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He watched from the shadows, emotionless. When Aiden picked her up and carried her back to Arbelon, to the safety of the high walls, he didn't move. As they passed, he could still smell the sharp taint of grief from her body. Reaching out a hand, he clutched at the air they had just inhabited. He knew her scent would be gone, but it didn't matter.
"Touching, is it not?"
Turning smoothly, he placed his hand on the knife hidden underneath his cloak. The Trilukhai stood not ten feet away, her silver robes casting an eery sheen on her pale beauty, maker her look a specter in the night.
"I am happy for her," was all he said. But he said it carefully.
"Are you?" Her voice was colder than the Forest air. "I find it hard to believe that you would stand by and watch my playboy brother take advantage of her."
He glanced back toward the city lights. "He has not taken advantage of her yet. She needs the comfort he can give. Something I was never able to bestow." His gaze was on her. "If and when he tries anything, I know you will not allow it."
"Ahhh," she whispered, stepping nearer. "You say this as if you will not be here when such an even occurs."
He smiled tightly. "Will I?"
"Do you know of the Shirr, Stephan?"
"They're shape-shifters, demons of the Forest. They pray on innocence and deciet."
"But do you know the most interesting facet about them? See here..." She opened her white hand. Nestled against her palm was an insect with wings that glowed like the moon. "This little demon is feeding off of my concern, my fear for the future. It is a subtle thing; she is a small daughter." A small dagger appeared in her other hand. Placing the point on her palm next to the butterfly, she cooed softly at it. "See how trusting it is? How the reflection of the dagger from its wings lulls it into a false sense of security?" The butterfly climbed onto the blade, perched at the point like the petal of a deadly flower. "It senses no danger from me, no tension. It now feels the memory of this dagger; the lives it has taken, the blood it has spilt, the wounds it has healed."
With one graceful and deadly flick of her wrist, the Shirr fell like rose petals to the Forest floor, two small slivers of the moon, slowly fading. "It is still happy," the Trilukhai whispered. "In death, it believes it has taken a life. It believes it survived to exicute its purpose. It was killed by the very lie it fed from." Absently, almost pensively, she stepped closer to him, laying the blade - Shirr blood still fresh on its tip - against his throat. "Tell me, Stephan. Are you the innocent butterfly who will cut in two? Or are you the dagger who gave it life, and thus, its death?"
He was silent, unmoving.
She stepped away. "You are right. My brother will not harm her in any way, not while I am watching. And I will be watching, rest assured, just as I have watched you."
"What would you have me do, my lady?"
"I would have you answer two questions."
"You may ask. I may choose not to answer."
"Do you love her?"
His chest constricted. "I don't know."
"Is that your second question?"
"Bear with me, Wanderer. Would you die for her?"
"Would you leave her?"
"Even if it meant your life?"
"My life is nothing. If you have watched me as closely as you claim, you would know this."
"Her life, then?"
He was silent.
She placed her hand on the bark of the black oak she had been leaning on. "I want you to leave."
His eyes flashed. "You wouldn't dare--!"
Her hand fluttered at him. "Do not worry, Wanderer. She may not be the Aulekhai. But she is very dear to me in ways you cannot even begin to imagine."
"She is the Aulekhai."
"No. I fear she does not have what it takes to be our savior. There is nothing but doubt and insecurity inside that girl's body. She doesn't even have the fundamentals to believe. Her faith is so weak it is only the mercy of the Angel that she is still living. She surely would have died in the world you stole her from. But this is irrelivant." Her emerald eyes pierced his. "I can give her a life where she will be happy. She will be someone. Perhaps she will join the Silver Daughers with me. Become my apprentice. If not, she will surely find a place elsewhere. The horrors of this evil War will not touch her here. Her faith can flourish. She will not think of ending her own life every hour of the night...or of the day, I suppose, as it is in her case. She will be loved. Protected. Nurtured. Do you want that for her?"
He could see it. Trista had a cunning way of making those around her like her. But the way she kept her true feelings inside would be her undoing.
"I would die to see her have such a life. But it is not meant to be. Even if she has all of this, she will know she is missing something. Her soul will know there is something left unaccomplished. Oh yes, Silver One, she will die the fragile death of an innocent Shirr, but she will not die accomplished. She will place the dagger's point on her own breast, but she, not I, will be the one to slice her in half. If she does not accept who she is, she will fade as assuredly as if she were a Dreamer."
"I will make sure such a thing never happens." White fingers lifted, caressing his face. "I sensed the doubt inside of you ever since you passed through my City's gates. Whether you stay here or not, you will be her undoing. I'm giving you the choice of leaving her to who she is, not who you want her to be."
He felt as if she had stabbed his gut. Who you want her to be.
"You may have been her Guardian all those years. But no more. In this world, me and Aiden can be her Guardians. You are no longer needed. I want you to leave. And I don't want you to return. Slither back to whatever demon's hole you crawled from." Her eyes were burning. "It is too late for you, Traitor. The Dark One has a clutch on your soul so strong, not even I can fathom what you could have possibly done to deserve such d*mnation. You are done for. Leave her with us. Leave her in the light. If you wish it, I can even make her forget you."
"No," he choked past a retched throat. "I would have her remember..."
She was silent.
He crouched down to touch the now dim wings of the Shirr butterfly. An image of Trista sprawled across a black marble floor, a blade in her chest, flashed across his eyes. The wings of the insect on the ground melded to her back, and she stared at him with empty eyes. "I would have her remember something good in her life," he whispered. "The terrible burden she bears to be lifted. Her eyes to be opened to the true angel she really is." He swalled painfully. "At a time...I would have given my life to be the one who would convince her. But that time has passed. I can do nothing for her except burden her even more. She's hated me since the day she saw me through her chemistry class's window, a black shadow in the sun, and in her life. I know there have been good times, however...memories I would not have taken away. In any possible way I have helped her, I wish not to be undermined."
"I will have it done."
He looked up at her, standing with all of the dignity one can stand with the lineage of a fallen Race on their shoulders. "You truly are the Daughter of the People. You are a snake."
She smiled. "Don't complimment me, Stephan."
He stood. "The blackness in your soul may not be visible from the light the Angel has bestowed on you. I can see it. He can see it. The Angel surely does."
For the first time, her eyes flickered, and she lowered them. "You will be gone tomorrow."
He waited a moment befor replying, "I will be gone. You will never see me again."
Emerald orbs flashed back to his.
He bent down, placing his lips against her ear. "Because if you do, you and I both know I will be the last thing you see."
He admired her for her lack of motion. But he could smell the sudden fear in her. Somewhere deep inside of him, where something black stirred, the scent exuded an immense, if subtle, joy. He felt giddy.
"I will see her again, however," he said as an after-thought, taking three steps toward the City. "The Angel bless our reunion, Silver Daughter."
He turned and walked away. Her still form faded behind him.
I will leave. But not because of this. It is best for Trista...it is the last thing I can do before...before...
He paused, but only for a moment. He didn't know what would come next. In fact, he hadn't thought about it until now. The gutural voice of the one he called Master slilpped through his mind like a forgotten memory: "You will leave her. Your heart will be torn out, and it will hurt. But it is what must be done. You must die in order to live. As she must."
He passed the Wall, slipping behind the great Trees that lined it. A glint of white caught his attention high above, and he stopped, glancing up.
She stood there. Her gray gown, torn from her flight alone into the forest, was gone, replaced by a simply white dress. Her hair was down, freshly brushed. She leaned against the balcony of her rooms, too far away for her face to be visible.
Stephan's heart broke. He opened his mouth, as if to scream something up to her, he didn't know what. A warning? A farewell? But the unformed words stayed hidden behind his tongue, which never moved. Only a small sound came out, an almost ferril moan so rent with grief and frustration, he felt he woud collapse.
She lifted her head, turned, as if someone had called her. In the light of the doorway, the tall form of Aiden appeared, his black clothing swallowing Trista's white presence. He held out a hand, and she took it. Stephan watched as she was folded out of sight.
In a sudden impulse, Stephan grabbed the knife from his belt - the black one with the tiny diamond in the helm - and threw it with all his might. Rage, fury, fear, frustration, sorrow, and madness went into the toss; the blade sliced into his finger as it left his hand. It burried itself with a satisfying thunkinto the lintel of the balcony door Aiden's head had just stood before.
It should have been me. Angel blessed, Trista...Angel blessed, I should have been with you. Pray remember me...but forget I was ever there.
Stephan turned and faded into the night.