Crow’s thoughts were racing in so many different directions he thought he would go mad. Sara was probably at the hideout by now telling Barghast, Lydia, Jack, and Rake what had happened with the crone. And what would Crow tell them when they demanded the truth - assuming they didn’t rip him apart first? Would telling them the truth only make the situation worse? All at once Crow felt small, like an atom. He didn’t belong in this place, he didn’t belong anywhere.
This has been a day straight from the Abyss, he thought.
Still he couldn’t help but feel giddy. He’d exorcised the demon that had possessed the woman. While the Casteless had not been as powerful as the demon priest he’d freed Greta from - not even close - it was enough to make his blood rush. His skin literally felt as if it was humming with excess energy.
The streets of Fruimont were beginning to quiet as people started to head home. Soon the bells for curfew would sound and anyone who was not indoors by the time the chimes ended would be arrested and thrown in jail. Crow wondered what their punishment would beWould they be sentenced to death, crucified for defying the Scarlet Church or would they be let out after a couple of days? This was what life was like underneath the rule of the Scarlet Church.
It didn’t matter. As long as Crow had the Red Wraith uniform and tattoo on (the tattoo hadn’t even begun to fade yet) the city belonged to him. He could do as he liked. He would return to the hideout but there was something he wanted to do first. It was a foolish and dangerous thing really but it also felt necessary. And it wouldn’t be the first foolish thing he’d done today.
Twice he’d walked around the City Hall building, making sure to stick to the shadows. He didn’t sense any wards around the place which hopefully meant he would only have to worry about getting past the guards. Turning off a main street, Crow went into an alley. If he was careful and quiet enough he would be able to get past the guards without alerting them by using a glamour spell.
Glamouring was one of the most simple yet efficient skills a practitioner could learn. Unlike offensive magic it was the mastering of illusion: It could be used to alter someone’s appearance, make them look younger or older. Or they could mimic the appearance of another. In Crow’s case he would be using it to blend in with his surroundings like a chameleon, all but rendering himself invisible. Of course if he wasn’t careful he could still be seen. No magic could turn someone completely invisible.
Had the two guards been paying attention and turned around they would have noticed the blur that passed behind them, making the air ripple. Instead they were busy cursing with each other about the weather. Crow was able to get into the building easily without being noticed.
With it being late at night and with the curfew just an hour away Crow suspected there would be few people inside, if any. What he wasn’t sure of was whether Benedict was even anywhere inside - it was very possible Crow was doing this for nothing. He was taking a huge risk, hoping he could trust Loras’s description of the man. For all Crow knew the man had been completely compromised and would alert the High Priest to Crow’s presence.
Benedict stood on the balcony of his office, smoking his pipe. Due to his position as mayor his office was the only one that had a balcony.
His office also served as a studio apartment with a kitchen alcove and sitting area. The sofa was comfortable enough to sleep on. There were many times he’d slept here after working too late; after three days it had proved to be the ideal refuge away from his family. He couldn’t fathom facing them again after the things he’d allowed to happen to this city and to the people who counted on him to do something.
I’m not the man I used to be, he thought, tipping the ash out of his pipe; he watched the wind pick it up and blow it away into the night. I used to be someone who had honor, dignity, and courage. Now I’m just a coward too afraid to do what needs to be done.
He had just poured himself a mug of jalasa tea when he thought he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He froze, cup half raised to his lips. His eyes swept slowly from one side of the office to the other. Though his eyes told him there was no one else in the office he could feel someone watching him. It was the second time today this had happened to him. “I know you’re here,” he said. His voice sounded steadier than he felt. “I don’t know how you got past the guard but if what you wanted is to corner me you’ve succeeded.”
He spotted a ripple over by the door, a discoloration in the wallpaper. How he hadn’t noticed it before Benedik didn’t know. A second later a man seemed to materialize out of the wall. He wore the uniform of a Red Wraith. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old with medium black hair and the common pale skin of someone from the north.
Benedict recognized him.
It was the young man from yesterday, the one who had crucified Cel Resnik earlier.
“What do you want?” Benedict demanded. “Are you here to kill me?”
The man rolled his eyes. “No, I’m not here to kill you. I’m a friend of Loras.”
Benedict’s heart skipped a beat at the mention of her name. “So the Eurchurch got my letter then?”
“Are they going to send anyone? Where’s the calvary?”
“Right now my squad’s it,” said the practitioner. “We’re trying to gather intel on what’s happening here and to make sure the Scarlet Church isn’t twisting your arm somehow. The Eurchurch doesn’t want to expend any more resources than they have to.”
“Of course not,” Benedict grumbled. “Even though I’ve been aiding Pope Drajen in his efforts for the past two decades. So they think Damen Orlys has brainwashed me somehow?”
Crow went over to the futon and sat down. “Basically. And from the looks of it I’d say they’re right.”
“This is coming from the kid who crucified a helpless old man?”
Crow sighed. “Yeah, good point. I know what I did. I keep telling myself I did it for my squad, to keep our cover, but there really is no justifying it.”
Benedict went over to his desk and sat down. He studied the strange young man sitting before him. The way he sat with his shoulders slumped spoke of someone who carried the world on his shoulders. What was he doing in this terrible place? “How old are you?”
“You just seem awfully young...”
“I’ll be eighteen in a week. And don’t let my youth fool you, I’m older than I look.” Crow stood up. “I’d love to chat and get all buddy-buddy but I have to go. I’ve already risked too much by coming here. I just thought I’d let you know the Eurchurch knows about your situation.”
“It’s not exactly the news I was wanting to hear but I appreciate the consideration.”
Crow nodded. “You’re welcome.”
Benedict stood, clearing his throat. “One last thing: You and your squad got in through the watchtower didn’t you? I just heard the report. Someone killed all the Red Wraiths on shift. I’d be careful if I were you. He’s on the hunt for whoever did it. I’d get out while you and your squad still can.”
“Thanks for the information. I’ll let them know. Regardless of what they decide I can’t leave just yet.”
Crow’s shoulders slumped. A look of utter exhaustion came over his face. Benedict didn’t think anyone so young could look so sad...or old. “I’m on my own private mission. D-Squad was just the ticket to get me here, a disguise.”
“What is your mission?”
Crow looked Benedict directly in the eye. “To kill the High Priest.”
Benedict was too shocked to know what to say. He could only watch as Crow seemed to vanish with the whisper of a word, though Benedict could still see the rippling shape of his outline. He watched the door open and shut. Once more he was alone.
Benedict sunk back into his chair. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt so exhausted. I just might go to sleep after all, he thought.
Crow knew he would have some questions to answer when he got back. In the end he decided to tell the truth. He’d fought with the Stray Dogs for a year - regardless of whether or not he was truly a member, that meant something to him. At the very least he owed them the truth.
Five faces turned to look at him when he stepped through the door. Swearing, Lydia was on her feet in an instant. She slapped him across the face hard enough to turn his head to the side. “What did you do, you bastard?”
Crow’s face stung. “I saved your lover’s life and this is how you thank me?”
Lydia raised her hand to slap him again but before she could Sara was in between them. “Lydia, stop!” Sara said.
Fuming, Lydia spun around and sat back down in her corner of the room, still giving Crow the death stare.
“I think you have some explaining to do,” Rake said, stepping towards Crow with his arms crossed.
Crow glanced at Jack and then Barghast, perhaps expecting the Okanavian to come to his aid. The large man merely sat on his side of the room, staring at him, waiting, his expression unreadable. Crow felt his heart drop. You save a girl from a demon and everyone acts as if there’s something wrong with you, he thought. Some thanks. But he had always known this was how it was going to be, hadn’t he? No matter what he did, no matter who he saved or how many times he saved them he would never find true acceptance amongst the Stray Dogs, just like in Annesville.
So he stood there in the middle of the room and told them the same thing he’d told Loras. He looked down at his feet the whole time, feeling as if he was on trial. The idea of looking into their eyes and seeing their reactions frightened him. When he finished there was silence for a long time. He closed his eyes, ready to die at any second.
“Who is this Ex’olku?” Sara asked.
“I don’t know exactly,” said Crow. “I’ve never seen him. I’ve only heard him...in my head. He’s been around for a long time...since before the world even existed..”
Lydia snorted. “C’mon, Sara, you don’t really believe him, do you?”
“You weren’t there,” said Sara. “None of you were except for Crow. I heard the crone. She said something about Ex’olku...not directly but she called him the demon bane. She was afraid of him. I’ve never seen a demon look frightened.”
Barghast spoke for the first time since Crow had entered the room. “If what you say is true then you would have the mark on your back.”
Crow gaped at him. How could Barghast possibly know about the mark? He was too stunned to ask so he simply turned around so his back was facing them. Slowly he lifted the back of his shirt until it was up around his shoulders and neck. Just as he expected he heard four collective gasps.
“It cannot be,” Barghast said. His eyes were wide, filled with wonder. “I always just thought it was a superstitious story told by my people. Superstition.” He got up and went to Crow slowly. He reached to touch the scar that covered Crow’s whole back...and then pulled back as if touching it would burn him. He shook his head and sat back down. His reaction hurt Crow more than words could have said.
“I don’t understand,” said Sara, sounding frustrated. “What does all this mean?”
Crow sighed. “I’m too damned tired to explain it all to you. I don’t know much myself. Ex’olku has a habit of not explaining himself. All I know is for some reason he’s chosen me to stop whatever the Scarlet Church is planning. With all the possessions happening over the past twenty years and the taking of Fruimont something is happening.”
“How are you supposed to stop it?” Sara asked.
The practitioner shrugged. “I don’t know. I was going to start with killing Damen Orlys.”
Rake burst out laughing. “I can’t believe you’re all listening to this mystical bullshit.” He looked at Crow with utter disdain. “I always knew there was something about you...something that got under my skin...And then you bring up this madness...”
“It isn’t madness,” Barghast growled. "There are stories the elders of my tribes used to tell us younglings at night. Like most things they told me I didn't believe them...until now.” His expression softened when he looked at Crow with awe. Crow blushed and looked away.
“So now what?” Lydia asked after a long, awkward moment of silence. Somehow she seemed subdued, not the fury that had struck Crow just moments ago. Was she feeling guilty for slapping Crow, for how cruel she’d been to him over the past year? Crow doubted it but also found he wanted her to feel guilty.
The practitioner frowned, his thoughts heading in another direction. There was something he was supposed to tell them, something Benedict had warned him about but he’d been so focused on telling them the truth he’d forgotten. His mind churned. It was something very important. After a moment it came to him. He opened his mouth to tell them what happened but before he could there was a sudden explosion that made them all jump to their feet.
“What in the Abyss was that?” Lydia asked, grabbing her rifle. Jack stepped up beside her, sandalwood handled pistols already in hand.
Crow felt goosebumps break down along the tops of his arms. “One of the wards just went off. There’s someone inside the building. Probably Red Wraiths.”
“They’ve found us?” Sara’s voice came out as a croak. All the color had drained out of her face.
“They know about the watchtower,” Crow said. He grabbed a duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder. He handed another one to Barghast. “It’d probably be good if we found somewhere else to hide.”
“It could just be a vagabond or something,” Lydia said.
“It’s not,” Crow said, impatient with her stupidity. “We need to go now.” He went to the door, opened it, and peeked out just in time to see a Red Wraith come around the corner. Crow ducked back just in time to avoid having his head obliterated by a hail of bullets. Plaster fell onto the dirty floor.
“Yep,” he said. “Red Wraiths.”
He heard Barghast curse. “We’ve only been here for a day.”
Crow stared at his squad for a moment and felt guilty. He couldn’t help but feel it was his fault they were in this predicament. He had to do something. The Red Wraiths would be on them in seconds. There was no way the Stray Dogs could properly defend themselves in this tiny apartment. Crow would be damned if he was going to let any of his squad members get hurt - not today. He looked at Rake. “I’ll cover you guys. Make a run for it.”
Before anyone could say anything Crow drew on his mana, shrouding himself in a protective forcefield. The murky hallway was lit up with flashes of light from the gun fire. It was impossible to tell how many Red Wraiths they were.
“Let’s go!” Crow shouted at his fellow squad members. In this tiny space he could barely hear his own voice. “Get out of here!”
Just as Barghast, Sara, Lydia, Jack, and Rake ducked out of the room a voice shouted something at the other end of the hallway. The fire immediately stopped.
Ears ringing, Crow kept his forcefield up. He watched as a robed figure stepped out into the corridor.
It was Damen Orlys, the High Priest.
“Drop your force field,” he said to Crow. “I only want to talk.”
“I don’t think so,” Crow said, trying to sound braver than he felt. His insides were full of wriggling worms fighting to get out. “I’m not really in the mood for a conversation.”
Damen smiled cheerfully. “I’ll kill the rest of your squad if you don’t. You wouldn’t want that, would you? You wouldn’t want their blood on your hands.”
Crow risked a glance over his shoulder. Sara, Lydia, Jack, and Rake had made it to the stairway but Barghast was still behind him. Crow summoned a ward between himself and the High Priest. It wouldn’t do much but it would buy them a few seconds.
“Go!” he said, baring his teeth at Barghast in frustration. “What the fuck are you doing just staring?”
“I’m not leaving you by yourself,” the Okanavian said. “Come with us.”
“I wish I could but I have to do this. I’m trying to protect you, damn it.”
“Who’s going to protect you?” Barghast said.
“No one,” said Crow. He could feel his eyes beginning to sting. He tried to shove Barghast towards the stairway but it was like trying to push a brick wall. “Go, damn it! I can’t do this if I don’t know you’re safe!”
To his relief Barghast started to sprint towards the stairway. With his heart dropping, Crow wondered if it was the last time he would see the man. There were so many things I never got to say to him because I was too scared. Now it’s too late. Let this act of sacrifice show the love I feel for him. Crow turned to face the High Priest who was now leering at him directly from the other side of the ward. The Red Wraiths were gone which meant Damen must have dismissed them. He hoped Barghast and the others were running like hell. They were on their own now.
“At long last we meet,” said Damen. “You have no idea how much I’ve been looking forward to this encounter.”
“I wish I could say the same,” said Crow. “If you try to walk through the ward it’s going to blow up in your face. I wouldn’t try it if I were you.”
Grinning, the High Priest of the Scarlet Church ran a hand along the outer edge of the barrier. With a hissing sound the ward rippled once and then disappeared. Crow gaped. He had never seen anyone make a ward disappear. Now they stood toe to toe, a few feet apart.
“I knew there was something strange about you the moment I saw you,” said Damen. “I could tell. You see I’ve known you were coming for a while. Fort Erikson was a big giveaway."
“If you knew it was me why didn’t you just kill me when I was on the stage?” Crow asked conversationally. The longer he kept Damen distracted the more time he bought D-Squad.
Damen sneered, his eyes glinting beneath the hood of his cowl. “I wanted to see what you’d do, if you would compromise your position and expose your friends. I was very surprised when you did it. I have to say I rather admire you.” The smile faded and his eyes filled with sorrow. “It’s why I’m ashamed we’re enemies and that I have to kill you. Now you can either come with me quietly to the Old Church and I’ll let your friends live...or I can kill you right here and then kill your friends.”
Crow paused for a moment and appeared to think it over. “So either way I die?”
Crow took a deep breath, drawing on his mana. His eyes misted over. “I’m not going anywhere with you - not without a fight.” He thrusted a palm outward.
In a blinding flash of fire Damen was thrown down the hallway, his robes smoking. He smashed into a wall and tumbled to the ground in an explosion of flame and plaster. Crow wasted no time in seeing if Damen was going to get up; in a battle of power and will he was no match for the High Priest - not yet anyway. He dashed for the stairs, taking them two at a time. He prayed Barghast and the others wouldn’t leave without him. Terror clawed at him without mercy and though he was running as fast as he could, time seemed to have slowed, the universe working to defeat him.
He was just about to reach the first floor when a hand seized him by the throat from behind and lifted him off his feet with the strength of ten men. Somehow the High Priest had recovered and caught up with him.
Crow struggled and fought, screaming mindlessly. He had never felt so trapped, so helpless. He punched and kicked at Damen but the High Priest merely laughed at him, unaffected. “There are benefits to serving the Primordial Caste,” he said, sneering. “You live for centuries and are almost impervious to death. I don’t know what Ex’olku was thinking, sending a young boy to fight his battles for him. Compared to me you hold the power of an insect.”
“Fuck you!” Crow screamed and spat in his face.
“Shhh.” Damen whispered almost tenderly. “Sleep.”
Against his will Crow’s body betrayed him, his muscles going lax. The world dimmed until there was nothing, not even thought.