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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 54. Annointed

The woods wrapped him in a cloak of familiarity. He breathed in the smell of pine coming from the trees, ran his hands over the rough-hewn bark of a trunk, feeling the grooves and cracks. Every little detail brought back a sense of the solitary child he'd once been.

I used to come out here for hours, he thought. Aunt Lena would fix me breakfast, then I would leave the house. I'd climb trees, build traps, listen to the sound of nature. This was my church - my sanctuary.

Crow hiked for an hour before stopping to scale a large tree. He climbed easily, his fingers seeming to know where to grip. There was satisfaction in the strain of his muscles. After a minute of climbing, when he was a good twenty feet in the air, Crow swung his leg around a particularly thick branch and leaned his back against the trunk. He pulled out a jalasa joint and smoked; for the first time in a long time he felt a moment's peace.

"You best enjoy it while you can," he muttered to himself. "It won't last long. The good moments never do."

Once he finished smoking and felt rested, he climbed down from his perch on the tree and continued his trek deeper into the woods.

It wasn’t long before he came to the creekbed, marking the first half of his journey to what he was looking for over. The creek burbled as water sloshed over rocks. He refilled his waterskin, ate a piece of deer jerky, slaked his thirst, then moved on. It was midday when he came to the spot where he’d buried his aunt. The cairn he had made out of stone was still there; no one had disturbed it in the year since he’d left.

He took a moment to take in the valley below. The woods continued on for as far as he could see, the green tops of the pine trees covered with the white of snow. Rays of sunlight caught the snow, making everything sparkle. It was a beautiful sight. I knew I chose this spot for a reason, he thought. So she could look at this view whenever she wanted and be enchanted.

Then he saw the spot where it had happened and felt his blood run cold, the enchantment of the scene ruined.

This was the spot where Ex’olku had anointed him; where his journey into darkness had begun.

The memory was still fresh in Crow’s mind. He remembered standing up once the hole had been dug, after he’d dragged Aunt Lena’s body into the grave. He recalled wondering how he’d managed to drag her body on the cart, through the wild landscape, and dig a hole. Something had possessed him: determination...or guilt. Or the eagerness to be rid of her once and for all. He closed his eyes, conjured the memory before his mind’s eye - what had really happened, not what the demon had shown him had happened.



He threw the shovel down and pulled his way out of the grave he’d dug. His clothes clung to his sweaty, grimy skin. His hair was matted and wet. The wooden of the handle of the shovel had imprinted itself into his hand, creating blisters. Every bone in his body ached. He had never felt such exhaustion...physical or emotional. Dead bodies, he knew, were much heavier than live ones.

“Aunt Lena,” he whispered. “Please forgive me...”

After a moment he staggered to his feet; he had to use the shovel for help to accomplish the task. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket and looked up at the sky. That was when he saw it: a white ball of light falling from the sky.

At first he couldn’t be sure what he was seeing or if it was really there. It fell slowly, past the clouds. He watched it, transfixed, unable to look away. Is this Mercius’s Light I’m seeing? he thought. Is this a miracle I find myself bearing witness too?

Or perhaps it was Aunt Lena’s soul coming from beyond the grave to contact him. If so did she seek vengeance or was her intent to reassure him everything was okay, she was in a better place? He remained paralyzed but also frightened. He had never seen anything so beautiful, alien, and terrifying all at the same time.

The sphere changed course: it was floating straight towards him. Part of Crow's mind screamed for him to run. He understood in some unfathomable way that his life was about to change incomprehensibly...even though it already had with the death of his aunt.

The most he could do was raise a hand to his eyes like a visor to try and shield his eyes. He stood at the top of the valley, now framed in blinding white light that seemed to envelope the entire world. He cried out in a mixture of terror and wonder. He sensed a sentience within the light, could feel it infiltrating his mind. The ground rumbled beneath his feet, the sound deafening to his ears.

Then the light spoke. "Do not be afraid." It's voice was a booming cadence, beautiful and deep. Though he was sure he was hearing it within his mind and not with his ears, Crow could feel his bone vibrate in tune with its every word. He could imagine himself blowing away into millions of little particles of dust; giving the phenomenon he was experiencing, it wasn't outside the realm of possibility.

"I have chosen you to be my Agent," said the voice. "You will help me finish the war my brothers and sisters started with the Order of Chaos. You will succeed where everyone else has failed. I give you a power you could never dream of having…"

"No," Crow croaked, only understanding on an instinctual level the gravity of what was being asked of him. It took great effort to speak, as if his tongue were made of stone. "I don't want it...This power...You can keep it for yourself or give it to someone else…"

The voice of the entity took on a scolding tone. "I will not be denied!" the voice thundered. Crow winced, his head snapping to the side as if he'd been struck. "Your will is insignificant compared to mine, what little power you wield even more so, and life even more! You will be the hands and feet of my will!"

And then Crow was driven to his knees by an irrepressible weight. Tidal gusts of wind blew at him, threatening to lodge him into the air. His fingers clawed into dirt as he tried to cling on for dear life; he needn't have bothered for the weight pressed him down. His knees sunk into the earth. Flecks of rock crumbled, floating through the air around him, colliding into each other like debris in the void of space. He could feel a hand pressing against the spot in between his shoulder blades, stronger and larger than anything a human hand was capable of; it seared him with the white-hot heat of burning iron. The smell of burning flesh - his flesh - awoke with him an unbearable and sickening hunger.

So this is what it feels like to be touched by the Light of Mercius? Crow thought through the all-consuming fog of pain and confusion. It's not the cathartic experience everyone thinks it to be.

The entity touching laughed and told him it was not and never had been known as Mercius.

Then it showed him things: what the Scarlet Church was planning, the inevitable war between their blasphemous religion with that of the Eurchurch and the eventual rising of the Order of Chaos also known as the Primordial Caste; a war that would engulf the hellscape in a nightmare far worse than what the First Pope had created with the remaking of the world.

And even worse, Crow had already accepted this impossible task the entity had asked of him and all the endless pain and misery that would come with it. Because the consequences of what would happen would be far worse if he didn't.

"Alright, damn you," he rasped at last. "I'll do it…"

Crow resurfaced from the memory and back into the present; his heart was full of a hate and anger he hadn't thought himself capable of. He now understood how Damen, the Agent before him who had fought the First Priest only to become what he hated most, could understand how such a thing had happened. How many times had Crow almost fallen to the same fate?

He looked up at the sky now, his eyes burning. His soul burned too, so hot it seemed his body would combust with the inability to contain it.

"Fuck you," he whispered, knowing Ex'olku could hear him even if the entity was unwilling to respond. Hot tears of emotion trailed down his pale face. "I rebuke you...I rebuke you and your stupid fucking war that I never wanted to be a part of in the first place. I no longer care what happens because I'm done. Either way I'm dead. But if I'm to die by the word of the Pope then at least it will be my choice. I'll finally get the rest I deserve."

Ex'olku did not respond. Crow had not expected anything less.

Crow went to Aunt Lena's cairn and kissed the top stone; the granite felt cool against his lips. "If all goes as planned I'll be with you very soon," he whispered before turning away and beginning the journey back into town.




Crow woke up in the early hours of the morning, smoked a joint, dressed himself in the clean robes Geese had kindly laundered for him, and packed what little of his possessions he had; a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He had come to the decision that he would turn himself into the first Eurchurch patrolmen he came across. They would arrest him and transport him back to Miffridge where he would stand trial before the Pope; though a trial was granted to every criminal, Crow knew the verdict was unavoidable.

He would be executed.

This too was a comfort.

He gave the room one last look before leaving. He climbed down the creaky wooden steps, expecting to find Geese standing in her usual spot behind the counter. He realized, with a plummeting sensation in his breast, that he had come to like the presence of the round-faced woman.

Crow stayed where he was at the foot of the stairs. Something was wrong but he couldn't tell what it was. Not immediately. It soon dawned on him that there was no one in the pub at all. An oppressive gloomy silence hung over the scene but for the howling of the wind, which made the building creak all around him.

Something was wrong. He could feel it but he couldn't tell what it was. Someone should have been.

"We are alone for now," a familiar voice said from behind him. "They'll stay away until I call for them."

Crow turned around to face C'thla. She stood at the top of the stairs, looking at him with her silver fox eyes and Sara's face; but it was not truly Sara’s face, only a cold caricature of it. It was a face that had no capability of showing empathy he knew. She wore a flowing red dress, her pale flesh visible beneath the gauzy red fabric. Her skin glowed with a health and vitality no human being possessed.“Don’t you love what I’ve done with the town?” When he did not respond, she made a disappointed tsssking sound. “I was at least hoping you would put up a fight.”

Crow said nothing, drawing in his mana around him. The air crackled with energy.

C’thla laughed. “What is the point in fighting my dear, Crow? The Eurchurch wants you dead. I want you dead. Everyone wants you dead. No one will mourn your death. Would death not be a mercy?”

A hand crashed through the window behind Crow in a spray of glass. There was a shout before bloodied fingers clamped around his throat; slivers of glass were embedded in the flesh of the hand. Crow was slammed up against the wall, his breath escaping his mouth in a choked wheeze. His feet left the ground. He kicked, trying to pull the fingers from around his throat, his eyes bulging from his skull. The top half of his attacker’s body appeared through the window. A man’s face glared at him, his eyes filled with the amber-eyed hate of the possessed, the bearded mouth twisted in a snarl. Crow was vaguely aware of other voices shouting, windows breaking, the door of the inn crashing open.

Darkness was creeping in at the corners of Crow’s vision. He tried digging his fingers into the hand of his attacker but even this proved futile. He could feel himself growing desperate. This was not the death I had in mind, he thought. At last his hand brushed a large sliver of glass. He seized it, cutting flesh against the jagged edges, and stabbed the sharp tip into the man’s hands. At last the fingers released him and he fell onto the floor in a coughing heap. Even as he drew in his first gasping breath, he forced himself onto his feet and clambered down the rest of the stairs.

More bodies were clambering into the building from all sides, glaring at them with the same demonic hate. They were armed with knives, axes, and pitchforks. And standing at the front of the crowd was Geese. Her teeth were bared in a grin of rage directed at him; her fat fingers were clinched around the wooden handle of a meat cleaver. The other hand was missing, nothing more than a bloody stump from which he could see the white hint of bone. Even now it bled dripping blood on the floor. Despite her bulk she moved with a feline sort of grace, her shoulders hunched.

He turned to face C’thla. “What did you do to them?”

She stood near the bottom of the steps now, her arms folded casually on the wooden banister. The left side of her mouth curled into a cold smirk. “They are possessed. Don’t look so sad. After all, didn’t you tell Geese you would destroy this town if you could? Well now you can. I’m giving you what I want.”

There was nowhere to go, nowhere to run. They surrounded him from all sides, slowly closing in, gibbering in the Demon’s Tongue. This isn’t what I wanted for them, Crow thought despairingly. Not really. I said what I did out of anger. Mercius help me, look at the chaos I’ve caused.

In the back of his mind he knew what had to be done: if not to save his own life then the rest of the hellscape. C’thla made a sound of surprise deep within her throat, her eyes widening. “You would destroy them all in the effort to destroy me - the people you grew up with most of your life? Even when you know it’s futile?”

“These were never my people but yes I would.” Once more Crow drew his mana in around him. Currents of energy gathered in the center of the room around him. The hairs on the back of his neck and arms stood on end. He glared at C’thla with blue-eyed malice. “It’s a chance I must and will gladly take.”

“No wonder Ex’olku chose you,” C’thla said in what might have been admiration. “It takes a cold soul to do what needs to be done.”

“You’re one to talk.”

Crow! Lora’s voice cut in, echoing through his mind. He could feel her suddenly, close to the inn. We’re coming! Don’t move!

Crow’s eyes widened. An icy sliver of dread pierced his heart. No, no, no this was all wrong. What was she doing here? Loras, you must leave this place - now! C’thla’s here! C’thla’s -

Geese, now almost on top of Crow, raised the meat cleaver high above her head, about to bring it down on his skull. Crow clenched his teeth together and unleashed the pent up energy that had been building this whole time.

A ring of fire burst out from him, fanning throughout the inside of the inn, engulfing everything.

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.
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