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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 6. The Daminion Highway

The Daminion Highway cut a straight path through the hellscape for thousands of miles, connecting the north and south, before eventually intersecting with the Dimonble Highway, which ran west to east. The two highways split the hellscape into four quadrants: The ice capped Plaesil mountains, and further out, the frozen tundra called the Ubrios Wastes (better known as the Graveyard of Forgotten Things); the Okanavi Desert, also home to many forgotten relics of the Old World; the muddy, rainy Javacial Flatlands to the east; and to the west was the coast, its vast oceans mostly unexplored.

Between the quadrants one could travel through one climate to another within weeks if they rode hard. For several days the Stray Dogs rode nonstop, trying to put as much distance between themselves and the Red Wraiths. A grim silence fell over the group. They would not be safe until they reached Miffland’s walls where they would be under the protection of the Eurchurch.

Whenever possible they took the backroads. The roads were often rough, taking them through rugged terrain that proved to be disagreeable to the body; the fact that they were secluded also made them dangerous. However they were able to travel a greater distance within a shorter time due to the fact that there was little traffic on the main highway. The main roads would be crowded with refugees also heading towards the sanctuary the Eurchurch offered, fleeing from the plague of possessions and the influence of the Scarlet Church that was quickly overshadowing the hellscape. The only souls brave enough to travel the hellscape were usually the lost ones: cutthroat, thieves, and rapists seeking to avoid the Eurchurch lest they face the Eurchurch or be forced into service like Lydia, Barghast, and Rake. Both were deemed a death sentence.

There was little to see on the backroads but fields overgrown with weeds, abandoned supply carts often already too picked over to provide anything of use; occasionally they would pass an abandoned homestead. If they found a viable place that appeared to be abandoned, the group would stop and two Strays would go inside to make sure it was safe - usually this task went to Crow and Barghast. There they would camp for the night and then leave again at first light.

Every few hours Sara would check on Fulko, giving him a little bit of her mana. Fulko appeared grateful but said very little. Sara could not blame him for his silence - she could only imagine what he’d been through, the pain he endured.

She noticed, with amusement, the way Barghast stayed physically close to Crow without overly crowding him. Barghast did his best to hide his attachment to the practitioner but to the healer it was plain as day. The two had become close, like a moon gravitating around a planet. She found it both strange and endearing. The practitioner had been silent the whole time, raising a wall around himself, that while invisible, was impossible to miss. At night he would hide in his books, reading by lamplight or campfire and smoking one jalasa joint after another. His long fingers were always stained red with the herb..

Sara wanted to chalk it up to exhaustion. The reserves of mana he had within him far exceeded her own, yet just like her, he could run out until he replenished it. And at Fort Erikson he had used a lot of mana. But this wasn’t the only reason for his silent withdrawal from the Stray Dogs and the rest of the world. Something had happened to him of a psychological nature back at Fort Erikson and the pain was clearly visible on his face. Sara knew he was ashamed for the havoc he had wreaked at Fort Erikson. He was a very conflicted soul.

How can someone be so young yet look as if they carry the whole world on their shoulders? What secrets could he possibly have to hide at his age?

Yet he was like the rest of the mysterious, battered group. He hid his past and revealed little of himself. To Sara, no matter how much Rake, Lydia, and Jack tried to act otherwise, the practitioner truly belonged with them.

Near the eve of their seventh day on the road, they encountered a Casteless. At first glance she appeared to be a woman; she came shuffling drunkenly in their direction, gusts of wind blowing at her hair and filthy dress. A closer look and a bloodcurdling sense of dread revealed she was anything but a woman.

Out here, away from civilization, is demon territory, Sara thought. Out here where Mercius’s Rays do not reach.

The horses sensed what she was as well for they curved a wide path around her. The woman stopped to watch the group pass by, her head cocked slightly to the right. Her dirt-smeared features were arranged in an expression that might have been befuddlement, as if she had never seen their kind before. Then, within the blink of an eye, her demeanor changed: Her eyes bulged deliriously, a bright unnatural yellow; what remained of her teeth and gums, black with rot, were bared in a feral grin. Her dress was mostly torn rags; another powerful breeze blew what was left back against the bony contours of her body so Sara could see the sharp angles of her ribs and her saggy breasts, which looked like deflated balloons. Suddenly she began chasing after the group, babbling wildly in the Demon’s Tongue, fist pumping wildly in the air as if in outrage. Up close Sara could see the fecund bite mark on her neck from where the demon had entered and then hijacked her body. There was probably no trace left of who the woman had been before.

“Sara!” Lydia cried in sharp warning.

The Casteless was suddenly at her mare’s side, clawing at her foot. Sara grabbed at her reins, trying to understand how the demon could have closed the distance so quickly or sneak up on her; before her fingers could snag the reigns, the Casteless yanked at her foot hard enough to drag her toppling to the ground. Her mare screamed in fear, kicking at the demon with its hind legs. The Casteless ducked with a primal sort of grace, lunging towards Sara. Sara shrunk back, unsure of what to do. The possessed woman’s teeth were bared, yellowed teeth flashing in the sun.

Sara could already feel the teeth sinking into her flesh; one bite was all it would take and then she would be infected too. Within a few hours or a few days - there was no way of knowing - the demon’s influence would come over, and she too would be the mindless vessel of a demon. And there were only two hopes for salvation: Exorcism or death.

The sound of a gunshot cracked through the air. Blood exploded from the woman’s forehead. She immediately fell limply across Sara’s lap. With a grunt Sara shoved the lifeless body off her and rose to her feet. She looked around, shaking. Jack sat on his horse, smoke curling from the muzzle of a single revolver.

“Thanks,” she said.

She thought he might have smiled but she couldn’t be sure. Jack wasn’t much of a talker; it was even rarer to express definable emotion.

“Are you okay?” Lydia dismounted from her horse and came over to Sara. She brushed her cheek with a gloved hand.

“I’m fine.” Sara tried to smile but her whole body was shaking. Yet again she had the body of a dead woman lying at her feet. If not for Jack’s marksmanship...She didn’t let herself finish the thought. Mercius was looking out. Count your blessings.

Crow was the only one who had hung back with them; the others had moved ahead of them. He did not ask Sara if she was okay but he didn’t need to. The fact that he had waited for her was meaning enough. Lydia and she climbed back into their horses and the Strays hurried to catch up with the others.














 

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