Three days after the Stray Dogs left the steading, they reached Mendes Station.
After near two weeks of near constant travel the already tenuous dynamic between the group had grown even further strained. Crow dealt with the situation by doing what he always did: staying to himself and reading his books. Unfortunately whenever they did stop for the night to rest for a few hours before moving on. When they were on the road he pretended to be preoccupied with his surroundings, which wasn't far from the truth really. The practitioner had always been plagued with wanderlust; he also held a deep affection for the wilderness that stemmed from growing up in the Plaesil mountains where the wilderness was plentiful.
He wasn't the only one who secluded himself. Other than Sara, Fulko interacted with no one, keeping himself at a distance. He didn't even talk to Jack, a fellow Eurchurchman. Sometimes Crow would forget he was there until he spotted him in the shadow of a group of trees or somewhere well away from the others, where he would pray to Mercius. Crow couldn't blame him for not wanting to interact with the others. We're not exactly the most friendly bunch, are we?
Rake, always contentious at best, had grown downright unbearable, to the point that Crow would find himself clenching his hands into fists whenever Rake decided to cut him with his barbed-wire tongue. In those moments it took every ounce of control not to turn the cut-throat into a pile of burning flesh. And then there was the issue of hygiene and soreness that hung around him like a cloud of flies.
So when Mendes Station appeared at the bottom of a valley, Crow allowed himself a sigh of relief.
The outpost was surrounded by several watchtowers, where Eurchurchman with rifles were on constant alert for coyotes, Red Wraith patrols, the possessed and whatever other dangers lurked out here in the hellscape. Further protection guarded the cluster of one-and-two story buildings with razor wire fencing; Crow sensed the thrumming power of several wards. His sleep-addled mind wondered why such a small steading would need so much protection, then remembered there would probably be refugees stopping for a rest before they finished their journey to Miffland. Just like the Stray Dogs. We'll be lucky if they have any decent beds left for us to sleep in, Crow thought wearily.
Several guards, attired in armor with the red flaming torch engraved on the front, tensed with rifles in hand when they saw the Stray Dogs; they visibly relaxed when Fulko showed them the rosary around his neck and explained their situation. Crow was surprised: I t was the first time he had truly spoken since fleeing from Fort Erikson. His voice had a friendly but simultaneously authoritative cadence to it.
At last with a wave of his gloved hands, the guard presumably in charge, nodded, stooped to a studious bow before the Eurchurchman, gestured for them to go through the gates, which slid open with a wooden clatter. Crow let out another sigh of relief once the gate closed behind them. For the next night or two we can sleep without having to look over our shoulder, he thought. Or so he hoped. Since joining the Inquisition on the front lines, the practitioner had learned to leave his expectations behind.
A single cobblestone street cut through the center of the outpost, lit by gas oil lamps. Crow spotted several storefronts: a hardware store, a clothing store, and a pub. The idea of going into the pub for a drink or two suddenly seemed very appealing to the practitioner.
Two nuns approached the group from a small square building Crow assumed was the clinic. Their white garb labeled them as bowed healer's of the Eurchurch. One of them was elderly, well into her life, while was younger. She was clearly a Novitate; the purple ribbon tied around her neck meant she had yet to take her vow of celibacy.
"Father Fulko," the older nun said with a customary bow. "We have been expecting you. My name is Mother Abigail and this is Sister Elise. I have a room set up for you in the clinic. I am confident it will be satisfactory after your long and arduous journey. As for the rest of your group I have a few spare rooms. Your horses will be taken to the stable where they will be fed and groomed while you stay here."
At this several stablehands appeared to lead the Strays horses; Gunpowder went willingly enough but Broana tossed her head out of reach from the hand that tried to grab her reins and backed carefully towards Crow. Crow took a moment to soothe her, whispering in her. When she had calmed, the stable hand led her away after the other horses.
The Eurchurchman and the Strays were taken their own separate ways. Sister Abigail led the six exhausted strays to a shabby two story wooden house. "Wait here," said the nun. "I will get some lights on in the house. It is old and not in the best of shape, but it has beds for you to sleep on and it will keep you out of the cold. Mercius blessed you with good timing." This last part she said to Sara who looked the friendliest out of them all, Crow suspected. "Refugees have been passing by seeking shelter from these dark times like frightened cattle." Without another word, she pushed the door open, stepped through, and was engulfed in shadow.
The practitioner must have fallen asleep while standing up because Barghast gave him a gentle shake from behind and nudged him forward. Sister Abigail was smiling at them from the doorway, her face glowing within the light of the gas lamp she held in her hand. It's nice to see a friendly face for a change, Crow thought as they followed her inside. Rake, Lydia, and Sara were climbing up a staircase to the second floor. The practitioner entered a room with sparse furniture and a bunk bed.
“Which bed do you want?” Barghast rumbled.
For a moment the tension that had slowly been building over the last year was between them; it had a tendency to pop up at the weirdest of times. It was a dance they’d been doing, constantly revolving around each other, both too insecure to want to be the one to initiate the exploration: Barghast because he was afraid of his past and Crow because he was afraid of the future.
I wish I could give you what you want Barghast. You think I draw back because I’m afraid of the scars that mark your face...and your soul. But I’m not. I could care less about those things because I see what you are not able to see within yourself: That somewhere deep within you is a good man. No, I draw back to keep us safe. Especially you.
“I’ll be nice and take the top bunk so you have an easier time getting to the bathroom,” Crow said, climbing up the ladder. “That and I don’t want the bed collapsing beneath your immense weight and crushing me to death.”
Barghast blew out the lamp, enclosing them in complete darkness. Crow heard the bed creak as the Okanavian settled on the bed. “So the truth behind your so-called kindness comes to light.”
Crow chuckled before slipping into vague dreams.
Crow woke sometime in the early hours of the next morning and listened to Barghast’s rumbling snores. Cold morning light seeped through the slats of the wooden shutters outside the window; Crow spent a few moments immersed in watching a spider meticulously spin its web. He was both disgusted and fascinated by its quick, graceful movements. After he felt awake enough, Crow climbed down the ladder and studied Barghast’s sleeping form. The man was so tall his long muscular legs draped over the end of the bed, his bare feet hovering over the ground. Both had slept in their clothes, they’d been so tired.
Crow climbed as quietly down the stairs as he could - he didn’t want to wake the others. He had plans to explore the outpost. Maybe he would go to saloon after all. He was surprised to find Rake up already, sitting at a low rickety table. He was leaning leisurely back into the wooden chair. He had a hunting blade in his hand and was flipping it through the air, before catching it in midair at the handle again.
Crow did his best to pretend as if he hadn’t seen Rake sitting there. He walked past the living room, to the front door. Outside the bus was parked in the driveway and next door was the clinic. He was just getting ready to step out into the morning when Rake spoke.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the cut-throat asked. He hadn’t looked up; he kept flipping and catching the knife as if it was the world’s best parlor trick.
“Out,” Crow said, making sure the man could hear his own mutual dislike.
“Make sure you’re back within the next couple of hours. Whether the Eurchurch is completely healed or not we’re leaving - you’ll want to be on that bus or we’ll leave you behind too.”
Crow gritted his teeth. For so long I’ve kept my feelings to myself - I can’t do it anymore.
“Why do you hate me so much?” he asked.
“Because of what you are,” Rake replied.
“Because I have mana in my blood.”
“You don’t hate Sara.”
“She’s a healer. She’s not capable of the destruction you are. Personally I think it was a mistake to let practitioners join the Inquisition. Pope Drajen should have finished wiping your people out.”
Crow scoffed. “At least I’ve never killed kids.”
At this Rake stiffened. He turned around, teeth bared, but before he could say anything, the practitioner was already out the door.
Unbeknownst to both Rake and Crow, Sara had stood at the top of the stairs and heard the whole conversation between the two. She waited until she was sure Crow was out the door, counted to five, and walked the rest of the way down the stairs.
“Hey,” Rake said. He’d gone back to playing his knife catching game.
Sara simply glared at him, arms crossed.
“Is something wrong?” Rake asked, his young-old face twisting into a despicable grin. “Did I say something to get your panties all up in a twist?”
“I heard what you said to Crow,” she said, “and I think you’re a piece of shit.”
He nodded as if he’d expected her to say this all along. He gestured for her to sit in the chair across from him. Sara obliged, watching him the whole time. In the almost three years she’d been assigned to D-Squad she’d never liked Rake - or completely trusted him. Sure, they’d fought side by side , watching each others’ back; more than once she’d saved his life, and he hers. But unlike her, he didn’t do the things he did out of nobility. He was here because it was either serve the Eurchurch or be put to execution. Two more missions and he will have fulfilled his sentence, she thought. He will be a free man, his record expunged.
“I don’t like Crow and I’ve made that clear,” said Rake as if he was being perfectly reasonable. “Neither does Jack and neither does your girlfriend.”
“Well my girlfriend, as much as I love her, has her views fucked up from the floor up and I’ll say it to her face. What I don’t understand is how the three of you can judge him for being a practitioner, something he can’t help - it’s not like we can help whether or not we have mana in our blood - while you’re here because you owe a debt to society for the horrendous crimes you’ve committed.”
Rake shrugged. “The imperfections of the human heart. I’m prejudiced - so sue me. It’s not my worst crime.”
Sara could only snort at this.
“Look, it’s not like he doesn’t have people standing in his corner. You’ve practitcally got your teet in his mouth and then there’s Barghast who’s trying to get into his pants and butt-fuck him. Apparently he likes them young.” Just as Rake said this last part he threw the knife once more. Sara didn’t know why she did it, perhaps she didn’t know what else to say so she had to find some other way of besting him: she caught the knife in midair and stabbed the blade straight through the top of the table.
Rake stared down at the knife, eyes wide. She was enjoying the look of surprise on his face.
“Crow is the reason why our mission was successful yesterday,” Sara continued, as if nothing had happened. “He’s the reason why, within the last year, we moved from being the squad at the bottom to the squad at the top. And he’s not here because he’s a criminal, he volunteered - a selfless thing, an amazing thing when you stop and think he’s barely an adult. He deserves your appreciation and respect.”
Sara got up and walked out the door, walking towards the clinic. She’d said what she needed to say, there was no point in dragging things out.