Loras stormed into her office and slammed the door behind her. The air was thick around her and crackling with static energy, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She wanted to lash out at something, anything, to make this anger go away. It was too dangerous. She needed to alleviate it. And she knew just who to alleviate it on, too.
She summoned Strabetha into her room.
“I want Barghast and Jack in my office right away,” Loras said. She was hunched over her desk, her hands clenched into fists. Her voice shook with barely suppressed anger. She could sense Strabetha’s anxiety. Something about the way she pursed her lips, eyebrows knitted together, only annoyed Loras further. “Go. Get them. Now.”
“Right away,” said Strabetha, and fumbled with the door before getting out of the room. Loras sunk into her chair and tried to keep the atomic bomb of anger from exploding inside her.
A half an hour passed, in which she did not move from her slouched position, before the door opened, and the three people she summoned came traipsing into her office, Barghast first, then Jack, and Lydia, followed by a Eurchurchman armed with a rifle.
“Out,” she told the Eurchurchman, pointing at the door. To Barghast she said, “You idiot. I told you to keep Crow from leaving the city.”
Barghast’s shoulders slumped. “There’s nothing I could do to talk him out of it. If he wants to leave that’s his choice.”
“He no longer has a choice. We need him whether he likes it or not. We’re going to get him whether he likes it or not. Jack, go to the stable and get three horses.”
“What about Lydia?” Barghast asked.
“What about her?”
“Are we taking her along?”
“No. That little bitch has caused enough problems as it is. ”
Broana and Crow traveled slowly down the Daminion Highway, his duffel bag dangling from one shoulder. His robes stuck to his back. The sky was beginning to darken. As of now the road was empty and the only sound was the occasional howl of a coyote. Soon the possessed would come out from behind the hills. The freaks always come out at night, he thought.
His back ached from sitting in the saddle for so long. His waterskin was only a third full. He’d marked several spots on the map he’d brought with him, places where the Stray Dogs had stopped and camped. He was getting close to one of their spots. He glanced around and spotted a small grove of trees. Beside the trees was a small creek. Patting Broana’s neck, he slowly lowered himself down onto the ground, wincing. He’d ridden for hours, his nose and cheeks sunburned despite the chill in the air. His throat felt like sandpaper. He lowered himself beside the creek and drank until he felt he might burst. Afterwards he refilled his water bottle.
Stretching out. He thought about all the things he could do with his life now. He wasn't responsible for anyone but himself. There was no one to save, no one to shoot him scathing looks, or blame him when things went wrong.
Within moments he dozed off and there were no dreams, no nightmares, only bliss.
After three hours, most of it spent running at full speed, trying to catch up to Crow, Loras thought her cushy job as a politician had done her more harm than not.
In another life now it seemed, she remembered when the musk of horse and sweat had brought both a sense of danger and freedom, when it had made her feel power and indestructive. Now it made her nostrils flare, made her body ache, made her wish for the familiar comfort for her office, the warmth of a fire, and the tang of jalasa tea.
“It will be dark soon,” Barghast said, bringing his stallion, Gunpowder - and what a hideous horse he was, Loras thought - to a stop. “It'll be hard to spot him in the dark. We don't even know what direction he went in.”
“Are you always this grim?” Loras scowled. Jack was worse, a shadowy presence who said nothing.
Barghast grimaced. “Not usually. But I'm worried about him, walking out in the open like this, alone.”
Loras shifted in her sattle, grimacing.“It’s partially his fault. If it wasn’t for him running off we wouldn’t be on this Mercius-forsaken highway right now. It was a stupid decision on his part.”
“Had we not been so careless he might not have made that decision in the first place,” Barghast rumbled. “We ignored him...”
That’s what happens when fate makes you a hero...whether you want it or not, Loras thought darkly, watching the hills on both sides of the road. In minutes they would be nothing but dark outlines, barely perceptible. You’re given responsibilities bigger than yourself. You mete out more than you have to give and get nothing back in return. There were so many times when I just wanted to turn my back on everyone, say fuck ‘em, throw all my stuff in a duffel bag, walk away, and never look back. So many times. And for some reason I never did. I’m still in this role and these old bones are weary.
Many times, when she couldn’t sleep, she laid in bed. She would picture herself as a withered tree, the leaves dying, the trunk twisted and gnarled, the bark peeling off, infested with termites. She would think, If someone were to look into my soul this is what they would see, this withered tree.
Loras shoved these feelings to the side: the weariness in her bones, the secret need to go to sleep and never wake up - to see Janif and Cara again if such a thing was possible. She couldn’t think about herself right now. She had to think about Crow. He was out there in the ‘scape, in the dark, in danger, in pain. How can I be so hypocritical as to put the blame on everyone else when I am just as much at fault? I saw the pain inside of him, saw it plain as day - it was there for everyone to see. No one looked and no one cared and I did nothing to help him.
Loras turned to look at Barghast once again and felt her heart soften. We’re all lost souls, aren’t we? None of us know where we belong.
“We’ll find him,” she said again, trying to reassure herself as much as he. “We’ll find him and say all the things we should have said and grab a hold of him and never let him go.”
He nodded. “That we will do.”
“I will reach out to him,” Loras said. “It will be the quickest way to find him.” She closed her eyes and drew her mana around her, reaching out with her mind. Crow, where are you?
It didn’t take her long to find him. He was somewhere up ahead; perhaps sixty miles away. Even from this distance he was a beacon of power, a vibration in the air impossible to miss. He had made an impressive distance in a short amount of time.
There was a slight tugging sensation as Loras left her body. Like a leaf carried by the wind, her Aspect-form was blown into the air, over the hills and trees, where the possessed were starting to emerge like nocturnal animals, their hair, skin and ripped remains of their clothes were covered in blood, dirt, and feces. For a moment Loras allowed herself to enjoy the pleasurable sensation of flying, of being weightless, then she spotted Crow.
He slept uneasily beneath a grove of trees. With his face washed in pale moonlight she could see his eyeballs moving wildly beneath the thin flesh of his eyelids. Seeing Crow like this was like watching herself toss and turn, wanting to escape the trauma and nightmares but being unable to do so.
I wish I could take your pain, young practitioner, she thought. I wish I could comfort you as I would my own daughter if she was still alive. But I’m afraid there is only more pain and suffering for us both.
“Crow.” Her voice echoed as if traveling down a pipe. “I know you’re tired but you must wake up...”
He snapped awake. The fear he felt was suffocating. All-consuming. He didn’t know where he was. The last thing he remembered was falling in a pit of blood and severed body parts.
Something howled in the night. The sound had come from close by, somewhere to his right. It was a terrible, primal sound. Not human. Somehow Crow had managed not to scream. He sat rigid and still, too paralyzed to move. At the moment he was not Crow Hardy but only a living thing that sensed danger.
He squinted, trying to will the darkness to reveal whatever terrible creature had made that blood-curdling sound. Pale humanoid shapes darted through the night, illuminated by streams of moonlight. A man and a woman ran naked beside each other, covered in dirt. From where she stood by the trees, Broan watched them wearily but made no sound or movement. Broana had always been smarter than the average horse, Crow thought. The demons continued to dance wildly about, conversing wildly back and forth in the Demon’s Tongue. Crow wondered if they would see him and attack or be afraid of him and the protection Ex’olku’s touch had placed upon him.
He wished he could make himself smaller. He wished he could make himself disappear.
After a time the two possessed souls moved on, their howls and shouts fading into the night. Crow let out a sigh of relief.
And then a voice, distant but familiar: “Crow...I know you’re tired but you must wake up...”
Loras appeared, standing before him in Aspect-form.
“Go away,” he said, angry and tired at the same time. He stood up and grabbed his bedroll and duffel bag.
“Please just listen...”
“No,” he said, “there’s nothing you or anyone else can say that I want to hear.”
“We need you.”
“I don’t care. I’m done with it all.” He began to hike back towards the highway. Demons be damned.
Loras glided after him. “We’re coming to get you...”
“Don’t bother. I don’t want to see either of you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Crow, if you truly are the Agent of Ex’olku then you are the only one who can fix this...”
“I don’t want to fix anything!” he screamed, anger welling up inside him. “I just want to be left the fuck alone!”
His eyes blazed white with mana and with a wall of kinetic energy Crow shoved Loras’s Aspect away from him.
The force of the blow almost knocked Loras off her saddle, onto the ground. She grabbed the reins, rocking back, and just managed to remain upright. Her horse took a startled step back but remained steadfast. She was so shocked that she did not feel the cold brush of wind blowing strands of her silver-white hair back from her face. Her brown eyes were wide with shock that eventually turned into anger.
“What happened?” Barghast asked, expressions of hope and worry at war on his etched face. Even Jack was glancing back at them from several feet ahead
“He pushed me away,” Loras said.
“Who do you think, you big idiot. Crow. I found him, told him we were coming, and he pushed me back into my body.”
“Did you mention…?”
“Yes, I mentioned you were with me,” Loras snapped impatiently. “He wasn’t having it. In the name of Mercius I had no idea he could be this stubborn.” She inwardly kicked herself when she saw the crestfallen look on Barghast’s face. “We will get to him, Barghast, you have my word on that, even if we have to drag him by lasso all the way back to Miffland.”
C’thla stood on the balcony of what had once been Benedict Matthien’s apartment, underneath a velvety black sky speckled with twinkling stars. The cold felt wonderful against her skin. Below her the streets had filled with the possessed. Some of them wandered around in the daytime but most of them were irritated by the light.
Damen lay in the bed behind him, recovering emotionally from the events that had taken place in the square. Though the city was now hers and they had more power than ever before Damen seemed to have fallen into a depression that no magic could fix. C’thla was torn between pity, love, and disgust for the man. How could he be feeling bad for himself at this moment when they had an army at their beck and call?
She glanced at his sleeping form. He had burrowed beneath the covers so she couldn’t see his face.
She sighed. She was bored. For all the power she had she herself was unsatisfied. What had transpired in the square had given her just a taste of the pleasure to come. She was prepping the world for the Primordial Caste’s takeover. And who knew what the world would look like then. She was sure it would be beautiful, more beautiful than it was now.
And perhaps I will finally be free, she thought. For as long as she could remember she’d served the needs of the Primordial Caste, bowing at their feet. It was only through loyalty and perseverance she’d managed to rise to the top of the Order of Chaos, gaining the title of High Priestess.
But it isn’t high enough, she thought bitterly, yearning for the freedom she couldn’t ever remember having.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden ripple of power; it stirred the air like a vibration. She could almost feel it in her bones.
She felt Sara stir, and knew her host felt it too. They both knew who it was. Two thoughts ran through C’thla’s brain at the same time, one belonging to each soul.
The Agent of Ex’olku.
C’thla’s lips stretched into a slow smile. She was impressed. It had been just a short burst, gone as quickly as it had appeared, but she had felt it from across the ‘scape. Impulsively she knew she had to see him, just to have a little fun. She would toy with him first and then kill him. With him out of the way there would be no one who could oppose her.
No, said Sarah, her voice now no louder than a whisper. Please. It seemed this was all she had the will to say. Her presence was diminishing more by the minute. In a week, maybe less, there would be nothing left of her and C’thla would have this body all to herself.
But first the matter of the Agent.
C’thla glanced back at Damen. He was still asleep. She could be back before he got up. The Agent was powerful but inexperienced. She would deal with him quickly...well not too quickly, but quick enough.