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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 42. The Graveyard of Forgotten Things

The four remaining Stray Dogs trekked through the snow, huddled together as one. The wind shrieked like a banshee, blowing snow in their face. It slapped at them as if trying to hold them back and keep them from reaching the dead city. It was everything Crow could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

A steady aching pulse had formed in the center of his skull. The blood and snot running from his nose had turned into sickles. He was using the last of his mana reserves to keep the others warm with his hands. It was an agony within itself - he’d yet to push himself this far. If I don’t quit I’m going to put myself into a coma, he thought distantly. But if he stopped they would all freeze to death. Still it was no easy task trying to keep four people warm.

He turned his head to look back at the Scarlet Church. The church and the cliff it stood on had become a dark, shadowy outline. Rake was back there, dead, and so was Sara. She might as well have been dead. Her body now belonged to a powerful demoness. And we just left her there. Abandoned her. But what else could I do? Crow hated himself for trying to make excuses for his own cowardly choices, for letting his fear get to him. He told himself he’d ran to get Barghast, Jack and Lydia to safety...but he could no longer be sure what the truth was. He was colder than he’d ever been, exhausted to the point he almost didn’t care if he died or not, and he was filthy and hungry.

Crow was just beginning to wonder how they’d made it this far in the cold when he felt his foot slide out from underneath him. He went rolling down a steep decline of snow. Each time he rolled over felt like his bones were knocking into one another. Finally he came able to stop, aching and cold. It hurt to breathe. He wondered if he’d broken something. He thought he heard Barghast shout his name but not even the Okanavian’s deep rumble could be heard over the brutal winds.

Coughing, Crow forced himself to sit up. He tried to stand, only getting halfway before his legs gave out from underneath him, putting him on his ass. Barghast reached him and lifted him easily to his feet.

“You’re exhausted,” said the Okanavian. “You’ve used too much mana. Let me carry you.”

Crow didn’t have the energy to raise his voice above the wind so he shook his head. He hated himself for looking so weak in front of Barghast. Lydia simply stood off to the side, watching them, a dazed expression frozen on her face: Jack stood watching them and Crow saw the Eurchurchman did not have his glasses. The practitioner could not remember the last time he heard him speak. Crow ignored the pain and Barghast’s pleading expression and started walking into the wind. Crow didn’t want to be carried - he didn’t want to sink lower than he already had.

The only place that might offer safety was the dead city: the Graveyard of Forgotten Things it was called, Crow now remembered. The shadowy outlines of skeletal buildings outlined against the cold white-and-grey gloom. He had heard tales of such places. Scavengers would come out and explore them in search of relics from the Old World; they would take them back and try to sell them. It was just like the necropolises in the Okanavian Desert, only this part of the ‘scape felt dead. At least in the desert there had been coyotes and snakes. Here there was nothing. Nothing to live off of. No place to get warm.

Is there even a point in trying to get there? We still have to get back into Fruimont? How will we get pass the guards? How will we get through the city undetected? We still have so far to go...so very far.

Jack stopped then and waved for them to do the same. “I thought I saw something!” he shouted, voice buffeted by the wind. “I thought I saw movement!”

“There’s nothing out here but us!” Lydia called back. “You’re seeing things!”

But Jack was not seeing things, Crow could see them too: Dark shapes moving towards them out of the murk. He thought he might have even heard the bark of the dog. He pressed the numbed palms of his hands against the hood of his cloak to try and keep it from flapping. The shapes were becoming more defined with every second: At first they were shadowy but then he could see that they were quadrupedal and there were six of them with harnesses attached to their bodies. They were pulling behind them a sled with two human shapes on top of them. Before he could stop himself he moved to intercept it. He did not give himself time to think why he shouldn’t do this because in his mind there was no risk in it. He shouted, an inarticulate scream without words. The sled the dogs pulled behind it kept on coming at full speed; he thought the dog train might even run him over. Then one of the shapes on top shouted “Whoa!” and with a response of yips the sled came to a stop.

The two figures moved, pointing rifles in their direction. “Don’t move!” a man’s voice shouted. “Don’t think I’ll hesitate to put a bullet through your eyes!”

Crow held his hands up in surrender. “We mean you no harm but we cannot stay here. We’re dying!”

Dark eyes peered at him from beneath the brim of the man’s hood; the rest of his features were hidden within the shadow of his hood. Crow could not read the expression on his face. “You wear Scarlet Priest robes; I ought to shoot you right here and put out you miserable lives right here and now!”

“If we were Scarlet Church would we be out here, trekking through the cold to our deaths?” Crow gestured wildly over his shoulder. “You don’t want to go that way! The Scarlet Church is that way!”

The second figure, still aiming the gun at Crow’s chest, said something. The voice was that of a woman but Crow could not hear what she had said. The man looked over his shoulder for a moment before turning his head to nod back at Crow. “My wife says you are telling the truth. It will be a tight fit but we will have to make it work if we are going to get all four of you on there.”

It was a tight fit to be sure. The man and woman had to throw bags of their loot in the snow to make enough room and Crow had to sit on Barghast’s lap; this made Crow feel like a ridiculous little kid but he was far too exhausted and cold to make a fuss over it.

To his surprise the dogs darted through the cold snow and ice quicker than he expected; he had to grip the sides of the sled to keep from falling off. For a moment he drifted in a state of semi-consciousness, only aware of what was happening around him in the vaguest of senses. The temples of the necropolis towered over them, marking the snow with their shadow, like the world’s largest tombstones. They were magnificent in their immense proportions, indicating a time when such creations could be built. Crow could only wonder at the technology needed to do such things for nothing like these skyscrapers were created these days in the hellscape. But the evidence and technology, what remains of it, is all right here frozen under layers and slabs of ice, he thought.

They were passing between the buildings now. Crow was amazed at the speed and determination with which the dogs pulled; the burden of pulling them along seemed nonexistent, the levels of their stamina inexhaustible. At last with a cry and snap of the reins from the man, the dogs came to a stop before a tall building with snow covered steps leading towards the entrance.

Crow tried to get up, bringing one leg over the sled, but when he went to stand up he fell down into the snow. Before he could try to stand up once more, Barghast was pulling him to his feet. He was too embarrassed to say thank you so he went after Jack and Lydia who were climbing carefully up the steps of the temple, following their saviors. They passed beneath an empty archway, into a large dark cavern. There were shapes hidden within the snow but it was hard to identify anything.

The man and woman set their packs on the ground and pulled off their hoods. The man was average height with long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, black almond shaped eyes, and high cheekbones. There were streaks of silver in his hair and beard but he looked youthful.

The woman however had hair every bit as pale as the snow that covered the floor of the temple. Wrinkles bracketed her eyes and mouth and the skin at her throat sagged slightly, looking like a gizzard. She turned to face the Stray Dogs now. She held the rifle in her hands. Her unreadable gaze scanned their faces before stopping and lingering on Crow’s. Crow looked away, feeling inexplicably uncomfortable. Somehow he knew she wasn’t just looking at him but into him.

The man turned to the woman. “I’m going to get the dogs as quickly as I can. Keep an eye on them.” With the last words he cocked his head in the Strays’ direction. The woman nodded then pointed the muzzle of her rifle directly at Barghast’s chest. Crow thought he saw the Okanavian gulp out of the corner of his eye.

Crow leaned against the pillar, shivering. He was cold, so cold. It felt as if his insides were turning to ice. He wanted to sleep. He didn’t care if he had to lay down in the snow to do it, he just wanted to sleep. He was actually starting to drift off when he felt some shake him.

“Stay awake, little bird.” Barghast’s voice was an urgent whisper, puffs of white mist streaming out of his mouth with every word.

“Sleep,” he heard himself say. “I just want to sleep. So tired...” And he wanted to cry. Wanted to bury his face in something and cry.

“I know. But you have to push on. I know you have it in you, little bird. You’ve brought us this far.”

Crow jumped, startled, when he felt something wet and warm lick his numbed, frozen fingers. A dog stood between him and Barghast at his side, wagging its tail expectantly at the practitioner as if begging to be scratched behind the ears. The others circled around the man and the woman who were now in the middle of the room, building a fire. Jack and Lydia stood next to one another watching the two scavengers work.

Crow must have drifted off again because Barghast was shaking him again, hoarsely saying his name. Crow thought he heard fear in the Okanavian’s voice. The others were all sitting around the fire, surrounded by dogs who lounged on the floor by the fire. The man said something unintelligible. In response the Okanavian said, “He used a lot of mana to get us here. We were out in the cold for hours and we walked miles. If it was not for him we would have all frozen to death.”

Lydia snorted derisively, her eyes cut across Crow’s face scathingly, but she said nothing.

Barghast helped Crow lower onto a pad made of blankets before the fire; the touch of warmth from the flames broke Crow out in a fresh wave of shivers. He held out shaking hands towards the flames, eyes narrowed into slits. He didn’t think there had ever been a time when warmth had felt so good.

“You said you escaped from the Scarlet Church,” the man said. “How does one do such a thing?”

“Luck. Lots of luck,” the Okanavian rumbled. “We lost two of our own. We were on a mission for the Eurchurch when we were caught.”

The man said nothing for a moment, then cocked his head slightly. “I know you.” He looked at Lydia. “And you.” Back to the Okanavian he said, “I imagine with a face as scarred as yours, Barghast ‘Blackshot Unalaq, you would be impossible not to recognize even if dressed in disguise.”

Barghast’s shoulders slumped visibly but he said nothing.

“Don’t worry I do not judge you for your crimes. Others might but who in the hellscape is truly innocent. As long as you don’t harm me or the woman sitting next to me, or my dogs, I hold no animosity or harmful intent towards you. My name is Duncan and the woman sitting next to me is Rose. She doesn’t talk much but when she does people have a tendency to listen. We’ve been out here for weeks.”

“Weeks?” Lydia said, her voice coming out as harsh as it always did. “You mean you’ve survived out here for multiple days?”

Duncan nodded. “When we found out the Scarlet Church was overtaking the city we decided to come out here. We scavenge out here often...we know how to survive in these harsh lands. The Ubrios Wastes are not as empty as you might think: There are polar bears out here and you can hunt seal and fish if you know where to look and have the patience for it. The bears don’t make for the best meal but when you are desperate and starving anything to fill your empty belly will do.”

“If you knew about the Scarlet Church then why were you heading their way?” Jack asked. He looked naked without his glasses. Crow found himself wishing he had a jalasa joint to smoke but those had been taken from him; the Scarlet Church had taken everything that belonged to the Stray Dogs.

“We had no idea where their exact location was. No one does. They have a way of remaining hidden. Makes me wonder if they’ve been hiding here this whole time just waiting for the perfect time to strike. Besides I doubt they would bother anyone out here. It’s too damned cold.”

Duncan reached into his pack and pulled out. “It seems Mercius was looking out for you lot. We went seal hunting recently and found ourselves quite the catch.”

He passed out strips of seal blubber. Crow found himself stuffing the blubber in his mouth without thinking. His stomach gurgled and growled, coming alive after so long of being dormant from hunger. He remembered trying seal once as a boy and almost throwing it up as soon as he put it in his mouth; he’d been unable to stand the gamey taste. But now it saturated his tongue and he didn’t mind it one bit.

As the group ate - Duncan continued to hand out parcels of seal meat and hunks of bread that had been toasted near the fire. The Stray Dogs were silent except for occasional groans of satisfaction. Out of the corner of his eye, Crow felt Rose’s eyes on him. Moments later he found himself lying back, comfortable and full for the first time since leaving Miffland. He could feel the threads of sleep pulling at him. Still Rose kept her eyes on him; she sat beside Duncan, still as a statue but for the tiny movements of her mouth as she chewed.

What does she want? Why is her fascination with me? Crow wondered. In the end he was too tired to really care. He went to sleep with the sound of the fire crackling in his ears, the sour musk of dog and sweat in his ears, and the eyes of the crazy woman still watching him.

 

 

When he woke up everyone was asleep but for the old woman. She still sat by the fire, surrounded by the dogs and the sleeping form of Duncan. She turned her eyes on him, the palest shade of blue he had ever seen, on him. Crow found himself suddenly angry. Who was this woman and what did she want with him? It was not the explosive anger he was used to, the one in which he blew everything into cinders kind of anger. It was as calm and icy as the Ubrios Waste.

He got up and went to her, stepping over sleeping bodies as he did. He did this slowly, awkwardly, for his body was still incredibly sore. He needed more sleep, more rest, but he knew he would not be able to do these things in these conditions. He wouldn’t be able to do such things until they made it back to Miffland. If they made it back to Miffland. He eased himself beside her, glared.

“Do you have something you want to say to me?” He kept his voice low; it sounded surprisingly steady.

“I’ve dreamed of you,” she said, her words echoing those of the woman he had encountered in Olmstadt; her words were raspy, as if her words were covered in cobweb. “I dream of a lot of things...when I’m awake and when I’m asleep. Always dreaming. Some of these are things that happened in the past, events long since forgotten; others are from the future. I don’t know why it is; it’s always been this way since I was a little girl. People often think me mad. Maybe I am.” Rose shrugged in a way that said what other people thought didn’t matter to her.

“I have seen your future,” she said.”Not all of it, just the part that matters.”

“What?” Crow asked breathlessly.

“You walk a single road that branches off into two paths,” Rose said. “You must decide which path you choose to walk; there are no other paths to choose from. One leads you down the same path Damen Orlys walks and the other leads down the same path your Aunt Lena walked. You must choose between which one. Each one, I’m afraid, bears a heavy price, one you will not be able to pay in the end.”

He believed her. He couldn’t say why or how but Crow believed her and he knew she was telling the truth. Still he wanted to negate it. “Madness?” he hissed angrily. “You’re saying madness is all I have to look forward to? That is my only reward?”

“Doing the right thing rarely bears the fruits of reward. My ma often told me knowing you did the right thing is prize enough.”

"It's not enough - it never has been. I've been doing the right thing for years. Why did Ex'olku pick me? He could have picked anyone in the 'scape but instead he picked me." He was talking more to himself than to Rose.

"I cannot claim to understand what this Ex'olku wants or why he wants it," Rose said. "I imagine he picked you because you are the only one who can pay such a heavy price.”

 

 





 

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