Protection, Part 6 NSFW

Content warning for "you can't go home again" familial trauma and nighttime creepin on a sleeping person, as well as a brief aside mention of oral performed on a vagina.
Author's note: Here it is, the long-awaited 6th part of Protection! Some of you may remember that I wrote a finale for the Protection series for NaNoWriMo one year. Those people are wrong. Not that I wrote it - I definitely did write it. But that it's a finale to the series. I was going through A Time - A Time that would go on to last like six years - and since it was new, I wasn't handling it well, and my writing from that time reflects that a little too clearly. Not to mention, the way I was approaching NaNo encouraged me to slap something together in a hurry, and it... shows.

But I'm an older and wiser writer now, and I'm coming back to these characters with love in my heart and a peaceful world around me. ... Well, okay, peaceful world is maybe a bit of a stretch. Still, I'm at least in a much better place than I was before.

Let's see if I can't wrap things up a little more nicely this go-round, hm?

"I can't believe I'm finally going home!"

I looked up from my packing. I hadn't seen Karya this happy since we started staying in towns with inns and libraries. I tried to give her a smile, but it came out as more of a grimace. This attempt failed, I resumed packing up my boxes of jewelry and brooding silently.

If Archmage Reid was recalling us to his tower with big news, that could only mean one thing: the Sages had made their decision, and it was time for our journey together to end. For good or ill, whether they chose her or gave up on her, Karya was not going to be in my care anymore. And I...

I glanced over at Karya, her silver hair swishing and casting all manner of odd shadows with its glow as she skittered around the inn room, collecting books from the places they'd fallen. She talked to herself as she stacked the books, careful to separate her personal books from the library ones. Reminding herself of goodbyes she'd have to say to people who had helped her while we were in this town. A far cry from the shy, withdrawn young woman I'd first met. I'd gotten to see every moment as she warmed up to me, grew more comfortable with her power and with people. As her naivete broke and gave way to a more seasoned and measured optimism.

A lump was forming in my throat as I thought of what awaited us at the end of this carriage ride. I swallowed it down and lowered my head, shoving my balled-up clothing into my bag with renewed fervor.

This was a long time coming, though. I had long become redundant. Even after my wounds had healed from our clash with Archmage Cyndra and I was ready to protect Karya again, something had changed. She had tasted the true extent of her own strength and found it exhilarating. Her development from that point had been rapid. She'd handled the next attempt on her life alone, with me acting only as lookout. She'd taught herself a form of perimeter-warning magic and then even my keen senses were no longer needed. My wilderness survival training had been helpful up until she and Reid had determined that for her growth to continue, she'd need to resume her studies. And now I was merely a glorified babysitter, watching over her to ensure that she did her homework. As if she needed the supervision. She was an Archmage in all but name.

As I yanked the drawstring of my bag closed, Lethe returned to the room, her flowing dark hair, olive-kissed skin and silky black catsuit somehow undisturbed even though I knew for a fact that she had been up to dirty business. Her eyes flicked over Karya's face. "You seem happy. Good news?"

"I'm going home!" Karya's gushing joy must have been infectious, because Lethe smiled too. I still couldn't feel it. "It's not like I haven't loved getting to travel around with you and all this past year, but I've been feeling a little homesick... And with the training and everything, I've been so busy that there was no time to visit my mama and papa for three whole years and now I can! So I'm just really excited! And Archmage Reid was the one who asked for Maritza and me to return home. He has some big news for me! I think the Sages have made their decision!" Her bubbly energy popped as something occurred to her. "Will you still come along with us?"

Lethe's eyebrows twitched downward for a moment. "I'll travel with you, but I won't be able to stay with you in the day. I have to gather some materials to replenish my stock from our lessons." Karya, ever the sponge for knowledge, had been learning the ways of alchemy from Lethe. Something Lethe could do for Karya even after her skills in combat had been outstripped by Karya's. There was precious little of that from me. I just wasn't the teaching type, and my attempts had not been especially successful, with me fumbling over my words, forgetting things, embarrassing myself.

"You just don't want to be seen with us," Karya said, a teasing pout on her face.

"Yes."

Karya's face went slack as if she'd just been slapped. "Oh! Okay. Yeah, that's... S-Sure."

Lethe moved to gather up her tools into the pouches at her waist. "It's nothing personal. But I have reason to believe my family have their ears and eyes on your situation - no doubt including your parents and your mentor. And that they believe me to be dead. I'd like to keep it that way." Of the three of us, she had the fewest possessions by far, so it didn't take long before she turned to Karya and said, "I'm ready to travel when you are."

"Oh, no, we're not teleporting this time! We're just taking a carriage, just in case I need my energy for later." Karya gestured to the smaller stack of books before hoisting the larger one. "Would you mind packing these up while I go return these to the library and say my goodbyes? I don't want to keep our driver waiting too long!"

The door to our room closed with a clunk, and Lethe tilted her head, lifting a handful of books. "Not going with her?"

"What would be the point?" I grumbled, slinging my bag over my shoulder and moving to help Lethe pack up the last of Karya's spellbooks. "She's fine without me."

"Moody, are we?" Lethe's amusement only annoyed me further, I'm not proud to say. "Come now, Maritza. Be happy for the girl. It's not as if she's going to disappear. This is what you were protecting her for, yes?"

My hands curled into fists. "I just feel so useless."

"Slipping through your fingers... You sound more like a doting mother watching her daughter grow up and move away than a bodyguard," Lethe said, chuckling. She scooped up the bag of spellbooks, wobbling awkwardly under its weight. "You really have gotten dangerously attached."

More than you know, I thought miserably as I took the bag from her and slung it over my other shoulder. Karya had not been affectionate with me in some time, and I felt as though I had overstepped my bounds with her by kissing her in the first place. Let alone the thought of asking her to do it again. Romance with a charge was forbidden for good reason - and this was precisely it. I was sure she must have been regretting her decisions. I knew I was.

The silence stretched long and grew thick in the room between us. We just finished packing the last few remaining things of Karya's that she hadn't gotten to, barely even glancing at each other.

"Okay! I'm back!" Karya said, bursting through the door of the room. "Uh... did someone die in here while I was gone? Let's party! We're nearly home!" She scooped up the bag of clothes and peeked under the bed one last time. "Let's go! Maritza, I can't wait to introduce you to my parents. They're going to love you. And I can show you my room, and you can see where I practice magic, and my first spellbook, oh! You can see the mill..." She continued on as we left the inn and headed for the waiting carriage, barely noticing - or caring - whether the rest of us were listening. I let her energy wash over me without hearing any of the words - she was just another beautiful bird singing in the late spring afternoon.

Lethe's eyes met mine, and she quirked an eyebrow, silent laughter in her eyes. Honestly, I didn't know what to make of all that. I was not in the business of being introduced to people's parents, and hadn't been for centuries. Instead, I turned my attention to the driver, looking them over from head to toe. They wore a top hat that was a little bit too large for them and a perfectly tailored two-piece gray suit that was somewhat worn. Hand-me-downs, it looked like. A family business? They had a concealed dagger that was making a subtle lump at their hip just inside their pants, I noted.

"Tiz, you know where you're taking us?" I asked neutrally, trying not to threaten them too openly. Still, I wasn't wearing the human illusion over my eyes, and the orange color and slitted pupils might have unnerved them some. Not many people could handle being stared down by a dragonling.

"Yes, ma'am," the driver said, nodding their head a little too quickly.

I nodded back. Circling around the carriage as Lethe and Karya stowed their belongings and climbed up into it, I could see that the carriage was in good condition. Though it, too, had clearly seen many years of use, it was well repaired and freshly painted. No obvious signs of damage or sabotage. And if the driver's nervous quivering was any indication, they didn't seem up to picking any fights. "And you haven't told anyone where that is?"

"No, ma'am."

Nod. "Any weapons?"

"A dagger for defense against robbers and kidnappers, ma'am, but I've never had to use it."

A wry smile crossed my face. Leave it to Karya to find a driver even less experienced with the horrors of the world than she was. But the driver seemed to be telling the truth, and I could see no reason not to trust them, so I climbed into the carriage beside Karya. "Let's be off, then."

"See? I know who to call, I got some good recommendations," Karya said proudly, patting my leg. "You don't need to worry about me so much anymore."

I winced. This was going to be far too short a trip.

===

We rode through the night. I was ready to spend a night in a tent again, but it turned out not to be necessary as our driver had vials of sleep substitute in their bag. They even managed to give some to the horses by soaking an apple in the stuff. Clever. Lethe and I traded time sleeping and keeping an eye out for danger, but nothing of note happened. The worst we experienced was a bear making noises in the distance that upset the horses.

The extended peace was making me increasingly antsy. If Karya was close to confirmation as a Sage, then we should be seeing our enemies redouble their efforts to remove her. I could not accept that they'd simply given up when we were closest to success. Seeing that Lethe felt the same way was some relief, at least. Perhaps I wasn't just being paranoid, trying to make opportunities for myself to be useful again.

We finally arrived in front of Archmage Reid's massive, cermet-white tower early in the morning of the next day, just before dawn, when the sun was just beginning to cast a light over the sky without showing its face yet. Karya was deeply asleep, and Lethe had hopped out some time ago, evidently spotting the first of the supplies she needed somewhere in the forest we were passing through. I shook Karya's leg gently. "Hey. We're here. Go get some of your things."

She came to with a start, her eyes still fluttering drowsily. "Mmmmuh... Did I fall asleep? I didn't want... I was going to stay up with you..."

I got around to the back of the carriage, setting the luggage aside and cursing my luck. Not like I would have woken her, or perhaps even permitted her to stay up, if I'd known. She needed her rest today of all days. But the bitterness welled up anyway.

After getting the last of our luggage off the carriage, I headed up to the front of the carriage to negotiate payment. Our driver was twitchy from the effects of the sleep substitute but pleased with the time we'd made. I gave them a generous tip. "Find a place to stay. Get some real sleep before you head back. The horses, too." They nodded, taking off with a crack of the whip.

As I finished with this, Reid himself was coming down from the tower with two of his maids flanking him. He didn't seem to have changed since he hired my services. Short, silver-white hair grew in wild curls atop his head and formed a short but fluffy beard. Whether it came from age or power, I couldn't say, but his amber eyes still sparkled with a youthful glint, so I doubted he had too many years on him. Perhaps that was the benefit of surrounding himself with so many beautiful young women?

"Archmage Reid!" Karya called, dropping her bags and sprinting across the distance between us to throw her arms around him. They were different as could be - his frame tall and stocky, hers short and frail; his face angular and obsidian-black with a warm bronze sheen to it, hers childishly rounded and silvery white; him wearing gold-trimmed royal-purple finery, while her tunic had merely been dyed a dull red. But there, hugging each other, they fit together in a way I found myself strangely envious of. "Oh, I missed you so much! I have so many stories to tell you!"

Reid laughed, patting her back before releasing her. "I can tell! Experience looks good on you, my pupil. As does twenty! I'm glad you've made it back to me hale and whole. Come! Let's get you inside. There's much to discuss." He sent her inside, beckoning me closer. "Maritza, thank you for bringing her here safely. There isn't much I can share directly just yet, but allow me to discuss with Karya and she'll be better able to explain it to you. All you need to know is that the contract continues."

Uncertainty flashed across my face for a brief moment, but I nodded my head. "Understood. And appreciated." I glanced back over my shoulder at the maids, who were now carrying our possessions into the tower.

Entering the tower's foyer myself for the second time, I hesitated on the threshold. Twenty... Of course. If it had been a year since we'd set out together, Karya must have had a birthday. She had never mentioned it to me. Why hadn't I asked? I should have asked.

"Maritza!" Karya called to me, beckoning me over to where she and a pretty young green-eyed maid were standing and talking. "The maids baked a cake to celebrate me coming back here! Isn't that just the sweetest thing you've ever heard?!"

"Unfortunately, there isn't much time for cake," Reid said, moving to stand by the stairs to the rest of the tower. "Not only do we have a lot to discuss, but you're going to be quite busy afterward. I have quite the packed schedule for you over the next few weeks."

Karya gave me a sheepish shrug and headed toward Reid. "Is there still going to be time to see my family?"

"Er..." Reid seemed caught off guard somehow. "I didn't realize you'd want to. Yes, I suppose that's fine. A brief visit couldn't hurt, and there will be some time before the market opens. But come! The faster we get this over with, the more time you have afterward."

With that, Reid, Karya, and the maid Karya had been talking to disappeared up the stairs. I found a chair, settling down in it and watching the maids bustle about, carrying trays of food up after the other two.

"Beautiful, aren't they?" came a lilting voice from beside me.

I jumped - I hadn't heard anyone approaching. It had to be a magic-user. A threat? I got to my feet, ready to fight.

The young man beside me laughed, the tight coils of his hair bobbing joyfully. "Sit down, sit down! Did I get you? I have that effect on people. My apologies, I can be quite the trickster when I'm bored. You must be Maritza, isn't that right? Reid has told me about you."

"You have quite the death wish, surprising a dragonling so brazenly," I huffed, settling back into the chair. He didn't seem to be a threat. "You're lucky I'm too hungry for a fight."

He clicked his tongue. "I'm no Archmage Cyndra, that's for sure. Though it certainly wouldn't go well for me if I was." At my surprised expression, he hummed, a self-satisfied grin on his face. "Amazing what you find out when your husband is an Archmage. The pillow talk can get quite... political. Or perhaps just gossipy."

"But how did he find out?" I asked, still unsatisfied. "We didn't report on that... incident... to him."

"Ah, the esteemed Archmage Cyndra has apparently..." he lowered his voice. "Has apparently been quite loudly humiliated for her experiences. Seems her butler leaked it. I suppose there are consequences to being an intolerable shrew to everyone, even the help, after all." He laughed lightly, snapping his fingers and calling out. "Aderyn, would you be a dear and bring our guest something to eat?"

A curvy young maid approached and curtsied. "Of course, Mister Gladwyn."

Gladwyn nodded in return. "My thanks." He smiled in my direction as Aderyn scurried down the stairs into the servants' quarters below. "I swear, my husband simply insists on teasing me. These young women he hires get more beautiful every year. My heart will not be able to handle this soon!"

"And here I thought he was a pervert," I mused to myself, still lost in thought on the news of Cyndra. So if she had been deeply humiliated by her defeat... That should have certainly meant she was trying to get her good name back. Or... Shouldn't it? Nothing made any sense.

"No, just a philanthropist - or at least he imagines himself one. Always bringing in young women who are trying to provide for their families and paying them handsomely." Gladwyn chuckled. He looked my face over, brow furrowing. "Is something wrong?"

I shook my head. "Just confused. It seems like our enemies have given up on us. That they've simply allowed Karya to be confirmed as a Sage. But... how can that be?"

Gladwyn sucked air through his teeth sympathetically. "Unfortunately, I don't think you've been so lucky. They've merely changed strategies. I wish I could say more, but it's not mine to- Ah, hello there, Ravenna!"

Ravenna curtsied, her focus on me. It was the green-eyed maid from earlier, who had accompanied Karya up the stairs. "Mister Gladwyn, Miss Maritza." She presented me with a folded note. A cartoonish doodle of a moon with eyes and a mouth on the outside indicated, in Karya's handwriting, that it was for me and that it was not to be opened until midnight. "Miss Karya would like me to inform you that although she will still be engaged for quite some time, she wishes you to have this now. And that you should feel free to enjoy your free time without her."

I tucked the note into a breast pocket of my jacket, my expression darkening. It seemed like all I had lately was time without her, but I felt anything but free. I grunted a begrudging thanks.

"Thank you, Ravenna," Gladwyn chirped from beside me. "Have there been any developments with your mother? Any changes in her condition? Have the doctors given you any further hope?"

"I'm sorry, Mister Gladwyn, but Mister Reid is keeping me very busy today, and I don't have time for small talk," Ravenna said, curtseying and heading for the stairs up again.

Gladwyn leaned back in the chair. "Ah... this is how it always goes. The life of a trophy husband. When Reid is occupied, I'm told to merely keep out of the way and find ways to amuse myself, and yet no one in the tower has any time for me. I may be a novice in magic, but surely at least my company is desired!" The stab of pain in my heart must have showed on my face, because Gladwyn touched my leg gently. "A problem not unfamiliar to you, hm?"

"Heh." Gladwyn was so friendly and warm that I was briefly tempted to spill my heart out to him, but I feared Reid or Karya finding out far more than I hoped for some sympathy. "I... there are parts of it that are familiar, yes. I don't think... you'd understand, that's all. Dragonling things, you see."

"Oh?" Gladwyn's head tilted. "Try me. I may understand more than you think."

Before I had to answer, Aderyn returned with a tray of tiny triangular sandwiches, artfully prepared. Each had a different sort of meat in its center. "Please, take as many as you like. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help you and our guest be comfortable, Mister Gladwyn."

"I doubt Maritza will leave even a single bite unfinished, you needn't worry about that," Gladwyn said with a laugh, beckoning her to sit beside him. "Come, talk with us. We are the rejects, the refuse, left out of the big important conversation. We could use the company."

"Are you sure?" Aderyn asked, and at Gladwyn's nod she settled in beside him.

I busied myself with the sandwiches, allowing the two of them to become enmeshed in conversation while I simply ate and nodded here and there, still deep in thought. What had Gladwyn meant earlier? What was Cyndra up to? Could Lethe's family be involved somehow? Why was Karya being called back here, if her enemies still posed a threat to her? What was the busy schedule that Reid had planned, if not her confirmation as a Sage?

All important questions. So why was I just thinking about Karya?

===

The sun was well and truly up by the time Karya emerged from her little conference three hours later. Gladwyn and Aderyn had each left to attend to different tasks, leaving me alone with my thoughts once again.

"Maritza," Karya called, hurrying over to me. "Archmage Reid says that if I keep it short, I should be able to squeeze in some time at my parents' mill if I really want to, but I'll have to hurry to get to everything else. You'll come with me, won't you?"

"Of course," I said. "What's the news? Are you- have they accepted you?"

Karya shook her head, her expression going uncharacteristically dark. "No. I'll tell you later, I don't have time to explain right now. Come on - I'm going to jump us over to save time."

Though I privately bristled at continually being left clueless and feeling helpless, I nodded my assent. "Right. Take us away."

Watching Karya weave a spell had always been a comfort. Watching the gorgeous patterns of light that followed her deft hand movements as she worked her art. Seeing her eyes glow brightly, stealing glances at me here and there. Well.. normally they did, anyway. Not here. She just concentrated, not so much as a single peek in my direction.

It ended up being more pain than relief, and so I was more than happy when the light grew to envelop us and we vanished.

The Mullins gristmill was small, a water-powered mill built into a little cottage beside a beautiful but fast-flowing little stream lined with flowers. Karya grabbed hold of my hand, leading me toward the door and shouting. "Mama! Papa! I'm home!" She rapped on the door impatiently.

A woman with graying hair that had once been red opened the door, her eyes going wide. Karya threw her whole being into an embrace. "Mama..."

"Ah... Karya," the woman said. Her hands hovered around Karya uncertainly, gradually settling into a loose hug. She glanced from Karya to me, and I could see her recoil visibly when she noticed my eyes. "You're home. I wasn't... expecting you back. It's good to see you're well."

"Yeah," Karya said, straightening and wiping a tear from her eye. "I'm home... Where's Papa? Oh! Maritza, this is my mama. Mama, this is Maritza. She's been taking care of me while I was away."

I inclined my head. Karya's mother barely acknowledged me, turning away. "He's making some repairs to our bed. I'll go and find him, then."

"So, what do you think?" Karya asked, grabbing my hand again and beaming at me. "Isn't it such a cute little home?"

It feels as cold as ice here. Like walking into someone else's home by accident, I thought. But then, my thoughts are far from clear and unbiased today.

Karya kept staring at me. She wasn't going to let me get off the hook without answering, I saw. "It's very pretty. I like the flowers," I said finally.

"Hee!" Karya set off into the house, dragging me past the threshold and inside. "Let me show you my room! Oh my gosh, Maritza, my room. I'm sure you'll be shocked to hear that I have a lot of books. And even more shocked to hear that I've read all of them. I know, I barely ever read, but it's true! I had nothing else to do! And my first spellbook, it was so small. Oh! And my mother painted me as a witch on the wall, which I just love. It's so cute! You're going to think I had the best..."

She trailed off. The room she'd taken me to was mostly empty, save for a bed and a dresser and nightstand. The walls were painted a soft pink, and had cutesy animals drawn on instead.

"Room..." she finished, almost as an afterthought. "Wh..."

"Meet your new baby sister," Karya's mother said from behind us. She entered the room, carrying a young girl who could not have been older than two or three. "Her name is Biddy. Your father is just about finished, and then he'll be along."

"Mama, what..." Karya's voice wavered. Her eyes were glistening, threatening to spill. "What happened to my room?"

"It's Biddy's room now," Karya's mother said matter-of-factly. I searched her face. She seemed not to have acknowledged that Karya was on the verge of tears at all. "I'm sorry, but we don't have a lot of room in the house, and keeping an entire room as a memento of our absent daughter seemed foolish."

"But... But I was going to come back," Karya whispered. "I was always going to come back."

"No," Karya's mother said harshly. "You weren't. Archmage Reid spoke to us after taking you in. He told us that on the slim chance you should survive your training, survive the deliberation, survive the confirmation process, you'd be far out of our reach forever. That we should mourn you as if you were dead. That is the life you chose - without consulting us. And as we've finally gotten to accept your absence, your loss, you've returned. But you aren't safe, are you? You are still on the edge of being lost to us forever. Throwing us an hour of your time out of pity only makes losing you hurt all over again. I would have preferred if you hadn't come at all."

Karya shook her head. "Archmage Reid doesn't-"

"Doesn't know about what's to happen to you? He orchestrated half of it. The fact that you're still alive is a surprise, but the fact that you were so skilled with magic was a surprise, too." Karya's mother turned and walked out. "Thank you for coming. You may greet your father, but then I'll ask you to leave."

"That's okay," Karya said, her voice barely holding steady. "I have to get to work, anyway. Thank you for letting Maritza and me visit. Sorry for making it uncomfortable."

She avoided my gaze as she drew the teleportation sigil in the air, and then we were gone. Not in the market, but rather, a long ways upstream, at a little clearing in the flowers. As soon as we arrived, she fell onto her knees, and I knelt down to join her, catch her.

All at once, the emotions she had held back burst, and she was sobbing into my chest.

Not knowing what to do, I simply held her, letting her cry. I felt a wrenching pain in my chest, watching this and being powerless. Again. No matter what happened, it seemed like there was nothing I could do for her.

Minutes passed before she calmed enough to speak. "Now I know why Archmage Reid didn't think I'd want to come here," she said, dabbing at her eyes with one of her long sleeves. "He warned me, and I... I shouldn't have come. I should have... I should have listened to him."

"He didn't tell you that he told them to let you go," I guessed, unsure what else to say.

"No! I wouldn't have let him if he'd just asked!" Karya choked out. "He told me it was risky, that I wouldn't have time to relax for a while, and that I might not make it home at all. But... not... I didn't want..."

Her tears had soaked through my shirt, and I could feel the dampness on my skin. I held her tightly to myself. "This wasn't your fault. You didn't know. And they're safe."

"They're safe and they've forgotten about me. No... safe because they've forgotten about me." Karya's head rested on my chest between sniffles. "Even knowing me is dangerous."

I stroked her hair soothingly, letting her talk.

"I just... for one minute, I just wanted to be just another normal girl, coming home to see her parents and bringing a friend along," she said, her voice wobbling. "But I guess..."

Her voice cracked, and she dissolved into tears again, crying into my chest while I could do nothing but hold her.

===

When we arrived at the market an hour later, though it had only just opened, it was already full of people. Merchants shouted their wares to the crowd, which flowed about the market like a living organism, pulsing and swaying.

Karya's face was clean, and she was calm, breathing steadily - albeit nowhere near her usual cheerful self. She'd even dried my shirt, despite my protests that it would be fine. She released my hand and turned to face me. "I owe you an explanation."

"Please." I lifted my hands to my eyes, casting the illusion over them.

Karya nodded. "The Sages have decided - with the 'help' of some of the magical families - that I am too young to be judged until my twenty-first birthday."

"Next year," I said. A clearer picture of the situation was quickly beginning to form.

"Right." Karya fingered the edge of her sleeve nervously. "And I certainly won't live that long, even with all the studying I'm doing. What does that have to do with the market? Well, Archmage Reid wants to fight politics with politics. So I'm to- to make a name for myself. Doing good turns for the people. Here and in other towns. If my name is on everyone's lips, then if Archmage Reid reveals that I could be doing more were it not for those people's meddling, the people will turn against them. They'll have no choice but to relent, or be overrun."

"I'm skeptical, but I understand the logic, at least."

"It's my best shot, isn't it?" Karya pleaded. "So... I'm going to try. If things go badly, I'll need to get us out of here, so stay close. Some people here may have... less than positive memories of me... and I'm going to start with them. If I can talk to them, I can do anything."

This logic was a little bit more questionable, but I wasn't going to stop her. She had a fire in her eyes. And however much I might miss the days when she relied on me, I couldn't stop her when she was like this if I wanted to - and I didn't want to. "And you can talk to them. I'll be here with you, Karya."

"Okay. Here I go." She turned her attention to a nearby bookseller's stall, striding up to it with a confidence I don't think I'd ever seen her display before. "Pardon me-"

"Oh, no. Not you again," the bookseller said immediately, backing against the rear of their stall. Their loose green top splayed awkwardly over the pile of books they'd backed into. "You're back? What are you- Why are you here? I don't have time today to be picking up five hundred tiny books and hoping that they grow back to normal - or customers get interested in pocket readers out of nowhere."

Karya bowed her head. "I'm really sorry about that. It was an accident, honestly. I want to make it up to you. If you'll let me."

"Absolutely not. Archmage Reid isn't here to fix your mistakes today," the bookseller insisted, folding their arms.

"Though I am not an expert in magic, it's my opinion that Karya surpassed Archmage Reid a long time ago," I added from behind Karya. I didn't know if she wanted me to help, or if what I was saying helped at all... but I tried.

"And he trained me," Karya said, puffing out her chest. "I know just about everything he does and more. That day, back when I ruined your stall? He took me in then. Trained me, so my powers wouldn't be a danger to those around me. And now I want to use them to help you, if you'll let me."

The bookseller looked from Karya to me and back again. They folded over in a sigh. "All right. But start small, you hear? Not- not shrunken books small. Just... Here." After searching the stall for a moment, they came up with a soggy-looking romance book. "This book was damaged by the unexpected afternoon rain yesterday. If you can fix it, I can sell it for full price. But - you damage it, you buy it, you got that?"

"I understand," Karya said, holding her hands out and taking the book from them. "Oh... I used to love buying books from this series from you. I suppose I'm not surprised it's continued, but..." Her voice wavered wistfully, then that serious look got back on her face. "Yes, tiz. I'll happily repair this book, and any others that were damaged by that rain." She continued talking as she drew her hands up and across the book. Its pages swelled and trembled beneath her hand, straining outward in a spray of tiny droplets, then relaxing flat again. The accumulated water droplets hovered as one large water globe just above her palm, between her thumb and forefinger. "First, you dry and straighten the paper, to undo the curling effects of the water. Next-" She snapped her fingers and the droplets scattered all over again, spreading through the book. "Enchanting the ink to wet it once more and make it flow back to where it belongs..." She spread her hand wide, drawing the water out of the book once again, and closed it, letting that water drip down at her feet. "Dry it, and it's repaired. Some of the damage was severe, and I didn't know where to put all the ink, so... if you have another copy of any damaged books - even if that one's damaged too - I can probably do a better job."

The bookseller just stood with their mouth open, thumbing through the book's pages in disbelief. "It's... it's like new. Yes- please, if you... Here!" They thrust an entire pile of water-damaged books at Karya. "Can you do these, as well?"

Karya smiled, a hint of her earlier personality starting to shine back through. "Glad I could help, tiz. By the way, even after all these years, I never learned your name. I think I should thank the person who gave me all those childhood memories of other worlds to escape to."

"Reagan," the bookseller said, their tone far friendlier than before. "You're Karya, aren't you? Yes, I... remember you being a very avid reader. Always coming here with your mother, weren't you? I remember you often needed to be dragged away because you didn't want to stop reading..."

Karya ignored this last comment, though the smile she wore grew somewhat hollow. "Nice to meet you, Reagan." She spread out several books, raising both hands to begin the process.

By the time she was finished, a crowd had gathered to watch as she repaired the books. It was quite a spectacle - I admit even I was drawn in for a while. I was pretty sure she was using a little bit of extra flair with each spell, even. Maybe that was what Reid had taught her in their little conference.

With the crowd at her back, Karya drew her hands up once again. Her smile was much brighter now that she was in her element. "Now, I believe everyone should get to indulge in your wares without fear of getting them wet..." She clapped her hands together, and as she slowly parted them, a broad, flat crystalline arch formed between them. She lifted it up and made it grow with a gesture, joining it to the small wooden roof of the bookseller's stall. Sunlight filtered through it, making fractal patterns of rainbow light across the floor.

Gasps and murmuring came from the crowd as she turned to face them. A brilliant smile was on her face as she looked over them, landing briefly on me.

My heart soared for her even as it sank down into my stomach for myself. She was a natural. Absolutely brilliant. And truly, she didn't need me anymore.

===

I found a quiet place in a corner to watch as she tirelessly worked her miracles. From the little things, like fixing leaky buckets, to the big things, like repairing the area where the library had been struck by lightning and burned out. I even saw her go into a private room with a timid young man and come out with a beautiful young woman. All the while growing more and more comfortable, smiling wider, laughing more. This is what she was born to do, not run and hide in the trees.

Unfortunately, running and hiding in the trees is what I was born to do, I thought to myself.

The requests were unending, so she had to eventually call a stop to it. The sun had set hours ago, and she was no doubt exhausted - and hungry. She was surrounded by the local orphans when she finally called me over, and she and I and the children and their guardian sat down to eat a massive meal of roast duck and tender glazed carrots that had been prepared by one of the grateful cooks in the market. I couldn't say why the kids were there, but it didn't bother me either.

"Can you believe that?" Karya asked, her mouth almost too full of words to fit any food in it. "An entire library, and I brought it back good as new. All this time, I thought I had to be so careful, that I was a liability. It turns out I just needed to practice more. They really liked me."

"Karya! Karya! Can she fly?"

She turned toward the children, who were all clamoring for her attention. I'd removed the disguise on my eyes, and Karya had told them what I was, but that I wouldn't hurt them. So of course, she was being barraged with questions about me just as often as questions about herself. Surprisingly, she didn't seem to mind. I think the attention might have been part of why she brought them over. That, or... I watched her give an animated retelling of my fight with Vera. Was what happened with her parents weighing on her mind?

Shaking it off, I laughed, putting another piece of carrot in my mouth. "Who could have guessed?" My plate empty, I reached for yet another slice of duck.

"Oh, wait!" Karya said, cutting off mid-story and holding up a hand. "Don't use up all your appetite now!"

I cocked my head, confused, my hand still hovering just inches away from the plate of duck. "Hm?"

Karya pointed to my chest, and I looked down. The note - I'd forgotten about it, to be honest. "I won't give the secret away... but just stay hungry, okay?" She winked at me.

"Okay," I grunted, letting my hand drop to the table with a thump. I was getting somewhat frustrated with secrets after today, but even in this mood I was not willing to upset the girl in her hour of triumph.

It didn't take long for her to tire out. Her hair had gone dull, signifying just how spent she was. Even without unleashing her full potential, she'd done a lot of spellcasting today, and been up early. Not to mention the emotional strain... She dozed off with her face in her plate and a bite of carrot still on her fork. The children giggled at her, nudging each other and pointing at her.

"All right, all right," I said, raising my hands to hush the table. "Karya's had a busy day. I think I'm going to take her to bed now."

After I excused us from the table and left the orphans and their guardian to return to the orphanage, I carried her - still sleeping - to the bed in Reid's tower. Carefully laid her out on the bed. Held in my arms that way, she still felt as fragile and precious as she had the day I met her, but today I knew how wrong that was.

She woke up just as I was drawing the covers over her, though, her limbs going askew. "Can't go to bed yet, I have to... put up the wards again," she mumbled, still half-asleep. "Gotta take care of everyone..."

Despite my mixed feelings about her, about the day, I couldn't hold back a smile at this. "You're a guest in an archmage's tower. I think it's safe to say you're well protected," I murmured. "And you have me watching out for you."

"Mm... okay..." She lay her head back down. "I thought... you and me and Lethe, all in trouble, but... probably just... a regular bad dream..."

"Probably," I agreed. It wasn't that I distrusted her future sense - it was only that I couldn't see any way it was possible such a premonition could come true here. "Sleep well, Karya."

She was already asleep again. I went to the door of our room, set a chair against it, and settled down in it.

The room was quiet and dark. With Karya's hair having gone dark and the lamp having been extinguished, the only light was the moonlight that made it in through the window. Aside from a quiet ticking of clockwork in the walls, the room was silent. The combination of moonlight and clockwork was sort of soothing, actually. I let the sounds wash over me for a few minutes, my eyes fixed on the misshapen lump under the covers. Karya...

Now was as good a time as any to read that note, I supposed. It was certainly quite late, and after the eleventh bell, even if I didn't know the precise time. I was sure Karya wouldn't be angry if I read it a few minutes early. I drew it from my pocket and unfolded it.

My eyes scanned across it lazily, then I sat up straight, reading it again. This couldn't be real. This was not real. I refused to believe it.

The words stared back at me invitingly, beckoning me, begging me to yield to temptation. I held it to my nose. Was it a forgery? Was there a scent I was missing? No, just Karya's, and the faintest scent of the maid who had brought it to me. And the handwriting was undoubtedly Karya's as well.

Maybe it would be different on a fifth read-through.

Maritza,

I'm trying out some new magic, but it's pretty embarrassing, so I thought I'd ask you to help in this note instead. I've been trying to do spells in my sleep. And it's working - kinda - but I need something real to test it on. The whole idea is that my body will try to protect itself even if I'm not awake, and if I practice these spells enough, I'll be able to do them even while I dream.

The only thing is, putting myself in real danger means I have to be okay with whatever happens, right? And there's not a lot of danger I'm okay with.

So... I want you to swallow me in my sleep. You don't have to try to wake me or anything, it works best when I'm deeply asleep, like I should be when you read this note. And once I'm inside and there's no way out, try - really hard - to digest me. If I'm right, I'll teleport right into your arms without even waking up. And if I'm wrong?

If I'm wrong, I'm pretty okay with that. I hope I'm as tasty as ever, Maritza. Do wonderful things with me, okay?

I know it's a lot to ask, but I trust you more than anyone else I've ever known in all my life.

Love always, Karya.

It wasn't. My stomach growled so loudly I thought for sure she'd wake up from that alone.

But her breathing didn't change. Mine, on the other hand, had stopped completely. Was this real? Was she inviting me to not only eat her, but... to digest her?

I didn't even know if I wanted to do it...

My stomach groaned eagerly, my mouth watering in preparation. Okay, part of me was very clear on wanting to do it. The other part was a lot more conflicted.

The possibility of losing Karya - ever, let alone by my own hand - weighed on my mind. Still... It wasn't as if that possibility didn't already exist in spades. And if what she said was true, then this practice would give her the power to face even more situations on her own.

This was the one thing she'd asked me to do in quite some time. I trust you more than anyone else I've ever known in all my life. Could I bring myself to turn her down?

A twinge of pain rippled through my gut. My stomach was getting impatient with me. I'd never had my instincts turned up to such a fever pitch. When was the last time I'd eaten a live meal? It must have been months, right?

... Could I really turn down this chance?

I advanced on the bed. She was still sprawled across it in the exact position I'd left her in. Spread-eagle, half-covered by the blanket I'd loosely draped over her, her arms and legs extending out from the edges.

She was still wearing her sandals from earlier in the day, as neither I nor she had removed them when I brought her to bed. And in the faint light of the moon coming in from outside, I could see the gentle pink curve of her sole hovering just an inch above the surface of the well-worn leather. Scents intermingled there - the scent of leather, since trampled down to almost nothing, the scent of dust and people from the market, the scent of the fresh grass she had walked through earlier, the scent of her body and of sweat, distant hints of the fragrance in the soap she had used to wash herself the day before. I knelt beside the sandal that was sticking out from the blanket and reached for its straps. Delicate, dextrous tasks were not my strong suit... but with a little bit of effort, I managed to open the straps and slide the sandal off without disturbing her. Her toes twitched, making my breath catch... but that was it. It didn't take long for the other sandal, poking out just beneath the blanket, to follow suit.

... Why was I acting like I had to sneak around? Surely if I woke her, she'd just fall asleep again. But no, I told myself. She needed her rest, now more than ever, and she had asked me not to disturb her before eating her. Besides, a part of me whispered. If she wakes up, you'll have to wait until she falls asleep again to have her. And you don't think you can wait that long, do you?

It was true, but I didn't like thinking about it.

I peeled away the blanket that covered her body cautiously. All that was left between me and her succulent flesh was her loose, dull-red tunic, which still smelled faintly of the sheep whose wool it had come from, the crushed insects it was dyed with long ago, and the deep infusion of her own scent that had permeated it over months and years of wear. I had no chance of getting it off her.

But there were other options. There was a knife by my side. Before I could even complete the thought, it was out of its sheath and slicing down her tunic. Another two quick slices tore open the thin, heavily-scented garments underneath. I was careful not to let the blade touch her porcelain skin. A nick that bled would distort her taste. And probably wake her up, I thought belatedly.

I'd made a time limit for myself now; with neither blanket nor clothing, she'd surely wake from the cold sooner or later. I supposed it was up to me to make sure she was somewhere nice and warm long before she had time to get cold.

I peeled back the torn fabric of the tunic and undergarments, exposing all of her body. It wasn't as if I hadn't admired her body plenty while she was awake, but watching her sleep awakened something deep and dark and instinctual in me. The sensation of an ancestor looking haughtily over her hoard. This being was mine. In her waking, in her sleeping, she was mine, and I would never let her go. I would claim her utterly as my own before I would give her up to another. I would destroy her if I could not possess her, and she would belong to me one way or another.

The rolling hills of her breasts and stomach rose and fell in steady rhythm, keeping time with the flaring of her nostrils. Her body was small, but though she typically hid them with her loose clothes, no less womanly underneath. Bearing such private witness to her nudity inspired things in me, wordless things, savage things. My hunger demanded to be sated.

But I held out a little bit longer. Looking over her face, her eyes closed. In the dark, when her hair might just pass as particularly light blonde, when her eyes were closed and their red hidden from me, she looked just like any other normal girl. Just like she had wanted to be.

I hope you're right about this technique, I thought. Because if not, you'll melt away inside me just like any other normal girl. Helpless to escape, helpless to resist. I reached down, brushing my rough fingers against her soft cheek, running them down through her hair. And if this is the last time I see you... "I love you," I mouthed.

She didn't respond verbally, but she nuzzled into her pillow, giving a heavy sigh before returning to her slow, regular breathing. I imagined she'd returned the sentiment in her dreaming way.

Enough stalling. Time to eat.

Once again, I started from her feet. It felt like a courtesy, just as she'd asked before. But this time, she wasn't awake to see it, so I turned her facedown. She always felt small to me, but she never felt smaller than when her ankles were in my hands and I could see that either of her feet was shorter, narrower than my hands. A delicate note of passionfruit flavor met my lips along with the creamy, salty flavor of a woman who'd had a busy day as I finally slipped them into my mouth. So that was the scent her soap had used. I held there a long moment, standing completely still with her toes and the balls of her feet in my mouth, just enjoying that flavor and monitoring her for reactions.

Nothing. She was deeply, deeply asleep.

My mouth got busy, then. Her heels slid under my upper jaw without much fanfare, and her feet were completely engulfed, her toes nudging up against the back of my throat. The first swallow was like my first real meal after a long, long fast. The first time I would get to swallow her and keep her in me.

Assuming she doesn't wake up or get out, my mind added hastily.

Only the second one counts, my stomach countered.

I let them fight. I was having a feast. A mouthwatering, body-and-soul-filling feast. Her body's intense mana saturation came through as an explosion of flavor with every lick, every suckle. Those tender calves yielded easily as I worked my tongue into them, even nibbled on them. I was getting cocky, to be sure, but I was too blissed out to notice or care. And besides, other than some faint twitching from her toes in my throat, her body made no attempts at stopping me. I had all the time I needed to enjoy her to the fullest, and I planned to.

Her thighs... soft, squishing against my hands as I drew them into my mouth. Despite her tendency to miss meals, her thighs were no less mouthwateringly smooth and delicate in flavor and texture, and they squeezed comfortably into my mouth. She'd often expressed that she liked my thighs for the way her head nestled so perfectly between them. I liked hers for a much different reason. The flavor here was starting to change as I gulped them down, a tease of what was to come. My tongue skillfully guided them along into the depths of my throat. Never to return. Unless she gets out, an increasingly quiet part of my mind insisted.

It was time now to indulge in something else. Her bare sex, dripping and ready, was waiting for me. I doubted I could get away with bringing her to orgasm without waking her. And then I'd have to let her go. So... I teased her. Edged her closer and closer, watched her body undulate in an unconscious attempt to get to that release. I wouldn't let her. Her fingers curled, and I could feel her toes squishing into my stomach lining now that they had touched down inside me. Soft whimpering told me that I was perhaps having a little bit too much fun, and I was best off moving along.

Her hips, then, unceremoniously vanished down my throat with a glck. No less a meal than the duck I'd eaten earlier. Only the duck wouldn't have the privilege of enjoying the perfumed interior of my stomach. The pheromones that would help weaken a living meal's resistance. Lull them into peaceful acceptance of their fate.

That other part of my mind was quiet this time. Perhaps it had given up hope that I would listen to it, or perhaps it simply didn't know what to say. I was quite happy to not have the intrusion. My gut was still more than happy to accept the warm, shifting meat that was now kneeling inside it. My fingers brushed across her stomach faintly as my lips worked their way across the slight expanse of her paunch. I remembered the time she'd asked me if she was capable, and how put out she'd been when I'd told her no. But there was nothing to be upset about. She had another role - as part of something greater.

Me.

Her breasts posed little difficulty for me, but the sensation of my teeth against the sensitive skin summoned another little moan from her. I sat still, waiting, the flavor of that small, tender chest soaking into my tongue. ... Nothing. It was just a sound she'd made in her sleep. As I continued my meal, the tension in my lips slid her arms up and over her head. It was time.

I slipped my tongue into her mouth for one last kiss. I was sorry not to have asked first, but I couldn't very well let her go without a final kiss, could I? I would make my apologies after she got out... if she got out.

I stuffed all that hair past my lips along with her head, and then it was just those scrawny arms left. To think, the times I'd seen those arms grasping at nothing as they disappeared down a throat had been stressful before. But now... I squeezed my lips around her fingers in another little gesture of affection and then they, too, were gone.

There was nothing left of her in the room but the tossed-aside blanket and the shredded clothing.

I leaned against the bed frame, letting the pure experience of the girl in my stomach wash over me. The unevenly distributed weight of her, as her head leaned against the side of my stomach and her knees awkwardly poked out the front and her heels pressed against my groin. The slippery feeling as I ran my hands along her shape in my gut. This was far from the first time I'd had her, but this was different.

I tipped my head back, breathing unsteady breaths as I waited. Could it be? Had she simply... given herself completely over to me?

My stomach wasn't waiting for an answer. It squeezed and churned with gusto, setting to work on the meal it had been anticipating seemingly for hours now. It felt like the skin of my stomach was stretched so thin, I could hear everything. Karya's still-peaceful breathing and the faint rhythm of her heartbeat. Every slosh of stomach fluids, their dripping and gurgling as they began to fill up the chamber Karya was inside. A soft splash as Karya's hand slid down from my throat and the gentle squish that matched it as her hand landed in the stomach lining beside her.

The twelfth bell sounded. Midnight. I settled in, getting comfortable, closing my eyes to better indulge in the sensory buffet. She had until morning at the latest, most likely. Beyond then, even if I chose to let her out, I couldn't guarantee her safety. No medicine could heal her beyond that point - she was better off just staying inside me to the end. But she had entrusted me with her fate, and I would not interfere.

===

I must have dozed off, because the next thing I remembered was the second bell. My stomach was swollen, still, and there was no sign of her outside. But the shape of her in my belly was beginning to soften. Digestion was well underway... and there was still no sign of her escape, successful or even attempted.

I got to my feet, moving to the basin in the room and splashing some water on my face. She would likely be getting out at some point soon, now, and I needed to be at least somewhat awake. I pressed an ear to my stomach to check in on her progress. Still, her breathing was soft and steady, tinged here and there with little whimpers. The chamber was likely flooded with pheremones now, in what little space wasn't occupied by gastric juices. I imagined that the combination would wake her, but... she seemed to be quite deeply asleep. And making no efforts to flee. Did her body even realize she was in danger?

... The realization was slow to sink in. She wasn't getting out.