Tarrant/Vryce. The Forest is in ashes, Erna is changing, and Damien Vryce has regrets. For Yuletide 2006.
Lightning crackled in the twilight, and the thick cloud that had swelled large enough to rival Shaitan for size began to break apart, tearing open on one end to spill rain upon the slopes. Heavy, scattered drops crept towards Black Ridge Tavern, the leading edge forming pockmarks in the dust produced by so much construction and foot travel before swiftly transforming the ground into a sticky mess.
Most of the tourists fled the rain, huddling close under the eaves of newly erected buildings to continue watching the smoke that rose from the Forest. Damien stayed at the railing, hands flexing restlessly on the rough wood. He didn't turn away from the view of the Forest's remains for a long time.
It was still burning when he did.
At times it seemed violence was destined to rule Erna. The nights were no safer now that the fae was essentially unworkable. Often less so, as most wards had been crafted to turn aside demons and not ill-intentioned men.
Damien held fast to his faith as the tides of the planet continued to change and man was forced to adapt with her. The ranks of the Church swelled as it stood out among the doomsayers, and his hope followed suit. There would be rough times ahead for everyone, but science and technology was no longer clipped and fettered, and someday they'd have their rightful heritage of the stars again.
Already it grew in leaps and bounds, and Damien wondered just how much change he'd see in his lifetime. He was pushing forty, an age he reluctantly grew if not accustomed to, then resigned to. He had significantly more scars and discovered his middle thickened more quickly when he took a few weeks holiday, but in general, he felt little different than he had before his hair had been streaked with thin lines of grey.
He'd left no descendants to inherit that which he'd fought so hard for, but it was something to know that his brother had married, and Damien had a veritable host of unfamiliar nieces and nephews terrorizing Ganji-on-the-Cliffs to carry on the Vryce namesake. It wasn't too late to aim for a family of his own, he knew, and these days, when he held a more or less steady job playing at guardsman with slow-moving caravans, there was relatively little risk or worry of never being home to watch his children grow.
The problem was that Damien wasn't sure how many times in a man's life he could fall in love so completely, and anything less seemed anathema. He still ached for Ciani some days, and the end to his time with Rasya had left a wound where they might have naturally parted ways, but, of course, it always came back to the other pit left in his heart.
Gerald Tarrant had become his friend when he hadn't been paying attention, and much to Damien's surprise had left behind a pang markedly similar to the hurt he felt whenever his thoughts turned to Ciani. Only, beyond the near-identical frustration of all the possibilities that were severed before they could blossom, the regret was stronger when over time the gap between them had lessened instead of widening into something too vast to bridge.
If he hadn't once had the practice of nightmares to introduce him to the idea of being taken by the Hunter, Damien might have found it more difficult to shrug off the mornings that had him waking with his groin painfully swollen, and his mind still resonating with Tarrant's rich voice.
As it was, he chalked it up to a culmination of stress borne from travelling with slow-moving caravans and anniversaries of dates that were better forgotten than mourned. But the dreams continued stubbornly, and over the course of longmonths, visions of ivory flesh darkened, straight-cut hair lengthened, and the face of young man he'd seen only once but couldn't forget smirked at him and made his blood boil with desire.
The Street of the Gods was not as it had once been. Many of the temples had been dismantled, their Iezu patrons preferring to serve as diplomats on the slopes of Shaitan or to operate without the cloak of godhood, deeming it wiser to hold court in the manner of advisors or consultants than otherworldly muses. Man better understood the unknown when it charged a fee, however nominal.
The Temple of Pleasure remained a rare exception. Although Karril no longer promoted himself as a god, his following had neither dwindled or stopped treating him as one. Those who patronised his halls cared little for how they were able to indulge themselves, and for some, continuing to deify the Iezu only worked into their fantasies.
This time the tent-like walls were down as Damien approached. A light breeze sent ripples along the canvas, stirring to life murals where painted figures enjoyed all manner of decadence. When Damien entered, he was privy to only the men and women that sought vices like drink or drugs, and the writhing clusters of exhibitionists. More than one beckoned with a naked limb or a sultry glance to bid him to join them as he passed by.
He couldn't pinpoint where his unyielding revulsion of Karril's followers stemmed from now that he knew the Iezu were not demonic in origin. Symbiotes, not parasites, as he had reminded himself several times over since coming into contact with their progenitor.
Traversing the illusionary hallways that spiralled deeper into the Temple, Damien declined yet another invitation, this one from a sloe-eyed woman who had just made it abundantly clear she had a very talented tongue. It was when she turned her eyes to another unaccompanied man that Damien began to understand his aversion: beneath the pleasured haze in her eyes was a thirst he'd find in any faeborn succubus. Pleasure of the body was a healthy thing, but when it became a need so great that it drove your every action and forced you to seek greater and greater debauchery, it was like any other addiction.
Damien's skin crawled. A few steps beyond what swiftly grew into an orgy, Karril mercifully chose to reveal himself. He appeared in his usual form: stocky build, with the familiar, low-belted robe that maintained its modicum of public decency by scant inches. He greeted Damien with a smile and changed their surroundings to simulate a private room.
"I didn't expect you to come back," Karril said. He was, as expected, a gracious host, offering a seat and a drink and managing to not look disappointed when Damien predictably passed on both.
"Neither did I," Damien admitted. It wasn't expressly necessary for him to explain his business here with the Iezu's ability to perceive inside a man's heart, but Damien was cut short before he could even go through the motions.
Karril's expression had twisted into something Damien read as unease, and he reached into the fold of his fur-lined robe to produce a small, sealed envelope. He rattled it, looked up to meet Damien's gaze, and hesitated a moment longer before passing it over. "A man who would seek to be our mutual friend thought otherwise."
"Have you spoken with him?"
"Just the once."
Damien seethed with questions. It wasn't hard to guess that it was that fact alone that made Karril so uncomfortable. But if their "mutual friend" had expected him to follow, and Damien was correct in assuming the letter would lead him further, then the man he sought had deemed the risk to his person an acceptable one.
Whether Karril wrestled his way to the same conclusion or merely followed the current of Damien's emotions, the Iezu relaxed somewhat. "If I'd known, I would have told you," Karril offered. The tension between them eased another notch.
Damien had rarely in his life felt so uncertain about something. Here, the sensation was exacerbated by Karril's ability to know the cause of it.
"I could, perhaps, help you get certain things out of your system if you'd rather not open that letter." As Karril spoke, his body and attire shifted. Sturdy shoulders newly clothed in finery blended into smoother angles that spoke no less of strength, and he gained height, growing taller than Damien and far leaner. Dark eyes drained away to a pale grey and his curls relaxed into waves as they lightened to a shade that carried a bit of the golden glow of the Core.
"It wouldn't be the first time I've played the Hunter for someone," he said, reaching out to Damien with a motion so graceful that Damien would have been convinced a human could never have performed it if he'd never met Gerald Tarrant.
Tiny needles of shame prickling along his back, Damien found himself tempted.
Karril pressed the advantage. "No enhancements, just flesh, and," his mouth curved into that insufferable, arrogant smile, "natural talent."
Damien found himself wanting to smack that expression away even as he found himself drawn to it, facing a sexual attraction that hadn't existed when he'd had honest opportunities.
"Would you like a little violence with your sex, priest?" the Hunter asked him, and Damien hardly noticed the mention of a title he could no longer claim. A nail filed to a smooth edge scraped over Damien's cheek, catching where stubble sought to renew his beard. The man's finger, surprisingly callused, lingered at the corner of Damien's mouth.
He turned just barely towards the light touch on his cheek, jolted suddenly by the memory of the channel of fae between himself and Gerald that in its infancy had needed a similar touch to transfer words.
"Care to discover how well someone like the Hunter takes to you being a little rough?"
Though he'd always considered himself to hold more strongly than most to the pre-Revivalist traditions of Earth that provided for little social difference between the sexes, culture and instinct ran deep, and it took a woman like Rasya to get Damien responding with true aggression in the bedroom. But this was different, very different.
He twitched when the hand on his cheek slid down to press against his pulse, and silken hair slid across his lips as the Hunter's mouth drew towards his ear, voice purring into his flesh.
"I've even had first-hand experience," he said. "Once, long ago, when sorcery was new to him and before he left Gannon's service to marry."
The spell weaving itself around Damien broke. It wasn't knowledge that Karril had slept with Gerald-although Damien would later wonder with a curiosity that bordered on fantasy what form the Iezu had taken then-nor mention of the man's marriage. It was the explicit reminder of the falsehood Damien was allowing himself to be lured into.
Karril plainly knew the moment he'd lost Damien, and he shed the illusion without delay. "I don't counsel this," he said, sighing, and his gaze dropped to the heavy parchment clutched in Damien's fist.
Damien relaxed his grip, hand aching dully from having remained clenched so hard for so long. He was about to say he hadn't come for counsel, but that was exactly why he'd followed the twist of streets here. The stream of traffic along the way had only reinforced his decision to seek Karril out one last time. Damien had felt distant passing through the flow, strangely alien, as though he only belonged in the most superficial ways to Jaggonath's crowds.
"If you open that, your path will be set," Karril cautioned. All traces of his smile had faded, and fear edged back into his expression. If he'd known Gerald for as long as he claimed, then no doubt he didn't care to see the man endure yet another lifetime balancing himself on the razor's edge of a compact made with the fae.
But in this moment Damien knew his path had been set since the day he'd been approached in the shadow of Shaitan. He offered Karril his hand, a silent promise that he would do his utmost not to tip that balance to ruin.
Karril clasped Damien's hand in both of his own and muttered under his breath about being unfortunate enough to befriend men who were such stubborn bastards. When he stepped away, some of the apprehension bleeding out of his features, it was with a gesture that said things were now out of his control.
Another letter fell into Damien's hands the same day: the Matriarch had appointed her successor and planned to make the move to Jaggonath. The Church had burst into a flurry of activity, and no small measure of it became directed at Damien. He had made the trip over the mountains to Ganji three times since the Sacrifice, twice on Church business. Now, when he felt far too restless to be riding alongside baggage trains that moved at a crawl, he faced a fourth. But the letter Karril had given him held nothing so simple as an address, and he wouldn't turn down the honour of personally serving as a guide to her Holiness even if it had.
Though the path he took wouldn't be one he'd choose for the purpose, he used the trip to gather information. It came to him in bits and pieces, each stop along the way giving him time to ask questions and sift through the rumours he found until he could direct his inquiries to include names and places.
By day, he dozed in the saddle and took what rest he could get. By night, he fed his sword the blood of starving faeborn.
And when he had the time, he wondered about what he'd find when he was free to take a leave of absence.
Although he could have, Damien didn't leave the first chance he got. For a while, he had felt his search turning into something close to an obsession, and it was only knowing how Gerald's ego would swell to know he'd reduced Damien to the equivalent of a scent-crazed nuhound that kept him in check.
Plus, all he had to go on were sketchy theories pieced together from sources of often questionable reliability.
He'd taken his time, and would have gone so far as to set his affairs in order if that hadn't been taken care of years ago with no changes to the paperwork needed. In the end, it was a stroke of luck that had given him exactly what he needed. Breaking his fast in a small establishment near his rented room, he'd picked up the newspaper left on the table by a previous patron.
The paper had been the sort of rag he'd never read otherwise, but on the back page had been an article about a missing woman that had left Damien paying for his food and leaving without eating half of it.
All the pieces had fallen into place, the names and dates corresponding enough to give him something real to go on. And after riding hard and fast like he hadn't in years, Damien had arrived here, in Asmody.
"Oh yes, that'd be his given name, the one on the books, but folks around here call him the Huntsman."
At Damien's raised eyebrow, the man he questioned wrung his hands together, stuttering a little. "Now, all queerness of names aside, Forrest's a good man with a fondness for the sun. Don't you be making no connections to that /demon/." His eyes slid towards Jahanna, where in the distance, nature sought in creeping inches to retake the vast swath of blackened acres.
Damien assured the man that no, he wouldn't be making that mistake. Not when everything hung on the fact that he didn't.
If he'd doubted either the article or the letter's veiled clues that had led him to this small shop, what were the odds now that he had a name and title to put to that face? Once, the fae might have warped those odds, made them unpredictable more times than not, but now....
Judging by the quality of the wares stacked on shelves and hung on the walls, Damien guessed the shop had a solid and varied clientele.
He moved slowly through the aisles, browsing in no small part to give time for the knot of conflicting emotion that had seized his stomach to loosen. One moment he was asking himself for the hundredth time what he thought he was doing here, and the next he was skimming the room for any sign of the shop's proprietor.
The clerk at the counter was making busy cleaning a row of heavy pistols and though his eyes tracked Damien around the room, he never voiced any acknowledgement. Damien wondered if the man thought he might pocket something. He bristled at the idea. Just this morning on his way into town he'd done another shopkeep the service of running off a pair of thieves trying to pry a quake ward from its housing.
Wards were predictably in demand, and only grew more so as the press fed the fears of the masses. Newspapers filled their pages these days with more than just heartwarming fluff about women reunited with their husbands; they ran sensational stories of homes ruined or families slain by people seeking to hoard or resell Worked items which had become a limited and therefore precious commodity.
"Is your master in?" Damien asked, finally. His shoulders were tense, muscles drawn tight like in the instant before an anticipated swordstroke fell and reflex kicked in to loosen them up.
The clerk whisked a brush through the barrel of a pistol and raised his gaze to smile blandly at Damien.
As if you hadn't been watching me like a hawk this whole time, you vulking bastard.
"I have business with Forrest," Damien said, the civility not coming easily. Leave it to Gerald to hire people that would get on Damien's nerves from the start.
"He's with another client at the moment, and they've been in there long enough that you'll probably want to just come back later."
The clerk's eyes narrowed and his lips thinned in irritation. He didn't set the pistol down even though he had lain the brush aside. Something about Damien's attitude clearly set him on the edge. Well, Damien thought, the feeling was mutual.
With deliberate slowness, the clerk set the cleaned pistol down on the glass countertop and picked up the next. When he spoke, his tone was cooler, and despite Damien's bulk and battlescars, he sat up taller as if to project a more imposing air. "Mer Forrest is not likely to take another client for a week if you're lucky, a few months if you're not." He held the pistol up to check its sight, his eyes flicking over to take in Damien's rough garb, clean but showing the wear of travel. "And I doubt you have the coin to hasten the process along."
Damien struggled not to rise to the bait. After suffering the raw intensity of the Patriarch's fae-enforced attempts to goad him, he shouldn't give in to a pinched-nose bastard hiding behind a counter. Still, after coming this far, it took all Damien had not to reach over and introduce the man's neck to his grip.
"I'll wait," he said firmly.
"You'll have to buy something if you plan to loiter."
The little dance was growing even more tedious, but Damien considered replacing the skinning knife he'd lost to the ribcage of a starving vampire on his way through the valley, just so he could stand around cleaning his nails with a blade right here.
Before he made up his mind as to whether or not the petty satisfaction would be worth it, the door along the back wall opened and a woman emerged. She was pale, shoulders hanging in the way a person's do when they've had a very weighty burden lifted from their conscience. She didn't meet his eyes as she hurried past, but he heard a whispered prayer of thanks to the One God repeating under her breath.
The anger that had been rising faded, and Damien didn't so much as twitch when the clerk offered a less than inspiring explanation of his presence to the man who had appeared, and stood, shadows sharp on his features, beneath the doorframe.
Riven Forrest's eyes fixed on him, and with a sweeping gesture, the man stepped aside and offered to see him privately.
"Thanks," Damien muttered.
As he shoved past the clerk and entered a dim hallway lined with portraits, Damien could feel Forrest's amusement plucking at him.
Their reunion was, all things considered, uneventful.
"You didn't leave me much to go by."
"No, I didn't."
Damien wondered if the year he'd spent tracking down Forrest had been a test. Or, perhaps, an excuse for him to give up. To burn the letter and forget the contents, find some shapely woman to settle down with and pretend that he never sought the chance to lie with a man who looked young enough that the seeming difference in their physical age had begun to trouble him more than their shared gender.
"I hear you hunt people as well as beasts and demonkind," Damien said evenly. His eyes never went to the portrait that hung on the wall. It didn't surprise him. He knew well enough that vanity was the one thing that followed Gerald Tarrant in all the lives he led.
"Those that deserve it, yes."
"And who makes that determination, /Huntsman/?"
Forrest smiled thinly, and proffered a heavy crystal glass filled with a few fingers of dark liquor. "The appropriate legal authorities, of course."
Damien laughed as he accepted the drink. His host would have an appropriate answer-possibly even a truthful one-to anything he'd think to ask. He'd tried to coach himself over the months to shed all his preconceptions, his hopes, and yet the moment they were together again, things had felt dangerously familiar, comfortable.
There was nothing of the man in the portrait in the one that sat across from him. Not in physical features, anyhow, and only somewhat, Damien had been startled to realise, in word and gesture. Forrest's flesh didn't even hold a trace of the vicious scar that had carved down the Hunter's face after the Unnamed has released him and had been so distracting to Damien's eye through the long month they'd sought a way to defeat Calesta.
Not the Hunter nor the Prophet. Not even Gerald Tarrant. This was a new man. The attraction that had haunted Damien for so long dampened somewhat as he came to terms with well and truly shedding the past.
"I'm looking for a job," he said bluntly.
"There's plenty of work for policemen these days, I hear."
Damien certainly felt the truth in that. He shook his head, refusing to be swayed. "I'm seeking something that will put my talents to better use."
"I've always preferred to work alone," Forrest said. He sipped at a glass of wine poured from one of Jahanna's few surviving bottles, no doubt one that with the right collector would fetch a price nearing that of the wards positioned subtly around the shop.
"As have I," Damien countered. It should have felt as tedious to fence words in here as it had with the clerk. Instead, it left him invigorated, fighting the urge to perch himself on the edge of his chair.
Forrest seemed to think it over, wrist rolling lazily to swirl the wine in his glass. He set it aside suddenly then stood, lifting an arm to push aside a heavy curtain and reveal a more than modest view of the sun slipping over the glittering horizon of the sea. "Do you understand what I'll expect of you?"
Damien watched Forrest's hands. They were slender, almost feminine, fingernails meticulously trimmed but stained by ink regardless. There was no mistaking the strength in them, though, and Damien's mouth grew dry.
"I understand the dangers involved," Damien said, his heart clenching. "And the discretion required."
Forrest nodded as he turned. A smile trembled at the corners of his mouth. "Then, Mer Vryce, welcome to the business."
The Huntsman held out his hand and Damien rose to take it. Things wouldn't be the same, and he knew it, but he'd figure out how to adapt to this, too. He shook it once, firmly, and let everything show on his face when their fingers slowly separated.
Dark eyes showed a hint of surprise and Damien felt a hot rush of satisfaction at it.
"To new beginnings," Forrest said as he took up his glass.
"New beginnings," Damien echoed.