The past several weeks had been damnation on Loras’ nerves. She couldn’t stop pacing, couldn’t stop thinking about what might be happening in Fruimont. It kept her up at night and no amount of jalasa tea could help her relax. She cursed the First Disciple day and night for it was his fault the technology that had existed in the days of the Old World was no longer of use. It was said in the days before the hellscape people could easily communicate within seconds across great distances. And while she had the ability to Aspect-travel, it was dangerous.
She was sitting in her office wondering who else she could place blame on for her anxiety when she received news from one of her aides that D-Squad had returned from Fruimont - or what was left of them. Before she knew she was doing it she was running through the corridors of the Eurchurch and down the steps, hoping she might see D-Squad passing by. She’d heard only a few of the squad members had made it back - two of them had not. She found herself praying to the Light, praying Crow had made it back, that he was okay.
Loras made it outside before she found she couldn’t run anymore. Her breasts heaved and her ribs ached. She was not as fit as she used to be. How I hate getting old, she thought. But there they were with their horses standing in front of the Eurchurch and there were people getting off: An old woman who looked to be Loras’ age and two young children, one of them close to being a teen; behind them the bespectacled Jack, the sour-faced Lydia, the humongous Barghast...and finally, to her relief, Crow. She would never admit out loud the flood of exhilaration she felt...she had feared it was he who wouldn’t return...however she couldn’t deny to herself it was there. It was the relief a mother might feel towards her child who has just returned from war.
It was something she didn’t think she would ever feel again. The emotion frightened her...it wasn’t something she was supposed to feel. She had tried to separate herself from such vulnerable emotions. It seemed every time she found someone to care about they ended up being taken from her.
Her heart skipped a few beats and then stopped altogether. No one coming off the bus looked good. They all looked beaten, like they had suffered greatly. But Crow’s face was like an oppressive black cloud. He walked with his shoulder slumped, as if the entire world rested upon it. He had always looked solemn but the way he looked now frightened her. His eyes looked down at the floor and there were black bags underneath his eyes. His face was covered in dirt and grime and his long black hair, now almost shoulder-length, was a greasy mop. He followed the others up the steps with the gait of someone who finds himself in a dream.
She met the group in the middle. “What happened?” she said.
It was the Okanavian who answered. “Things were worse in Fruimont than we anticipated. We had no choice but to return.”
Loras glanced at the old woman and the two children. “And who did you bring with you?”
“These are Benedict’s children, Nicholas and Elise. And this is Tilde, the woman who is looking after them.”
For the second time in one day her heart did a double-take. How could she have been so stupid not to realize who the children were? The boy, who had to be at least twelve, was a spitting image of his father. He had the same narrow face, dark hair, and somber look. And though she assumed the little girl looked like her mother, who Loras had never met, she could see a small resemblance to Benedik.
Seeing them filled her with a grief frightening in its suddenness and intensity. She was looking at what she could have had with Benedict if she hadn't been so focused on getting revenge for the death of her husband and daughter. I could’ve been happy again. We could’ve been happy. Benedik and Janif were so similar and yet so different at the same time. They were both quiet but Benedict was also a rebel. He went against the system. I loved that about him but I was also too consumed with my hate. I’m still so consumed about it...I’m just old and arthritic now.
She smiled at them. It hurt to smile but she did it anyway. “Don’t worry. You’re going to be just fine. We’re going to take good care of you.” The two children just looked at her as if she was crazy. Which I am, certifiably. She waved over one of the guards, taking on her stern voice. “Find them living quarters - get them something nice. And get them food, toys, books, whatever they want - I don’t care.”
The guarded nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
The older woman thanked Loras and then ushered the children after the man. Loras watched them go for a moment, feeling melancholy, and then remembered there were other things she had to attend to.
There’s a shit storm coming. I can feel it.
“Where is Benedict?” she asked Barghast. Already she was taking a deep breath, preparing herself for the news.
“He chose to stay,” said the Okanavian.
“Of course he did,” she said as if the answer had already occurred to her. Benedik was always trying to do the right thing...even when it was the stupid thing. “Okay, you go. You’ve traveled a long way. We’ll talk tomorrow and try to get things in order. Not you, though Crow, I need to talk to you for a moment.”
The practitioner nodded but said nothing. He still had that dazed expression on his face. Barghast glanced at the boy with concern. He opened his mouth, about to say something, and then closed it. Finally he put a hand on Crow’s shoulder. Crow lifted his eyes briefly and they looked at each other. Loras watched the connection pass between them, a wordless thing she didn’t think even they understood.
And then Barghast was walking away and Crow was back to looking dour.
Loras had to grind her teeth together to keep from cursing in frustration. Men were so fucking stupid. They couldn’t tell the difference between their hearts and a rock. Or another word that rhymed with rock.
“Come with me,” she said to Crow and led him towards the Eurchurch.
For some time she could only look at him, trying to see if something might change in him. Now they were alone Lora's could sense his pent up emotion. But there were fissures in his composure: the tenseness in his shoulders, the way his hands were constantly clenched into fists. And not once had he sipped the mug of jalasa tea she'd set before him. He'd barely even touched it.
Lora's didn't want to push him too hard. She'd seen this reaction to trauma many times and had experienced it herself. But she could also feel the old impatience rising up in her, the voice that said, There are things that need to be done and time is short.
“What happened?” she asked, forcing herself to be gentle.
Crow shook his head slowly. When he spoke his voice came out raspy, as if he was swallowing back his tears. “I tried to do everything I could. I failed. There are no words - I'm exhausted.”
“Then show me.”
His eyes widened when he realized what she was asking. The passing of knowledge and experience from one practitioner to another could be an intense and painful experience. The recipient often became overwhelmed by the source's emotions, their every physical sensation. Loras hadn't done it in years and hated the experience but it was the quickest way to pass along information.
“Are you sure?” Crow asked.
“It will save us time,” she said.
He nodded and reached across the table, taking her hand in his. She had just enough time to brace herself for what was to come before the transference began.
All at once Loras was assaulted by a torrent of memories, emotions and physical sensations: cold, pain, hunger, fear, and sadness. She experienced these things as if they were her own memories and feelings.
One moment she was standing in the middle of a snow topped valley, gripping the handle of a shovel with blistered hands. She watched a sphere of light falling from the sky; it was coming towards her. Beautiful, she thought. So beautiful.
Then she was falling into a pit of severed limbs and body parts - someone was trying to drown her.
Then she was watching her Aunt Lena being ripped apart - something was literally ripping its way out of her.
Then she watched as Sara slashed Rake’s throat with a blade.
And then she was standing before Lydia. “I curse the day you ever walked into our lives,” she was saying. “It should be you that’s dead not Rake…”
Despair. Loras was feeling such despair. The despair of rejected youth, the despair of someone who knows they will never be accepted, never find the place where they truly belong.
She couldn’t take it anymore. If she didn’t tear herself away from it all Crow’s thoughts and memories would drive her insane.
She released his hand and leaned back in the chair, feeling breathless. Her breasts heaved up and down. Her breath came out in short gasps. Her chest felt as tight as a drum. She was dimly aware Crow was asking her if she was okay but she couldn’t find the words to answer. After a moment she said, “I’m fine...It’s just been a while since I’ve done that. We must tell Pope Drajen about everything you know - at once.”
He shook his head. “I’m not doing anything. I’m done.”
Loras gaped at him, trying to understand what he was saying. “What do you mean you’re done?”
He waved a hand around the room, rising to his feet. “All of this. The Eurchurch, the Scarlet Church. D-Squad. I’m done. I’ve done all I’m going to do.”
“So you’re just going to give up?” she asked.
“Yes. And I’m going to live my life while I still can. You and the Eurchurch can figure out what to do and how to stop the war. I never should have gotten involved in the first place.” His voice had become acidic with bitterness and anger. “And don’t try to stop me. There’s nothing you can do or say that will stop me.”
Barghast rented a small room on the second floor of a rundown building. It was the only thing the Eurchurch could provide him with - he supposed it was better than a jail cell or a grave. The room was just large enough for him to be able to fit a dresser and a bed barely large enough for him to be able to sleep on. There was a single bathroom across the hall. Very rarely was Barghast able to use it.
Naked he sat on the right side of the bed, his arm pressing up against the wall. Charlie the prostitute lay next to him, his pale skin glowing in the pale morning sunlight streaming through the curtainless windows. As long as he had his back turned Barghast could easily pretend Charlie was Crow. Somewhere across the hall he could hear a baby wailing and the soft voice of the young mother trying to sing it to sleep.
He wondered what Crow was doing right now, worried about him. Why was it Crow always made him feel so unsure of himself, the way no one else had been able to do? How did the practitioner have such power over him, to render him paralyzed?
There was a knock at the door: a rapid, impatient sound. Barghast glanced at the sleeping boy next to him and quickly threw the blanket over him so that only his head showed. Barghast climbed off the bed, the mattress groaning beneath his weight. His head ached, while the room spun. He’d drank too much last night. More rapping at the door.
“Hold your horses, damn it,” he growled, pulling on his breeches. For one pathetic moment he wondered if was Crow who was knocking on the door, wishing it was. The real Crow. What would the real Crow think if he saw the fake Crow laying in bed? Would he get a good laugh at it or would he be pissed?
Barghast cursed under his breath and opened the door. It wasn’t Crow but Loras. All the same Barghast was surprised. What was she doing here, standing at his doorstep? As always she was dressed as if she thought she owned the world, her white-blonde hair tied back, her lips smeared with bright red lipstick that hurt Barghast’s head to look at. Her dark eyes looked him up and down for a moment, pausing on the multiple knife scars that marked his chest and torso. Then she saw the prostitute laying in the bed and looked back at Barghast.
“I assume you know Pope Drajen made prostitution illegal in this city long ago,” she said. “Considering you’re already paying off a death sentence if I were to tell him about this you would be executed. That would be a shame considering your sentence will be up in less than two years.”
Barghast did not blink. He was not intimidated by her. He knew she was simply flexing her powers, showing him it was she who was in charge. “Are you going to tell him?”
She arched an eyebrow. “No. I could care less. We all have our vices and our pastimes. I do think it’s amusing and touching you pay him to dress like a certain practitioner we both know.”
Barghast squared his shoulders, an unconscious defensive gesture on his part. Just a few seconds standing in his doorstep and she had peeled back his skin as if it was paper mache and was poking at some of his nerves. Damn practitioner. “Is there something I can help you with ma’am?” he asked, forcing his voice to stay pleasant.
Her expression darkened. “Maybe. I don’t know. Wake him up and get him out of here.”
He went over to Charlie and shook him awake gently. The boy stirred, opening his eyes, and saw Loras standing there. His face paled and he was out of bed and dressed before Barghast could pay him for the night’s services.
Loras stepped inside the room and closed the door. “Good, we can talk in private.”
Barghast gestured to the bed. “Feel free to have a seat.”
She smiled tightly, arms crossed over her chest. “That’s alright - nothing personal but I’ll stand. I’m here because of Crow. I’m concerned about him and I think you might be the only one who can talk some sense into him.”
Barghast frowned. There was a sinking feeling inside of his chest. Ever since they’d left Annesville there had been a dark cloud around Crow, thicker than ever before. I should’ve had said something to him. I should’ve asked him what was wrong. Why didn’t I? “What do you mean talk sense into him?” he asked even though he dreaded the answer.
“After you returned to the city I spoke with him in my office. He showed me what happened in Fruimont. Perhaps you know this but anyone with mana, whether it be a healer or a practitioner, can transfer memories and experiences, just as they can communicate telepathically. It’s a method we don’t use often when communicating but it does have its uses. The thing is the recipient shares the source’s memories and feelings, and experiences them as if they were their own.” Loras sighed, her shoulders slumping. For the first time since Barghast had known her, her composure slipped and he saw the exhausted woman who lived behind the uncompromising surface.
“I think I’ll sit down after all if you don’t mind,” she said. Stepping carefully around Barghast so her shoulder did not touch his, she went to the edge of the bed and sat down. “I saw what happened in Fruimont but more than that I felt what he felt. He’s leaving Miffridge. Perhaps he’s already left.”
Barghast couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What do you mean?”
“You heard me. I didn’t stutter. He’s leaving Miffridge.”
Loras laughed coldly. “Men are so stupid. So blind. They refuse to accept what’s right in front them. And the bigger they are the more stupid they seem to be. Why do you think? For the last year he has been a part of D-Squad. He has fought by everyone’s side, watching your and everyone else's back. With Sara now the host of a demon, the mother of all demons no less, he is the only squad member who hasn’t been convicted of a crime - has actually volunteered to be on the frontlines - and he doesn’t judge any of you. Yet he has been excluded, spat upon, pushed away for being a practitioner as so many of us are. After awhile that takes its toll on a person. You get tired of it, begin to resent the people you’ve risked your life to save. And I can understand how he feels. Whatever his true motives were for joining the squad they were selfless. You have no idea what he went through in that pit the High Priest threw him into.”
She shuddered, her face turning pale. Barghast didn’t want to hear anymore of what she had to say but he was voiceless at the moment. It wasn’t like he could ask her to leave anyway - though he was bigger than her physically and could easily scoop her up and throw her out of the room on her ass - she had all the political power. And deep down inside he knew he needed to hear this as punishment for his own mistakes when it came to Crow - for not giving the practitioner the support he needed when Barghast could clearly see he was in pain.
Now she looked at him, piercing him with the full intensity of her gaze. “You are the only one who he feels comfortable with...who helps him to feel any sort of happiness. He’s quite in love with you, though he’s too scared to admit it...just as I know you are with him. Believe me when I tell you, if we are going to have any chance of defeating C’thla we need him. Now while I find the idea of you two together odd and a little disgusting it could be the difference between him staying and leaving.”
Loras stood up and stepped in front of Barghast, looking up at him. Though she just came up to his chin Barghast could see she was completely unafraid of him. Anyone not intimidated by his size intimidated him. He actually found himself gulping.
“While I’ve come to care for the boy immensely my reasons for being here are mostly political. I know he told you all the truth of why he’s here. For whatever reason he’s been chosen by a powerful entity to oppose the Scarlet Church. I don’t fully understand what this means but I do know we need Crow. I’ve never seen anyone who possesses such natural talent as he does, such power. For whatever reason most demons literally fear him. With a little more training and time he could become a force to be reckoned with. Unstoppable. He could turn the very tides of this war with the Scarlet Church. Unfortunately we don’t have that kind of time. While we know more than what we did we still don’t know what Damen Orlys intends to do. I doubt it ends at just finding C’thla a body.”
She reached up, grabbing Barghast’s shoulders in her hands. Her grip was surprisingly firm, powerful. Strength and confidence radiated from this woman. Barghast couldn’t help but respect her and start to feel a little afraid of her now. “Go to him. Tell him how you feel. Be brave for once and forget your insecurities. We need him and he needs you. Without him I have a feeling we will lose.”
Crow stood in the center of the living room of the tiny apartment he’d rented and tried to conjure up the feeling of missing it. He couldn’t. Upon looking at what little he had acquired during his time in Miffland, he knew he would be taking none of it with him.
And where would he go? He didn’t know. He had seen much in his time with the Stray Dogs but he hadn’t really gotten the time to enjoy it, to truly experience it. He’d been south, where the forgotten cities of the Old World slowly rotted beneath the blistering heat of the sun and the tribes of the Okanavi desert lived their superstitious, primitive lives; he’d traveled along the roads of the Javacial flatlands where it rained constantly and the ground was muddy and the farmland grew abundant crops. He’d somehow survived the Ubrios Waste, an experience he didn’t want to repeat ever again.
The beach. I’ve never been to the beach. I’ve never seen the ocean. I bet it’s beautiful.
He decided he would go to the Terheim Oceans where the fishing trade was. He could become a fisherman and save up enough money to get his own yacht. He could see himself now, helping a group of sweaty sailors tug a net over the side of a boat, the net full of squirming fish. When he had his own yacht he would set sail for the chain of unexplored islands, perhaps. Many had tried to reach it and failed, either coming back with nothing interesting to tell or not coming back at all. Perhaps he would be the first to discover them or he would die trying.
Or he could fall in love with another sailor perhaps, settle down, and live a calm life. There were so many possibilities. For the first time in a long time he found himself looking forward to the future. A future that belonged to him and only him. Not to Ex’olku or the Eurchurch or anyone else. A future that didn’t end with him turning into a tyrant as Damen Orlys had done or going mad like his aunt.
He packed what he would be taking with him in a single duffel bag. He wouldn’t be taking much: Just two outfits, an extra pair of shoes, a book or two to read while he traveled, and his bedroll. Everything else would be staying here; he didn’t care what happened to it. He had plenty of money saved up for food. If he needed more it wouldn’t be hard to find work.
But first, before he left, he had to say goodbye to Barghast. Barghast was the only one he was reluctant to leave behind. It would be painful but he couldn’t leave their friendship hanging in the wind. Maybe when he’s finished with his sentence he could come find me. No, Crow wouldn’t hang his hope on such a thing but he could still see his friend one more time before he left.
He was just sliding his arm through the strap of his duffel bag when the door of the apartment flew open. Crow whirled around, the words of a spell on his lips, when he came face to face with Barghast. The Okanavian stood in the doorway, his chest and shoulders heaving. Sweat dripped from his broad face. His hands were clenched into fists. He looked Crow over, looked at the duffel bag dangling from his arm.
“So it’s true,” he said. “You really are leaving.”
“Yes,” Crow said. “I was going to find you and say goodbye before I left.”
“But how can you leave after everything, after Sara…? She still needs our help.”
Crow shook his head. His stomach was full of butterflies. “There’s nothing I can do for her, Barghast - there’s nothing anyone can do for her. Besides I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting, tired of trying to take care of others. I’m tired of pain and death and being afraid. I turn eighteen in three days. Eighteen. I’ll officially be an adult but I grew up a long time ago. I’ve yet to live my own life.”
And I can’t keep waiting around for you to tell me the words I want to hear - the words we’re both too scared to say. But if you said them...I’d stay. For you I’d stay.
Barghast walked up to him so they were standing only inches apart and for a breathless moment Crow thought Barghast would finally come clean. The moment he dreamed of would finally happen.
“I know you don’t feel like you belong with the squad,” Barghast said, “but you do. You are one of us.”
Crow sighed. He couldn’t hold back the truth anymore. It was fighting to burst out of him, the fear of rejection be damned. “Barghast, it’s not just Lydia and Rake and Jack and Sara. It’s you most of all. For the last year we’ve been doing this dance, one too afraid to admit to the other how we feel, both of us afraid of being rejected. I’m telling you now I have feelings for you. I’m not going to try and pretend like I know what those feelings mean but they are there and they have been for a while. I’m hoping that if you tell me you feel the same then I might want to stay. Do you?”
Barghast said, “I...”
Crow watched him struggle, sifting through his feelings. He knew the truth but he wanted to hear the words. He needed the confirmation.
He also knew Barghast wouldn’t say them. He wasn’t ready and perhaps he never would be. “I know the truth,” he said, “just as you do. But just knowing isn’t enough for me right now. I’m in too much pain. And I’m tired 0f waiting. Waiting for you to find your courage, waiting for relief. Waiting for the nightmare to end. I’m just tired of waiting. I’m leaving Miffridge. I’m going to the beaches of the Terheim Ocean. I’ve never seen the water and I’ve always wanted to. Perhaps, when your sentence is up and you’re a free man again, you’ll have the courage to tell me then what you don’t have the courage to tell me now.”
Barghast nodded shakily. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. They hugged, holding each other tight, breathing in each others smell. Crow tried to imprint the memory in his brain, the feeling of Barghast’s arms around him, the safety he felt when they embraced. He wanted to remember the bittersweet moment, which was almost unbearably agonizing, later when he traveled the roads of the ‘scape.
Then they parted arms and Crow walked away, the door closing softly behind him. Less than an hour later, Crow watched the gates of Miffridge close behind him. For a moment he caught a final fleeting glance of the city, the Eurchurch at its center, and then the gates closed with a final thud.
With a gentle cluck of his tongue he steered Broana around to face the Daminion Highway, the asphalt unfolding before him like a spool of thread underneath a bright blue, cloudless sky. A gentle wind stirred his thick black hair. It was a beautiful sight, the the sight of an uncertain future. Not a future filled with death but life.
Ex’olku spoke. This is not the future I have chosen for you.
Fuck the future you’ve chosen for me. This is my life.
You cannot escape this - I have chosen you for a purpose greater than yourself.