Crow stood outside the saloon, debating whether or not he wanted to go in. His growling stomach was what made the decision for him in the end. I want a good breakfast. Mercius knows I’ve earned it.
Crow walked in through the shuttered double doors. The inside of the saloon was dimly lit with fixtured gas lamps along the ceiling and walls. The bar counter, tabletops, and walls were made of dark oak. The stuffed head of a snarling coyote was fastened to the wall. Three men, dressed in dark clothing, stopped their game of Drop ‘Em long enough to glare suspiciously at Crow. All three of them had long beards that ended at their chest. Crow nodded at them to be polite and went over to the counter. Behind it a middle-aged woman worked, wiping the counter down with a worn rag in one hand.
“Morning,” Crow said, sitting on one of the stools.
“Mornin’,” the woman said, in an accent which placed her as coming from the Javacial Flatlands. “Can I help you, dear?” Dear came out sounding like der.
“Do you have anything to eat?”
“Anything you want. The question is whether or not you have the coinage to pay for it or not.”
“I’ve got money. Do you have any biscuits with honey and apple butter?”
“Aye, best biscuits you’ve ever had on this side of the ‘scape?”
I doubt that, Crow thought, but I’ll take a gander. Just the idea of warm fluffy biscuits with honey and apple butter made his mouth water. Still, no matter how good they are none could be better than Aunt Lena’s. Aunt Lena. Thinking of her always made him emotional. The day he’d buried her seemed as if it had just happened yesterday and like it belonged in a different life simultaneously.
“While I throw the biscuits in the oven would you like some coffee?” the woman asked.
While the woman rustled around in the kitchen, Crow sipped at his coffee. The coffee was strong with just enough bite to be pleasurable.
The woman set a steaming plate of biscuits and a saucer with apple butter and honey in front of Crow. “That’ll be three dollars hon...”
Crow produced the three dollars and gave her an extra dollar for a tip. The biscuits were very good, but just as expected, they were not as good as the ones Aunt Lena would make him on Sabbath Day.
He left the saloon feeling pleasantly full and content. At the very least the taste of the biscuits had brought the bittersweet memories of the life he’d abandoned in the Plaesil mountains for the Eurchurch to mind. It seemed the distances he’d traveled since that time, the places he’d seen, and the thing he’d done that he’d never thought he would do (both good and bad), made his past seem distant and vague. He was so lost in thought he didn’t see the man walking towards him until a voice spoke, “Hey, you’re one of the visitors that came in last night ain’t ya?”
At a glance there was nothing that appeared threatening about the man. He was older, maybe in his mid-forties or fifties, with dark hair that had gone grey at the temples. He wore a brown hat, a button up shirt, faded blue jeans, and dark leather boots that looked well made. But something twisted inside Crow’s stomach.
As if to confirm the sense of uneasiness Crow felt, a voice spoke within his mind, a voice that was not his own: Don’t tell him anything. This man is trouble.
Whenever the voice spoke up at times such as this, Crow listened, so he nodded with a friendly smile. “That’s right.”
“And you brought the Eurchurchman with you. I don’t mean to pry, I’m just curious.”
“No, I understand completely. What is your name, son?”
“My name is Renfeld. Nice to meet you. Where are you from, Crow?”
“A small village in the Plaesil Mountains.”
“Figured. You have the complexion of someone from up in the mountains. Is it true it’s always cold there? Not that it’s much better in the Javacial Flatlands - we get a lot of rain but never any snow.”
“All year long. It snows more often than not.” And I can’t say I miss it much either, the practitioner thought.
“Crow, if you don’t mind me asking, aren’t you a little young to be running around with those people. Not that I’m judging but they look like roughnecks.”
Crow shrugged, fixed Renfeld with a crooked grin. “I like to think I can take care of myself.”
“I’m not trying to be nosy,” the sheriff said, scratching sheepishly at his nobby nose. “I guess it just gets a little lonely out here is all. Not many come out here in the middle of the ‘scape are looking to converse. Understandable of course, but a man has got to have a little bit of interaction with other human beings every once in a while.”
“That’s alright, Renfeld. Not to be rude but I need to get going.”
Crow stepped past the man and took the back exit into the alley. He was aware that the man was following. He tensed but did not turn around. He was almost at the end of the alley when he heard the click of a gun hammer being drawn back.
“Not another step, son,” Renfeld drawled. “Or else I’ll have to blow a hole in your head.”
Crow turned slowly and glared. His jaw clenched and his insides burned with a sudden seething anger. “You’re a Red Wraith.”
Renfeld nodded. “I’ve been tracking your little group for a while. Renfeld knows where you are, and he’s coming. He’s still got enough men and women alive to hunt y’all down. What’s left of you anyway.”
Then he pulled the trigger.
The bullet slammed into an invisible wall of energy before Crow’s face. Renfeld’s chubby face quivered as he gaped in shock. He started to pull the trigger once more but Crow’s eyes had already clouded over. He waved his hand and Renfeld’s throat opened to the bone as if cut by the blade of an invisible knife. His eyes widened horror, fingers trying to stop the blood seeping from his throat in crimson spurts. Crow watched him bleed, feeling a mingling sense of horror and satisfaction at what he had done. He hadn’t even really thought about doing it, it had just happened, and it was so easy to do. The little effort it took to kill with mana was what made it so thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
The man dropped to the ground with a heavy thump. He spasmed for a few seconds and then went still.
Crow found Sara heading back towards the house where they had slept last night. She had a peaceful look on her face; Crow felt a rush of guilt, realizing he was about to ruin whatever sense of well-being she had found herself.
“A man just tried to kill me outside of the pub. I’m pretty sure he was a Red Wraith. I had no choice but to kill him.” Even as he said the words a nasty voice in the back of his mind told him this was a lie. “It won't be long before the rest of the Red Wraiths close in on us.”
“But we need rest. Especially Fulko. I know his physical condition has been improved but we both know his mental state has deteriorated, and the more we try to push him the more it will do so and the faster it will happen. He needs rest."
“I know.” Crow grimaced, hating himself for what he was about to say. “But if one can weasel his way somehow there’s no telling what a pack of them will do. They clearly aren’t afraid of the Eurchurch. And there are innocent people here. I don’t want any more deaths on my hands than what are necessary.”
Crow could tell by the softening of Sara’s eyes she knew what she meant and agreed. “I don’t want any more blood on my hands either...they are soaked with enough as it is. Should we warn the others?”
Crow nodded emphatically. “Tell the others, grab the horses, and leave. It might be dangerous for us but not for the people seeking safety in this outpost.”
They left with the sun beating on their backs. None of the others were too happy about leaving early but hadn’t exactly put up a fight. “Of course you would be the one to get us all into fuckin’ trouble,” Rake had groveled accusingly at Crow.The practitioner had been grateful when Sara stepped up to back him.
Crow knew everyone was hoping for another day or two of rest, but on the way to the pub he had glimpsed the hollow-eyed worn faces of the refugees shuffling around the streets: People who had lost their homes, having to leave their belongings and everything they knew on the chance the Eurchurch could provide them safety, some who had lost loved ones just to get here. Crow could not stand the idea of bringing more terror and death all for another day’s rest.
The land turned from fields of jalasa, the piney smell fragrant in the wind, to hills of trees and growth. The road rose and fell in intervals, the horses slowing considerably. The Voice kept speaking up in the Practitioner’s mind, urgent with warning: The Red Wraiths are catching up! You must hurry! Crow tried to find a way to convey this message, but couldn't think of how to do so without having to explain how he knew; doing so would only bring light to the secrets he had carefully kept in shadow for the last year, and he couldn’t see a good outcome coming from that. Half the group hated him for what he was to begin with. So he rode at the rear of the group, always casting an eye over his shoulder.
When they finally stopped to camp and most of the others had settled in their bedrolls for the night, Barghast came to sit next to Crow. Despite the warmth of the fire and the bedroll he sat on, he could feel the chill coming off the damp ground. As always his entire body felt sore. Was there ever a time anymore, when his body did not feel sore?
“Are they close?” Barghast asked after a moment.
Crow nodded. He kept his eyes fixed ahead of him. But for the illumination provided by the fire the darkness was absolute. He could only see so far but he listened: for the crunch of brambles and leaves, the cocking of a gun. His heart should have been pounding but he felt a rapt sort of calm.
“You always seem to know when danger approaches,” the Okanavian said after a moment. “You’ve always alerted us right before it attacks. You’ve always done it subtly so the others don’t notice but I’ve picked up on it. Do you possess the ability of precognition as well, little bird?”
The practitioner studied the Okanavian for a time, his own expression unreadable. He traced the knife scars that had been carved into Barghast’s face, the impressive breadth of his chest and shoulder and he was afraid. It was the fear of being discovered, the fear of having secrets unearthed, and the fear of the consequences of those discoveries. “No practitioner has the ability of precognition, Barghast.”
“Then how do you know these things? I know you are not a spy.”
“Ask me something else, Barghast.” His voice sounded harsher than he’d meant it to.
“Do you not trust me with the truth?”
“I don’t trust anyone, Barghast, and there is a reason for that. It’s kept me safe. Does the truth really matter, my friend? Or does the fact that my knowing of these things has saved our lives a couple times? Which matters to you more?”
Crow studied his friend, feeling ashamed. He hadn’t meant to lash out the way he had, and he knew from the tone in Barghast’s voice, no matter how he tried to cover it up with his gruffness, that he had hurt the Okanavian. Whoever Barghast “Blackshot” Unalaq had been before he gave his life to the Stray Dogs he was not anymore. Certainly much of him still remained but there was a sense of vulnerability that the cold-blooded Barghast from the stories lacked. The one that had robbed banks and taken hostages for ransom, and killed tellers when they did not put the money in the bag fast enough. He’s no longer that man, being a part of D-squad has changed him, the practitioner thought. Perhaps it has given him a change of heart.
He reached out to put a long-fingered hand on Barghast’s shoulder; then he hesitated. He had done everything he could to keep the Okanavian at arm’s length, to keep from showing the true depths of his feelings for Barghast. It had never been easy but as of late it had become harder and harder, an almost unbearable weight when he already felt like crumbling beneath the weight of his secrets. Against his inhibitions he let his hand fall the rest of the way. He imagined Barghast turning then, to kiss him. What would his mouth feel like on his? Or the rough feel of his hand on Crow’s cheek? Or the immense weight pressing Crow down to the ground? These thoughts were forbidden he knew, for if he were to give into this urge it would only make his task more difficult when it was already difficult enough.
He felt Barghast’s shoulder spasm slightly beneath his fingers before relaxing. It was like touching hard stone, the flesh warm in spite of the cold, as if he had taken the heat of the desert sun with him. The Okanavian turned his head to look at Crow, dark eyes filled with an unmistakable need.
“One day I will tell you everything,” Crow said, his voice hoarse. “But now is not the time.”
Barghast nodded. Crow removed his hand.
“You should get some sleep,” Barghast grated. “I’ll keep watch. I’m too nervous to sleep.”
And the dance continues. Crow nodded, rolling onto his side.
He was dreaming that Aunt Lena had gotten a knife and was slicing at herself, bleeding all over the floor, when the Voice cut in: They’re here! You must wake up!
Crow jerked upright into a sitting position. Barghast was still awake, walking circles around the camp. He had his shotgun slung across his back and he was muttering a chant in Okanavic, probably asking Ika-Na-Na to protect the camp. Crow struggled to get his feet. His entire body was still sore and stiff from sleeping on the hard ground.
“Barghast, they are here!” he hissed. “Be ready!”
The Barghast had his shotgun in hand in a matter of seconds.
Crow went around the camp, shaking the others awake and stomping out the fire. Darkness enveloped the camp. He could hear someone breathing rapidly but he couldn’t tell who it was. It struck him then that putting out the fire might not have exactly been a good idea. Not if they already know where we are.
And then he felt his heart stop as he heard the pounding of hooves on dirt, a war cry bursting through the dark. The crack of a gunshot cracked through the air, filling Crow’s veins with lightning. He jumped instinctively, wanting to drop to the ground, but remained standing. He saw the shape of a man coming towards them on a horse. Crow drew his mana around him and threw a ball of burning flame at the man. The man was aiming to fire off another shot at Sara but before he could, the comet hit him and he fell from his horse burning. The horse squealed and ran off into the night out of sight.
More were coming, too many to count. They burst through the trees, forming a stampede, guns flashing and roaring in the night. Crow sent out bursts of mana, dispatching those within range. There was a warm feeling in his gut that he knew all too well; he tried to focus on what he was doing it and why he was doing it, trying to keep that feeling of bloodlust and excitement at bay.
He turned his head briefly to see Sara standing protectively in front of Fulko. She had two knives in her hand and was looking around frantically while the other Strays were too busy firing shots at the Red Wraiths coming for them with a vengeance.
Sara and Fulko were practically defenseless.
The mission, Crow reminded himself, was to get Fulko back to the Eurchurch. He could have valuable information that could benefit the Inquisition in the fight against the Scarlet Church.
“Sara!” he shouted. “Take him and ride!”
She nodded and helped Fulko up on the saddle of her horse before climbing on behind him. She wheeled her horse around, snapped her reins and disappeared into the dark at a full on gallop.
Five Red Wraith horses chased her.
Crow cursed and lunged towards Broana. There was no time to tell the others where he was going or why; they would simply have to take care of themselves for a little bit.
Bare branches snagged at him: at his hair, face, and arms. He felt a branch cut into his cheek hard enough to draw blood. Six dark shapes ahead of him indicated Sara in the lead with the five horses in pursuit. Gunshots peppered the night. The shots missed Sara but it would only be a matter of seconds before one of them hit her or Fulko.
Crow snapped the reins and willed Broana to run faster. He was closing in on a Red Wraith woman. He outstretched a hand towards her and let loose a spear of lightning. She fell of her horse onto the ground with a scream, steam rising from the hole in her chest. The two Red Wraiths in front of her jerked about in their saddle but Crow dispatched them with another slash of his arms and a burst of mana. Blood spurted from the slits in their throats, raining on his face from both sides.
The final Red Wraith was raising his double revolvers, about to take Fulko in the back of the head. There was no time to warn them. Crow was close enough that he could almost reach out and touch the man’s horse. Almost.
Teeth gritted, he rose and threw himself at the man. For a terrible moment he flew through the air before slamming into the man in a tackle. There was another instance of plummeting. The man, landing on his back, took most of the impact, but it was still enough to knock the breath out of Crow.
The Red Wraith jerked beneath him with his knees, reaching for the gun. Crow had longer arms and grabbed it first. The cold chill of the chrome felt alien in his hands; the heaviness of it startled him as he brought it to bear on the Red Wraith. He pressed the muzzle between the man's eyes, teeth gritted.
"You don't have the balls," the Red Wraith growled. "You don't…"
Crow pulled the trigger. The revolver kicked back in his hand. There was a blinding flash of white light and a crack like rock splitting apart. The man slumped back on the ground; the sudden still silence was every bit as jarring as the cacophony as the gunshot.
The practitioner rose slowly to his feet. Every part of his body creaked and groaned in protest. He dropped the gun on top of the corpse. On his right, Sara brought her stallion to a stop. Fulko remained mounted while she climbed down from the stirrups. Sara stopped at the sight of the dead body. She said nothing for a long time. When she did speak her voice sounded perfectly calm: "I don't hear anything."
Crow lifted his head and listened. There were no sounds of gunshots or horses galloping through the dark. A gust of wind blew his hair in his face. Broana trotted to him, nuzzling his hand with her muzzle as if to make sure he was okay. He ran his hand down the length of her muzzle before climbing onto the saddle.
Together Sara, Fulko, and Crow rode back towards the camp. Barghast, Lydia, Jack, and Rake came trotting out of the copse of trees on horseback. It wasn't until upon seeing him that Crow realized how worried he had been Barghast. Sara must have felt the same about Lydia, for they exchanged quick embraces.
“Did we get all of them?” Sara asked, her breath coming out in drifts of white mist. Now that his heart had slowed down from its chaotic drumbeat, Crow was beginning to feel the chilly air.
“Almost,” said Rake. He turned his head to the side and spat in the dirt. “Viktor Sanae ran off before we could get to him, the balless coward. I don’t think he will be sending anyone else after us though; at least not before we reach Miffland.”
“I say we get back on the road,” said Lydia. “ I don’t know about you but my blood is pumping too fast to be able to sleep tonight. Besides, we’re almost there. If we keep going without being stopped we could reach Miffland by tomorrow evening.”
Crow found himself agreeing with Lydia: the thought of being within the safe walls of Miffland filled him with longing. He wanted to sleep on a real bed rather than the hard ground of the earth and he wanted to clean himself. In his deep, lilting voice Barghast cast his vote in agreement with the others. With the verdict decided on, Crow climbed back onto Broana’s saddle, ignoring the aches and pains of his body.
When they passed them, Crow tried to pretend the dark lumpy shapes of the corpses were really just rocks, but it did not work. He could still feel the jerk of the revolver in his hand when he pulled the trigger, the way the gun roared in murderous triumph. Killing with the gun had been just as easy as killing with mana. The thought filled his veins with ice water. Crow tried to force them out of his head and on what was ahead of them: Going home.