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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 22. Be On Your Guard

Something had been different about Crow after he’d come back from the Infernal Depths. Loras had felt it. Most people would have been drained after taking a trip to the Abyss. And he had fought a demon priest of the Second Caste. No mere Casteless, not a lightweight, she thought. He had come back reinvigorated.

She had felt the expanding of his power: it had made the hairs on the back of her arms and neck stand on end. She knew she should have said something about it but she’d simply been too relieved to see he had returned back alive. Now, as she paced around her office once more, her mind wouldn’t leave it alone. She kept thinking about the expression on his face: the look of euphoria, the illusion that with mana you could do anything your heart desired.

She had seen it on many faces over the years and knew she had worn the mask of power while walking through miles upon miles of the blood she’d spilt. It was something every practitioner dealt with throughout their life. Some conquered it, but many did not, giving into the power, using too much, until they lost their minds. Because of this they died slowly. Their bodies lived but their minds did not.

Over the years she had tried to distance herself from it as best she could. There was power in control and patience; but there were times when it could be just as draining. There are times when I just want to let go, be damned of the consequences.

Loras sunk into her chair suddenly fuming. Pope Drajen’s face rose up before her mind’s eye. Not so long ago I promised I would bring your beloved church to the ground; I promised I would rip your bones from your body and crush them into sand. It would be a slow, agonizing death. It’s only fair after everything you took from me and my people.

But sometimes when I stop long enough to sit down, I realize how tired I feel and how hard it is to keep hating someone, how it breaks down body and soul - until I see your face again and then it brings it all back. One day, when all of this is over, I will keep my promise.

 

The next morning Loras met Pope Drajen in his office. Her two most trusted advisors, Thomas and Strabetha Vacuity, were there as well. Pope Drajen also had his most trusted advisors with him, Ecgwald Kovat and Alfred Provost. Both men were so old Loras wondered when they were going to croak and fall over.

Chauvinistic and misogynistic, both men were stupid and stuck in their ways; even after twenty years of trying to prove her worth, they took every opportunity to show how much they despised Loras and her people whether it was spiteful looks from across the room or trying to debunk any theories or suggestions she might provide. Even now, standing on Drajen’s right, they were glaring at her. Both of them had thinning white hair and wore round wire-rimmed spectacles but the resemblance ended there. Where Ecgwald was tall and lanky Provost was short and fat, with a large, round gut. Provost had squishy eyes and Ecgwald had large, round watery eyes with a flabby neck that made Loras think of a turkey gizzard.

Pope Drajen is an idiot who picked two idiots to advise him, Loras thought. Therefore men are idiots - with the exception of a few.

“I have tried to give this matter of Fruimont some thought,” said Drajen. There were dark bags underneath his eyes which meant he’d spent another night tossing and turning. “Sadly I could not think of a viable solution. Suggestions?”

“Well, isn’t it obvious what we should do?” Thomas said. With his long shoulder-length black hair, perfectly shaped eyebrows, long narrow nose, and wide mouth he looked aristocratic. “We should send him aid, relieve his city. If what Benedict said in his letter is true then innocent people are being slaughtered - some of them children.”

“But we don’t know anything,” Ecgwald said, stepping forward, chest puffed out. Every word he spoke made his flabby neck shake and jiggle. His wide, watery eyes bulged out of their sockets. Loras could only stare at his neck and picture a turkey; she had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. In her mind she heard him make gobbling noises.

“We don’t know what Orlys is forcing Matthiesen to do or say. We need intel.”

To her surprise, Loras found herself agreeing, though she never would have said it out loud.

“We could do a reconnaissance mission,” Vacuity suggested. “We could send in one of the squads. Did Fulko overhear anything that could help us during his time in captivity?”

“No,” the Pope said bitterly. “It turns out we sent him in for nothing.”

“We could send in D-Squad perhaps. They’re the most expendable.”

Loras’s heart gave a guilty jolt. She found herself remembering her conversation with Crow last night. In her thirty years she never thought she would meet anyone who had lived a life as hard as her own. But within Crow she saw a lonely and tortured soul who didn’t want the responsibility he’d been given but had taken it because things needed to be done. And he’s still practically just a kid, she thought. But she had agreed she would do whatever she could to help him. If D-Squad goes he won’t be going alone. He’ll have someone to watch his back. But what if they find out why he’s really here and who he really is? Will they hurt him, try to kill him? May I burn in the Abyss if I’m making the wrong decision.

She cleared her throat. “I agree with Strabetha. It isn’t the fastest solution but if we know exactly what we’re dealing with then we’ll have a better idea of what we should do.”

Provost made a retching sound. He zeroed in on Loras with his squishy eyes. “How can you suggest sending those animals? Four out of six in their group are convicts. A cutthroat, thief, bandit, and assassin. The practitioner, though he isn’t a criminal, is unable to control himself.”

“The fact D-Squad is made mostly of professional criminals is exactly why we should send them,” said Lyn’drell. “Besides, the mission with Fulko was a success. The Red Wraiths at Fort Erikson are disoriented. Would it be such a stretch to say they are the best suited for this mission?”

Loras felt she could have kissed both Lyn’drell and Vacuity. They had always stood by her side no matter what but not just out of loyalty. Both were clear headed, level thinkers, who were not only willing to look at a situation from all sides but also do what was necessary - and doing what was necessary wasn’t easy. Even if the squads were made up of - mostly - convicts, they were still sending men and women into a situation they might never return from.

Pope Drajen was tapping his neatly trimmed fingers on the edge of the desk. His salt-and-pepper colored eyebrows were knitted together in thought. In the end, no matter who felt they had the best ideas, it was up to the Pope. If he chose he could reject everyone's ideas and order his own to be realized and no one could argue with him. Loras thought it was too much power for one person. In the days before the hellscape it was rumored the world had run under a different kind of government: a democracy, not a dictatorship. The public had been able to choose who was in office. Though they did not have complete power they at least felt they did. The First Disciple had destroyed that world in the blink of an eye.

Now the Chanty dominated the world, basing the law on their beliefs not what the people believed; and fighting for the chance to rule was the Scarlet Church. The Eurchurch could be just as cruel and domineering as the Scarlet Church in their own way but at least they were making a concerted effort to try and protect the people of the hellscape.

Looking miserable, the Pope cleared his throat. “I agree with Loras and her advisors. D-Squad is the best option. They have proven useful when it comes to reconnaissance missions and know how to work quickly. Send a Eurchurchman to notify them - we brief them tomorrow. This meeting is adjourned - except you Loras, there’s something I need to discuss with you.

Lyn’drell and Vacuity gave Loras concerned looks. Loras gave them a smile to show she wasn’t worried; she’d been working with the Pope for twenty years now, both in battle and in the office. She was more than capable of dealing with him. As always, Ecgwald and Provost flashed her scathing looks, making sure to puff out their chests in exaggerated self-importance; and as always, Ecgwald made sure to not-so-subtly knock his shoulder into hers. It never hurt. When he did this it made Loras want to laugh. It was like dealing with a young schoolboy.

Seconds later, when all the advisors had filed out, the door closed softly. Loras and Drajen were alone. Loras sat down in the chair opposite the Pope and mentally prepared herself for whatever was to come next.

“The guards on duty last evening reported that the young Practitioner on D-Squad...I forget his name...visited you late last night. I take it you had an appointment?”

“Yes,” Loras said. Though she felt a nervous jolt inside it did not show on her face.

“It’s unusual for you to meet with people so late at night.”

Loras clenched her jaw. She narrowed her eyes at the Pope. “What are you getting at Drajen?”

“Early this morning the healers came in to check on Greta. For three weeks they’ve been doing their damndest to get the demon out of her - the best healers we have here in Fruimont working night and day. They couldn’t do a thing. Then they find the girl sitting upright, talking in her normal tongue with no sign of the demon’s presence. Did you and the young practitioner have anything to do with this?”

Loras leaned forward, challenging the Pope with a piercing look. “What if we did? Would you charge us to be executed?”

Drajen inhaled. “My predecessor would have, yes. But that young girl was dying. The demon wouldn’t let her eat. She surely would have died within a fortnight. Now she is eating, her body slowly healing. If you and he did I wish to commend not to punish.”

Loras blinked. There were times when the Pope could be arrogant and downright cruel. In those moments it was easy to hate him and want him dead for she still blamed him for the deaths of Janif and Cara; he hadn’t been the hand holding the torch but he’d given the order by passing the law. And then were moments like this when he could be graceful and kind...and these moments confused Loras greatly. It wasn’t always possible to turn a blind eye and forget about the facets she’d found within him over the last two decades. Not everyone is completely who we think they are. More often than not how we see them - how we want to see them - is compromised the more we get to know them and see the magnitude of their depth.

Now it was Loras’s turn to clear her throat. “Crow Hardy is the one you should be thanking. He traveled into the demon’s mind and went to the abyss. He expelled the demon.”

The surprise on Drajen’s face was evident. “Doesn’t that take an enormous amount of prestige and experience...and power?”

“Yes.”

“But he’s so young.”

The corner of Loras’s mouth turned upwards at the corner. “He’s also extraordinary and talented. Exceedingly so. I think he will do great things.”

 

 

Crow was just getting ready to light a jalasa joint when Ex’olku spoke: Be on your guard, you have company. Not a second later there was a firm knock on the door. “Open up for the Eurchurch!” a deep male’s voice barked from the other side.

Crow frowned, the joint hanging from his lips. What was the Eurchurch doing at his door? Had Loras and he been caught in helping the girl last night? He padded over to the door, gathering his mana, preparing for a fight. He would fight if need be. He opened the door. Standing before him, flanked by two stern faced guards armed with rifles, was Pope Drajen himself.

“Good morning,” Pope Drajen said with a smile. His hands were folded behind his robed back.

Crow took the joint out of his mouth and fought to keep the shock from showing on his face. He felt caught off guard, standing there in his black tank top, cargo shorts, and bare feet, his hair a tangled unkempt mess. He smiled back, leaning casually against the doorway. “Good morning Pope, what can I do for you?”

“I was hoping I could have a quick word with you. May I come in?” The whole time he talked, the Pope’s eyes scanned the young practitioner from head to toe and back up.

“Sure. Excuse me if the place is a mess. I wasn’t expecting company.”

He led the Pope inside, followed by the two Eurchurchman. Crow watched from over his shoulder as one of the guards closed the door behind him. He gestured for the Pope to sit down and seated himself on the couch while Drajen took the armchair.

“This will be a short visit,” said Drajen. “Have you heard about what’s going on Fruimont?”

Crow creased his eyebrows; he sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. “I haven’t.”

Pope Drajen filled him in on what was happening in Fruimont. Crow nodded and made concerned sounds in all the right places. “My advisors and I feel it’s best to wait before making a move - we want information first so we can get a better idea of what’s going on. That’s where D-Squad comes in. We’re sending you in for a reconnaissance mission. At first I admit I wasn’t sure if your squad would be the right people for the job but Loras changed my mind. She really vouched for your squad.

Loras? Crow thought. Of course, she must have said something to the Pope. She had opened a way for Crow to get into Fruimont only he wasn’t going alone as he planned. This should have made Crow feel better but it didn’t. It made him angry. The idea of the others being in danger bothered him - particularly Barghast and Sara. He forced the anger down, maintaining his poker face. He couldn’t let Pope Drajen know why he was really here.

“Right about now the other members of your squad are getting the same information,” said Drajen. “I thought I would let you know personally.”

Crow smiled. “I appreciate that. I feel honored.” He couldn’t have told a greater lie; the very sight of the man before him made Crow feel sick to his stomach. Here, sitting across from him, was the man who had killed so many. Not directly of course but it didn’t matter.

Pope Drajen stood up and went to the door. One of the guards opened it. Before he walked out, Drajen turned to Crow once more. “Loras told me about what you did for Greta. She’s alive and healing now because of you. What you did was a brave thing. My question is how did a practitioner as young as yourself do it?”

Though the Pope was smiling there was something sly behind his blue eyes.

Be careful how you answer, Ex’olku said.

“Mercius was with me,” Crow said. “It’s the only explanation I can think of.”

Drajen’s smile faded; his face twisted into an expression of suspicion. “I know you’re lying, Crow Hardy. How does a seventeen-year-old practitioner go toe-to-toe with a Second Caste demon and live? Who are you? What secrets are you hiding?”

Crow lit a joint and took a drag from it. He blew out the smoke and looked the Pope directly in the eye. “Good question, Pope Drajen. I’ve been asking myself the same thing as well. I just chocked it up to youth and ignorance. But none of us know who we truly are, do we? Not truly.”

Crow felt a jolt of triumph as he watched Drajen’s jaw clench in frustration. “Have a good day, Crow Hardy.” Then the Pope turned on his heel and left, slamming the door behind him.

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.
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