Author's Note: The last chapter has arrived, folks! Although, should anyone have an idea for continuation or for a sequel, drop me a line in the reviews (reviews? what reviews, you say? Grrr.) and I just might be persuaded to add another chapter. Anyone who's wondering, I made up the bit about Narilka being a prophetess just for the fun of it: plus, it's so much more awful if you see your own doom coming. This chapter is the darkest yet, so read at your own risk. Soundtrack: I Walk Alone by Tarja Turunen, and The Storm by Garth Brooks.
Warnings: Slash, violence, character death, suicidal themes.
Disclaimer: I own nothing about the Coldfire Trilogy.
The moment the wolves appeared out of the trees, Narilka knew it was over.
Few people knew about her gift of prophecy - it was like Divining without sorcery, just brief glimpses of what could come to pass, coming always in her dreams. Since that fateful night when she had met the Hunter for the first time, he visions had been plagued by his face: nearly every time she dreamed of the future, he was there. Sometimes she saw him die, dragged down into a pit of endless darkness, or devoured by searing flames: sometimes she saw him triumphant, the shadow of the Forest falling across all Erna. Always, though, these visions came in her dreams.
Only once had she seen a vision while waking; that had been not long after she met the Hunter. Just before dawn, a powerful trance had swept her away: images of a towering citadel of rainbow crystal, balanced precariously upon a webwork of treacherous faults. She saw a host of black-skinned demons, and the Hunter's face: weary and pale, lined with exhaustion and taught with fear, but his silver eyes burned with power and determination and she knew he would not be defeated. She saw another man, too: a strong, muscular figure in leather armor, carrying a sword, the hilt of which was gold and worked in a pattern of overlapping flames. She had seen him standing at the Hunter's side, haloed by golden light - then the Hunter reached out and laid a hand on the man's shoulder, and the violet unlight of the dark fae swirled forth and enveloped the other man, extinguishing the radiant gold.
She had not known, then, the significance of the man's sword, though she had known it was important. Only recently had she discovered the truth; that was the sword of a Knight of the Flame, one of the Church's sacred sorcerers, sworn to use the fae to fight the battles which the anti-fae doctrine of the Church could not win. Narilka had thought then that the Hunter would kill the man, that he must have been sent to destroy the Hunter and that he himself would be destroyed instead - but now, she saw the truth.
She sat motionless on her horse, trapped in a trance as the battle surged around her. Nothing touched her; the wolves never even glanced at her, the men seemed to part and flow around her like a river around a stone. The Patriarch had tried to withdraw, along with a small knot of Church Knights, and they were defending themselves on the other side of the wide clearing from where Narilka and Andrys were. Everything was noise and motion, blood and death. As she stared at the chaos swirling all around her, a vision began to take shape, a strange translucent vista overlaying the anarchy that surrounded her.
She saw the Forest littered with motionless forms, all the men currently fighting around her lying lifeless on the bloodstained earth. She saw the power of the Forest stretch forth like the shadow of dark wings to envelop all the cities of the north. She saw the people of Jaggonath leading their brief, frightened lives under a pall of constant fear, trembling each sunset with the terror of the Hunter. She saw the dark empire of the Forest grow ever more powerful, and she saw the Hunter, standing atop the tallest tower of his keep and surveying his lands - and the priest stood at his side, his hazel eyes darkened by inner shadows, the blade of his sword stained red with blood.
With a cry Narilka struggled to tear herself free of the vision, her heart hammering in her chest. Fear filled her, fear such as she had never felt before - not even that night when the Hunter came to her. The world swam around her, but she managed to lift her head - and saw him.
The Hunter stepped from the trees, silver-blue sword in hand. There, at his side, was the priest from Narilka's visions. Horror pierced her soul as she saw them, for there was no mistaking it: there was no blood on the priest's sword, not yet, but the shadows had already taken root in his eyes. He was lost... and so was the Church's cause.
Then the force of her visions overwhelmed her and Narilka felt herself slide from the saddle, crying out as pain surged through her mind. Clinging desperately to her horse to keep herself upright, she screamed. "Andrys!"
The last living Tarrant heard her cry - and he heard the Patriarch's furious shout from the other side of the battlefield.
"Leave her! We must kill the Hunter!"
"Go to hell!" Andrys roared, fury finally overcoming his obedience: hot defiance flared in him, the rebellious spirit that he thought had been crushed the day the Hunter killed his family. He lashed out, kicking the wolf that lunged at him backwards as he wrenched hard on his horse's reins, and by sheer willpower he forced his way through the chaos to Narilka. Driving back another white wolf he dropped from the saddle just as his beloved's strength gave out: Andrys caught her before she could fall, holding her close to him, whispering brokenly over the cacophony of battle.
"God, I'm sorry, Nari... I should never have put you through this. I'll keep you safe now, I promise."
Damien was impressed as he watched the albino wolf pack decimating the Church's forces. Even fear of the Patriarch couldn't outweigh fear of the Hunter, and dozens of men were breaking away from the battle at every opportunity and fleeing. Mostly the conscripts, though - the true believers were fighting relentlessly, but even their religious fervor couldn't overcome the ferocity of the Hunter's own loyal wolves.
Finally, the tipping point was reached. The last of the fanatics were cut down, and the others threw their swords down: the wolves herded them into the center of the clearing, where they hemmed them in, holding them captive. Gesturing for Damien to follow him, Tarrant stepped forward and walked toward the captives.
The sea of wolves parted for him, each canine he passed bowing its head low enough to touch its muzzle to the ground. He reached the inner circle of wolves and stopped, dispassionately surveying his prisoners. A ripple of pure terror flowed through the exhausted, battered captives, but not a word was spoken. Not until Damien moved to stand next to his lover, and a furious voice broke the silence.
The Patriarch had a wolf on either side of him, their jaws latched around his arms, but that didn't prevent him from thrashing as his face contorted with rage. "I'll have your head for this, Vryce!"
Tarrant just smirked: Damien shot the captured Patriarch a smug, victorious glance. "Actually, I don't think you're in any position to carry out that threat, your Holiness. I don't bow to your authority anymore."
At a gesture from Tarrant, the wolves dragged the protesting man forward and yanked him down so that he was on his knees. The Hunter then stepped aside, motioning Damien forward, his eyes cold as a cloudless winter night. "It seems he still hasn't learned his lesson about respect, Damien. Why don't you demonstrate to the rest of our misguided friends here exactly what happens when they defy me?"
Without an instant's hesitation, Damien drew his sword.
Narilka was clinging to Andrys, barely conscious, but when she heard the Hunter's words she lifted her head. "No." she whispered inaudibly, her hands clinging more tightly to her beloved's tunic as her eyes welled with tears. She knew what was going to happen; she could see phantom images of it dancing in front of her eyes, taunting her with her own helplessness. To see the future, yet be unable to change it: it was the ultimate torture, and Narilka had never felt more lost.
Damien could see the fear in the Patriarch's crystal blue eyes, and he reveled in it. That was something else Tarrant had shown him; the power to be found in another's terror. It fed the dark fae as nothing else could, intoxication and heady. Damien let himself drink in that intoxication as he raised his sword. The Patriarch's eyes widened further, and in desperation he spoke.
"Vryce, get ahold of yourself! Is this how you serve your Church, your God? By betraying us in our hour of need?"
"I serve a different master now." Damien said coldly, and he brought his sword down.
Narilka choked back a cry and looked away, burying her face in Andrys's chest, squeezing her eyes shut as if to block out the horrible sight. Andrys tightened his grip on her convulsively, pressing his cheek against her silky hair and struggling to keep from vomiting. He had already seen more than enough bloodshed in his life, but that callous, emotionless slaying turned his stomach more than anything else.
Damien stepped back as the wolves released the Patriarch's lifeless corpse, shaking the blood from his sword blade. He caught the flash of pride in Tarrant's face, then the Hunter gestured. The two wolves that had restrained the Patriarch turned and burrowed among the crowd of captives, then herded two forward: Andrys Tarrant, his face deathly pale, and Narilka Lessing, who was clinging to Andrys as though her life depended on it. Neither of them made any sound or tried to resist as they were pushed by the wolves some distance from the other captives. Tarrant surveyed the silent, petrified crusaders for a moment more, then a look of ruthless cruelty flashed in his silver eyes.
"Kill them all."
The wolves lunged. Narilka screamed and nearly fainted, and Andrys shuddered and covered her eyes gently. "Nari, love, don't watch..." She clutched at him, her whole body trembling, tears streaming down her pale cheeks as the horrible screams of the dying men filled the silent air of the Forest.
It was over in a matter of moments. The wolves backed away, their white coats stained red with human blood. At a gesture from Tarrant they vanished like wraiths, melting back amongst the trees, leaving only the Hunter, Damien, Andrys, and Narilka alive in the clearing.
Andrys watched the Hunter turn toward them and forced himself to stay perfectly still, tall and proud, his arms wrapped protectively around the trembling Narilka. The Hunter's cold silver eyes, so like his own and yet somehow so alien, swept over them. Then, to Andrys's utter shock, the Hunter gestured to the path that led back out of the Forest.
"Go." His tone was cold, but his expression was just a little more human than Andrys remembered. "This is your last chance. Make sure the people of Erna know what happened here today - and don't even think of trying for my title." Andrys started to stammer out his thanks, but the Hunter just shook his head, eyes warming with a hint of something surprisingly human. "Don't. Just go. This time, you have something to live for." He tilted his head meaningfully at Narilka.
Gratitude filling his heart, Andrys nodded silently and gently shifted his arm around Narilka's shoulders, leading her down the path that lead back to the Forest's border.
When they were alone again, Damien moved to stand at Tarrant side, smiling. "I guess I was more of a positive influence on you than I thought. You wouldn't have done that when we met."
Tarrant smiled back at him, eyes gleaming. "I didn't believe in true love when we met." he said softly, letting Damien draw him into a gentle embrace. "I know better now. I've already made my point, and I've taken enough from young Andrys. He deserves a second chance."
Damien kissed his Core-golden hair gently. "I think we'll make a romantic out of you yet, Gerald." He looked away, across the body-strewn field, and sighed. "You think this will be enough to put an end to the crusade?"
"Possibly." Tarrant said, his expression thoughtful. "I wouldn't count on it too heavily, though: for some reason, irrational behavior seems to be embedded in the human genetic code. The firmer a rule, the more likely they are to break it."
Damien grinned. "You said they. I seem to recall hubris being listed as cardinal sin, you know."
"Considering I compiled that list, I certainly ought to know." Tarrant said, smirking as he twined his fingers through Damien's. "We should return to the keep: I'll have some of my servants move these bodies to distribute the nutrients better."
Tarrant continued talking about how the Forest would absorb the component nutrients after the bodies had decomposed, but Damien wasn't really listening. He was too busy smiling and concentrating on the feeling of warmth that washed through him when Tarrant linked their hands together. Yes, he had betrayed his faith and the people who relied on him, but in the end it was all worth it. Damien pressed a last kiss on his lover's pale lips, prompting a smile of mingled amusement and tenderness, then together they melted back into the Forest's shadows.
Twenty-five years later
Narilka stood at the window, gazing out across the scene of destruction before her, wondering when it had all gone so wrong. On the horizon she could see a sooty red glow: Sheva was in flames, its houses torched by the servants of the Hunter, the price for their defiance of his decrees. A crusading party of those who had lost their female relatives had assembled and set out to kill the Hunter: in retaliation, Sheva was now being razed to the ground, the rubble set ablaze as a beacon of warning to any others who entertained ideas of defiance.
Narilka sighed. The terrible grief she had once felt was numbed now, leaving her hollow and empty. Andrys had died just seven days ago, finally succumbing to the hereditary heart condition he had battled for so long - the same heart condition that had plagued the Neocount of Merentha. Though their time together had been short, it had been wonderful, no matter how dark the shadows that lay over the land. That was the one reason that, no matter what the atrocities committed, Narilka could never bring herself to hate the Hunter: he had spared her and given her Andrys, and for that, she would always be thankful.
Now, though, her beloved husband was gone. The world held nothing for her anymore: she could only gaze at the ashes of all she had once believed in and wonder what had happened. It seemed so very long ago that the biggest threat had been the lowly faeborn demons that stalked the night: how naive they had all been, to think that they were suffering then! No one had seen the truth: they thought the Hunter was a mere bogeyman, a whispered lie in the night. No one knew how much he had been holding back, how easily he could strip away all that they held dear. They knew now - they knew, too, of the man who ruled at his side. Betrayer, they called him - the Faithless One. Only Narilka knew how it all began, knew that once upon a time that man, Damien Kilcannon Vryce, had possessed the greatest faith of them all.
She didn't blame him anymore, though. She knew now what drew him down into the darkness, what seduced him away from the light. She felt that call herself, as she set the knifeblade against the soft skin of her wrist. Love. Not the pure, clean love that the Terran fairytales told of: the love that rose from the darker longings, love twisted and contorted by the warping fae of Erna. A love that killed, a love that consumed. A love that turned the fae red with the reek of blood.
The knife fell soundlessly to the carpet, followed shortly thereafter by the lifeless form of Narilka Tarrant, the last mortal ever to bear that family name.
"They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies." - William Penn.