Crow went out to the barn to retrieve Broana, their trusty mare. She whickered at him from her stall as if delighted to see him. The smell of straw and wood was strong in the barn, a familiar comfort after the oppressiveness in the house. He tried to think what it was that had been bothering him. He had seen something but now he could no longer remember what it was. Oh well, it didn’t matter. He had to go into town; the fresh air and the journey would do him good.
He grabbed the saddle and the reins and fitted them over Broana before climbing onto her back. With a gentle cluck of his tongue they trotted slowly out of the barn. It was a slow journey down the hill. The entire time he was aware of the house at his back, thought he could feel eyes watching him. He turned his head to look over his shoulder and thought he saw a shadowy figure looking back at him from Aunt Lena’s bedroom window but he was too far away to be able to tell for sure.
The road into town was covered in snow that had become compacted and hard. Since Crow had returned from the woods with the rabbits a cruel wind had picked up. Though he wore several layers of clothing including a wool pair of gloves and a scarf - both of which Aunt Lena had knitted herself - the wind seemed to cut right through him. Within minutes his cheeks were numb.
Along the way Broana and he passed several cottages. Smoke spiraled out of brick chimneys. Windows glowed with the light of fires burning within. A man was making his way out of a barn, a silver pail in his hand, the wind whipping his scarf around. He looked at Crow and smiled, waving. Crow waved back, an automatic gesture, frowning. He wasn’t used to people around here being so friendly.
The man came up to Crow, separated by a fence post. “A bit cold isn’t it?” he said.
Crow brought Broana to a stop; for a moment he could only stare. The man looked so...familiar. He was very tall, close to seven feet, and broad shouldered with dark caramel skin and a muscular build. He was big enough he looked like he could snap Crow easily in half. His face was lined with scars. His eyes were dark and friendly and despite the cold he was grinning.
Crow was dizzy with the feeling of deja vu: ...you know something’s wrong. There will be a detail out of place. In the beginning your mind’s foggy. You tell yourself you’re just seeing things and then you move on. Only the discrepancies get more and more noticable.
Crow could feel his mind about to seize around something, a revelation. He looked at the man. The man must’ve been new around here. He didn’t look like a northerner but more like he came from the Okanavian Desert. And yet the man looked familiar.
“Do I know you?” Crow asked.
The man chuckled. His dark face was marked with a patchwork of scars; it appeared someone had taken a knife to his face at one point. “Can’t say you do. The name’s Barghast. You sure you want to be walking into town during this kind of weather? I have a nice fire and a kettle of soup going if you want to come in and have some with me. I would sure love the company.”
Crow was tempted to say yes - the word was right on the tip of his tongue. He was immediately comforted by Barghast’s presence. To sit before a fire with a bowl of soup and talk with someone other than his dying aunt sounded more appealing than words could describe. But there was also the sense that something wasn’t right here. Everything around him felt surreal, dreamlike.
Am I really standing here? Crow asked himself. Am I really having a conversation with this man, standing out in the middle of the cold?
Of course he was. Dreams never felt this real. Shame flooded him. While he was talking with this man his aunt was in constant agony, waiting for him to end her suffering. Sadly, reluctantly Crow smiled. “I wish I could but I have to run in town and grab something for my aunt.”
The man nodded. “I understand. Well if you ever need a friend you know where to find me.”
Crow smiled and wished Barghast a good day. I always need a friend.
Another voice spoke in his head, this one also familiar: Wake up Crow...you need to wake up.
With Broana on the move, Crow stopped and turned around to look at Barghast but the man was already gone.
The center of town consisted mostly of one and two story buildings with a single road that cut through it. Around this part of the region vehicles were a rare thing - unless someone had a jalasa farm no one could afford the money it took to keep up on the maintenance or the oil and gas it took to run it. Instead most people traveled via carriage.
Almost no one was about. Most people would be indoors, taking refuge in Anneville’s local pub The Golden Stein. For this Crow was grateful. This meant there was no one around to gawk at him fearfully or whisper about his aunt and him.
The apothecary had an office in the clinic, a small square building with three other rooms in it. There were three healers on staff but none of them had had the skills or experience Aunt Lena had had until she got sick.
The inside smelled of herbs and disinfectant. Crow sat in a small waiting room, watching.
As the three healers on staff walked into a room, dressed in their white robes with the crest of the Eurchurch hanging from around their necks. Even here he felt out of place for he had the power to destroy not heal. Many times he’d wished he had the power to take the pain of others away the way his aunt did.
“Hello, can I help you?” a voice asked him, tearing him from his thoughts.
Crow turned to see who it was that had spoken and felt his heart skip a beat once more more, overwhelmed by the same sense of deja vu he’d felt with Barghast. She had long blond hair and blue eyes and a pretty smile. Instead of wearing a white habit like the healers wore she simply wore a white coat and slacks.
An image flashed before his eyes of this woman being attacked by an old woman in the alley of a place he couldn’t recall going to. The crone was possessed, her eyes flashing yellow. Where did this image...this memory come from?
Something isn’t right here. What’s happening to me? Am I going insane?
“I’m here for my aunt,” he said, rising to his feet. “She’s very sick.”
“Did you go to see if a healer could help?”
“We did. They told her there’s nothing they could do...she’s dying. I just want something that will take away the pain…permanently.”
To her credit Sara’s face saddened with the realization of what he meant. “I’m sorry. I think I might have something. Please, come into my office.”
Sara’s office was neatly kept. Next to the door was a shelf full of jarred herbs of various types and colors. The bottom was full of leather-bound books no doubt full of plants and how to identify them. There were several calming pictures nailed to the wall behind the desk. In the corner of the room was a grandfather clock. Crow stared at it, fascinated, momentarily forgetting why he was here.
“Is something wrong?” Sara asked
“You have a grandfather clock,” Crow said.
“Oh yes. It was given to me by Pope Drajen.”
“I’ve heard of them and seen drawings of them but never a real one.”
“In the end days of the Old World they were extremely rare. Now they are practically nonexistent. I feel lucky to have it.” Sara beamed at him from across the desk. “It reminds me to be grateful for each day I have to live.”
“I could use a daily reminder,” Crow said.
“But you are so young,” Sara said, looking slightly startled. “Surely you have many days.”
He smiled sadly. “I don’t feel young. For the last year I’ve been taking care of my aunt and I haven’t had any help. It’s just me. This last year felt like it’s lasted a century.”
“It is a terrible burden to have to care for someone, especially when you need taking care of yourself,” Sara said, nodding as if she understood perfectly. “I know you will miss her terribly and in the end you will feel guilty for her death. We all do in the end - we take responsibility for the things that aren’t our fault. For a long time it will hurt, you will feel like you can’t breathe, like someone has crushed you with their hands. But you will also feel relieved because the only burden you will have is yourself.”
Crow nodded and admitted a truth he hadn’t dared to admit out loud up until now. “Yes, I will be relieved.”
She stood up. “I will give you what you need to end your aunt’s suffering. There is a rare plant that grows here in the north called the Silver Death. It is called such because the leaves are silver and it grows in dark places. I have it in liquid form - it comes in a vial. Make your aunt some tea and mix it in. She won’t taste it. It will not bring her pain - instead she will simply fall asleep and never wake up.”
Sara went over to the shelf, grabbed a tiny vial and brought it to him. “Before I give it to you I need to know that you have the money for it. It’s not cheap.”
“Whatever you’re asking, I can pay it,” said Crow.
Heading back in the direction of Aunt Lena’s house, Crow passed Anneville’s only church. It was a tall wooden tower, the tallest building in Annesville with a bell tower that marked the passing of each hour. He stared at it for a long time, knowing he needed to get home to Aunt Lena. But there was something else pulling at him: A need for comfort and prayer. Not that prayer had ever worked for him before, but he was desperate. With his mind made up, he tied Broana’s reins to the wooden post and walked up the ice-slick path, climbed up the three stone steps, and let himself through the heavy wooden doors.
The inside of the church was empty except for a woman who sat in the back row of pews, her hair tilted forward in what might have been prayer so that a curtain of thick dark hair hung down before her face. Crow looked at the altar, breathing in the smell of burning candles and incense. He took another step inside, asked himself why it was he had chosen to come inside when the Eurchurch had turned him and his aunt away. Had Aunt Lena not taken him in to raise after the death of his parents, would she have gotten the help she needed and the treatment she deserved?
He looked at the woman again, truly noticing her for the first time. He couldn’t say how but there was something familiar looking about her. Something in the back of his mind told him he should not approach her: she was dangerous. The black curtain of her hair was a tangled mess, obscuring her face. The clothes she wore were little more than rags. Her wrists were shackled together; her voice was little more than a whisper, rough and unfeminine. He found himself stepping closer to hear what the woman was saying, unable to stop himself.
“Mercius forgive me,” she said. She looked up and the thick dark fabric of her hair parted to show hard, lean features. Her dark eyes focused on the altar at the front of the church. There was a mad glint in those dark eyes, a black flame. “I know I should feel sorry for killing him but I do not...it is for this lack of remorse not the act that I beg forgiveness for.”
Crow knew her name then; it came to his mind like a feather riding a gust of wind. Lydia. He took a step away from her, wanting to put as much distance between them as she could before she noticed. She’s dangerous. But then she turned her head to look at him and he noticed.
“How many daughters do you know who kill their father?” she asked him.
“Your father?” he asked stupidly. He stopped, daring not to move; he feared doing so would only cause her to strike at him like a snake.
She nodded. “He was a priest. We lived in a small village near the desert. He had an Okanavian woman for a wife. She had left her tribe to find something more, something better. She always said living in the desert was never an easy life. She wanted adventure she told me but in the end her life ended up being much harder than the one she left; she was prisoner and my father was her warder.” A cynical smirk played at her lips.
“My father was a devout Eurchurchman. He hated practitioners just like most Eurchurchman do. I can’t tell you how many he made us stand and watch as they burned and he prayed for their souls. The people in our town thought he was so devout, so perfect; they didn’t know about the ugly things he did at home. How he used to beat me and my mother, always making sure to bruise us in places where no one would see. And many nights, when my mother refused to lay with him he would force himself on her. She was afraid of him. We both were “
Lydia sniffed. She wiped at her nose with the back of her wrists, the chains swaying back again. Once again her gaze was focused on the altar.Then one day, when I was almost of age he found out a terrible secret about my mother. She too was a practitioner, a woman capable of channeling mana. She had kept it hidden from him for years, kept it hidden from me: I don’t know how she did it but she did. He was beating her one night, like he always did, and then she turned on him and screamed and he flew across the room as if flung back by a strong gust of wind. He was hurt but not terribly so. She could have done worse to him but she didn’t because she loved him. For reasons I will never understand she loved him and stuck by his side. Then he burned her. Dragged her out in front of the village, bound her to a stake, and put the torch to her. He cried as he watched her burn too. I’d never seen him cry before.”
Then she lunged at him, quick as a snake, teeth gritted and eyes blazing with rage. Crow managed to back a step or two away before her fingers closed around his throat. The momentum of her charge and his feet tangling together caused them to topple to the wooden floor; the impact knocked the breath out of him. She straddled him then, fingers clenched around the flesh of his neck, squeezing. Her teeth were bared, her eyes were dark slits. He struggled to get her off but she was stronger than she looked.
It gets in your head and makes you see things. There’s been times where I’ve seen my victims...the people I’ve killed. They taunt me. And other times it’s like I relive things. Memories. And it feels so real. Only there are...discrepancies.
Lydia was gone. One second she was choking the life from him, the next she was simply gone. He could no longer feel her weight on him or her nails digging into his skin. He laid on the floor, confused, trying to figure out what had happened. How could she be there one second and gone the next? What in the Infernal Depths was going on?
He realized he shouldn’t lay around. The mad woman could come back or something else could come and attack him. Clambering to his feet, he stumbled out of the church, into the cold.
He held onto the vial of Silver Death as if it were a talisman. Inside was the prettiest liquid he’d ever seen: silver. Was it possible a plant could look silver when turned into liquid? How could something which would cause death be so beautiful? The incident in the church was forgotten. In his mind it had never even happened.
Crow...Crow...wake up...This isn’t real...This is a dream…
He stopped and frowned, looking around. There was nothing around him save the low-topped pine trees and cottages.
Something over his head caught his eye. He looked up and veiled his eyes. A glowing ball of white light was streaking towards him like a comet. Seeing it sparked something within him; a torrent of images and memories passed through his head: Aunt Lena begging him to end her pain, holding out a pillow to him; digging her grave and building her cairn. He remembered Barghast and Sara and the other Stray Dogs. The last thing he remembered was witnessing Sanoe’s death and entering a black door.
Ex’olku hovered before him, rays of light touching upon Crow’s skin. Remember who you are, he said. Remember what you must do. The demon is waiting for you. You must defeat it if you are to free yourself from its spell.
Broana must have been aware of the entity’s presence because she had come to a stop too. Crow looked down at the paper bag he held in his hand and pulled out the vial. “I never went to see the apothecary,” he whispered to himself. “I smothered her with the pillow. All of this...Sara, Barghast...they were never here. They were...”
Clues. Your subconscious is trying to wake you up. Your friends are waiting for you.
Crow threw the vial onto the ground and stomped down on it as hard as he could. He watched the liquid slowly spill out over the snow before walking away from the shattered vial.
The house stood like an oppressive fortress on top of its hill, overlooking the town of Annesville and its farmland. In truth it was no longer standing there - Crow had burned it when he set out for the Eurchurch the day after he’d buried Aunt Lena.
The windows stared like blackened eyes which seemed to focus on him. Again Crow thought he could see someone watching him from the windows but he couldn’t be sure. Anger rose inside of him like a slowly rising fire. How could I have been so stupid to think any of this was real? Crow thought. How long has this demon been playing with me?
He didn’t bother to put Broana back in her stall. He steered her in front of the house, jumped off the saddle, and climbed up the steps of the porch, passing Aunt Lena’s rocking chair. It was covered in snow. In the beginning, before her dementia had gotten bad, Crow would bring her down to sit in the rocking chair and bring her a mug of hot cocoa. Many times he would sit with her and together they would just stare at the wilderness. They couldn’t sit out for very long because of the cold but Crow always remembered it as a bittersweet time - things hadn’t gotten bad just yet; in those days he never suspected just how bad it could get.
He let himself in without bothering to close the door behind him. One way or another he wouldn’t be here long. He could hear Johnny Cash playing from upstairs: “I fell into a burning ring of fire...”
Slowly Crow began to climb the steps. Even with his determination and anger fueling him forward he dreaded what he would find waiting for him upstairs. He remembered briefly seeing the demon lying in her place. As it had in the catacombs of the Scarlet Church it must have assumed her form.
The board at the top of the landing creaked. The door to her bedroom was open but he couldn’t yet see her. He wasn’t aware of the fact he was holding his breath.
“Love is sweet when two hearts meet...”
Crow did his best to tiptoe quietly down the hallway but the house betrayed his every step, the floor creaking beneath his feet. Finally he reached the doorway and peered inside.
She was dancing in the middle of the room, just out of sight of the door, her nightgown swishing lightly behind her. She danced with the grace he remembered as a child, when they would dance to her singing. Though she was still gaunt she looked just like he remembered her.
Spotting him she said, “Come dance with me Crow. Come dance with me like we used to.”
“You’re not Aunt Lena,” he said, managing to sound braver than he felt, “so quit pretending like you are.”
She stopped dancing and when she did she stopped singing as well. The bright smile she gave him made the hair on the back of Crow’s neck stand on end. She began to clap. “Impressive. It didn’t take you as long as it does others. Sometimes it takes them days depending on who I’m dealing with and how smart they are. It only took you a few hours. Unfortunately for you, you have to deal with the real me now.”
There was a terrible ripping sound. A clawed hand was tearing its way out of Aunt Lena’s stomach, tearing through the fabric. Crow watched as in horror Aunt Lena’s mouth stretched open in a silent scream, her eyes staring glassily at the ceiling. Her flesh seemed to fold in on itself like paper being crumpled into a ball. Sheets of blood splattered the floor; it seemed there was no end to how much there was. Finally what remained of Aunt Lena’s skin was flung to the side. It hit the wall, marking the wall paper with blood, and then hit the floor with a splatting sound Crow would never forget.
The demon stood before him in its goat form. It kicked its hoof once and then charged at him, its passage seeming to make the entire house shake around them. Crow drew on his mana but before he could make an attempt to defend himself the demon had him by the throat and was lifting him off his feet. Its clawed hand crushed the air from his lungs. All around them the walls were shifting, the color bleeding out of it, the wall paper turning to stone, the floor turning to stone. Even the demon’s shape was changing, its flesh turning to smoke to reveal the red robes of a Scarlet Priest.
Now Crow found himself looking at the hooded face of a man who stared back at him with red eyes. Where the dirt did not cover it, the flesh was pale, the lips peeling back from yellowed teeth. His breath smelled of rotting meat. Somehow the demon had hijacked the body of a Scarlet Priest. Like the half-scorpion form of Yov’olbh, the goat form of this demon had just been a projection. No one truly knew what form demons took.
They were not in Aunt Lena’s house but the middle of a chamber. They were in the catacombs beneath the Scarlet Church. For a split second Crow wondered how any of this was possible, how it was he had walked miles into town when he was inside this room. The thought was completely forgotten by the need for air.
“Yov’olbh was afraid of you, Agent of Ex’olku,” said the Second Caste demon. “I’m not.”
Crow chuckled; the sound came out garbled. When he blinked his eyes turned cloudy white. His face had turned a darkened shade of red. “You should be.”
With the last of his strength he grabbed the side of the possessed priest’s hands in both of his own and began to suck the lifeforce from it. Golden light seeped into his body, filling him with power. As he did, the priest’s head burst into flames. Crow held on until he couldn’t anymore. He dropped to the ground.
Gasping in oxygen, his eyes streaming tears, he watched as the demon sprinted in circles around the room, arms flashing up and down as it tried to beat out the flames. But the flames only spread faster, eating the red fabric of the robes until all Crow could see was flame.
The screaming voice coming from the vocal cords sounded mostly human but there was a high-pitched sound beneath it that was not. Crow couldn’t stand the sound. It hurt his ears, made them feel like his eardrums would burst and permanently deafen him. Face scrunched up in pain he picked up the machete lying next to him - vaguely remembering having it in his hand when he stepped through the door leading into the chamber - and scooped it up.
On aching legs he stood up and came up to the burning form before him. He brought the machete back and swung as hard as he could at where he thought the neck would be. He was close enough the flames stung his face and arms. The blade sliced through flesh and bone and tendon, separating the head from the rest of the body. Blood and smoke arced up from the stump. The burning head rolled across the floor of the chamber.
Choking on smoke, Crow made his way across the chamber, the machete still in hand. He prayed the door would lead him to the dungeons as Sanoe had said it would - he had never wanted to leave a place behind as much as the catacombs. He pulled the door open and to his relief saw a set of stairs that went upwards.
Crow looked back at the smoking body once more and then closed the door behind him. He thought of Barghast and the others and wondered if they would be glad to see him or if they simply thought him dead.