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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 34. The First Agent

Crow sat by the window, looking at the dead city miles away; the Graveyard of Forgotten Things it was called. He’d always wondered what it would be like to see one and now he knew.

There was a dead beauty in the Ubrios Waste. There was so much white - nothing but white. Anyone exposed to the cold for more than a few hours, without adequate clothing, would die. The only ones who came out here were scavengers. They would venture out into the Wastes in snowmobiles and camp out in the rotting buildings, looking for whatever artifacts of the Old World they could find and then go back to Fruimont to sell their findings.

Crow doubted they came this far though. It was the perfect place for the Scarlet Church. Up until he’d told Loras, no one had known where it was.

The room he was in was luxurious with a four poster canopied bed, a wooden wardrobe, writing desk, and a pail of water. He’d awoken from a deep sleep on the bed. For the longest time he simply laid where he was, his head resting on a pillow so soft it was like a cloud, looking up at the ceiling. For the first time since his Aunt Lena had died he wasn’t afraid, quite the contrary in fact - he was at peace. He didn’t care he was in the Scarlet Church and he would probably die. Dying meant finally being able to rest. Dying meant being at peace. He no longer had the will to fight.

At some point he’d tried the door and found, to his surprise, it was unlocked. Well of course it was. There was no chance in him escaping from this place and Damen Orlys knew it. Who knew how many guards were in this place not to mention wards.

An hour later a woman dressed in the red robes of a Scarlet Priest brought him a silver platter, knocking politely on the door. She set a tray with a number of plates on top of a table, her face expressionless, and left without saying a word. Crow watched her come and go silently. The meal was roasted brisket and vegetables, a buttery roll, and the sweetest coldest wine Crow had ever tasted. Never once did he wonder if the food was poisoned. He had been ravenous!

This had been two hours ago. The sky was starting to darken. It always darkened early here in the north compared to the rest of the hellscape.

Crow found he could look out the window at the Waste for the rest of his life. The stillness of it was both simultaneously arresting. It was nice to be able to think about these things, the wonder of it. Before there had never been time.

I’ve never had time to think about what I want my future to be, he thought with dawning revelation. For two years I took care of Aunt Lena, watching the tumor slowly drive her mad and kill her. And afterwards there was the D-Squad. Now there’s no time. Death is my only future and I’m fine with that.

His thoughts were interrupted by a light rapping at the door.

“Come in,” he said.

The door opened. Damen Orlys stood in the doorway in his scarlet robes. Crow looked at him and did not feel the mindless fear he had back in Fruitmont. For this he was grateful.

It was nice not to feel...anything.

What is this place doing to me? Crow thought. Is it some kind of magic or drug keeping me calm? Did they drug me before they brought me in?

Oh well, it didn’t matter.

“You look rested,” said the High Priest with an appraising look. “I see a nap did you some good.”

“It did,” Crow said.

“Good. I was told you’ve been sitting at the window for some time.”

“I was just enjoying the view.”

The High Priest crossed the room, arms crossed regally before him. He looked out the window, frowning. “Yes I suppose there is a cold sort of beauty to it. I suppose an Agent of Ex’olku would enjoy the silence and stillness of it. A relief from having Ex’olku yammering on in your head all day long, making his demands.”

“You have no idea,” said the practitioner. He did not ask about how the High Priest knew about Ex’olku. Speaking at the moment seemed incredibly difficult, as if his tongue was too heavy.

The High Priest laughed. His demeanor seemed much more relaxed than the last time Crow had encountered him. Back at the abandoned apartment building he’d seemed manic. “As a matter of fact I think I do.”

Crow watched blankly as Damen unbuttoned his robes. The High Priest turned so Crow could see his chest. For a man who had lived for centuries his chest was lean and well muscled, the skin smooth except for the large puckered scar that marked his flesh: A giant handprint that matched the scar on Crow’s back exactly. “I was his first Agent...the one that he chose before you.”

Somewhere deep inside his sleepy, fugued state Crow felt a deep horror. “It’s not possible. You’re supposed to be dead.”

“Come with me,” Damen said, buttoning his robes up. “I will explain everything.”

Crow took a step towards him and then hesitated uncertainly.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Damen said.

“I don’t believe you,” said Crow.

“If I wanted to kill you I would have done so by now.”

This seemed like a reasonable point and so Crow followed him.

Damen led him down a long hallway with red walls and matching plush carpeting. Brass lamps lined the walls on both sides, lighting the hallway with a soft golden glow. Interspersed between every few lamps were golden-framed oil paintings. The faces of the twelve original disciples of the Scarlet Church looked down at Crow; the details of their faces were so perfectly rendered they looked lifelike. There were six men and six women. Spaced a little ways from the group of paintings was a thirteenth painting: Crow recognized Damen’s portrait almost immediately.

Fascinated, Crow stopped to study the painting of the man next to Damen’s; his eyes were wide and he was unaware his mouth hung slightly open in wonder. Of course he could only see the bottom half of the First Disciple’s face because of the cowl he wore, but what Crow saw was enough to build an impression. The man had a long, aristocratic nose, the firm cynical set of the mouth, the lined face forever preserved by the painting.

“This is the First Desciple?” Crow couldn’t say how he knew this, but the knowledge was in the back of his mind somehow.

“Yes.” Damen’s voice had been quiet and thoughtful with remembering. “Long ago I was like you. An ordinary man. I lived in the Old World, when the world was ruled by technology and magic was so rare as to be a dream. I was happy. I had a wife and a daughter I loved dearly. In those days there was no such thing as demons and the Eurchurch or the hellscape. The world was vast and ever changing.”

“What happened?” Crow asked, still trying to process what the High Priest had revealed to him.

“Ex’olku. He chose me the same way he chose you; he touched me the same way he touched you; he plucked me from my life. He showed me what would happen: the shifting of the world, the end of our civilization and the start of the hellscape. He showed me the Scarlet Church and the Order of Chaos. He showed me everything. It wasn’t a burden I didn’t want to bear but I bore it anyway. I tried to stop the First Priest and his disciples...and I failed. I remember the day the First Disciple made the world so clearly. I fought him but he wielded a power far stronger than anything Ex’olku could grant me.”

“He didn’t kill you?” Crow asked.

Damen smiled. “No, though there were many days in the beginning when I wish he had. Rather than kill me he forced me to watch as billions of people died in the cataclysmic event...including my wife and child. It drove me insane.”

“Is that what caused you to join the Scarlet Church? The death of your wife and child?”

“It was the start of it. The despair, the incalculable sense of loss, the unbearable shame that I failed, and unbearable anger I felt towards Ex’olku. In the end I blamed him for everything...I still do.” Damen’s voice had grown bitter. He was gazing into the painted eyes of the First Priest, his lips quivering with emotion. “The First Priest cultivated that anger, shaped it - shaped me into a weapon. He showed me the Primordial Caste, showed me the power they wielded, showed me that through them I could get my vengeance on Ex’olku. He was grooming me to take over for him. He knew his time was limited. In the end Ex’olku sent another Agent to defeat us. The Agent was more successful than I had managed to be, more skilled...”

“He killed the First Priest,” Crow said.

She did.” Damen smiled grimly; Crow thought there was some satisfaction in it. “And I killed her, thus taking The First Priest’s place.” The grin slowly fell and he turned to face the painting of the First Desciple with a haunted look on his face. For so long I’ve wanted nothing more to destroy Ex’olku for stealing my life...if such a being can truly be destroyed. I thought by giving the Primordial Caste my soul I would have the power to do so, but in giving them my soul I have only enslaved myself the same way you and I were enslaved by Ex’olku. For centuries I have lived my life in chains. It is time to break those chains and be free at long last. C’thla will help me bring this war to an end once and for all. She will wipe out the Inquisition and take her vengeance against the Primordial Caster for what they did to her.” The High Priest’s voice had become taught with anger but he spoke as if he had forgotten where he was and who he was speaking to.

“Who is C’thla?”

“The mother of demons.” At last Damen turned to look at the practitioner once more. “Come.”

They walked down a staircase to the main floor. Crow mulled over the details Damen had given him. I thought I knew everything, Crow thought. I thought I knew the truth. But as it turns out I know nothing. I am as ignorant as ever. He glanced thoughtfully at the High Priest. The First Priest perverted him. Reflected the power Ex’olku gave him back at the spirit. I refuse to let the same thing happen to me.

Crow was amazed with the architecture. It seemed the architects who had built the church had been trying to compete with the design of the Eurchurch though they had the similar theme of high vaulted ceilings, archways, and ornate candelabras. The spaces were lit with electric lamps as well and occasionally they would pass a Scarlet Priest kneeling at an altar with burning scented candles and incense. The Scarlet Priests were no doubt praying to the Primordial Caste. Crow couldn’t imagine praying to a demon for anything no matter how powerful that demon might be.

“You look surprised,” the High Priest said in an almost conversational tone. “What were you expecting, cobwebs and mold?”

Crow shook his head. “I don’t know what I was expecting. It certainly wasn’t this.”

Still he looked around, frowning. He spotted no Red Wraiths with their guns and armor: they were the might and muscle of the Scarlet Church. Though he knew there was blood and death in this place it had not yet presented itself. When he asked why there weren't any guards Damen merely chuckled. “We don’t need guns. We have demons and magic. If I thought there was any chance you could escape, this place would be full of guards.”

Crow said nothing, feeling foolish.

They came to a tall set of doors which went half way up to the ceiling. They opened with the sound of gears clanking behind the wall. Crow and Damen stepped into a large oval shaped chamber. Three beautifully carved steps led up to a throne. Crow wondered if the First Disciple had ever sat in the chair or if it had been carved from stone after his death. Though he was curious the practitioner couldn’t find the words to ask. For the moment it seemed he’d lost the ability to speak. Curiously he watched as the High Priest seated himself on the throne.

With a single gesture Damen summoned two Scarlet Priests. He looked down at them with the authority of a king. “Bring them to me.”

The Scarlet Priests bowed in unison and went off to complete the task he’d given them. Who “they” were, Crow was too exhausted to care about. He looked down at his feet and simply waited.

Moments later he heard the sound of chains dragging along the carpet and the deep, rumbling curses of a familiar voice. Upon hearing it Crow seemed to come back to himself, the stupor he’d woken up in gone. He looked at Damen’s devious, grinning face and then turned. A half dozen Scarlet Priests were leading Sara, Lydia Jack, and Rake into the chamber. Their arms and legs were shackled, their faces grimy with dirt and their hair oily and unwashed. Six more priests were struggling to restrain Barghast who tried to wrestle his way through them.

Up until now Crow thought he would never see the other Stray Dogs again. Even if he had failed at everything else he could make peace with knowing they’d gotten out of Fruimont safe and were alive. Seeing them again, Barghast in particular, brought the old fear and doubt back that had smothered him for the last year. This isn’t a surprise, he thought, this is torture.

When Barghast saw Crow he stopped fighting - the whole world had stopped. Even though Crow knew they shared the same feelings for each other deep down inside, the look of relief he saw in those dark brown eyes surprised him nonetheless. That relief ran from Barghast’s eyes in the form of tears, the scars marking his face deepening like cracks in the earth. And there was love in those eyes. Crow was both afraid of it and drawn to it.

The paralysis that had held the practitioner in complacence split open like a net. He had to get to Barghast, the only true friend he had ever really known and say what he had never been able to say, before it was too late. He was almost within arms length of the Okanavian when hands closed around Crow and pulled him back. From out of nowhere it seemed two priests had appeared.

Crow fought them. His mind was in too much of a frenzy to think about using magic so he sunk his teeth into the hand closest to him and clamped down hard enough to draw blood. The priest screamed. A fist collided with the side of Crow’s head hard enough he was seeing stars.

You bastard!” he heard Sara scream; her voice was shrill with rage.. Distantly he could hear Barghast’s grunts and curses as he tried to fight his way through the priests.

Crow had no choice but to walk in the direction the hands were dragging him. It was all he could do to stay conscious. Now he stood in front of what looked like a trap door. Several paces to the left of the chamber, a priest stood before a lever with his gloved hand on the handle. He was looking up expectantly at the High Priest.

Damen nodded. With a grunt the Scarlet Priest pulled the lever towards him. The double doors opened. Crow found himself looking down into a dimly lit pit. He wasn’t close enough to be able to tell how far it went down. They’re going to throw me in there, he thought sluggishly. Whatever’s waiting for me at the bottom it won’t be good.

“You better hope this fall kills me,” he told the High Priest, filled with a sudden angry fire. He meant every word. Never before had he wanted to kill someone like he did Damen.

“There’s a legion of possessed souls down there,” Damen said, rising to his feet. “We also have a new resident - a Second Caste demon. Good luck killing this one.”

Then Crow was shoved into the pit.

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.

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