Protection, Part 2 NSFW

Author's note: The original summary for this work on Eka's Portal included this note at the end:

This is a fairly long part of the story (Salesgirl voice: Twice the filesize, at no cost to you!) and the vore scene for this part is pretty short given that. It's mostly dramas. If you're looking for a long, lovingly described scene of Maritza giving in to her urges and eating up Karya, sorry, not in this part. Maybe later.

“Karya?”

The tent remained still and silent. I sighed. “Karya, may I enter?”

A silvery head popped out of the tent flap, looking guiltily at me. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. I’m sorry if it was rude or whatever. Please don’t be mad at me.”

“I would like to speak with you, if that’s all right,” I said.

Karya nodded and withdrew into the tent.

I stepped inside, sitting myself down beside her on her bedroll. Even - no, especially - in the near-total darkness within the tent, her long white hair seemed to shimmer and glow faintly, a symbol of the power she held. And, I might add, a severe problem when it came to hiding her.

She was looking away from me.

I blew out a long, slow breath, trying to collect myself. I fervently hoped I hadn’t ruined things. If she didn’t trust me entirely, there would be no way I could protect her. “Karya, are you frightened of me?”

“No! I mean... maybe a little bit, yes,” she said, glancing up at me. “But you’re scary for me, so I shouldn’t be frightened of you, right? So I’m not.”

I raised my eyebrows. Most humans weren’t nearly that good at manipulating their own emotions with reason, but perhaps Karya really wasn’t afraid of me. Her behavior wasn’t exactly in line with fear, really. I looked her over appraisingly, pondering this.

“Can I touch it?”

I looked down, following her gaze to my bulging middle. “What?”

“Oh... sorry, is that rude too? Sorry, sorry!” She sounded flustered.

“No, not rude, just... unexpected.” I frowned. “If you aren’t scared, then what is all of this?”

“I’m just curious, that’s all,” she mumbled. In the faint glow from her luminous hair, I could see that her cheeks were red again. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said. I had come in here expecting to ease her fears, not console her... embarrassment? “You can touch it, if you like.”

Her red eyes sparkled brilliantly as she reached out and delicately placed a hand on my stomach. “Doesn’t it hurt, to have it stretched out like this?”

“No.”

She looked up at me. “How does it feel, then? You must feel it, at least a little...”

“It feels very good,” I said simply. “I like to be full.”

She went silent for awhile at this, tracing patterns on my stomach with her delicate fingers. I couldn’t read her clearly, couldn’t tell what the silence meant. It was a while before she spoke again. “How long is she going to be in there?”

I hesitated. “That depends. Unaided, a week or more. With the right exercises, hours.”

“Would it be bad to... keep her in there, as long as possible?” Karya’s gaze was focused on my stomach. “For you, I mean...”

“It makes me a little less mobile, but no,” I said. “Why?”

“Well, if you like it...” Karya looked up at me, though she quickly averted her eyes again. “Could you eat someone else, while you’re still... digesting her?”

“No.” I shook my head firmly. “I’ve only got room for one. And I’m not hungry after a big meal. No different from you.”

Karya nodded. “Oh. Right.” It looked like she was thinking about something, but if she was, she wasn’t sharing.

“Is your curiosity satisfied?” I asked.

She hesitated, then nodded again. “For now.” I rose to leave, but she grabbed my arm. “Wait. Can you just stay in here with me tonight?”

I frowned. “It will be hard to keep a good watch from here.”

“Then can I stay outside?”

I shook my head. “It’s too dangerous to have you exposed.”

Karya persisted. “But you’re exposed, too. If you die, I’m dead too. And you’d protect me if you thought I was in danger, right?”

“That is true, but I can survive much worse than you can, fragile little Karya.” I frowned. “An error for me would most likely mean a painful injury. An error for you would most likely mean instantaneous death.”

“Just this once,” Karya pleaded. “I would feel so much safer. And you’ve already gotten rid of one assassin tonight, right?”

I nodded.

“The others will probably be scared of you, then, see?”

I frowned. “With a full belly, they’ll think I’m less of a threat than usual. I can’t eat them, too, and I can’t move as fast.”

“I just... I really want to stay with you tonight. Maybe it’s a premonition, or maybe I’m just a scaredy little girl and seeing someone wanting to kill me getting so close to my tent makes me anxious and I want to be held, even though she’s in your belly now. But, please...”

Premonition? That made me take notice. One of the things that had gotten weird about Karya’s body as it had become soaked with magical power, besides her hair, was a vague future sense. She couldn’t see images or anything, just had sudden and unexplainable feelings about things. And they tended to be right.

So if Karya wanted me to stay in here...

“You want me to hold you?” I asked, amused.

She flushed. “I-I mean, you don’t have to actually hold me, I just... W-well, would you?”

“An odd request.” I chuckled. “But you’re full of those tonight. If you want me to, then I could.”

She promptly climbed into my lap, needing no further invitation. My arms curled around her protectively. It felt as if she were a glass bauble, small and thin and fragile.

That intoxicating smell flooded my nostrils as she lay her head on my chest. It was a good thing I was already full, as having her this close, I might have otherwise been tempted to steal a taste.

Her hands found my belly again, and she let out a little squeak. “She’s still moving?”

“Yes. She’ll be alive in there for most of the week,” I said. “She’s exhausted, but she still wishes to get free.”

“Why?” Karya asked.

I raised an eyebrow. “My stomach is not the most hospitable of places. Most creatures want to avoid being inside it, especially knowing the fate that comes to food entering it.”

Karya gazed down at my stomach as if she could see into it, silent for a long while. “Only most.”

It was a statement, not a question.

After a while, Karya dozed off against my chest, her body snuggled against mine. It was surprisingly comfortable. I kept as vigilant as I could from within the tent, listening for anything from outside. At least the tent didn’t block sounds too well.

But the night was silent but for the crackling of the fire, and Karya was soft and comfortable in my arms. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I must have dozed off for a few moments.

Not that it would have helped had I stayed awake. The whooshing of incoming wings gave only a few seconds’ warning, and I awakened and shifted immediately, covering Karya’s whole body with my own so that the incoming creature wouldn’t have access to her.

Then the tent was torn open, one whole panel simply ripped in half.

I looked up at the entering beast. Another dragonling, this one with more than a few decades on me. She still looked young for a human, but I could tell she was quite old.

For one thing, she had the wings I so desperately wanted, in scaly black leather.

She folded her wings, and I noticed her claws glinting in the moonlight. Not natural ones, to my relief; she was from a bloodline with human hands and feet, like me. But she wore steel claws on her gauntlets and boots, which she’d used to rip up the tent in the course of her landing.

She snarled as she caught sight of me, readying her claws. “What?! I wasn’t told there was a dragonling here.”

I glanced down for a moment as Karya tensed in my arms. She was awake now. She had the good sense to keep quiet and still, though.

I turned my attention on the other dragonling. “The last assassin to stumble into us had no idea either. She’s as good as dead now.”

The other dragonling smirked. “Already fed? Then you won’t mind if I take the snack you’re holding and leave, no?”

Karya pressed against me fearfully. I could just barely hear her racing heartbeat. Her breaths became shaky. Not good. Karya needed to be able to focus to be of use in a fight, and if being called a snack broke her focus, she almost certainly would become one. I couldn’t take on the older dragonling by myself, especially not with a full stomach. I cursed myself for giving in to my baser urges.

I forced myself to regulate my breathing. It was especially important to keep cool and seem in control if Karya was on the verge of freaking out, even if I was pretty sure we were in trouble. “You’re free to leave, yes. But the girl remains with me.”

“Oh? Are you going to stop me from taking her?” She laughed at me, scraping the claws together noisily. “What are you, 350 years old? 360, at most?”

I gritted my teeth. “My age isn’t your concern. What should be your concern is what I’m going to do to you if you try to attack her. Do you really consider her worth dying over?”

“A delicious young thing like that?” The other dragonling licked her lips. “I’d travel to the ends of the world for a meal like her, even if I wasn’t getting paid to have it.”

A whimper passed Karya’s lips. She was trembling now, just barely keeping her fear in check. I briefly wondered if asking to be held was part of her premonition, to make her feel at least a little bit safe. I hoped I was making her feel at least a little bit safe, anyway.

One thing was clear, though; with Karya unable to concentrate and me outmatched, we weren’t going to win this fight here... IF we had it.

I wasn’t going to have the fight at all if I could avoid it.

I slid Karya onto my back, rising to face the other dragonling. Karya’s arms latched around my neck in a death grip without my telling her to. “Let’s test that, then.”

I made as if to leap past her, through the torn panel. Instead I dove sideways, out the front flap of the tent.

It didn’t take her long to notice my simple fake-out, but it was all the head start I needed. I bounded into the trees, relying on my knowledge of the forest layout from when Karya and I gathered wood for the fire to dash through without even looking, zipping effortlessly between them. As I had expected, when she came after us, she didn’t know the trees at all, having flown over them to reach us.

It slowed her down, but not enough. She might not have been faster than me normally, but with my stomach weighing me down and Karya clinging to my back, our advantage was only temporary. I cursed under my breath.

“Is that all you can do?” the dragonling taunted from too close behind us. “I was hoping when you left that there would be some fun in this chase! But I can take easy meals, too...”

Wet tears dripped onto my hair, seeping down my neck. Karya had lost her grip on her fear and given in to panic. “Don’t let her eat me,” Karya pleaded. “I don’t want her to do it.”

“Karya, please try to remain calm. Remember the exercises I taught you,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady and controlled even as I ran, in the hopes that she would be soothed by it. She nodded against my back, and I felt the short gasps of breath on my now-wet neck turn long, if still shaky.

If I could calm her down, we might have the slightest chance. But we both needed time, time we didn’t have... unless...

I reached into my pocket, pulling out a small bag filled with tiny marbles. I only had one, and this wasn’t exactly the best place to put it to work. But if I didn’t use it now, we were both dead. “Down, Karya!”

I whirled around, hurling the bag at the other dragonling as Karya wrapped her legs against me, pressed her face against me, and covered her ears. I closed my own eyes and looked away as the bag struck the other dragonling in the chest. It wasn’t going to be enough to save me. But at least the other dragonling didn’t have enough warning, either.

A thousand tiny marbles flew out of the bag as it burst, immediately detonating in a thousand blindingly bright and deafeningly loud explosions, spreading into the air a thick, strong-smelling gas that made both our noses useless. The other dragonling screamed, audible even through my loudly ringing ears - she hadn’t realized what I was doing, and her eyes hadn’t been closed. She wouldn’t be seeing for a while. But given how sensitive my eyes are, my eyelids hadn’t been thick enough to block out all the light, and I, too, was temporarily blinded, deafened, and unable to smell.

Still dazed by the explosions, I hurried dizzily back the way we’d come, relying on my memory of the forest to guide me. It was much harder blinded, but Karya covered for my weakness when she realized I couldn’t see, gently pointing my head in the direction I needed to go the few times I was headed for a tree.

I found the small cave I was looking for, feeling the hard stone beneath my boots. I followed the cave wall in a short ways, kneeling down. My vision was mostly back by the time we reached it, and my hearing had nearly returned as well. We didn’t have too long; even without her nose, she’d find a way to track us.

Karya slid off my back, kneeling in front of me. I took her hand in mine, quickly tracing out a message on it with my finger to keep silent.

Could you put an illusion on someone? To look like you?

She glanced up at me curiously and nodded.

Get it ready. I sat back, releasing her hand, and began to concentrate on controlling normally-unconscious muscles in my body.

This isn’t a trick most dragonlings know how to do. Or choose to learn, perhaps. It’s sort of gross, and it requires a lot of focus to pull off. But it was one I had learned early on, for problems just like this one.

Karya pulled hairs out of her own head, letting out little squeaks of pain with each yank. She watched me curiously, her mouth open in an unspoken question.

She jumped, startled, as the head of the assassin from earlier emerged from my lips. Carefully moving my throat muscles in concert to keep from accidentally injuring her, I worked her out of my digestive tract, laying her dripping body out on the floor. She had been marinating in the first wave of digestive fluids - meant to break down her resistance before beginning to really break down her body. Like I said... sort of gross.

Karya nearly dropped her plucked hairs in surprise.

As her bare feet slid out of my mouth and hit the cave floor, I wiped my lips.

My ex-victim and our new decoy was dazed and sleepy, not interested in escaping us at the moment. There was even the beginnings of a smile on her face. She must have had a weak constitution for them to have had such a powerful effect in such a short time. Maybe I was wrong, and she wouldn’t have lasted a week.

Karya looked at me questioningly, then back at the girl laying on the floor. I could tell this had raised far more questions in her head, and I didn’t have time for that. I signaled her, indicating the hairs in her hand.

She nodded, and began to focus. Her eyes lit up in the darkness, their normal dark red intensifying to the color of molten steel as she murmured words of power, her hands tracing intricate patterns through the air and leaving trails of light behind them. I have to admit, I like watching her when she does a full casting, although she’s powerful enough to do them without all the ritual. It’s almost hypnotic.

I assumed she was doing the full ritual to conserve her energy for later. Smart girl.

She curled her fingers around the hairs she’d taken from her head, and when she opened them again, a glittering powder was inside. She carefully dribbled it over the assassin’s body, and where it touched, the girl’s features deformed. When she had finished, Karya was kneeling over an unconscious and naked body double.

I indicated her clothes, gesturing between the two Karyas. She flushed, shaking her head firmly. I pointed to my eyes and nose. We needed to delay the other dragonling’s realization as long as possible. Even if Karya could have made illusory clothing, they wouldn’t have carried her scent; the other dragonling’s nose might be confused for now, but she would almost certainly be able to smell the difference from up close.

When it became clear I wasn’t going to budge on this point, she pouted and began another spell, disappearing from my view. Real invisibility, not the shadows the assassin had wrapped around herself.

While I waited, I busied myself with cleaning up the fallen assassin, wiping the fluids from her. A moment later, soft, warm cloth infused with Karya’s mouthwatering scent hit me in the face. I rolled my eyes. So childish, even among those hundreds of years younger than me.

I quickly dressed the illusory Karya in the real one’s clothing, and pulled off my coat. It wasn’t much, but it would keep her from freezing to death, and preserve her dignity. I offered it to the spot of empty space where Karya was, and it was immediately snatched from my hand, vanishing as she put it on and it became part of the invisibility field she had projected around herself.

I could hear movement outside; we’d finished our work just in time. A little late, perhaps; she was closer than I would have liked. I quickly picked up the false Karya in my arms, and felt the real one secure her arms around my neck again.

“Where are you?” came the taunting voice outside our cave. “I know you’re here somewhere... You can’t hide forever! I’ll find you, and then it’s time for dinner...”

Karya tensed on my back, clinging tighter. I guess she didn’t think we’d be found again - or maybe she didn’t have too much confidence in our deception. I tipped my head back, lightly touching my cheek to hers in an attempt to reassure her wordlessly.

Between the distraction, and the leftover scent from the marbles I’d thrown earlier still clinging to me, I didn’t realize there was someone else there until she spoke.

It was a woman’s voice, impatient and irritable. From the way she spoke, I guessed her to be human, but likely a mage of some kind. That wasn’t good; we didn’t need any more opponents right now. “Why are you having so much trouble with this? With the amount I’m paying you to off one inexperienced teenager, I would expect you to have succeeded hours ago.”

“Don’t rush me,” the dragonling snapped, lowering her voice. “It’s easy to demand results from up in your ivory tower. You’re not out here putting your life on the line for this. And you’re not doing either of us any favors, calling me while I’m hunting like this.”

Hm. So she was sending some sort of projection to communicate. That would explain why I hadn’t heard her approaching. And, thankfully, it meant we didn’t have to deal with her here.

I grinned inwardly at the mention that the dragonling thought her life was on the line. At least she properly recognized the threat Karya posed.

Karya shifted uncomfortably against my back. She didn’t share my triumph at this. I guessed that she must know the owner of the voice. We’d have to talk later.

The woman’s voice continued angrily. “You told me you were going in for the kill an hour ago. And yet I still have not heard any report of her death. And you’re hunting, now?”

“She has a bodyguard. Another dragonling. You didn’t mention that. Might have been useful,” the dragonling growled.

“I had no reason to believe the girl’s guardian would threaten you. I wasn’t aware she was a dragonling.” The mage sighed noisily. “Just get it done. No excuses. I want her dead tonight.”

Karya’s breathing against my neck had lapsed into the calming exercises again. The conversation was worrying her, unsurprisingly.

“Fine. Then leave me be so I can hunt,” the dragonling snapped.

I crept forward a few steps. As I’d hoped, the sounds of her movements had passed our little cave - she’d walked right past us due to her distraction. There was a chance that we could escape without drawing a fight. We just had to wait a little bit longer, until she was mostly out of earshot... No way I could sneak around well enough to fool another dragonling’s hearing.

The footsteps were starting to get far enough away to be hard to hear. I let out a slow breath of relief. I didn’t know for sure what we’d do next, but if we could get away from her, we’d be safe enough to plan our next action.

But it wasn’t to be.

The assassin moaned as the drugs she had been soaking in began to wear off, and the sounds of the dragonling’s movements stopped.

I froze, feeling our chance evaporate and swearing up a storm internally. I should have had Karya put her to sleep, too.

“I hear you!” the dragonling called, crashing toward us. “Time to eat!”

Karya’s calm was shattered all over again. Her heart quickened and her breaths came quickly. Thankfully, she made no other sound. Perhaps we would be lucky and the dragonling wouldn’t notice the other source of sound.

“Wait! Wait! I surrender!” I said as she drew close. “Please, just wait!”

She came to a halt just outside the cave, warily looking me over with her slitted yellow eyes narrowed. “What?”

I made a show of looking beaten and frightened and cowardly. “I thought I could escape you, but... You’re too much stronger than me! If I fought you, I’d just end up dead and you’d get her anyway. If you want her, just take her, and let me go! Please!”

As I’d hoped, playing to her ego made her smug and not overly interested in picking holes in my deception. She stepped toward me, giving me a condescending smirk. “That’s right. You picked the wrong side, didn’t you? I was just thinking it was a pity. We could be the best of friends if we weren’t working at cross purposes. And I’d hate to waste the life of a fellow dragonling on this. Hand her over, then, and we’ll be done.”

“Muhh...?” The assassin looked blearily at the other dragonling as her senses slowly returned to her. She was still incoherent, but I had to work fast. Anything she said had a high chance of blowing the lie before we had a chance to get away.

“Here!” I shoved the assassin’s still-limp body into the other dragonling’s arms and stepped back a good way to keep her from noticing the scent of Karya clinging to me, waiting with bated breath.

The other dragonling looked her prize over closely. “You drugged her? Very good! She won’t even realize you betrayed her. There’s hope for you yet, little one. Maybe old Vera can train you.”

Internally I bristled at being treated this way, even called “little one”, but I nodded meekly. “I appreciate the offer.”

She turned to leave, taking her time to walk away from the cave. I slowly blew out the breath I’d been holding. Karya was safe.

Suddenly, she stopped and turned. I didn’t like the look on her face. “But you know, little one, there is something that concerns me.”

“Oh?” I asked, trying to hide the tension I felt from her. “You have her now. What could still concern you?”

“Well,” she said calmly, “you were digesting a meal when we met earlier, were you not? What happened to that?”

Shit. I had hoped she wouldn’t notice that.

“Ah, her... perhaps all the running I did churned her away to nothing,” I said, suddenly anxious. Shit! I should have had Karya disguise that as well, but I hadn’t thought there would be time... “She did seem quite weak.”

“Maybe so. But I find it more than a little bit suspicious. You’re not trying to deceive me, are you, little one?” Vera stepped toward me, eyes narrowed again. “I’d hate to have to kill you after all.”

Sensing a fight coming, I jerked my head back almost imperceptibly, to signal Karya to get to safety. Karya slid off my neck invisibly, her bare feet landing against the stone floor with two small slaps. I covered the noise by stepping forward myself. “No! I wouldn’t dare! It would be suicide! And I gave you what you wanted to avoid that!”

“Or did you?” Vera lifted her prize. “I think you’re trying to trick me.”

I stepped forward, slipping into a combat stance to ready myself for the inevitable strike, and hoping Karya was ready to back me up with some kind of powerful magic.

The assassin’s body sailed over my head, slamming into the cave wall with a faint crack. I smirked at my assailant. “Perhaps old Vera’s aim needs some work in her old age.”

She simply sneered at me, launching herself toward me. In the span of a blink, the distance closed between us, and the assassin’s clawed gauntlet pierced my chest. It would have killed a human instantly, but for me it was simply overwhelming pain. I hadn’t realized she could move so quickly... She really was holding back because of the trees during our chase.

“It would have been much better for you if you had really handed her over.”

She shoved me roughly against another wall, and as I fell, I saw what she had done.

She hadn’t been aiming for me.

She had been aiming for Karya.

The assassin’s body was sprawled over Karya’s lap where she sat leaned against the wall of the cave. A trickle of red stained Karya’s perfect white hair, and her eyes were unfocused. The crack I’d heard had been Karya’s head hitting the wall as she was thrown back from the hit. It hadn’t been a deadly blow, thankfully. But she was concussed, and severely out of it. With her only half-conscious, the spell had fizzled.

I clutched the wound in my chest and tried to rise as Vera stepped toward Karya’s fallen body. “Stop right there.”

“Marissha,” Karya called, trying to drag herself out from under the assassin’s body, dazed and slurring but still recognizing the danger. “Marrishe, help! Help!”

Vera dragged Karya over to her by the arm, lifting the clawed gauntlet up to Karya’s exposed throat. “Stay where you are. I’d enjoy a freshly slaughtered meal just as much as a live one, but I don’t think you’d like to see that, would you?”

“Mar... Maritza,” Karya called, her struggles stopping as even her dazed brain noticed the deadly spikes at her neck. “D... don’t let her eat me... Please... Please... I don’t... I don’t want her to...”

I gritted my teeth. It would be easier to plan a rescue if I wasn’t losing blood so fast my own head was starting to spin. “I won’t. I won’t, Karya, I just... I need to figure something out.”

“Fascinating! You still think there’s a chance you can save her?” Vera taunted, grinning with way too many teeth. I couldn’t help but notice she’d had all her teeth sharpened to match her dragonling fangs. It was an intimidating effect. “Well, if you do figure something out, I implore you not to put it into play. You don’t want me to start chewing, do you?”

I winced, feeling helpless. Karya started crying.

I’d failed to protect her.

Vera laughed. “Good girl. Now sit still and watch.”

She lifted Karya over her open mouth, holding the girl’s ankles still so her kicking feet would slide in. Karya shrieked as Vera’s mouth closed around her ankles, frantically calling for me. “Maritza! Maritza!!”

Her panicked voice was my failure incarnate, calling my name to lay the blame where it rightly belonged. I clenched my fists until my fingernails made my palms bleed. “I can’t... Karya, I can’t...”

Vera began swallowing, and Karya began to disappear inside her. Quickly. Too quickly. As much as she wanted to taunt me, I think she believed me to be a threat. To have some trick up my sleeve that I could still use.

She was wrong, of course. I had nothing left.

Karya reached for me desperately, her hands flailing away as Vera slurped her down effortlessly. She had already vanished up to her waist. “Maritza! Y... You have to save me! I don’t want her to eat me! I w... want to be with you! Please... Please do something!”

I simply gazed at her, feeling sick. It nearly killed me to watch the hope fade from her eyes as she saw the helplessness in mine. “I’m sorry, Karya.”

Vera’s hand pushed Karya’s head down, making her torso disappear into Vera’s throat.

Even knowing I couldn’t save her, Karya’s self-preservation instinct was too strong to let herself be swallowed that easily. She tried to push herself out, tried to use her hands for leverage on Vera’s shoulders, but Vera pulled her hands away.

“No! No!! Noo-mph!” Karya’s remaining screams were muffled as her head entered Vera’s mouth. I looked away as Vera slurped up her arms, swallowing the last of her whole.

I’d lost her.

Vera laughed once her throat was clear. “She was really quite delicious. You might have saved yourself all this trouble by eating her yourself.”

“Just kill me and go,” I spat, leaning back. My mind raced, hoping against hope that there was still a chance. Her teeth were no threat to Karya now. If I could catch her by surprise and cut Karya free before she was digested...

Vera smirked. She was watching me too closely for me to try anything, and I was too injured anyway. “No. I don’t think so. You’re going to have to be alive to reflect on your failure.”

Her stomach squirmed, held tightly beneath her body armor. Karya was so close, and yet so far... condemned to certain death I couldn’t prevent with Vera watching me like this.

Vera began to massage her stomach. I could almost hear Karya shrieking inside her as the already unfriendly stomach skipped ahead to the part where it turned her to broth. Vera planned to digest Karya right in front of me...?

“Watch closely, now. She’s weak... she’d barely last a few hours if you ate her.” Vera laughed, a sound that sent shivers down my spine. “But my stomach is very practiced at digesting her kind. Her remaining lifespan is measured in the tens of minutes. So I’ll be out of your hair soon enough. But I’ll let you live, if you’re still interested in being trained.”

“Go to hell,” I growled.

I wanted to look away, but I felt I owed it to Karya to watch. As punishment for my failure to protect her.

It wasn’t just my failure, though. I suppose I had grown attached to Karya in the time she was under my care. So, indeed, I was losing a friend. Watching a friend die in agony because I had failed to protect her.

It was the most painful thing I’d ever gone through.

But it meant I was looking when Vera’s eyes suddenly rolled back into her head.

She crumpled to the ground, leaving the assassin - now back in her own body, and nearly bursting out of Karya’s night clothing - standing there with a knife made of shadows, dripping with blood from where it had pierced Vera’s back. I stared, mouth agape. So, she could be sneaky when she wanted to... and she wasn’t a half-bad shadow-weaver, either.

“Die, abomination,” she spat at Vera’s crumpled body. She turned her attention on me, recognizing me from earlier. “You.”

“Wait,” I said quickly. “Wait! She’s not dead yet! It will take more than that to kill a dragonling, you idiot! She’ll get up and rip you apart while you’re dealing with me!”

The assassin stared at me, distrusting.

“I swear to you, this is no trick! Finish her off, then we will resolve our grievances!”

Keeping her eyes on me, she knelt. Her second strike was decisive... even Vera could not rise again after that.

I rose unsteadily. Though the wound was beginning to close, it had been quite serious. I would need quite a bit of recuperation time.

“I mean you no further harm, so there’s no need to attack me,” I said carefully. “I chose to release you, remember?”

“You ‘chose to release me’ so you could trade my life for the witch’s safety,” the assassin snarled.

Ah, yes. That.

“Why should I trust that you mean me no further harm now?” she asked, eyes narrowed. “You are an abomination, and you already tried to eat me once, and feed me to someone else when it was convenient for you.”

“I thought she would let you go when she found you weren’t what she was looking for,” I said. “I only attacked you earlier because you were threatening Karya.”

And because I was starving. But she didn’t need to know that.

“Why do you want to kill Karya?” I asked. “She hasn’t hurt anyone. Is someone paying you to do this, too? I can pay more.”

“No,” she said. She seemed to be okay with talking to me, although her guard did not go down. “It’s impossible to reach that level of power at her age. I can’t allow her to become a leader of our people if demons have a claim to her.”

“I swear to you, demons have no claim to her. Who told you that?”

She tightened her grip on her knife. “I don’t believe you.”

I went for the emotional angle. “She is simply a frightened young girl with a gift she didn’t ask for that, coincidentally, made a lot of people want to kill her. She hasn’t got enough evil in her body to even think of making a deal with a demon. And between you and me, she’s so naive that if she ever tried, she’d be digesting away powerlessly in some demon’s belly right now.”

The assassin’s eyes narrowed again. “You swear to all of that?”

I nodded. “Every word. If you could talk to her, you’d see it’s true. I promise. Just free her and you’ll see. Neither of us is much threat to you now.”

Her guard relaxed the tiniest bit. “All right. But if I find you’re lying, I’ll kill you both.”

The assassin knelt, working her shadow-knife again. I would never admit to it, but I think I might have gotten the slightest bit emotional when I saw Karya’s glowing silver hair spill out onto the floor, just before she sucked in a huge breath of clean air.

She had survived Vera’s belly with minimal harm.

The assassin was still there to contend with, however. She pointed the knife at Karya. “On your feet, witch.”

Karya stared at her with wide eyes, her joyful greeting dying in her throat. “Wh... What’s going on?” The concussion still disoriented her, and the lack of air and stinging acids had dazed her further still. “I... I thought... you saved me...”

“On your feet!”

Karya staggered to her feet, wobbling dangerously. I quickly moved to her side, catching her as she fell again and holding her upright.

She gazed up at me, relief plain in her eyes. “Maritza... I was so scared...”

I gave her a small smile, then nodded to the assassin. “She’s hurt, and weakened by her ordeal. Make this quick.”

The assassin faltered. Perhaps she had imagined that Karya would seem obviously evil in some way. Not like a normal girl.

“Are... you all right?” The assassin had lowered her knife slightly, and her voice had lost some of its edge.

Karya shook her head, which made her dizzy, and I had to steady her again. “Unh... Headache...”

I spoke softly. There wasn’t time for this; Karya had taken a pretty severe blow. “I apologize, but she needs to be cared for soon. If it will help you trust us, I will allow you to travel with us until you make your decision about whether she lives or dies.”

The assassin had already made up her mind. The knife she’d made dissolved in her hand, returning to the shadows it had been stitched from. “Take me back to your camp. I need to collect some supplies, but I can tend to her.”

I nodded gratefully, shifting Karya onto my back again. “Thank you. You are...?”

“Lethe,” she said, falling into step alongside me. She glanced up at me. “I warn you, though, I haven’t decided yet. If I think either of you is a threat, even once she is patched up, I won’t hesitate to kill you both.”

“I understand, Lethe,” I said. “Still, I thank you for your help, while we have it.”

She nodded.

We walked the rest of the way back to the camp in silence, Karya resting fitfully on my back.