Sorry it's been so long since my last post. I'm in the middle of taking an 8 week English class and have to write a paper every week - a lot of writing in general for the class. I'm up to chapter 33 so it will be a while before I'm caught up. Hope everyone is enjoying the story...
Loras’ office was next to Pope Drajen’s. Thankfully his door was closed, which meant he wasn’t in. Loras was grateful for this: if she’d seen him she probably would’ve flayed his flesh from his bones with a single syllable. Her encounter with the demon had awoken her hate and cravings for revenge. Twenty years ago, Drajen had approached her in the middle of a field, each guarded by three of their own soldiers should one try to ambush the other. Both Drajen and Loras were exhausted: physically and emotionally. For a decade they’d fought constantly, each sending men and women to their deaths and carrying those deaths upon their shoulders. There was no winner in sight and so it seemed they could keep fighting until there was no one left standing.
Loras had made herself a promise: An alliance until this threat with the Scarlet Church is over...and then I’m coming for your head and the Abyss is coming with me.
It was funny in a bitter sort of way how complacent you could become over the years, you could forget about your promises. Twenty years had passed since she’d made that promise and since the day she and Pope Drejan had fought together, watching each other grow old and weary as they tried to drive back the Scarlet Church and their demon onslaught. They no longer had the fire, the driving passion they’d had thirty years ago, when the war between the practitioners and the Eurchurch had started.
Loras, like Pope Drajen, had a spacious office. The floor was carpeted, the walls a calming creme color. She had a spacious desk to work at, which was well organized. Loras could not stand having a cluttered desk; she worked better and faster when everything was in its place. A large window provided an appealing view of the city. There was a large fireplace. Every morning and every night she made a large pot of jalasa tea. It helped to wake her up in the morning while keeping her mind calm.
She could still smell her daughter’s burning flesh. She knew it had just been an illusion, a trick the demon had played on her. Demons were very good at playing tricks, at using your own fears and failures against you. But it had felt so real and it had knocked her off her feet so to speak. She closed her eyes, haunted by old memories that really didn’t feel so old. She could remember all to well the day a Eurchurch patrol had swept through the town of Caldreath, burning down farmhouses, barns, shooting their horses, shooting men, women, and children or slicing through them with their swords, and burning the ones that remained. She remembered how the blood had appeard black in the snow, remembered the screams of her husband, Jalif, burning, his screams, and then the screams and the smell of her daughter.
It wasn’t until someone rapped on her door that she realized she had been crying. She wiped at the tears with a handkerchief, willed herself into control, straightening in her posture in her chair. “Come in.”
The door opened and three armored Eurchurchman pushed a hooded man into the room before filing inside. The hooded man looked at her. It was Crow, the young practitioner on D-Squad. What is he doing here, just showing up out of blue like this? Loras thought. She managed to keep the surprise from showing on her face by looking stern. His hands were shackled together.
“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded, scanning the faces before her. The practitioner was the only one who looked perfectly calm.
“This practitioner here, ma’am, said he had to get in to see you right away,” said the tallest of the three Eurchurchman. “When our shift leader refused to let him in because he didn’t have an appointment slip he punched him in the face and broke his nose. Now our shift leader is with healers, getting his nose healed. This was all last night. We kept him in the brig until we were sure you were in your office.”
Tough break. Loras had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing at that one.
“Is this true?” she asked Crow.
The practitioner nodded but offered no explanation. His eyes remained on her. His presence still mystified Loras and made her feel slightly uneasy. It wasn’t something she could explain. And I tend not to like things I can’t explain, she thought.
“Won’t you take off your hood?” she asked. Her voice came out sounding harder than she’d meant.
He did so a bit reluctantly. It was strange the way he could flit between confidence, as if he knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going, and uncertainty.
He wasn’t a handsome boy, not in the conventional way anyway. His nose was a little too long, slightly bent, as if it had been broken in a skirmish then hastily reset. By appearance he didn’t look like the kind of person who got into fights often - or at least didn’t pick them - but then maybe he was the kind of person who misfortune attached itself to; on the other hand Jack’s reports indicated he was quite the agent of destruction. She’d yet to read the report on Fort Erikson. His cheekbones were high, making his face look a little too bony. His thick black hair hung almost down to his shoulders, greasy and shiny from the rain. If there was anything attractive about him, it would have been the eyes. They were impossible to miss: well shaped and as dark as the northern blue skies which Loras gathered they both knew.
Loras had seen him in briefings for missions. He usually tended to keep to himself, offering little in the way of question or comment. He did not interact much with the others but for Sara the healer, and the Okanavian. The Okanavian and he seemed to share a strange friendship; with the Okanavian he seemed the most uncomfortable. They exchanged witty banter, often teasing each other. There might even be unspoken feelings there, Loras thought, but didn’t want to look too much into it. As for the others, Crow interacted with them not at all, and they did not interact with him. And Loras knew why. Despite her ranking, which had cost her blood, sweat, tears, and more than one sleepless night, Loras was more than aware of the prejudice practitioners endured.
As far as her own personal interactions, she’d had only one: year ago when he’d come into her office to be recruited. It had been the strangest meeting she’d ever had with a recruit and it had kept her up for several nights. Nights in which she turned it over and over in her mind, trying to make sense of it. And even when the memory became fuzzy and distant, it never completely left her, always lurking in the back of her mind as if for later consideration.
Now it was at the forefront and vivid, as if it had just happened yesterday. She remembered how he’d sat down, wearing the same hooded cloak he did now. He’d brought nothing with him but a single duffel bag. At the time Loras had come up with a motherly speech to tell all the youngsters about the truth of joining a squad - and it differed greatly from the bullshit Pope Drejan told everyone: there was nothing glorious or exciting about it. Unless they had any real experience in battle they were going to die. Motherly don’t-throw-your-life-away type stuff.
She had looked at his long, narrow countenance and thought, Here is another man, barely old enough to be considered a man and he wants to waste his life in war because he mistakenly thinks he has a fighting chance. But Crow hadn’t looked excited at the prospect of going on an adventure, killing Scarlet Priests and Red Wraiths and demons. He only looked tired, as if he carried the world on his shoulders...but also set and determined. There would be no dissuading him.
Out of curiosity she’d tried to reach out and read his mind...only to feel a force cut her off. It had been like running into a brick wall. What kind of power and skill could a practitioner so young have to block her like this? Over the next several months, whenever she saw him at mission briefings, she would try again only for the same thing to happen. So she stopped trying.
“Let him go, he’s fine,” Loras said after a moment’s consideration.
The Eurchurchman gaped.
“Leave my office, now!” she snapped. “But take off those shackles first and be quick about it!”
The three Eurchurchman guards saluted her and flicked uncertain glances in Crow’s direction. When she gestured for them to remove Crow’s shackles they moved nervously like little boys who had just been scolded by Mommy. She closed the door behind them and turned her critical gaze on the young practitioner, who was rubbing at his irritated wrists. And still he looked back at her, arms now folded, not afraid but determined. There were many people who were afraid to stand before Loras and look her directly in the eye. Like Pope Drajen, there were moments when she’d been known to be formidable, especially when her temper was sparked. She didn’t know how to treat this situation and this baffled her - Loras had always prided herself for knowing what to do.
She felt cornered.
“Is it true you punched an armed Eurchurchman in the face?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. She thought she might’ve seen his lip twitch in a barely repressed smile.
“Most people would have been shot on sight or thrown in the brig, marked for execution under the charge of attempting to assassinate the Pope. Luckily you were brought to me and not him. Why did you punch the guard?”
Now Crow really did smile; it made him look quite pompous. “He wouldn’t let me through and when I tried to walk by he shoved me. Quite hard. My ass still hurts. So I punched him. As it turns out it got me to you all the faster, so no regrets here.”
My, my, my, isn’t he just cheeky today? Nevertheless Loras found herself amused. “Well you’re here now. I don’t want to rush you since you went through so much trouble to get to me but it’s already been a very long day and I’m very, very tired. Get on with it, will you?”
Crow blinked. “Alright. May I sit down?”
“You may not.”
He rolled his eyes. “I was hoping to ease you into this but I guess not. The city of Fruimont, which is in the Plaesil mountains...”
“No need to tell me, thank you. I know where it is.”
“...has been overtaken by the Scarlet Church. People are being slaughtered and crucified outside the city walls as we speak.”
His words brought her up short. She could only gape at him. “What?” she said after a moment.
Crow’s face made a pained expression. “Perhaps I could just show you...” He stepped towards her, reaching out a hand.
Loras reacted out of fear. It sat in the center of her belly, freezing everything it touched, taking root suddenly. It made her feel sick to her stomach. “If you think this is funny, it isn’t! Get out! Get out right now before I have the guards come in here and shoot you!”
Crow put his hands in the air as if she was pointing a gun in his face. He moved quickly to the door. “Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.” And then, without another word he walked out the door and was gone.
Loras stayed where she was until she was sure the young practitioner was gone and then dumped herself into her office chair. Every muscle in her body ached. She raised the tea mug to her lips only to have to set it back down, her hands were shaking so badly.
Loras found out the young practitioner was telling the truth at the monthly conference meeting two days later.
Loras hated these meetings. They dragged on for too long, sometimes three and four hours (she always made sure to bring a pot of jalasa tea with her.) It would have helped if most of the meeting didn’t have to do with bureaucratic bullshit and male posturing. This was one of the many situations where both sides, the practitioners and the Eurchurch did their best to remind each other that though they were allies - for now - they were not, and would never be, friends.
Sitting around a long rectangular table were twenty-four people - twelve belonged to the Eurchurch and twelve were practitioners. Loras was leader of what was now called the Practitioner’s Guild. - the others were her loyal advisors. It was a job she didn’t want just as she’d never wanted or meant to be the leader of the rebellion against the Eurchurch thirty years ago; in those days she’d only wanted revenge for the deaths of her husband and daughter. But once again the people had spoken and placed the mantle in her hands, whether she wanted it or not. In the eyes of the practitioners she was the Pope.
Loras took her seat at her end of the table, with her closest most admired advisors, Thomas Senica and Strabetha Vacuity sitting on her left and right. Pope Drajen and his advisors had taken their seats as well. Loras went to take a drink from her tea and paused when she saw the stricken look on Drajen’s lined and aging face. In the name of the Light he looks as if he’s aged ten years since I saw him three days ago, she thought. His round face had taken on an ashen color and there were dark circles around his eyes. Loras got the sense this was not going to be a normal monthly meeting full of bureaucratic bullshit.
He reached into the pockets of his robes and pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper. He unfolded it carefully before glancing at the twenty-three faces who stared back at him. “We are not going through the political city crap we usually start out with.” He paused to take a sip of water. Loras couldn’t help but be surprised. She’d never heard him talk this way before, so blunt and solemn. He usually gave off the facade he was a pleasant and cheerful man who was just following the path of the Light.
He cleared his throat. “I have just received a letter from Benedict Matthiesen, the mayor of Fruimont stating the city has been overrun by the Scarlet Church.”
There were gasps and murmurs of horror from all around the table. Loras felt her blood run cold at the mention of a name. It was a name she knew all too well. Strabetha grabbed her hand from beneath the table, trying to be supportive. Her lips moved but Loras could not hear what she was saying. She only had eyes for the Pope, who was giving a look that was both cryptic and knowing. “I will read the letter Benedict Matthiesen has written...”
His words were lost in the pounding of Loras’s own heart. Occasionally words would break through the wall of shock that surrounded her: slaughter and crucify and imprison. Each word was like a stab in the heart.
“ ‘...though I still retain my position as head of this city, it is only a farce,’ ” Pope Drajen read. “ ‘ The High Priest of the Scarlet Church, Damen Orlys, watches me closely, using me for his own ends. I’m doing my best to appease the High Priest if only to keep as many people alive as I can. As far as I know he does not know I’ve sent this secret letter.
“ ‘ I know in the past we have had our differences, the practitioners and the Eurchurch. During the Eurchurch-Practitioner war my father Edward Mattiesen candidly supported Loras’ campaign to overthrow Pope Drajen’s rule and the Eurchurch itself. After his death, when I was elected mayor I continued to fund her campaign. But over the past three years, seeing the Scarlet Church and their demonic spawn as the greater threat, I have done everything within my power to support and substantiate the Eurchurch-Practitioner Alliance’s efforts. I have provided funding and supplies, as well as taken in refugees. I beg, for the sake of my wife, two beautiful children, and their children, and the innocent souls of this great city, for help in our time of need, as we have helped you.
“ ‘ Yours sincerely, Benedict Matthiesen. ’”
The reality of what the Pope had read, like a punch in the gut, was reflected in the stretching silence. No one dared to speak, only exchanging glances with wide, glassy eyes. Usually at this point in the meeting everyone would be throwing themselves across the table, trying to strangle the person in front of them, Loras thought, and had to bite her lower lip to keep from bursting out in hysterical laughter. A kind of laughter borne of fear, her own way of coping.
What made it all the worse was Drajen seemed to have shrunken in his high-backed chair, the ends embroidered with gold - Loras didn’t have any gold on her chair because she wasn’t the Pope. Now the chair seemed to have grown while he’d gotten smaller.
Like the taste of something dead filling her mouth, the terror Loras had felt when facing the demon returned.