Such beginning, such end.
(Earth proverb)


Jaggonath, Year 1256 A.S.
five years after the Forest burned

Damien took the broad steps of the front staircase two at a time. No one took notice of him as he pushed open the ornate doors to the cathedral; he was a regular visitor, after all. It was hours until the next service, and he saw only a few solitary worshippers in the velveted pews when he passed through the inner doors. He'd made it a habit to come here at times like this, to say his prayers in silence. To breathe the air of devotion and faith. Here, where thousands had prayed for centuries, every tile of the floor, every beam of alteroak, every ornate gold-plating breathed the purpose of the Church. It replenished him, every time.

As always, he could not resist the jewelled mural of the Prophet binding the Evil One. It was still there, despite what had become of the Prophet. He stood for some time contemplating it, and the man who had once been the Prophet. Gerald Tarrant, his companion during the most desperate years of his life. Damien had long lost the ability to keep them separate in his mind: it was the Prophet of the Law upon whose mortal work the Church was founded, but it was the Hunter Damian had known. The Hunter, whose immortal evil had permeated the entire region for centuries - yet who also, no matter how complete his corruption, had still valued nothing more than this creation of his. Even then he had remained, deep in his tarnished soul, a man of the Church, and more than once Damien had fancied he'd seen a glimpse of the Prophet's soul amid the darkness.

He shouldn't be thinking about this. The Hunter was dead. Gerald Tarrant as he'd been no longer existed; he was beyond Damien's reach by a compact every bit as unrelenting as that he had once forged with the Unnamed. He could carve out a new life for himself as a new man, could earn redemption yet. Hope, Damien reminded himself. Always and always, hope.

Damien turned away from the mural, breathed deeply one more time, then straightened his shoulders. He left the cathedral and climbed down the stairs to Jaggonath's central plaza. Despite the turn his thoughts had, once again, taken, he felt strengthened.

He turned into the side alley that led past the Patriarch's Residence and on toward the hospital. It was nearly time for his shift. When he'd returned from the Forest, five years ago, he'd been something at loose ends. Unsure what to do now that he was no longer a priest, he'd volunteered at the local hospital, which had been overwhelmed now that Working the fae was no longer possible and all healing must be natural. Somehow, he had never quite had incentive enough to leave.

As he was approaching the Residence, its front doors opened and a couple stepped out, expensive cloaks wrapped around them, arm in arm in the old-fashioned style. A young acolyte accompanied them down the stairs, carrying a bag in her hands.

They were striking: both black-haired, fine-boned, of the type often called "delicate", slender and elegant. The woman was some years older than the man, her skin several shades paler than the olive of his.

All of that Damien took in within a single instant; it was the realisation of the next moment that stopped him as if he'd run into a solid wall.

He'd seen each of them once before. The woman had been Andrys Tarrant's companion, and later wife - he'd seen her that day in the Forest, when he'd thought Andrys had killed Gerald. But it was the sight of the man that stopped him dead in his tracks. The man Damien had seen two years ago on a hillside facing the burning Forest. The man who had explained to him that he was unable to reclaim his old identity on pain of death. The man who wasn't Gerald any more.

What was he doing with his late descendant's wife? What business had he had with the Patriarch?

The couple took no notice of Damien as the man took the bag the acolyte handed him. They turned and walked slowly down the alley in quiet conversation. The acolyte looked after them for a moment, then went off in the opposite direction, towards Damien.

Damien forced himself to move again, and when he was about to pass the acolyte, asked her: "God's blessing, child. Was that the lady Narilka?"

The acolyte brushed a lock of brown hair behind her ear, and nodded. "The Dowager Neocountess, yes, and her husband, Gerald Tarrant." She gave him a curious look, as if to ask why he cared. Weather-hardened and rough, he certainly didn't look like the kind of person who paid attention to such things.

The tension in his gut had grown to roiling. This wasn't possible; it couldn't be. But he'd never been one to let his reactions be slowed by shock. He'd never had the luxury.

Damien held out a coin to the child. "Would you run an errand for me, child?"

She eyed the coin with interest. "If it's allowed."

"Would you run down to Mercy Hospital for me and tell them Damien Vryce won't be able to come in today?"

She grinned. "That's easy enough, mer. Damien Vryce. Will do." She snatched the coin, and bounded off down the street, unaware of the blow she'd delivered.

Damien looked after her for a moment. Then he turned on his heel and made his way back to the plaza and on to the library, to catch up on all the news of Merentha that he'd failed to pay attention to in the past years.