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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - Prologue. Mael

Mael sat in her filthy eight-by-eight cell and pictured her home.

She envisioned herself standing on the snow-blanketed hill, with the wooden church at her back and the village of Olmstead, with its little gathering of one-and-two story buildings spread out below. The air was cold as always in the mountain regions of the hellscape but not in a damp, moldy way; the air was fresh and clean, fragranced with the scent of pine trees and jalasa, a beautiful red herb cultivated solely in the mountains. Not long ago, the memory of her homeland had been fresh in her mind, so strong and vivid she could lose herself in it.

But now it escaped her as if slowly fading into oblivion, where all lost memory went. Just as she was about to bring it into view before her mind's eye, it faded before she could truly grasp ahold of it. The memory was replaced with the reality of where she truly was, along with the nightmarish predicament imposed on her. She had no choice but to open her eyes and face it yet again.

The cell Mael sat in was just big enough for her to be able to lay in; her feet almost touched the wall. She rested with her back pressed up against a stone wall, upon a mound of straw; through the iron bars on her left and right she could see the other cells were the same. The straw reeked with the odor of her own feces and urine, and the damp smell which exists only in places where there was never any natural light - what light there was danced along the craggly stone wall, thrown by torches held up with cobweb covered brackets. As far as other prisoners, it seemed she was the only one. Sometimes she thought she heard distant agonized screams coming from somewhere else but she could never truly be sure if the sounds were real, or if the constant fear of her predicament was simply adding to her imagination.

She looked at the rusty hinges in front of her with a subdued look of resignation; the corner of her mouth sagged uncharacteristically into a frown, and the lines starting to form around the corner of her eyes had turned into wrinkles.

Olmsted, the village in which she'd spent her whole life, was nothing more than a fleeting dream.

The rough surface of the stone had begun to hurt her back. She shifted, wincing uncomfortably. It was impossible to truly be comfortable in this place. She tried to think of how long she'd been here. It couldn't have been more than a few days. There was no real way to judge the passage of time unless she were to count when her captors brought her meals, which was three times a day. Even this was starting to slip away from her as the minutes, seconds, and hours bled together. Three days, she thought. I think it's been three days.

In the wan light she spotted a rat pillaging curiously through the straw not far from her foot, looking for scraps; it was headed for a turkey bone she'd discarded carelessly in the dirt. Mael did not move her foot away in disgust. Rats were common in the mountains. Just within view was the tattoo imprinted on her wrists: an infinity sign which marked her as an ordained healer. This was a memory she can never forget: Getting her tattoo at the age of sixteen, having just completed her apprenticeship. The memory was as much a part of her as were the ten fingers on her hands.

She had no idea where she was. Her captors would not give her any answers. The only time she saw anyone was when they brought her meals. Usually her pleas for answers and mercy were answered with stoicism and silence, unless it was the idiot disciple named Mansen. Surely she couldn't be far from her village but disorientation and the nonexistence of time made it impossible to say for sure. Until now she had never left the small confines of her village. This was the first; she hadn't even had the chance to glimpse what existed outside of Olmsted.

The only clue with which she had to identify her captors was the scarlet robes and cowls, members of the Scarlet Church a heretic cult that stood against everything Mael had been raised to believe. It was said they worshipped demons, the evil spirits that roamed the quadrant of the hellscape, usually invisible to the naked eye unless they possessed a human soul. It was rumored centuries ago the Euchurch had wiped out all members of the Scarlet Church until there were none left; and so Mark believed them to be nothing more than a cautionary tale parents told their children to make them behave.

Only they weren't stories. How could they be when Mael was living in one?

The rat looked up suddenly from the turkey bone it had been gnawing on, the remnants of Mael's last meal. Its whiskers quivered, its beady black eyes reflecting what little light there was in the dungeons. It was the only warning Mael had before the sudden groan of rusty hinges stole her forcibly from her thoughts. The rat let out an audible squeak of terror, dropping the meatless turkey bone back into the dirt; it scampered for refuge in the shadows, dragging its fleshy, wormy tail behind it. I don't blame you, she thought. Smart rat.

Had she the strength, Mael would have stood to face what her captors had in store for her, but she was simply too tired. Tired of pleading, tired and aching from sitting on the cold unforgiving ground for so long. She realized with only a small pang of grief she had come to terms with the fact she would never leave this place. Not alive anyway. She would never again get to see the mercurial blue skies of the North or her home village. She would never get to partake in communion - O Mercius, the Bringer of Light and Mercy use my body to be Your Light so I may channel your Rays of Restoration - before a long day of healing was to begin.

She listened to the scrape and thud of thick leather boots on the dusty floor, and something else like the turning of wheels. Someone was pushing something, a cart maybe. She realized there was more than one person coming towards her cell. She straightened up, wincing at the pain in her back. Just as Mansen's stocky, robed body came into view, Mael managed to rise on her bare feet. Someone else stood behind Mansen but Mael couldn't yet tell who it was. All she could see was the tip of his long narrow nose and the sensual, almost feminine curve of his lips. There was something enigmatic about him in a way the other robed figures she’d seen were not. She sensed he was the kind of person who would only see what he wanted you to see, the rest kept concealed in shadow until the exact moment he was ready to reveal it. He lifted his head. The lines deepening around his mouth might have indicated speculation. Mael thought she caught the hint of a blue iris but couldn’t be sure. At this angle, standing closer to the light, with his face turned upright, Mael should have been able to see more of his features but couldn’t.

“You’re lucky,” Mansen told her with a deep giggle. Under any other circumstances Mael would have found it nerve wracking. “You get to meet the High Priest.”

It made sense the man behind him would be someone with a title: he held himself with the air of someone powerful, someone important. He stood with his back straight and his shoulders perfectly set. His hands were folded behind his back. The High Priest nodded once, without saying a word. Mansen pulled out a ring of keys and slid a key into the rusty lock. With a tortured squeak from the hinges, the door drew open. Mael rose slowly to her feet but stayed where she was. She didn’t want to be any closer to these two than she had to.

“Thank you, Mansen,” said the High Priest with a small polite quirk of the lips. He stepped back as Mansen pushed a dusty wheelchair towards the door.

The High Priest approached the cell. He stopped in the doorway and fixed Mael with his eyes - which she was now completely certain were blue. “What is your name, girl?” he asked in a kind voice. Mael was surprised by his tone of voice; she was even more surprised by the question he’d asked her. She was young, but no longer a girl. Surely he couldn’t be much older than she was. And yet...she got the feeling he was much older than he appeared. It was a strange indescribable feeling: why her eyes provided no physical proof for this fact to be true, she knew it in her bones.

“Mael,” she said. Her voice sounded surprisingly calm to her. Though she knew she was no longer considered a girl, she felt like one. She felt small compared to him.

“Mael.” The High Priest said her name as if tasting a delicacy he’d never had before. He smiled, showing the white of his teeth, “A beautiful name for a beautiful girl. My name is Damen Orelys. I am the High Priest of Scarlet Church.”

Impossible! she wanted to shout, as if saying it aloud would make the truth any less true. The Scarlet Church is no more! Instead she said, “Why am I here? Why did you bring me to this place?” Why did you take me from my village? What do you intend to do to me?

“I’m sure you have many questions. My acolytes tend not to be very forthcoming. I picked you because I have heard of your renown throughout the north. People travel for days to Olmsted so you will heal their sicknesses and vanquish the Casteless.”

The Casteless. He meant demons, evil spirits who had wandered the earth since long before the Old World had begun.

“It is because of this,” Damen said with great patience and admiration towards her, “that I have chosen you for a very special purpose.”

“W-What purpose?” she stammered. Mael’s heart galloped in her chest as the fear truly hit her for the first time today.

Damen smiled, straightened up. “We will talk about it later. First we need to get you a bath and changed into a nice dress I think. We cannot present you to C’thla looking like this.” He looked down at Mael’s dress in disgust. Her dress was nothing more than white tattered fabric clinging to her slim, girly body. The sleeves and front of her gown had been torn to show the knobs of her bony knees. With her greasy long hair and wide eyes she did not look like the type of woman who could take away tumors and exorcise demons but like a frightened young woman trapped in a nightmare.

Damen gestured for her to sit in the chair. She went to it on legs that seemed barely capable of holding her weight. Her back ached. She lowered herself into the chair. She was thankful to be sitting on something other than the cold, hard ground. Mael knew she should be trying to run away, to do something other than complying like an obedient dog, but she also knew such an attempt would be futile. She had no means of defending herself. Mansen stood four feet away, waiting expectantly to be given an order. His extended spouts of giggling had ceased for the moment. Perhaps it was the cowed, browbeaten expression on his face that gave Mael an idea of what kind of man Damen Orlys was more than his appearance ever could.

Mansen’s afraid of him, Mael thought.

Damen’s shadow loomed over her. He was taller, more imposing than she’d previously realized. He towered over her, blocking her view of her cell. “Girl,” he said, patting her on the shoulder with a hand colder than human hands should be. Cold enough to make her shiver, for her flesh to break out in goosebumps. He was still grinning. The grin hadn ever really left his face but had in fact grown wide. Too wide for such a beautiful, graceful face Mael thought. There was something terrible behind the beauty, she knew; something that if seen, human eyes wouldn’t be able to describe. She felt as if a heavy weight was pressing her down painfully into the wheelchair.

He was massaging her shoulder now gently. Normally Mael would have found such a gesture to feel comforting but something inside her was repulsed by his touch. Why did he feel so cold? He was saying something but his words had slowed to a snail’s crawl? His teeth were nauseatingly white. His eyes were fathomless pinpricks of blue. He spoke to her in another language she could not understand. It was unlike anything she’d heard before. Perhaps it was one of the many dead languages that had died and been forgotten along with the Old World. Something passed from him into her, channeled through his touch: a tingling sensation that trickled through her body like water dripping down the side of a glass surface.

It was a wonderful feeling despite the chilliness of his touch.

She could feel herself growing calm and stupid with carelessness, as if she had drunk a mug of very potent jalasa tea. It was nice not to care for a change.

 

 

In one instance Mansen was steering her past the tarnished prison cells - she was only vaguely aware of the squeaks from the wheels - and in the next he was pushing her through the hall of a large castle, along plush scarlet carpeting. Sluggishly, Mael tried to figure out how she could go from one place to another so differently. Gone was the dark stone and the gloom, replaced by marble slabbed walls and pillars, vaulted ceilings, and crystal glass windows that looked out on the icy landscape beyond. The halls smelled faintly of wine, a nice change from the dried coppery smell of blood and her own filth. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the shift of light.

Mael could only surmise she was still in the same place, just on a different floor. Had she ever been in a place so majestic? It made her realize how infinitesimal her life was, how insignificant she herself was despite what Damen had said about her reputation. She suddenly regretted not having left her town, not even once. She’d had an offer to serve at the headquarters of the Eurchurch as every healer who took their vow was given, but ultimately she had decided to stay in her village where she could still see her parents regularly.

She knew on this day she would die. Her chance to explore and see what laid beyond the northern quadrant of the hellscape had been wasted, snatched away from her as sure as she’d been snatched away from Olmsted.

You have stared into the face of the possessed and vanquished them from the body of the oppressed by using the Rays of Mercius! How can you just give up like this, without a fight? You may not be able to fight with your body but you can still pray!

She didn’t even have the energy to pray to Mercius - praying to him, she thought angrily, was the last thing she wanted to do.

Just as Mansen was pushing her around the corner of a large pillar, Damen keeping up with long patient strides, there was another shift in which Mael lost all sense of time. When she came to once more she found herself sitting neck deep in the hot, soapy water of a bathing basin.

She was alone in the room. She could hear the murmur of quiet voices on the other side of the double doors. She couldn’t tell if it was Damen’s and Mansen’s or not. Someone had given her a sponge to scrub herself with. She could feel its coarse texture against the soft skin of her palm. Suds and rose petals floated on the surface of the water. She breathed in the smell of perfume and lavender. This, she knew, was the last time she’d be able to take a hot bath so she might as well enjoy it.

Before her was a window. Beyond it she could see a white landscape riddled with glaciers, seracs, pressure ridges, and beyond that the skeletal buildings of a dead, long forgotten city. She knew then she was further north, past the Plaesil Mountains where she had lived her whole life. The Ubrios Waste, better yet known as The Graveyard of Forgotten Things. A bleached wasteland where nothing much lived. Only the courageous most experienced scavengers came out here usually, braving the cold to search through the dead cities for treasure. Or so Mael had thought until now. She should have felt a sense of amazement...or fear upon realizing this, but she only felt dumbly complacent, like a pig who doesn’t know its days are numbered.

An hour later, the water still hot, two women dressed in red flowing gowns entered the room. Nuns of the Scarlet Church? Their faces were stoic beneath their hoods, their mouths set in straight lines. Though they were of different ages and appearances their expressions matched each other. One was older than the other, her eyes downcast so as not to look at Mael. The other was close to Mael’s age with dark brown skin. She kept casting quick, curious glances in Mael’s direction while also making sure the other hadn’t noticed. Judging from this and the nature of their silence, they were not allowed to talk to Mael or pay her any heed.

They dried her off with towels, combed her hair, and dressed her in a beautiful flowing red dress. Their hands and fingers were gentle. They touched her as if she was something delicate and holy. They pinned her hair up with a clip shaped like a silver rose. The dark haired nun gave her one last quick look as if to say goodbye, before leaving the room with her partner; Mael thought she saw a tear or two roll down the young nun’s cheek.

The door swung open. Damen and Mansen stepped into the room, pushing the wheelchair. Automatically Mael went to the chair and sat down. Chanting quietly in a dead language, Damen touched her shoulder once more. There was another shift. The world darkened.

She came to for the second time. Mansen was pushing her through a maze of dark, gloomy corridors. She leaned back in the seat, head resting drunkenly on the back of the chair. The metal headrest felt uncomfortably hard against her scalp but she didn’t have the energy to lift it. Each hallway they went through was exactly like the one before it, nondescript. Every now and then she could hear the agonized screams of someone being interrogated through the process of pain. She had heard the screams before but they’d sounded far away - distant enough she could trick herself into thinking it was just the wind. Old places of this size made all kinds of sounds. The corridors they passed through were made of coarse rock, lit by dim orange light. Damen followed, moving silently like a wraith. The heels of his boots seemed to make no sound when he moved.

“Don’t worry,” said Mansen, smiling down at her. “Today is a very special day for you...”

She heard another scream. It was getting closer now, more shrill than ever. This time she felt a stab of fear. They rounded the corner. The monotony of the corridors was broken by the coppery, cloying smell of blood; they entered a large circular chamber with a high ceiling. There was a single wooden table, knives and other tools set on top, covered with blood that had begun to dry.

A man was shackled to the walls by his hands and feet. The metal cuffs were covered in half-congealed blood. Completely naked, a flap of skin hung from his chest, showing the blood and bone beneath. Half way between his neck and shoulder was the tattoo of a red fiery sun: the symbol of the Inquistion, a servant of the Eurchurch just like her.

His eyes, glazed from shock and pain, found hers and seemed to focus in. He inhaled a deep, phlegmy breath. “Help me,” he begged in a raspy, quivering voice. “Please help me...”

Mael looked away, aware she’d begun to cry. The tears felt hot as they slid down her face, burning her cracked lips with their salt. She hated herself for the disgust towards the man, too worried about her own skin to feel pity towards someone else. What can I do? Can’t he see I’m just as helpless as he is?

At long last they passed the man and like a fleeting dream, Mael knew she would never see him again.

At long last they came to a stop. This hallway was much shorter at only half the length of the previous one; at the end of it was a black steel door with a metal wheel in its center. The door looked out of place surrounded by the rough-hewn rock, as if it had materialized from another time. There was something about it that only increased the fear Mael felt. She couldn’t describe how she knew, but on an almost psychic level she sensed there was evil on the other side of the door.

And it was old; and it was powerful. Far more powerful than Damen Orlys.

Tears welled in Mael’s eyes. Before she could stop herself she began to sob helplessly.

“Don’t cry,” Damen said gently. He put a hand on her shoulder as a father might do. “I know it’s hard for you to understand and appreciate but you’re being used for a very special purpose. Can you guess what’s behind that door?”

She shook her head and managed to stammer, “N-n-no.”

“Behind the door is a demon, a high priestess of the Second Caste. Her name I dare not say out of respect. You are to be her vessel - her flesh.”

Mael felt her insides turn to ice. Possession. He means possession. His words, she knew, were a lie. There was nothing honorable about having your body hijacked by an invading force. Memories flashed through her mind. She’d seen what happened to one who had been possessed, even by a wraith, or a “Casteless” as they were often referred. Low-demons were the weakest, without Caste and without shape. Yet even they were dangerous towards humans and could spread from one person to the next like a plague. All it took was for them to possess a helpless soul and then bite into the flesh of another.

She had witnessed many exorcisms but none had been as bad as her first, when she was nothing but an apprentice. The exorcism had failed and the unfortunate soul had died. She forced these thoughts out of her head.

“You should be honored,” the High Priest said softly.

“I just want to go home,” she said.

To this he said nothing. Instead he turned to Mansen. “Open the door.”

Mansen giggled nervously. He went to the door. Grunting, he pushed the wheel until, with a loud clank, the ancient hinges came free and the door swung slowly open.

Almost paternally, the High Priest, “Go on, girl. Go on and meet your destiny.”

Mael rose to her feet. She felt like a puppet on a string; Damen was the one pulling the marionette. Though she could feel her insides shaking her legs felt steady beneath her. She walked forward with sure steps. Her life as she had known it was over, this she knew. She no longer had the will to pray to Mercius. For years I have served him, risked my life and my soul to heal others. I’ve never asked for anything and this is how he repays me. Before she would have felt ashamed to think so selfishly but now she only felt resentment.

She hesitated for a moment, trying to sense what awaited in the room beyond, and then without glancing at the two men standing behind her stepped through the door. When the door closed behind her with a final click she hardly noticed.

Mael stood still for what felt like a long time, taking in her surroundings, when really it was only seconds. The room she stood in had four walls and was dimly lit. Just paces away was a stone altar. The top was covered with dancing candles and burning incense. The perfumey smell coming from the incense was a welcome respite from the stink of her own fear and underlying smell of rot in the room. There were strange runes carved into the legs and side of the altar. She didn’t recognize any of them. But even more curious and terrifying was the sarcophagus standing upright behind the altar, placed directly in the center of the room.

The sarcophagus was made out of thick stone. The attention to detail took her breath away: On the front of the lid was the most majestic piece of art she’d ever laid her eyes on: a beautiful woman with high cheekbones and long curls. Her arms were crossed over her bosom. Her long flowing dress plumed about her, as if blown about by a gust of wind. Her face was relaxed, her eyes closed in an expression of peaceful dreaming.

“Mael,” a voice said softly from behind her. A female’s voice.

Mael’s flesh broke out in goosebumps. Lips trembling she turned around to face the source of the voice. In the corner of the room, swathed in an unnatural shadow, stood a woman. Terrified, Mael stepped back until her back pressed up against the cold steel of the door. A high-pitched keening sound emitted from deep inside her throat but she was unaware of it.

She began to pray. “O Mercius, the Bringer of Light and Mercy use my body to be Your Light so I may channel your Rays of Restoration…

But she could feel her faith fluttering uselessly around her, dying with the flames of the candles around her. She had devoted the last seven years of her life to this faith, had rejected any chance of being able to have the life most women had for this faith...and now it had deserted her when she needed it most.

“Yes,” the voice said. “Why give your life to a faith that gives you nothing in return? I can give you so much more...Don’t be afraid.”

She stepped out of the shadows into the candlelight.

Mael began to scream.

 

 

Damen Orlys smiled as the young girl’s shrill screams came to an abrupt end. Silence filled the corridors of the church. Mansen’s head swiveled from side to side, looking at him in wide-eyed amazement in one second and gawking at the door at the next. Together they waited.

Let this be it, the High Priest thought, his heart pounding in desperate anticipation. Let this be the moment we’ve all been waiting for. He was excited but he also dreaded failing. And then the wheel began to turn of its own accord. The High Priest straightened as the door slowly swung open. C’thla, High Priestess of the second Caste, stood before Damen and Mansen, looking at them through Mael’s pale face. Her eyes were a pale luminous grey, too pale to be of anything human.

“Your Grace,” said Damen, so excited he could hardly breathe. He dropped to his knees, the tail of his robes spreading out around him. He gestured impatiently for Mansen to do the same. Foolish boy! The younger disciple obeyed but continued to gawk at the demon.

“You may rise,” said the demon. She appraised them with a beautiful smile on her full lips.

Damen rose to his feet. “How does it feel, your new flesh?”

C’thla’s eyes knitted together in concentration. “It’s hard to say at the moment. It’s been so long since I’ve had a body...”

Before the demon could finish her sentence, she shuddered once as if in great pain, and then exploded. A foul shower of flesh, blood, guts, and intestines rained down on the High Priest and his disciple, covering the walls, ceiling, and floor.

Damen was enraged. The ritual had failed; they would have to begin the search for a second potential vessel. The demoness will not be pleased.

Mansen flinched back from the High Priest's fury. “Clean up this mess, Mansen!”

“Y-Yes, your eminence,” Mansen stammered with a nervous titter.

Damen turned about in a wisp of his crimson cloak and disappeared around the corridor’s corner.


 

Copyright © 2020 ValentineDavis21; All Rights Reserved.
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