Thousands of people stood in the chill of the new morning - people of all ages. No one was exempt from seeing the bloody spectacle that was about to take place.
An hour before, a platoon of Red Wraiths were sent throughout the city, kicking down doors. Most of the people didn’t need persuading: They’d already trekked out into the cold, unwilling to risk the might and wrath of the Scarlet Church. But of course there were those who refused and they were shot down in a hail of gunfire that echoed through the mostly-silent streets of Fruimont.
Benedict was unable to keep the nightmarish images out of his head. He pictured an entire family laying dead on the floor, around the kitchen table: a man, a woman, and their two children. Perhaps even the family pet. A family not so unlike his own.
He held Sheathia’s hand, not daring to let go. It was the only reassurance he had and a fragile one at best. He knew at any second it could be torn from his grasp. He had begged her to find a place to hide, to find a way to leave this city but she had refused. “I’m in this with you whether you like it or not,” had been her reply. “If I have a chance to make this world a better place for our children I’m going to take it.”
And so here they were, sitting on the stage, with all the souls of Fruimont. Sheathia was on Benedict’s left, Damen Orlys on his right, and sitting next to the High Priest was the strange woman C’thla.
Next to the stage were all the prisoners who were to be executed. Already Benedict could hear the sound of hammer pounding against nail, the high-pitched screams of agony, and the patter of blood falling against cobblestone. Crows circled the square, filling the frigid air with their carrion cries of anticipation. His nerves were tight. He was all too aware of the gun pressing against his side; he prayed no one would see its outline. The flesh of Sheathia’s hand felt clammy against his own. He stared ahead, concentrating on all the faces before him in hopes he might spot Rufus.
Benedict glanced at C’thla. She wore a red sequin dress underneath a black wolf’s fur which was draped around her shoulders. Her hair was pinned up. If the cold bothered her she gave no sign of it but the flush on her cheeks.
Remember, Benedict told himself, she and Damen are the objective. Get them and this nightmare just might hopefully end.
Her head turned at that exact moment and she pierced him with her silver eyes. A small, knowing smile crossed her lips. A shiver he suspected had nothing to do with the artic chill in the air raced up Benedict’s spine. It’s as if she knows what I’m thinking, he thought. And then another horrible thought struck him - he was a fool not to realize it sooner.
She’s a demon!
That would explain the eyes. But she was nothing like the other demons he’d encountered. They usually acted insane, trying to infect whoever they could grab ahold of by biting them.
He had to do something.
Before he could slide a hand under his jacket and grab his gun, Damen stood up.
“I’m sure you’re all very cold on this fine chilly morning,” the High Priest said, his voice echoing throughout the square, made louder by mana. “The sooner we get this show over with the sooner you can all continue on with your petulant lives. Can I get the list of names, please?”
Lucijan stood up from his seat on the left side of the stage. He had a clipboard with several pieces of paper clipped to it. He handed the clipboard to the High Priest wordlessly before sitting back down. If he was as afraid as Benedict felt, he did a good job of not showing it.
The High Priest, still grinning from ear to ear like a malicious clown, held the clipboard up for all to see. It was no doubt the names of the prisoners. He turned to C’thla. “Do you want to do the honors?”
She stood up. Her eyes twinkled. “It would be my pleasure.”
The High Priest passed the list of names to her. As soon as Damen was seated C’thla cleared her throat and read the first name. “Helga Ay’ines.”
A young woman was shoved forward by a burly Red Wraith. Her ankle became tangled in the chain that shackled her ankles together and she went down with a cry of pain.
“Get up!” the Red Wraith roared. Mist fumed from his mouth making Benedict think of a bull. The Red Wraith stooped, grabbed a fistful of Helga’s hair, and yanked her to her feet. As the woman let out another cry of pain Sheathia’s nails dug painfully into Benedict’s flesh.
He glanced at her. His wife was the most welcome sight, beautiful and fragile in her terror. Like C’thla she had dressed for the “occasion”, her face lacquered in makeup. If only he could just look at her and not see what was happening. But he didn’t have a choice - until the signal was give he had to endure. They both did.
The woman’s cross awaited her. The hole in which it would be set had been dug. Another Red Wraith, this one female, stood by with a hammer in hand, looking at Helga with an expressionless face. Helga was shoved to her knees. Her shoulders shook. She whimpered helplessly. The city of Fruimont watched in tense silence.
Out of the corner of his eye Benedict spotted movement. He turned his head slightly to look. It was Rufus. He had moved to the front of the crowd and was looking directly at Benedict. Another man stepped up beside him - the man who said he had spent three days watching his wife die. Rufus nodded once. Benedict gave Sheathia’s hand a single squeeze.
It was time.
Benedict rose to his feet with the surreal feeling he’d stepped outside himself. He turned his complete focus on C’thla, shutting off all emotion, all thought. Somehow he knew she was the real threat; somehow he knew she was the reason why all of this was happening, the motivation for why the Scarlet Church had taken over his city.
He had just pulled out his gun, a squarish chrome thing with a large muzzle, when C’thla turned to face him. Her eyes flashed cunningly - she knew what he was going to do and yet her face did not show the slightest hint of fear.
Time slowed. He aimed at her head. He had the perfect shot. He pulled the trigger. The muzzle flashed, letting out a crack that exploded through the air. The gun jerked upward with such a force Benedict almost lost his grip on the handle. C’thla was thrown off the stage, blood streaming from her. The bullet had hit her collarbone, tearing open the flesh. She fell over the edge of the stage, disappearing into the crowd.
Benedict didn’t allow himself a second’s thought to consider what he’d done. There wasn’t time. He turned and fired two shots at Damen but by this time the High Priest had already gathered his wits, having summoned up a shield of shimmering blue mana around him. The moment the bullets touched the protective forcefield they disintegrated. More shots were fired from behind Damen and the High Priest went down. Lucijan stood directly behind him, smoke billowing from the muzzle of his own gun.
The rattle of gun fire, this time much more rapid, deafened Benedict. Numbingly he watched Lucijan, his colleague and friend of many decades, dance and shake in a cloud of red mist.
All of this had happened in seconds.
All hell broke loose. Gunfire erupted from all directions. People ran, screaming, trampling over each other. Everyone had completely taken leave of their senses in the need to survive.
A Red Wraith about to shoot Sheathia took a bullet to the back of the head. Sheathia was holding her gun in both hands as Rufus had demonstrated to do. Acting off of reflex, Benedict grabbed his wife’s hand and together they jumped off the stage. With adrenaline pumping through his body Benedict barely felt the impact as his feet touched the ground.
Sheathia squeezed his hand. She was pointing at something above them. Her eyes were wide with terror. Though he was more scared than ever before Benedict couldn’t keep himself from looking.
C’thla hovered twenty feet above the square, her arms spread out at her side. Her eyes were closed. She appeared to be meditating. Her skin was crawling with thousands of insect-like black dots. Her eyes were beacons of silver light. Benedict’s mouth hung open. Sheathia and he were too awestruck to move.
Around them people in the square were being gunned down. Already countless bodies littered the ground in a tangle of limbs, blank eyes staring lifelessly up at the sky or faces turned to the ground.
Suddenly hands were shoving at Benedict and Sheathia’s backs. They were pushed and jostled without mercy. Sheathia’s fingers slipped from his and within the blink of an eye she was gone. “Sheathia!” he croaked for all the good it would do him, trying to push back against the tide of terrified souls that carried him further away from his wife. No one cared that he was in charge of the city, had been in charge for the last thirty years. In this nightmare his name had no meaning.
Something wet struck him before landing at his feet with a wet splat. He didn’t want to know what it was. Blood fell in his hair. Someone made a sound that was part wretch and part scream. A flash of light drew his attention to C’thla. Still she hovered in the air like a puppet held up by invisible strings. Occasionally bullets would hit her, tearing at her dress, her flesh, only for whatever wounds her body endured to close up as if they weren’t there at all, leaving behind only smears of blood. Tendrils of red light flowed from her body, lashing at people, cutting them in half with a single touch. The dots that crawled across the skin fell from her, falling on the unfortunate souls beneath like a swarm of fleas. People were clawed at these things to no avail.
Infecting them, Benedict thought. Possessing them. That’s what she’s doing. May the Light have mercy on us all.
Never before had he seen anyone use such magic - if magic was what this was. Not even Loras.
C’thla was the perfect titan of terror.
Once more someone shoved him from behind and this time he went down. Feet trampled him from above, crushing him into the blood-smeared cobblestone. This is it, he thought with a distant sort of resignation. My own people are going to kill me. Is there no better example of irony?
Just when he was on the verge of blacking out, a distant voice shouted, “Get up, damn you!”
Hands grabbed the back of his jacket and pulled him roughly to his feet. It was Rufus. There was a three inch gash across his forehead and his nose was broken. His jacket was covered in blood to the point it was impossible to tell if the man was injured or if it all belonged to someone else. A scrap of someone’s scalp clung to his head. He seemed not to notice it.
“Where’s Sheathia?” Rufus shouted. Benedict could barely hear the man’s voice over all the commotion.
“I don’t know,” Benedict said. His voice was the voice of a stranger, a frog’s croak. How could I have lost my wife? he thought. He shook himself from his daze. “I need to find her...”
Rufus planted a hand on Benedict’s chest, holding him back. He shook his head sadly.
“Get off me, damn you!” Benedict shoved at the man, but Rufus did not budge.
“Are you insane? You’ll never find her in this! Don’t you realize what she’s doing?” Rufus craned his neck to look back at C’thla. “She’s infecting them. Soon this city will be crawling with the possessed -”
Before Rufus could finish a humanoid shape leapt onto his back. It was a woman and she was hissing like a rabid, starving animal. She had something shiny in her hand, a blade of some sort. Rufus spun around, reaching behind her, trying to throw her off. The woman clung to him like a tick. She cackled again. Benedict lunged forward to help Rufus but before he could reach him the crone brought the blade across Rufus’s throat.
Blood jetted from Rufus’s neck, spraying Benedict with its putrid stench. Rufus fell to his knees, just one more body to join all the others.
The woman turned to face Benedict, a thin haggard thing that barely looked human. She was covered in so much blood and filth it was impossible to make out much of her features. Her eyes glowed with a yellow, demonic fury. She held a butcher knife in one hand. The blood was covered in gore, most of it already half-congealed. With a screech she charged at Benedict.
At some point he’d lost his gun. He had nothing left to defend himself with so he ran.
C’thla made her way towards the stage, stepping gracefully over the corpses. She was completely naked, covered in blood from head to toe. All her wounds had healed.
A crow landed on one of the bodies and began poking at something with its beak. Its wings fluttered slightly.
Damen Orlys was laying on his back, surrounded by the dead. Blood ran from the side of his mouth. His eyes shifted to the side and focused on her. His glamour had faded, showing his true identity. His skin was a sickly grey, hanging off the bone, lined with wrinkles like leather. His eyes were jaundiced and full of aching vulnerability and fear. “Five hundred and forty-one years I’ve been alive,” he said, “and I’ve never come this close to death.” He chuckled dryly. “Taken down by a couple of bullets.”
C’thla stopped, frowning. She was awestruck by the emotion she felt. It was both distant and surprisingly close to the surface. Pity. Mesmerizing. In his dying Damen was suddenly beautiful to her and she found she didn’t want him to die. She had come to like his company. Were these emotions her own or were they Sara’s?
She knelt down beside him. Tears pricked her eyes. Her breasts, which still felt new to her, hovered over him.
He looked away, ashamed of his own weakness. “Don’t look at me,” he croaked. “Just leave me and let me die. I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“Shhh,” she said, gently. She reached out and ran a finger along his cheek. She traced the cracks and divots in the flesh, leaving a smear of blood behind. “I’m not going to let you die. You’re too valuable. I need you by my side.”
Her skin began to shimmer with mana. There was a pinging sound as multiple bullets fell from Damen’s wounds onto the stage. Within seconds his wounds closed. He sat up, bones crackling. He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow in concentration. When he stood up the illusion of youth was back in its place.
“Thank you, your grace,” he said with a bow.
C’thla nodded once and looked at the blanket of crows that covered the square, pecking dead flesh. The sky dimmed as clouds passed over the sun, making the square look even gloomier. People began to emerge from every corner of the square, their eyes glowing with a supernatural light. Men, women, and children, their clothes and flesh covered in blood. They held weapons in their hands: knives and pitchforks. They shouted in reverence at the sight of C’thla, dropping to their knees.
With a smile, C’thla realized one of them was Sheathia. A flap of her cheek hung open, showing the muscle and bone underneath. Her hair had come down, hanging in front of her face. Her eyes glowed with red light. C’thla wondered if Benedict knew his wife had become slave to a demon and now served C’thla? If he doesn’t know he will soon find out, she thought.
Before her the possessed dropped to their knees and bowed. As one they spoke: “C’thla, we are here to serve you, Mother of Demons.”