Author's Note: Here it is, the second of my Yule-present updates. This one definitely strays more into the area of slash. Ms Friedman, eat your heart out. Still plenty of plot, though. (I can hear the Nostalgia Critic in the back of my head, singing his little 'Exposition Song'. Don't know what I'm talking about? Probably for the best.) You know, this fic is tremendously fun to write: I think I'm enjoying the most out of any of my fics excluding my Mpreg series. Even though it's dark, there's just something very enjoyable about this set-up. You lot should count that as a good thing, too: I'd never have gotten these two updates both done in time otherwise. There are actually over seven thousand words of story in these two chapters: I kind of surprised myself.
Chapter Three: In Your Silent Kindness
After delivering the dire news of the King's new laws - and receiving his orders from Gerald - Karril had vanished back to the mainland to prepare for the coming conflict. Damien was still in shock: in the course of a single night, he had gone from returning voyager to wanted criminal, and there was nothing he could do to reverse this disaster.
He couldn't fight the charges, that much was obvious. Sitting on his bunk in the solitude of his cabin, Damien forced himself to face the harsh truth. Steafán had coerced the jury into handing down a guilty verdict in the first place, there was no way for him to appeal it - and with the severity of the charges against him, it was highly likely that the Royal Guard would have orders to execute him on sight. If they had already capitulated far enough to turn over their personnel files, the Church would offer no refuge either. Damien wondered with sudden, morbid amusement how the Patriarch had reacted when word of the changes reached him: he could just see the man white-faced with wrath, glaring down at the royal orders with those icy blue eyes narrowed in rage. He wouldn't have been at all surprised to learn that the messenger who delivered that particular decree was permanently traumatized by the sheer silent fury of the enraged Patriarch.
With another lurch of dread, Damien wondered if that was the same reaction his own letter, explaining his situation, had received.
It couldn't have gone as badly as he sometimes feared, though - certainly the Patriarch would not have been pleased by the revelation that Gerald Tarrant was both the Hunter and the former Prophet and Neocount of Merentha, but if he had been as infuriated as Damien feared then he would have given the King that information. From the charges Damien had been convicted on, though, it sounded as though Steafán was operating on the assumption that Gerald was nothing more than he professed to be - an adept serving the Forest, not its shadowy master.
Even so, there would not be a warm welcome awaiting Damien in Jaggonath. At that thought, however, his mind stalled again. Would they even be returning to Jaggonath? He had no idea of Gerald's plans, though he was sure the adept did indeed have a plan. Somehow, they had to find a way to kill a demon that most thought to be immortal - all while evading the attention of the law, and hopefully not drawing even more attention to themselves. Gerald was the Hunter, and as such had considerable power to back up his intentions - but he couldn't possibly muster the forces for open warfare against the King, could he? And even if he could, that wouldn't solve the ultimate problem: if the King was under Calesta's influence, then the only way to stop this new Crusade was to defeat their Iezu opponent. War would not accomplish that, because Calesta could not be killed by mortal means. Yet, what did they know of any manner in which an Iezu could be killed? How could they obtain the time and means to figure that out when they were both wanted men? Karril had not mentioned anything about Hesseth - was the rakh a target as well, or did the King not know of her presence in their company?
What had happened to Jasmine? Was she safe, or had the Court been attacked?
Then, there was the matter of Davin Escron. Damien felt sick just thinking about him. Against his will, a memory of warm blue eyes and a rakish, carefree grin hit him, but he shoved it away almost violently. He fervently hoped that it didn't become necessary to seek his aid: leader of the Western rebellion or not, Damien never wanted to see Davin's face again. The memories he couldn't seem to shake were more than enough torment for him.
"You should be resting, Vryce."
Damien started, caught off guard: wrapped up in his inner turmoil, he hadn't heard the Hunter's near-silent approach. He looked up to see the blond adept leaning against the frame of the open cabin door, his expression inscrutable, his pale grey eyes carefully shuttered. Damien sighed, rubbing a weary hand along his jaw, which was starting to ache from having his teeth clenched.
"I know. I just... I can't stop thinking. My little sister's out there in that mess, Gerald - if Steafán's even subdued the Church, then no one's safe."
The adept glided forward silently, a tiny flicker of what might have been sympathy in his eyes as he sat down next to Damien, a chill hand just grazing the Knight's arm. "The Hallow's Eve Court trains its Fiagaí well, Vryce. If anyone were to come through this strife unscathed, it would be them."
Damien stared at the adept, taken aback almost as much by the hint of emotion the Hunter had shown as by his words. "You know about the Court?"
Apparently, it was the wrong thing to say. Gerald's icy mask snapped back into place instantly, and he shifted back just slightly: the change in distance was almost negligible, yet to Damien it felt as though a chasm had just opened between them. The adept's voice was unnaturally toneless.
"One tends to learn many things over the centuries, Reverend."
Damien barely held back a physical wince. Obviously, he had touched a nerve somehow: oddly enough, it was an unsettling thought. Usually, he couldn't care less whether the adept was irked with him... but then, usually, he hadn't just found out that his pool of allies had shrunk to one sociopathic serial killer, a rakh, and a jocular but mostly illusory demon.
He knew better than to apologize, though: that would only draw more attention to the issue. Instead, he said quietly, "Yeah, I guess so. I'm just surprised: even I didn't really know anything about them until Jasmine was recruited, and apparently their main temple is somewhere near Ganji."
A little of the rigidity in Gerald's posture eased, and he nodded slightly. When he spoke, his voice was still cold, but the brittle edge was gone. "The Court values its secrecy very highly. What rank does your sister hold?"
In spite of the heaviness of his spirit, Damien smiled a bit: thinking of his adored baby sister always brightened his mood. "She's an Inghean Ríogh. It's rather ironic, really: our family have been avid pagans for generations, but Jasmine and I both ended up completely devoted to the Church." Damien's words trailed away as the memories struck him suddenly, still sharp and painful, of a time in his life best forgotten: shaking it off, he smiled ruefully. "And now I'm traveling with the former Prophet. If I didn't know better, I would think someone up there was playing a nasty little prank."
Gerald's piercing gaze was entirely too discerning, but he let the issue rest without inquiring further into Damien's family background, for which the Knight was deeply grateful. "Everything happens for a reason, Vryce." was all he said.
Damien blinked at him. "Seriously?"
One fair eyebrow lifted, accompanied by a sharp question in grey eyes. "Was that statement not clearly intelligible?"
Damien frowned slightly. "It's not that, just... I don't know. Somehow I didn't expect to be hearing that kind of philosophy from you."
Gerald's eyes narrowed slightly, and Damien wondered belatedly if he'd managed to offend the touchy adept again already. However, when he spoke again, the Hunter's tone was not the frigidly distant one he used when he was truly angered: rather, it was the sharply acerbic tone he usually employed when he was baiting Damien into a fight. "Really? You do recall that I wrote nearly every holy book in the Church's collection, don't you?"
Damien snorted in spite of himself. "Yes, I know. That wasn't exactly what I meant. I guess what I should have said was that I didn't expect to still hear the kind of philosophy from you."
The second the words were out of his mouth, Damien could have kicked himself. He bit his tongue, waiting for the inevitable verbal flaying Gerald would bestow on him - but to his surprise, his statement was met by a sardonic smile. "Ah. You really ought to be more careful of your wording, Vryce: after all, the beauty of the English language lies in its specificity."
Damien just sat there for a moment, staring at the adept, then he shook his head rather vigorously in an attempt to clear it. "I have a feeling we're getting off topic here."
Gerald smirked. "Is that so? Do tell, Vryce: what is the topic of this conversation?"
Damien groaned and buried his head in his hands. "You're giving me a headache, I hope you know that."
He opened his eyes to find Gerald suddenly much closer, the adept leaning in almost uncomfortably close, his grey eyes sparkling mischievously. Damien froze, heart abruptly thumping in his chest as the adept practically purred, "My deepest and most sincere apologies, Revered. However shall I make it up to you?"
Damien swallowed hard, wondering what the hell was going on. "Uh... what?"
Gerald chuckled softly. The next thing the Knight knew, the adept had leaned in and pressed his mouth to Damien's. It was a fleeting contact - no more than a soft brush of lips - but the intensity of it still made Damien dizzy. Gerald's lips were cold as ice but startlingly soft, and the combination of cold and pleasure struck clear through into Damien's bones. Before he could even react, though, the adept pulled back, his silvery eyes sparkling even in the dim light of the cabin.
"Get some sleep, Vryce." he said softly, rising with the fluid grace of a cat. One of his hands brushed the Knight's shoulder for an instant, then he was gone, only a lingering chill on Damien's lips to confirm that it hadn't been some strange, convoluted dream.
For a moment, Damien just sat there on the edge of his bunk, completely stunned. The combination of stress and exhaustion, on top of the utter bewilderment that Gerald could so easily induce in him, was making his head spin. What the hell had just happened? The adept had appeared for no reason, dragged Damien into a ridiculously complicated conversation apparently for the sole pleasure of tying him up in verbal knots, kissed him and then vanished into thin air like a bloody mirage.
It was too much. Cursing his life and adepts in general, Damien collapsed into bed, dragged a blanket over himself, and waited for his head to stop pounding.
Whether from exhaustion, mental overload, or something else entirely, he was asleep in moments.
Hesseth paced the rough wood of the ship's deck, her fur rippling anxiously. Her claws drummed restlessly against her palms, her teeth worrying at her lower lip, ears flicking rhythmically as she paced. The wood of the ship creaked underneath her feet, the ropes of the sails thrumming lightly in the wind, the sails rustling and the waves lapping coarsely against the sides of the ship: to the khrast's inhumanly sharp hearing, each sound was magnified almost past the point of endurance. That, combined with the tidal fae refracting between the waxing moons above, was enough to set Hesseth's teeth on edge.
With the tidal fae so strong, she could feel the vague emotions emanating from her companions through the field. The ship's hands were mostly asleep, producing merely vague glimmers of hope or fear at the edge of her mind, depending on their dreams. The Knight had, until a short time ago, been a seething mess of anxiety and helpless anger: now, though, she could sense the loosening of the emotional knot that entangled him, which meant he had fallen into slumber. An uneasy slumber, but slumber nonetheless.
As for the Hunter... well, he was always hard to read. His presence in the field of living fae felt cold, and dark, like a blot of shadow against the dazzling glow of the Sun's heart. It was difficult to read his emotions, he kept himself tightly controlled and there was little that was allowed to bleed into the fae: now, however... Hesseth could feel a strange indecisiveness, worry, more than a little pain, and something like sorrow emanating from the nightbound adept. She refused to probe further, though: even if he would have allowed it, she knew it was not her place to pry. Such were the subtle but powerful rules of etiquette, among those who could sense the living fae.
Hesseth had her own pain to nurse that night. She was haunted by the memory of a little human girl - a human girl who could touch the solar fae, a human girl with no mother who had looked at Hesseth with pure trust in her wide, innocent eyes. Though they had only traveled together for a few days, Jenseny had managed to worm her way into Hesseth's heart: foolish it might have been, but the rakh had almost allowed herself to see the little girl as her own. The daughter she had once had... the child she would never hold again.
Hesseth ceased her pacing and turned to face the waves, her palms coming to rest on the thick railing, her claws digging lightly into the salt-weathered wood. Loneliness ate at her like the fangs of wolves, tearing at her insides and leaving only cold emptiness in her heart. She missed her people, but deep down she knew that even that would not solve the problem: what she truly missed was having someone who could understand her. Since her mate died and her child perished soon after, Hesseth had been isolated even amongst her own people. That was why she had become a khrast in the first place: the close confines of the plains camp had become stifling to her. Now... now, she didn't know where to go. She had no one waiting for her: had she died that night at the gorge when the wolf-creatures had almost caught her, had the Knight not managed to cut the tree loose... no one would even have realized she was gone.
Well, perhaps one person. Inevitably, her thoughts turned to Ciani: the loremaster was a woman after her own heart, strong and fiercely independent. Hesseth often struggled when traveling with humans, fighting to understand their strange customs and ways - Ciani, though, had never made Hesseth feel like a stranger. In a way, it only made sense: they had both worked for years to bridge the gap between their worlds, it seemed somehow fitting that they should meet in the middle.
There was a soft footstep on the deck behind her, and the Hunter's voice reached her ears. "I doubt you will find your answers in the waves, Mes Rakh."
Hesseth felt her own spine stiffen without conscious volition. Fighting to keep her fur lying flat, she spoke coolly, without turning. "I don't believe I asked for your advice, Hunter. And as I recall, you don't concern yourself with matters of the living."
There was a moment of silence, which surprised Hesseth: she had been expecting a swift, cutting retort. After a moment, in spite of her better judgement, she turned: the Hunter was standing nearby, his pale eyes also fixed on the white-capped waves. When he spoke, his voice was hardly louder than the wind. "I have recently been... re-evaluating some of my previous views..."
Hesseth stared. The adept's coldness didn't seem so forced anymore: there was a hint of vulnerability in his aristocratic features that Hesseth had never seen there before. Seeing him standing there, his cloak fluttering slowly in the night breeze and his pale eyes contemplative, to the rakh's eyes he looked more alone than anything. Hesseth felt the slightest hint of pity pierce her distrust and revulsion: perhaps, she thought with a momentary pang, they were not so different after all.
Then she remembered a young rakh from Lema, shivering under the gaze of cold silver eyes, and her heart hardened.
"Good for you." she said coldly. Releasing the railing, she turned a defiant gaze on him, seeing his cold grey eyes snap up to meet her own in surprise. She held his gaze for just a moment before turning away, stalking toward the steps that led below deck to the cabins. As she did so, she couldn't resist pausing and speaking once more over her shoulder.
"You might fool the priest with your reforming act, Hunter, but I will not lower my guard. And the day you try anything... I'll be waiting."
She vanished down below the deck, leaving a rather stunned adept behind. For a long time, the Hunter stood at the railing, watching the waves roll by and wondering. Wondering what the future might hold, wondering if their quest had any hope of success... and wondering precisely why the rakh's suggestion that he was manipulating Damien Vryce caused a little twinge of guilt and pain somewhere deep inside him.
Well, there it is. I hope you people are happy: Alowl, I'm just putting the finishing touches on a one-shot for you that will be posted sometime tomorrow, laden with firebird-esque goodness. Also, Hobgoblin, your present-fic will be posted sometime soon as well: the fluff is sucking my brain out, so it might take a bit, but it will definitely be up before the 24th.