Author's Note: As you may have guessed, this is my Halloween special for the Coldfire Trilogy. Named for the song by Damh the Bard, I have mentioned herein some of the traditions of Samhain as it is traditionally celebrated among the Celtic peoples. I have, of course, put a darker 'Ernan' spin on it as well. If ever there was a holiday that the Hunter would celebrate, Samhain is it. And, as always, the obligatory slashyness. It's rather understated compared to some of my stuff, though, the emphasis is more on the dangers of Samhain.
Warnings: Dark themes, pagan celebrations, slash.
Disclaimer: I do not own the Coldfire Trilogy. I am simply giving you all a glimpse of how an ancient tradition might have carried over to that wondrous world that Ms. Friedman created for us.
A.N.2: Regarding the soundtrack... I have woven many songs through this fic, in sometimes non-consecutive segments. In roughly the order of appearance, they are: Samhain Eve by Damh the Bard, All Soul's Night by Loreena Mckennitt, Spectre Review by Bellowhead, Play Minstrel Play by Blackmore's Night, Banshee by the Blarney Rebel Band, Come Night I Reign by Lake of Tears, Wolf Song by Omnia, Twa Corbiez by Omnia, The Twilight Shadow by Manticora, Death Whispered A Lullaby by Opeth, Shadow Of The Moon by Blackmore's Night, Song Of The Ripper by Kathy Mar, and Crimson And Crystal by Julia Ecklar.
A.N.3: There isn't really a specific setting for this, and it's fairly obvious that it's not canon-compliant in the slightest past the point of Black Sun Rising. Thanks (and recriminations) go to Hobgoblin for irrevocably linking Gerald Tarrant and Jack the Ripper in my head: as the discerning eye will notice, "Song of the Ripper" by Kathy Mar is written about the legendary London serial killer and incorporated herein. The sheer atmosphere called to me, and it was certainly chilling enough to work with for this fic. Oh, Hobgoblin, darling? To quote Tulio from The Road To El Dorado: "I blame you!"
Nightfall spread in silken shades across the land of Erna. No simple darkness, this: it lay over the forests and fields like a velvet cloak, thick and cloying in its dark embrace. Everywhere that the shadows touched, creatures of the night began to stir, powers ancient and untold awakening to the call of this unhallowed night.
Samhain was a night of great power on Erna. Whether through the superstitions long ingrained in the mind of the human colonists, or by some mysterious twist of fate, Samhain was the night on which the dark fae was strongest, most volatile, most hungry. On years such as this, when the holiday coincided with one of the longest True Nights of the year... Blood would be spilled before this night was through, that much was certain. All that remained to be determined was whose.
That was why the Knights of the Flame were out in force, patrolling the outskirts of Jaggonath, on the lookout for any hostile faeborn.
Close the door, keep out the storm,
Far away, far away,
Keep the need-fires burning til dawn,
Oh, leave my soul.
Damien had been assigned the northernmost sector, an intermittently wooded stretch of rolling hills that was famous for the mysterious disappearances that had a way of occurring there. Many swore that the Hunter was responsible: Damien sincerely hoped that such was not the case, because if he met the Hunter again on this night, the single night when the darkness was strong enough to overpower any light... then it was highly doubtful he would escape alive.
For the cold will come this night,
From far away, far away,
Frost will fall, and ice will bite,
Oh leave my soul.
A cold wind brushed through the Knight's hair as rode out from the safety of the city, heading up a winding trail into the hills. The sun had slipped beneath the horizon, the signal for the ceremonies to begin. In the city behind Damien, bonfires were being lit and songs were sung, a desperate and likely futile attempt to keep the dangers of the night at bay until the sun would rise once more.
A song rose over the lonely hills, sweet but chilling as the ethereal music melded into the twilight shadows falling over the city. A man's voice, strong and vibrant, and a woman's lilting soprano rising behind in an eerie counterpoint.
(Can you hear me calling you)
Leave my soul,
(Can you hear me calling you)
Please pass me by when the evening falls,
(Can you hear me calling you, calling your name in the dark)
(Hear me calling you)
Blessed are we,
(Can you hear me calling you)
The Hunter of Souls we shall see.
(Can you hear me calling you, calling your name in the dark)
On Samhain Eve.
(I am the shadow that calls to your soul...)
Damien shivered a little, drawing his cloak more tightly about his shoulders. The cold wind against his bare skin reminded him all too strongly of the Hunter's chill touch, and those were thoughts that he could not afford to entertain this night. He rode with his sword unsheathed, the cold hilt clutched tightly in his hand, his hazel eyes sweeping the trees and meadows for any sign of the faeborn. Despite the danger, his blood hummed with the thrill of the challenge: this was what he lived for, this moment of ever-present danger. The next verse of the song, however, made him shiver once more.
I can hear the Hunter's hounds
Far away, far away,
I will cast the Circle round,
Oh leave my soul.
Raven-witch I feel your breath,
Far away, far away,
Bringing with you Summer's death,
Oh leave my soul.
For a moment, his eyes slipped closed, and Damien could not help but picture the Hunter of whom they sang. The spectre rose from the depths of his mind with shocking clarity, as crisp and sharp an image as though he stood before Damien: soft waves of Core-golden hair stirring in the chill breeze, eyes bright as diamonds and cold as the stars themselves, skin like alabaster too pale and perfect for any mortal. A darkly knowing smile, a glitter of promise in wintry eyes, a slim hand reaching out in offer...
Damien wrenched his thoughts away from that treacherous path and opened his eyes, shaking. What the hell was wrong with him? It was hardly the first time that he had tried to remember the adept, only to have the memories twist and morph within his mind. Each times he remembered a scene from their brief journey together, he found himself dwelling not on the events themselves, but on Gerald Tarrant. The pale silk of his skin, the depth and luster of his cool grey eyes, the grace that filled his every movement... Damien was hopelessly confused by this, but nevertheless found himself falling further and further under the sway of those memories. Forbidden longings were starting to stir in his mind, wishes that should never have been born fighting to escape from the place in his heart where he had locked them away. He knew it was wrong, though, knew that it was also incredibly dangerous - which was why he had pulled away from everyone he knew upon his return to Jaggonath, refusing to tell them why he was now so distant. His time traveling with the Hunter, bonded to that monster's soul, had changed him - but he would not put them in harm's way as well.
Bonfires dot the rolling hillsides
Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness
Moving to the pagan sound.
Somewhere in a hidden memory
Images float before my eyes
Of fragrant nights of straw and of bonfires
And dancing till the next sunrise.
I can see the lights in the distance
Trembling in the dark cloak of night
Candles and lanterns are dancing, dancing
A waltz on All Souls Night.
In the heart of Jaggonath, the loremaster Ciani closed the door of her newly rebuilt shop, turning to lock it with the small golden key that hung about her neck. A chill wind wailed down the lonely streets, dry leaves scuttling along before it. Ciani shrugged off its chill, wrapping her cloak a little more firmly about her shoulders as she started down the deserted street, headed for apartment on the other side of the square at the city's center. Somewhere, a man's voice cut brazenly through the chill night air.
From out of his grave the drummer, when midnight's chime has tolled
Rises and wanders nightly, the drum within his hold
With arm bones white and fleshless he moves the drumsticks two
Plays many a wild reveille and many a weird tattoo
And through the dark loud calling, the drum-taps beat and shake
And the dead forgotten soldiers from out of their graves awake
The loremaster walked briskly but unhurriedly, her stride easy and confident. Though she was alone in the street, she felt no unease: as an adept, she possessed enough control to keep anything from manifesting from herself, and no faeborn from without could penetrate this far into the city. Though many citizens were hiding indoors, the others were gathered around massive bonfires at street corners and small courtyards, dancing and singing to ward away evil spirits.
Ciani snorted softly to herself. A pagan and an adept she might be, but she put no stock in the foolish superstitions that had traveled to Erna with their Terran ancestors. A song would keep a demon at bay no more than a Christian cross would trouble the Hunter.
Her step faltered for a moment, before she frowned to herself and resolutely carried on. It was pure nonsense, being so unsettled by the mere thought of a being who was miles away, deep within the vaulted halls of the shadowed woodland he had claimed for his own.
Underneath the harvest moon
Where the ancient shadows will play and hide...
With a ghostly tune and the devil's pride...
"Stranger" whispered all the town
Has he come to save us from Satan's hand?
Leading them away to a foreign land...
Senzei Reese glanced out of the window, gnawing worriedly on his lower lip. The moons were sliding fast toward the darkened horizon, the Core already long gone, following fast on the heels of the now-vanished sun. Inside, the room glowed with the soft light of candles and a fire crackling on the hearth: the only hint of the hostile world beyond the windows was the faint rattle of the panes in the harsh northern wind.
"Zen, dear, I thought you said Ciani would be here just before Coreset?"
Allesha's warm, sweet tones drifted from the kitchen, where she was preparing a veritable feast for the night. Senzei sighed in fond exasperation at his absent friend.
"She said she would be, but... you know what she's like."
Allesha merely laughed. It had taken some time for her and Senzei to patch up their relationship, but after his near-death experience in the rakhlands, Senzei had finally managed to let go of his hunger for the fae. Or rather, bury it: there was still a little ache of longing deep within his heart, but he had sworn that he would never follow it again. His life was here with Allesha, not chasing some elusive dream that would only get him killed.
"Perhaps you ought to go collect her, love. It is getting rather late." A note of concern had crept into Allesha's voice, and Senzei found himself agreeing immediately.
"Of course, darling. I'll go right now."
Play for me, minstrel, play
And take away our sorrows...
Play for me, minstrel, play
And we'll follow...
Hear, listen, can you hear,
The haunting melody surrounding you,
Weaving a magic spell all around you...
The music seemed to have seeped into the wind itself, humming and thrilling all around Damien. His unhorse's hooves tapped to the beat as the animal trotted nervously along the rocky path, an occasional wary whicker escaping it as it tossed its head in unease. Damien patted the broad neck reassuringly, but it was hard to make the supportive gesture when he himself was just as unsettled as the unhorse. He had already taken down three demonlings, and the night was only beginning. What other horrors were lurking out there in the darkness?
Then the howl of a wolf shattered the steady weaving of the rising music, and Damien's blood ran cold.
Come gather round and listen to my tale
Take warning when you hear the banshee's wail
If the banshee calls your name
They say your soul is hers to claim
Her cry will make the strongest man turn pale.
And who will it be tonight
Will it be tonight
Who will it be tonight, will it be tonight
Ciani was just passing through the central square of Jaggonath when suddenly, there was a sound from behind her. A sound like the scrape of claws on rough stone. Startled, Ciani whirled around, heart abruptly hammering in her chest. She scanned the darkness fearfully, but there was nothing there: the street was utterly deserted, not a soul in sight, the only movement that of the skittering leaves and the gently swinging signs of shops closed for the night.
The loremaster shivered.
Something was terribly wrong. She could see it in the patterns of the fae, the little rivers and streams that swirled down the cobbled street. Shadows where there was none to cast them, a darkness that threaded gently through the fae-light like the soft creep of strangler vines. Swallowing hard, she backed up a few steps. It might have been only the dark fae, stirring now that True Night was falling, creeping out toward the fading light - but she knew that it was not.
Come night comes shadows to your side
Come night comes every tear you've cried
Come night so comes your time to see
Come night comes hatred to my heart
Come night comes healing of my scars
Come night so comes my time to be
Come night I'm there again
Come night, come night I reign
Senzei jammed his hands into his pockets as he hurried down the dark, windswept street, cursing his own loyal nature. If he were not so loyal, he could have stayed in the nice warm house with his fiancée, and not ventured out into the icy wind to track down his errant employer. Ciani wasn't just an employer, though, she was his oldest and dearest friend - and it wasn't like her to be this late for an engagement. Something must have happened.
No sooner had that thought crossed his mind, then a scream pierced the darkness. Instantly alert, Senzei fumbled for the knife he wore belted at his waist, fear shooting through his veins. That scream had been Ciani's.
Stumbling through the winter forest
Her feet froze' to the bone
The darkness holds no solace
So very, very far from home
A crimson cloak behind her drags
It's torn by thorns and snagged to rags
Pity maiden for your folly
To venture in these woods alone
Mercy lives not in the holly
No compassion from the stones
Your fear brings tears like summer rain
(Oh mother father where are you?)
They beg for me to ease your pain
(I'm cast adrift what should I do?)
Ciani came stumbling from the darkness and all but fell into Senzei's arms, her emerald eyes huge in the darkness, her hands shaking with cold and fear as she clutched at him. "Zen, he's here! In Jaggonath!"
"What?" Senzei caught the swaying loremaster and steadied her, his heart racing. "Ciani, what are you talking about? Who's here?"
"The Hunter!" she gasped, shuddering violently. "I saw him, Zen! He's here!"
Senzei held the shivering woman close and wondered what the hell he was going to do. Ciani had obviously been deeply shaken by whatever she saw, and if it was the Hunter that had prompted that scream of terror, Senzei doubted the undead adept was here for a friendly visit. Ciani had never feared the Prince of Jahanna as much as Senzei thought she should have, so to provoke this kind of reaction from the normally calm and level-headed woman... this was very, very bad.
Without a second thought, Senzei drew his knife, noticing grimly that his own hand was shaking now. He scanned the street in the direction Ciani had come from, but there was only blackness: the moons were slipping below the horizon now, and the last gleams of blue-white light were sinking fast beneath the tide of shadow. The street was barely visible, just a deeper shadow between the buildings which rose on either side. Shivering, Senzei held Ciani tightly to him and said through numb lips, "Come on, Cee. We need to get back to Allesha's."
A flare of silver-blue light ignited behind Senzei, spilling pale gleams across the leaf-strewn cobbles as a terrifying familiar voice spoke, its tone smooth with cultivated menace.
"I'm afraid that won't be happening, Mer Reese."
Danger hidden in his eyes,
We should have seen it from far away,
Wearing such a thin disguise in the light of day...
He held the answer to our prayers,
Yet it was too good to be...
Proof before our very eyes, yet we could not see...
Damien's unhorse stumbled over the rough ground with a neigh of protest and the Knight cursed, gripping the reigns tightly. Ahead of him, the pale fur of the albino wolf flashed between the trees, red eyes glinting as it twisted its head to look back at Damien, its fangs bared in what looked very much like a mocking grin. Gritting his teeth, Damien urged the unhorse onward, wishing fervently that the wolf had chosen a different quadrant to prowl. Having spotted the creature, and knowing damn well that it was no natural beast - rather, one of the Forest's unholy mutants - he was duty bound to hunt it down and dispatch it. This was proving more difficult than he had expected.
The beast was entirely too clever, leading him on a twisting chase through the woodlands, skirting hidden drop-offs and leaping across concealed ditches that could turn an unhorse's ankle in a heartbeat. Despite the relatively slow progress that Damien's unhorse was making, though, the wolf never left their sight - and Damien suspected that, too, was calculated. He had no choice, though. He still had to kill the thing, no matter what games it was playing.
Then, suddenly, the wolf vanished. Alarmed, Damien urged his horse forward even faster - and they broke out suddenly into a clearing, the unhorse staggering slightly at the transition from rough dirt to lush grass. The last flickers of light from the sinking moons revealed a sight that made Damien's blood run cold.
The entire clearing was ringed with wolves.
Dressed all in white with hair of shining gold
Her keening makes a brave man's heart run cold
She'll call you when your time is done
And comfort, she can give you none
Once your fate the banshee has foretold
Tonight again we hear the banshee cries
We sadly look into each other's eyes
We know tomorrow when we meet
The table holds an empty seat
One of us won't see another sunrise...
And who will it be tonight
Will it be tonight
Who will it be tonight, will it be tonight
The wolves snarled and snapped, teeth gleaming white in the darkness. Their red eyes blazed as they started to prowl forward, their sleek forms slinking low to the ground, closing in on Damien. The Knight froze, heart pounding as he gripped his sword, palm suddenly slick with cold sweat. A trap. A trap, laid by wolves. Damn the Hunter's too-clever creations!
His unhorse, too, was standing still as stone, its legs trembling slightly as its nostrils flared in protest at the scent of wolf. Damien pressed his heels into its flanks with the utmost gentleness, and the animal shifted with almost painful slowness, lifting one hoof backward and beginning to edge away from the wolves. Low growls rose from the lupine hunters, and Damien swallowed hard: the wolves were moving faster than he dared urge the unhorse, lest the sudden movement provoke an attack, and the nearest wolf was no more than a dozen yards away.
Damien's mind raced. What were so many of the albino wolves doing here in Jaggonath, so far from the Forest? It was hard to see in the deepening gloom, but Damien had Worked a quick Seeing after spotting the first wolf, and by the blue glow of the earth-fae he counted at least two dozen wraithlike forms. That was almost an entire pack: would so many have traveled so far, without their leader?
That meant that the Hunter was in Jaggonath, and the thought sent a stab of something close to terror but tinged with excitement through Damien.
Come night comes all those things my dear
Come night comes all those things you fear
Come night so comes your time to die
Come night comes every friend I know
Come night comes so the one below
Come night so comes my time to smile
Come night I'm there again
Come night, come night I reign
Beware, for the night will find you
Beware, for I am there behind you, I slay
Desperately, Damien evaluated his options. He couldn't possibly fight off this many wolves on his own, he'd be torn to shreds. He couldn't count on help from any of his fellow Knights, though: each had a separate stretch of ground to patrol, and his pursuit of the first wolf had led him some distance from the city. He would have to find his way out of this mess on his own.
Unfortunately, he was out of time to deliberate. With a howl, one of the wolves sprang, lunging through the air in a blur of pale fur and dripping jaws. Reflexively, Damien kicked out, his boot catching the animal in the ribs and shunting it backward. The wolf dropped to the ground with a yelp, but lunged again, jaws scything toward the unhorse's throat - and its brethren were starting forward as well, growls rising into sharp snarls of bloodlust. Damien assessed the situation at a glance, cursed every fool who had ever thought to hunt these creature and thereby taught them even more of how to evade a sword, and made up his mind.
Hauling hard on his unhorse's reigns, Damien kicked the animal's flanks and urged it to run.
The unhorse needed little encouragement to bolt, lunging for the negligible safety of the woodlands, neighing in panic as it lashed out with useless padded toes. Sparing a moment to think regretfully of the heavy hooves that adorned the feet of the Hunter's carefully-bred true horses, Damien swung his sword at one of his lupine assailants and gave the unhorse its head.
Out beyond that old high dike
I know there lies a murdered knight
And no one knows that he lies there-O
But his hawk and his hound and his lady fair-O
His hawk and his hound and his lady fair
His hound is to the hunting gone
His hawk to fetch the wild bird home
His lady loves another knight-O
So we may make our dinner sweet-O
So we may make our dinner sweet
Senzei spun around, still holding Ciani tightly to his side, heart thundering in his chest and his mouth suddenly very dry. Gerald Tarrant was standing there, tall and fair and terrible, coldfire dancing on the barren stone in a ring around his feet. Senzei knew he was already in over his head, but he swallowed hard and stood his ground, meeting the Hunter's icy gaze defiantly.
"What do you want from us?"
The Hunter's mouth curled in a dark smile, a hint of cruel amusement flashing in those diamondine eyes. "Oh, I have no quarrel with you, Mer Reese. My business tonight is with the lady Ciani."
Senzei stiffened, hearing Ciani emit a tiny whimper as she buried her face in his shoulder. That small sound of weakness and terror made Senzei's blood run cold: it made a stark contrast to the pillar of strength that Ciani had always seemed to be, and Senzei wondered with growing dread just what the loremaster had done to incur the wrath of an entity as powerful as the Hunter.
Tarrant laughed softly. "Don't try to play the hero, Mer Reese. I'm sure your fiancée would like you to come back alive tonight, wouldn't you agree?"
Thine eyes betray confusion
Am I friend or am I fiend?
Pardon me for this intrusion
And I'll show you what I mean
I've come to claim a heart from thee
(My heart is broken can't you see?)
Your final kiss belongs to me
(Your scarlet kiss will set me free)
Senzei was shaking now. Looking into the Hunter's eyes was like looking into the abyss itself: emptiness, so deep and vast it was inconceivable, yet undercut with a hunger as old as time itself. Fighting a wash of dizziness, Senzei choked out, "Why are you after Ciani? What did she do?"
Tarrant stepped forward: the leaves that he stepped over crackled and shivered, frosting over as he passed them by. His eyes bored into the petrified sorcerer as he said softly, "Why don't you ask her that question, Mer Reese? I informed her what the consequences would be: it is hardly my fault that she disregarded my warnings."
"I'm sorry." Ciani choked out, lifting her head. Her eyes were huge and her pupils dilated with fear, terrified as a deer faced with the hunter's arrow. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean - I forgot - it was just one dinner - I didn't mean anything by it, I swear!"
"Cee?" Senzei forced himself to breathe slowly, fighting the urge to bolt. Between the icy wind and the terror in his veins he was shivering from head to toe, but he refused to run, to abandon his friend: he'd had enough of being a coward on the journey to the rakhlands.
"We had a deal, Lady Ciani." Tarrant said softly, his eyes narrowing. "A very simple one. I would let you live... on condition you stayed well away from Reverend Vryce. He is mine, Lady Ciani, and I will brook no interference in such matters. You broke the terms of our agreement, therefore your life is forfeit." With a single, smooth movement, the Hunter drew his sword, the air temperature dropping still further as the hungry coldfire flared to life along the blade.
I can tell the faith of mortal men
I can tell you how you die and when
When I'm looking deep into your mind
I can see you're ignorant and blind
I am the twilight shadow
I'll enlighten your darkest sins
When forever ends
I'll stop the cause for living
Damien bent low over his unhorse's neck, praying with every breath that he would make it out of this alive. The unhorse's smooth run had been transformed by exhaustion into a series of staggering lunges, its sides heaving with heavy pants for breath and its skin drenched in sweat. The wolves ran close behind, snapping at the unhorse's heels, baying eagerly as they drew ever closer. Some of the beasts had even drawn abreast of the weary unhorse, pressing close on either side and seeming to herd the animal. Damien knew that wherever he was being driven couldn't be pleasant, but his unhorse was running out of strength and he couldn't seem to get far enough ahead of the wolves to break free of the path that they had chosen.
He recognized their tactics now. The beasts were herding the unhorse, making sure he didn't reach the city, but they could have brought him down already if that was their aim. They were playing with him.
His unhorse wouldn't last much longer before it collapsed from sheer exhaustion, at which point Damien would be stranded on his own two feet and at the mercy of the wolves. He needed to do something to shake the wolves from his trail, and fast, or he was finished. What he couldn't understand, though, was why.
He'd already decided that the wolves were here under the guidance of the Hunter. If that was the case, why were they after Damien? Had he inadvertently angered the Hunter? Or had the adept finally decided that he couldn't afford to have a Knight on the loose who was soul-bonded to him? Moreover, if either of those scenarios was the case, Damien would have expected Gerald to show up in person, if only to gloat at Damien's ultimate downfall. Why would the Lord of the Forest forsake the Hunt?
Unless the wolves weren't planning on killing Damien after they unhorsed him. Perhaps this was only the beginning. There was always the chance that, when his mount's strength finally failed, Damien would rise to find the Hunter waiting for him.
Torn between fear and a kind of sick longing at that thought, Damien urged his unhorse to the limits of its endurance and turned it hard to the right, ignoring the fact that several wolves were still running on that side. Half-blind with exhaustion and mostly crazed with fear, the unhorse obeyed, surging recklessly toward the loping predators. With a chorus of startled snarls, the wolves scattered - but as the unhorse broke through their lines and carried Damien through the edge of the trees into another sweeping meadow, its feet tangled in a stubborn briar, and its legs finally gave out. The animal went down hard, and Damien lost his grip on the saddle and tumbled as well. The ground rushed up to meet him, and everything went black.
Playing the obedient daughter
Brought you where the wolf bane blooms
Sacrificed in sacred slaughter
'Neath the pale light of the moon
Your form lies wreathed in ruby red
(The crystal snow my wedding bed)
A scarlet halo round your head
(The scarlet halo of the dead)
Senzei staggered back a step, heart pounding almost painfully fast, fear tightening his chest as the coldfire drew all traces of warmth from the air around them. Of all the possibilities that had occurred to the sorcerer, this one had never crossed his mind. "Hang on - this is all about Damien? What the hell - Cee, why didn't you tell me about any of this?"
"I - I didn't-" Ciani stumbled over the words, her eyes welling with tears of fright as she looked pleadingly at the Hunter. Tarrant's mouth twisted in a cold smirk as he spoke in a tone that was so soft, yet undeniably cruel.
"You thought I wouldn't follow through, Lady Ciani? You believed I was bluffing? That was your foolishness, then. The Reverend is mine, and I do not tolerate encroachments on my territory." His deadly gaze shifted to Senzei. "I suggest you leave now, Mer Reese. I can assure you that nothing you attempt will convince me to spare this lady's life, and should you interfere I will not hesitate to dispatch you as well."
Senzei froze, mind racing. What the hell was he supposed to do now? He couldn't abandon his friend, but hearing that icy ultimatum in the Hunter's dispassionate, very serious tone...
As luck would have it, Ciani took the final step to seal her own fate. "Zen, please, help me!" she begged, latching onto him even more tightly, clinging to him in desperation. "I only asked Damien to dinner because I thought he needed to get out for a while, he was hardly even speaking to me any more!" Lowering her voice so that only Senzei would hear, she added pleadingly, "Can you try and distract him or something while I run? Please, Zen, he'll kill me!"
Senzei stiffened, head snapping around to stare at the loremaster in shock. "What?" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a hint of dark amusement flicker across the Hunter's face, but his attention was focused on a rather startled Ciani. "Are you out of your mind? You can't just expect me to stick my neck out for you every time, Cee! And it sounds like this time at least you had plenty of warning!"
The Hunter smirked. "I could have told you that was bad idea, Lady Ciani. It appears you have overreached yourself."
Shaking, Senzei turned to the Hunter, his face settling into a mask of determination. "How much did you tell her of the reasons for this deal? Did you really warn her that you'd kill her if she went near Damien?"
The Hunter's gaze locked onto Senzei's - and the sorcerer found himself drawn into a sudden cascade of memories. Conversations between the Hunter and the loremaster, on those nights in the rakhlands where they had slipped away together: Ciani becoming suspicious of the relationship between Tarrant and Damien, the Hunter's admission to the bond that they had formed, and his adamant claim that Damien was now his. Ciani had argued at first, but eventually conceded - to the Hunter's eyes, though, it was as clear as day that even then she had never intended to honor that restriction.
Senzei reeled back, nearly falling as the cold tendrils of the Hunter's power released him. Ciani was pleading with the Lord of the Forest again, but Senzei didn't even hear her, still held by the snare of cold grey eyes.
"Last chance, Mer Reese."
Though some would have stood their ground to the bitter end, Senzei was perhaps no longer a coward but he was also no fool. Faced with the icy promise of death in the Hunter's eyes, and the knowledge that Ciani had broken trust and brought this on herself, his courage broke and the sorcerer fled.
Ciani watched him run with a look of horror. Tarrant's smile was terrifying as he murmured, "It appears your assistant has better sense than you, Lady Ciani."
Ciani spun around to face him again, shivering as she backed up a step, grasping desperately for some technicality that might save her life. "Wait - Gerald, please - at least tell me why you're doing this! Why are you so fixated on Damien? Why are you trying so hard to keep us apart? What do you want?"
The Hunter's eyes flashed. "I thought that was fairly clear, Lady Ciani." he said softly, the coldfire of his sword blazing brighter as he stepped forward. Ciani tried to retreat, but it felt as though her feet were rooted to the ground, bound in place by the force of the Hunter's will. "He. Is. Mine. That is the reason and the goal: he has been mine since the rakhlands, and whatever his intentions may have been I have no intention of letting him go. As long as you live, there will be doubt in his mind, the temptation of returning to his old life. I won't let that happen, though. You should have taken my warning, Lady Ciani: you know I always keep my word."
Finally, the realization settled in that she was utterly doomed. Whimpering softly, Ciani turned to run.
She didn't make it far.
Out on the road there are fireflies circling
Deep in the woods, where the lost souls hide
Over the hill there are men returning
Trying to find some peace of mind...
...Speak to me now and the world will crumble
Open a door and the moon will fall
All of your life, all your memories
Go to your dreams, forget it all...
When Damien came to, he forced his eyes open despite the splitting pain in his head. There was silvery-blue light spilling over the grass around him, and for just a split second his heart leapt in hope: he thought that the moons had risen again, that by some miracle he had survived the True Night and that dawn was not far away.
Then he felt the chill that bit at his flesh, heard the soft laughter that came from somewhere close beside him, and his heart dropped like a stone.
With a groan that he couldn't quite stifle, he pushed himself up on an elbow and looked around. He was still in the meadow, the grass cold and damp under him - and Gerald was sitting next to him with his back resting against a grassy knoll, one leg propped up with the back of his hand atop his knee, palm turned up and filled with a little dancing blaze of coldfire.
Damien stared for a moment, taking in the satisfied smirk hovering on the adept's lips and the hungry glitter in his silver eyes - a glitter that made Damien's heart skip a beat as memories of that night when they arrived in the rakhlands, the night the bond was forged - then he said, hoarsely, "What the vulk are you doing here?"
Gerald laughed softly, silver eyes gleaming in the darkness. "Why, Damien, can't you guess? I'm here for you, of course."
A chill ran up Damien's spine, and he drew back a little, wary. "What are you talking about?"
The adept's silver eyes glittered like cold diamonds in the silvery light of the coldfire as he smiled lazily, the smile of a predator closing in on its prey. "You didn't really think I'd let you go that easily, did you?"
In the shadow of the moon, she danced in the starlight
Whispering a haunting tune to the night...
Velvet skirts spun 'round and 'round, fire in her stare
In the woods without a sound: no one cared...
Through the darkened fields entranced,
Music made her poor heart dance,
Thinking of a lost romance... long ago...
Senzei staggered into the warm safety of the house and slammed the door shut behind him, shaking from head to toe, tears streaming down his cheeks and breath sobbing in his throat as he sank back against the wood. Allesha hurried into the front hall, her face pale and her dark eyes wide with fear.
"Dear, what's wrong?"
Senzei shook his head, closing his eyes as he whispered, "She should have known better. She should have known. The Hunter doesn't forgive."
Allesha's face went absolutely white, and she clutched at the doorframe, swaying on her feet. "Oh, gods. She... but the Forest is miles and miles from here..."
Senzei gave a soft, broken laugh. "If you anger him, nothing's going to save you. Certainly not simple distance." Senzei wondered dimly if Allesha had conveniently forgotten that the Hunter often searched for prey in Jaggonath: perhaps, after hearing the full story of their journey to the rakhlands, she had simply wanted to forget it all. If only Senzei could do the same. "Gods, I can hardly believe... she made a deal with him in the rakhlands, 'Lesh, and she went back on it almost as soon as we came home. What was she thinking? She promised that in return for the apprenticeship, she would stay away from Damien, but after we got back... why would she risk it?"
"Power." Allesha whispered, shivering as she moved forward and nestled into Senzei's arms. "I almost lost you to the same thing, my love."
"Never again." Senzei whispered, shaking as he tightened his hold on the woman who had stood by him through thick and thin. "Never again."
These hands that heal by day slash cruel in moonlight
In a flash of light destroy
These hands that heal by day can throw away a life
The way a child discards a toy
But there is no joy, just the blood-born sadness
Mine is not a madman's madness
I walk among you, like frost that kills the grain
Spills women's lives upon the ground
And you are slain at my touching
You are slain at my touching
The citizens of Jaggonath who ventured out on Samhain Night stayed close to the bonfires that had been lit on corners and in squares, staying far from the shadows were danger lurked. They huddled close to the roaring fires, each clasping their neighbours' hands tightly, the false gaiety of their voices undercut by fear as they sang. They sang to ward away the evil, to keep the darkness at bay - but there was none among them brave enough not to flinch, when a chorus of wolves began to bay from the hills beyond the city, their chilling howls blending with the music that filled the night.
Too afraid to stray from the light of the fire, they would not find the dead until the morning. Just past daybreak, as the people made their way home, they would find a scene of nightmare in a street on the city's north side: the loremaster Ciani, well-known amongst the people of Jaggonath. Or at least, what was left of her.
And drawn in blood upon the barren stones, they would find the sigil of the Hunter, a mark of vengeance visited and debt reclaimed.
Crimson and crystal deck her shadowed halls
In incense and teardrops her voice gently calls
But in that silent kingdom the sun never shines
For she's locked it away in the fortress of time
It would take some time longer before the Knights of the Flame returned from their long vigil, longer still before they saw that one was missing. A search was mounted, but the searchers found little: that is, until they expanded their search to the farther hills, and found the remnants of a horse that had apparently dropped from exhaustion before it was slaughtered. The searchers declared that it looked to have been torn apart by ravening wolves.
Remembering the chilling chorus they had heard the night before, none doubted their word.
The search went on and the efforts were intensified, but no further trace was found of Damien Vryce. Eventually, the people who searched gave up, and his name was added to the list of those whose lives had been claimed by the wraiths of Samhain. There were only four who ever knew the truth.
Two lived in the heart of Jaggonath, a young man who had seen far too much in his life, and his beautiful fiancée who had managed to coax him back from the precipice that had claimed his companions.
Two lived farther north, in the shadowed, vaulted halls of the Forest. The Prince of Jahanna, dark and terrible and beautiful as the morning star, and a Knight who had devoted his life to fighting evil, only to fall in the end to its dark promise.
There's many a one for him does moan
But none will know where he is gone
And o'er his bones when they lie bare-O
The wind will blow forever more-O
The wind will blow forever more
Well, there you have it. It's a bit disjointed in places because I worked on the sections not-quite-in-order, and my muses were playing tricks on me. Hopefully, though, it was sufficiently enjoyable for all of you. Happy Halloween, and a blessed Samhain to you all!