Author's note: A huge big thank you to everyone who has been reading and reviewing this story, it has been much appreciated. I hope you have enjoyed reading it just as much as I have enjoyed writing about Kivan and Rain's exploits.
CHAPTER 16 – HUNTERS: PART III
With the passing of the ancestral wraiths and the banishment of the glade's protective wards, Kivan clenched his fingers in Rain's upper arms through the thick wool of his cloak, his eyes intent on hers. He spared Jaheira only a tense, flitting glance as the druid cursed loudly and began sprinting for the far side of the clearing, shouting at the top of her lungs for the others to come. Then, wrapping one arm tightly around Rain's shoulders, he pulled her close and kissed her urgently, his mouth coming down hard and intense on hers.
"Rain." He broke off their kiss and pressed his brow to hers, slipping his fingers into her wet hair in an almost jerky, anxious caress. She lifted her free hand to his nape and pressed herself closer to him, her breath soft and warm on his skin. "I love you," he whispered fiercely, his voice grating and almost harsh. He feathered his lips over her nose and damp cheeks. "Always, amael. Always, my star."
There was no time for more. Jaheira raced back into the clearing, Anomen and Imoen on her heels. They flung down their packs at the edge of the glade and drew their weapons, lunging forward on quick, frantic feet. Belatedly, Anomen caught sight of Kivan and Rain by the pool, only Kivan's arms and his patched cloak shielding her nakedness from view. The knight scudded to a halt and blanched. Wide-eyed, he took in Rain's dripping hair and her bare ankles; the way she clutched the green folds to herself so tightly. Anomen coloured. Blushing furiously, he dropped his gaze to Rain's discarded clothes and took an uncertain step backwards, looking like a cornered animal hastily seeking retreat.
Kivan hissed out an impatient breath: they didn't have time for this. "Oh, for Hanali's sake, man," he snapped, exasperated. "Turn your back!"
Awkwardly, the knight did so. He moved away a few steps and stared hard at his war hammer as though it was the most fascinating thing he had ever seen, his back stiff and proud. Muttering under her breath, Jaheira swung her staff up and took up a position at his back, a fierce expression on her face as she warded him off.
Rain didn't waste any time in reaching for her clothes. Bending over, she slipped her feet into her underclothes while Kivan briskly dried her back with his cloak, chafing her arms and legs. She stepped into her black leather breeches. With some difficulty, given her damp skin, she pulled them up and turned her attention to her thin charcoal tunic and the leather vest, dragging them down over her head.
Kivan shielded her with his cloak and then tossed it aside, throwing it over his pack which still lay by hers in the grass. Urgency hummed in his blood. The more time that passed, the more vividly he sensed the intruders plunging through the great forest towards them, heading unerringly for the ancestral glade.
"They're coming," he told Rain, very grimly. "You need to hurry."
And yes, there was indeed more than one of them. A pack. The sentient trees fed their impressions to him. Their eerie hissing was rising again in the forest surrounding the glade, agitated whispers flying from one tree to the next, passing on their warnings. The dark presence moving towards them resolved into individual creatures; a band of men, if he was interpreting the forest's mood correctly, hungering for blood. Human men, and a woman. Elven. That sense came to him crisp and sharp: he felt the recoiling horror of the baelnorn still lingering in the amber air of the glade unseen; their irascible fury that one of the blood, one of the Spirit, could betray elvenkind so thoroughly, so shamelessly.
For what she brought with her was an evil so old and deep that a stain was spreading through the lowlands before it, a pervasive sense of gloom and overwhelming despair infecting the woods and all its inhabitant creatures.
This was what Kivan had been sensing so keenly all this time. This nightmare terror, a fell beast that kept blood-thirsty company with the band that hunted Rain. The evil creature bounded ahead of the rest of its pack; let loose, unleashed. It was too swift, too fast… It would be here in only minutes.
"Hurry, love," he said roughly, panicked for Rain. He crouched down beside her and laid an urgent hand on her shoulder, seeing her jerky nod as she laced up her boots.
"I am." She finished quickly, tying off the laces. Leaping to her feet, she swept up her sword-belt and secured her crimson scabbards in place, tightening the leather strap through the buckle with a swift jerk of her hand. Her grey cloak landed atop his, in a rumpled heap.
Kivan snatched up his longbow and flanked her, nocking an arrow to the string. Tense and rigid, he stared through the hissing trees in the direction of the beast hunting them, feeling how close it was now, how the small forest creatures fled terror-stricken before it. He became aware of Imoen nocking her own arrow to the glistening string of her shortbow, the mage watching the woods intently on Rain's other side.
"I can feel it now," the young woman whispered. She sounded dazed and detached, as though something within her was finally stirring, something she hadn't been aware of until now. Kivan shot her a worried, sideways glance. "I feel it in my blood, Rain. A…hunger. A pulling."
Rain looked at her sister very grimly. She took her dark, fiery locks in her hands and squeezed impatiently, wringing out the water from her hair. "Yes," she agreed, flicking the damp tresses back over her shoulder. "You feel our brother or sister. The one coming for us."
"Sister." The word was out of Kivan's mouth before he was even aware of it. He was momentarily startled, wondering where that certainty had come from, but Rain turned her grim, deadly eyes on him, nodding her agreement.
"Yes," she said again. "Our sister." She drew her swords with a harsh, metallic rasp. Her golden eyes glowed hot and fierce. "I can sense her now, both in my father's blood and through the Spirit." Her face hardened, her beauty turning sharp and lethal. "Traitor," she hissed, echoing Kivan's sentiments exactly.
"Rain." Anomen choked on her name. As one, Kivan and Rain scythed their gazes towards him, seeing the open shock on his face. "Your eyes," he whispered, both horrified and amazed. "They're… They're –"
"Glowing, we know." Kivan cut across him tersely. He suddenly recalled that of their group, only Anomen had never seen Sarevok's blazing golden eyes, the savage luminous light that now lit candles in Rain's starfire gaze. "Later, man," he snarled, ferocious. For the beast was nearly upon them. Whipping his head back around towards Rain, he stepped in front of her protectively, ready to defend her with his life. "Stay behind me," he ordered her urgently, and trained his barbed arrow between the tossing trees.
The murk in the forest deepened.
A vile, oppressive shadow began to form at the very fringes of the glade, gathering itself into a black, utter darkness.
The trees flinched and shied away, shrinking down deep into themselves. The last of the spinning leaves hit the ground. And that shadow, that awful, terrible darkness, it began to seep into the golden sanctity of the glade, swallowing whole the once beautiful, radiant light.
Something dreadful moved in those shadows.
Utterly silent, it stalked into the clearing towards them, sunk in its dank, malevolent darkness. Red eyes glowed in the smoky fog. A long snout and slavering jaws appeared, mouth stretched wide to reveal pointed canine fangs, a salivating red tongue. A deep rumbling issued from inside the massive chest - wolfish laughter – and the beast shrugged off its stealthy shadows to reveal four powerful legs and mighty paws; an arching, bristling neck, and a muscular back ending in potent, sinewy hindquarters. A long plumed tail. Its pelt was thick and black, the ruff around its neck lightening to an almost silvery-grey. It padded closer, fixing its glowing eyes on Rain, scenting the air through large glistening black nostrils.
"Bhaalspawn," it growled at her in Common, its voice low, guttural, and highly amused. "We meet at last."
Horrified, Kivan stared at the worg, white-faced. His skin broke out in an icy sweat. Even among its own kind, the massive dread-wolf would be a monster, taller than Kivan, equalling Anomen in height. It loomed over them, rank with evil, seeding terror and despair in even Kivan's stout heart.
"Get back." Somehow, Kivan found the ragged ends of his voice. What was supposed to be a dire, furious threat came out pitifully weak, making the creature turn its slitted red pupils on him. Its ears twitched; more laughter rumbled from its chest.
"Ranger," it said, drawing in his scent through its nose and considering him balefully. "You think to guard this one?" The worg grinned maliciously at Rain behind him, baring its vicious teeth. "She smells nice. Smells like Bhaalspawn." It growled suddenly, turning agitated. It began to pace restlessly back and forth in front of him, its tail rigid, its muzzle creasing in a furious snarl. "She smells like you," it accused him. "She is your mate?"
"Yes," Kivan snarled back, his eyes blazing. Rage ripped through him now, animalistic and primal, driving away the unnatural, chill terror the worg had instilled in the very marrow of his bones. "And you can't have her." He tensed his fingers on his bowstring and aimed for the worg's throat just above the ruff, the deadly point of his arrowhead moving as he tracked the beast's furious pacing.
The thing snapped its jaws at him in warning. The red eyes burned with feral hatred. But instead of lunging for him, as he expected, the worg swivelled its fearsome head towards Rain, who had crept up, silent, to Kivan's side. He sucked in a sharp breath, terrified for her.
"Evil beast," she spat, furious. "You share a foul bond with my sibling! I feel the echo of her taint in you, where it should not be. Why would you do such a thing? Why would you do a mortal's bidding?"
As Kivan fought to make sense of her accusation, somehow knowing that in this, her senses ran deeper than his, the worg opened its massive jaws and laughed at her. It lolled its tongue to one side, saliva dripping from the wicked points of its fangs.
"Why?" it asked, lifting one huge paw to show her its savage claws. "To hunt you, of course, little Bhaalspawn. You and the others." Its mouth opened wider, showing rows of wicked teeth. "This was Illasera's promise to me, that I could feed on you all, sink my fangs into your neck and drink the ichor of a dead god!"
The triumph in its guttural voice sent a shiver of dread down Kivan's spine. He edged closer to Rain, his great bow stretched back, his arm tense and aching.
The worg suddenly snarled, its eyes firing with bloodlust. "So much godsblood you have," it told Rain, eyeing her with an intense, insatiable hunger as though it was drunk on her already. "More than the others. I will enjoy feasting on you." Its muzzle wrinkled. "Even if you have cat's eyes," it growled, disgusted. "And when I am done with you," it said, turning its savage eyes on Imoen, who was being shielded by Anomen, "I will eat her too!"
Just like that, it leaped for Imoen, so fast that it was a black blur of wolfish movement, death bred into its flesh and bone. She screamed and stumbled backwards. Anomen lunged forward to take the worst of the violent impact, but Kivan's arrow whirred away first, lodging in the worg's throat. The beast faltered a little, its rapid momentum slowed.
But it would take more than one arrow to finish this monster.
The worg crashed into Anomen with its shoulder, sending him flying. Screaming with fury, Rain launched herself at it, putting herself between the beast and Imoen. Horrified, Kivan sent another arrow whistling towards it, the arrowhead impaling the worg's eye just as its mighty jaws were snapping for Rain, trying to rip out her throat. She danced sideways and evaded both its vicious teeth and shredding claws, slashing at the hairy chest with her blades as the creature howled with pain and rage, the arrow shafts sprouting from its mangled eye and throat. Cursing, his heart hammering, Kivan threw aside his bow and drew his vorpal sword in one movement, throwing himself towards Rain.
An arrow flew at the worg's neck, striking it with a wet thump. Imoen.
Anomen charged the beast from the other side, roaring with battle rage. His hammer collided with its shoulder. Beyond him, Jaheira was finishing a chant, her eyes fierce with concentration.
Lightning forked down from the suddenly dim sky. It struck the worg squarely on its back. The beast let out a shrill, bloodcurdling howl, and in the same instant, the scorch of sizzling flesh and fur filled Kivan's nose, making him want to gag.
After that, it was heavy, gory work, with no finesse whatsoever. They brought the worg to its knees. Breathing hard, Kivan hacked at it again and again, opening up great rents in its black pelt, sweeping his sword in savage arcs. Blood and burnt fur reeked in the air, mingling with the acrid after-tang of lightning. At his side, Rain fought with grim determination, blood spattered over her intent face. Jaheira cracked her staff across the worg's hindquarters. Magic crackled in the air, bolts hissing into the beast's side, and finally, it weakened enough for Anomen to topple it with a mighty swing of his hammer.
The worg sank onto its side, its lacerated chest heaving. The red eyes began to dim. Dark, foul blood oozed from its many wounds, and the jaws slowly drifted closed. The red tongue lolled from it, limp.
Grimly, Kivan planted his boot firmly on its thick neck and sliced down through the worg's bloodied ruff into resisting flesh and bone, cutting its throat. Blood spurted, splashing his boots and legs. The worg shuddered and lay still.
With the beast dead, Kivan turned to Rain and surveyed her swiftly, looking for any sign of injury, any hurts. Aside from her bloodied leathers, she seemed unharmed. The starfire glow had faded from her eyes, leaving them blue again, but she still wore her awakened power in her grim, efficient manner, in the tense lines of her body. She looked down at the worg a little wearily.
"The stuff of nightmares," she remarked. She wiped her sleeve across her brow, smearing the blood. "All this time, the wards were keeping out that."
"And your sibling foolish enough to consort with it," Kivan observed, his lip curling with disgust. "A foul bond, indeed," he added, thinking of what Rain had accused the worg of earlier.
She nodded and turned her eyes on him. "Are you alright?" she asked with concern, her brow furrowing faintly beneath the blood.
"I am, love." And he was. Rather than his blood cooling with the aftermath of battle, adrenaline still sang in his veins, the battle-song thudding with each beat of his heart. A strange, grim satisfaction came over him. Soon enough, they would be fighting again, for the pack that hunted them was nearly upon them. He could hear many feet dashing through the undergrowth. Moving swiftly, he planted a quick kiss on Rain's brow, heedless of the sticky blood, and crouched to wipe his fouled blade on the grass. None of the others bothered to clean their weapons. They would be using them again very soon.
Rising, Kivan slid the vorpal blade back into its sheath and took up his longbow again. Still centred with his strange, deadly calm, he stooped back down beside the matted, bloody corpse of the worg and considered it levelly. "Well, fairest," he said to Rain, almost lightly. "Shall we get ready to greet your sister, then?"
She let out a low, ironic laugh, her blue eyes gleaming. "Oh, yes, my hunter. We should."
Her name for him, the endearment in it, suddenly put him in mind of the ghostly priestess' charge to him: you must hunt them down one by one, all of Bhaal's murderous Children who desire nothing more than to rain down death and destruction on all the lands. The woman had been correct, indeed. Remember, hunter, and take up your arms.
"I will." He affirmed it aloud; a spoken pledge, a promise. He would do everything in his power to protect his beloved. His purpose was firm, his will focused and honed. Still crouching by the worg, Kivan reached out a hand and dabbed his fingers in its thick, dark blood. Very precisely, he smeared it in a distinctive pattern on his brow: first, a single straight line; the arrow shaft. Then two diagonals, smeared from temple to hairline; the barbed arrowhead. Lastly, he marked his chin with the blood. Thus painted for war, Kivan stood smoothly and stepped in close to Rain, avoiding her naked blades. He nocked an arrow loosely to his bowstring and waited.
Rain eyed his markings approvingly, understanding the gesture. "Nice," she murmured, the hint of a grim smile on her lips.
He looked back at her, satisfied. "Let them come," he said staunchly, a feral light in his eyes.
Imoen sent them both a distracted look. "You two are strange," she muttered, but then fell silent, readying herself for the band of hardened mercenaries that poured into the glade.
They formed up on the other side of the sacred pool; rough, armoured men, their expressions set, their eyes darting from the fallen worg to the blood-spattered companions, the group they had assumed would be easy victims, easy prey. There were at least eight of them. Studying them, his eyes narrowed, Kivan could almost taste their sudden uncertainty, their confusion.
And the woman who led them, the traitorous elf who had fouled herself with so much evil that even the Forest of Tethir had sought to keep her out, she strode angrily into the glade, profaning its sanctity with every step. She stopped and glared at Rain. In her green elven chain, she cut a striking figure, with raven-black hair and a cruel red mouth. There was charcoal smudged in a mask around her green eyes. Right now, those brittle irises were surveying Rain, taking her measure.
"Rain of Candlekeep!" Sharp-tongued and bitter, her sibling called her out. The woman swept her hand towards the dark heap of the worg. "I almost didn't believe it when I felt him die," she hissed, "but I see it is true."
Rain stared at her half-sister intently, her chin proud and high. "Illasera, I presume," she said icily. "How lovely to make the acquaintance of another of my sisters." She shifted her weight from one foot to the other; perfectly balanced, lethal and precise. With her bloodied swords in her hands, and her scarlet-stained black leathers, Rain was a vision of carnage, a vengeful handmaiden of death. Kivan tensed beside her, his fingers tightening on his bow and nocked arrow. "Though it's not every day that one of my own family sends a worg after me," she added with black, acid humour. "How flattering."
Illasera snarled at her. "Bitch," she hissed. "I have already wasted too much time hunting you. You and pathetic Imoen." She threw a scathing glance at the pink-haired girl. "To tell the truth, I am heartily sick of the pair of you. Why you couldn't just sit tight in Baldur's Gate and let me finish you off there, I have no idea. But no, you had to go and get yourself captured by Irenicus."
There was a quick, menacing flare in Illasera's green eyes; a small smirk played about her lips.
"Oh, yes," she said in answer to Rain's unspoken question, "I know all about you, Rain. You and these others, who have been stupid enough to ally themselves with you."
The woman cast her cruel gaze over them. She considered Kivan briefly, reading his declaration of war in the gore smeared across his face, but then moved on, dismissive.
"Though I see that one of your little band is missing," Illasera continued in a smug undertone. "Aerie, wasn't it? The wingless avariel. What a pity she isn't here to witness your downfall."
Rain ignored her taunt. Instead, she watched her sibling with a very still focus, her eyes hard and piercing.
"Long have I studied you," her nemesis informed her, eyeing her with cool disdain. "Long have I hunted you, my elusive quarry. But it is done now. Of the greatest of us, the Five of us, I was chosen to take your head." She offered Rain a small, menacing smile. "So come here and kneel before me, sister of mine. And with your death, so will I take one step closer to our father's Throne of Blood, to my destiny!"
Beside Kivan, Rain made a choked, spluttering noise that sounded suspiciously like laughter. "You fancy yourself a hunter, do you?" she said, her eyes gleaming again, bright and sharp. A dangerous heat was building in her now. With every sense, all his intuition, Kivan felt her starfire being stoked anew, her anger growing. "Do you not realise, sister of mine, that one of the finest hunters in the realms is right here, beside me?"
Suddenly, with quick grace, Rain stepped away from Kivan's side. Her light footfalls took her over the grass. She passed the dead worg and began a stalking semicircle, out to one side, putting her halfway between her dismayed companions and their band of hunters. She moved purposefully, with supreme confidence. A deadly, powerful beauty intent on her goal.
On her prey.
For the first time since entering the glade, Illasera was visibly alarmed. "Stop!" she snapped, taking an uncertain step backwards. "Throw down your swords!"
But Rain was in control now. Looking at her, seeing the first shimmer of luminous gold in the air around her, the first flare of hot, white-gold fire in her eyes, Kivan knew that Rain had held the upper hand from the very beginning. This confrontation would be on her terms.
Halting, she lifted high her arm and plunged the blood-streaked point of the Equalizer straight down into the rich earth of the sacred glade; a furious, symbolic gesture. The hilt quivered in the gold-flecked air.
"Enough!" she cried. With another flick of her wrist, she drove Celestial Fury into the ground beside the Equalizer. In a perfect temper, a perfect fury, Rain glared at Illasera and her mercenaries with stormy, lightning eyes, her golden aura blazing even brighter. Anomen let out a shocked gasp. On the far side of the pool, Illasera's pack stared at Rain in open-jawed horror, their fearful mutterings rising in the glade.
None of them had expected this.
"I have heard your threats," Rain continued, taking a slow, purposeful step towards Illasera, "and now I am done with you. I will not kneel. I will not bend my neck to you. You have entered into an evil, monstrous pact with a worg, and hunted down our brothers and sisters." She spat on the grass in front of her, disgusted. "Even the ancient wards rejected you. You have turned your back on the Spirit, on all elvenkind, and there will be no mercy for you, Illasera. None."
Swiftly, before Illasera could react, Rain thrust out her hands and called her starfire. The light flared around her, painfully bright. Squinting, Kivan used her blinding distraction to send the first of his deadly arrows raining into the pack of dazed, shouting men, the twang of his bowstring in his ears. His arrow took the first of them in the cheekbone, between the steel guard of his helm. The mercenary screamed and clutched at his face, collapsing to the ground.
The spell of shock that had come over their party was broken. Flinging a battle cry, Jaheira charged the milling pack, the violence of her attack waking Anomen from his trance. He shook his head to clear it and blundered into the confused throng, swinging his hammer madly. Kivan fired another arrow at an archer who, alone among his brethren, had the presence of mind to aim a missile at Rain.
Kivan's arrow hissed through the air; the other arrow hurtled towards Rain.
But before the arrow impacted her, it burned up in the starfire halo surrounding her, becoming a fiery, shooting star. Rain snatched at the hilt of the knife in her belt; the same one she had drawn across Irenicus' throat. Drawing back her arm, she hurled the point of the small blade at Illasera with an uncanny, marksman's accuracy, golden light flashing along the steel. It took her sister in her white forehead, putting a premature end to the spell which Illasera had been chanting. The woman dropped to her knees, green eyes glazing in her charcoal-smudged face. She slumped onto the green grass, defiling the ancestral glade with her tainted blood.
After that, it was a rout. They killed each and every one of the intruders who had dared to come after them. It was harsh and brutal. Squatting on his heels by one of the fallen, satisfied there was no pulse, Kivan stole a glance at the crumbling stone statues in the glade, wondering what the baelnorn thought of this carnage, of the havoc they had wreaked.
But, in the end, it was destroy or be destroyed, just as Rain had warned the ancestral prince.
Rising, he went to her. "Rain?" Concerned, he put a hand on her shoulder where she knelt by Illasera's body, her head bowed. She had her fingers pressed to her temple as though pained. Blood spilled from the hole in Illasera's head, where Rain had pulled out her small knife. Carefully, Kivan drew back Rain's damp, curling hair and tucked it behind her pointed ear, seeing the distraction in her blue, distant gaze. "What is it, love?" he asked her gently.
Rain stirred a little. "Something is…calling me, Kivan," she said, lifting her head to meet his eyes. There was a strange, calm certainty in her. "I can feel it here, a pulling in my head…" Her voice trailed off. She listened intently. "I have to go back," she suddenly said, springing to her feet. "Back to where this first began."
Somewhat startled, but definitely intrigued, Kivan watched as she called the starfire to her fingers and traced the outline of a gateway, just as she had in Bhaal's realm. The planar door formed in the glade's sun-soaked air. Pitch black, studded with tiny stars, it beckoned, lancing Kivan with a dangerous thrill.
Anomen gaped at it. "What, in Helm's name, is that?"
"A planar rift, of course." Imoen shrugged. "Come on, Sir Knight," she said, accepting her sister's elemental power with blithe ease. "Fetch your pack and step through. Come on, it's easy. Look, I'll show you." Flashing a disarming, encouraging grin at him, Imoen dragged the stunned priest across the glade to their discarded belongings and loaded him up. "Come on!" she scolded him impatiently, exclaiming loudly. "It won't kill you, you know."
Jaheira sighed and shook her head. "And the road takes yet another twisting turn," she said, eyeing Rain ruefully. "Very well, Rain. Let's see where your strange destiny leads us to next."
Squaring her shoulders, her pack over her arm and her staff in her hands, the druid entered the gateway first, resolved. She passed into darkness.
Kivan retrieved both his cloak and Rain's, draping them over his arm, and slid their packs over his shoulders. He waited, patient, as Rain pulled her swords from the stained earth and cleaned them quickly, sliding them back into her crimson sheaths. She turned to him, gazing up into his blood-marked face. "Shall we?" she asked softly, slipping her arm through his.
He nodded decisively. Together, they stepped through the gate.
On the other side, that wild, tumultuous wind roared, the grey skies swirling and howling, just as he remembered them. The forge-like heat was the same; the icy rock beneath his feet. But this time, his body was real and substantial, and far better equipped to withstand the forces of this plane. At his side, Rain was fearless, confident as she re-entered her father's realm.
The proud, molten voice stopped them in their tracks. Utterly compelled, his thoughts suddenly mired in honeyed, golden amber, Kivan swivelled his head towards that unearthly speaker, basking in a warm, almost divine radiance.
A celestial creature awaited them. Crowned in a sunburst, her sinuous, golden locks floating above her light-kissed azure skin, the being smiled at them in gentle-fierce beneficence, great ivory wings spreading from her back. Through his dazzlement, Kivan was sharply reminded of Aerie. The celestial woman regarded Rain intently, who stared back in unabashed awe.
"I greet you, Rain," the being said. "You who are of divine blood." The woman dipped her head in a perfect, poised salutation, golden light blazing in her eyes. In that moment, Kivan recognised the raging starfire that Rain was only beginning to channel, a primal, potent power that came so-very-naturally to this otherworldly being. The woman must be some kind of angel, some kind of heavenly creature. "I am Solar," the celestial told her. "I have awaited you, god-child, for some time now." Her molten voice lowered, warming with sudden amusement. "You, who are so unready to assume your destiny."
Startled, Rain collected herself. Curtseying, she returned the Solar's greeting with beautiful, deferent grace, splendid despite the congealing blood on her leathers, the scarlet smeared on her brow. "And I greet you warmly in return," Rain said, a little unsteadily. "I did not expect this, Solar."
"But it is done, nevertheless," the celestial said gently.
Before Kivan could even begin to unravel her meaning, the Solar turned her piercing, golden gaze directly upon him. Looking into her eyes, transfixed, he suddenly felt an overwhelming pressure, as though the entire weight of the celestial heavens was bearing down on his shoulders, weakening him. He paled. But then he gritted his teeth and gathered his strength, and inched closer to Rain. His resolve was strong and fierce; as fierce as it had ever been.
Good, the Solar spoke into his mind. You hear me now. She did not smile, but he sensed her fierce approval regardless. Welcome, Kivan of Shilmista. Are you ready? Ready to fight for her, to stand loyal and fearless by her side?
Tensing, Kivan firmed himself at Rain's shoulder. Lifting his head, his black hair snarling in the plane's wild, snapping breeze, he moved in towards her intimately, somehow understanding that in his next words, in his next declaration, his soul would be bared in perhaps the most important vow of his life.
"Yes," he grated. "Yes, I am. I will guard my beloved, my dearest Rain,with every beat of my heart, every breath of my lungs."
There was a sudden, golden silence. In that void, Kivan eagerly sought Rain's eyes, turning his face to hers. She tipped her head back and smiled at him gladly.
And in that moment, Kivan realised what his bitter trials had been leading him to all this time, all these black, wasted and suffering years…
His friend and lover; the light of his life. His star. She had no comparison. There was no-one to hold a candle to her, no-one to steal away her beauty and majesty.
There was just Rain, as perfect as she had always been.
Clearing his throat, Kivan put his arm around Rain's narrow waist and drew her very closely to him, embracing his destiny. "I am ready," he told the Solar, absolute.
And he was.