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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 19. The Demon's Bane

Before Loras left Crow’s apartment, they agreed she would meet him on the Eurchurch steps at precisely eight o’clock the next evening. At night no one would be in the dungeons, for not even the bravest most headstrong of healers would brave the gloomy corridors while alone. Demons tended to be stronger, far more resistant at night.

When he was sure Loras was gone, Crow sighed and crawled into bed. Telling her all the things he’d been hiding for the last year had been emotionally relieving, but it had also been exhausting. Besides, if he was to undertake the dangerous journey of traveling into a demon’s mind, he would need to be at his best.

He woke up promptly at six, two hours before he was supposed to meet Loras. This gave him plenty of time to do a number of meditative exercises that would prepare his mind for tonight’s mission. He left an hour before it was time to meet her to make sure he had plenty of time to get to the Eurchurch. He slipped in between the city’s trash-filled alleys, dressed in his hooded black robes. It was still raining. It was always raining here in the north.

Crow walked around the Eurchurch’s exterior, making sure to stick close to the surrounding shops where it was most crowded so the Eurchurch guards didn’t notice him. He was surprised when Loras appeared on the white steps exactly at eight, splendidly dressed in a black turtleneck and matching black leather waist-length coat. She has style, he thought, you have to give her that.

He went to her, afraid his voice would give away how scared he was. Entering the Abyss was not an endeavor he’d ever taken before.

“Are you ready?” the older practitioner asked when she saw him.

He simply nodded.

She led him up the steps, murmuring at the guards as she passed to let Crow through. Crow recognized the guard whose nose he had broken three days ago. His nose had been reset and looked perfectly realigned with the rest of his face.

Crow gave the guard a toothy grin. “The healers did a good job fixing your nose. What a shame, I thought it looked better the other day.”

The guard said nothing. He only stared at Crow, wide-eyed and blushing.

“Was it necessary to embarrass him like that?” Loras asked, stepping through the monastery's main entrance.

“No but it was fun. Like all the other Eurchurch goons working for Pope Drajen, he’s an asshole.” Crow expected Loras to scold him but she said nothing. He took it to mean she agreed.

They walked down the tall, green carpeted hallways. Every detail from the vaulted ceiling and curved arches was meant to impress not just those who passed through them but Mercius Himself. The few times Crow had been in the Eurchurch he felt sorely out of place; it’s overbearing opulence made him feel overwhelmed and dirty. He well knew the bloody history between the Eurchurch and practitioners; the malice between them still burned like the undying flames in the Abyss, simply set aside for the moment. Practitioners were still considered outcasts, their pagan practices condemned by the Eurchurch. Only within the conflict with the Scarlet Church was it acceptable, for the Eurchurch, without the help of the practitioners, was no match for Damen Orlys and his followers.

The door leading down to the dungeons was in the east wing of the building. Torches bracketed to the walls illuminated the staircase which spiraled down into darkness. Crow felt his nose wrinkle up at the turgid, stomach-churning smells of body excrement. Loras glanced up and down the corridor to make sure no one was coming in their direction before ushering him through the door. Judging from the stiffness in her back and shoulders, Loras wanted to get this done as quickly as possible.

Crow stood off to the side at the top of the landing and let her lead the way. The moment they began to make their way down the staircase muffled voices began to howl and babble from behind the locked doors on either side. The thrumming power of wards mixed with the psychic attempts of the demons trying to get into his head was like an assault. The wards crackled and fizzed, protecting the two practitioners only just. It was all he could do to keep his eyes focused on Loras's back. He felt nauseous to his stomach.

At long last they reached the door where Greta was being held. Loras had told Crow the basics about Greta back at the apartment but Loras had appeared reluctant to go into much detail. Now she turned to him, her face pale. Her lips, bright red with lipstick, formed a grim line. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked. “We can try finding another way.”

I would love to just be able to turn around and wash my hands of it all, he thought. I never wanted to fight in anyone’s war. But I don’t have a choice. Or did he? It wasn’t like he’d ever tried walking away, not really. Mentally he shook the thought from his head. Ex’olku had chosen him for a reason. Besides there was a little girl on the other side of the door who was dying. Hadn’t enough children died over the years?

“This is the quickest and surest way,” Crow said, hoping he sounded braver than he felt. “I accept the risks.”

Loras nodded. “Very well. Let’s make this quick. If we get caught the Pope will have us both executed with the whole city watching - no matter our intentions.” She waved a hand over the door. d.

The wards placed over the door vanished and the two practitioners stepped inside.

The room inside was so dark it was like stepping into oblivion; there was nothing in the darkness but the smell of filth and the girl’s ragged breathing. Crow fought the crawling sensation in his stomach and stepped carefully into the darkness. He swore he could feel Greta’s - no, the demon’s, he reminded himself, while the demon is inside her she is no longer Greta - eyes watching him. At any moment he expected to feel her child’s hands grab a hold of his neck and start squeezing the life out of him with the inhuman strength only demons possessed.

Loras waved her hand: a ball of fire the size of a stone appeared, lighting the room enough for him to be able to see. Crow had been too afraid to think of the spell. You’re seventeen years old, he thought, you’ll be eighteen in a month, and you’re still afraid of the dark.

His fear was forgotten when he saw the girl.

Greta looked like a ghost in the flickering light cast from the orb of fire, which hovered beside Loras, turning like a slowly revolving sun. The girl’s face was covered in dark bruises, her skin pale grey. Gnats buzzed around her, landing on her bare arms. If it wasn’t for the irregular rise and fall of her chest, Crow would have guessed with full certainty she was dead.

Ex’olku spoke up, his voice echoing within Crow’s head. He sounded grim. Crow, you have but moments to save her life. If you wish to do so you must move quickly. If you do not succeed she will die by this time tomorrow.

Crow approached her bedside.

The girl’s eyes opened. She looked at him. Her eyes glowed with a demonic, yellow light. She bared her teeth at him in a feral cat-like hiss.

Get away,” she hissed in the leathery voice of an old man. “Get the fuck away from me. You have been touched by Ex’olku. I can smell his stink on you.

Crow ignored the demon. Loras was watching the girl. Her eyes were wide and glassy with fear, the hand that held the lamp shaking. Crow didn’t think he had ever seen Loras look afraid before. He didn’t like it anymore than he liked his own. He called her name, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

She looked at him. “The demon...it can create illusions, play tricks on the mind and get in your head. It can make you see things you don’t want to see. Awful things.”

Crow nodded, summoning his courage, and said, “If I succeed the demons won’t be playing anymore tricks and the girl can go home to her parents. Don’t leave me.” He hated the way his voice shook, how small and alone he felt, but the fear was inside him like a fetid black tumor.

“I won’t go anywhere,” Loras said in a gentle, almost tender voice. “When you find her and get the information you need I will be here to help pull you out.”

The younger practitioner said nothing else - there was nothing left to say. He pulled out the dagger he’d cut his thumb with three days ago and reopened the wound which was almost completely healed, and then did the same with his other thumb. Once the dagger was stowed away in his pocket again, he gently placed his thumbs gently on either side of Greta’s sweaty temples and spread the blood around in quarter-sized circles. Gathering his mana, he reached out to Greta and felt his mind connect with hers.

Then, as if pulled by gravity, Crow felt his Aspect leave his body and flow into Greta’s.




Loras watched as his eyes went milky and his head dropped down; his hands remained on Greta’s forehead. She caught the brief flicker of his Aspect (which would have been invisible to anyone else but practitioners or healers) before it appeared to be sucked into Greta’s head. Greta appeared to have fallen asleep once more.

Loras felt a chill crawl up her spine.

When Crow had approached the demon, the demon had flinched. The demon had been afraid. But why? What power did Crow possess that could make a demon afraid? And who was this Ex’olku?

The doubt Loras had held towards Crow and his story no longer existed. She was overwhelmed by the sense something too big to comprehend was happening. A plan had been set in motion and it would change everything - again.

Whoever Crow is, she thought, he’s too young. He’s too young to be in the Stray Dogs, fighting our war and he’s certainly too young to be entering into the playing field to battle a second Caste demon. He doesn’t have the control, the self discipline that comes with wisdom and age. Demon’s balls, why didn’t I go in with him?

Because the thought of going into the Infernal Depths had frightened her more than words could say. She was not courageous enough to take on such a dangerous mission, not even if it was to save the life of a little girl. Instead you let a boy do it. you cowardly goose.

It was too late to scold herself now. All she could do was wait and be here when he was ready to return.

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.

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