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Hath No Man
"Then pull the trigger,
" the Hunter dared him.
"And destroy us both.
They stood all three of them locked and silent in the tableau. Finally Andrys Tarrant said hoarsely, to Damien, "Get out of the way." His hands were shaking on the springbolt, but his finger never left the trigger, even for an instant. Two bolts loaded, Damien saw: even if he could stop one of them, the other --
"Go, Vryce." Gerald looked still undead by contrast with his descendant: bone-white except for the lurid streaks of blood, exhaustion and despair leaching what little color had come to his flesh, volcanic ash and plaster dust a thin sticky layer over his skin. No more the elegant, delicate aristocrat; only a wrenchingly tired man with no resources left at all, who'd tried to cheat death one time too often. "Go," he repeated. "This isn't your fight."
Like hell it isn't
, Damien thought, and stepped directly into the line of fire.
Andrys's eyes widened, fevered with his own despair. "Do you think I won't shoot you? Get out of the way.
" He raised the springbolt to eye-level for the better aim, unnecessary at this close range. His hands steadied, a line of tension tightening the muscles of his arms, visible even under the golden armor.
"Yeah, you can shoot me if you want to," Damien said. He could feel the earth-fae swirling around him, a warm friendly curling at his fingertips, almost within reach, almost Workable. His exhaustion receded. "Self-sacrifice -- that's what the fae requires now, isn't it? I may not have long, if your aim's any good, but I'm betting I'll have enough time to stop that second bolt and knock you out."
"No!" Gerald said sharply. "Have you lost your mind?"
Damien grinned, though mostly to himself. Even the muscles of his face were tired. "I've invested too much effort in you to just watch you die now, Gerald," he said over his shoulder, almost light-hearted. Deep inside, he could feel the assurance, the rightness of his choice, and he couldn't help but feel a strange kind of intense happiness, sharp as a knife in the breast. What a long, tangled road had brought him here, all the way from that moment when he'd made his own vow to destroy the Hunter. A vow he had fulfilled, if in no way he'd ever imagined.
The Hunter's death would have been a triumph of man over evil, something to celebrate, the eradication of another human-shaped nightmare from the face of Erna. But his redemption -- that was a triumph not of strength or determination or power, but of faith. How much more power in this legend: that through death and evil and a thousand years of darkness, a man's soul might still be redeemed, brought out into the light, and all his sinful power turned to serve God's will and God's purpose.
Thank You, Lord
, he prayed silently, full of gratitude. Thank You for showing me the way, and for making me the tool of this man's salvation. May he have the time he needs to come home to You.
And then he raised his head and looked Andrys Tarrant squarely in the eye. "If what you want is a life for a life -- go ahead and take it. But mine's the only one you're going to get."
"You are without a doubt the most irrational, stubborn, infuriating ass it has ever been my misfortune to meet," Gerald said behind him, which should have been enough warning, but Damien was slow turning around. The board caught him on the side of the head like his own personal earthquake, and tumbled him down into true night.
It was the only thought Damien could articulate for a long moment. His temples were throbbing with the most pressing pain, but underneath that every muscle was on a slow burn, and whatever the fabric under his body was, it wasn't doing much to cushion the ground. At least he wasn't cold: some kind of shelter blocking the wind, and a source of warmth beside him. He opened his eyes with an effort.
Gerald was lying barely an arm's length away, limply sprawled and asleep. His hair was still matted with blood and sweat and dirt, his once-fine clothes stained, even his fingernails ragged and black under the nails, and for a moment Damien was almost breathless with joy at the sight of him, and of the shallow rise and fall of his chest.
Gerald was uncovered on the bare ground, head pillowed only on his arm, thoroughly unconscious; he didn't even stir as Damien struggled to sit up out of the blankets that had been wrapped around him. They were in a cave, the mouth so small that Tarrant had probably had to crawl inside and drag Damien's body after. He'd covered over the opening with brush to conceal it from the outside, too, and only a very little trickle of sunlight came through the leaves.
One pack lay against the wall, full of books by the shape of it, and the battered canteen beside it. Damien managed to snag the strap without moving too much and drank thirstily. He finished with it still about three-quarters full, so Gerald had found someplace to fill it on the way to wherever the hell they were hiding. That was good, anyway.
He let himself ease back down and studied the face so close to his own: so human, now, the fine cheekbones smudged with bruises and the lips parted to breathe more deeply, bluish with cold and perhaps the sluggishness of newly renewed blood. Damien painfully hitched himself over, closing the gap, and disentangled the blankets enough to wrap them around Tarrant also.
Given that much access, Gerald instantly curled into him, a purely instinctual seeking after heat for his chilled body. His hands were like ice. Damien flinched involuntarily away, but with that arrogance that had always been the Hunter's main quality, even unconscious and half-dead, Gerald only pressed closer, claiming his warmth. He ended up getting himself mostly draped over Damien's body, never waking in the process. It wasn't too uncomfortable, so Damien gave up and just pulled the blankets closer around them both before surrendering to sleep again himself.
The next time he woke, Gerald was still asleep but stirring, murmuring something meaningless and complicated. "Hey," Damien said, and nudged him regretfully: he was still exhausted himself, but he knew from long experience they needed to get about the business of finding food now, before they got too weak. He was starvingly hungry already.
Gerald groaned once before opening his eyes, an uncharacteristic admission of weakness, and cut off as soon as he woke up enough to realize he was making the sound. "You had to go and save my life, didn't you?" he said only half-jokingly, pushing uselessly against Damien's chest; the ends of the blankets had gotten pinned securely underneath both their bodies.
"Well, that was the idea before someone mucked with it," Damien said, and pushed himself up with a less restrained groan of his own, freeing them both. "What happened, anyway?" he demanded. "Andrys -- ?"
He dreaded the answer: had he saved Tarrant only to condemn that tormented young man? But Gerald was quiet for a moment, and then he said softly, "He let me go." Almost immediately, he straightened and added, with a show of his old hauteur, "Apparently your ridiculous gesture made an impression on him, extraordinarily stupid as it was."
Damien only grinned broadly, undampened, and full of relief. "Well, I guess it all worked out then," he said. "And the papers?" he asked, looking at the one pack -- so small to be carrying all the potential future of humanity. "Did you find everything you needed?"
"Those are -- for personal use," Gerald said, looking at the bag. "Everything of importance that we collected, I gave to Andrys. He is in a somewhat better position than I am to share it. I doubt the Church would take it so gladly from my hands, and it's as good an institution as any to lead humanity back to the stars. Besides," he added, "it seems fitting, after all, that the Church should have the rest of my works."
Damien closed his eyes and felt more than said a silent prayer of gratitude. Then still smiling, he opened them again and stretched out his arms as far as he could. Sore, battered, exhausted in a way that a couple nights of sleep wouldn't cure, and without the use of the fae, he still felt more alive than he had in what felt like months. "I suppose it's too much to hope you brought any food along with those books?"
"I somehow doubt you would have enjoyed the kind of sustenance I might have found in the cellars of my keep," Tarrant said dryly.
The cave was too low-roofed to stand up in, so they crawled out undignified, on hands and knees. Gerald accepted Damien's hand to rise and brushed automatically but futilely at the dirt clinging to his trousers. Then stopped, and together they stared across the hills to where the great cloud of dust and smoke still lingered, clinging to the spars and buttresses that were all that remained of the Hunter's castle. Flames still licked here and there at the fresh rubble, and from their height Damien could even see men walking around the wreckage, in the white and gold of the Church. If there were stains on their garb, the distance blurred them out, and he felt a sudden lonely ache of regret.
With the perfection of hindsight, he could see the beauty of God's workings. The man he'd once been -- the priest he'd once been -- could not have saved Tarrant. He'd had to go some distance down Tarrant's own road to get close enough to reach him. The Patriarch had been right -- he'd lost some quality, the purity, the steadfastness of his faith, in that process. He didn't begrudge the sacrifice, he'd offered it willingly, but he felt the separation from his former self and his Church with every molecule of his body.
Below, one figure moved apart from the mass, tall and solitary, and raised a hand to shield his eyes, almost as if he were looking directly at them. An illusion, surely: the Core was behind them, low in the sky, and they had to be invisible. Damien stared down at his Patriarch and swallowed hard against yearning. Those men and women down there didn't even know the true victory had been won a long way off, by the very man they'd come here to destroy, but they would leave here with faith renewed, with new legends to inspire a generation of converts, to raise the Church and humanity to the heights which were their heritage.
Self-sacrifice as the new pattern for using the fae -- the Church, of all organizations in the world, would be able to take advantage of that, and turn the fae into the benefit of mankind instead of its bane. Even the Patriarch wouldn't hold on to his prejudices against sorcery, not now that altruism had to be at its root. Damien could foresee all the glory of it -- sorcery joined to science, Tarrant's research and Iezu knowledge united to faith and wonder. And excommunicated by his own choices, he could not be a part of that great work. Could never again truly share their faith.
He wasn't quite forty, and his life's work was gone.
After a minute, Gerald touched his arm. "Foraging will be easier before Coreset," he said quietly.
"Yeah," Damien said. "Let's get started."
He lost himself in the simple labor, collecting firewood and early unripe berries, pulling up churris bushes for their edible roots. Tarrant had slipped away with the long knife and a pouch full of small rocks he'd gathered, and by the time Damien had the small fire going outside the mouth of the cave, he came back with a small rabbit and a pair of squirrels. They put the meat on spits, then took them off the fire after only a few minutes and devoured it nearly raw and bloody, and the roots barely soft enough to chew.
Afterwards, Tarrant eyed his stained hands with such helpless, obvious distaste that Damien couldn't help laughing. "Here," he said, amused, and poured a trickle of water from the canteen over Gerald's hands so Tarrant could scrub them. His own fingers he started licking clean unceremoniously, until Gerald reached across and caught his hand in an abrupt, unthinking gesture.
They stared at each other across their hands, Gerald's fingers still dripping wet, his face flushed with the firelight, and a different kind of hunger flaring across the bond between them, waking it to new life.
Gerald came at him with a kind of shocked desperation, mouth warm and still bittersweet from the berries, and they tumbled to the ground together. Every touch had an echo. He could feel his own hands gripping Gerald's arms, could feel his own skin under the long slender fingers where they pushed aside his ragged clothes. His body, so long denied any kind of release, was rising eagerly to meet the tide.
But I've never-- I've never wanted, I don't want--
The words leapt into Damien's mind, astonished and maybe a little afraid, and fell away like meaningless noise in the face of the ardent desire twining itself around his nerves, invading him through the bond, demanding his response.
He reached out and touched, pulled, bringing them skin to skin. Gerald shuddered against him, long lean body fever-hot, as far from the Hunter's icy cold as could be imagined. Damien's sight was blurring with the swirling luminescence of the fae, the currents Gerald saw and lived with, like waves frothing around their bodies. Seeking a point of contact, as always, and finding it here, in this union, as they yielded to each other's desire, offered themselves to each other's increasingly frantic need.
All the lingering pain and fatigue was dissolving away, fading like notes of forgotten music under the onrushing of the fae. Gerald blindly pouring power into the bond, Damien guiding it into the patterns of healing, the very Work renewing their source of strength, until he thought hazily they could keep this up for days, for weeks, an endless cycle. Renewed by the fae only to sink back into this well of desire, of sacrifice and submission, perfectly balanced between giving and taking, until all the walls between them crumbled into dust.
, he thought, or Gerald thought, or both of them, and they went drowning down together.
"It never occurred to you?" Gerald said, sounding vaguely insulted. The vague quality owed more to his drowsy, half-awake state than to any lack of feeling; he was again sprawled comfortably over Damien's body -- comfortable for him, anyway -- with his satisfaction palpable and humming over the bond.
They'd just spent the last twelve hours rolling around in the dirt trying out nearly every messy and complicated form of sex two men could manage. They should have been utterly wrecked, filthy and next to naked. Instead, they were completely pristine, skin still glowing with the heat of Gerald's brand of fae-powered cleansing, lying on rewoven blankets smelling of some kind of wildflower, with their repaired clothes neatly folded in a heap by the fire. Because naturally, given the opportunity to do something with the fae, now nearly impossible to use, Gerald would take care of appearances first.
"Why the hell would it have occurred to me?" Damien demanded. "I still can't figure out why it occurred to you."
Gerald snorted and lifted an eyebrow. "Have you ever looked at me?" he said, light and mocking, but Damien froze, his hand still entangled in Gerald's hair, at the deeper message that came washing across the bond. Images of a boy slender and pale amidst the rough casual brutality of his father and older brothers, pretty instead of handsome, delicate where they were strong. Memories of taunting, of darker secret torments, all inflicted on a boy struggling to make sense of the world through the terrible confusion of an adept's visions of the fae, with no idea of the power to come.
The images crossed the bond with an immediacy no mere description could match. For a horrible choking moment Damien was
that boy, breathing in dirt and despair, hands scrabbling at the ground with grinning cruelty pinning him down and the fiery swirls of the fae all around shaping more nightmares out of his pain.
Demons here that not even nine hundred years of power could exorcise, and Damien grieved for that boy, so helpless and afraid, and far beyond the reach of any help. Gerald stirred affronted beneath his hand. "I am hardly a helpless victim anymore, Vryce, so kindly save your pity," he snapped. "I killed them all myself, you'll recall." And he stopped there, a pallor creeping over his skin.
It was the first thing I did
, Gerald had told him once. Eight murders, committed in the service of a dark power that shielded him from any feelings of remorse.
"I know," Damien said softly, pulling him close. "I'm sorry."
Almost an hour later, Gerald fell asleep at last, his wordless tension quieted under Damien's hands. Afterwards Damien lay thinking, still petting the soft hair absently, looking up at the moons. A millennia of violence and murder -- enough to make any man despair of redemption, enough to make any man give up the struggle, if only to pretend he had no conscience to be so hideously burdened.
Would you wipe clean a slate of nine hundred years, for one single month of good intentions?
Tarrant had more than a month, now, but even so -- what was one human lifetime, against the weight of sin on a scale of nightmares? Tarrant was on the road to redemption, he'd earned that much of a reprieve with his sacrifice, but he still had a long way to go. It wasn't going to be an easy road, either. You couldn't erase those sins, but you could try to make up for them. A life saved for every one taken, a lifetime committed to the service of mankind. That's what it would take.
And that wouldn't be Tarrant's natural course at all. So much now to discover and learn, in this brave new world they'd created, he'd
created, with his act of altruism on Mount Shaitan. He'd want to immerse himself in study, in science. So very easy to drown out the awareness of his guilt in work, and step off the hard road. Oh, he might claim it was in the service of humanity, and serve humanity it would -- but at the heart it would be his old passion and thirst for knowledge, and no real penance at all.
No, Gerald would pretty much have to be dragged all the way to salvation, Damien figured wryly. So apparently he had work left after all, even if the job description would sound kind of strange. Personal Father Confessor to the Prophet? Chief Annoyer? He grinned despite his worries.
They'd gone through Hell and back out the other side, brought down Calesta and rewritten the natural laws of their own world. Surely together they could even manage the saving of Gerald Tarrant's soul. Though considering just how infuriating Tarrant could be, maybe everything so far had just been on-the-job training.
It's a hell of a job, Lord, and I guess it's got to be done
, Damien thought ruefully. But couldn't you have found someone else?
Then he noticed he was still petting Gerald's hair, and hastily stopped.