Coming back into his own body, Crow gasped like a drowning man finally breaking the surface of the ocean. For a moment he was confused, unable to remember where he was or how he’d gotten there but the sound of Loras’s voice led him back to coherence. Every breath he took sent pulses of agony through his back - he’d expended too much mana.
He felt Loras lay a firm hand on his back and then cried out as she transferred some of her mana; it felt as if he’d been shocked.
“Better?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said and laughed. The sudden pleasure and lifting of spirits was not unlike being high.
Loras was giving him a look full of concern and relief in equal measures. “I was worried you weren’t going to make it.” She straightened up and examined the girl’s relaxed face. She glanced back at Crow, eyes wide. “She looks...better. The infection is receding. I can no longer sense the demon’s presence. How did you drive it out of her?”
Crow had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from giggling. “Um...with a chain and a little bit of elbow grease. I think she’s going to be okay.” He stood up and cleared his throat. “Thanks for the ...you know...hand up.”
They had left Greta’s room and were now walking down the dungeon’s corridor. Strangely all the demon-possessed souls locked away in their cells had become silent. Loras looked at Crow. “I am impressed. Not many practitioners can go toe-to-toe with a Second Caste demon. I can just barely hold my own against one. You have natural talent.”
Crow chuckled dryly. “What I have in natural talent I lack in self-control? Whenever I use mana it’s addicting...it’s like being on a power trip. Like I can do almost anything and no one can stop me. When I was in Fort Erikson though, I panicked. I don’t know why, I don’t know what came over me. It was just total suffocating fear.”
“It’s addicting for all of us practitioners,” Loras murmured. “When we use mana we feel invincible, we think we can defeat anyone and no one can stop us. For whatever reason, whatever keeps them from being able to use it to harm another soul, healers don’t have the same problem. It’s why people fear us practitioners...and I suppose they’re right to. But believe me Crow, when I say you will gain self-control as you get older and grow more powerful. We truly do learn with age. Let’s go up to my office and sit for a spell. I can make us some tea and then we can talk about your trip to the Abyss, which I am sure was very interesting, and then I will hail a cab and have it take you home. Not to mention we need to get the blood off your face.”
Blood? He was only now tasting it on his lips.
Crow smiled. “Tea sounds really good.”
Back in Loras’s office Crow sunk into the armchair across from the desk with a sigh of contentment. The armchair was very comfortable. It was a relief to be sitting down once more; though Loras had given him a pick-me-up, Crow was still incredibly exhausted. It would be a day or two before he was fully back to normal.
I’ll sleep well tonight, he thought.
Loras handed him a large mug of steaming jalasa tea and a wet rag before sitting in the chair opposite him. After wiping the blood from his face, he took a careful sip. The tea was hot enough to sear his tongue but he didn’t care. Fingers of warmth slowly spread through him. The jalasa tea had a piney smell. Loras had added honey to the tea, giving it a sweet flavor to soften the bite.
“This is good,” he said, holding his cup to her in thanks.
She smiled. “I didn’t have much of an appreciation for tea until the Eurchurch-Practitioner War. My husband, Janif, used to drink it like crazy. He always tried to get me to as well but I always told him I just wasn’t a tea drinker. Of course the jalasa plant is indigenous to the Plaesil mountains so everyone drank tea back then. Now I can’t go a day without drinking it. Had I known how much I would’ve liked the tea I would have sat with Janif and Cara at the kitchen table every morning and every night just before it was time to tuck my daughter into bed.” A sad smile touched Loras face.
Crow didn’t know how to reply so he just took a sip of his tea. Everyone knew the death of Loras’s daughter and husband was the true spark that had started the war between the practitioners of the Plaesil mountains and the Eurchurch.
“Where are you from Crow? You helm from the northern mountains, do you not?”
“I do. I was born and raised by my aunt in a small town called Annesville. My parents died not long after they had me. They were killed: burned at the stake by Eurchurch enforcers. My mother was a practitioner but my father wasn’t. They burned him alive as well for marrying her. The only family I had relatively close by was Aunt Lena, so naturally I was put in her care.”
“And what does your aunt think of you galloping off to be a hero and fight someone else’s war?”
Crow felt something inside of him draw back. For the last year and a half, since he’d left Annesville, he’d reamained tight-lipped about his past, evading questions whenever asked. It seemed safer to remain anonymous - then no one could use your past against you. But he trusted Loras. Though he was sure she had done questionable things her heart was in the right place. She was here, working with the very people who had coldly murdered her husband and daughter to put an end to a far greater threat. He’d always respected her but now had come to like her. In so many ways she reminded him of Aunt Lena.
A thought occurred to him, so obvious he wondered why it hadn’t crossed his mind before: No wonder Ex’olku picked me. I’m no one and I have no one. There will be no one to mourn my death should I fail.
“She died,” he said; saying the words out loud was like taking a stab to the heart. “I left Annesville to enlist for the Eurchurch the day after I buried her.”
Loras’s face softened. “I would say I’m sorry but I know from personal experience it doesn’t do any good - it’s just something people say because there’s nothing else. It seems we have something in common: our life is defined by tragedy. And people don’t know the deepness of our scars. Did you find out anything from the demon?”
Crow gritted his teeth in frustration and shook his head. “Not much. You know how demons are, they can never tell you anything straight. They always speak in fucking riddles. But something is happening. He said there’s going to be a reckoning...and the Primordial Caste is planning something.”
Though she tried to keep her face from showing it, Crow saw the quick jerk the older practitioner gave in her chair. No one mentioned the Primordial Caste unless it was under someone’s breath. To say their name was to speak blasphemy. Only the disciples of the Scarlet Church seemed unafraid of them...going so far as to worship them as gods.
“You don’t think the demon was lying, do you? Trying to frighten you?” From the look in her eyes, Loras seemed to want this to be the case.
“He wasn’t. Something is coming. I can feel it. I sensed it back in Fort Erikson, I think. If it wasn’t happening I don’t think I’d even be here.” Crow leaned forward in his chair so he was looking Loras directly in the eye. “I have to get into Fruimont, to gather more information...somehow.”
“That would be...very dangerous,” Loros said.
“You could get killed.”
Crow felt his shoulder slump. All over again he was exhausted but not just physically. Once I was just a boy living in the Plaesil mountains. Now I’m...I don’t know what I am. “I don’t have a choice. I have to try.”
“What can I do?” Loras asked.
Feeling depressed, Crow said, “There is nothing you can do. There’s nothing anyone can do but me.”
“This Ex’olku, whoever they are, I don’t like them. It’s too much to ask of one person. It wasn’t like I fought the Eurchurch on my own for ten years. I had followers, people who were willing to follow me and die under my command. Surely there is something I can do.”
The smile Crow gave her was weary and belied his age. “You did plenty tonight. I can’t ask anymore of you...or anyone else. I’m going to give myself a few days to rest and then I’m heading to Fruimont.”
Light knows, I don’t want to, he thought. I want to sleep...I just want to sleep.