Crow, Barghast, and Sara made their way through the trees. Each gentle gust of the cold winter air brought unbidden memories, memories Crow had tried to distance himself from since joining the Stray Dogs: Aunt Lena and he sledding down steep hills, laughing together; setting rabbit traps and gutting the rabbits they caught to make stew; the locals that came to visit Aunt Lena when they were sick, even though they hated her and would rather she be burned at the stake along with his parents. Being back reminded him of how clean the air smelled at this elevation.
Deep down inside he could feel the fear that had engulfed him back at Fort Erikson; since bumping into the grieving woman at Olmstead, the fear had returned. It was an old fear, one which had grown over time. The fear of failure, of being helpless, and never being able to find peace; the fear at failing at a responsibility far too great. It was the fear that woke him up in the middle of the night, sweating, peering in the corners for signs of danger. It was an irrational fear, the fear of everything. And yet it was the only thing keeping him going, one foot in front of the other. Barghast and Sara were right behind him, their presence punctuated by the brittle snow and twigs crunching beneath their boots. Crow, in the territory where he’d been raised and lived most of his life, made the least noise.
And then there was the fear he would be exposed to the Stray Dogs. Sara kept looking at him suspiciously, not saying anything. How long would it be before she started asking questions? And how long would it be before he could no longer evade them? They can’t find out. It would ruin everything. But it was getting more and more difficult to keep his secrets.
Crow saw the watchtower first. Hiding behind the trunk of a large pine tree, he held a hand out to Barghast and Sara, signalling for them to stop. The tower, built like the castles in the medieval days of the Old World, was tall and made of limestone. There were two Red Wraiths standing in front of the arched door, the only entrance and exit to the building from what he could see. He could see a few more Red Wraiths at the top. Several miles away, preceded by rolling hills of snow, were the walls of Fruimont.
Crow felt a chill go up his spine. The dread resting in the pit of his stomach threatened to overwhelm him for just outside the walls he could see the victims who had been crucified. He was just far enough away he couldn’t see the full extent of what had been done to them and for this he was grateful.
He latched onto the fear, and lurking beneath the fear, his anger; these emotions were his propellant. Remember, he told himself. If you think it’s bad now it’ll be worse if the Scarlet Church succeeds with whatever it is they’re planning.
He went to step out from behind the concealment of the trees but before he could take a second step Barghast grabbed him by the hood of his robes and pulled him back.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the Okanavian hissed. His surprise was reflected in the wide-eyed look Sara was giving him, though she said nothing.
Crow felt a stab of annoyance with the both of them. “There are people - innocent people - being slaughtered in that town, too afraid and confused to be able to defend themselves. Do you not see the people crucified out there right now?” He pointed towards the city of Fruitmont with a finger to drive his point home. “They’re counting on us. I’m done waiting.”
“We don’t know how many Red Wraiths are in the watchtower. Let’s just think for a moment how we’re going to do this.”
Crow’s eyes misted over as he drew on his mana. “Fuck that. You can stay here if you want but I’m doing this.”
Without another word he stepped out from behind the trees and began approaching the watchtower.
As Crow marched purposely towards the watchtower Barghast swore and turned to Sara. “We better go after him before he gets himself killed.”
Sara merely nodded, pulling out her daggers. Barghast pumped his shotgun and jumped out from behind the trees. The two Red Wraiths guarding the entrance to the watchtower had spotted Crow and were fumbling with their weapons. Before either of them could fire a shot, Crow waved a hand and a blast of flame threw the two Red Wraiths off their feet and crashing through the door of the watchtower in a shower of splinters.
The Red Wraiths at the top of the tower unleashed a torrent of rapid fire on Crow. The bullets bounced off the protective dome of mana Crow had encased himself in, kicking up dirt and snow. They were so focused on Crow they weren’t paying attention to Barghast or Sara. Barghast decided to use the opportunity to take out some of the Red Wraiths before they were inside.
Each blast from the shotgun sent reverberating jerks of impact up Barghast’s arm. The top half of a Red Wraith’s head was vaporized by one of his shots and tumbled seventy feet to the ground. It hit the ground with a sickening splat, staining the snow with splatters of blood and brain.
Directly ahead of him Sara dashed into the watchtower. Cursing in his head, Barghast ducked into whatever hellstorm was taking place inside.
Several Red Wraiths were hiding behind the cover of a wooden table which they were using as a barricade. A deck of playing cards lay discarded on the floor. Sparks exploded in the corner of Crow’s vision as bullets ricocheted off his protective shield. Their bullets were useless against his magic and still they fired for all the difference it would make. He wasn’t invincible, but guns were obsolete when it came to magic.
Flashes of light shot from his hands, cutting into the table like knives. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a Red Wraith come lumbering down the stairs. Sara’s knives were a blur through the air, slicing the Red Wraith’s neck open. He went down, making a wet gurgling sound. Taking a shot in the chest from Barghast’s gun, a Red Wraith went tumbling over the side of the table. Crow began making his way up the stairs, which spiraled all the way to the top of the tower.
With every Red Wraith that went down he could fool himself into thinking he was making a difference. Adrenaline shot through his body, making everything slow down and quicken at the same time. In these chaotic moments it was easy to fool himself into thinking his efforts weren’t in vain. Or so he told himself. With every Red Wraith body he dropped, there was an underlying sense of excitement and satisfaction. The woman from Olsted’s words flashed through his mind: 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!
And so I will, he thought, even if it means I have to make every Red Wraith and Scarlet Church bastard bleed.
With a wild war cry a Red Wraith lunged at Crow with a machete. He stepped out of the way, shoulders brushing up against the wall, and shoved her off the flight of stairs. Her blood-curdling scream was abruptly cut off with a sickening thud. The twin blades of Sara’s daggers sunk through the worn armor of another Red Wraith.
Sara and I are the only ones here without a sentence, Crow thought. But it doesn’t matter. We’re killers all the same, our hands washed in blood. Once he would have seen a sort of tragic irony in this but now it no longer bothered him. Surely any life killed in the process of stopping the Scarlet Church was worth it in the end.
Now at the top of the tower he blasted the door off its hinges with a ball of fire. It slammed into one of the two remaining Red Wraiths and sent him flying over the edge of the tower. The other raised his gun but before he could pull the trigger Barghast decapitated him with a shot from his shotgun. Like a blood-filled balloon, the Red Wraith’s head literally exploded. The warm feeling of the blood splattering Crow jarred him from his half-stupor. Once again, like so many times before over the last year, the impact of what he’d done hit him with the force of a sledgehammer.
He was a killer. Killing was easy. And though he would never fully admit it to himself there was a part deep down inside that loved these missions. Not only did it give him the purpose his life had lacked back in the Plaesil mountains but it also made his blood rush - until moments like this when the guilt and regret pulled him back to reality. He looked at the corpses that littered the top of the tower and felt incredibly sick to his stomach.
Even when you think you’re doing things for the right reason you still lose a part of your soul every time you kill someone. Every fucking time. What would Aunt Lena think if she were to see what I’ve become? Would she be proud of me or would she be disappointed?
Crow thought he knew the answer - but then again he really didn’t know anything anymore, did he?
Loras knelt in the dimness of her office, in a circle of candles; she’d drawn the drapes over the windows and lit several incense sticks. She breathed in the smell of perfume and lavender and jalasa. I shouldn’t be doing this, she thought. It’s dangerous. For all I know he’s been turned to their cause.
But then he wouldn’t see her, would he?
She had to see him.
She focused and felt her Aspect leave her body. It traveled through the roof of the Eurchurch headquarters, over Miffland, and the hellscape. She was far too nervous to enjoy the trip. It had been several years since she last saw him. She was sure there would be changes to his appearance and character. To both of ours, she thought.
A few moments later - it was hard to say how much time had passed - her astral body floated through the roof of his office. He was sitting in his chair, hands buried in his face. She could feel the weight of his guilt resting upon his shoulders, making them sag slightly. He lifted his face after a moment and she could see how much he’d aged. His hair had turned grey and there were lines of stress and worry etched into his face. His eyes had reddened with tears.
My dear Benedict, she thought, what have you done to yourself?
Loras’ heart lurched with pain. Somewhere within the cynical caricature she could see the man she had once loved. Back then he had been full of wit and bravery, a man who wore his morals on his sleeve. Like her father, (who had given her and the people who fought with her asylum in the city of Fruimont) he had supported her cause, but in a completely different way. He comforted her on the nights when she doubted herself the most, providing her encouragement and clarity when she needed it the most; and holding her, kissing her, loving her when she couldn’t do any of those things herself. When their affair had first started her heart had been cold. She was only in it for the touch. She would lay awake at night still haunted by the guilt of her husband and daughter, sick with feelings of guilt that she was betraying Janif, with Benedict’s slumbering form next to him.
But she couldn’t stop herself from loving him, no matter how hard she tried to.
Upon seeing him in his brokenness she loved him still, now more than ever when it was apparent that picking up his father’s Bduties had whittled away at him like a thick branch reduced to splinters.
“Benedict,” she whispered. “Hang in there. Help is on the way. You only have to be strong a little while longer.”
He looked up then, right at her. He squinted. She froze. Could he see her? Surely not. Only those with mana in their blood would be able to see her. But he was looking intently in her direction, head cocked as if he’d seen something. Time passed before he sighed and muttered, “You’re losing it old man.”
Then he stood up, grabbed his jacket, and left his office, closing the door softly behind him.
With a flash Lora felt her Aspect crash back into her body. She fell back, gasping for breath, her body shaking. Her heart stung with grief and longing.”Benedict,” she whispered, resting a hand on her breast. “Oh Benedict...”