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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 18. The Truth

Today must be the day when you throw the past in my face, eh, Mercius? My failures, my sins, the things I don’t want to think about. How could the Eurchurch think You’re merciful when in reality You’re really quite cruel?

Loras paced around her office, barely feeling the soft carpet beneath her feet. Her thoughts were in disarray, working to process the information. She hadn’t seen Benedict in several years. Once they had been intimately close but had been separated by their responsibilities as politicians. She didn’t want to believe the words written on the page - Benedict, like his father, Edward, had always been the sort of man who dealt with situations on his own; asking for help was considered a downfall - but when she had read the letter herself, she’d recognized his neat loopy handwriting.

And Crow had entered her office just the previous day and told her what had happened and she hadn’t believed him. How could he have come by this information? Who could he have gotten it from? Could he be a spy? She remembered the abrupt sense of fear when he’d reach out to touch her. To perform the act of transference only those with mana in their blood were capable of. She’d been afraid because she hadn’t wanted to see what secrets lurked behind those intense blue eyes.

Now I need to know. I must go to him and demand how he got his hands on such information.

Should she go alone or should she take someone with her? What if he, indeed, was a spy? It would only match up with her instincts that there wasn’t something right about him. He always reminded me of a bird with broken wings...one incapable of flight.

In the end she decided there was no time. If she was to go to him then she would have to do it alone. If Fruimont was truly under siege as Benedict’s letter suggested...Grabbing her coat, Loras forced the thought from her mind.

I don’t need anyone to help me. I’m more than capable of taking care of myself.

She stepped out into the cold rain and summoned a horse-drawn taxi. She paid the driver and climbed into the back.

It wasn’t hard to find where Crow lived. All the practitioners living in or coming through Miffridge were put into a registry with the address of where they lived.

As was her habit, she had made sure to put on her best makeup. After a decade of running around stinking of sweat, blood and grit, she made it a point to look her best. She couldn’t stand the feeling of having greasy hair, or having something stick to her flesh or being out of place.

The carriage came to a stop in front of an aging brick building with a peeling green roof. Loras thanked the driver, gave him a tip, and hopped out of the car. Pulling the door open she entered the building, glad to be out of the rain.

She was not looking forward to the climb up to Crow’s apartment. I’m not as young as I used to be. If it was thirty years ago or even ten years ago I would’ve been able to do it without breaking a sweat. I’ve gotten too fat and lazy.

Expelling a groan, Loras began to make the long ascent up the stairs. When she reached the top she felt as if her heart was going to burst out of her chest. She leaned against the wall, chest heaving. At long last she reached Crow’s apartment and knocked on the door. Somewhere on this floor she could hear the muffled sobs of a child crying. The sound made her skin prickle. She was beginning to recall the image she’d seen when trying to exorcise the demon out of Greta when Crow opened the door.

“Hi,” she said, looking him up and down. She was a bit disappointed. Even in his natural environment he wore those plain, uniform black robes with the hood. She’d hoped, out of simple curiosity, to see him in something a little more comfortable. A little more personal. Perhaps he doesn’t know how to do personal.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Excuse me,” she said, arching an eyebrow.

He wasted no time in mincing words. “Well last time we talked you were a little less than receptive.”

Loras’s neatly trimmed eyebrows knitted together. Once more she was surprised at the directness. He had always struck her as the meek sort. Had she misjudged his character?

Loras cleared her throat. What she said next was like coughing up nails. “I’m sorry. I should have listened to you.”

His face softened. “So you know now?”

“Pope Drajen got a letter today. Benedict Matthiesen...he’s a good friend of mine.” Loras hated how her voice cracked on this last part.

“I know,” Crow said, more gently. He stepped back and opened the door wider for her. He turned and walked away, without saying a word. She took it to mean he was inviting her inside.

Closing the door behind her, Loras looked around the sparsely furnitured apartment, which smelled pleasantly of jalasa and incense. She didn’t like the look of the walls though. It made the place look dour. Crow seemed like the type who would like it. “Nice place.” she said, trying to hide her distaste and not doing a very good job of it. “Is it the best you can afford?”

“The Eurchurch doesn’t pay much.”

“I could talk the Pope into giving you a raise. You could get something with more space and in better condition.”

Crow’s lips curled slightly at the corners. “As such I didn’t volunteer for the money. I had an idea of what I was getting myself into when I signed up. Would you like some tea? I have jalasa.”

She nodded, sitting down on the threadbare couch. She watched him pull a pan from a cabinet, fill it with tap water, and set it on the stovetop to start boiling. He moved with an ease and calm she envied. Frowning, Loras reached out with her senses.

“I didn’t notice any wards when I stepped in.” she noted. “Though the wards around the city do their job pretty well for the most part aren’t you worried a demon could attack you?”

He leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his bony chest. “No. Demons tend to be scared of me so I’m not worried about it.”

Loras’s frown deepened. She was tempted to ask him to explain himself but decided to let it go for now - there were more important things to talk about. “Pope Drajen is waiting until tomorrow to discuss what action the Inquisition is going to take. Until then I wanted to speak with you and ask you questions, if I may. How did you know about Fruimont?”

As she’d been talking Crow had pulled out a jalasa joint. He stepped forward and offered one to her.

“It’s been so long since I’ve smoked one,” she said with a chuckle. “I used to smoke ones so strong I hallucinated for hours.”

He exhaled smoke from his nostrils. “These aren’t strong enough to make you hallucinate. They just keep you calm. I smoke them to help with my anxiety. Plus it might help to open your mind...because I’m going to answer all your questions and I’m only going to answer them once.”

Loras nodded and accepted the joint. Using a match he lit it for her. She took a drag from it and immediately burst into a fit of coughs. A full minute passed before she was able to get herself under control, eyes streaming with hot tears. “Fuck,” she said.

The young practitioner smiled. He padded into the kitchen long enough to put the jalasa leaves in the pan of boiling water. When he came back she reached into her jacket and pulled out the letter read by Drajen, sent by Benedict.

Crow shook his head. “I don’t need to read it. I saw what’s happening in the city. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to unsee it.”

“How did you see it?”

“I was shown. I astral projected and my Aspect was led to the city. I had an aerial view of everything happening. People being shot in the middle of the street, cut open like cows at a slaughterhouse, children crucified outside the city gates. Not a pretty sight.”

“You said someone showed you this? Who?”

“Let me get you your tea and I’ll explain everything.”

When he handed Loras her tea in a large mug, Crow sat down cross legged on the floor. He tipped the ashes of his jalasa joint into a clay ashtray. “I didn’t join the Eurchurch’s war efforts because I was sick of my home life or because I wanted glory. I never had the desire to join in the first place. But I didn’t have much of a choice either. I was sent into this. Chosen.”

“By who?”

“His - or maybe it’s am it, I’m not sure - sent me.”

Loras squinted at him. Demon’s balls am I high. “Who is Ex’olku?”

He sighed, getting to his feet. “Perhaps it would be quicker if I just showed you.”

Crow turned his back to her and to her surprise, pulled up his robe enough so she could see his back. His back was pale and bony enough that she could see the ridges of his spine. But this was not what made Loras gasp. There was an imprint in his flesh, between his shoulder blades, that looked as if he’d been branded. The mark was in the shape of a giant hand that covered the top half of his back. The flesh around the wound was particularly mottled. Loras couldn’t hold back the gasp that escaped her lips. There was no branding iron quite this large. Something had touched him. Something inhuman, something not of this world.

And yet there was nothing she could think of that could have done this. Not even a demon.

He lowered his robes. He looked a bit uncomfortable.

“Why are you here?” she asked. It was not the question she’d meant to ask but the one that came out.

He laughed, smoke pluming around him. “I think I’m supposed to stop the world from ending. This thing happening in Fruimont is just a smokescreen for the Scarlet Church’s larger plan. I don’t know what it is but in my visions I saw the Scarlet Church.”

Loras gaped. “You actually saw it? That’s impossible, no one knows the location of their headquarters.”

“Ex’olku isn’t no one. I don’t know who or what he is. But he’s powerful. The Scarlet Church is in the Ubrios Wasteland, which hardly anyone has explored. Kind of a perfect place if you think about it. Whatever their plan is I need to figure it out and find some way to stop it. It’s the only reason why I’m here. I think it has something to do with the increase in demon possessions we’ve been seeing.”

“How would you get such knowledge?” she asked.

“There’s only one way I can think: entering the Infernal Depths and talking to a demon.”

For Loras this conversation just kept getting more and more surreal. “You can’t be serious. That process was outlawed by the Eurchurch centuries ago. Healers used to do it because it was the most efficient way of purging the demon from someone possessed. But so often the person entering the mind got pulled in permanently, until their Aspect was completely gone and they were…soulless. All I can tell you is their fate is worse than death. If the demon were to defeat you, the same thing could happen. It would be the worst fate one could suffer I would imagine.”

“Then help me,” Crow said. “If you want proof and you want to save your friend in Fruimont, help me get into the mind of a demon. And who knows, maybe we can save someone’s life in the process.”

Loras stood, wondering who this strange boy was. She was both afraid and in awe of him. She did not doubt his words, as crazy as they sounded. She’d always sensed something strange about him, she’d just never known what it was. And now she felt bad for disliking him even if she still didn’t quite trust him. Apparently there was more to him than she’d guessed.

And who knows, maybe we can save someone’s life in the process.

“Even at the cost of your own?” she asked.

“Even at the cost of my own,” he said, and she was further frightened by the eager look in his eyes. He looked like someone who wanted to die. Or maybe someone who wanted to get into a fight with a demon.

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.

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I just wanted to let you know how much I still enjoy this story! I don't think I could love these characters and their adventures any more than I already do! Your pacing keeps me on the edge of my seat! Thanks. 

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