Protection, Part 3 NSFW

I paced back and forth outside the tent uneasily. That had been much too close, and as a result, Karya wasn’t going to pose much of a threat for a while. Lethe was only barely an ally, and my chest injury had quite a bit of healing to do yet.

I was pretty sure that if we were attacked again, it would be our end.

But, as much as I strained my ears and eyes and nose, there was nothing but Lethe and Karya’s muffled breathing from within the roughly-patched tent. We were alone in the forest again, for now. I sat down beside the fire, letting my impact drive out a sigh.

The tent flap shifted, and Lethe - now dressed in some of my extra clothes - sat beside me.

I tilted my head toward the tent. “How is she?”

“Delirious.” Lethe frowned at the fire. “She was asking me about when... eh. She needs a few days to heal. And I need more supplies. My bag was already running low, I used up the last of my stock on her.”

“I appreciate you doing this.”

Lethe glanced up at me briefly. “I have a certain bond with her already. We shared a brush with death tonight, after all.”

I looked away, embarrassed. “Sorry.”

She nudged my shoulder. “Let me look at your chest. I have some medicated bandages left that I didn’t use on Karya. They might help you heal quicker.”

My eyebrows raised. “You really want me in fighting condition again?”

“If you wanted to eat me again, you could probably do that right now. On the other hand, if another one of... your kind came after us, you’d be pretty worthless.” She folded her arms. “Anyway, you trusted me alone with Karya. I’m choosing to trust you, too. At least until I get a feeling for what Karya is.”

“If you’re sure... Thank you.” I nodded, and she started shifting my torn clothing out of the way, needing no further invitation. “That was pretty impressive shadow-work. Not many people can bring down a dragonling alone.”

She smiled absently, patting the physical knife which had found its way back to her side. “I much prefer to fight with the real thing. Fighting is tiring enough without having to focus on your knife so it doesn’t turn into a toy replica. But a well-shaped shadow knife has its perks...” Her eyes met mine for a moment, as though she were going to say something else, then flicked back down to my chest. “There, that should do it.”

I nodded appreciatively. “Thanks. Will you keep watch for a bit? I want to check on Karya.”

Lethe nodded, and I rose, making my way into the tent. Karya was stretched out on her bedroll, her head bandaged and her eyes closed. But as I knelt down next to her, they opened again.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

She gave me a half-hearted thumbs-up. “My skin doesn’t itch as much anymore. My head still hurts, though.”

I nodded. “You took a pretty hard hit. I’m glad you’re safe now.”

“Are you going to eat Lethe again?”

“Ah...” This again. It felt so strange, casually discussing my meals with someone my instincts might have liked to turn into one. “Not unless she gives me cause. She has tentatively proven herself a friend.”

“Oh... You don’t eat friends, then...” She seemed confused, or perhaps even put out by this. I remembered Lethe had called her delirious. She’d seemed lucid enough, but...

I raised my eyebrows. “Not if I can avoid it, no.”

“Well, Lethe was pretty nice, so I wouldn’t want you to eat her anyway.” Karya nodded, to herself more than to me. “But, aren’t you hungry now?”

My stomach growled as Karya reminded me of its emptiness. “A bit, yes. I’m sure I can find other things to eat.”

“Do you think Vera was telling the truth, when she said I was delicious?” Karya asked. The question carried no more weight than a query about the weather.

My instincts begged me to find out, but I steeled myself against them. Karya’s timing in asking this could have been worse, most likely, but it would have been very difficult. “Probably.”

“You should try me, and see,” Karya said, lifting a hand to my face and holding it just below my nose. “I’m probably at least as good as Lethe.”

“Karya,” I began carefully. Normally I might have just laughed at the bizarre request, but with my empty stomach demanding another big meal to replace the one it had given up, talking over the warm, sweet scent flooding my nostrils was a serious test of my will. “I don’t think it’s a good idea right now. I’m much too hungry right now. I might not stop at a taste.”

A shiver ran through her, and she touched two fingers against my lips. “Even if you do, you’ll just let me go after, right? Like you did with Lethe.”

Hungry temptation blossomed, seductive images floating through my mind. Just one little lick of her fingers, waiting just outside my lips, would answer my curiosities about her flavor. One little, tiny, innocent lick. She was practically begging me to do it. It wouldn’t exactly be a violation of my contract to do what she asked me for. And if it was as heavenly as I suspected from the sweet aroma of her body, I would probably be justified in getting a better taste of her whole hand. Both of them, maybe. They were small enough that they’d both fit without having to stretch myself at all. I could almost feel her fingers wriggling curiously against my tongue. She wouldn’t mind that, I was sure; with all the questions she’d been asking, she’d welcome the opportunity for some direct answers.

But just sucking a little bit on her hands wouldn’t be quite enough to get a real taste. Maybe I could swallow once or twice. It would still be tasting her, then. I’d want to try out some of the smooth texture on those skinny, pale arms. Of course, then there was the danger that she might worry and try to pull them out, but that would only make me hungrier. I’d probably slurp them right down without even thinking. I couldn’t really get a true picture of her taste without licking her face, anyway. Maybe her hair, magically imbued as it was, would have a unique flavor of its own, and I’d want to sample it.

Of course, if I’d swallowed that much of her, I’d owe it to her to let her enjoy it. With Lethe keeping watch, I would have all the time in the world to savor her. Knowing her general cluelessness and oddity, I wondered if Karya had ever been with anyone. Maybe I would be the first. I would give her a mind-blowing first time. It would be my payment for letting me taste her. Once I’d gone that far, though, I might as well devour her entirely. She’d need to rest, and what better place than the stomach she’d seemed so interested in? I imagined the bulge she’d make, curled up inside. Not a very large one; she wasn’t a very large girl. And she was right... I could always release her.

But I could keep her for a little while before I’d have to do that. No enemy of hers would be able to reach her in the protective chamber of my belly, and she’d be happy... and I’d be full again... And it wouldn’t be entirely necessary for me to let her go, anyway. I’d feared this whole endeavor was doomed to fail from the beginning. No matter what I did, it would probably never be enough to protect her. She was sure to suffer a painful, frightened death at the hands of one of her enemies someday. Letting her drown in bliss instead would be the most merciful thing I could do. She would squirm so pleasurably inside as she realized I wasn’t going to release her, that she had willingly given herself as a meal without even realizing, and then she would fade away, and I-

“Maritza?” I felt Karya’s eyes on me, watching me curiously. Wondering what I was thinking. Her breaths were shallow and uneven; maybe she knew somehow. “You’d let me go, right?”

Reason seized the opportunity and fought its way back through the fog, bringing a wave of guilt with it. I shoved the fantasies away from me as firmly as I could, embarrassed at the lapse of willpower even only in imagination.

There was absolutely no way I could trust myself with even the tiniest taste. Not like this, at least. I wouldn’t lose Karya. Period. I would not let her die, neither at the hands of her enemies nor... her friends.

I took her hand and pressed it down against her side before the tantalizing scent got the better of me, any more than it already had. “I’d rather not risk having to.”

She wilted. “Right. … Right. Some other time, then?”

I shook my head. “Maybe.”

She closed her eyes, a look of disappointment remaining on her face. “Okay.”

“Rest, Karya. We still have quite a bit more traveling to do, remember.” I rose, leaving the tent.

I needed to get control of myself again.

---

Two days later, Karya could walk without getting dizzy, and her wound (and mine) had vanished without a trace, so we were on the road again. Karya made no further mention of her request, thankfully, returning to behaving normally around me - well, as normally as can be expected of the odd little girl, anyway. Perhaps it was simply the concussion talking.

I was making some progress on getting my hunger back under control. After years of being bottled up, it had gotten a small chance to escape, and I was determined to see it back into the bottle. Restraining it seemed to have a noticeable effect on my demeanor; Lethe wasn’t quite as tense around me anymore.

Karya had found someone new to direct her curiosity at, and now that she was up and about again, barraged our new companion with questions. Lethe was far less forthcoming with answers than I was, but seemed to enjoy the questions nonetheless. I think they made her see what I meant about Karya, at least a little bit. Karya wasn’t malicious. And to be blunt, she might be a quick learner, but she was utterly lacking in the guile and cunning she’d need to survive an encounter with a demon.

I let Lethe lead us, putting up only a slight resistance when she took us into a darker part of the forest. It was a dangerous detour, but she’d said she needed to collect some more supplies to replenish her stock, and since she had used them to help us, I wasn’t about to stop her. If she meant to use them against us, or leave us to deal with the monsters in the forest... well, I had a plan to get Karya out of there safely. And there were worse dangers than Lethe that could be lurking about, even in the lighter wood we’d left behind.

Sensing little danger nearby, I decided to tune back in to the conversation Karya and Lethe were having.

“But the effects are magical,” Karya was saying. “My head shouldn’t be better yet, but it is... um, mostly... so this must be some form of magic. And I haven’t seen any books about healing magic, so it must be some sort of rare and secret magic. Or, I guess maybe it’s something that only some people can do. That’s probably it.”

Lethe shook her head. “It’s just medicine.”

“That can’t be! I’ve had medicine, and it doesn’t work that fast!” Karya protested. “It has to be magical.”

“My medicine is very effective,” Lethe said, a small, pleased grin on her face. “The ingredients are somewhat difficult to come by, though. They’d be expensive if I didn’t gather them myself.”

Karya nodded. “That’s probably where the magic comes in. Do you have to do rituals? To release the magic and stuff?”

“No, just mix the right things together in the right way.” Lethe paused, as if deciding something. “I could show you.”

“Oh!” Karya was briefly distracted from her battle of semantics by the prospect of new knowledge. “Yes, please! Would I be able to do it, too? If I watched you?”

Lethe shrugged. “I don’t see why not. You’d need more teaching than that, though.”

“Will you teach me?”

I smiled to myself at the eagerness in Karya’s voice. It was good to have her back.

A sound drew my attention. Movement in the forest. I raised my hand to quiet the other two, and listened intently.

A few of the forest’s nastier creatures were shifting, having noticed our presence. Karya was an appealing target, and Lethe as well. They likely wouldn’t want to deal with me, but if they saw a way to snatch up one of the other two without drawing my attention, they would. Lethe could probably handle herself, especially if she’d been in this forest before, but Karya would be easy prey if I didn’t get to her in time.

“Move carefully,” I said quietly. “We have entered dangerous territory.”

Lethe nodded, and then her form blurred, merging with the heavy shadows that surrounded us. Karya glanced up at me questioningly. I shook my head; her lack of subtlety would do more to draw magic-sensitive creatures than it would to keep vision-reliant creatures from noticing us.

We moved on in silence, with Lethe and I scanning the underbrush for any signs of a threat. Karya hovered close to me, her nerves on edge now that the calming conversation was over and the danger was back.

Lethe pointed, moving over to a small patch of flowers growing at the base of a tree. They didn’t seem terribly special; I might not have paid them any mind if she hadn’t pointed them out. Karya and I watched as she plucked them and placed them into a small sack in the bag she carried. She moved with a fascinating efficiency; she’d clearly done this many times before.

My ears twitched. Something in the trees overhead.

I glanced up. A lamia was wrapped around the branch above us, her serpentine yellow eyes watching us and an amused look on her face. When she saw that I had noticed her, she grinned, showing her fangs.

“Lethe,” I said quietly, not taking my eyes off the creature. “We have company.”

Lethe rose, and my ears detected the sound of the knife leaving her belt beneath her cloak of shadows. Karya followed my gaze, her eyes going wide. I gathered that she’d never seen a lamia before.

“I’ve finally caught you,” the lamia said, sounding pleased with herself. It took me a moment to realize she was talking to Lethe. She smoothly unwound her greenish-brown scaled body from the branch and dropped to the ground beside us. “This forest’s reputation keeps most humans away, but I could always taste you in the air... and yet I could never find you. But this time, I was ready for you.”

Lethe chose not to answer, moving closer to Karya and me and remaining under her shadow cloak.

I decided to step in. “We aren’t interested in a fight. We’d be content to let you leave unharmed, but if you attack any of us, we will not hesitate to remove the threat you pose.”

The lamia gave me a look of disdain. “Don’t threaten me. You aren’t the scariest thing around here, dragon girl. Not in my forest. You’ll make a meal for me just as easily as your sneaky human friend, and perhaps a more filling one at that. And that sweet-smelling mage with you will make an excellent dessert.”

Karya quickly moved from looking on in curious amazement to hiding behind me. Apparently, she’d seen and heard all she needed to.

I slipped into a combat stance, choosing to ignore the taunt. “Leave. This is not a fight you will win, if you choose to have it with us.”

“I won’t fight, no.” The lamia shifted toward us. “I won’t have to.”

“Stay where you are,” I warned.

The lamia’s fangs came out again, and she continued her approach. “The only ones afraid of a fight are those who are certain they will lose it.”

So, the fight was coming, whether we wished it to or not. I glanced to the side and realized that Lethe was gone, vanished while the lamia and I traded threats. She had melted into the forest, blending with all the other shadows there. I could still smell her, so she was still close, but...

The lamia smirked as she noticed the same thing I had. “Just the two of you, then? Very well. I’ll devour you both and find her later.”

From a tree nearby, Lethe dropped onto the lamia’s back, her knife flashing out to strike the lamia as it had Vera. Unlike we dragonlings, lamiae have little in the way of armoring on their human halves, and a good strike would end the battle before it even began. But lamiae have reflexes and agility where dragonlings have strength, and she quickly lashed out at Lethe, causing her assailant to lose her balance. The strike went wild, nicking the lamia’s shoulder and leaving a line of red.

The lamia snarled in pain, roughly grabbing Lethe and dragging her off her back. I lurched forward. I hated leaving Karya uncovered, but Lethe was as good as snake food if I didn’t act quickly.

Unfortunately, the lamia acted quicker. Her tail snapped, slamming into my stomach like a heavy club. I stumbled backwards, and Karya cried out in surprise, hurrying to my side. I tried to warn her away, but the breath had been knocked out of me by the blow, and the lamia’s tail snatched her off the ground, wrapping her up tightly.

“Maritza!!” Karya called for help, squirming as best she could against the tight coils surrounding her. Not suffocatingly tight, or at least, not yet; the lamia was much too busy with her first meal.

Lethe, her shadow-cloak lost, struggled against the lamia’s hold as she was pinned to the ground. The lamia might not have had much strength compared to me, but Lethe was in a completely different weight class. She flailed her knife, trying to stab at the snake-woman who was preparing to devour her. But as they had been with me, her strikes were panicked and lacked their usual purpose, and the lamia easily avoided them.

I watched, still dazed, as the lamia’s fangs sank into Lethe’s smooth, unprotected neck. Lethe’s whole body shuddered as the venom began to take hold, convulsing intensely before finally going limp. She was still conscious, but most of her muscles were useless. The loss of the ability to fight seemed to have taken the desire to fight out of her as well; her eyes had gone distant and the tension had left her face. I wondered if the lamia’s venom was similar to my own digestive juices.

The breath was starting to come back to me, so I pulled myself upright again, trying to draw in air and ward off the dizziness. “Karya, focus!”

With my prompting, Karya remembered herself, trading her struggles for the look of focused concentration she wore when trying to cast a spell through force of will alone. Her eyes flared brightly as the power focused within her.

I turned my attention back on Lethe’s plight, only to find she’d already disappeared up to her waist. The lamia already had begun consuming her, and seemed to have stopped to thoroughly enjoy her taste. Lethe twitched as the lamia’s forked tongue worked within her, her face dizzy with pleasure even through the venom’s effect. Foolish. The heat of battle does not usually provide the best place to savor your enemies, not when there are more of them around to kill you before you can finish the meal.

It was a chance, at least. I ran toward the lamia, launching myself into the air to leap over another tail swipe and slamming head first into her stomach. I must admit, I was quite pleased to return the favor.

Unfortunately, she was still in a much better position than I had been. I heard a faint squeak of air being cut off, and snapped my head toward Karya. As I had feared, whether reflexively out of pain or deliberately as revenge, the lamia had begun squeezing the life out of Karya with her tail. The light of power flickered in Karya’s half-lidded eyes as the pain and loss of air affected her focus. I needed to get her free, or she’d die.

Leaving Lethe again for the moment, I rushed to Karya’s side. I slipped my hands into the coils, digging my heels in and struggling to pull them off her before she ended up dead or seriously injured. Unfortunately, unlike her human half, the lamia’s snake half was quite strong, and even I could not part the coils.

Worse, I heard Lethe whimpering with increasing urgency as the lamia’s tongue drove her closer to the edge. Once the lamia had satisfied herself with Lethe’s taste, she’d finish off her meal and look for another. Karya could be next. And without Lethe as an additional distraction, we would certainly be in trouble. We might be able to escape, but we’d lose Lethe to the lamia’s digestive tract, and Karya would be devastated. Hell, I wasn’t sure she’d let me leave without Lethe, even if it meant dooming us to share her fate.

I needed to get things going in our favor again, and quickly. I grabbed Lethe’s dagger where it had fallen from her limp hand, driving it into the lamia’s tail near where Karya was held. It was a gamble, but I was desperate.

It worked out in my favor... mostly. The lamia let out a screech of pain around Lethe’s half-consumed body, and her tail went stiff and straight. Had Karya been any bigger, the shifting of the coils might have crushed her, but she slipped out and fell to the ground, wheezing. I quickly scooped her up, carrying her safely out of the reach of the lamia’s tail.

“Are you all right?” I asked, setting her down.

Karya nodded at me, sucking in deep breaths, then looked behind me, eyes wide. “Lethe!”

I turned, just in time to see the last of Lethe’s luxurious black hair disappearing into the lamia’s hungry mouth. Lethe’s hands, half curled and still twitching with residual waves of pleasure, were the last to go, the lamia reaching up and pushing her fingers inside before smacking her lips. “Mmph. I’ve waited far too long for that meal. Now, then, who’s next?”

My mind raced as I watched the bulge of Lethe sliding down into the lamia’s human stomach. I thought I’d had more time... The lamia must have realized the dangers of having Karya free, and gulped down her prey more quickly.

From behind me, Karya rose, speaking as loudly as she could. “I-I’ll be next.”

“What?!” I whirled around. “What are you talking about?”

“I want her to eat me,” Karya said. Her eyelids were lowered, but beneath them her eyes were shining with held power again. Her voice dropped. “Will you grab my ankles and pull me out?”

I stared at her in disbelief, keeping my voice down to match. “Karya, have you completely lost your mind?! I don’t know what you’re planning, but I will not be able to pull you out once you’re in her throat! Do not do this! It’s suicide!”

“Just do it, okay?” She simply walked past me toward the lamia, who seemed highly entertained by this turn of events.

“You want to be eaten?” The lamia took Karya’s chin in her hand, licking over her face and grinning hungrily. “Normally, I’d have to wait until my last meal passed into my snake half to eat again, but I’m sure I’ve got room for a delicious little snack like you. Especially a willing one...”

“Karya! Stop this!” I demanded, hurrying toward her.

Karya closed her eyes, shaking slightly. What was she thinking?! “Just do it quickly, please... Before I think about it too much...”

The lamia laughed, and her mouth opened wide. Karya lifted her arms, pressing her hands into the lamia’s mouth and looking on in surprise as they were almost instantly pulled down the lamia’s waiting throat. In what can’t have been more than seconds, Karya’s head was already making a bulge in the lamia’s neck.

I rushed to close the remaining distance, grabbing on to her ankles and pulling, but as I had feared, the lamia’s throat held fast.

My stomach dropped. Karya was going to be her dessert after all.

I held my grip as the lamia continued swallowing. I might not be able to pull Karya out, but I could slow her descent at least. Not enough, though. Each gulp dragged her further in, and nothing I could do could bring her out again.

Inch by inch, Karya slipped toward certain death.

Her chest disappeared. Then her stomach. The glow of her hair vanished from view. Her hips. Only her legs, not struggling at all, remained. The hardest parts of her body were past, and it was getting easier for the lamia to swallow her.

And since I was still holding on, I was going to follow her.

But I couldn’t let go. Even as her ankles drew closer to the lamia’s maw and my hands felt the brush of the lips that had already claimed two of my companions, I wouldn’t let her go. I couldn’t...

Abruptly, I heard Karya’s voice, muffled through the lamia’s body. It was impossible to make out what she was saying through the surrounding flesh, but I could tell what I was hearing by the cadence of it.

She was releasing the spell she’d been saving.

The flash of power swept through me, and the world around me faded to blinding white.

---

I picked myself up off the floor, waiting for my eyes to recover from the intense light. The teleportation had been rough and poorly aimed, and the three of us had been in very unfortunate positions to begin with, so we landed more or less in a heap.

“It worked?” Karya’s voice was disbelieving. “It worked!”

As my eyes readjusted to the darkness, I looked around to scan our new location. It was very sparse... and very familiar. A large and comfortable bed. A simple dresser. A small collection of trophy weapons, unused but kept in keen fighting condition anyway.

“You took us back to my lair?” I wondered aloud.

Despite being soaked in saliva, she seemed utterly pleased with herself. “I was a little worried, since I’ve only been here once, but I wanted to go somewhere safe, and this is as safe as you can get!”

“I would hardly call that plan safe,” I said, perhaps a little too harshly.

She winced at the tone, but nodded. “It... probably looked weird, huh? I needed to get inside her to reach Lethe and take her with us.” She glanced down at the fallen assassin, curled up on the floor with a vacant stare. “I couldn’t tell you that, though, because then she would hear and mess up my plan somehow. But I needed you to be in on it so I could be touching you, or I’d end up leaving you behind. I knew she wouldn’t believe you’d be able to pull me out, though, so I just told you to do that so that I could take you, too. I didn’t really want her to eat me...”

My eyebrows went up. Maybe she was a little smarter than I gave her credit for.

A little.

“There was so much that could have gone wrong with that plan. I have to admit I am not sure I like it when you act surprised that it worked after risking our lives on it,” I said. “But... you did pretty well.”

She beamed, throwing her arms around me in a sticky hug. Thankfully, the lamia drool covering her masked her alluring scent at least a little bit. “Thanks, Maritza!” She released me, looking down at Lethe. “Is she going to be okay?”

I glanced down at Lethe. The lamia’s venom still had her laying limp and staring vacantly. “I don’t know, to be honest. I haven’t dealt with many lamiae, and I don’t know what the venom does or how to treat it. We should probably bring her somewhere to be cared for.”

“No,” Lethe mumbled. Her eyes were focused briefly, as if this had shocked her back to lucidity for a moment. “Don’t.”

I frowned. “If the venom has some lasting effect on you, we’ll need to treat it.”

“Just cold,” Lethe said. Her eyes glossed over again. “Put me... back in the warmth.”

Karya stole a glance at me, kneeling by Lethe’s side. “Do you want me to get you some blankets, Lethe?”

“N... No... I want...” Lethe’s words were so low and slurred together that it was hard to tell what she was saying, but I heard. “I want to be swallowed again.”

Karya glanced up at me again, her eyes wide. It seemed she’d heard too.

“That’s just the venom talking,” I said quickly. “She doesn’t really want that.”

“But she wants to be warm,” Karya pressed. “Maybe she really does want that. Some people do.”

Karya was quickly finding a place as the voice of my temptation, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. Was all of this related to her curiosity somehow? It felt a little bit wrong to be the only one of the three not suggesting that Lethe would be nice and warm in my belly when I was so hungry like this.

“No,” I said firmly, as much directed at myself as at Karya. I headed for the door. “We need to take care of her. Stay with her, and get the two of you cleaned off. I’ll see if I can find some antivenom.”

And a meal I won’t feel guilty about eating, I added to myself.

I emerged into the light of dusk and headed for town. Too hard to think straight, too much risk of doing something I’d regret. I needed a nice big dinner.

Maybe then I could worry about Lethe and Karya without worrying about how good they’d taste.