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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 43. One More Try

With a shout at the dogs, Duncan brought the sled to a stop before the gates of Fruitmont. Several guards stood watch. Each was armed with rifles. The biggest one in the group, a middle-aged man with a greying red beard approached the sled, his breath misting the air. The hood of his jacket was rimmed with fur. Duncan got up, patting the head of one of the dogs, and grinned cheerfully at the sour-faced Wraith. “Good afternoon, sir. Cold, isn’t it?”

The Red Wraith grunted and peered over the sled, studying Crow, Barghast, Jack and Lydia. Rose sat at the very back of the shed but the guard seemed to take no notice of her. “What all have we got here?”

Each word spoken sent fresh stabs of agony through Crow’s head. It took every bit of concentration he had to maintain the glamour-spell. At this point all he could do was alter the appearance of the group’s appearance and garb. They were now dressed almost exactly as Duncan was: like scavengers who went out into the Ubrios Wastes everyday to recover artifacts from the Old World.

To Duncan, the Red Wraith said, “I’m going to need you to show us what you have in the back.”

Duncan nodded, his green eyes twinkling, and stepped out of the vehicle. He’s got a great poker face, Crow thought. Snow crunched beneath Duncan’s feet as he led the Red Wraith around the back of the truck; Rose was already stooping down to unfasten the hooks that held the tarp down. The other two Wraiths guarding the gate watched the sled closely, fingers resting on the trigger of their rifles.

Crow felt Barghast shift nervously underneath him. He thought he heard the rustle of a tarp being thrown back but he couldn’t be sure with the ringing in his ears. I don’t know how much longer I can do this, Crow thought. Hurry…

He heard the crunching of boots on snow again, and Duncan saying, “Thanks you have a great day, sir.” Duncan and Rose climbed back onto the sled. “We’re cleared.”

The practitioner let out a sigh of relief. The sound of metal sliding against metal hurt Crow’s ears as the guards pulled the gate back and waved Duncan to head through. Barking, the pack of dogs broke into a run. Once they were through the gate, Crow let the glamour-spell drop. Once more he and the others were dressed in their Scarlet Priest robes. His flesh felt gritty and sweaty despite the cold. Right now he wanted nothing more than to be away from this city, away from the north, bath, and a place to lay his head down.

But there was one more thing he had to do. I can’t leave here without Benedict, not without trying to get him to come with me. Crow didn’t know why he felt Benedict was so important. Perhaps he wanted to find some way to redeem himself for what had happened to Rake and Sara. No matter how much he tried to tell himself what happened wasn’t his fault, not directly anyway, he still couldn’t help but feel responsible.

I was supposed to kill Damen Orlys - I was supposed to stop him from succeeding with whatever he was planning. I failed.

“Can you stop the sled?” Crow asked. They were now driving through some backroad.

“Sure,” Duncan said. He looked doubtful but brought the dogs to a stop in the middle of the street with the shout of, “Whoa...

“Where are you going?” Barghast demanded, as Crow jumped off the sled.

“I’m going to try and get to Benedict Matthiesen,” said Crow. “See if I can talk him into coming with us. He’s too important to just leave behind. He could have valuable information to give to the Eurchurch.” At least that’s what I’m telling myself to justify this, he thought.

“You just focus on getting Jack and Lydia out of here. Get the horses ready,” said Crow. “If I’m not back by nightfall leave without me.”

Barghast swore and rose to his feet.

“What are you doing?” Crow and Lydia said in unison; Jack wore a sleepy confused expression on his face, as if he had woken up from a deep sleep and found himself in the middle of a conflict.

“The last two times we got split up I thought you were dead,” Barghast said to Crow. “That’s not happening again. And don’t you try and argue with me either, practitioner. I just hope this Benedict is worth it.” He glanced back at Jack. “Don’t leave without us.”

“Loras and Drajen would both have my head if I did,” Jack said. To Crow he said, “Barghast is your responsibility for the time being. Don’t let him out of your sight”

Standing side by side on the sidewalk, Crow and Barghast watched as Duncan’s sled was dragged out of sight by the pack of dogs. Rose’s pale blue eyes remained fixed on Crow until the sled was pulled around the next corner and out of sight; Crow hoped he never saw her again

“Do you even know where he is?” Barghast asked as they turned down an alley.

“He has an apartment where he lives with his family,” Crow said. “That’s where we’re going.”

“And if it’s guarded?”

“Sneak past the guards with a glamour spell. And if they try to stop us you can knock them out. You were the one who decided to come with me even though I told you to go with Jack and Lydia.” Even as Crow spoke he could feel his mind racing a million miles a second. It was hard to speak, hard to breathe. His eyes burned with exhaustion.

“Stop for a second.” Barghast’s grip on his shoulder was gentle but firm. As always his touch sent a wave of reassurance and longing through Crow. When Barghast touched him or looked at him the world seemed to steady itself again, to find reason when otherwise Crow could never find any. Barghast was the only one who could make him stop, make him calm down. He was the only one who could make things right. “What happened to you down in that pit?”

“What happened?” For the first time Crow thought about what happened in the catacombs: falling into the pit full of severed body parts, drowning in them, the taste of blood on his tongue; the woman he killed with the meat cleaver, each impact racing up his arm as he brought it down over and over; Sanoe’s death; the demon he’d confronted at the end of it all; the strange dream-like state he’d found himself in, which had felt so real.

And you were there, he wanted to tell Barghast. You were there and Sara was too, and Lydia. But neither of you were as I know you now. You were like replacements for the real thing, my mind attempting to tell me something was wrong. And the demon posed as my aunt…

The words almost left his mouth but then he remembered the terror he felt, and the guilt he was feeling now over Rake and Sara. The exhaustion. The fact they were still in this nightmare, surrounded by Red Wraiths. They had escaped the Scarlet Church and somehow they’d survived the Ubrios Waste through luck - but they weren’t safe yet.

The only path I can walk is the path of madness.

“I did what I had to do to get to you,” Crow said. He swallowed and winced - the inside of his throat felt like ground meat. “Maybe sometime I’ll tell you about it. But right now is not the time.”



The smell of frying bacon made Benedict’s mouth water. Tilde stood at the wood stove, frying bacon. He listened to the sizzling coming from the pan, the quiet whispering of the children coming in from the living room. How good it felt to be at home, the only place where things were familiar.

Except for Sheathia. She’s still asleep. He glanced anxiously in the direction of the hallway. Almost reluctantly he came to a decision. She’s been asleep long enough. It’s time for her to come out of the room and spend time with the kids. We both need to spend time with the kids.

He set his coffee mug down on the table and got up from his chair. He went to the end of the hallway and gently opened the door. His wife was curled up in the middle of the bed, her head turned away from him. She slumbered silently, her bare feet peeking out from underneath the blankets. She had very tiny feet. Pristine feet. He went over to her and gently took her foot in his hand, feeling the smoothness of the flesh. The softness of it.

Inevitably his thoughts turned to Loras.

More and more the moments in which he thought of Loras increased, especially when he was around his wife. Though he was married to Sheathia and loved her more than words could describe, there was a part of Benedict that was still very much in love with Loras - and always would be. There had been many times over the years in which they laid in this bed, naked and sweaty from just having made love. Their romance, while short-lived, had been filled with a ferocity, a kinetic energy that could feel like a lifetime. Even as a younger more eager man, Benedict knew there was no hope he could ever marry and have kids and settle down with Loras. There was too much fire in her soul, too much rage over what had happened to her husband and child. He knew she loved him but not in the way he wanted.

Sheathia on the other hand was a completely different woman. Quiet, soft-spoken...but there was a great strength beneath it all that was easy to overlook...and underestimate.

If I can just rouse her long enough to eat something I won’t be so worried...

He bent down and kissed the heel of her foot.

She stirred, groaning. She looked at him with her bright green eyes. “What are you doing?”

He kissed her foot again, grinning mischievously.

She giggled, pulling her foot away. “Stop, that tickles - you need to shave. What time is it?”

“Well past noon. Tilde is making brunch. I thought you might like to come out for breakfast and join us.”

Her eyes darkened. He remembered the first day he met her - at a dinner party among colleagues it was - staring into those enchanting eyes. Where Loras’ beautiful brown eyes had been full of vengeful fire and emotion Sheathia’s had been full of gentle yet resounding laughter. Up until now she had never been one to fall into depression.

“I’m not hungry,” Sheathia said in a tight voice that said she didn’t want to be bothered further.

“You need to eat something. You’ll feel better if you do. You’ve been asleep for too long. And I’m sure the kids want to see their mother.”

Her head fell towards her lap and he knew she felt ashamed. “May the Light forgive me,” she said, her voice soft and thick with emotion at the same time. “I’ve shut myself in here this whole time while they’ve been...How bad is it out there?”

“Not good,” he said. “It’s getting worse by the day and I’m too cowardly to do anything about it.”

She raised her head to look at him. Tears were gathering at the corners of her eyes. “I’ve been a terrible wife and mother.”

He went over to her and took her hand. “Not anymore than I’ve been a terrible father and mayor. Now it’s time to leave this room and love your children.”

She nodded. “I’ll be out in a moment.

Moments later, as Tilde was getting out the silverware, Sheathia came into the kitchen dressed, her hair gleaming with moisture. She looked more like herself, not the miserable wraith that had spent most of the last month in the bedroom.

Elise let out a delighted little squeal that brought a smile to Sheathia’s lips and hurled into her arms. “You’re awake, you’re awake - it’s about time!” she said. Even Nicholas, who was always trying to act more mature than what he was, went to his mother of his own volition and hugged her.

Kissing the top of their heads, Sheathia peeked cautiously at Benedict. It was impossible to mistake the look of relief on her face, as if she expected them to be resentful of her absence over the last month. Children hold a sacred, unshakable love for their mother that a father could never begin to comprehend, Benedict thought, taking a sip from his coffee. Seeing his whole family standing together in the same room eased the constant tension he’d been feeling over the last month.

Sheathia and Tilde glanced at each other across the table, their eyes connecting. Sheathia’s eyes spread into a small smile, her eyes glinting in the morning light streaming through the window above the sink. Something was passing between them, a way of communicating only women possessed with each other. Perhaps Sheathia was thanking Tilde for watching the kids while she shut herself away from the world.

Benedict observed this and felt his heart warm a little more.

This is my family, he thought. And by the Light of Mercius they are beautiful.

His thoughts were interrupted by a frantic rapping at the door. As if severed by a blade, the contentment Benedict had spent the last couple of minutes soaking up was drowned out by a sudden feeling of dread. A sort of premonition. The children were unaware but Sheathia and Tilde seemed to sense it too for they glanced anxiously at the door. Sheathia’s grip on her fork tightened and Tilde was wringing a dish rag in her hands.

Benedict muttered something about getting the door. As he crossed the living room on legs that felt like stilts he told himself it was nothing to be concerned about - it could be nothing. They were all just overreacting. He opened the front door and felt his heart plummet.

Standing just on the other side of the door was Crow, the strange young practitioner that had visited Benedict in his office the other night. He wore a Scarlet Priest uniform, which looked a little too big on him, the hood pulled up to hide his face. Without his eye makeup he looked younger, though there were dark bags underneath his eyes and there was a sweaty sheen to his skin.

Benedict looked from Crow to the biggest man he’d ever seen in his life. Benedict stood six foot two and had to look up at the man to meet his eyes; next to him Crow looked like a toy doll. The man was dark skinned with dark brown eyes. His face was covered with vicious scars that looked as if they’d been done with a knife. If he were to try and break in here to get to my family the fight would be over before it even began, he thought.

Then, with a chill crawling up his spine, Benedict realized who the man was: Barghast ‘Blackshot’ Unalaq, the notorious bank robber - and he was standing in his doorway.

He glanced back at Crow, the source of his dread but also the only source of reassurance.

“I was hoping I’d never see you again,” Benedict said.

The practitioner gave him a bitter smile. “Sorry to disappoint. We don’t have a lot of time - we need to talk.”

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.

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