When Barghast gently shook Crow awake the next morning the practitioner was cold and his back felt stiff.
Everyone was silent, not saying a word. Breakfast consisted of cold, tasteless oatmeal. If Aunt Lena had been alive to see what Crow was eating for breakfast she would have been horrified. Crow ate what was given to him without complaint. It was better than going on an empty stomach.
He rolled his bedroll up and set it in the corner of the room. Sitting back down on the dirty carpet he lit the first jalasa joint for the day. He might as well smoke one now for who knew when he would get the chance to have another. The others were watching Jack, waiting for him to give the orders.
“As we did last night we’re going to split into two groups,” he said. “Sara you will be with Lydia and I will go with Rake, Barghast you will be with Crow. Do what you have to do to blend in. Whatever you see, don’t try to be a hero. We’re only here to observe and gather intel nothing more. We meet back here at sun down. Don’t blow your cover and watch your backs at all times.”
Without another word the Stray Dogs filed out of the apartment. Their silence was thick with apprehension. When they were sure the coast was clear the two groups went their own separate ways: Sara, Lydia, and Rake headed east and Crow and Barghast headed north towards the center of the city.
Outside the sky was still dark and oppressive, with the sun just starting to show the barest hint of rising above the horizon. Merchants were in the process of setting up their booths for the day. The gloom Crow felt was reflected all around him. Even a blind person would be able to tell there’s something wrong with this place, he thought. Crow wanted to say something to Barghast, anything to break the tension, but his tongue felt as if it was glued to the bottom of his mouth. Instead he walked beside Barghast, doing his best to keep his shoulders straight and look authoritative as a Red Wraith would.
Sitting in the mouth of an alleyway was a young boy, perhaps ten or eleven-years-old. His face was gaunt underneath the spots of dirt and grime. When he saw Crow and Barghast coming his way he shifted and looked away as if by pretending not to notice them they wouldn’t notice him. His fearful reaction tugged at Crow’s heart. It doesn’t matter that we’re spying for the Inquisition. To him we’re wearing Red Wraith uniforms therefore we are Red Wraiths. No child should be out here in the cold like this, without food. But what could Crow do? He was undercover. It would look suspicious if he stopped to give the boy money for food; so he kept his eyes focused ahead of him and pretended not to notice the boy, as the boy had done with him, and just kept walking.
“You’re doing great,” said Barghast.
“Huh?” Crow said, barely having heard him he was so lost in thought.
“With that kid back there. I know it’s hard seeing children suffer like that. We’ll avenge him and everyone else when the Scarlet Church is wiped out.”
Crow snorted. “I don’t feel like I’m doing great. I feel like a useless piece of shit. I feel guilty above all else.”
At that moment Ex’olku spoke up: Go to the city square. You’ll find what you’re looking for there.
Crow didn’t bother to ask why. He’d learned not to ask Ex’olku questions a long time ago. “I have an idea,” he said, trying to sound as if something had just occurred to him. “We should go to the city square. There’s bound to be some interesting activity going on there.”
“Might not be a bad idea,” Barghast agreed.
Crow glanced at him for a moment. The Okanavian looked so odd in his Red Wraith uniform it was almost comical - but only because Crow knew better. Barghast played the part well: He was very good at looking intimidating. Even now people stepped aside to avoid getting in the way. Crow couldn’t help but wonder about Barghast’s past. He had heard stories about the outlaw - some of them painted a bloody picture that could chill the bone. In that regard Barghast and Rake were a lot alike.
Crow chose to ignore those stories - even though he knew there was some truth in them. The difference between Barghast and Rake was Crow knew Barghast regretted his past and could be gentle and kind. It was these qualities which helped Crow to see past the Okanavian’s scarred visage and made him attractive. In the end whatever his sins were did not matter to Crow. Besides, he told himself, it isn’t as if you don’t have plenty of blood on your hands. And there will be more before you see this to the end.
They didn’t have to walk far to find Fruimont’s square. The other Red Wraiths they spotted all seemed to be headed in the same direction, often in groups of two, threes, and fours. But it wasn’t just Red Wraiths heading towards the square, there were plenty of civilians too. Half way down the block Crow could hear the screams and a metallic sound that chilled his blood: the sound of a hammer hitting a nail. So this was where Ex’olku wanted him to go and this was what he wanted him to see. As if seeing it for the first time wasn’t bad enough, he thought.
A voice spoke, magnified by mana: “C’mon one and all! Don’t be shy, we are putting on a free show today! Come and see what happens to the sinners and blasphemers who deny and spit in the face of the Scarlet Church!”
The voice had the gleeful maddened sound of someone insane. When mixed with the screams of agony Crow had no idea human vocal cords could make, the sounds of nails being hammered into wood was nightmare music. And Crow and Barghast were heading towards the sound. The rapid drumming of Crow’s heart seemed perfectly in sync with the hammer falls. The terror he felt was magnified by the look of terror on Barghast’s face.
They rounded the corner, turning onto the square.
Crow had to reach up and grab Barghast’s shoulder to keep his legs from collapsing underneath him. What he saw before him was a nightmare tapestry in all its glory.
Hundreds of men, women, and children stood around the square looking up at the upraised platform. In front of the platform a man and woman had been crucified, their hands and ankles nailed into the wood. Both had been stripped naked, flogged, and beaten until they were bloody and bruised. Crow thought he could see a hint of the man’s ribs and he was missing an eye. Off to the left, dressed in rags and shackled, seven unfortunate souls awaited the same fate.
Sitting on the edge of the stage were the city’s officials. From Loras’s description he thought he recognized Benedik Matthiesen. The man who had once helped Loras in her revolt against the Eurchurch watched the horrid spectacle like someone trying to fool themselves into thinking it was all just a dream. There was a dullness to his eyes, a numbness. Sitting amongst the officials were half a dozen Scarlet Priests dressed in their scarlet robes, their cowls obscuring their features. Two of them appeared to be conversing about something and laughing quietly.
And standing at the front of the stage dressed in a red cloak made of red leather was the High Priest, Damen Orlys. Crow’s focus zeroed in on him. Here he was finally, after a year of searching and waiting.
Ex’olku had led Crow right to the man he was supposed to kill.
The High Priest held a sheet of paper in one gauntleted hand and in the other a microphone. Two loudspeakers stood on tripods on either side of him. “Next we have Cel Resnik,” said the High Priest. “His charge: Assault of a Red Priest. The sentence of his charge: Death by crucifixion. Bring Cel up here, if you please.”
The Red Wraith standing guard over the prisoners shoved an older man forward. The man fell to the ground with a cry, clutching at his knee. Every eye in the square turned to watch his fate. When the man did not get up right away the Red Wraith kicked him savagely in the face and ribs, cursing at him viciously. After a moment Cel managed to hobble to his feet; there was something wrong with his leg. Up on the stage two Red Wraiths were putting together another cross by nailing two pieces of wood together.
Other than what was taking place on stage the square had become unnaturally silent. Crow risked a glance around at all the people and was reminded of the husks he’d encountered when he’d entered the Abyss. They really weren’t all that different, only their eyes were brimming with fright.
Once more the Red Wraith shoved Cel towards the stage. To his credit the old man managed to stay on his two feet this time. He stumbled clusmily up the steps clutching at his stomach. His movements were jerky and awkward. It was agonizing to watch. He moved as if his entire body was twisted in ways it shouldn’t have been. What remained of his thinning white hair was blown around in a cutting gust of wind and sleet. His shackles dragged along the floor of the platform,
As he had with the boy Crow wanted to go to him, to save him, to save them all, but once again he could only watch. He was surrounded by Red Wraiths and Scarlet Priests alike. It would be foolish to try and take them all on and he didn’t know if he was strong enough to take the High Priest one-on-one.
Damen appraised Cel with a smile that was equal parts cruelty, madness, and cunning. He approached Cel, robes sweeping behind him. The old man’s torn lips peeled back from shattered teeth in a feral growl. One eye was completely swollen shut. The other bulged out of its socket, brimming with hate.
“Do you have any last words?” Damen asked before putting the microphone in Cel’s face.
Letting loose a howl of rage, Cel tore free of the Red Wraith’s gasp and lunged at the High Priest. Before he could reach Damen the chains binding his ankles together tautened and he stumbled. The Red Wraith stepped up behind him and knocked the old man in the back of the head with the butt of his rifle. A sickening thudding sound reverberated throughout the square. Somehow Cel managed to stay on his feet, yet the old man began to sob fearfully, what resolve he had left shattered.
He turned to look at Benedik and the officials. “Why?” he croaked; snot started to ooze from his bloodied nose. Now he looked at Benedik only. “Why won’t you do anything to stop them? This is your city and we are your people! We stood by your side in the rebellion against the Eurchurch. Help us!”
“Shut up you old gook!” the Red Wraith said. Another sickening thud sounded as he brought the muzzle of his gun against the side of Cel’s face, opening up a nasty gash. Immediately blood began to ooze rapidly from the wound. He stumbled forward and then fell. And yet he still remained conscious. A barrage of barbaric kicks got him crawling towards the cross.
Damen turned to face the crowd once more, grinning like the perfect host. He’s enjoying this, Crow thought. He’s literally getting off on it. How does a man grow to be so cruel?
“Can I get any volunteers?” Damen asked the crowd. “Does anyone want to do the honors?”
Hundreds of eyes watched him fearfully. Several heads turned to look around to see who would volunteer. No one moved. The stillness was maddening.
Damen’s almost playful expression shifted into one of concentration. His head was slightly cocked to the side as if someone was whispering a secret in his ear. The hairs on the back of Crow’s neck stood on end. He could feel the tension in the square building like an electric charge. Those cowled blue eyes combed through the crowd, moving from one face to the next. They passed over Barghast’s face and onto Crow’s...where they stopped. Those eyes studied him with such intensity as if to pierce Crow’s skull and see his thoughts. Crow suddenly felt very naked - not just naked but violated.
The High Priest’s lips spread into a slow, creeping smile. He pointed a single finger at Crow. “You there, young Wraith. Come up to the stage and prove you are worthy of the Scarlet Church.”