It wasn’t difficult to get away; communicating with Sara through mana, Crow told her Rake and Lydia were on their way. While times were tense due to war no one expected anyone to try and attack Fort Erikson - not before the scouts saw them from miles away. Sara made her way to the stables, on the southern side of the fort.
She slipped through the double doors, into cooler shadows. She held up a lamp, standing in a dome of dancing orange light. The head of a large mare turned to look at her curiously, chomping on a mouthful of straw. She resisted the urge to call for Rake and Lydia, her throat working anxiously; she didn’t want to give away their position. But she wanted to get out of the darkness, where something might be lurking around the corner.
She stepped cautiously forward, breathing in the smell of straw and sawdust. Her eyes continued to search through the shadows. She didn’t know why she felt so afraid all the sudden, this was where Rake and she had agreed to meet. The horse’s calm indifference towards her presence provided at least a small sense of comfort.
Out of nowhere she felt her foot catch up against something hard. She stumbled and fell flat on her face. She found herself staring into the lifeless eyes of a dead Red Wraith woman. Her face was set in a permanent look of shock, the eyes glassy. Her throat had been slashed from side to the other. Already flies were beginning to congregate over her body.
The only thing that kept Sara from screaming was the knowledge that if she did a platoon of Red Wraiths would come running to the stable to see what had happened. Making a strangled moaning sound, Sara stumbled to her feet. Next to the woman, just a few feet away, was the corpse of a man. She wondered how she couldn’t have noticed them, even in the dark. The church of flies should have been clue enough. Don’t get sloppy, she told herself firmly, her hand shaking. Keep your head screwed on tight. Stay alive.
She turned only to meet a familiar pair of uncanny blue eyes.
Sara felt a wave of strong dislike wash over her at the sight of Rake’s narrow, weasel-like face. His expression showed only slack-faced detachment. It was his level of apathy that disturbed her the most.
“I see you’ve been busy,” Sara said. She nodded stiffly towards the two corpses; her shoulders shook, still startled from having fallen over the legs of the woman.
“I didn’t do it all by m’self,” Rake said. “I did the man, Lydia did the woman.”
“I opened my mouth to warn you but before I could you’d already fallen,” Lydia said apologetically, stepping into the circle of light.
Sara’s anger and embarrassment was momentarily relieved by the sight of her lover. She resisted the urge to embrace her. Now was not the time, not when they were in the middle of such a dangerous mission. Only when we’re safe - that’s the rule.
“Forget it,” she said, trying to sound flippant. “I just wasn’t expecting it. Try warning me sooner next time.” She glared at Rake, hoping the mask was convincing enough to hide her fear of him.. “Did you have to kill them, though?”
“Not exactly, no. But the way I see it there’s two less Red Wraith bastards for the Inquisition to worry about.” There was no remorse in Rake’s voice, no moral qualms about taking the lives of others. And why should there be? Rake “Knife-Blade” Randall was one of the two most notorious bandits in the hellscape, Barghast being the other; both were now trying to complete their sentence in hopes of finding freedom again. While both were renowned criminals there were a few differences between them, Sara thought. Barghast left his victims standing (most of the time) and was likable with some redeemable qualities. Rake on the other hand killed those he stole from and had no redeemable qualities.
She couldn’t wait for the day when either misfortune took his life away or his sentence had reached its end and he moved on from D-squad. Not that Lydia was a whole lot better. Killing came just as naturally to her as it did to Rake and Barghast which was why she too was a part of the squad. Besides Crow and Jack, Sara was the only one in their rag-tag group of scrappers not doing time.
“Any news on Faulko?”
Sara felt her shoulders droop. She set the lamp down on the blood splattered straw; her arm had gone numb from holding it up. “Not good. I don’t know if he’s going to hold out much longer without some serious healing. We need to get to him. Tonight.”
Rake leaned over and spat a large wad of tobacco-colored saliva on the dead woman by their feet. “Not without a plan.”
Sara fought to keep her voice level. It wasn’t a good idea to piss the cutthroat off: He could be glacial one second and threatening to slide his blade across your throat the next; only the consequence of facing the noose kept him from doing it. You never knew what was going to set him off. Still she couldn’t completely keep her mouth shutt on this one. “The plan is already in place. With it being night time, no one will be expecting. Most of the wraiths are asleep. There’s only one guard watching Fulko. And I can’t believe I’m suggesting this but if you put on these uniforms” - she nodded at the two corpses - “and keep your heads low, no one will suspect you’re anything other than Red Wraiths.”
“And if we get cornered?” Rake’s mouth was twisted into a scowl.
“I can contact Crow. Jack, Barghast, and they can come and get us. We’ll just have to hold our own until then.”
Rake frowned, seeming to think it over, but Sara knew he’d already made up his mind. “No. I’m not risking it.”
Afraid of risking your own neck for someone else, throatcutter? “He’ll die tomorrow if you don’t,” Sara insisted. “If we get to him now I might be able to heal him enough to get him moving. Lydia, for Mercius’ sake, help me out here.”
Lydia rolled her eyes, turning her head towards Rake. She hated it when Sara brought her between their squabbles. “I say we just get it over with. If we fail, Dradjen is just going to try and hang me, you, and Barghast. Frankly I don’t want to hear him bitch. Him or Loras.”
Rake growled, rolled his eyes; his way of making a fuss. “Neither do I, come to think of it. Alright. Help us strip them, healer.”
The three Stray Dogs set to work stripping the two soldiers. Sara wrinkled her nose as she threw a large boot into the straw. Desert heat was not good for one’s hygiene - not that she’d known very many men to be hygienic. Once the two dispatched Red Wraiths had been stripped of their uniforms and their bodies hidden in an empty stall, Rake and Lydia changed into the stolen uniforms while Sara stood by the stable door, watching through the crack to make sure no one was coming in their direction.
Her blood thrummed with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Finally they were going to do something! She couldn’t wait to get away from this place. Across the way she could still see the three corpses still hanging from the gallows. She wanted to be away from this oppressive place, back in Miffland.
The sound of boots crushing straw into the floor alerted her. Her lips parted in surprise. Lydia hardly looked like a woman anymore. Her features had always been hard, made harder by the sun. Her skin, usually pale, had become reddened exposure to the heat. Black almond shaped eyes looked at her from beneath the brim of a hat, which cast a shadow over the sharp angles of her cheekbones. While Lydia could never be said to be beautiful in the conventional ways she looked more like a man more than ever, her long black hair tucked away out of sight.
Lydia smiled, something she rarely did for anyone else but Sara. “It’s still me,” she said.
“Barely,” Sara whispered. The thought that Lydia looked like a boy only made her want to kiss the woman more. Of course Rake had to interrupt the moment with one his scratchy scowls.
“You two can kiss later,” he grated, “when we’re well away from this place.”
Sara gave him a venomous look but bit her tongue.
“You know where you’re going?” Rake asked her.
“Of course,” said Sara. I’ve only been here for three days, memorizing every nook and cranny while you’ve been hiding, she added silently.
“Then lead on.”
With Sara leading the way, the three Stray Dogs stepped out from the safety of the shadows.
Sara felt vulnerable like an exposed rat as she led Rake and Lydia across the square. She was afraid the pounding of her heart would give her identity away, reveal her to be a fraud. They climbed the steps and turned, heading down the corridor towards the cellblock. The two guards didn’t realize something wasn’t right until the Stray Dogs were halfway to them; when they did, the one guard looked at the other and then their hands tightened simultaneously around their rifles.
By then Lydia had pulled out two blades, small enough to fit in the palms of her hands, and threw them through the air with a seemingly casual flick of her wrists. Sara barely caught the silver flicker of the blades before small twins of spraying blood drifted through the air, and the men fell to the ground. Rake and Lydia dove in like two birds in perfect synchronization with each other, catching them before they hit the floor.
Sara was the first through the door. She turned her head just in time to see a guard rising from the chair he’d been sitting in. Sara’s fist flew towards his face, connecting with his jaw. Skin rippled like wind blowing through water. She followed the punch with the edge of her elbow. His head slammed into the bars of the cell behind, making a satisfying pinging sound. She stepped back. Somewhere, deep inside her a part that had yet to be corrupted gaped in shock. When had she learned to be capable of such violence? But this sliver of her soul was drowned out by the wave of satisfaction that passed through her.
Rake and Lydia stood by the door, listening. They’d dragged the bodies of the two dead guards into the room. They were lifelessly sprawled across the floor like bleeding rag dolls. Sara snagged the keys off the guard she’d incapacitated and went to Faulko’s cell. She’d made sure to remember which key she would need to unlock the door. She could barely hear Faulko’s breath rattling wetly in his throat. She ducked inside the cell and stooped over the man’s brutalized body. She pressed two thumbs against his neck. “I can barely feel his pulse. He’s just moments from death’s door. Given his condition, without a diversion, there’s no way we’re going to be able to get him out of here. I’m going to contact Crow and tell him to create a distraction.”
Rake nodded. “Tell him to make it snappy.”
Sara nodded. She closed herself and drew her mana in around herself. Her skin began to shimmer with a peternatural light. She didn’t have to reach out far with her mind to sense Crow - she could sense him close by.
Crowe, we’ve found Fulko. He’s alive but he’s not in good condition. If we’re going to have any chance of getting him out of here we need a diversion. Please hurry…
Ten seconds later Crow’s mental voice spoke in her mind: Are you and the others safe?
Yes, we’re hiding in the cell block. We haven’t been caught...yet.
Okay, I’m telling Barghast and Jack now. Less than a minute later: We’re on our way. The shimmer around Sara died. She opened her eyes and drew in a deep breath, glancing at the others. “They’re on their way. Be ready. Rake, while we’re waiting, I’m going to see if I can heal Fulko enough to at least get him moving.”
Rake nodded. “Don’t give him too much, Sara. We don’t need you exhausting yourself.”
She went into Fulko’s cell. He was still lying there in a fetal position, breathing his wet, broken breaths. “Fulko,” she said, “can you hear me?”
Fulko jerked and began to sob helplessly. He’s afraid, Sara thought. Mercius, may you cast your rays on him. Help us to get out of here. Don’t let him die, not after everything he’s been through.
“Please,” the old man croaked. “Don’t hurt me...”
“Shhh,” Sara whispered. Have I ever seen anything so heart wrenchingly pitiful? Yes, she realized. Every dying thing was pitiful, sadly beautiful in their demise. “We’re not going to hurt you, Fulko. We’re here to take you home, to take you to safety. My name’s Sara, I’m a healer. I’m going to relieve the pain a little bit, okay? It won’t be much but at least you’ll be able to move.”
He nodded. It seemed to be the only movement he was capable of. She gently put a hand on his forehead. Drawing on her mana a second time, her hand began to shimmer with green light as healing mana seeped from her body into his. Each bit of mana she gave was agony, like hot knives stabbing into her brain, all over her body, to the foundation of her very being. The only thing that kept her hanging on was the healer’s vow she’d taken over and over again like a prayer: I give some of myself to you; take it and live.
Several minutes passed. Time was stretching, losing all definition. A part of her mind surfaced above the disorienting fog she found herself falling into.
Sara could hear the rattle of gunfire but it was distant and echoey, as if the sound was traveling through a pipe. Too much, she thought, leaning drunkenly against the cell door. I gave him too much.
And though she had given him too much of herself it wasn’t enough, not nearly. To heal the physical trauma inflicted upon Faulko’s body it would take a half dozen healers at least - and there would still be plenty of scarring. As far as the damage that had been done to his mind - there was no telling. Mana could only heal the body. The mind was a force of its own.
Every sound sent a sharp, throbbing pain through her skull, like blades cutting through flesh. However the pain wasn’t just in her head, it was in her shoulders and back as well. All over. Everything hurt. When it came to using mana there was always a cost, whether for the healer or the practitioner. For Sara it was pain. It could be said when she healed, she took pain into herself. This wasn’t the case; she did not absorb their pain. It was caused by the process of using mana.
She glanced at the Euchurchman. Many of the bruises had faded from his chest and his arms; his eyes were open, no longer swollen. Now he was sitting upright, looking at her with bright blue eyes only now he looked confused and frightened. “Who are you?” he asked. He still looked small, like a feeble child.
Before Sara could answer there was a shout followed by another rattle of gunfire. Bullet holes riddled the door between the cellblock and the corridor outside. “Get back!” she heard Rake scream to Lydia. Lydia slid back into the cell next to Sara without so much as casting a glance at Fulko.
“Don’t move,” Sara Fulko, and waited, hoping Crow and Barghast were on their way.
Somewhere someone screamed in pain. A second later the floor trembled beneath their feet. Sara was tense, her nerves tight with anticipation. Lydia glanced at her; sweat was dripping down the side of her face. “The practitioner must be giving them hell,” she said.
Why do you always call him “the practitioner”? Why can’t you ever call him by his name? Sara bit the words back - now was not the time. Instead she said, “He must be.”
Sara thought there were at least three Red Wraiths trapping the three of them - no wait, four if you included Fulko - in the cell block. Several more of them lay on the ground, dead. Outside it sounded like a full on war zone.
Sara’s gun clicked dry. She ejected the clip and was getting ready to slam in a fresh one when Lydia cried out, throwing herself away from the bars. Blood was seeping from her fingers where a stray bullet had caught her in the shoulder.
“Rake!” Sarah shouted, hoping their squad leader could hear her voice over the roar of the gun fire. “Lydia’s wounded!”
“Aye,” he responded, peeking around the bars long enough to lay suppressing fire on the Red Wraiths. One of them made the unfortunate mistake of peeking around the ruined doorway at the time and dropped out of sight.
Sara knelt down beside Lydia. With practiced fingers she reached into one of the pouches and pulled out a flat piece of rubber. “You know the drill,” she told Lydia.
“Yeah,” Lydia muttered sarcastically, “just another normal day in the hellscape, right honey?”