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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 26. The Plaesil Mountains

Years ago, when he was young and stupid and everything was new to him, Barghast “Blackshot” Unalaq had been fascinated with the mountains. He found the black, craggy mountains, the white landscapes, and blood-red fields of jalasa, which was native to the mountains and grew all year long, beautiful; it was a great source of income for the natives here in the mountains, for the plant did not grow anywhere else in the ‘scape.

Barghast had quickly learned to hate the cold. He was from the desert where it was hot. You never saw snow and rain was a rare thing, making water sacred and something to kill for. The only thing the north and south quadrants of the ‘scape had in common was the primitive nature of the people, though in different ways. People in the desert lived in tribes and often resorted to cannibalism - they literally ate their dead; just thinking about the lifestyle he’d abandoned as well as the tribe he’d grown up with sent shivers up Barghast’s spine. People in the north tended to stick to their own, regarding outsiders with suspicion. After the Practitioner-Eurchurch war, Barghast could understand why. Still he’d come to hate the mountains. It was always cold here, the sky always grey. No wonder the people here were always so damn pale.

He sat hunched close to the fire on a pallet made of thick blankets and his bedroll; he hugged himself, trying to absorb the warmth of the fire. Sara, Lydia, and Jack all did the same, too cold and too tired to make small talk. Barghast was fine with this: He didn’t want to talk to any of them. The only person he had seen was nowhere in sight having disappeared in the thick copse of trees that surrounded them. He looked around over his shoulder, felt his stomach clench curiously. Where is he? the Okanavian thought. He’s been gone for over an hour.

As if summoned by the thought, Crow appeared, a dark shape moving stolidly among the bare branches of the trees. He had three dead rabbits attached to a piece of cord hanging from the loop of his belt. Barghast hated the sense of relief that passed through him like water but could not ignore it. Not for the first time he wondered who had taught the practitioner how to hunt rabbits; there was no signs that he had used mana to do it, no signs of scorched fur or broken, bloodied flesh. The bodies merely swung limply at his side.

Silently, without saying a word to anyone, he began the process of skinning the rabbits. The practitioner seemed not to notice the presence of the others. Since leaving Miffland he had spoken little, even to Barghast and Sara. He looked calm but Barghast knew this was only on the surface: The kid smoked a lot when he was nervous and he always became quiet and withdrawn. It seemed he had become more nervous the closer they got to the Plaesil mountains. It could have been the mission but Barghast didn’t think so - or at least it wasn’t the only reason. Like the rest of the Stray Dogs the practitioner had a past he didn’t like to talk about. It must be hell coming back here for him, Barghast thought. I wonder why. What made him leave?

Barghast assumed it was one of the few things every member of the Stray Dogs had in common: They were all on the run from something.

After he finished gutting and cleaning the rabbits, Crow cut up onions, potatoes, and a number of spices - he got all these out from his pack - and threw them in a boiling pot that had been placed over the fire. While the stew shimmered, the practitioner lowered himself onto his bedroll beside Barghast, assuaging the Okanavian’s secret fear that he had done something to make the practitioner cross with him. He lit a jalasa joint with a wooden match and took a long drag before blowing out the smoke through puckered lips.

“You okay?” Barghast asked him.

“I’m fine,” he said, though the look in his dark blue eyes said otherwise. There was the haunted look that showed up whenever they were in the middle of a mission.

“It’s okay to be scared, y’know?” Barghast said. “My nerves are practically jangling.”

“I didn’t think the best robber in all the ‘scape got scared,” Crow said. There was the flicker of mischievousness that came out whenever the two of them got to bantering back and forth. It was always these moments that made Barghast hard, sometimes so hard it hurt - or when they’d just got done laying waste to a large group of Red Wraiths.

“Even robbers get scared. My stomach used to get all in knots before a job - I was just good at not showing it on the outside.” Not true. You’ve shot people before. Men and women. That one kid you shot back in Tyran had to have been Crow’s age...You shot him because he wasn’t putting the money in the bag fast enough…

“What’s our motto?” Crow asked.

Together, in unison, they said, “You watch my back and I’ll watch yours.

They laughed. Crow appeared a little more relaxed. He lit a joint and offered it to Barghast. “Just take a hit,” said Crow. “Jalasa doesn’t have any harmful side effects. It’ll help with the nerves.”

Barghast saw Sara glance at him curiously out of the corner of his eye. Just to humor Crow he took a drag from the joint and immediately began to cough.

“Who’s going to meet this Rolliard?” Rake asked, spitting a large wad of spit into the snow. “Cause it sure isn’t goin’ to be me.”

Sara muttered something under her breath but did not look in the cutthroat’s direction.

“What was that, healer?” Rake’s eyes narrowed down to slits. His mouth, bracketed with two weeks worth of stubble, was twisted in a nasty grimace. Barghast watched closely, not realizing he had tensed, prepared to spring into action. There was no telling what Rake would do or when. The Okanavian had the feeling the threat of the noose would only keep him in check for so long.

Sara turned her cool gaze on Rake; if she was afraid her expression did not show it; the tension was all in her clenched hands and the rigidness of her spine. Barghast felt a spark of admiration towards her for refusing to back down. Even when the odds were against her and her instincts told her back down, Sara never did. “I was just thinking what a useless sack of shit you are,” she said, managing to keep her tone light though the expression on her face was anything but. “Of course you would leave it to others to do all the hard, dirty work.”

“Damn straight. Do you really think I would risk my life for you? Any of you?” Rake chuckled cruelly. “You should know better by now.”

“I’ll go,” said Crow. His voice was quiet but there was a certainty in it that was quiet but as hard and solid as mortar. The practitioner also had courage and strength but it always showed itself when one least expected it; it was one of the many things about him that drew Barghast’s attention. “I’m from the mountains, I’m familiar with how people are in these parts.”

“I’ll go too,” Barghast said. He hoped he didn’t sound too eager.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” There was a look of genuine regret on Crow’s face. “We need to be subtle about this. You are too easy to recognize. I think it should be Sara and I who go.”

“What if you run into trouble?” Lydia asked, directing the question at Sara as if it was she who had brought up the idea and not Lane.

“We’ll be fine.” Sara did not look at Lydia, her voice both soft and cold. Ever since they had left Miffland, Sara had done her best to put distance between herself and her lover. Something had happened between them. Something big. To Barghast it seemed like the wrong time to be having a lovers’ spat.

The next several moments were spent in an awkward shivering silence. Barghast was grateful when Jack served the stew in wooden bowls. The brothy soup burned the Okanavian’s tongue but he did not care; it helped warm him.

Once they were finished eating, Crow and Sara mounted their houses. As he stood Crow had looked down at Barghast. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he’d said with a smile that was meant to be reassuring but had not looked convincing.

Watching them walk away, Barghast felt his heart plummet. It was a feeling he should have been used to by now, but there was no getting used to the dread he felt: The feeling that each time the practitioner left his line of sight it would be the last.

 

...

 

The small Northern village of Olmsted, Sara thought, looked like it had seen better days. She looked upon the drab one-and-two story buildings and the people who shuffled through the snow-covered streets, eyeing her curiously from the corner of their eyes. She was dressed in dark clothing, the same as Crow, to look the part, but she still felt like she didn’t belong. No one looked at Crow because he did look the part, a true Northerner of the Plaesil Mountains with his dark hair, pale skin and sharp boned features.

She kept her eyes focused ahead as two Red Wraiths passed by. They walked stolidly, their shoulders square and back straight with confidence. Why should they be afraid? It was clear these people were in no shape to revolt. They had no weapons, no means of escape taht she could see. They were secluded in the mountains. They thought their seclusion would keep them safe, she thought. They were wrong. They’re more in danger than anyone.

She turned to look at Crow. His face showed no expression, not the sense of discomfort or anxiety he’d expressed earlier. Sara wished she could say the same. She decided to say something, to break the silence. To distract herself. “Does the town you come from look like this?” she whispered.

“Mostly,” he said after a moment. “It’s bigger, more spread out.” He took a deep breath and let out a sigh of nostalgia. His breath misted the air. “I forgot how the air smells up here. How clean it is.”

“How does it feel to be home?” she asked. “Do you miss it?”

“No.” His voice came out sounding sharp. The vehemence of his reaction startled Sara. Upon seeing the wide-eyed expression on her face, his softened. “I’m sorry. I don’t have very many fond memories of the mountains. It’s always cold here...always snowing. I lived with my aunt. She gave me the best life she could until she got sick. When she got sick was when things turned their worst for me. She was a healer just like you.”

Sara was astonished...and a little touched. This was the most the practitioner had shared about himself...with anyone, unless of course he had told Barghast. But she doubted it. Crow was a curiously tight-lipped soul for one his age.

They followed the road, their boots sinking into snow and hardened soil. They were approaching what might have passed for the village square. In the center of the village was a single well, made of limestone and mortar. The well looked alone, dejected in the middle of this run-down place. To the right of the well Sara could make out a sign for the Golden Ale Inn, a three story building - one of the taller in the village - only slightly more inviting than everything else around it.

A sudden wailing sound, followed by a confluence of shouts, broke the sudden hush of the village. Sara turned her head towards the sound and wished she hadn’t. To her right was an old wooden church with crystal glass windows. A man with a crucifix around his neck had been nailed to the doors of the church by his hands and feet. He had been stripped naked and castrated. Dried blood marked the stone steps leading up to the church. A woman knelt before his corpse, rocking back and forth, hands clasped before her face. She prayed, her voice obstructed by garbled sobs. A duo of Red Wraiths came up behind her and yanked her violently to her feet.

“Alright, that’s enough lassie,” one of them grated, shoving her away from the church. “Off you go unless you want the same to happen to you.”

“Let’s get this over with,” said Sara. “The sooner we get away from this place the better. Besides we don’t want to keep Barghast and the others waiting on the bus, do we? Our contact is at the inn, correct?”

Crow nodded at the inn. “This would be the place.”

The inside of the inn was gloomy, lit with burning oil lamps, but warm. Sara took off her gloves so she could feel the warmth on her hands. Several pairs of eyes turned to watch them curiously but there were no Red Wraiths inside, much to Sara’s relief.

A man sat in the back of the inn. He had an unassuming presence mostly, except for his long greying hair, which was tied back in a ponytail. His eyes lingered on them intently even after everyone else had looked away. Was this their guy? She looked to Crow for confirmation but he was already walking towards the man. Sara followed cautiously behind.

“Is your name Rolliard?” Crow asked.

“The one and only,” the man said with a grin.

“Loras sent us,” said Sara, lowering herself into a rickety wooden chair.

“Your squad is going into Fruimont. It’ll be a dangerous endeavor.”

“Nothing we haven’t done before,” said Crow. “Loras said you found a way in?”

”Yes,” said Rolliard. “There’s a watchtower several miles outside of the village. Inside is a tunnel that leads underground from there to Fruimont. Back in the days of the Eurchurch-Practitioner war the tower was used to smuggle supplies and refugees in and out of Fruimont. Quite useful. It’s your ticket in. You’ll have to take care of the mercenaries to get in of course, but it shouldn’t be too difficult. You can catch the Red Wraiths off guard - they won’t be expecting anyone to try and break in. So far no one has tried to oppose them. Here is the location marked on the map.”

He quickly slid a folded piece of paper in Sara’s hand and she tucked it in her pocket. “Thank you,” she told him gratefully. “This will help us greatly.”

Crow and she got up to leave.

They were just leaving the pub when she saw the woman from the church, who had knelt at the feet of the dead man, leaning against the wall, sobbing in her hands. Sara knew that she shouldn’t, but she approached her, making sure there were no Red Wraiths within view. “Ma’am, are you okay?” What a stupid question, Sara scolded herself. Of course she’s not okay!

The woman looked up at Sara cautiously. Her face was pale and wrinkled. Her hair, tied back, was mostly white with a few streaks of dark. “You’re not from around here,” she said. Her voice was thick with tears. She glanced at Crow who stood by Sara’s side. “Neither of you. What are you doing here?”

Sara couldn’t think of a reasonable lie so she stayed silent.

“The Scarlet Church with their demonspawn have spread through the ‘scape like a plague,” the woman said. “Things have always been bad, but never like this. The man they mutilated and hung up on the door for the crows to feed upon, he was the village’s priest; he helped take my daughter, Mael, under his wing when she was inaugurated as the village healer. She loved him. The Scarlet Church took her almost ten years ago. She was the first but she hasn’t been the last. Many young women and young girls have been disappearing as of late.”

The woman looked at Crow as if she suddenly recognized him. “I know you,” she said, stepping towards him. Her eyes were wide with reverence. “I’ve dreamt of you...Mercius came to me in a dream, to comfort me. He’d said you would come and rid us of the demon filth one day. He said you would avenge the death of my daughter Mael, of all our husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. Please, you must avenge them!”

Crow seemed to have frozen. After a moment he nodded, and said, “I’m sorry for your loss. But we must be going.” He looked at Sara, making it clear he wanted to leave this place, then started walking away.

She waited until leaving the village before asking, “What in the Infernal Depths was that about?”

“I don’t know.” The tone and expression on the practitioner’s face said otherwise.








 

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