The entrance to the underground tunnel had been under the table. As soon as Jack, Lydia, and Rake arrived, Barghast pulled the grating free; it seemed to him to cost little to no effort. All of the Stray Dogs had changed into Red Wraith robes and tattooed the Red Wraith mark on their hand - the ink was of course temporary and would fade in a few days.
Sara looked down into the tunnel and felt her throat constrict. A ladder led down into the tunnel. There was nothing but darkness below. She was not looking forward to the long journey through the tunnels or facing what lay ahead afterwards when they reached the city. There was too much they didn’t know. This could very well be a suicide mission, she thought. Who knows what Loras is sending us into?
While she’d always known, figuratively at least, she could die at any moment she’d never felt the imminence of that happening. Now she did. The fear of death lurked inside of her and in the tunnel below, a mysterious sentient thing.
You could just not go. You’re not a convict, you volunteered. You can unvolunteer, let the others do the fighting. You can walk away from this.
But even as the thought entered her mind, disturbing her in the process, Sara knew she would climb down the ladder and follow the other Stray Dogs wherever they went. How could she not? Even if she was pissed at her she could never leave Lydia. After all Lydia was the reason, the real reason she had volunteered in the first place: to make sure Lydia lived long enough to be free once more - so they could have a life, a real life.
There were times when she wondered why she couldn’t have fallen in love with a woman who was easier to love or why she had to fall in love at all.
The others were grim, silent.
“Did I mention I hate closed in spaces?” Barghast said; his voice sounded like gravel grating against steel. He was trying to be funny Sara knew, always trying to offer comedy relief to relieve the tension within the group. But him saying this only deepened her fear. If the most infamous robber in the ‘scape was afraid what did this mean for the rest of them?
“Let’s get this over with,” Rake said. If anyone didn’t look afraid it was him; in fact he looked like he wanted to go down there. What else could you expect from a homicidal sociopath?
Lydia set a large case on the ground and snapped the clasp open. Inside were oil lamps and containers of oil.
“These must have cost the Eurchurch a small fortune. I feel privileged. ”
Once the lamps had been lit, Rake was the first to climb down into the tunnel, then Lydia, then Barghast and Jack. Sara was next. She approached it cautiously, as if something would pop out and try to attack her. Already she was finding it difficult to breathe.
She turned to Crow. He looked back. There seemed to be a sadness around him, his eyes full of ghosts she couldn’t comprehend. She thought of the strange things the poor woman in Olmstead had said to him. What had she meant by it all? And why did Crow keep avoiding the subject? She knew there were things he wasn’t telling her, wasn’t telling any of them. Did his secrets pose any danger to the group. One day I intend to find out, she thought with a sudden pulse of determination. Lies are always revealed by the light eventually.
“I’m afraid,” she said to Crow. “I hate cramped, dark places. I hate the feeling of being trapped. What frightens you?”
“These days almost everything,” he said. “But there’s one thing that frightens me the most.”
He handed her a lamp. “Going mad.”
The tunnels reeked of mold and rat shit. And there were rats in the tunnel, fat ones. Sara stepped around them, afraid they would bite her. In the back of her mind she knew this was very unlikely - they were just as afraid of her as she was of them; but the fear of being trapped in this tunnel, whether the others were with her or not, was irrational, and like all irrational fears it was inescapable. It was everything she could do to keep breathing, to focus on Lydia just a few paces ahead of her.
After an hour of walking through the dripping tunnel, with nothing but the illumination of the lamps, Sara wanted to scream. She couldn’t stand the claustrophobia. Insanity-inducing fear crept its way up Sara’s throat, threatening to burst out in the form of a scream. Once she dropped her lamp. As it hit the ground the glass shattered and oil spilled out. The flame went out. She cursed, thinking she might weep, when Crow handed her his lamp.
“Thanks,” she said, her chest heaving as she fought to catch her breath.
His lip turned up at the corner. “I’m afraid too.”
“You don’t look it.”
He sighed. “I’ve just been afraid so long it’s become natural.”
“What keeps you going?”
“Right now? Knowing there are people counting on us to bring a stop to this.” He cleared his throat. “Do you remember me telling you about Aunt Lena? During the Eurchurch-Practitioner War, the people of Annesville hated her for taking me in after the death of my parents. Even though the townspeople hated her, hated the both of us, they came to her for healing - and she did it. It didn’t matter who it was or what they were sick from, she always did her best to help them. She must have helped too many people. By the time the village doctor told her the tumor was there it was already too late; the headaches had started and her memory started to lapse. She became delirious...and with no one to help me I had to take care of her on my own until the day she died. I remember feeling utterly helpless.”
Sara was awestruck. Not once had Crow mentioned having an aunt or anything about his past. She couldn’t imagine having to take on such a responsibility - having to try and take care of a dying aunt. And he was just a kid - still is just a kid. “I’m sorry,” she said. She felt guilty for being suspicious of him. “I know you probably hate it when people tell you that but it’s the-”
“Only thing you can think of to say,” he said.
He shrugged, his face appearing ghostly in the dark. “It is what it is. I try not to let it bring me down too much, y'know? Right now I’m thinking about how the people in Fruimont are feeling. They must feel powerless, like there’s no hope. I don’t want anyone feeling how I felt when I took care of my aunt, under any circumstances. It’s why I’m here.”
Sara was dumbstruck. How can Lydia and Rake hate him? she wondered. How can anyone hate him? She felt nothing but admiration and...just awe...for the young practitioner.
It seemed like an eternity passed before Rake suggested they take a break and eat something. He reached into a pack and passed out granola bars and a large thermos of water. They passed it and ate in silence. Sara hated the granola bar but ate it anyway. It didn’t quench the hunger she felt growling in the pit of her stomach but it was enough to give her a little more energy. After they were finished eating they got up and continued their way through the darkened tunnels in silence.
We’re getting close, Crow thought. He didn’t know if it was just his fear tricking his mind but the further down the tunnel the Stray Dogs went the more frigid the air seemed to get. What awaited him on the other side?
For the last year he’d kept his real mission a secret from the others. It hadn’t been an easy thing to do. Loras had been the only person he’d ever told but there had been so many other times when he’d wanted to tell someone else: Sara and Barghast. Barghast specifically. But something had always kept him from doing so; whether it was some form of instinct or Ex’olku he didn’t know. There was only one thing he was certain of: At some point he would have to split away from them and go his own way.
The knowledge of knowing this was coming both frightened and saddened him. Though he knew a majority of the squad would rather he get killed by a stray bullet, he’d fought with them for the last year. He couldn’t help but feel it was his responsibility to look out for them. Even Rake despite how much he despised the man.
He was so lost in thought he walked into Barghast; it was like walking into a brick wall. Muttering a hasty sorry he looked about to see why Barghast had stopped.
To his surprise they were standing underneath a sort of sewer grating with a ladder running up the wall. He could see illumination shining through the metal grid, hear the sound of vehicles passing by. How is it we’re already here? he thought. Sleet was falling down on him. The flakes caressed his cheek like a cool hand.
Jack, the first up the ladder, signalled for them to wait and then climbed up, lifted the grating and stepped out into the night. Going as fast as they could D-Squad took turns climbing up the ladder. Crow was the last to go up. He sighed in relief, inhaling the fresh air.
All members of D-Squad stood in the middle of a narrow alley. Jack put the sewer grating back in place and gestured for the others to huddle close. He pulled out one of the maps Loras had given them and pointed at a spot circled in red marked Addison Street. “This is where we’re at, directly in the middle of Fruimont. “We need to find a place where we can duck without drawing attention to ourselves…”
Jack’s words became lost in the echo of Ex'olku's voice. “There is an abandoned apartment building on Chamblin Street. Go there.”
Crow looked at Jack. “There's an abandoned apartment building on Chamblin Street - the poor district. It isn’t the best lodgings but it's out of the cold and the Red Wraiths won't worry about it. It's safe.”
“How do you know that?” Lydia demanded briskly.
“Loras mentioned it before we left Miffridge.”
“Why would she say this to you and not me?” Jack demanded with a frown.
Crow grimaced inwardly, wishing he hadn’t said anything.“I don't know,” Crow said before he could stop himself, “maybe she just doesn't like you.”
Seeming to find this funny, Barghast chuckled but said nothing.
Sara exhaled impatiently, her breath misting in the air. “Let's just check it out. I don't like the idea of being out here anymore than we have to.”
In the end it was decided they split up into two groups: Rake, Lydia, and Jack in one group and Crow, Barghast and Sara in the other. They would converge at the abandoned apartment building.
The streets of Fruimont were deserted except for the Red Wraiths patrolling the streets. Though Sara, Barghast, and Crow were disguised Crow couldn’t help but feel exposed. The Red Wraiths they passed nodded at them in greeting and Crow made sure to nod back. His heart was pounding so fast he feared it would give him and the others away. The comfort of Barghast and Sara’s presence, wanting to keep them safe and knowing Ex’olku was counting on his success, kept him in check. The others were just as silent and composed. It was strange. This was usually the time when Barghast would tell a joke and try to break the tension.
As Loras had instructed them to do, Crow had memorized the map of Fruimont. Years of hunting through the woods behind his aunt’s house had helped him with learning how to navigate; a year of being a member of D-Squad had only enhanced this. It didn’t take them long to find the apartment building. It was a shabby square building that appeared to have been abandoned for quite some time. Standing vigil in the dark, awash in silver moonlight, it was an eerie sight. With the shattered windows, peeling paint and graffiti it certainly looked uninviting.
Rake, Lydia, and Jack had not shown up.
“We should go ahead and go inside,” Crow said, glancing nervously up and down the street. “We don’t want anyone to think we’re just standing around.”
“Agreed,” said Barghast.
“What about the others?” Sara asked. She was also looking up and down the street. Crow sympathized with her; he knew she was worried about Lydia even though they were fighting. Even when the two women were arguing they loved each other.
“I’ll stand outside and watch for them,” Crow said. “It might not be a bad idea to scout out the inside of the building just in case there are squatters already inside.”
“Another good idea.” Barghast gently nudged him with his shoulder. “You’re getting awfully good at this stuff.”
“I was merely pointing out the progress you’re making.”
Crow grinned despite himself. “Get your ass in there before you blow our cover and kill us all.”
Barghast saluted him, shotgun cradled in one beefy arm. “Aye aye, captain.”
Crow flipped the Okanavian the middle finger and slipped back into the shadows so no one could see him. He turned his thoughts away from all else and turned his attention to looking out for them.
As always, when coming to a new place, Crow felt out of place. A stranger in a strange place, sticking out like a sore thumb. In the beginning he had felt a sense of wonder. After leaving Annesville it had taken him six months to travel to the Eurchurch, doing odd jobs along the way (some of them things he would never tell a soul). Those six months had been frightening and wondrous at the same time. There had been times when he wondered if he would make it to Miffridge, when he wondered if he wasn’t just making a big mistake.
Now there was no wonder to be had anymore. In the year he’d been with the Stray Dogs he’d grown up beyond the measure of years; he’d done things he’d never thought he would do. Some of those things kept him up at night, wondering just what else he would have to do to see the end of Ex’olku’s vision. Now every place the Eurchurch sent D-Squad was just a variation of some other place they’d visited.
Crow lit a jalasa joint, shielding the glow from the match so as not to be seen, and chuckled inwardly. This is what happens when you hang around cutthroats, assassins, and thieves, he thought. You become cynical.
But then I was already cynical.
He spotted Jack, Rake, and Lydia coming out of a narrow alley across the street. He stepped out of the shadows of the building and waved them over.
“Sara and Barghast are inside scouting the place out,” he explained. “Everything seems fine as of now.” Without another word he led them inside. He didn’t want to be alone with Rake and Lydia. Being around them when he knew they didn’t want Crow around only made him feel more out of place.
The building smelled of dust and mold. They walked down a long hallway with doors on both sides. Crow spotted several rats. Once upon a time he would have shuddered at the thought of sleeping in such a place but now he was grateful not to be outside. At least now they had a roof over their head, away from the elements. Crow, Lydia, and Rake rendezvoused with Barghast and Sara at the next corridor.
Crow caught the look of relief on Sara’s face quickly extinguished by an expression of stubborn defiance. He had to cough into the crook of his shoulder so she couldn’t see him laughing.
“The place is clear,” Barghast said. “We have the place to ourselves. We could take separate rooms if we wanted.”
“We’re all staying in one room,” Jack said. “It’ll be tight and uncomfortable with five people in one room but I’d rather us all be together if something happens.”
If anyone objected no one said anything. At this point Crow didn’t care where they slept, he was so tired. The others looked as exhausted as he felt.
Crow went back and set up wards along the stairway so the Stray Dogs would be alerted should anyone try to climb up the stairs. They ended up staying in a tiny one room apartment on the second floor. With his eyes feeling heavy, Crow unrolled his sleeping bag. It no longer crossed his mind that he was sleeping in a foreign place. He was exhausted from the constant travel and fighting. There was no longer such a thing as feeling homesick. The life he’d lived before the Eurchurch he’d buried with his aunt. Like the rest of the Stray Dogs he truly had no home and no one to grieve for him if he failed his mission.