Thousands of people waited outside the gates of Miffland, standing beneath a cold mercurial blue sky. They waited, sitting on the backs of horses or donkeys, or in the back of wooden wagons; some of the wagons had been made into shelters with strips of cloth or sheets fixed to the top of the wagon to make a sort of roof. Others stood on their feet, faces drawn with exhaustion. Mothers clutched wailing children to their hips or their bosom, the sets of their shoulders hinting they might fall over at any moment.
The wheels of the wagons left track marks in the mud. The smell of damp soil, sweat, desperation, and fear permeated the air like a black fog. Crow watched all the people around him, feeling a strange sense of loss. There were so many people who had fled their homes to come to this city. Others went to the city of Fruimont in the Plaesil Mountains, just outside the Ubrios Waste, but most souls in the hellscape wanted the protection of the Eurchurch. Many more would appear, Crow knew, and he doubted the city was big enough to hold them all. Already the streets were clogged, every place that could house a person filled shoulder to shoulder. Is this what it was like during the Practitioner-Eurchurch War? he wondered.
After hours of waiting on horseback, the guards at the gate waved the Stray Dogs through. They passed through the archway into the city, straight into the Dirrefit District, the slums of Miffridge. The cobblestone streets were clogged with traffic, people milling about on the sidewalk or traveling by carriage. The buildings, tall and stuck close together, were in bad shape, the windows grimy with dust, the paint peeling off the walls or the gutters hanging precipitously above the ground. Everywhere Crow looked was a lost soul: the sick and the starving and the slowly dying; and there were the thieves and prostitutes, some of them Crow’s age and many of them younger. But mostly practitioners lived in this district, unable to afford anywhere better. While their lives were no longer considered outlawed, the prejudice against them was still very real; their status made it hard for them to get jobs and find decent housing.
Seeing the district always made Crow feel incredibly sad. The Eurchurch was so busy fighting the Scarlet Church and demonic possession that they’d forgotten all about the wayward citizens who wandered into the city expecting safety, only to be forgotten. But of course the Eurchurch has its priorities, Crow thought.
The headquarters of the Eurchurch itself was located in the center of the city for all to see. Of all the buildings it was the grandest and the most well-kept. Its round, white marble walls, rose into the air, capped with a roof made of pure gold. Steps wrapped all the way around the monastery, leading up to the pillared entrance. Guards, dressed in armor with the Eurchurch’s insignia, guarded the entrances into the building day and night, working in eight hour shifts. The Eurchurch was also guarded by powerful wards, making it virtually impossible to break into. It was said the dungeons were full of people who had been possessed, locked away because no one could help them. Even in Miffland the number of possessions had risen exponentially.
Pope Drajen resided in the Eurchurch; very rarely did he reveal himself to the public unless it was to pray over criminals before they were executed. As such, he did not appear on the steps of the Eurchurch to welcome Galliart Fulko home. Instead a group of priests and nuns awaited, their white robes ruffling around them, pushed by a cool northern breeze. They smiled, appearing benevolent and at peace, but Crow knew what they were capable of. Aunt Lena, sometimes half delirious, had told him stories.
Fulko was escorted into the church by couriers who worked for Drajen. Crow was glad to see him go: Rescuing him and keeping him safe had been no easy task. And he had said very little to them in the way of appreciation for saving his life, except to Sara. He was even more grateful when Lydia, Sara riding at her side, Rake, and Jack cantered off into the traffic. Barghast kept shooting him glances, as if reluctan to leave his side. These moments when they parted until the next mission were always awkward.
The Okanavian tried to break the awkwardness between them by gently elbowing the practitioner. “Say, we should go get some drinks sometime. Play a game of cards.”
“We should,” Crow said, shouldering his duffel bag.
“I know an excellent place. Great drinks, cheap prices. And they have pool tables.”
And the dance continues, Crow thought. He offers to join me for drinks and I tell him we should when we both know it’s never going to happen. Because without our little dance this strange attraction we feel towards one another, the curious nature of it, would cease to be exciting and we’d have to show one another who we really are behind our false facades.
“I don’t think you want to play cards with me,” Crow said, just to tease the Okanavian..
Barghast chuckled. “Oh, and why is that?”
“I’d kick your tail in every game.”
Now Barghast pointed his head up at the sky and laughed. Several passersby turned to look at him. “A lot of confidence for a small shrimp such as yourself, eh? I accept the challenge.”
Just to egg him a little further, Crow said, “Do you? Well when you’re ready to have your ass whipped you know where I live. Come and find me. Until then, I’ll say goodbye until the next mission.”
Patting Barghast on the shoulder with one hand - he had to stand on the tips of his toes to do so- Crow began to walk in the other direction. He could feel the Okanavian’s eyes on him until he and Broana rounded the next corner. Crow knew they would not see each other until it was time for the next mission.
Once Crow dropped Broana off at the stables where she was housed, he head in the direction of home - or what he had considered home since coming to Miffland. It was more of a place to keep what few possessions he had rather than a home.
He walked stolidly through Miffridge’s streets, enjoying the chance to be able to stretch his legs. He passed shops and booths with colorful awnings. Merchants talked rapidly, trying to advertise their products to anyone who might listen:
“...healing herbs...Get your healing herbs...Be well during the upcoming flu season...”
“...lost relics of the Old World transported straight from the forgotten cities of the Ubrio Wastes...
Walking through the center of the city always reminded him of the wonder he’d felt when he’d first strolled through the streets, a skinny, starving young man, exhausted from his travels. And yet, after spending most of his life in the dreary Plaesil mountains, he’d fallen in love with the city: the bright colors and music, the aromatic smell of spices and sizzling meat, the merchants with their bright smiles and the devious truths they hid behind their curved lips. Though it was never as powerful as the first time, he felt again that sense of wonder, the sense he’d come home - a place where he truly belonged. A place he could get lost in.
Crow stopped at a booth and bought a week’s worth of ground jalasa and incense, treating himself since the mission at Fort Erikson had gone well, even if he had lost control again...something he would never be able to fully forgive himself for. If I’m not careful someone will find out the truth about me; I have to learn to control myself better.
Working for the Eurchurch allowed him a modest lifestyle but one that was better than what most practitioners had in the city. He rented a small loft on Mumford Street, which was just two blocks from the Dirrefit District. His apartment was on the sixth floor of a worn brick building with a green slanting roof. With the cloth bag of jalasa and incense dangling from one hand, the practitioner let himself into the apartment. As always, when he first came home, Crow breathed in the smell of the place, and as always, after having been gone for several days, his apartment had a stale, slightly moldy smell to it. The incense would take care of that.
The apartment was all one room, the kitchen and living/bedroom area separated by a small counter. A separate doorway led into a small bathroom. The walls had a peeling burnt look, as if the apartment had caught on fire and the landlord hadn’t bothered to repaint the walls. This appealed to Crow greatly. To him it brought character to the place. The apartment was furnished with a threadbare couch, glass top coffee table, and a bookshelf full of tattered paperbacks (Crow was an avid reader) and records. Crow went around the apartment, lighting incense and candles.
It wasn’t long before a perfumey aroma filled the apartment. He sat on the sofa and began the relaxing, familiar task of rolling jalasa joints.
After he was finished, Crow went into the bathroom, turned on the washing basin’s faucets. He stripped out of his clothes. On his back was a mysterious hand-shaped burn. It was this he stared at the longest. He reached back and brushed a finger along the rigid flesh there. The process of its acquisition had been painful, a pain that had lasted several days. The burn was a mark. A label.
Crow settled himself into the steaming water, head leaned back against the cool porcelain edge of the basin, and lit a joint. He brought it to his mouth and took a long drag, blowing the smoke out through his nostrils. Within seconds he could feel the influence of the jalasa: it felt as if soothing fingers were caressing his cheek, taking away the tension and imbuing him with calm.
Almost an hour later the practitioner returned to the living room with a towel wrapped around his waist. He grabbed his duffel bag and sat down on the couch. Reaching inside the bag he pulled out a long black board and a sheathed dagger. He unfolded the board across the coffee table revealing a perfect rendition of the hellscape; the Plaesil Mountains and Okanavi Desert to the north and south, the Javacial Flatlands and the Terheim seas to the east and west and the mysterious yet-to-be-explored chain of islands further east.
He dimmed the lights in the room so the only source came from lit candles, making his face look ghostly. It seemed to float in shadow. Eyes closed, he drew in his mana and reached out with his mind. With his eyes still clenched shut, he brought the sharp-tipped blade of the dagger to his thumb and made a cut. He barely flinched at the sting of the blade opening his flesh. Blood dripped to the board, hitting the spot labeled Miffridge. He dabbed his finger into the bloody spot and began to smear it around in concentric circles.
And with that he felt his mana depart from his body, taking shape to form his Aspect, a non-corporeal version of himself. He looked back and saw his body, his real flesh-and-blood body, slumped back on the couch, eyes rolled back in his skull.
This part is never fun, he thought, but it has to be done.
His Aspect rose steadily, passing through the ceiling of his apartment, rising until the city of Miffridge was nothing more than a small dot.