Crow was convinced he was in a dream though the chilly morning air invading his body proved the contrary. It seemed every eye in the square turned their focus on him, waiting to see if he would resist or obey. It was as if the entire world was holding its breath. For the moment he was the spectacle, not Cel.
If they want a spectacle, he thought darkly, I’ll give them a spectacle. I can take him on the stage right now.
You know what you have to do, said Ex’olku.
In the end Crow knew this to be true - he was not ready to take on the High Priest of the Scarlet Church. Not yet. Damn you, Crow said back. Damn you, why did you have to pick me? Why couldn’t you have picked someone stronger? Someone with the balls to do what needs to be done?
Ex’olku’s reply: Trust me and know the path I have chosen for you.
Cursing the mysterious entity who had chosen him for its purpose, Crow rounded his shoulders and took a step forward. To his surprise Barghast grabbed his shoulder. The Okanavian looked frightened. He’d never seen the man look this way before.
“You don’t have to go up there,” he grated.
“I do,” Crow said. “We’re undercover, remember? Best to play the part.”
“This is madness.”
Crow pulled free from Barghast’s grasp and began to make his way towards the stage. He kept his eyes focused on the High Priest, the real reason why he was here. I’m going to kill you, the practitioner vowed silently. I’m going to avenge all the lives you’ve destroyed.
The crowd parted to let him through, avoiding him as if he was the plague. Crow was reminded of the frightened boy in the alleyway. Like him, none of these people could see past his disguise. After what seemed like an eternity of walking he finally climbed the steps of the stage and stood before the High Priest. As a group of Red Wraiths heaved the cross off the stage. Crow got down on one knee and bowed his head. He kissed Damen’s ringed hand and forced himself to look up at the High Priest’s hooded face.
“My priest,” Crow said.
“Are you worthy of the church?” Damen asked.
“Are you prepared to prove it?”
Damen waved a hand in Cel’s direction. He had been led off the stage and was now being tied to the cross, which had been set in between the man and woman. The woman had begun to make a horrible wailing sound that hurt Crow’s ears.
“Then prove your worth.”
Crow took the hammer offered to him. The square head with two flat sides was covered in congealed blood. Crow felt bile shooting up his throat and swallowed it back down. He nodded at Damen and stepped back off the stage.
Cel looked down at him, his feet raised several feet off the ground. Whatever fight he’d had in him seemed to have extinguished itself. His chest heaved up and down. His breath came out in wet rattles.
“Please,” he said. “P-Please. Y-you d-don’t have to do this.”
Crow steeled himself to Cel’s pleas. He promised himself he would avenge his death and redeem his own sins by killing the High Priest. Was it not better to sacrifice one man for the safety of everyone in the hellscape?
Someone grabbed his hand and pried his fingers open and put something metallic and cold inside. He looked down stupidly to see what it was: four nails. One for each hand and ankle. He forced himself to look into Cel’s frantic, frightened face. “I’m sorry,” he said. He could barely hear the sound of his own voice. His eyes burned with the threat of tears.
While two Red Wraiths held Cel’s hands down, Crow placed the sharp tip of one of the nails against the flesh of Cel’s palm. He had to reach over his head to be able to do it. It was snowing heavily now. He had to close his eyes down to slits to keep the flakes from blowing into them. His throat was parched to the point it was difficult to swallow.
“Do it,” the High Priest said from somewhere to his right. “The Primordial Caste demands payment in blood.”
Crow felt something inside of himself become unmoored and die. What it was he could not say but Crow knew he was crossing a threshold and there was no going back. With hot tears flowing down his cheeks he looked at Cel one more time - if he was going to do this he wanted to remember the look of agony on the old man’s face. He wanted to forever remember what he’d done.
Then he brought the hammer down.
Cel’s scream was long and high-pitched. It burrowed its way into Crow’s skull and embedded itself there, traveling down into his soul. He could still feel the impact from the hammer racing up his arm. It was not easy hammering the nail into flesh. There was nerve and muscle and bone he had to get through. Crow bared his teeth and brought the hammer down again. A spray of blood splashed across his forehead. He felt himself sinking deeper inside himself, distancing himself from reality.
First he did the wrists and then he moved onto the ankles. The ankles were far harder and much more resistant. His arm ached. Cel screamed but there was no longer any life in it. He stared at nothing having fallen into some sort of stupor. Far worse than his screams was the sound of breaking bone, the feeling of it shattering.
Crow stood up with blood on his face. The job was finally done. Without giving Cel another glance he walked back up the stage and handed the hammer back to the High Priest.
“The Scarlet Church thanks you for your offering,” said Damen.
Crow bowed to him and said, “Hail the Primordial Caste!”
When the High Priest dismissed him, an odd smile on his face, Crow jumped off the platform and began to make his way through the crowd, away from the square. He didn’t know where he was going or what he planned to do and he didn’t care. The world could sink to the Abyss for all he cared.
Barghast found Crow in a narrow alley sitting on top of a stack of milk crates, smoking a jalasa joint. He was shaking so badly he was having trouble bringing the joint to his lips. There were still splotches of blood all over his face. He looked as if he’d been through a warzone. He looked down at his feet, eyes distant. Barghast had never seen him look quite this shaken before.
The Okanavian wanted to go to him, to hold him and comfort him as he’d wanted to do many times before. But like always he hovered in the background, afraid he would make things worse not better. You can joke around until the cows come home but you suck when it comes to emotions, he thought. It had always been this way for him. Back in the village where he was raised a lifetime ago boys were not allowed to show emotion. When they did they were beaten by their fathers. It was one of the reasons why he’d abandoned his tribe in search for a better, far more adventurous life - the life of a robber.
Go to him. Say something for the Light’s sake. He just crucified someone.
“Crow,” he said but it was as far as he got.
“I need a minute,” Crow said in a shaky voice, his eyes never leaving the ground. “I just need a minute and I’ll be okay.”
Barghast felt his heart warm towards the kid. He knew the practitioner hated showing any signs of weakness. He was constantly trying to appear and act older than he was.“It’s okay if you’re not,” Barghast said. “I don’t think any less of you for having a heart.”
“People who have hearts don’t crucify helpless old men,” Crow said.
“You did an awful thing for the right reason. You did it for the squad.”
Crow laughed bitterly, pitching his joint onto the ground; already he was in the process of waiting for another. “Yes I did it for our merry little band of misfits half of who hate my fucking guts.”
“I don’t hate you, little bird.”
“You don’t have to. Right now I hate myself enough for the both of us. Did you hear his screams? I’ve never heard a human being scream like that.”
I have, Barghast thought. Of course saying this out loud would not be a good idea.
He watched as Crow lost his grip on himself. His face scrunched up like tectonic plates shifting together and he began to sob. He tried to do it quietly, hiding his face in his hands. It seemed his body was trying to fold in on itself. Barghast felt his heart break for the kid and he went to him and took him in his arms. There was nothing else he could think of to do. To his surprise Crow didn’t try to push him away but wrapped his arms around him...or at least tried to. Barghast was reminded of just how small and bony the practitioner was.
It was a rare moment: Crow had always shown Barghast hints of who he truly was but never before had he opened up quite like this. It touched Barghast in a way he didn’t think could ever happen again. He didn’t care how long it lasted he just wanted to take it in.
All too soon Crow sat up and wiped at his face. “I’m good now. What’s next?”
“We go back to the hideout.”
“But we’re not supposed to go back until nightfall.”
“I don’t care. We’ve seen enough for today. We know the High Priest is here for sure and that’s all that matters.”
“Jack’s gonna be pissed.”
“Jack is a fly on the wall. He’s not in charge of me.”
Crow rose to his feet. “You treat him like he is.”
“I really don’t have much of a choice. All he would need to do is write one wrong thing in one of his reports and then I could find myself facing the noose. Alas, I was a leader once and the power went to my head. I don’t want that happening ever again.” Barghast clapped Crow on the shoulder being careful not to do it too hard. “C’mon let’s go. I’m dying for a nap.”