torch, flambeau@strangeplaces.net
May 10-24, 2015

Disclaimer: There was stuff going on. Written for devo. Do not archive without permission.

Inexplicable splash

The Hunter walked through his Forest, feeling its power swirl around him, shifting with every step he took, wrapping around him and flaring out behind him like a trailing cloak of darkness. Everything in this place was his. Everything was perfectly aligned, growth and decay exactly balanced, as tidy in its way as his sorcerously clean clothes, or the arrangement of books in his library. The Forest both created and drew in power, and all that power was his, went to him and through him; he was its dark heart.

Everything he had done this night was in affirmation of that. He had hunted, he had fed, he had maintained the compact that kept him, for a certain value of the word, alive.

As he passed a particularly dense clump of trees, the shadows stirred, and the predictable swirls of the currents were broken as if someone had dropped a rock into them, creating an inexplicable splash. Gerald Tarrant stopped. His hands, inside delicate gloves of fine grey leather, flexed.

Someone came stumbling out of the trees, carried on waves of fear and pain. It seemed the dropped rock was a person. He was staggering, clutching at his arm -- no. Clutching at the place where his arm used to be. His eyes were blank with feverish terror, or perhaps fever and terror together, and when he saw Tarrant, he stuttered a few words on an indrawn breath, turned, and ran.

The Hunter preferred his prey to be female, delicate and fragile, and this inexplicable stranger was certainly not that -- rather sturdy-looking, if anything, despite the severe injury and the fever. But the fear rising from him, leaving a clear trail, was exquisite. He must be much more complex than his simple, ragged appearance declared; his fear was that of a thinking man, layer after layer of plans and failures, if this then that, guilt and self-blame and small attempts at rationality overthrown by pain and panic.

Gerald Tarrant did not approve of strangers entering his realm uninvited, appearing where they had no business to be. Killing this man should have been a simple matter. Giving him over to Amoril as an object lesson, simpler still. But his fear tasted like a fine dessert wine, and instead of doing either of those things, Tarrant went after him.

It wasn't much of a chase. There was no reason for Tarrant to follow the ritual of his ordinary hunts, to pursue his prey as an ordinary man would, ignoring the input from his adept's senses. The night wasn't completely dark, not a true night, but dark enough to make the Forest even more treacherous and difficult to navigate than it was by day. The stranger was clearly fae-blind, and made no attempt that Tarrant could detect to Work his sight. He avoided the obvious traps, though, the stagnant water where mud and leeches would have sucked him down, the nest of sharp-toothed nurats, the Forest's smallest and most vicious predators.

Thinking himself invisible in the shadows of the trees, the stranger bled, and cried, and ran, and all the time terror poured from him in quick, pulsing, delicious waves.

It was easy to track his path, and to predict where he would go next. However taken Tarrant was with the flavor of the man's emotions, he didn't want this stranger anywhere near his castle, the stone solidity at the center of the Forest's dark, arboreal sprawl. He herded the man subtly back towards the clearing where they had first met, after a much shorter run than he would normally have allowed any victim.

Strong and sturdy, the man could have provided a lengthy chase, if the fever hadn't slowed him down so much. He had good instincts, and he seemed to be accustomed to running and hiding. In his present state, though, he was no challenge. Not that the Hunter went after his prey for the challenge, as such. Drawing the chase out merely meant a longer, slower feeding off a more honed and intense fear.

When the man stumbled out from the trees, much as he had done the first time, Gerald Tarrant was waiting for him. The realization on the man's face, the death of a tiny glimmer of hope, the fumbling for a weapon that wasn't there -- all these things were sweet as poisoned honey. The man took one more step, one more attempt at flight, and then he crashed to his knees and stayed like that, head slightly bent.

The feeling pouring off him changed. There was less panic in the fear, more of resignation. The stranger held himself like a man who expected bad things to happen to him. Given the state of what remained of his left arm, perhaps he had good reason. Tarrant walked a slow circle around him, examining him.

A relatively young man, and yes, clearly one who would have been strong and fast, were he in full health. The face looked even younger than the battered body, and the lack of expression sat oddly on features that seemed made for an open, earnest smile. But no one whose fear was this layered, whose response to that fear was this controlled, could genuinely have the innocence required for a smile like that. Gerald Tarrant found himself intrigued.

No, not the right kind of prey, but delicious for all that, and it would be a waste to let the hunt end here, like pouring the remains of that fine wine into the dirt. Something had to be done about the infection and fever, though, if the Hunter were to have the pleasure of breaking this man down all the way from strength to weakness.

This, Gerald Tarrant reflected calmly, putting one hand on the stranger's mangled shoulder, will hurt.

Coldfire rose at his bidding and wrapped around the stump, the source of the fever, burning, chilling, cauterizing, cleaning. This destruction was the farthest thing from healing, but it would, as long as it only destroyed unwanted bacteria and closed off ruined blood vessels, have the same effect. The pain, of course, was unavoidable.

The man's mouth fell open in a silent scream. Since those first few confused words, which Tarrant had not been able to make out, he hadn't made a sound; he might have been mute. Perhaps he'd believed silence would help keep him hidden, as if the Hunter needed anything but his fear to track him. Now, though, after the most intense wave of pain had passed, he said something -- short, seemingly defiant, and completely incomprehensible.

There was only one language on Erna. Only one human language, at least; if the rakh spoke to each other, in the distant rakhlands, Tarrant had no knowledge of how, but this man was no rakh, and the syllables he'd strung together clearly meant something to him. Not just that, but he'd believed they would mean something to his captor.

That made him intriguing in a way that went far beyond the flavor of his fear. Tarrant's interest sharpened. It would be a waste of information to hunt and kill this man, as delicious as his pain might be. "I believe we should talk," he said, more to himself than to his listener.

"Is that what you call it? Talk?" The man shuddered in his grip. He had a most peculiar accent. "I told you, you'll get nothing from me."

"I very much doubt that," Tarrant said. He had fed so richly tonight that his blood was singing, and if that was all the man had to offer, it would still be plenty. There was more, though. The man was a mystery, and mysteries were made to be solved.

He pulled the man to his feet. Though sleep and food would probably be needed to restore him to full health, the fever was already fading, and nothing lived in the stump of his arm that shouldn't, any longer. The man seemed to notice the change himself, too. He glanced at the stump, and then at Tarrant's face. "Did you just heal me?" he asked.

"No," Tarrant said, with instant denial, as if the simple question might weigh more heavily than his actual deeds with the powers that sustained his life.

"I can feel a change," the man said. "In my body." Worn-out as he was, still reeling from the pain of what Tarrant had done, he drew himself up straighter. "I haven't met anyone like you before. You're different."

"You're not likely to meet anyone like me again," Tarrant said dryly. The man was not, in fact, likely to meet anyone again, and still after the brief hunt, the pain, the fear, he stood there with a sort of out-of-breath confidence, as if he knew Tarrant was too intrigued to kill him. "But you must have known that, when you came into my realm."

"Your realm," the man said quietly, as if to himself, and then looked up through his lashes at Tarrant. "Did you create this environment?"

"Yes," Tarrant said, the simplest answer. Of course he had not made the river, carved the rocks, but everything in the Forest was carefully designed and put together, a well-balanced ecosystem, guided by his will and intelligence.

"That's pretty impressive." The man looked around as if seeing his surroundings in a new way. The fear coming off him had, oddly, lessened; it was still there, but no longer the same delicious flood, as other emotions took over.

Tarrant disapproved of that, but there would be time to rekindle that fear later. "I like to think so," he said, "but that's not a common reaction." No one, to his recollection, had stopped in the middle of a hunt to admire the sheer effort and attention to detail that went into maintaining the Forest.

"Well, you don't exactly give people time to have it, do you?" The man drew himself up and ran his one hand over his ruthlessly cropped hair. "Look, this is fascinating, and under other circumstances I'd love to stay and explore some more, but I've got the kind of business that can't wait. If you'll just let me out, I can come back later."

The man was lying, of course, that part wasn't unexpected. But he spoke as if he expected Tarrant to believe him, as if leaving and coming back was a possibility.

"You don't know where you are," Tarrant said slowly.

"I have a map," the man said. "It's just not very detailed." He shifted his weight. "They don't trust me that much." To Tarrant's shock, the man leaned forward, pressing a quick kiss to Tarrant's cheek. "But really, ease up on the Prince of Darkness thing," he said, turned, and ran.

And there was the fear again, as delicious as before. The man went straight into the same clump of trees that he'd originally come out of, and Tarrant considered whether to go after him, or send the wolves to herd him into an area where he could survive the coming day, preparing for a longer hunt the next night. But as he considered it, the currents of power in the Forest moved in a way that Gerald Tarrant had never experienced before. If the man's arrival had been like a dropped rock and spreading rings from the splash, this was the opposite, a drawing together and a vanishing, an un-ripple, followed by predictable smoothness.

Tarrant went in under the trees, though he could just as easily have stayed where he was. He tasted the air, used all his senses, did a simple Working, and then a more complex one.

The man was gone, as if he'd never existed.

***

"Listen, Mulder, there's something I have to tell you."

"Shut up."

"There's some kind of really advanced virtual reality setup out in those woods. I don't know what they're planning to use it for, the guy in charge wasn't very forthcoming, but--"

"If you're not going to answer my questions, shut up."

"This has to be important! Just listen, I'm not lying to you!"

"You're always lying to me, Krycek."

"...Ow."

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