Crow sat in the dark, listening to the Okanavian pray. Barghast knelt down on the ground outside, head pointed towards the sky, towards Mother Moon - his voice was low and sibilant. The sound was like water sliding over rock, music to Crow’s ears. He remembered hearing it his first night outside of Miffland. It had been a comfort heading into uncertain times, when Crow had no idea what awaited him - he’d traveled for days to reach Miffland and join the campaign and it had been a long and dangerous journey; things were only expected to get more dangerous.
Listening to the Okanavian’s prayer that first night, Crow had felt like a voyeur. But his curiosity had gotten the best of him. When Barghast had finished praying for the night, Crow had asked, “What were you saying?”
A smile had stretched the scars of the Okanavian’s scarred face - knife wounds Crow suspected, but knew he would never ask. “It’s a prayer we used to say every night before we went to sleep,” Barghast had explained. “It didn’t matter if the moon was full or if there was no moon at all. The prayer has a number of meanings: it can clear the mind of worry and it can be a call for protection.”
“Does it help you?”
Barghast had nodded. “Yes.”
“Will you teach it to me?”
Crow had expected Barghast to say no, but instead the Okanavian had nodded and said, “Yes.”
Presently, sure Barghast couldn’t hear him, Crow repeated the first line of the prayer: “Mother Moon, You’re light so gentle and cool, like water on my skin...”
Before he could finish the prayer, Sara’s voice filled Crow’s mind. She spoke urgently. 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…
He rose to his feet and shook Jack awake, signalling for the man to start getting ready. Yes, we’re hiding in the cell block. We haven’t been caught...yet.
Okay, I’m telling Barghast and Jack now.
Crow peeked his head out the double doors of the building in which they had been hiding. “Barghast, it’s time to get moving.”
The Okanavian rose to his feet, a graceful fluid motion that belied his size. His skin appeared black in the night. “Is it game time?”
The practitioner grinned. “It’s game time.”
The Okanavian brushed sand off his tunic and kilt. “My favorite time of the day.
Crow went to his mare, Brona, gently coaxing her awake by running a hand along the length of her muzzle. “Sara says according to Rake there’s three hundred armed men, at least. You and I, Barghast, are going to create a path to the cell block and escort them out.”
Barghast swore in Okanavic; he had already mounted his gelding. The horse dwarfed Brona in size. He was sliding his thick arms through the strap of his shotgun. Jack brought his mare up beside Barghast’s stallion, making sure his oiled revolvers were loaded.
Pulling on the reins, Crow gracefully mounted himself atop Brona, running his hands along her neck. “Three hundred men. And they’re all armed I imagine. Do you think you can manage?”
Barghast laughed. “Same deal as before. You watch my back and I’ll watch yours.”
Crow flashed him a smile that lit the young practitioner’s face. “Always.”
Sara we are on our way to you. Hang tight.
The three Strays rode through the empty streets of the necropolis. Crow heard the howl of a wolf somewhere not far off. Air blew against his sweaty forehead. Around them night and shadow reigned, the silence broken only by the sound of hooves on gritty sand. They were now headed straight for the fort. Ahead of them was a half mile or so of trees, and beyond that Fort Erikson.
Once at the line of trees they dismounted, they led their horses through the trees. Insects buzzed in Crow’s ears; his heart was a constant drum beat in his chest. They were close enough to the other side of the tree growth he could see the glow of torches burning along the walls of the fort. He spotted several Red Wraiths marching lazily along the parapet, armed with rifles. He thought he heard one of them laugh. He felt his lips curl into a smile. His body hummed with an eagerness he wished he could deny but never could. Barghast stood on his right, Jack on his left. The smell of their sweat melded with his own.
“Do you have the dynamite?” Barghast asked Jack, his voice a low whisper.
“In my pack,” said Jack.
“Will it be enough to blast through the gate?”
Jack’s eyes flashed with annoyance. “What do you think?”
“We better hurry,” Crow said. He hoped he didn’t sound too excited. “The others are waiting for us.”
Jack nodded his approval. They tied their horses to the trunk of a large tree and left the covers of the grove of trees, slipping through the dark towards the fort. They moved towards the rear of the fort where there was less light and guards. The Practitioner kept his eyes on the wall, half hoping a guard would spot them and start firing. The moment the thought passed through his mind he felt a flash of guilt: So much of their mission hinged on not being discovered until the last moment; and the others were hiding in a cellblock. At any second they could be discovered and killed. Still, the thought of battle, of a resolution after several days spent hiding and waiting, were like spikes of adrenaline pumping through his veins.
Pressing their backs against the wall, they slid along it, occasionally peeking up to make sure none of the guards had spotted them, using the bars of shadow for cover. In Crow’s mind it was all too easy. The guards don’t think anyone will try to attack them, he thought. Why should they? They’re out in the desert with nothing but coyotes and spirits? They think their walls will keep them safe.
They were in for a surprise for they had never met the Stray Dogs.
Once they were by the wooden gate Jack pulled the dynamite out of the pack at his back carefully. He did not bother to count to three or wait to see if the others were ready. He struck a match and lit the fuse. Instantly the fuse sparked into life and began to burn. Jack’s eyes were narrowed to slits behind the lenses of his glasses. Just as Crow heard one of the guards shout, “What was that?”, Jack chucked the bundle of dynamite at the gate.
Crow saw the muzzle flash of gunfire above their heads just an instant before bullets smacked into the ground at their feet, sending up chips of rock. He shrank back instinctively. Ducking low the Strays scampered in the other direction. In the back of his mind Crow counted the ticking of seconds.
They had only made it a few feet when the explosion rocked the ground beneath their feet. A cloud of fire, smoke, and splinters of wood burst outward into the night. Crow’s ears rang with the wail of a thousand alarms. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw a human shape plummet from the sky, slamming into the ground. He was thankful he didn’t hear the wet impact of human bones breaking. The red of the uniform marked the unfortunate victim as a Wraith. The Practitioner couldn’t bring himself to feel sickened over the rush of righteous satisfaction that passed through him in waves.
There was no time; they only had a moment to get inside while the Wraiths recovered from the shock of the unexpected. “Let’s go,” he said.
He drew on his mana. Crow did not up his hood, turning to face the front of the bus. Shimmering energy fanned from him forming a sphere of kinetic energy. His eyes glowed with a milky white light.
A slow smile spread across Crow’s face.
Barghast felt Crow draw in his mana. He felt the hair on the back of his arms stand on end, felt the air grow thick and crackle with energy. These poor bastards have no idea what they’re in for, the Okanavian thought. He couldn’t repress the shiver that creeped up his spine; there wasn’t much that scared the Okanavian but the change in the Practitioner’s demeanor in these moments always did. Crow’s lean face had taken on a look of murderous lust, an eagerness that was all too familiar to Barghast.
Crow began to make his way towards the hole that had been blasted in the gate, stepping over the debris. He moved stolidly, as if in no rush to get where he was going. Barghast cursed beneath his breath and followed with Jack directly behind him. Jack had his twin revolvers out. Even after all the missions they had been on together, Barghast did not like the thought of having them at his back.
They ran through the firelit smoke. Barghast saw several bodies strewn in their wake like forgotten dolls. A Red Wraith hacked wetly, pinned to the ground by a large piece of wood. Barghast thought about ending his misery with a blast from his shotgun but stopped himself. Let the Red Wraith bastard suffer.
Bullets started flying towards them from every direction. Most of them were directed at Crow, who glowed with the eerie light of his mana. The advantage to having a Practitioner on the squad, Barghast reminded himself, was that no one wanted to fuck with a Practitioner; they were like human kegs of explosive ready to explode at the slightest provocation. The Red Wraiths would be too busy trying to take him out to be much worried about Barghast and Jack. Every time bullets struck the outer bubble of mana Crow had forged around himself, the force field rippled; the bullets bounced off uselessly, sparking against the ground like firecrackers.
Human shapes moved in the night, running towards them. Voices shouted, lost over the deafening cacophony of gunfire. The Okanavian barely winced at the sound. For him it was as familiar as one’s favorite song, bringing back memories viscerally familiar. Of those days when his life had been filled with chaos and excitement; his life was filled with those days still but it wasn’t the same: there was the shadow of a noose around his neck. A dark shape moved out of the corner of his eye, weapon raised. Barghast turned and fired, feeling the shotgun kick powerfully in his hand. The shot took the Red Wraith in the chest, knocking him to his feet. Another was running down the wooden steps to his right. Barghast’s shotgun exploded once more. The man was thrown off his feet with an agonized scream.
Just feet away, Crow seemed to be doing a graceful sort of dance, arms slicing through the air. Barghast watched as a Red Wraith was nearly sliced in two by an invisible blade; gouts of blood sprayed from his chest. Everywhere Barghast looked Red Wraiths were pouring from every direction. If Sara and the others wanted a direction Barghast and Crow knew how to give them one. The fort was filled with the crack of gunfire. Fire blazed from Jack’s revolvers. His face was completely calm as he dropped three bodies in the time it takes for one to exhale.
Barghast and Jack had no choice but to take cover behind a cart of straw. The square was quickly crowding up with advancing Red Wraiths. Barghast used the opportunity to reload his weapon with fresh shells.
Barghast and Jack knelt within the shimmering dome of protection Crow had formed around them. No bullet seemed capable of penetrating its defenses. He shuddered to think what could happen if Crow suddenly lost his temper if he decided to focus it on Barghast - and he did have a temper, Barghast knew, no matter how hard the practitioner tried to hide it. I might be good with a gun but there’s no way I would stand a chance against mana.
Crow continued to spin and weave. Balls of flame shot from his hand, incinerating anyone who dare step in their way. A woman spun, waving her arms around, screaming shrilly. Crow waved his arm through the air and she was split in half at the waist. Blood snaked through the sand to form puddles. Already numerous bodies laid scattered beneath the velvety black sky. A wagon full of hay and horse dung burned. Things were happening so fast Barghast could barely keep track of it all.
Crow was on the move again, headed for the east side of the fort. He walked stolidly, not hurrying but not slowing down either. His face showed no expression, not even fear. Bullets whizzed past him or exploded when they hit the shield of mana around him. So consumed was he by whatever propelled him forward, the young practitioner didn’t see the woman hiding in the shadows to his left. She held a knife in her hand. Barghast shouted his name but Crow showed no signs of having heard him; it was as if nothing else existed but for the goal of causing destruction.
Cursing, Barghast darted forward as the woman sprung from the shadows. With her attention completely on Crow she didn’t see the Okanavian lunging towards her until it was too late. He slammed the butt of his gun into the side of her head, knocking her unconscious. “Damn you, practitioner,” he growled under his breath. He lurched after the Practitioner. Jack scurried to catch up.
Barghast’s breath burned in his lungs. The air was hot and sticky, a force to be reckoned with in of itself. Sweat dripped down his arms and back.They had reached the entrance leading into the eastern corridor.
The kid is unstoppable, Barghast thought as Crow blew the door off its hinges with a kinetic blast of mana. Barghast and Jack remained at his back, firing off shots. Despite their futile efforts so far, the Red Wraiths were still running towards them, at least a dozen, maybe two, with still more coming. The Red Wraiths did not stop or give up. Barghast had to give them this. Even as they saw Crow and the Okanavian coming towards them, they fired salvo after salvo, only stopping to duck behind cover and reload their weapons.
Crow waved a hand over the doorway. A ward appeared in a wall of shimmering light, filling the doorway, rippling like water. His face was streaked with blood. Barghast could not tell if it was his or the blood of those he’d slaughtered. “They won’t be able to get through this which buys us a minute or two - they’ll have to go around to get to us, let’s hurry.”
At the end of the corridor dead bodies littered the floor in a carpet of tangled limbs and spreading puddles of crimson. Barghast’s nose burned with the pungent mixture of gunpowder and blood. Rake and Lydia were slowly making their way towards them. Rake was supporting Fulko with one arm, rifle dangling from his shoulder by the weapon’s strap and Lydia was doing the same with Sara. Sara’s eyes were glazed with exhaustion. Barghast knew it was only determination to keep going and not slow the rest of the squad down that kept her clinging to consciousness - if only just.
“What happened to her?” he grunted, stepping forward to take the Eurchurchman from Rake.
“She’s drained,” Lydia grated, strained from the effort of keeping Sara upright. Though Sara wasn’t particularly heavy she was barely standing on her own two feet. “First she gave Fulko just enough to get going, which was more than she expected, and then I took a bullet to the shoulder.”
“I can help,” Crow said, coming to Sara’s side. Lydia stepped back, eyes full of hate, and then stopped when she realized what he meant.
Damn right, woman, Barghast thought, easily propping the Eurchurchman up; the man was so light a gust of wind could have blown him away. Set aside your pride and prejudice and let him help, you narrow-minded cunt. While he knew Crow could be dangerous if uncontrolled he also knew the practitioner was here to help. If not for him they would have never made it this far.
Crow put his hand on Sara’s shoulder and repeated the healer’s vow: “I give some of myself to you; take it and live.”
The air shimmered around Crow once more and Sara jerked up, crying out as if she’d been shocked. “Wow.” she said, renewed.
“Better?” Crow asked with a curl of his lip.
“Yes,” she said gratefully.
“We got company!” Chambers spinning, Jack raised his revolvers and unleashed an oppressive barrage of fire at an oncoming platoon of Red Wraiths. “We got company!” Rake shouted. He unleashed a barrage of steady fire at the approaching group of Red Wraiths and then threw himself behind a pillar as the gunfire was returned. Pieces of the wall crumbled to the floor in chunks and grainy bits of plaster.
Ducking carefully out of the way, Crow waved a hand over the ward he’d placed over the entrance to the courtyard. The ward wavered once and then was gone. Crow turned towards the flanking Red Wraiths. He thrust a palm into the air. A flaming ball of fire shot from his outstretched hand and blazed towards the Red Wraiths. One of them shouted for them to retreat but it was too late. Crow’s spell detonated.
The corridor trembled around the Red Wraiths. Several were thrown through the air like rag dolls, arms and legs pinwheeling helplessly. The corridor shook violently. Soot rained from the ceiling. Barghast was blinded by smoke, choking on it. Wondrously he still had a hold of Fulko. To his right, the stable where the horses were kept was ablaze. He could hear the agonized whinneys of the burning animals. Barghast felt for them but knew there was nothing he could do. Such was the cost of war,
With the ward gone the Stray Dogs ran pell mell. Barghast tried to pace his breaths. It would be a long run back to where the horses were waiting and an even longer journey out of the necropolis. The hard part was ahead of them; getting into Fort Erikson had been the easy part.
The practitioner was barely keeping up, his face drawn with exhaustion. Blood was starting to trickle from his nose.
He’s starting to wear down, the Okanavian thought. He must have given Sara a lot of his own mana.
He handed the old Eurchurchman to Jack and hung back for the Practitioner. The other Strays had already disappeared through the hole where the gate had been, out of sight. The kid was a mess, drenched in the blood of others as well as his own. More Red Wraiths were trickling from the building, like ants from an ant hill. Crow stood facing them, teeth clenched in an expression of rage.
“Come on, Crow!” Barghast shouted, “It’s time to go!”
Whether Crow hadn’t heard or was simply ignoring Barghast was unclear. He stayed where he was. Balls of fire streamed from his hands, arcing into the air, making the ground shake wherever they hit. The courtyard now resembled a battlefield: smoke filled the sky, blocking out the sun; fallen Red Wraiths laid in the dirt, screaming in agony or simply not moving at all.
“C’mon!” Jack shouted at Barghast. “We have to go!”
The Okanavian cursed between gritted teeth. There’s no way I’m leaving him behind, he thought. He went to Crow’s side and stopped. Blood was now streaming freely from the practitioner’s nose and ears. It dripped past his lips, chin, and was now going down his neck. He’s going to kill himself if he keeps going, Barghast thought. His brain will simply explode. But worse yet was the utter look of distress on the young practitioner’s face.
His face, if at all possible, had grown paler. His eyes were wide and white, giving him a ghastly look that also pulled at Barghast’s heart. Tears streamed from his cloudy eyes. “No, no, no,” he crooned in a broken, helpless voice. “They must be stopped...they must be...all of them...”
Barghast shook himself out of his stupor and struck the boy with the back of his hand. He’d only meant to do it hard enough to bring Crow to his senses but the practitioner spun and dropped towards the ground. The Okanavian managed to catch him in his arms and scoop him up. Demon’s sweaty balls he’s as light as the old man, he thought and dashe through the gate after the others.