Guards stood before the parapets, armed with rifles. Many of them wore faded red rags tied around their forehead to keep the blasted sun out of their eyes. Mime reminded herself these were some of the most dangerous men in all the hellscape - and while she looked like them she was not like them. If she was caught the chances of her ending up like the three corpses hanging from the nooses were imminent.
Mime spotted a bucket sitting on a rickety wooden table. Her throat was scratchy with thirst. While the water was too warm to drink from sitting out in the heat, she could at least try to wash some of the sand that stuck to her forehead and above the collar of her filthy white top. Her nostrils flared from the sour smell of horse shit piled on top of a nearby wagon. She wrung out the dripping rag and wiped at her forehead. Water dripped down soaking the front of her shirt. She sighed contentedly. A woman has to stay cool out here.
Her skin gleamed with pearly drops of water. She caught the leering gaze of a mercenary. His lips, stained with tobacco, peeled back from rotting teeth. You’re barking up the wrong tree, Mime thought, scowling towards him. She made her way towards the northwest door, eager to get away from his line of sight. And even if I were the right kind of tree, thank Mercius I’m not, you still couldn’t pay me enough to bother. She kept her hand on the blade of her knife just to make herself feel better. She ran the pad of her thumb over the familiar notches and grooves worn into the wooden handle. If she did get caught she would try to take out one or two of the mercenaries with her.
She climbed up the plank-wood staircase to the second floor, passing from the stifling, drowsy air into the shaded protection of the hallway. Her quarters were near the end of the hallway. She looked forward to a couple hours shut eye before it was time to begin tonight’s shift of guard duty.
Mime’s room was small, just big enough to hold a small feather bed and a wardrobe which held her other uniform. A separate door catty corner from the bed led into a tiny bathroom. Mime only used it when she could no longer stand the smell of her own sink.
She poured the filthy water she kept in a pail into the tub. She filled the pail with fresh hot water, breathing in the nose-hair curling smell of sulfur. Back in the bedroom she grabbed a bar of lye and honey soap. She made sure the window, which overlooked the courtyard, was closed. Now she had privacy. For the next few hours she could let her guard down. She peeled off her sweaty clothes until she stood bare breasted. The thought of using the showerhall with the other women made her uncomfortable. She could imagine then leering at her body from atop the crude stalls, whispering to each other with curiosity and mockery. This was just the fear and anxiety talking she told herself - the fear of standing out too much - but she still felt too self conscious to bathe before the presence of others.
Better to maintain one’s hygiene away from the prying eyes of her peers.
She scrubbed her clothes with the sponge until they lattered up with soap, then dipped them down into the steaming water several times until the foamy suds had been rinsed off; there was something comforting and normal about this boring task, a reminder of who she really was. After setting her uniform to dry, she went into the bathroom to wash her hair and scrub the rest of the dirt off her skin. When she was finished she looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair hung down her shoulders, wet and glossy looking. Her bright green eyes stared out from under golden eyelashes; they looked back at her as if she were a stranger even to herself.
“My name is Sara Abernathy,” she said. “I’m from a farming town called Oakmont in the Jalacial Flatlands. My allegiance is with the Eurchurch.” She repeated the mantra three times, eyes squinted shut in concentration. Slowly she felt herself begin to relax. She was exhausted from the deception, exhausted from being someone she wasn’t. She yearned to crawl in bed and sleep, to take a small break from her cruel duality.
She awakened just as the sky darkened to twilight and dressed herself in her second uniform. She went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and repeated the same mantra she had before only in reverse: “My name is Mime Ferine, I am a member of the Red Wraiths. My allegiance is with the Scarlet Church.” Her voice was flat and confident. If asked directly she could pass, but could she keep her voice steady if conflict arose?
She kept her license, stolen from the corpse of the real Mime Ferine in her back pocket. She thought of all the nights she’d spent looking over the wrinkled slip of paper by firelight, repeating the name, convincing herself she was someone else. But sometimes, late at night, when the howls and yips of coyotes filled the night sky as if in reverence to the moon, she thought she could feel the ghost of the original Mime Ferine haunting her. Imposter, the ghost would hiss in anger. You’re not fit to wear my uniform.
It didn’t matter if she hadn’t slit the woman’s throat, stolen her identity and left her in the desert heat to be feasted upon by starving coyotes or desperate hyenas, or the cannibalistic pophagos that wandered the desert. The woman’s lifeblood might as well still be on her hands.
Commander Viktor Sanae was the man in charge of the Red Wraiths stationed at Fort Erikson. Directly in contact with the High Priest of the Red Church, it was his job to oversee shipments, pass along important information, and act as the head of the Church’s local militia. Within Fort Erikson he was treated as a high ranking noble-born, which meant he had everything brought to him on request: His meals and drink, whatever he so desired. Sara volunteered to bring him his meal every night before going to guard duty. Her initial motive was to curry favor with the commander; her ulterior motive was to memorize his office as much as she could. Or more specifically the map of the hellscape spread across the wall behind his desk, marked with different colored pegs. She had no idea what the pegs meant but she was determined to memorize the map in hopes of finding out. Who knew, the information might be crucial to the Inquisition’s goals. A girl can dream can’t she? Sara thought.
She pushed a small trolley with two platters on top. Her eyes were focused on the door at the end of the fort’s corridor which was guarded by two armored Red Wraiths armed with rifles. She nodded at them in greeting but said nothing. The guard on the right opened the door for her. “Go on in,” he said curtly. “Make it quick.”
Sara nodded again to show she understood and stepped into Sanae’s office. The man in charge of the Red Wraiths sat at a large wooden desk, scribbling something down on a sheet of paper. He was middle-aged with thinning red-blonde hair and a round face. In Sara’s mind he looked noble-born, the kind that would laugh and piss on a vagrant before he moved on about his business. Or maybe she only thought so because of his affiliation with the Scarlet Church. She despised anyone who was in league with Damen Orlys, it didn’t matter what their reason for joining his cause was.
Commander Sanae looked up having caught a whiff of the food. “About time,” he said, barely glancing at her as he came around the desk to retrieve his tray. “What took you so long?”
Grinning apologetically, Sarah internally visualized pulling a dagger and slitting the man’s throat. She wondered if she could do it without alerting the guards. But what good would killing Sanae do for the Inquisition? The Scarlet Church would just put another in his place and continue with their plans of terrorizing the hellscape. There were other Red Wraith pockets scattered intermittently throughout the hellscape.
“The cook was running a little behind, sir,” she said, making sure her voice was level; as sbe spoke she cast a glance at the map hanging behind his desk. “I came up here to bring your supper as quickly as I could. It’s still hot.”
Sanae grunted as if unconvinced and sat back down at his table. He removed the top of the platter and set it aside. Hmmm,“ he said, tucking a silk kerchief into the collar of his uniform. “Chicken - my favorite.” He waved a hand dismissively at her. “You can go now.”
With a close-lipped smile that hid her bared teeth, Sara saluted Sanoe and left his office, closing the door slightly behind her.
If only I could get my hands around what little neck he has, she thought. Three years ago, when she’d first been initiated as a Stray Dog, she would have balked at the thought, horrified at the idea of such a thing. After all when she had taken her oath as healer and servant to Mercius, she had vowed to never do harm to another human being: I vow never to harm another living creature who bleeds the same color of blood I do, but to be a force of benevolence…
But in the three years she’d served as healer on the frontlines as well as spying she had done great harm to several people...maybe not directly, but certainly indirectly. And she could feel herself slipping further over the edge, further away from the woman she used to be. She could only hope Mercius was as merciful as the Eurchurch like to depict him as.
She resumed pushing her little trolley the opposite way and began to head towards the cellblock. Seeing the remaining platter on the tray, the guards on duty let her in without a word. She entered the gloomy room and mentally prepared herself.
Galliart Fulko, a loyal agent of the Inquisition, had been assigned to spy on The Red Wraiths to see if he could find what the Scarlet Church’s next move was. When the Eurchurch had not heard anything from him for two months the Pope became worried. The worry was confirmed when a letter was intercepted, written and signed by Viktor Sanae, stating that Galliart and his three team members had been found, captured, and were being interrogated. The extent of what had been done to the unfortunate souls was of course understated and much more brutal.
Fulko had been beaten repeatedly: there were bruises and cuts all over his neck, chest, arms, and thighs. Both eyes were swollen shut. The index and middle fingers of his right hand were completely gone, the stumps crusted over with scabs. His arms and legs were all knobs, the flesh so pale and thin it barely seemed to cover the bone. They were feeding him but it was only enough to keep him alive - if that. Someone had brought another platter sometime ago: the top of the platter had been removed to show some kind of soup. A mixture of flies and writhing maggots had congregated within the bowl. Fulko’s face was drawn in a perpetual mask of agony. His swollen lips hung open, showing several missing teeth. The only sign of life he gave was the phlegmy rattle of his breath and the barely perceptible rise and fall of his chest. His cell reeked with the sharp tang of urine and filth.
She wished she could say something to reassure him, to tell him help was on the way. Three years ago if she had been standing here instead of today she would have been convinced of this: evil would not prevail. But the war between the Inquisition and the Scarlet Church had flipped everything on its head. Just three years ago the Scarlet Church had been nothing more than a story, their pages in history fading. Then they had risen from the depths of forgotten memory as if they’d never been gone.
Sara couldn’t tell Fulko everything was going to be okay. She’d only be lying. Her only hope was that things would go as planned and Fulko would get to safety before it was too late.
Though the air had cooled slightly with night’s approach, it was still stifling, syrupy with humidity. Sara longed for a bath - a real bath - and the cool air of the north. She walked along the battlements of the fort, nodding at the sentries on duty, making sure to keep her face expressionless. She was thankful to be out of the oppressive confines of the cellblock.
She grabbed a rifle, made sure it was loaded, and turned to face the night. Torches lined the wall, providing enough illumination she could see a kilometer out. Weeds poked out from the sand; crickets chirruped, their reedy song riding the still air. The world seemed utterly still. A mile or so out, separated by a sparse border of desert weed and cacti was a dead city; its ancient buildings loomed out of the shadows. For centuries they had stood, slowly moldering away. Somewhere within the network of long lost relics the rest of her team waited. Rake and Lydia would be heading to rendezvous with her any minute now.
Out of the corner of her eye Sara glanced at the sentry standing next to her. He wore a scarf around his forehead. Other than the sharp angle of cheekbone and the bristle on his chin the rest of his features were imperceptible. It wasn’t as if women didn’t join the Red Wraiths - they usually worked in the background, as spies. Rarely were they put on sentry duty. But times were tense lately. The conflict between the Inquisition and the Scarlet Church had reached its peak. Even now Sara could sense it in the air: a growing tension that seemed to engulf the entire hellscape. Something big was getting ready to happen, something big; it lurked on the edge of the horizon, poised to strike.
The threat of madness was just as close if not closer.
For a moment, sudden and fraught with impossibility, Sara considered turning the rifle on the sentry standing just a few feet away and pulling the trigger. She could see the white-hot flush of the muzzle blinding against the inky blackness, see the bloom of red spreading from his chest like the spreading petals of a rose before his body plummeted over the parapet. For the Inquisition! she could hear herself shouting as she squeezed off more shots. How many shots, Sara wondered, could she get off before her own body fell over the wall?