Catryn stood, frozen, as Ric fell to his hands and knees. The priest had followed his instruction, darting behind Wolf for protection, but she couldn’t move. Ric tore his gloves off and clutched his head, muttering guttural words she didn’t recognise. She could feel his indomitable spirit falter under the weight of a rage so potent she thought it might scorch her from there. Run? Did he honestly think she could leave him like that?
“I’m not going anywhere.” She stated clearly. She could feel the priest behind her flinch at her commanding tone, but she didn’t care. It didn’t matter if other creatures heard her and came looking. Not just any spirit could take hold of someone with Ric’s mental strength.
Watching him doubled over with pain, Catryn placed her bag on the ground and slowly moved forward to kneel in front of him. “You led me out of the fire, Ric. You really think I would leave you to face it alone?”
She tentatively let her magic crawl out to meet his shadow. The trembling stopped. Catryn hesitated; something felt out of place as the man in front of her took a slow, deep breath. A voice, Ric’s but not, slithered over her skin as he chuckled “He hoped you would.”
Before Catryn registered his words, he collided at her with speed she had never seen him possess. Though they had been inches apart, the force was that of a charging bull and she could feel her rib crack under the impact. When he slammed her against the wall, dust and rocks falling down around them, her eyes widened as pain rippled across her back.
“This is no time for a break, Ric.” She choked, opening the force of her magic to push against him; her muscles would be no use. Ignoring the metallic taste in her throat, she searched desperately for any sign of him behind the otherworldly glare of his blinding eyes.
The priest scrambled away, muttering some kind of prayer, and Wolf flinched, wishing he had kept silent. As long as its attention was on her, she could still protect him. With a glance, the spirit possessing Ahren’s body sent the priest flying back across the far end of the tunnel. Wolf could feel that he was unconscious, but she could not spare him any attention as icy eyes fixed back on her face.
She had always known Ric was strong. They had sparred frequently, and she had fought at his side for long enough to know he was always holding back. “He’s strong, this one. The only reason you’re still alive after that first blow is that your lover is still desperately fighting against my control. It’s astounding for a mortal to have such fortitude.”
“Let him go.” She snarled, pushing the pain aside in favour of something more useful.
“Ah, there’s the beast I was so hoping to see. Catryn Nelaea Rylir Dyn-íthorn. You and I are very much alike.” A strange smile curled his lips at her silence, though her glare still burned into him as he pressed her harder into the rocky wall. Curiously, he released her and took a half-step back. He was still undeniably towering over her, but she could breathe again. “You do not deny it?”
“I understand your rage.” She admitted bitterly, her hands instinctively grabbing at her batons. “As I sense you understand mine. But I have been down this path and it solves nothing.” He growled in response to her words and grabbed for her again, but she dropped beneath his arms and twisted away. He lumbered towards her and she marvelled that Ric must still be fighting him after all; he had never moved so clumsily in his life. Dancing back, she deflected his strikes with her batons as best she could and desperately asked “You think a few bodies will satisfy your rage?”
“A few bodies, no? A few cities, perhaps. They must learn that there are consequences for their sacrilege.” His rage intensified from bloodthirsty red to a white hot flame, righteous and pure, and his voice echoed with power through the halls. “They exiled my people, cast us aside. For hundreds of years I have watched as they twist and taint our halls. As they defile my city. My people cannot even rest in their hallowed halls thanks to their greed. They deserve to pay.”
Catryn froze in her tracks and arms enveloped her tightly, pinning her in place. That time, she did not struggle. She wanted to hate him, she wanted to vow to bring him to justice for his actions. But she couldn’t deny his words. Instead, she hung her head and agreed “Of course they do.”
His arms slackened, surprised, and he turned her around to face him, searching her eyes for any sign of deceit. “The people responsible deserve to pay.” She repeated quietly, and lifted her head to show him the tears burning reluctantly in her eyes. “They will pay. But not at the expense of these souls, twisted and ravaged for your vengeance.”
“You were supposed to understand!” His face contorted with rage at her words, the brief hope dissipating in an instant. He swung his hand back to strike her and she made no attempt to dodge, her own anger and regret boiling back up under her skin. As she slammed into the wall, her mask breaking and cutting into her face, she could feel no pain.
“Understand?!” She screamed back at him. With speed she didn’t know she possessed, she slipped into his guard and grabbed his collar, her magic scrambling for release, deepening the shadows around them. “I hunted down every cell of the bandits I linked with my family’s murder. I slaughtered them like dogs. For weeks, I tracked every last one of them and tore them to pieces. The rage still consumed me. It was never enough. I am still no closer to an answer, to a reason they had to die. I would have drowned in their blood before it would have made any kind of difference.”
Her suffering was nothing compared to his, she knew that. Trembling, she struggled to push down the fire spreading across her stained soul. “What has happened here…is greater than my selfish rage. Your people have suffered, and they cannot even be allowed to rest. I can never understand the depth of your pain.”
“Then why will you not help me!”
“If your goal was to kill those responsible, I would! I will kill those responsible myself if that’s what you want. Gladly. But you have to let these spirits go! This is not their burden to bear. You are hurting your people more with your actions now. Let them go. Please.” Tears were flowing freely down her face, stinging the new lacerations on her cheeks. Wolf had never cared to get through to anyone, even Ric. His choices were his choices, and she respected that. But she couldn’t bear to stand by and leave this being to damn himself. If Ric hadn’t reached out his hand, she too would have been lost in the endless abyss this creature lived in. She fell to her knees in front of him, begging “I swear to you, I will help you bring those responsible to justice. Just let them go.”
The anger faded from his face as he stared at the hand she had stretched out to him in silence. For a mage with her skills to remove her gloves and offer a hand to a creature like him was either a sign of respect and trust, or of ignorance. Ric’s face had never looked so empty, but Catryn silently prayed to the Gatekeeper that she could save this man. The amulet at her wrist was cold and her heart tightened when he moved a single finger to her chin. Looking in her eyes, the only emotion she could feel from him as she tentatively reached out was betrayal.
“You should have taken the opportunity to destroy me. You were the only one that could.” He murmured tiredly. He tangled Ric’s hand in her hair gently before tightening it to a fist and pulling her up. His other hand closed around her throat, his crushing grip cutting off her air, and rested his forehead against hers. She could feel a strange devastation radiating from him; the fragile hope he held had shattered. With a strangely tender tone, he whispered “I will bring your spirit to the Gate myself when my task is complete.”
With trembling hands, she softly touched his cheek with her fingertips. He had been careful to avoid skin contact with her when they fought, but he evidently did not think she could still be a threat. As fog took her mind, she whispered a promise and sent her magic into him on a pulse. It struck the creature like a lightning bolt, the excess energy directed to bolster Ric’s resistance, fracturing his hold around Ric’s spirit just enough for him to wrestle back control.
Even as the spirit shrieked and hissed, his glowing eyes did not leave her face, burning through her as he was shoved from Ric’s body. The deathly grip at her throat loosened and stale air scorched her throat. By the time the weight on her chest began to lift as her lungs eased back into breathing, the hand in her hair was trembling.
Catryn tried to search his face but his head was bowed. Weakly, he dropped to his knees with a dull thud, his hands in fists at his sides. Murmuring his name gently, Catryn slowly touched his cheek. He gripped her hand but refused to look at her, and her heart stung. “Ric, you didn’t hurt me.”
“I told you I would protect you, Catryn.” His rough voice was a comfort, but the tears she felt on her fingertips winded her.
“Did it never occur to you that I want to protect you as well?” She replied slowly, sinking down onto the balls of her feet to get a clearer look at his face. At her words, he lifted his head slightly but his eyes paused at her throat. From his expression, Catryn assumed the bruising must already be showing. Her worries stuttered to a halt when he gently reached his hand to brush her throat.
Though it was painful, she tried to keep her wince to a minimum; he didn’t need to know the extent of her injuries when he was in such a fragile state. Even so, the light caress of his fingers on her skin sent heat rising to her face. His hands moved from her throat up her jawline to the edge of the mask. It had cracked and cut her cheek and brow, and he removed it. His hands shook as he brushed tears from her eyes.
Taking his hand slowly, but firmly, she insisted “This is not your fault. You are the only reason I’m alive. Of all people, I know how strong you are.” She linked their fingers and looked deep into his eyes. “I know you would never hurt me, Ric. I’m not afraid of you. Not now, not ever.”
Bitter disbelief crossed his features, along with a defiance she did not expect. Drawing a startled gasp, Ric impulsively pushed her back against the wall. Her back complained at the sudden movement but she could hardly feel anything over her pounding heart. As he pinned her hands against the rough wall, their fingers still linked, he muttered “You expect me to believe you are not afraid of me? You’re trembling.”
It was true that she was shaking, but heat rose further in her cheeks as she considered the compromising position she was in. With how she was kneeling, she had automatically wrapped her legs around his waist at his sudden movement. Besides, his strength had always been of particular interest to her.
“Ric.” She breathed, abandoning any attempt to conceal her flustered state. A woman showing attraction was not considered proper, but she had neither the strength nor the will to hide it. “Look closer. Is it fear you see?”
Through clouded eyes, he scanned her face. Her flushed cheeks, her slightly parted lips. The laboured rise and fall of her chest. Curious, he lowered his face carefully to her throat and deliberately beathed in her scent. Catryn couldn’t quite muffle her quiet moan as lightning arced through her. A weak chuckle escaped him and he whispered “You keep surprising me.”
With a shuddering sigh, Ric released her hands and rested his head on her shoulder. Catryn wrapped her arms around him, biting her lip in a vain attempt to stop the tears stinging her eyes from falling. “Don’t scare me like that.”
“You said you weren’t afraid.”
“I’m not afraid of you, Ric. That doesn’t mean I’m not afraid for you.” As she spoke, he moved so that she fell against his chest. The fight had taken a lot from her, magically and emotionally, and she twisted her fingers in the front of his shirt as he lifted her up. “Do you remember anything?”
Ric’s arms tensed around her. “Enough to know that any sympathy I held for the bastard’s cause is dead.” With a heavy sigh, he muttered “And enough to know we’re not just dealing with some rogue necromancer. He’s a Raven.”
“For a Raven to turn his back on the Gatekeeper in this way is unforgiveable.” The deeper into the Catacombs they travelled, the more the walls hummed with the energy of the tormented souls trapped by the Raven’s rage. It went against everything the Gatekeeper stood for. A burning sensation travelled up her throat and she buried her face in Ric’s chest, whispering wretchedly, “I couldn’t save him.”
For a moment, Ric was silent. He stroked her hair slowly and brushed fresh tears from her cheeks. Even grimy with dirt and blood, she was still the most beautiful woman in the world to him. “You two are not as alike as you fear.”
As Catryn opened her mouth to respond, her attention was drawn to the coughing and spluttering at the end of the tunnel. “I forgot about the priest.”
“We’ll pick this up later.” He promised quietly. He did not put her down as he moved to the priest’s side, picking up her bag along the way. The expression on his face when she mumbled his name dared her to complain. She swallowed her objections with a smile; she wasn’t sure she could walk very quickly and Ric was strong enough that her weight would make little difference to him. She could let herself rest, just for a little while.
“You seem to be yourself again.” The priest commented wryly, getting to his feet. He moved gingerly and Ahren fought another bout of guilt.
With Catryn fast asleep in his arms, Ric spared a moment to examine the priest. Even at a distance, he could see that his eyes were dazed and unfocused, and Ric groaned inwardly. “How is your head?”
“I didn’t expect her to be so young.” He said quietly, as though he hadn’t heard the question; it was his first time seeing Wolf without her mask. It often surprised people; with a reputation like hers, they expected her to be older. Feeling Ric’s glare, he shook himself and insisted “We don’t have far to go now. I will be able to perform my duty.”
In silence, the two men walked carefully through the tunnels. It was a relief that they did not encounter more trouble; Ric was concerned about Catryn’s injuries. He knew that she was trying to hide her pain from him, and she was exhausted. If they didn’t finish up soon, there could be complications.
Finally, they reached a wrought iron door protected by a single glowing seal. The door was moulded into the stone, like it was part of the natural rock formation, and there were no hinges or handles to speak of. The priest placed a hand in the centre of the seal and turned back to Ahren with a strained smile. “This is it. Only those favoured by the Gatekeeper may pass through the door. I will enter and perform the ritual. If you could remain here, to ensure there aren’t any interruptions, that will be sufficient to complete your contract.”
With a furrowed brow, Ric replied “We’ll wait here for you.”
“Goodbye, Aeric Ahren. It has been an honour.” He glanced once more at the young woman sleeping in the mercenary’s arms and nodded. Finally, he turned his back to them both and walked through the surface of the door.
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