December 10-18, 2006

Disclaimer: the world of Erna works in mysterious ways, as dictated by Ms. Friedman. Written for Taz for yuletide 2006. Do not archive without permission.

Hunting permit

Damien walked into the ranger station and started to unfasten his oilskins. Water sheeted off him and puddled on the floor, and when he pulled off his gloves, a trickle went down his sleeve. It would dry fast enough once he got over by the iron stove, though.

"Don't bother," Gorden said, standing up from behind his desk. "You're going out again."

"I'm off shift." Damien tried to unfasten his sword harness. The leather was too wet; he should have oiled it last night instead of putting the work off for later.

"You're off shift, but you're on rotation. Maans sent word from the lodge that one of his guests went up Death Canyon without so much as a packed lunch."

Kirrill was sitting on an upturned equipment bin, legs stretched out towards the stove. He half-turned to nod at Damien. "Your turn to go tell the tourist to come in out of the rain. 'Less something's already eaten him. Maans says he had guns, but in this weather?"

"Hell." Damien couldn't put any real heat into the word, not as cold and rain-battered as he was. And he was about to get even colder and more rained-on, just because some overconfident fool wanted to take pot-shots at some of the last demonlings on Erna.

"The shelter up at the top of the canyon is fully stocked," Kirrill said. "I checked it five days ago."

Gorden nodded. "Do what you can to find Maans' lost sheep, and then you can have the next four days off."

"Great." Damien picked a rag off a hook on the wall and wiped off as much water as he could, particularly from his boots; they were starting to cross the fine line from comfortably worn-in to uncomfortably worn-down. He pointed at the steaming mug in Kirrill's hands. "Give me that."

"You're not going to like it," Kirrill said, handing the mug over.

Damien gulped down the scalding, over-sweetened, bitter brew. "No, but I'll be a bit warmer."

He braced himself and went back outside. Down here, the rain had eased into a steady, chill drizzle, but when he went around the corner of the ranger station and looked up towards the foothills of Shaitan, the sky was dark and hazy. Damien went into the stable and saddled Gorden's horse, likely to be the freshest. His own mount eyed him warily from its stall and snorted its opinion of this behavior. Damien had to agree.

The wind was picking up. Damien hunched down in the saddle, shoulders set against the rain, already feeling how tense and sore he would be later. The path up to Death Canyon started out well-maintained and broad enough for two people to ride abreast, but once it wound in among the foothills it turned narrower and slick with mud.

Not that that discouraged the tourists, Damien thought sourly. In better weather, guides would take whole parties of tourists through, surrounded by armed guards. Richer travelers would hire guides and guards just for themselves, bring as many guns as they could carry, and pay whatever Gorden had decided to charge that day for a hunting permit.

Gorden's horse was slow and surefooted, not particularly pleased about being out in the rain, but too stolid to make a fuss about it. Lightning and thunder in the distance only made its ears twitch, and they slogged on together in silent misery as the afternoon lengthened into evening and what little light there was started to fail.

Shaitan's slopes rose beyond the foothills and vanished into a thick wreath of dark clouds. Damien lost sight of them as the path turned to run alongside one of the last groves of trees on this side of the mountain. They were low, stunted things, mostly, clinging to the hillside, their papery leaves rustling with raindrops.

Past the grove of trees and the cairn Kirrill had built for his dog, the path turned right, and Damien was at the entrance to Death Canyon. There was a large dark shadow right at the canyon mouth, and Damien narrowed his eyes and reached for his sword; the demonlings didn't usually come down this far.

The shadow moved closer and resolved itself into a wet, unhappy horse. And not just any horse. Damien pursed his lips in a silent whistle. He himself was riding one of Erna's three-toed un-horses, a sturdy, lazy beast Gorden had picked up cheap somewhere; this was a true horse, with subtly different lines and hard hooves that clacked oddly against the rocky ground as it moved forward. There was a small herd of such horses running wild down in the Forest, breeding among themselves, and hunters sometimes tried to capture the colts, knowing they would fetch a fortune. Whoever this tourist of Maans' was, he had money.

He might also be deaf, since Damien knew very well that Maans would have warned him both about the demonlings and the flash floods, repeatedly. To come out to Death Canyon alone, in this weather, at this hour, was practically suicidal.

Damien clucked his tongue at the horse, and it ambled over, snuffling at his knee and at the neck of Gorden's horse. There were no traces of blood on the tack or hair, and the horse seemed calm enough. He grabbed the reins and hooked them to his saddle. "Let's go find your damn fool of an owner," he suggested. "If he's still alive."

The canyon wasn't all that narrow on this end. Damien rode in cautiously, sticking to the path going straight down the middle, where it was too far for anything without wings to leap at him from the canyon walls. Of course, many of the demonlings did have wings. He nudged Gorden's horse into a bone-jarring trot.

No one was wandering around lost in the lower part of the canyon, or lying dismembered on the ground. At one of the places where the canyon walls curved a little closer to each other, Damien thought he saw something flying overhead, a quick glimpse of leathery wings and long claws, and as he rode he kept waiting for those claws to slam into his back.

About one third up its length, the canyon widened, the right-hand wall receding in a neat half-circle; the ground sloped up on that side, and there was a steep path at the top, not much more than a crack in the rock, so narrow that a rider had to get off his horse in order to enter it. This path led out of the canyon and then turned to run along the top of it all the way to the ranger-built shelter.

On the other side of the open space, the canyon walls came together again, rising higher and pressing closer. Damien had been hoping to find the lost tourist before he got this far. In the upper part of the canyon, the demonlings were more fearless, and there was no way to escape.

Damien sat back in the saddle and scanned every part of the open space for tourist remains, or tourists in hiding. He was wiping rain off the tip of his nose when he heard the echoing crack of a gunshot from higher up in the canyon. Damien spared a brief moment of reluctant admiration for someone who'd managed to keep his gunpowder dry this long, and urged Gorden's horse into a canter again.

Before he'd made it to the entrance to the upper part of the canyon, he saw someone come running. As Damien drew closer, the man stopped, turned, aimed, fired, and ran again. Instead of riding in and blocking the canyon, Damien got off the horse and drew his sword and waited, right where the rock wall formed a natural right-angle corner. He could hear the running man's footsteps, the screech and growl of the demonlings, and behind and beneath those sounds, a low and ominous rumble.

The lost tourist came racing out of the canyon a scant breath ahead of the demonlings pursuing him; Damien got a brief glimpse of dark clothes and dark hair before turning to spit the first demonling on his sword. It was coming so fast, it got halfway up the swordblade, claws scrabbling against Damien's oilskins before it died. The tourist aimed his gun at the next nightmare creature while Damien tugged his sword free, but this time the gun didn't fire, so the tourist turned it around and hit the demonling between the eyes with it instead, a good bone-cracking thump that stopped the creature long enough for Damien to cut its head off.

"More of them are coming," the tourist said, sounding slightly out of breath and completely calm at the same time. "I found a nest."

"Congratulations," Damien said grimly. Then something eerily familiar about that calm, almost indifferent voice made him turn and look. The errant tourist was a very young man with fine features and smooth olive skin, thick black hair in a long braid hanging down his back, and dark eyes that went down for centuries. Damien fought the urge to smack him. "What the vulking hell are you doing here?"

Instead of answering, the not all that unknown tourist pulled a second gun from his belt and fired over Damien's shoulder. The report was deafening. Damien cursed and turned around, barely getting his sword up in time to shear the wing off a demonling that came diving towards him. Others followed it. Damien fought without thinking, trying to give it his full attention, too aware of the man at his back, the man who shouldn't be there. The man he could kill just by saying his name.

More demonlings were definitely coming. One single tourist couldn't have stirred all of them up, not unless he managed to poke his head into every hidden nest in the upper canyon. They seemed desperate. Damien tried to see past the teeth and the claws and the wings; it was very dark in the canyon. The ominous rumbling sound was getting louder.

Damien ducked down to take out a crawling, misshapen, lizardlike nightmare, and the tourist stepped out behind him, past the cover of the rock wall, and shot another flying demonling through the throat just as the rumble stopped being distant and ominous and turned into a giant roaring wall of water sweeping down the canyon towards them.

"Get back!" Damien shouted. He reached out and managed to grab hold of the tourist's shirt, and braced his back against the rock wall and his feet against a crack in the ground as the water swept out of the upper canyon and into the open space. The force of the stream almost swept the tourist away, but he got one hand around Damien's arm and they both staggered back and up, pressed to the canyon wall, making their way higher and higher, away from the rushing water and the demons drowning in it.

The horses, sensible beasts, had already made for higher ground and were standing by the entrance to the narrow path, muscles twitching and eyes rolling a little. Damien grabbed the bridle of Gorden's horse and pointed at the path.

The tourist raised an eyebrow. The effect was slightly marred by the scratch on one cheek and the way his hair was plastered to his forehead. "You feel we should drown in there instead of out here?" The water was rising quickly, already filling the entire basin of this open space and lapping its way higher and higher up the slope, as well as running down into the lower part of the canyon.

"I'm not planning on drowning anywhere," Damien said. "Now hurry."

The tourist walked onto the path without hesitation, despite his words, and Damien followed him, leading the horses and hoping they weren't going to panic. There was another crack of thunder overhead, and the thin drizzle of rain grew heavier again. Damien watched water run down the tourist's back, rivulets sliding over the thin material of his shirt. The oilskins were doing a good job of keeping the rain out for Damien, but sweat trickled down his back instead; oilskins were too hot to fight in.

In the poor light and the driving rain, Damien could almost believe he was walking behind a tall, pale man with hair the color of a dried numaple leaf, a man who moved this exact way and whose long legs covered ground just like that. He stared at the tourist's long black braid so he wouldn't say the wrong name, and concentrated on the way the water was slowly seeping in through the seams in his right boot.

They hurried, and the water never rose high enough to catch up with them. After a fast, calf-straining walk, they emerged at the top of the canyon, and the path followed its side, not too dangerously close. The tourist turned his head, arrogant profile perfectly like and unlike anything Damien had ever seen before. "Can we ride down from here?"

"No." Damien separated the horses. "We ride up — there's a shelter ahead, out of range of the demonlings."

They mounted, and Damien led the way now, fully occupied with keeping an eye out for demonlings and erosion and trying to persuade Gorden's horse to trot whenever the surface of the path was smooth and even enough, which was rarely. It was almost fully dark, the heavy cloud cover turning twilight into early night. Damien knew the path, but he was well aware that rain and wind might have changed it since he'd last ridden this way. What used to be a thin layer of hard-pressed dirt was mud now, and the rock beneath it uneven and full of cracks. Whenever Damien glanced down to his left, he saw swirling water in the depths of the canyon.

At long last, the path split in two, and they turned to the right, away from the canyon. The shelter was built on high, open ground, where demonlings couldn't nest and rarely ventured even in the darkest night. It was a small but solid building of stone and wood, with doors on two sides, one entrance for horses and one for people. Damien dismounted and turned to find the tourist had done so as well. "I'll take care of the horses," he said. "You go in and start a fire."

After a barely perceptible hesitation, the tourist nodded and disappeared around the side of the shelter. Damien opened the stable door and lit the lamp that was waiting on the high bench right inside. Everything was in perfect order, just as Kirrill had said. He brought the horses in and got them settled, halfway to dry and with fresh grain, and hung the tack up to dry, and checked that the jar of saddle oil in the wall cupboard was nearly full. The leather would need a lot of work tomorrow.

Damien blew the lamp out again. Faint light came through chinks in the wall from the other side of the shelter. He went outside and closed the door carefully, then walked along the wall, slower and slower with each step. Overhead, the clouds parted enough to give him a brief glimpse of Casca, surrounded by a pearl-misty halo. The bulk of Shaitan loomed in the background. Damien stepped in a puddle, and his right foot went from damp to completely soaked; he pushed open the door to the shelter and stepped inside.

He was greeted by a little warmth, as a fire was already burning in the stove. One of the lamps was lit, standing on the small table, and the tourist was over by the right wall, lighting the second one. Damien peeled off his oilskins and hung them on a hook on the wall. He braced himself against the doorpost and worked his boots off, and the wet right sock with them. The warmth of the stove drew him, and he walked over and held his hands out to it, noticing for the first time that he'd managed to get a few cuts and scrapes down in the canyon.

The chest next to the stove held blankets and a few lumpy, badly knitted sweaters that Kirrill claimed Gorden had made during long winters. Damien pulled his shirt off and wrapped himself in a blanket, musty-smelling but dry and warm. He held out a second blanket to the tourist, who had finished lighting the lamp but still stood over by the wall.

"My name is Bijan Chawd," the tourist said, making no move to take the blanket.

Damien gestured impatiently. "But you were thinking about changing it to Pneumonia? You're soaked to the skin. Strip."

Bijan Chawd's air of arrogant politeness wavered. "I hardly think—"

"Strip," Damien said, pointing at the stove and the blanket. "Dry yourself off." Bijan didn't move. "I don't particularly want to do it for you, but if I have to, I will. You've been rescued. Live with it. Once I get you back to the lodge you can go to hell in any way you prefer, but as long as you're here, I'm going to keep you alive. Now strip."

Damien scrubbed a corner of the blanket over his face and head and shoulders, and when he looked up again, Bijan had taken his shirt off and was wringing his long hair out over a bucket. When Damien tossed him one of the thinner blankets to use as a towel, he caught it.

The shelter was starting to warm up. Damien dragged a bench up in front of the stove and piled a few blankets in front of it, since the floor was still cold. He checked the food stores and found dried meat, some fruit, a bag of dried beans and some soup mixes, and beer. It was more than enough to keep them alive for a day or two, but he should probably have a word with Kirrill about how to stock the shelters.

It wasn't until they were both seated on the bench in front of the stove, comfortably wrapped in all the blankets from the chest, each of them with some fruit and a beer, and their clothes dripping quietly in the background, that Damien asked. "So tell me, why are you here acting like a stupid tourist who needs rescuing?"

Bijan watched the water heating on the stove through half-lowered lids and long, drooping lashes. "Why are you here?" He didn't sound bored any more. "You're the kind of man who could change the world, and instead you're rescuing stupid tourists from flash floods."

"Believe me, I'm starting to regret it," Damien muttered. "But a man has to make a living somehow."

"There are other ways," Bijan said. "I'm sure you could find something to interest you, if you gave up this inconvenient notion of solitary martyrdom that you seem to cling to."

"I learned from the best," Damien said, and one corner of his mouth twisted in something vaguely similar to a smile. He turned his head and studied the man sitting next to him, seeing past the too-young face and fresh, smooth skin. "Besides, my background doesn't exactly make me fit for most ordinary kinds of work."

"Ah." Bijan put his beer aside. "Of course, I wouldn't know what that's like."

Damien couldn't help it. He laughed. "Yeah, I can tell," he said. The water on the stove began to simmer, and Damien got up and dumped in a few bags of soup mix, stirring with a wooden ladle. He added some of the dried meat and then, with a shrug, some of the fruit.

Bijan looked disdainfully amused. "I hope you don't expect me to eat that."

"Ranger stew," Damien said. "You'll eat it and like it. Go get the bowls from the cupboard."

Bijan seemed unconvinced, but he did get up and fetch the bowls.

The stew tasted better than it looked, if not by much. It was hot and filling, though, and Damien had two helpings before he put his bowl aside. Bijan was still picking his way fastidiously through his first small portion. Damien shook his head. He cleaned out his bowl and set it aside, and checked the blanket chest for rags. When he found some that were small enough, he stuffed them into his own and Bijan's boots and brought them a little closer to the stove, but not too close.

Damien sat down again, on the pile of blankets in front of the bench this time, so he could lean back. He tipped his head against the bench seat and looked up at Bijan. "Tell me. Why are you here?"

"This is one of the few places on Erna where it's possible to study demonlings in the day and return to a relatively comfortable hotel at night." Bijan stretched his long legs out and crossed them at the ankle. "In theory, at least."

"Not much to study," Damien said. "They live, they try to eat people, they die."

Bijan sipped his beer. "In some places, the gradual extinction of anything believed to be demonlings is actually causing a measurable disturbance in the ecosystem. Without access to the fae, evolution is too slow to compensate for vanished predators."

"You want people to stop killing them? That's not going to happen." The joy and relief people felt at no longer being at the mercy of the fae and their own worst fears didn't stop them from testing and reasserting their powers over the old world order. Demonling-hunting was more than just a tourism fad.

"No." Bijan put his half-empty bowl aside. "And here, it seems unlikely to cause any problems, but as I said, in some places... There is a difference between the worst creations of human nightmares, and various fae-mutated creatures that began existence as native species."

Damien frowned and finished off his beer. "People are killing everything they see with sharp teeth, because they can, to feel safe?" He put the empty bottle over by Bijan's bowl. "Yeah, that could get to be a problem." And that problem would be more apparent to this man than most, Damien knew, with his detailed knowledge of the checks and balances of a well-adjusted eco-system and his meticulous attention to detail. "Hard to know what to do about it, though."

Bijan nodded. "So far, I'm just documenting the process."

"That explains why you're here," Damien said, "but not why you decided to do exactly what your host down at the lodge told you not to do, and don't try to tell me he forgot, or that you didn't know without being told."

"I thought I would have more time." Bijan put his beer bottle down, too. "I miscalculated." He looked as though the words left a bad taste in his mouth. "I intended to come down to the ranger station afterwards."

Damien shrugged. "Not sure how much good that would do you. Gorden's dedicated to his job, but he won't care if the demonlings are wiped off the planet."

"To look for you," Bijan said, and his dark eyes were steady on Damien's face. "I was coming to look for you."

"Oh." Damien tensed, one hand clenching in the folds of blanket. He felt a sting, and looked down to see that one of the shallow cuts had opened again and was bleeding sluggishly. When he lifted his hand, enough blood welled up to bead on his skin.

Bijan leaned forward and reached out, catching the drop of blood on the tip of his finger. He met Damien's eyes for a moment, and then he touched that drop of blood to his tongue, and swallowed.

It meant nothing. Damien knew that. No one on Erna could touch the fae any more, not without sacrificing themselves for it, and shared blood created no link, gave no uncanny power. The two of them could never have that bond again, the one they couldn't speak about, nor would Damien want it. But it seemed he could have something else to take its place. He wiped away the rest of the blood and looked up at Bijan. "So. You think I should quit being a ranger."

"Yes." Bijan's smile was so faint, Damien didn't think anyone else could have seen it.

"And travel the world looking for unpleasant creatures that are going to want to kill me." Bijan nodded again. "I had a job like that once. Didn't pay all that well."

"This one will," Bijan said gravely. He slipped off the bench and sat next to Damien on the floor, and in the gentle lamplight, he looked as young as his body, until his eyes came up and met Damien's. He was trusting Damien with his life once again, arrogantly and unhesitatingly, and Damien, who had once sworn to kill him, reached out and pulled him close and kissed him.

The clean, awkward heat of that kiss was nothing like what Damien might have imagined, if he'd ever allowed himself to imagine, and it burned away the past. This was the future, with the piled-up blankets bunching under his legs and the edge of the bench digging into his shoulder, and Bijan's mouth warm and alive against his own.

"I'm not doing all the cooking, though," he said after a while.

"No, you're not," Bijan said in heartfelt agreement, and his wet hair smacked Damien in the face as he turned to put more wood in the stove, enough to last them the rest of the night.

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