Crow stopped, leaning against the wall of the corridor. He was dizzy with euphoria. The demon’s lifeforce flowed like honey through his veins, making his skin glow. How much did I take? The rush he felt was even more powerful than when he had fought Yov’olbh.
Just then he heard two voices coming down the hallway towards him. Two Scarlet Priests were heading in his direction. Before they could see him, Crow appeared to vanish into the wall, but really it was only a glamour spell.
Crow followed close behind the two Scarlet Priests, making sure to stick to the shadows. With the help of the dimly lit corridors and the glamour spell it wasn’t too difficult to remain unseen. For a moment he wondered if he should take advantage of their ignorance to his presence and take them out. In the end he decided not to. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He had a difficult enough task trying to find his squad in a place this large.
The priests came to a four way intersection, the hallways cutting both left and right. Leisurely they turned right. Crow waited until he was sure they were out of sight before peeking around the corner. Although the priests had turned right, instinct told him he needed to cut left. If I don’t want to get caught I need to keep moving.
The corridor eventually changed so that he felt he was in the catacombs again. Electric lights turned to torches and the walls turned into rough rock. He could hear someone pounding on something as if trying to get someone to hear them. He came to a black door not unlike the one he’d encountered in the catacombs before going into the demon’s lair. Again he heard someone slapping at it from the other side and a muffled voice.
Frowning he pressed his ear to the door. He could hear the voice enough to know who it belonged to.
He had to bite his tongue to keep from shouting, Hold on Sara, I’m coming! It took all the strength he had to turn the wheel and pull the door open. She tumbled out of the room with a cry, her face streaked with tears. He bent down and took her into her arms.
“Oh Crow,” she breathed, holding onto him tightly. “Thank Mercius. I thought you were dead. How did you make it out?”
“It’s a long story,” he said, helping to her feet. “Are you okay?”
“I’m not hurt or anything. The High Priest drugged me and threw me in there to be the vessel for some demon.”
Crow glanced at the sarcophagus in the center of the room and shuddered. “C’mon we need to get moving. Can you walk?”
She nodded shakily. “They’re holding the others in a cell somewhere here in the dungeons. I can’t remember how to get there though.”
“That’s okay, we’ll find them one way or another - here take this.” He gave her the machete. Together they began walking down the hallway, Crow in front, Sara taking up the rear.
Crow waved a hand, signalling her to stop when he heard the sound of voices. The pressed themselves flat against the wall, neither one daring to breathe as a Scarlet Priest passed by them, whistling, pushing a trolley with three bowls of mystery slop on it. Had the priest turned his head there was no way he wouldn’t have seen them.
“He’s probably going to the cellblock where they’re holding Lydia and the others,” Sara said when the priest was out of earshot.
They followed behind the priest through the next turn. Crow remained tense. There was no telling when another priest would come along and sound the alarm. At long last the Scarlet Priest turned and pushed the trolley through a doorway.
Crow and Sara waited until the Scarlet Priest came back through the doorway. With his heart thundering in his chest Crow seized him from behind and held him in place while Sara came from the front, jamming the machete to the hilt in the priest’s stomach. The Scarlet Priest made a wet gurgling sound muffled by Crow’s hands and then went still. Crow dropped him to the ground and grabbed the set of keys looped around his belt. His fingers were shaking with anticipation at the idea of seeing Barghast.
“Who’s there?” Lydia cried from inside the cell.
Crow couldn’t hide his grin as Sara and he stepped around the corner. “Surprise, surprise. We’re here to break you out of jail.”
Rake, who had been looking down at his feet, quickly raised his head. “Sara!” Lydia cried, letting out a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob; she strained against her restraints, trying to get as close to the bars as she could. Barghast looked up slowly, his shoulders hunched like a child’s. Then his eyes widened when he saw Crow and he rose to his feet but said nothing.
It took longer than Crow would have liked to find the correct key for the cell door. He pulled the door open and freed Lydia first. She ran to Sara and planted a kiss on her mouth, biting back a sob.
“How in the world are you alive?” Rake asked him.
Crow shrugged grimly, inserting the key into the lock of Rake’s shackles. “Guess I’m just hard to kill.”
The cutthroat frowned. “Crow, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the way I treated you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” was all Crow could think of to say.
At long last he reached Barghast. The Okanavian held his massive arms out.
Crow grinned up at him. “Are you alright? They didn’t rip your tongue out, did they?”
He dropped the shackles onto the floor. Barghast seized the practitioner in his arms and crushed Crow to his chest. Crow didn’t try to push him away but wrapped his arms around Barghast’s waist - or at least tried to.
“I thought I’d never see you again,” said Barghast. “Why? Why did you bother coming for us? You could’ve gotten out of here.”
“Because you’re my friend,” said Crow. “You don’t leave the ones you care about behind - not ever.”
“Are you okay?” the Okanavian asked, looking Crow up and down. “You’re covered in blood.”
“It’s not mine - most of it isn’t anyway. As far as whether or not I’m okay, ask me again when we’re on the bus heading back to Miffridge. We have to get going, okay? We’re not safe yet.”
“How do we get out of here?” Lydia asked when everyone had gathered in the center of the room. She looked to Rake. “Do you remember how we got to the throne room?”
Rake nodded grimly. “I do. Beyond that I don’t know how we can get out of here. This place is huge. Crow, you weren’t kept in a cell. Can you remember anything useful about how to get out of here?”
“Not much. They kept me in this room. But I can tell you one thing: After the shit I’ve been through I’ll die trying to get out of here.”
“Weapons,” said Lydia. “We don’t have any weapons. How in the Abyss are we going to break out of this place?”
“From what I saw there are no Red Wraiths inside,” said Crow. “I asked Damen Orlys specifically and he said he didn’t need any. We’re in the middle of the Ubrios Wastes so the chances of anyone escaping are slim. The nearest ghost city is miles away - I couldn’t tell from the room because of all the snow. As far as the Scarlet Priests go they don’t seem to be armed with guns. They might have blades though but still...”
“I’ve got my bare hands,” Barghast growled, cracking his knuckles. “These are the only two weapons I need - it’s been a long time since I’ve snapped some necks.”
“We need to collect proper clothing too,” said Rake. “We’ll freeze to death if we don’t.”
“Let’s deal with this shit as we get to it,” Lydia said impatiently. “I’d feel a lot better if we were on the move than standing around having a fucking committee meeting.”
“Agreed,” Sara said.
They moved in a single file line, Barghast at the front, Crow taking up the rear. Sara still had the machete.
There were no words to describe how good it felt to be on the move again. Now he had reunited with the others Crow didn’t feel so helpless - not like he had in the catacombs. He wasn’t under the illusion they would make it out of this alive: Even if they made it out of the Scarlet Church they would still have to trek through the Ubrios Waste. The chances of reaching the ghost city before the cold killed them were slim to none. And even if they managed that they would still have to find a way into Fruimont and then to the bus.
To die fighting is better than to die doing nothing at all, Crow thought.
Peeking around the corner of the next turn, Barghast held up a large palm, and then his second and third finger. Two are coming, he mouthed. A second later two Scarlet Priests stepped into view. Barghast and Rake moved quickly, grabbing one Scarlet Priest each and snapping their necks. Barghast let out a grunt of satisfaction, spitting on the corpse before him. Within seconds the two priests were stripped naked.
Since the robes were closer to their size, Crow and Sara pulled them on. They appeared to be insulated. The extra layer would keep them warm and the boots would help when trekking through the snow.
They went like this through the next four hallways, crossing four more priests. The Stray Dogs dispatched them before they could raise alarm. Soon they were all dressed in the robes - even Barghast had one that was close enough to his size.
This is too easy, Crow thought. Either that or you’ve blessed me for once Ex’olku.
If the entity had heard he did not respond.
With Rake now leading the way they came to the throne room. Damen Orlys was not sitting on his throne. There was no one in sight.
“Where is he?” Lydia said in a hushed voice. “Where is everyone? I don’t mean to be negative but I don’t like this? We’ve hardly bumped into anyone.”
Crow didn’t offer an answer. He was too busy scanning the walls and corners of the room, searching for the signs of a glamour spell. He didn’t get the sense there was hidden eyes watching him...but he did sense a trap. The question was where it was.
“There’s nothing in here,” said Sara eagerly. “We should keep moving.”
Crow spotted the trap door he’d been pushed through, and on the wall next to it, the lever that opened it. Seeing it, remembering the way his stomach clenched as he fell, sent chills up his spine. What had followed in the catacombs had been worse. He wondered how long they’d been in this place? It couldn’t have been more than a few days. It felt like a lifetime.
Ex’olku why did you pick me? he thought. What did you see in me that made you think I could take on this mission? This isn’t a mission for a seventeen-year-old. This isn’t a mission for anyone. If Ex’olku cared enough to answer it would always be with the same reply, a riddle. Ex’olku was incapable of giving a straight answer.
Another lever opened the doors to the throne, revealing the long carpeted hallway which Crow and Damen had walked through earlier, with its high vaulted ceilings and many altars. Somehow he could feel they were almost there - almost out of the Scarlet Church anyway. Perhaps Ex’olku had blessed them after all, sent them some sort of protection. Crow would make sure to offer the entity thanks later by visiting the Eurchurch chapel if they all got home in one piece. If it wasn’t for Ex’olku he never would have defeated the Second Caste demon.
If it wasn’t for Ex’olku I never would have been in this situation in the first place.
But the blessings it seemed, quickly came to an end. The appearance of escape from this awful abattoir was nothing more than an illusion. At the end of the long chamber was the entrance out to the Ubrios Waste and standing before the entrance was Damen Orlys and a small army of fifteen priests. They fanned out before the double doors, blocking the path. The High Priest smiled at them like an opponent who knew he’d already won the game. Crow hated his smile.
The doors leading outside of the church were open, showing the edge of the cliff on which it sat and the dark outline of the ghost city some miles away. Flurries of snow and icy gusts of wind blew into the church, ruffling the robes of the Scarlet Priests but if they noticed the cold they showed no signs of it.
“I thought I killed you,” Damen said to Crow.
“You and everyone else,” Crow said with a sigh. He found he was not afraid. He was too tired to be afraid. He’d done nothing but fight for the past several hours and wanted the fighting to stop. He wanted to go to sleep and not be bothered. If he was going to have any peace he would have to fight for it. The endless cold at the High Priest’s back was inviting.
Far too inviting.
“So you got past the demon,” Damen said to Crow, as if the others did not exist.
“I did,” said the practitioner. “He screamed like a bitch. I absorbed his power then cut off his head with this machete.” He pointed at the machete Sara was holding.
Damen’s blue eyes flickered to Sara briefly. “Hmmm. I guess C’thla wasn’t interested in you. Lucky for you in some ways. Her attempt to hijack you would have most likely ended with your body torn apart anyway. That’s what happened to the other girls.”
Sara said nothing. Crow frowned. Her expression was blank...dreamlike. Something wasn’t right about her but Crow couldn’t say what it was at a single glance. It didn’t matter, there was no time to ponder on it now.
“I don’t know why the lot of you would bother trying to escape,” Damen said, grinning. His skin and eyes shimmered as he drew on his mana. “The Ubrios Waste would just kill you. I wouldn’t have to say a single spell. But what would be the fun in that.” He began to levitate in the air, fire balls taking form in his hands. “Too bad you won’t live long enough to learn this trick, Agent of Ex’olku!”
Crow swore, shaping his mana into a forcefield a fraction of a second before the twin fireballs hit. He felt the impact travel up his arms and shoulders. Everyone was springing into action around him but he could only worry about Damen. The other priests didn’t have weapons because in the end they didn’t need weapons. Damen was a weapon.
Crow dove for cover behind one of the alters as more balls of fire flew at him. Already he could smell smoke. The chamber was filled with the deafening sounds of people fighting. There was no time to see how the others fared.
Like a bird of prey the High Priest swooped over Crow’s head, unleashing spell after spell. He flew as easily as a bird might fly. All Crow could do was run and use protective spells, wishing more than anything at the moment he too had the ability to fly. But levitation was something very few practitioners lived long enough to learn how to do. It took training and discipline. Many practitioners died from brain damage as a consequence from excessive use of mana - just as Aunt Lena had died from a brain tumor after all the illnesses and injuries she’d healed.
Of course thanks to the Primordial Caste Damen Orlys had had centuries to perfect this skill.
“Is this the best you’ve got?” Damen taunted, shouting over the commotion within the church. “Is this all I get from an Agent of Ex’olku?”
“You’re the one flying around,” Crow grunted. “If I’m so easy why don’t you come down and fight me on my level?”
Damen chuckled. “As you wish.”
After the day Barghast spent playing spy and however long he’d been chained up and imprisoned, it felt good to be in the thick of things. Even if it was for the last time. There was nothing quite like the rush of adrenaline that came with the presence of danger, the satisfying sound of snapping bone when he grabbed one of the priests by their necks. It was so easy to snap the bone, like breaking sticks. Was I ever meant for anything else? he wondered. Am I capable of doing anything else but this? Stealing, killing, and fighting?
One of them jumped on his back with a shout, trying to cling onto him like a mosquito. Brave but stupid. Barghast grabbed the priest by the back of his robes and brought his back down on his knee. The crack of bone was like the snap of kindling. He dropped the paralyzed priest to the ground. A single stomp to the face turned the head into crushed skull, spilling out the pulpy contents inside.
The two priests coming towards him stopped, exchanged frightened glances, and then went running for the entrance of the church; apparently they’d rather brave the cold then stick around for the fight.
Barghast had a moment to glance at the others. Rake and Lydia were fighting side by side, holding their own against three or four of the priests. None of the priests seemed to be very good fighters. The biggest danger of this place was the isolation, the fact it was in a frozen tundra in which there was no shelter for miles, and the High Priest himself.
He spotted Sara crouching behind one of the pillars. There was a confused, dreamy expression on her face. Barghast frowned. What in the Abyss was she doing just standing around like that?
He was distracted by a bright flash of light. He turned his head just in time to see a flash of silver light shoot from the High Priest’s hands. The light spun like a boomerang, heading straight for Crow. Crow managed to lunge out of the way just in time to avoid it. The streak of silver light cut through the pillar where Crow had just been standing. The pillar fell in an explosion of rubble. The explosion caught Crow and sent him sprawling to the floor. The falling pillar groaned, crashing into the next one, making the ground shake.
If the bastard keeps going like this he’ll bring the whole building down around their heads, Barghast thought.
Crow was trying to get up but kept falling back down. Blood was starting to pour from his nose. A gash had opened up on his cheek from where rubble had cut it. Damen was strolling leisurely towards him.
Grinding his teeth in anger Barghast charged silently at the High Priest. He hated it when bigger people picked on the smaller.
Everything hurt. Crow kept trying to get to his feet but every time he tried his body would fail him and he would find himself back on the ground. I’m dead, he thought. I got this far only to die now.
“This time you’ll stay dead,” the High Priest said, sneering down at him.
“Fuck you,” Crow said. It was all he had, his last shred of defiance. I am such a failure.
Two massive hands suddenly seized the High Priest from behind and flung him headfirst into one of the pillars. Damen crashed into it and then fell to the ruined floor. “Pick on someone your own size,” Barghast said, gently pulling Crow to his feet. “Take cover somewhere,” he told the practitioner. “I’ve got this.”
Crow shook his head and straightened, wincing. Everything everywhere ached. He felt as if someone was driving the sharp end of a hammer into his skull. “Take care of the others.”
Before the High Priest could fully rise to his feet Crow summoned his mana. A hundred flashes of white light seemed to explode from Crow’s body and gather around Damen, who was just now rising to his feet. Crow held out his hand before him, clenching it into a fist. His expression was grim, the mouth downturned into a frown, his eyes narrowed so that only a glimmer of white showed.
When he opened his fist the shards of lights shot towards the High Priest, slicing through the air. They embedded themselves in his robes, sticking to him. Crow spread his arms and one by one the shards of light exploded, making Damen dance on his feet before collapsing on his back.
“I’ve never seen you do that one before,” said Barghast.
“I doubt he’ll be down for long.” Crow spat blood onto the ground. “Now would be a good time to leave.”
“STOP!” a voice shouted, filling the chamber.
Everyone stopped. Scarlet Priests lay either unconscious or dead on the floor; there were only three more left standing. Lydia had a split lip and her left eye was beginning to swell shut. The other bulged in surprise. “Sara? What are you doing?”
Sara stood in the center of the group. She had an arm wrapped around Rake and was pressing the blade of the machete to his throat. Rake had grown very still. If he was afraid his eyes didn’t show it. Crow looked from him to Sara and felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Her eyes were no longer blue but silver. Crow felt his heart plummet. A realization hit Crow like a bucket of cold water. I was so worried about getting to the others I never checked to see if she was bitten…
Sara was possessed.
Lydia seemed to come to the same conclusion for her face drained of all color. “Oh no,” was all she said. Crow had never seen her look so devastated, so vulnerable. “Sara...”
“Kill them,” said a triumphant voice. The High Priest had risen into a crouching position. Blood stained his lips but he looked very much alive. “Kill them, C’thla.”
Her eyes flickered to Damen for a moment. She had the eyes of a fox. “As you wish,” she said with a slight nod, and then drew the blade of the machete across Rake’s throat.
Crow knew he should move, do something, but he could only watch as Rake’s body spasmed, blood jetting from his throat in an endless torrent. It was in this moment Crow knew there was no chance of getting through to Sara. He had to do something...he had to get Lydia and Barghast out of here. And he would have to leave Sara behind.
“Barghast, grab Lydia and get out of the church,” Crow said. “Now.”
Barghast didn’t object. He simply moved around to Lydia and began to drag her away. None of the Scarlet Priests tried to stop him. Lydia tried to tear herself away from Barghast but the Okanavian simply picked her up and began carrying her towards the door. Crow ran after them. Before he could reach the door, C’thla said, “Oh and Crow?”
Crow couldn’t help but stop and turn to look at her. She had Sara’s face and had spoken with Sara’s voice but she did not speak in Sara’s voice. She knew his name because Sara knew his name. It all felt so unreal, like a dream. How could things get any worse from this point?
“We have unfinished business, you and I,” she said, dropping Rake’s useless body to the ground. “We aren’t finished. Go and live while you can.”
C’thla stood at the top of the steps leading into the Scarlet Church and watched the Agent of Ex’olku and his friends flee for their lives. In the very back of her mind she could hear Sara’s muted cries as she screamed in frustration.
It was strange seeing everything with these new human eyes: to see the sky again, the sun poking out through darkening clouds, the arctic beauty of the snow around her, the chill on her flesh. She pressed her hands against her cheeks and realized she could not feel the flesh because her fingers and hands were numb.
She had meant what she said. She was not done with Crow Hardy. The cold might kill the other two but she sensed with certainty he would live. She sensed a particular fire inside of him, one that could not be so easily dimmed. He had killed Yov’olbh who was nowhere near as powerful as she but also not a wraith; he had also defeated Ed’threh, who ranked 5th amongst her cabal.
And Ex’olku helped him to do it. He has taken a particular interest in this boy that he did not take with the other two Agents.
The idea of a future confrontation frightened C’thla a little but more than anything it excited her.