By the time Sara, Lydia, Jack and Rake made it back to the hideout Sara was beyond exhausted, both physically and mentally. And emotionally too. Pretending to be a Red Wraith could drain you in ways nothing else could. It did something to you, warped you. Sometimes Sara had to struggle to remember who she was and what she was really doing in Fruimont.
However, on a more positive note, Lydia and she had made up. And the surprise of it was Lydia had been the first to apologize, starting with, “I’m sorry for being such a bitch lately...”
To her surprise Barghast was already in the apartment when they arrived. He was sitting by the bathroom door with a worried look on his face. The bathroom door was closed.
“Where’s Crow?” she asked, pulling the strap of her rifle over her head and setting it on the floor. She made sure to keep her tone casual as if she didn’t already know where Crow was.
“In the bathroom. He’s been in there for the last hour. He’s locked the door and won’t come out. I’ve knocked and tried talking to him but he won’t answer. I thought I got to him earlier but apparently not.”
Sara didn’t like the sound of this. It meant something bad had happened.
“What’s he doing locking himself in the damned bathroom?” Rake growled, going over to the door.
“We’ve had a bit of a rough day,” Barghast said.
“We’ve all had a rough day,” Lydia muttered bitterly. “You don’t see us going into hysterics.”
“Maybe we should give him a little longer,” Sara suggested. She didn’t like where things were going. She could sense tension within the room and it was building quickly.
“He’s had long enough,” Rake said. He rapped on the door hard enough to make it shake in its frame. “C’mon, practitioner, the day isn’t over yet. We have things we need to discuss like a big happy family.”
Silence answered back. Sara’s heart quickened a beat or two. What if Crow had hurt himself somehow and couldn’t answer back?
“He had to crucify a man today, Rake,” said Barghast. “Give him some space.”
Rake clenched his hands into fists. “He knew what he was getting himself into when he signed up to join the squad. If he doesn’t have the heart to do what needs to be done then he shouldn’t be here. Crow don’t make me break the door down!”
To Sara’s surprise, Barghast rose to his feet, towering over Rake. His dark face darkened even further with fury, the scars webbing his face deepening like cracks in the earth. The Light help us, Sara thought, wondering if she should reach for her blades or not. What if they start trying to kill each other? She had a pretty good idea who would win: Barghast dwarfed Rake physically in every way. However Sara did not doubt Rake’s speed and cunning. He looked and thought like a weasel. He fought dirty and without compassion.
A gleam flashed through Rake’s, glassy, bulging eyes. He pulled out a long bladed dagger with a serrated edge and held it up for Barghast to see. His lips spread into a grin that chilled Sara’s blood. “Out of my way, barbarian, before I unzip your stomach with my blade. We wouldn’t want your little boyfriend to see your steaming pile of guts on the floor, now would we?”
Sara and Lydia exchanged wide-eyed glances. Then they glanced at Jack, silently urging him to intervened before things got out of hand, but he merely watched them as if uncertain what to do.
Just when it seemed like Barghast and Rake were about to murder each other the bathroom door opened and Crow appeared in the doorway.
He looked dreadful. His face was ghostly pale and there were dark circles around his eyes. He looked at Rake with a death stare that matched Barghast’s. “Rake, put the knife down before I turn you into a fucking pile of ash.”
Sara groaned inwardly. Things just keep getting more interesting, she thought.
Rake cackled. Sara couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him look this manic; usually he was cold and calculating, very rarely showing any emotion. “My, my we’ve grown some balls finally, have we? We need to talk about some things, boy. You can have your little mental breakdown later.”
Crow expelled a long sigh. He seemed to deflate before Sara’s eyes. “You can have that conversation amongst yourselves. I’m taking a walk to clear my head. If I don’t I’m going to explode. I’ll be back before long.”
“To hell you are,” Rake growled.
“Fuck off,” Crow retorted, brushing past Rake. “Your knives don’t frighten me.” And with that he left the apartment, closing the door behind him.
Silence hung over the room. Barghast slumped back against the wall. Rake cursed, slipping his knife back into his belt. Before Sara knew what she was doing she walked up and slapped him across the face as hard as she could. “You are the most despicable human being I’ve ever met,” she said, and spat in his face. “As far as I’m concerned you’re less than human.”
She headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” Lydia asked.
“I’m trailing after him to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself,” Sara said.
Sara did her best to follow Crow, making sure to stay close enough so he was in sight at all times. She felt guilty following him around like this, ducking out of sight whenever she thought he might see her, as if she was doing something wrong but she also wanted to give him his distance.
Sara could only imagine how he must be feeling. Many times she’d felt the same way herself: the suffocation of guilt. Many times she’d tried to tell herself she was doing the wrong thing for the right reasons but it never eased the hate she harbored for herself. She’d killed people, often torturing them to get information beforehand; it was Lydia who’d taught her how to interrogate hostages. She’d tasted blood on her lips. She’d stay awake for multiple days at a time until she was delirious from exhaustion. And the scary part was with each mission, each small victory, she felt a part of herself get stripped away bit by bit. Before long there would be nothing left of the young farm girl from the Javacial mountains.
Though she hadn’t seen anyone in the process of being crucified she’d seen those who had been, while walking around the city - men, women, and children stripped naked, and nailed to a cross, exposed to the harsh elements of the Javacial mountains. If exposure to the cold didn’t kill them then blood loss, starvation, and the crows would.
She understood how Crow felt more than she wanted to.
Crow took her through crowded streets and narrow alleys. His passage through the city was deliberately chaotic. It was clear he knew she was following him and he was doing his best to lose her. Not once did he look directly her way or tell her to go away. Several times Sara had to break into a jog to keep him in sight.
He turned the corner of a busy avenue and veered into the opening of a gloomy alley. The sales pitches of merchants and impatient shouts soon faded out. The only sound was the lonely, desolate moans of the wind. Sara’s cheeks were numbed and wooden from the cold; not even the gloves she wore warmed her hands. She kept her eyes on Crow’s back.
She didn’t see her attacker until it was too late. A shape lunged at her from the shadows of the alley. Before Sara could make sense of what was happening she was thrown violently to the ground. She landed painfully on her side, her head striking the concrete. For a moment she was blind, lost in an endless fog, her ears ringing. She could feel something warm and wet dripping down the side of her face. Reaching for her belt, Sara managed to stagger to her feet and face her attacker, a knife in hand.
Her attacker was an old woman. Her dress, or what was left of it, was nothing but rags. Her skin seemed like leather and had a sickly sheen to it. Her tangled white hair whipped about in the wind. Her cracked lips peeled back to reveal shattered teeth and blackened gums. Drool dripped down her chin. Her yellow eyes were full of perverse lust.
“Young girl,” she said, stalking towards Sara. “Pretty girl. So ripe and perfect for my mistress, C’thla, mother of demons...”
Again she lunged at Sara, toppling her, knocking her to the ground. Her weight and strength was that of four men combined. Her gnarled fingers snagged themselves in Sara’s hair. The woman’s breath smelled of rotting meat, of a body slowly breaking down.
Sara screamed and tried to shove the woman off her; she didn’t want to harm the woman anymore than she had to. Like a parasite a demon had hijacked her body and was using it for its will. But no matter how hard Sara shoved and kicked and fought the woman only cackled and latched on all the tighter like a leech.
Sara’s only hope was Crow. She hoped he was close enough he would come to her aid. “Crow!” she screamed as loud as she could. “Crow, help me!”
Just when Crow was sure he had lost Sara he heard her scream. It cut through the air like a knife, shrill and full of pain and fear. He stopped, his breath pluming out before him, and turned around.
He could see her dark outline in the alleyway. There was someone on top of her, an old woman. A demon. The crone had a hold of her hair and was licking her face all over with a blackened tongue. Again Sara screamed.
Crow took a step towards her and stopped. Dealing with the demon would surely reveal him as an Agent of Ex’olku. The last thing he needed was to draw attention to himself. And yet he couldn’t just leave her there. Sara had always been kind to him, had always watched his back. Other than Barghast she’d been the only one to welcome him into the squad with open arms. Not only did he consider her to be a friend he cared about her.
If you do this you’ll only put yourself in jeopardy, Ex’olku said. Secrecy is the only reason why you’ve been able to get this far.
That’s your problem Ex’olku, Crow replied. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: For an ancient entity that’s existed since the dawn of time you don’t know shit about human beings or what it means to care about someone. I’m helping her, secrecy be damned.
Crow blocked Ex’olku’s voice and sprinted towards the alley.
There was no getting away from the crone. Her grasp was like iron, her fingers clamping themselves into Sara’s flesh. The demon’s tongue traced its way across her face, slimy and cold like bad meat. That wasn’t the worst of it though: Sara could feel the demon’s mental fingers sifting through her mind. It literally felt as if needles were stabbing into her brain. Sara was too exhausted to do anything. She’d fought until she couldn’t fight any more.
Just when she thought there wasn't any hope, that Crow wouldn’t come for her, the crone suddenly looked up. She suddenly became rigid, her eyes wide with fear. “You,” she hissed. “Demon’s bane. Curse you!”
Sara followed the crone’s gaze. Standing just yards away was Crow. Sara tried to find the words to warn Crow...and then realized the crone was afraid of him. Why was she afraid of him?
“Let her go,” Crow said.
“Curse you!” the crone screamed. “Curse you curse you curse you. May the Primordial Caste feast on your innards for what you did to Yov’olbh! You mutilated him! You raped him!”
“I do not have time to play games with you demon.” Crow’s eyes glowed white as he summoned two fireballs into his hand. “Put her down or I’ll do the same to you.”
To Sara’s surprise the crone complied, releasing her with a grunt. The crone spat at Crow once before turning and running into the night. Sara coughed, glad to be free of the demon’s influence. She forced herself to stagger to her feet. She looked at Crow, tears streaming from her eyes. Had she gone insane? Had the encounter with the crone caused her to lose her mind or had he truly scared the demon away?
She called him demon’s bane? What the hell did she mean by that? And who is Yov’olbh?
“Are you okay?” he asked. He hadn’t moved from his spot.
“Yes,” she managed to croak. Her throat felt bruised. “How…?”Ja
He smiled sadly. “I wish I could explain but I can’t. We all have our secrets. Go back to the hideout and don’t follow me anymore. It’s not safe out here.”
Then he turned around and walked away.
Sara didn’t dare follow him; part of her was afraid of what might happen if she did. Instead she began heading back in the direction of the hideout.
Her mind was so foggy she was never quite sure how she got back. All she knew was she was glad when she finally felt Lydia’s arms around her, heard the fear in her voice as she asked her what happened. Sara tried to find the words to tell Jack, Lydia, Rake, and Barghast but couldn’t seem to put them together.
In the end all she could say was, “Crow...I don’t think he is who he says he is.”