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  • Charm 3: Ready to Blow

    2014 - 02.09

    Jump to Chapter 1

    Day 1

    Moments later, they were all settled on the couches and cushions in Sezithorum’s bedchamber. Aside from the doors and windows, the entire room – walls, floor and ceiling – was coated with wood panels. A wardrobe stood against one wall, near the large bed, and tapestries filled much of the remaining wall space. There were several small tables scattered around the room with various volumes and flavors of miscellany piled atop them; the one near the bed, acting as a nightstand, had several items on the floor next to it as well.

    A family of songbirds had nested on top of the wardrobe, and another atop the support rod of one of the tapestries. A pair of couches sat facing each other conspiratorially near one corner, huddled protectively around their litter of cushions. Braziers were lit near the bed and near the couches, with sweet floral incense rising out of them.

    Sezithorum sprawled across one of the couches, his head tilted back and his eyes closed. Roji shared the other couch with a large cat that was annoyed at the intrusion, and gave no sign of relinquishing its seat for Tiska, who sat instead on a large pillow on the floor, her legs extended in front of her, and leaned back against the couch. The last of the food was quickly disappearing from the plate in her lap.

    Pfarth sat on her outstretched legs between two bowls. The bowl behind him was mostly full of various types of nuts, and the one before him had a layer of broken shells covering the bottom. The tips of Pfarth’s forked tail played gently over the surface of the nuts, choosing his favorite ones based on texture alone. The nuts were then passed over his shoulder into a tiny, delicate hand. He held the nut up to his mouth to crack the shell, and then deftly pried it apart and dropped the shards into the bowl.

    Tiska craned her neck and shot a quizzical expression at Roji. He nodded encouragingly, and gestured at the old man. She shrugged and mouthed a question at him. He didn’t understand, but smiled and nodded again anyway. She rolled her eyes and turned to face forward again. After another pause, she finally began. “Roji thought he heard you say something about the Sillumril earlier. Is that related?”

    Sezithorum scoffed, without otherwise moving. “A children’s tale, one which is ridiculously exaggerated. Marlon was a low-grade charmer who worked a gem mine. Not unlike your father, actually, Roji. While taking a break, he was kicking at the waste pile, and a small rockslide revealed a glint. It was a valuable find, true. It is scarcely the sensational artifact that it is commonly represented to be, however, nor was it won by some grueling and arduous journey.”

    “So it’s not related?”

    “It was mentioned in the Codex because a similar ritual was performed using it as a fulcrum. But we do not have it, nor do we need it.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I have complete faith in our ability to successfully complete this summoning with reagents closer to hand.”

    Roji and Tiska exchanged another look. His expression was concerned and skeptical, while hers was reassured and optimistic. After a moment, she spoke up again. “So why are the Sekiunes coming here?”

    “Because they are being incited and encouraged by a succubus. An evil fiend, bent on domination and destruction.” He lifted his head and didn’t quite look at them, his eyes focusing somewhere off in the distance beyond Roji’s shoulder and above Tiska’s head. “But she is also not of this world, and does not understand how the power of Canera flows, nor how it must balance. She is hoarding charm, and concentrating it. Rather than spreading her compost throughout the surrounding desert, and making the Sekiune more fertile, she holds it close, growing crops twisted and deformed from the excess power, which she then feeds to her beasts, further mutating them and driving them mad.

    “More disturbingly, she surrounds herself with many apprentices.” Roji’s eyes widened, and Tiska gasped, drawing Sezithorum’s attention back to them. “Yes, you know the stories of the Chekijikmak, the Charm Cataclysm. Many powerful people, charm-heavy, all in permanent residence together, generating effluvia which was not distributed, and feeding off of each other, concentrating the power.

    “Either she does not know the legends, which are much more accurate than that drivel about Marlon, or she does not believe in their veracity, or she believes that she will not press far enough to cause a recurrence, or she believes she can prevent it, or it may even be possible that she knows and does not care. Regardless, she must be stopped. Supremacy taints, and complete supremacy taints completely. It is only a matter of time before she and her collaborators accumulate enough charm that they can no longer be resisted.”

    Always the one to play the role of opponent’s agent, Tiska spoke up. “So you’ve explained why she’s becoming too powerful, but what’s she actually doing that’s so bad?” She had cleared her plate and set it aside, but was still hungry. It had been a long time since she’d eaten last. She reached for a nut and cracked it with a charm-enhanced fist. “Aside from the whole ‘potential hole in the ground’ thing. That’s only a possibility, some distant time in the future, neh?”

    “She has occupied the Skyukuvar, the citadel in the Sekiune, and is actively encouraging the raiders in their forays into civilized territories, and supplying them with her deformed beasts, which further increases their potential for damage and slaughter. Death and destruction are spreading throughout the region, and reducing the charm inherent in the assaulted areas.”

    Tiska nodded slowly, staring idly at one of the tapestries. In the foreground on one side was a bare field, spotted with piles of duva droppings and fires, and on the other side an orchard. In the background, flopped over on its side and apparently unable even to stand, was the immense, rotund gray bulk of a duva. Scattered throughout were groups of people in various arrangements of sexual activity. In the center was a man in robes who looked suspiciously like her mentor. His arms were upraised, a plain wooden staff in one hand, a smile on his face, and a nude female figure kneeling in front of him.

    It was yet another version of the typical Greening fertility festival, just after the winter crop has been harvested, where people distribute the duva’s leftovers to reseed the field. At the same time, they mix in the wizards’ charm-laden compost, as well as mounding it at the bases of the trees, to help increase yields. Without the people, and the wizards in particular with their charm to encourage the crops, harvests would decrease and less food would be available. This year’s Greening festival was not long past, and she felt herself moistening at the memory.

    Roji remained unconvinced. “I get it, but it still doesn’t seem right that people have to die in order to preserve charm.”

    Sezithorum smirked. “Do you consider that when you swat at a buzzbug? Canera put that buzzbug there, and gave her the drive to drink of your blood to feed her eggs. The buzzbug is a manifestation of the life and charm of Canera, and you think nothing of killing her for your own convenience, so that she will not cause you itchy swellings.”

    “But that’s different, that’s…” Roji cocked his head to the side and trailed off.

    “You are exactly correct, that is different. That is less defensible than what I intend to set in motion. When the buzzbug bites you, no harm comes to you beyond a spot of itch, which lasts for less than a howra. There is no significant detrimental effect of the bite, merely your inconvenience. These raiders are actively destroying the life of the surrounding areas, depleting charm from Canera, and must be quelled.”

    “But they’ve been doing that for longer than anyone can remember. They just come out, take some food and animals, and go home with them. Sure, occasionally they kill someone, and it’s too bad when that happens. But those places are fertile enough, there’s enough charm left that it doesn’t really matter. They grow more food, more animals are born, more people are born, and everything is back to normal. Isn’t that why there’s never been a concerted effort to get rid of them?”

    “Alas, that has historically been the case. In recent years, however, they have become more and more aggressive – violent, murderous, and plunderous. They are depleting the charm, reducing the fertility of the land, and thus ranging farther in order to reach more abundant territory, which they then denude. Not only are they causing more destruction than can be replenished, but they are inflicting it over a wider area. It is not that people must die to preserve Canera and her charm. Quite the contrary, people must live to preserve her.

    “These invaders are destroying life, and therefore are detrimental. Moreover, this succubus is provoking them. So now we return to the core problem. We are not sure how long she has been present in the Sekiune, only that she has relatively recently risen to prominence, around six years past. And it is only within the past year that we have had any understanding of her influence, or intentions, or the scope of the threat she presents.”

    Now it was Roji’s turn to be silent and stare off across the room. After a moment, Tiska snapped out of her reverie and asked, “Who is this ‘we’ you’re referring to?”

    “You know that we wizards have some loose organization. We communicate well enough, when it suits our purposes. Many individuals are selfish, self-absorbed, and have no interest in other interactions. Those individuals tend to be largely ignored, and of limited charm and ability, because they exclude themselves from the community.” Tiska had known all of that, but she wasn’t sure how much Roji knew.

    “The manipulation of charm generally tends to work better as a collective affair, which is what led to the original Chekijikmak. So many people with so much charm, and all feeding off of each other. Such synergy. It was glorious. So many possibilities.” Sezithorum’s face was beatific, his eyes wide and glowing, a lopsided grin peering from within his beard. Tiska nudged Roji’s leg with her elbow and glanced back over her shoulder with a smirk.

    The old man caught himself, and continued. “Now, we can only allow such gatherings to be brief and seldom. But they are no less wonderful and productive when they do occur. In fact, there is a Confluence next year, and you will both accompany me.” He beamed at them, and Roji and Tiska glanced at each other, taken aback by his uncharacteristic excitement and warmth toward them.

    He started, his eyebrows arching. “Yes, your question. Even though we do not gather often, the wizards of Canera are not isolated. We inquire of each other regularly, when a pressing issue falls outside our personal sphere of knowledge.” He looked at Roji. “I recently had an information request come in regarding what kinds of problems ogres might have interbreeding with hill giants.”

    Roji’s eyes widened in understanding. “Oh! You– But¬– The ques–” he sputtered, ending with folded arms, a scowl, and a “Hmph!” Tiska tried and failed to control her snickers.

    Sezithorum merely smiled indulgently, then continued. “We, the community of wizards and our associates, have been investigating the disturbing reports emanating from the Sekiune, and debating what must be done to avert the impending disaster. It has required the talents of many, working jointly and individually, to gather the information, to compile it, to interpret it, to formulate solutions, to discover how to enact the solutions, to choose a possible response, and finally to execute it.” His excitement had faded, and by the time he finished speaking, he looked almost despondent, staring once more into oblivion.

    Desperate to distract him and get him talking again, Tiska asked, “Why were you chosen to escort the warrior? Or to perform the summoning? Surely there must be other better suited wizards for the job, neh?”

    He focused on her again. “There are more qualified summoners than I, but much more distant, both from the Sekiune and from the Codex,” he gestured toward the laboratory area where the book rested, “which is a necessary component of the stratagem. If the Codex had been discovered nearer a more accomplished summoner, naturally it would have fallen to them to perform the ritual. But once it was established that this was the approach that would have the best chance of success, and the smallest chance of other unintended destruction, I doubt any other escort was seriously considered.”

    His eyes had lost focus again, and he was speaking more to himself than to them. “Naturally, I volunteered, I had no choice. The prophecy suggests me as well. And I am not certain of what they might have done had I not volunteered. But it hardly matters now.” He trailed off

    There was a hook there, another tangent topic, and Tiska clung to it. “What prophecy? What does it say about you?”

    Sezithorum shook his head wearily. “Little-known and little-understood. It is probably connected to the current situation in the Sekiune, but because it must be translated from a dead language, it becomes less intelligible. It contains many references that make no sense. More I cannot say.”

    He clearly didn’t want to get into the prophecy, so Tiska let it go. There would be plenty of time to ask about that, now that she knew about it. She cast back to what else he had said and found another digression to follow up. “What other possibilities were suggested for how to deal with her? Other than sending someone in to chop her head off?”

    Life seemed to flow back into him with a new topic. “One proposal was to tear the ground apart beneath the Skyukuvar, and cause it to swallow her up. The problem was a lack of precision. It could spread to affect a much larger area, wreaking wholesale destruction upon the Sekiune plateau, or even the Kapzhishegg, the mountains to the west. Or if she happened to not be in residence at the time, it would accomplish nothing useful. Another recommendation was an explosion of fire, either from out of the ground or from the sky, but with many of the same drawbacks. Ice was proposed, which provided for better targeting, but lower chances of killing or permanently containing her and her confederates.”

    “Why do you need a warrior at all? Why can’t a bunch of wizards just march in and take her down?” Roji had stopped sulking, and was being drawn back into the conversation.

    “Firstly, in the Sekiune, there is little charm to be had, which is why it is so infertile. Therefore a wizard who exerts himself there will find his power diminished, and will have difficulty restoring it.

    “Furthermore, the skills are simply not to be found, or at least not widely. Even before the Chekijikmak, there were few wizards who studied aggressive magic, and they tended to be feared and shunned by the rest of the community. Think about it. Our way of life is built upon creation, upon the preservation and augmentation of life and the charm carried within it. Any practitioner proficient in destructive manipulations sees his own charm, and that of the world around him diminished as he exercises it, as it is sapped away.”

    “So you need someone who’s not dependent on charm for his strength, and who gets more powerful the more destruction he causes.” Roji was nodding. “And since he’s not from around here, he needs someone to go with him and back him up and keep him out of trouble. Can you imagine if he had it off with a Peltorian girl without at least fingering her older sister first?”

    They all laughed. “Another legend that has spread and inflated out of proportion, although as with Marlon, there is a kernel of truth to it,” he smiled. “If you have the opportunity, I would strongly recommend experiencing a Peltorian familial altercation from the inside, however. Even the punishments are often… rewarding.”

    Roji, excitement plain on his face, looked like he intended to dig for more details, but Tiska drew the discussion back to another question that had occurred to her earlier. “If you talk to these other wizards so much, and you can safely gather in large groups occasionally, why do you never visit any of them? Why do none of them ever come here?”

    “I do, occasionally, as business requires. But for the most part, those of who need to can speak directly, without the necessity of gathering in person, which is generally more convenient. We all have our responsibilities, to our apprentices, and our lands, and our populace. As it turns out, I had reason to visit Durkentl, to retrieve the Codex. She was very glad to see me, as you can well imagine, considering what the Codex has been doing to me today.”

    “Yes, we’d noticed that,” Roji said wryly, and Tiska nodded.

    “If she had not forced the issue, I would have returned two days ago, the same day I left. Or yesterday at the very latest. She has no apprentice at the moment, however, and having the Codex in her possession was trying for her. It would have been unpardonably rude of me to abandon her in such a state.” The old man’s crotch had begun twitching again. He idly reached a hand inside his robe and slowly stroked himself.

    “It was not entirely wasted time, however. She had had several days in which to examine the Codex before I arrived, and was able to direct my attention to certain significant areas and tell me that other sections were irrelevant to the present objective. If it had not been for her guidance, we likely would not have been able to begin preparations for the ritual so soon after I arrived home.” The bulge was moving farther and faster, the flap of the robe falling open and exposing his pumping hand. “To the other side, had I returned two days ago, rather than dallying and servicing her, we might have begun sooner than tomorrow. Ah, well. Such things cannot be helped.”

    Tiska relocated Pfarth and his bowls to the floor, crawled across the gap between the couches and arranged another cushion to kneel on. “Would you like some help with this thing, sir?” she asked.

    “Ah, yes. Thank you Tiska,” he murmured, his head falling back against the couch again.

    She started and paused, her hand in midair. Did he really just thank her? What in all the mildewed pits had come over him tonight? He was acting so… nice. And he was freely sharing information with them too. Was it just the few days he’d spent with Durkentl that put him in a better mood? But he had been his normal brusque self – no, even worse! – all afternoon. Was it the ritual? Or whatever else it was that was still bothering him about having to accompany the warrior?

    Whatever it was, she would have to talk to Roji about what they could do to make this kind of attitude more common.

    She shifted her knees slightly and moved closer, bringing her lips and tongue into range. She grasped the base of his shaft and licked it all over, including pulling the collar back and running the tip of her tongue along the groove behind its ridge. Closing her lips around it, she looked back over her shoulder at Roji, still sitting on the other couch, and with a bulge in his lap. He smiled at her, and with her free hand she gathered up the lower portion of her robe and tossed it to one side, exposing her rounded buttocks, and the cleft between them.

    Roji stood and told his robe to unlatch, dropping it on the couch. He folded another pillow, placed it between Tiska’s legs, rolled over, and laid his head on it. She lowered her hips, bringing her lips to meet his. He kissed all four curtains thoroughly, sucking and tugging at them, teasing, then separating them with his tongue and sliding it up to her nub, touching it only lightly with the tip of his tongue.

    Tingles shot throughout her body, but she wanted more. She ground her hips down upon him, demanding more stimulation, but he held back, sliding his flat tongue all around, briefly touching her clitoris, then retreating to the lips and the opening between them, then back up to tease her again.

    Tiska was unable to give him better direction – not that he necessarily would have heeded it – because her own mouth was full of flesh as well. She pumped her mouth up and down, using one arm to support her body, and the other hand to roll his eggs in their pouch. A little bit of squeeze, but not too much. She pulled them downward, tightening the skin on his pole and forcing her mouth to slide along the skin, rather than the skin sliding along the rigid tissue beneath.

    She soon became frustrated with Roji’s teasing, and tapped him on the top of the head. When he sat up, she cleared her mouth momentarily and said over her shoulder, “Get on with it, just plow me, neh?”

    “As the lady commands,” he made a mock half-bow from his position on the floor. He rose to his knees and turned to line himself up behind her. Once again, he teased her, slipping only the head between her folds, and withdrawing. Roji’s shaft was smaller than Sezithorum’s, both in length and girth, but the expanded kobalt-cap was significantly larger, and he knew well how to take advantage of it. She writhed and whimpered in frustration as he inserted it into her opening and removed it again and again, but she could only push back against him so far, limited by the range of her tongue.

    Finally, Roji stopped, and slowly, infinitesimally slowly, penetrated her. One hairsbreadth at a time, he slid into her warm wetness. Again, she tried to thrust against him, but he held her hips and moved with her, refusing to accelerate, the knob taunting her as it sank deeper within her. As her mounds finally began brushing his tuft of pubic hair, he paused and twitched his rod, making it pulse deep within her. She groaned around the shaft still sliding in and out of her mouth.

    But Roji wasn’t finished. He grabbed her waist and jerked her closer again, forcing a bit more length into her, and throbbed inside her again. One more jerk, and he really did have as much of his meat inside her as possible. He held it for a moment, and she squeezed him in response, her internal muscles stroking him from base to tip and back.

    He groaned. She knew he loved it when she did that little trick. He held still, and she did it again, accompanied by a wiggle of her hips. One more internal stroke, and he began slowly withdrawing, all the way, until the rim around the head popped out. A pause, and then a slow insertion again, all the way to the bottom.

    With each stroke Roji sped up, until soon he was sawing into her in earnest, pushing her head down onto their master’s crotch with each cycle. She was enjoying it, but her mouth really was sore from a full day of work, so before long she had to stop him and have him pull out. She had other plans, though. She sat up, spoke the command word to her robe and shrugged out of it. With a glance back to Roji, she climbed up onto the couch, straddled the old man, and in a single motion slammed her hips down onto his, burying him inside her all at once. She gasped, he moaned, and Roji chuckled. Tiska’s head drooped, and as she panted, she looked back at Roji again, and nodded toward her rear.

    Roji murmured a moisture spell as he walked forward on his knees, and a small puddle of liquid appeared in one hand. With his other hand, he dipped one finger in it, and spread it around her other opening. He did it again, this time pressing inward. Tiska shivered in anticipation. Sezithorum reached up and tweaked her nipples, making her stiffen and clench her sphincters involuntarily.

    She luxuriated in the feeling of Roji’s finger penetrating her, and pressed back against him. She resumed moving, back and forth, and up and down, and all other directions she could manage from that position, to pound herself against the phallus already filling her.

    Roji continued lubricating her, then applied the remnants over the tip of his own rod. He moved up behind her and tried to arrange himself between the old wizard’s legs, but the height was wrong. He tried squatting, but the couch was in the way of his knee.

    Sezithorum saw his dilemma, and told Tiska to stop. “Stand. You too, Roji.” He stood as well, and made a series of hand gestures, one to each of Tiska’s legs, and then one toward the ceiling. Her legs floated upward, her thighs spreading, held to either side, and her calves drooping from her elevated knees.

    A couple more gestures and she was at the perfect height for Roji. The wizard approached her, stepping up onto an invisible stool to make up the difference between his height and his apprentice’s, and with hardly a pause, lined himself up and buried himself between Tiska’s thighs once more. Tiska wrapped her arms around his shoulders, and he grasped her waist. He shot a look over her shoulder to Roji, who stepped in behind her.

    Trying to arrange himself had caused his erection to droop a bit, but that was probably just as well. He grasped it in one hand, and a buttock in the other, and carefully inserted the tip into her puckered opening. He wiggled a bit, in, out, and to either side, trying to avoid causing her any pain.

    She appreciated his consideration Damage could be repaired, but it still hurt and was a distraction at the time. She relaxed, trying to ease his entry, but she still grimaced as he pressed against her, and jumped when his bulb popped past her anus. He held still for a moment, to let her adjust, then slowly accelerated again. Roji transferred his hands to her breasts, the residue of the lubricant smearing across them as he hefted their weight and squeezed her nipples between his fingers. Gradually he increased his rate of movement and depth of penetration, finding a rhythm.

    Having allowed them to settle into their groove, the wizard began moving again, slowly sliding in and out. Tiska thrilled to the sensation of the two masses of flesh grinding against each other, separated only by a thin septum of her flesh. She’d had this experience many times before, with various partners, but it thrilled her anew every time. She especially loved how the ridge of Roji’s oversized glans felt as it pressed against the bulk in her other canal.

    Each man settled into their own natural pace, and sometimes they ended up thrusting in and out of her at the same time, sometimes they alternated, but always cyclically, with a period of seeming chaos in between, until the patterns meshed again.

    Sezithorum glanced over at his bedside table, and motioned to a crystal that was sitting there. It flew across the room to his hand. He spoke a command to it, and it began to vibrate slightly, glowing with a faint red light. Another word, and the light changed to yellow, with a faster and more significant vibration.

    He placed the crystal against Tiska’s clitoris, and it stuck there. She jerked and screamed, sparks exploding behind her eyes. She shook and twitched, all of her muscles contracting spasmodically, as they both continued to pound into her.

    Tiska’s breathing became more staccato, and a red flush crept up her chest and neck, and over her shoulders. Fortunately Roji knew the warning signs, and was able to get his chin out of the way before she threw her head back, gasping, screaming, and convulsing. Spastically squeezing both of the staves that were rubbing against each other inside of her, a warm glow pulsed out from her, charm suffusing both men and radiating out into the entire room.

    The outpouring continued to increase, flowing into them, until they both, one right after the other, finally exploded, their own charm overflowing and filling her orifices. As she continued to orgasm, all of that newly acquired charm turned and was directed outward as well, causing the leaves of the ivy around the windows to rustle, and turn to face inward.

    Sezithorum told the crystal to drop back down to red power, and allowed her orgasm to subside naturally. She still embraced him tightly, panting through the aftershocks. Roji, now drained as well, clung to both of them for stability.

    Roji’s strength ebbed, his knees buckled, and he crumpled to the floor amidst the pillows. The old man sank back onto his own couch, deactivated the crystal, and tossed it back toward the nightstand. It bounced once on the stone floor and settled atop the pile of debris on the table, causing several more items to cascade to the floor, increasing the size of the pile there. For a moment, he just stared up at Tiska, still suspended between the couches.

    Like sap welling from an injured tree, Tiska could feel a liquid pearl appear at her still-gaping opening. Sezithorum motioned to it, and it pulled away, forming a perfect sphere, which floated up and spread itself on her parted and panting lips. Her tongue extended listlessly and weakly tried to collect the semen. The corners of her mouth twitched upward, but her eyes remained unfocused. Slowly, gently, he waved Tiska to the other couch. Aside from her still-heavy breathing, she did not move at all as he unwrapped the invisible tendrils from her.

    “Yes, rest now. Tomorrow will be difficult.”

    When they finally left Sezithorum’s chambers, both Roji and Tiska had to lean on each other for support, her arm around his waist and his across her shoulders. They split to use the toilets on either side of the bathroom, then staggered unsteadily toward their own rooms.

    They paused outside his door, at the base of the stairs leading to her loft. He slumped against the wall, and she laid her head on his chest. “So what’s the deal with a Confluence? You couldn’t go to the last one?”

    “No, my previous master wouldn’t let me, he said I wasn’t ready. I was miffed at the time. Including with the clerion, I’d been studying for a few years at that point, but I didn’t dare argue. He’s probably right, though, if I had gone then, it could have seriously scarred me. He must have talked to Sezithorum there, because it was shortly afterwards that I came here.”

    “But what is a Confluence? What happens there?”

    She straightened up a bit and looked at him. “Well, think about everything that happens around here.”

    Images just of the past day flashed through Roji’s mind. Cleaning up disarrayed equipment. Fellatio. Discovering new abilities. Incredible sex. Preparation for large-scale rituals. Sitting around, swapping stories and having philosophical discussions. More mind-blowing orgasms, augmented by magical aids, in positions impossible without magical assistance. Reading dusty old tomes and dredging ancient arcane knowledge from them. Stumbling back to his room with his arm around a beautiful woman; exhausted, sore, happy, and looking forward to more of the same tomorrow.

    Roji realized it was his turn to stare at nothing with wide eyes and a silly grin. He looked back at Tiska, who had been watching his expressions change, and was clearly enjoying his stream of consciousness.

    “Neh? Now imagine that with hundreds of wizards of his caliber.”

    Roji’s eyes got even wider, and his jaw dropped. Tiska laughed, and said, “You’ve got plenty of time to practice on your sleep-substitute and cure-soreness spells. And from what I hear, you’ll need them.”

    Roji let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding in a massive sigh. “Right. But for now, bedtime. I couldn’t even manage a sleep spell at this point.”

    Tiska’s face clouded. “I’m worried about him. Not about working the ritual, I have no doubt he can handle that. It’s him having to go off to kill people. And did you notice he said ‘again’ when he talked about it? Like he’s done it before, neh? Even you, the new kid, could tell how much that bothered him to talk about.”

    “Yeah, but he can handle that too. He’s had to do other stuff he didn’t like before, and it worked out well in the end. Like having to put down that vero that was infested with bog rot.”

    Aghast, she pushed away from him. “Are you really comparing a mercy killing of a diseased animal to murdering healthy people?”

    He sighed again and pulled her back toward him, wrapping his arms around her. “I know, it’s not the same. I was just trying to reassure you,” he smiled.

    She punched him playfully in the stomach. A muffled “Well, stop it,” escaped from somewhere near his armpit.

    “Do you… Would you like to stay here with me tonight?”

    She leaned back and looked up at him. Tears were trying not to escape from the corners of her eyes. She turned to look helplessly at the stairs leading up to her room, and heaved her own shuddering sigh. “Yes. I’d like that.” She smiled hesitantly and wiped at her eyes.

    He reached over and opened the door, then turned and shuffled through the doorway. He still held her to him with one arm, while she had both arms wrapped tightly around his waist. When they reached the bed, they disentangled long enough to drop their robes in a pile on the floor and climb into bed.

    Still holding one of her hands, Roji squirmed in first, and moved over far enough to let her in next to him. She sat smoothly on the edge of the bed, lifted one corner of the blanket with her free hand, and swung her legs underneath.

    In the moonlight from the window, their eyes met once more as they got comfortable. His bottom arm lay beneath her neck and the pillow, and reached up to her shoulder, while his top arm stretched across her waist and cupped a buttock. She lay on her side as well, facing him, her head resting against his chest, her bottom arm folded across her own chest, and her top hand resting on his thigh.

    No, she would never be just Tiska, but what they had was really good.

    Neither said another word as they both passed quickly to sleep.

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