Whatever physical pain Barghast was in was replaced by the possibility once again he was too late - when it came to the matter of Crow he had always been too late. He had been hoping for a chance to fix things.
For Barghast, the physical pain such as it was, amounted to nothing. He was a collector of scars. One such scar was his lover Lucas, the man he had told Loras about. That scar would never fully go away. It would forever be there, a mark of his guilt and the betrayal he’d committed against a man he had once loved more than anything in the world.
And then, just when he thought he would never find love or redemption again, Crow had come into his life and wiggled his way into Barghast’s heart. To let him slip away forever would be the gravest sin he’d yet to commit.
The ceiling was falling in places. Embers stung the bare flesh of his arms like vengeful wasps. He pushed. A voice in the back of his mind told him he was committing suicide. I don’t care, he thought, clutching his shotgun in one bloody hand.
Tears stung his eyes. He was half blind and choking on the smoke.
A dark shape came stumbling out of the shadows. Barghast was about to raise his shotgun and blast the apparition away when he recognized the soot streaked face - he would have known it anywhere. Fighting for breath, Crow fell to his knees. His pale face was blackened by soot. Streaks of blood, already dried, trailed from his nose..
Barghast felt his heart skip a beat. After a week of traveling and searching, his mind and soul burdened by the weight of a constant panic, he had finally found Crow. He plunged deeper into the burning inferno and pulled the practitioner to his feet.
Crow looked up, his eyes widening at the sight of the Okanavian. “Barghast?” he croaked, before bursting into a fit of coughing. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“But I am here. We are leaving this place.”
Crow’s eyes widened suddenly. He was looking at something behind Barghast. “Look out!”
Barghast turned around just in time to see a burn apparition come at him with a pitchfork. Barghast had no time to step back. The pitchfork was already rushing towards his belly, about to impale him. Just when he was sure he would feel the sharp tips of the pitchfork pierce his flesh, Crow charged from the side, knocking the tool out of the attacker’s hand with a kick. Something silver in Crow’s hand flashed through the air once and the burning man’s head parted from his neck in a spraying fountain of crimson.
Crow dropped the weapon onto the floor: a butcher knife. He grabbed Barghast’s hand and led him forward.
Barghast was no longer sure what direction they were heading in or which way was out. Smoke came at them from every direction as if trying to blind them, block their path, keep them from getting out. The only thing he was truly aware of was Crow’s sweat slickened fingers inside his. Glowing embers flew in their face, burning flesh.
Crow suddenly stopped, wheezing, hunched over. “It’s so hot. I don’t know if I can go any further...can’t breathe...”
With a determined growl, Barghast grabbed Crow by the back of his robes and yanked him back into an upright position. Barghast was too exhausted from lack of oxygen to fully carry Crow, so he half dragged half carried Crow towards safety. To his credit Crow tried to walk with him. They stepped out of the way of a collapsing beam just in time to keep from being crushed beneath it.
I’ve got you, Barghast thought and repeated the thought over and over.
Crow hadn’t meant to bring the building down around his ears but the fear had magnified the effect of his power. There hadn’t been time to do anything else but act out of desperation.
Some Agent of Ex’olku I am, he thought. I destroy everything I come in contact with.
The edges of his vision had started to darken. Second by passing second he could feel his hold on the world slipping away. The only things that tethered him to consciousness was knowing if he passed out he would die. He would either burn to death or C’thla would get him; he doubted his spell had killed her - she was the most powerful demon he’d encountered thus far. And then there was Barghast, the feeling of his arm around Crow’s waist, pulling him along. He’s here. He’s really here. But how?
Daylight. Air. They were out of the inferno finally. Crow fell to his knees, gasping. It had never felt so good to breathe, the pressure in his lungs easing. “Oh, thank Mercius,” he heard a familiar voice say and looked up to see Loras running towards them. She looked relieved. “ I thought you were both dead for sure.”
Crow staggered to his feet and turned towards the remains of the saloon. Together the three of them watched the remaining walls of the saloon fall in on each other, spitting embers and smoke into the sky. Where’s C’thla though? he thought. What’s she waiting for?
“Are you okay?”
Barghast’s voice, his presence so close to Crow, tugged at his attention. “I’m fine.” Emotion flooded him at the sight of the Okanavian: Shame, anguish, relief. They hit him all at once. His eyes began to feel with tears. Once more his legs threatened to give out on him.
Barghast caught him, his arms wrapped around Crow’s bony shoulders and pulling him into an embrace. Crow sobbed for a moment against the Okanavian’s solid chest.
“I’ve got you,” Barghast rumbled, “and I’m not letting you go. Not ever again.”
After a moment Crow parted reluctantly from Barghast’s embrace. He looked around at the chaos he’d caused. Smoking bodies and debris littered the snow. Black columns rose towards the denim blue sky from the burning wreckage of the pub. Everywhere he looked there was splatters of dark crimson on white. I caused this, he thought. This is all my fault. The people of this town were right to fear me because now they’re all dead.
The sound of snapping wood alerted him; he turned towards the blaze, straining his ears. He prayed he was just being paranoid. But the others had turned their heads and were doing the same. A piece of burnt board fell. C’thla emerged from the wreckage, covered in soot from head to toe. The flames had burned off her hair and dress; what remained of her flesh was blackened. The only thing which was truly visible were her eyes, which burned with the silver cunning of a fox. Her hips swayed from side to side with the feline grace of a predatory animal. Her swollen belly bounced.
“I liked that dress,” she said. “It will take me the whole day to grow back my hair.”
Barghast was the first to react. He pumped his shotgun and pulled the trigger. The explosion of sound it made filled the deserted town. C’thla’s chest was ripped open in a spray of flesh, bone, and blood. She fell back, her arms pinwheeling, letting out a shriek of rage and pain.
There were several more blasts before the shotgun clicked dry. Blood fell from C’thlas wounds as she made a sickening sound that was half gurgle and half laugh. “You’ve bought yourself a few minutes at most,” she croaked. “You better start running. If you’ve killed my child I will make sure your deaths will be all the more agonizing.”
“I suggest we do as she says,” said Loras. Her voice was tight with fear.
The nerves all over Cthla’s body were firing away. Her brain - my brain, not Sara’s, she had to remind herself - alerted her to every sensation. She pressed her hands to the large wound in her stomach where her insides were seeping out. She felt woozy from loss of blood. Everything burned. The Okanavian had done a number on her.
Her wounds weren’t a concern to her. Within minutes she would heal, her body good as new. The problem had nothing to do with her body: For the first time since C’thla had hijacked this body, Sara’s presence was strong. Frantic. Angry. She was pushing at the demoness, shouting: Leave them alone, you bitch! You just leave them alone!
Her voice echoed like a bell chiming within the walls of C’thla’s mind. Clenching her teeth, C’thla sucked in a breath and clutched her head in between her hands. The fact her host was fighting back, trying to regain control of her body, infuriated C’thla. There’s nothing you can do to stop me! she screeched back. I’m going to kill everyone you ever cared about. You are powerless to fight my will, as she drove Sara back into the recesses of her subconscious with the viciousness of a rabid animal, until Sara was silent once more.
With that taken care of C’thla turned her focus back to her body. While she’d been distracted in a mental tug-of-war with her host, her body had slowly begun to heal. Muscles building themselves back together, bones reforming, flesh restitching itself. Bullets pushed themselves out from various wounds and fell to the ground.