Crow was falling down a vacuum tube made of various colors and flickering images. Flashes of voices and sounds came from everywhere, so loud he felt as if his ear drums would explode. Where the exhilarating sense of flying he’d experienced back when he’d astral projected in his apartment had been pleasant, this was terrifying.
His organs felt as though they were trying to detach themselves from his body and shoot up his throat. He wondered how his Aspect could experience such sensations? Was the body really so easily fooled by the mind?
Suddenly colors changed from light to dark. He was falling through a red, alien sky and below was landmass. He was falling far too fast to comprehend what he was seeing: the strange conglomeration of colors that sent equal shocks of wonder and unease through his mind, was quickly overcome by the panic of falling. He plummeted through a wispy white cloud, his black robes billowing behind him. The wind battered at him, slapping relentlessly at his face. It was impossible to breathe. How do you stop a train that seems to have no brakes? he thought.
To his relief, Ex’olku answered: How does a bird learn to fly? They spread their wings.
Riddles. Why does everything have to be riddles with you? Why can’t you just talk normally? But Crow got the meaning. Spreading his arms he exerted his mana. A shimmering ball of white light formed around him and he began to slow. He managed to get his body twisted around so he was falling feet first. The ground was slowly rising up to meet him. Crow grinned despite himself. There were times when astral projecting could be quite fun - even if it was dangerous.
Finally his feet touched the ground. He had to hold his arms out at his side to keep his legs from buckling underneath him. Crow closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. The air was turgid and smelled like a mixture of copper...and bananas? He opened his eyes and took in the strange world around him. The Eurchurch tells everyone the Abyss is a place of fire, Crow thought. A place where ash constantly rains from the sky and burns the flesh. On this one thing they were not entirely wrong.
Before him, in the distance, black mountains rose into the air, more massive than the tallest mountain in the Plaesil region of the hellscape or any that had existed before the existence of the hellscape. Surrounding the mountains were plains of black grass. Dotting the foreign plains, the young practitioner spotted several temples. Something about their dark, ominous walls hinted they were far older than any he’d yet to lay eyes on, older than the relics found in the Ubrios Waste and Okanavi Desert.
To the left were the crashing waves of an alien ocean; the waves were the color of dark blood. Blood, Crow thought with a sense of dream-like fascination and revulsion. The waves are made of blood. Stranger and more frightening yet were the strange aquatic organisms crawling out of the waves, onto the sooty sands of the beach. Many of them were crustacean in appearance with multiple limbs. Bony ridges poked out from underneath pink, slick-looking flesh. The faces of these creatures were frighteningly very human looking; the eyes, milky and blind, searched sightlessly over the scorched sand; their round mouths yawned open and shut. The hissing moaning sounds coming from their mouths sounded desperate and agonized. Crow had always been frightened (and slightly fascinated) by insects and arachnids, but these were like something out of a child’s twisted nightmare.
When he turned around to see what was behind him, Crow was glad to see there was no more ocean, at least as far as he could see. Instead the landscape expanded with rolling hills of black grass; he was standing on top of one of those hills now. Twenty yards away was a single tree, its trunk dark and withered as if all the nutrients had been sucked out of it. Its branches were twisted. Standing around the tree were several naked forms. Chains snaked from the shackles around their necks and arms, their flesh as blackened and cracked as the tree they were chained to.
At the center of the group, also chained to the tree, huddled before it, was Greta’s small form, insubstantial from this distance.
And guarding her was the demon.
Crow sucked in a breath and began to head towards the tree. Five minutes later he reached the tortured souls standing around the tree. The lifeless, white orbs of their eyes stared up at the scarlet sky; their mouths hung open in silent, voiceless screams. There were men and women, and a few children or what was now their husks. The very demon that had hijacked Greta’s body was feasting on her Aspect. Like the tree beside the demon, the life had been sucked out of the other souls until there was nothing left of them but their fear and eternal suffering.
Crow reached the tree. Large black spores grew from its fetid trunk like rotten fruit or…
Tumors, Crow thought.
The demon, taking notice of him, hissed. It was a horrid mutated thing, half scorpion and half man. It stood upright, its outer shell glossy and hard like the exoskeleton of an insect. A long, dangerous looking stinger snaked from its high end. The tail now flicked back and forth, as if daring Crow to step forward.
“Get away,” the demon hissed, making an odd chittering sound. It’s forked tongue slid out at him.
Crow glanced at Greta. The rot that had consumed the poor souls standing around them had consumed most of her. Veins of black traveled from the tips of her toes, throughout both feet before fading underneath the nightgown she wore, and then started back at her hands, arms, and face where it ended. She stared off into the distance, seemingly unaware of what was happening around her.
Though Crow knew the demon feared him and the one who had branded him, Crow also knew the demon would fight him to keep the innocent soul it had abducted. If I can get it away from the tree just long enough to get those chains off her and get away, then hopefully this won’t be too hard, Crow thought.
Crow did not respond to the demon’s threat. Instead he raised his arms above his head, and with a flick of his wrists two balls of fiery energy shot from his hands. The demon was blasted into the air, it’s tail lashing. It let out a screech of surprise and rage as it landed in a heap in the dirt.
Within seconds it was on his feet, charging at him. Like an insect its movements were a blur of motion and color. Crow backed cautiously away but already it was lunging in the air towards him. Crow managed to summon a wall of kinetic energy before him just a second before the demon could collide with him. Instead it slammed into the wall and was thrown once more into the blackened grass. Once more it thrashed, momentarily stunned, but then charged Crow again.
The demon priest’s attacks were relentless, its tail a flash of movement. It took every bit of concentration Crow had to deflect its attack. Not only was it attacking him physically, but psychically as well. He could feel its mental fingers crawling along his scalp, trying to get inside his head.
Already Crow could feel himself growing exhausted. Every second his Aspect spent outside his body he was using up his mana quicker than normal; blocking both the demon’s physical and mental assaults was making it go all the faster. This wasn’t a wraith he was fighting but a demon of the Second Caste who was far stronger. I’ve got to do something to get it off my back, he thought. I don’t know how much longer I can do this.
Once more, Crow drew on his rapidly dwindling reserve of mana. Light flashed from his eyes, which had turned milky. A shockwave of mana exploded from all around him, kicking up clumps of the strange burnt-looking grass and soil. He saw the demon fly through the air, out of sight.
Crow wavered on his feet. He felt drunk with exhaustion - but he couldn’t stop now; he’d bought himself only a minute, if that.
He approached the slumped form of Greta, still tethered to the tree. The demon’s infection had spread up to the bridge of her nose and was now seeping upwards towards her eyes. Crow pointed a finger at the chains binding the dying girl to the tree. With a weary dance of his fingers, the chains dropped from around her. Crow managed to catch Greta in his arms before she could hit the ground. Her body was rigid and cold as ice.
Crow hugged her cold body to him. Once more his body shimmered as he fed his mana into her. The act of giving his mana to heal her Aspect was not without cost: Each second he held on was agony. Black spots had formed in front of his eyes and blood was starting to dribble from his nose. His Aspect had begun to grow transparent, losing solidity. This will have to do for now, he thought. If I die it will at least buy the healers more time to try and exorcise this monstrosity.
He set her back down gently so she was resting against the tree. The demon’s infection had receded so it was now below her neckline. He frowned. For all the mana he’d given it hadn’t helped as much as he hoped but it would have to do for now.
A furious screech and the sound of multiple limbs scrabbling frantically over the ground alerted him to the demon’s charging approach. Crow grabbed the chain, now lying in the grass and staggered to his feet. He turned to face the demon.
Crow gritted his teeth. With aching arms he lifted the chain. He counted to three and when he was sure the demon was within reach, Crow swung the chain with all the strength he could muster. The end of the chain connected with the demon’s back. A loud THWACK punctuated the air. The demon snarled at him.
“I will enjoy ripping your entrails out with my teeth, yes,” the demon hissed.
“We’ll see,” Crow said, feeling more courage than he felt. The fear of death at the demon’s claws was the only thing keeping him on his feet at this point. His only thought was: If I die I will have failed Greta and the Eurchurch. I will have failed everyone in the hellscape...The Scarlet Church will have won. “Right now,” he said, “I’m just having fun kicking your scaly ass.”
“Gahhhhhh!” the demon screeched and charged once more.
Crow managed to duck out of the way from its tail and swung the chain once more. The chain connected with another THWACK, flattening the demon into the ground. Crow let loose with another flurry of swings, always making sure to stay a safe distance away from the creature.
THWACK THWACK THWACK!
Each hit sent painful yet satisfying vibrations of impact up Crow’s arms. When the demon was no longer making any attempts to get up, Crow approached it with the chain still in hand just for good measure. He kicked it over.
“No more,” the demon hissed. “Please...no more...”
Even demons fear pain, Crow mused, his mind slow with fatigue.
“What is your name, demon?” Crow demanded. “And you better tell me or I will keep doing this until there’s nothing left of your corporeal form, so don’t fuck with me.”
“Yov’olbh, 38th ranking of the Second Caste.”
So more powerful than a Caste but only just. Crow’s Aspect flickered. He had but moments left to get back to his body. It was time to wrap things up. The demon had willingly offered Crow his name, and with a demon’s name came a certain amount of power over them.
“Tell me of the Scarlet Church’s plans, Yov’olbh. What is it they’re seeking?”
“A vessel for my mistress, her name I shall not say no matter how many times you beat me with that chain,” Yov’olbh said. “She has been chosen by the Primordial Caste for a very special task. Once she finds her flesh she will give flesh to their retribution. They will rise from the pits of the earth and reclaim what was once thiers...”
Loras's voice was a distant echo, riding the sea-wind. You’ve been in there far too long! Get out of there before it’s too late!
Crow looked down at his hands. They were transparent enough now he could see the ground through them. There was one last thing. He glanced at the demon. It was still lying there, looking fearfully up at him. How could Ex’olku’s touch grant him such power? What if I could take its lifeforce and use it for my own?
The thought sent tremors of excitement through him. Ex’olku spoke up then, his voice ringing urgently through his mind. Don’t - not a good idea. You would gain power, yes, but what might it cost your soul?
But I need it for what’s coming ahead. Crow grinned without realizing he was doing it. His hands shimmered with mana. He could do it - he knew he could. The knowledge was in his head.
I can do anything I put my mind to.
He held out a hand towards the shaking demon. Chains erupted from them, coiling around the demon’s body with a clinking sound. The chains tightened, straightening as they became taut. The demon tried to jerk away but the chains held fast. “You will never possess another soul again,” Crow said. His voice was strangely quiet. “Not ever. To avenge all the souls you’ve taken, I will take your lifeforce for my own power so that I may do good.”
“No!” Yov’olbh shrieked. “Nooooo - ”
Crow began to syphon the demon’s lifeforce into himself. Orbs of white light traveled from the demon’s body into his. Crow gasped at the sensations passing through his body. There was no word that could describe it. He felt himself grow hard. As each orb passed into him, replenishing his energy, his astral form became more solid. The demon priest continued to beg as Crow raped him of his life force until his body crumpled in on itself, turning into a cloud of ash that blew away on the wind.
The chains too disappeared.
Crow stood on the hill of black grass, breathing in the air. He felt renewed. He felt strong. Loras had stopped calling his name.
He grinned. I did it. I succeeded in what I came here to do - and in doing so I was rewarded. Maybe Ex’olku’s touch isn’t such a curse after all.
Once more his Aspect flickered and he began to rise, floating higher into the red sky with the Abyss and its blood-ocean sinking below him.