Author's Note: Okay, we're getting to the good part now! The Patriarch isn't going to be happy... in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, 'of course you know, this means war!' Chapter title is from the song Widow's Curse by Bellowhead. The association makes more sense if you know the song, trust me.
Werebunny87: Oh, you think I've made Damien's life difficult NOW? You ain't seen nothing yet. Seriously, Gerald makes Tom Riddle look like a Hufflepuff.
Herdcat: Heh, so I guess I actually can write in-character Ciani when I try. Good to know. Let me know how I did on the Patriarch!
Damien stood his ground, refusing to show that he had broken out in a cold sweat, or that he was gritting his teeth so hard that his jaw hurt. He would not give this infuriating man the satisfaction of knowing how much he had upset Damien, nor would he admit to anything that would back up this man's accusations.
"With all do respect, your Holiness, I did my best."
The Patriarch's face was white with barely-restrained fury as he glared at Damien, his blue eyes like ice. "You did your best? Then, Reverend, I fear your best is not good enough. I commend you for your work on the Eastern Continent, there is no doubt that your travels there have been of immense benefit to all of civilized Erna. However, the fact remains that you had the Hunter within your grasp, and yet he still lives!"
Damien winced inwardly as the waves of anger-tinged fae beat against him, stirred by the Patriarch's wrath. How very ironic, that the very man who railed against 'heathen sorcerers' like Gerald, was himself a natural Worker. The Hunter would no doubt have appreciated the irony. Forcing his thoughts away from the seductive adept who had made his life so complicated, Damien inclined his head respectfully to the Patriarch. "I understand your displeasure, your Holiness, and I am more than willing to do whatever necessary to atone."
Abruptly, the Patriarch's rage died, and he turned a suddenly calm gaze on Damien. That startling transition from fiery rage to glacial collectedness was far more frightening than his former anger to Damien. A slow, cold smile worked its way across the older man's face.
"Excellent. In that case, Reverend, I think we may have a solution. Should you succeed in this mission, your fame and accord shall be trebled."
A chill worked its way up Damien's spine. Perhaps he should not have been so quick to accede. "What is this mission, your Holiness?"
The Patriarch's smile was as chill as Gerald's had been. "As we speak, Reverend, the forces of the Church are being marshaled in preparation for a great crusade. For the first time in six hundred years, the Church of Human Unification shall go to war."
Damien's breath caught, and he gulped. "Against what force, your Holiness?"
"Why, against the Forest, of course." the Patriarch said simply, his cold blue eyes glittering. "It is high time for another Crusade, Reverend - and I think you are the perfect man to lead them."
Damien's legs gave way and he fell more than sat in the chair before the Patriarch's desk. "Your Holiness, you cannot be serious! The Church has not gone to war in centuries, the Knights are not prepared - and God forbid we should be forced to call upon the militia reserves. None of them are fit to fight. I've seen the Forest, your Holiness: if the Hunter sent even a fraction of those creatures against us, we would be torn apart! This would not be a war, it would be suicide!"
"Then you had best prepare to be a martyr to the cause, Reverend Vryce." the Patriarch said softly, his tone deadly. "The old laws of sedition and corruption are still on the books, you know. Based on these, I don't think it would be hard to have the judge convict you of Consorting with Powers of Darkness."
He held up a sheaf of papers. Damien's heart plummeted right into the ground as he recognized his own handwriting: they were his reports from his voyage to the Eastern Continent. A few phrases seemed to jump from the paper, burning into his eyes.
...know everything's he's done, all the evils he has committed. And yet, I can still see the shadow of the man who was once the Prophet in him...
...risking even more than the rest of us, really. Between the Forest and his immortality, he has the most to lose, and he still refuses to back away from any challenge, no matter what the danger...
...nearly died, saving us from the Immortal Prince. It seems impossible to reconcile the sacrifices he's made and the risks he's taken with the monster that rules the Forest...
...seems my view of him is constantly changing, with every day that passes...
"That's not how I meant it," Damien began desperately, but the Patriarch just raised one eyebrow.
"Really? Personally, I found these reports to be extremely enlightening." He flipped through and selected one page with a flourish, reading part aloud. "'After Gerald's actions in the Black Lands, I cannot help but wonder if the Church's views on his actions were not based as much on their own political interests as on the facts.' I would say those words speak for themselves, Reverend. You question the teachings of this church. You take the word of the Hunter over the word of your superiors. You speak of this devil by his given name. You have been compromised, Reverend, and if you will not act to exorcise this darkness from your soul I shall be forced to cleanse you by any means necessary."
Damien's world reeled. What the hell had he been thinking, writing so frankly? Actually, he knew what he had been thinking - he had still hoped to somehow redeem Gerald at that point, and he had thought to soften the Church's hatred of him at the same time. So much for that plan.
Now, it seemed that all he had managed to do was tie his own noose to hang by. The penalty for corruption on this magnitude was death: the Patriarch had him utterly trapped. Death in a futile war, or death at the hands of a Church tribunal - which path to take, to his own destruction?
The Patriarch's cold smile had not wavered. "Of course, should you manage to destroy the Hunter, you would clearly prove your purity. Such minor waverings in your faith would be easily absolved by such tremendous service. So, what shall it be, Reverend Vryce?"
An icy weight settled into Damien's chest. The Patriarch was prepared to convict him simply on the grounds of those reports: what would the elderly Churchman think of what else had passed between Damien and the Hunter? What would he think, if he learned of the stolen kisses on the deck of the Golden Glory, or - God forbid - the dreams?
Oh merciful Lord, the dreams...
They hadn't stopped that night when Ciani shook him awake, and they had returned each night thereafter. Gerald was no longer binding Damien's will, but he might as well have been: the Knight couldn't keep fighting, night after night. Eventually, he had stopped putting up more than a token resistance, letting the adept have his way.
It had gone long past the odd brief kiss, by this point. They hadn't actually had sex - Damien wasn't that far gone - but anyone witnessing the dreams would have been firmly convinced they were seeing the beginnings of a passionate lover's reunion. Gerald would twine himself vine-like around the knight, kissing him until he stopped resisting and returned the adept's movements. They would stay that way for what seemed like an eternity, slowly devouring each other, locked together in some sick parody of a lovers' embrace. Gerald's cold, bittersweet kisses seemed to send some strange creeping sickness into Damien, polluting his veins like a serpent's poison. Now, even during his waking moments, Damien was hard-pressed to put the adept out of his mind.
If the Church's Inquisitors got their hands on him... Damien didn't even want to think of what the Patriarch would make of those memories. He'd probably wind up burned at the stake. The only way he had a chance of surviving was if he led the campaign against the Forest.
Damien drew a steadying breath and rose, forcing himself to meet the Patriarch's gaze. He felt sick inside, knowing he was taking the coward's way out, yet unable to find a viable alternative. "Very well, your Holiness. I will lead the Crusade."
The Patriarch's smile transformed into a look of intense, cold triumph. "Excellent."
Outside the Cathedral, Damien barely made it half a block before he staggered and fell against a nearby brick wall, his head spinning. Bile rose in his throat, and it was only through a tremendous effort that he kept from vomiting.
Around him, the people of Jaggonath went about their business in blissful unconcern, oblivious to the doom that was drawing nigh. Damien marveled for a moment at the scene: the sun still beamed down brightly, people still chatted and laughed as they went to and fro down the broad avenue. Life went on, unmarred by the shadows that enveloped Damien.
He choked back a groan as he turned. Ciani was making her way toward him, smiling warmly as she emerged from the crowd.
"How did your meeting with the Patriarch go?" she asked breathlessly, her green eyes bright with curiosity and warmth. Damien plastered a strained smile across his face.
"Not bad." he said, hating that he was lying through his teeth but unable to stop himself. The loremaster frowned slightly, her smile vanishing. Damien cursed inwardly: of course, she was an adept. She would see through that blatant lie.
"Are you sure?"
Damien sighed and dropped the pretense. "No. Actually, it all went to Hell. I can't very well talk about it here, though, it's pretty much top-secret."
Ciani's eyes darkened, and she nodded. "Alright. Why don't you come to my place, and you can tell me all about it?"
That was how, half an hour later, Damien was finishing his tale of woe in Ciani's apartment. "...and I don't know what else to do. I feel like I'm taking the coward's path by just giving in to his demands, but he's got me over a barrel. I'd say my odds of surviving are better with the choice I made, but you know what Gerald's like - whatever small truce we might have worked out is probably going to be instantaneously null and void when he finds out I'm leading the crusade."
This last was perhaps not strictly true: Damien had told her of his conversation with the Patriarch, but given that she apparently still had feelings for him, he couldn't bear to tell her of the strange seductive element that had crept into his relationship with Gerald. The loremaster looked upset enough already.
"Oh, Damien, that's terrible! I can hardly believe that the Patriarch would be so horribly cruel - I thought your Church preached mercy and forgiveness?"
Damien shrugged helplessly. "It all depends on circumstance, Cee. Most of these laws that the Patriarch is falling back on have been around since the days of the First Crusade, when the world was still reeling from the Wars of Unification. When Gerald founded the Church, he tried to rework the old writings to suppress the base religion's more violent tendencies, the same as he tried to strike out the concept of Hell. It didn't work, though - and after the Prophet's Fall, the Church hierarchy overreacted by writing it all back in, tenfold. They wanted to hold enough power that, if they saw one of their own straying down the same path Gerald took, they could kill them outright - under the guise of saving their soul, of course. I can just imagine what Gerald must have thought of that when he heard: he fought so hard against that kind of law during his time as Neocount."
Ciani nodded sadly. "I can't blame him. So many of our kind were slaughtered during the witch trials in the Dark Ages, it's a sore point for all adepts. Gerald was one of the first adepts to survive to adulthood, it would have been even more important to him. Surely there's some rule that they have to prove that you've been corrupted, though?"
Damien shook his head bitterly. "I already handed them ample proof, Cee. I was a fool to be so open in those reports, but the damage is done: I'm well and truly compromised, from their point of view. Worse, it's not widely known, but the Church still retains a small force of Inquisitors to question those suspected of corruption or possession, and they're quite skilled at pulling out memories and such to serve as 'evidence'. I shudder to think what they would make of some of my interactions with Gerald."
Ciani sighed, her green eyes despondent. "I suppose there's really nothing for it, Damien - I wish there was something I could do, though. If you think of anything, anything at all that I could do to help, you'll tell me, won't you?"
Damien smiled sadly. "Yeah, I'll let you know. Thanks for listening, Cee."
She smiled at him, her face wan. "Anytime, Damien."
As Damien made his way back to his own apartment, he wondered uneasily why the affection shining in her viridian eyes had made his skin crawl.
"You're in over your head, Vryce."
Damien opened his eyes to find himself once more in the Hunter's garden. Sighing, he turned to face the adept, who was standing nearby with his silver eyes intent on Damien's face. Shrugging, Damien met his gaze steadily.
"Probably. A little late to be worrying about that, though, don't you think?"
A sardonic smile twisted Gerald's lips. "You have the worst luck of anyone I've ever met, Reverend. It's been centuries since a Patriarch openly threatened a member of the Church. You realize I can see everything in your heart, don't you? I can read every emotion, every longing, every wish that you keep locked away in there. This isn't what you pictured when you imagined coming home."
Damien felt the words pierce his heart like a knife, and he sighed heavily, the weight on his heart growing colder still. "No, but I don't have much of a choice."
Gerald moved forward until he was standing just in front of Damien. Lifting one hand, he rested his cool fingers against Damien's cheek, his silver eyes glowing. "There are always choices, Vryce."
Damien stared at him warily. "What do you suggest?"
"Join me." Gerald breathed, a sudden fire kindling in his shining eyes. "You don't have to let them trap you like this, Damien, God knows I never did."
Damien's heart twisted painfully, and he met Gerald's gaze with an effort. "And how do I know you wouldn't just trap me too, if in a different way? I can't, Gerald. I can't betray everything I've ever believed in like that. I don't know what the hell this is between us, and I don't know if I want it to end... but I won't let the world burn for you."
To his surprise, there was no anger in the adept's eyes as he pressed closer, his breath cool on the knight's flushed skin. "I understand. You're not ready, yet: someday you'll see the truth. I won't turn away, Damien, remember that." The sound of his given name on the Hunter's lips sent tremors through the frozen priest. "Someday, you'll lose that ironclad perception of light and dark... and when you fall, I'll be waiting."
Then his lips touched Damien's, the kiss shockingly chaste and heartbreakingly tender. That brief instant of gentleness and emotion did what all the passion in the world could not: Damien's defensive armor shattered, and a sob tore at his throat as he wrapped his arms around the undead adept, drawing him closer.
Gerald broke the kiss with the same uncharacteristic tenderness, his silver eyes dimmed and gentled to a soft pearl grey as he murmured, "No matter what it feels like, this isn't the end, Damien. This is only the beginning."
Damien awoke from the fading dream with his heart racing in his chest, and his pillow wet with tears.