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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 2. Drop 'Em

Barghast “Blackshot” Unalaq watched Rake and Lydia fade into the night, one second there and gone the next. He let out a deep sigh, trying to ease the tension in his abdomen. They were sneaking into Fort Erikson for yet another rendezvous with Sara. He offered a prayer for their safe return to Ika Na-Na (“Mother Moon”). In their absence he had designated it his job to keep an eye on the two remaining members of the Stray Dogs, better known as D-squad, and provide backup when the time came.

I’m basically the glorified babysitter.

Not that he minded - he was perfectly fine staying in their hidden little camp, playing an ongoing game of Drop Em with Jack. What he did mind was the blasted heat, even in the middle of the night. Hard to believe I helm from these blasted lands, Barghast thought, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead. You’d think I would be immune to the heat. If only.

Despite the cover of the ruins around them, the heat was stifling. Even as Jack fretted over what card he should lay down next, sweat was dripping down the bridge of his nose. The lenses of his glasses were foggy.

Barghast glanced towards the horses; the five animals stood placidly several feet away, dozing. Taking in their surroundings, the Okanavian began to feel uneasy as old fears and superstitions took root in his brain. They hid in what had once been a library. The floor was covered in motes of dust; books sat on rotting shelves, gathering dust and cobwebs. Were he to allow it the attention, Barghast could feel the passing of years of this place, the death of an age before the hellscape. There were spirits here he was sure, even if they did not choose to present themselves. Just the thought made shivers crawl up his spine.

Barghast grunted in frustration, mostly to cover up his fear. “I’m sweating my balls off.”

“We all are.”

Barghast resisted the urge to say something nasty - he had to remind himself Jack and he were not friends. Remember, he’s the Inquisition’s little bitch. Should you try anything, he won’t hesitate to shoot you - he’s the leash around your neck.

Barghast looked to the third Stray Dog for assistance. “Crow, back me up here.”

The youngest and latest member of D Squad looked up from the leather bound book he held in his hand. Half of his face was illuminated by two oil lamps, the other half bisected by shadow; the line touched the bridge of his long, slightly hooked nose. In his dark clad clothes he managed to look at home in their dreary surroundings; they were hidden in the ruins of an old building that had been abandoned for centuries. He smirked at Barghast from underneath the bangs of his long black hair, which was greasy from not being washed. His stormy blue eyes glinted with amusement. “I’m not getting in the middle. Surely you two can figure it out.”

“It’s a very simple game,” Barghast insisted. What do you know, he thought, I got the kid to smile. He felt a sense of pride knowing he’d put it there.

“I know. I’ve played it.”

“Then perhaps you’re just afraid of losing to a pophagos, eh Practitioner” the Okanavian teased chidingly.

Crow turned the page and looked up. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Blackshot.” He put an emphasis on Barghast’s nickname; anyone else using it would have a straight ticket to pissing Barghast off, but between the two of them it was just friendly banter. “Luckily for you I would much rather read my book.”

Barghast growled, unsatisfied. “I see how it is, then. Jack, are you going to lay something down or are you waiting for the next star to fall?”

Biting his lip, Jack cursed, something he only did when he was being shot at or had a bad hand of cards. “Fine. I’ll just have to see how I fare.” He laid down a single card amongst the pile of cars laid down on the floor before them: a nine of Claws.

Barghast let out a bray of thunderous laughter, tears streaming from his eyes. Already he felt better. “I was hoping you would lay something like that down,” he said between guffaws. He laid down all of the cards in his hand (a single Moon, two Eyes, three Nails, etc.) and watched the disappointment fill Jack’s face. “I won the game.”

“You cheated,” said Jack.

“I did not.”

“Yes you did.”

“I did not!” said the Okananavian, pretending to be offended.

“Did too!” Jack’s shoulders bunched inward; he looked around as if expecting a patrol of Red Wraiths to be passing by - but there was nothing out here except coyotes and the invisible, silent ghosts of the past. He brought his voice down to a whisper. “We just played three games of Drop ‘Em in a row and you won all three of them! How is that?” Jack threw his cards haphazardly on the floor.

“I’m just a better card player than you are,” Barghast said smugly. He glanced at Crow. The young practitioner had looked up from his book long enough to watch this exchange, dark eyebrows raised in what could be irritation or amusement. The boy was always reading; he never partook in card games no matter how many times Barghast asked and he rarely joined in casual conversation unless it was with Barghast or Sara. The others he regarded with a mixture of indifference and weariness.

Practitioners as a whole were shunned by society - the Eurchurch in particular. Up until the last ten years the Eurchurch had done everything they could to eradicate Practitioners - anyone who had the slightest bit of mana in their blood, healers being the exception. If the Practitioners did not give themselves to the service of the Eurchurch then they were burned at the stake. Then the Scarlet Church had reared their heads, starting war with the Eurchurch and a record number of possessions had spread across the hellscape. There had never been so much demon activity in the recorded history of the hellscape. Now the practitioners and the Eurchurch, seeing a common enemy in the Scarlet Church, were in an uneasy alliance. That alliance was called the Inquisition. What would happen when the war was over, if there truly was an end, could not be said.

Crow, like all practitioners, was feared for his abilities even as he was being used for them. He’d joined D-Squad (“Stray Dogs,” Barghast could hear Rake correct him in his raspy voice), a year ago. He had come out of nowhere it seemed, a random coin tossed into the bowl of the universe. Even after a year Barghast knew nothing of the young practitioner’s past. All the questions Barghast had asked Crow out of friendly curiosity had been evaded with clear cut reproach. So Barghast stopped asking - he figured if Crow wanted to tell him anything about himself he would when he was ready. As far as Barghast “Blackshot” Unalaq’s story there wasn’t much to tell; his autobiography was told in a series of rap sheets and wanted posters.

Still, Barghast felt a wave of sadness towards Crow. He’s so young, with so much life ahead of him. Why would he throw his life away for this war?

Then again, Barghast reminded himself, he’d only been fifteen when he’d gamely and foolishly told his father, Rhaederghast, he was leaving his tribe to venture out into the world. In doing so he had forsaken the life his mother and father had worked hard to build for him. He’d done so knowing he would never be able to return to his tribe - once an Okanavian leaves their tribe they can never return.

Now look at me. I’ve returned home but as a prisoner, not as a tribesman. My hands are shackled by the threat of the noose. Did he long for his old life? No, he didn’t. Life in the desert had been hard. Barbaric. And while life could be just as hard and just as cruel in other parts of the hellscape, Barghast could at least say he’d chosen it for himself.

As for his current predicament he only had himself to blame.

Nat tiasqula fi arl’sarr hyald sanaeath,” he muttered gratingly under his breath in the Okanavi tongue.

“What’d you say?” Jack said.

“Nothing,” Barghast said. “Just thinking out loud.”

Nat tiasqula fi arl’sarr hyald sanaeath was the Okanavic translation of You lay in the bed you made.

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Comments

This chapter had some good action! I kept picturing it as scenes from a movie. Your writing is very vivid! I am not certain if I will like all these characters. They are certainly a mixed bag of people. Still a lot of questions, but I am looking forward to reading more! Thanks. 

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