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Here are my efforts at participating [community profile] 21_days. I still kind of wish I could have written more of the Big Showdown, but eh. It's got porn and Vanyel not being a shitty boyfriend, that's all points covered, for me.



The first thing Vanyel became aware off was a wet sort of warmth. It was a very familiar sensation, but his fever-dulled mind took approximately one hundred years to realize that was because he was at a place that had hot springs. He couldn’t be in k’Treva, could he? He was actually lying in warm water, and there was a rotten-egg tang in the air.

Then came a bright, swirling yellow-green energy that was similar to Moondance’s aura, in that they were both primarily Healers by nature, but that was the only similarity. This felt utterly foreign; the touch of it on his wounds felt almost ticklish-painful, completely unlike Moondance’s soothing coolness.

Stefen was with him. Stefen was singing to him—that immediately calmed him. If Stef was with him, they were safe, or as safe as could be. An enemy would not let Stef stay at his side. He realized now that Stef was supporting him in the water, gently bathing him while the strange Healer repaired the worst of the damage Rendan and his gang had inflicted—

—best not to dwell on that. On the proud Bandit Lord helpless at his feet while Vanyel ruthlessly—

oh gods what did I do

:Hush, Chosen,:, Yfandes whispered in his mind, her mindvoice like a cool hand stroking his brow. :What’s done is done. And they were not blameless. Rest:

He took her words to heart.

***

Overhead, sky a dead and lightless black. To either side, walls of ice.

“Vanyel!”

Suddenly he was alone and exhausted, and chilled to the bone. An army filled the pass before him

“Van, wake up!”

”You—you are—“

“Leareth.” The
Tayledras word for “darkness”. The man smiled. “A quaint conceit, don’t you think?”

“Vanyel! It’s just a dream, please wake up!”

He came awake all at once, with a pained gasp. Stefen was leaning over him, but not touching him. His eyes were wide and frightened, and possibly on the verge of tears.

Vanyel himself was not faring much better. He knew it, felt it in his bones, that this was true Foresight, and not a merely allegorical warning.

And it was going to come to pass very, very soon.

“Stef,” he choked out, could not say any more than that around the lump in his throat.

Stefen needed no other encouragement. He lay down next to Van, and pulled Vanyel’s head onto his chest, and just held him. and Vanyel couldn’t hold back the tears, the fear, the grief. He’d been holding it back for so long, at first because he was the strongest and best of the Herald-Mages, with far too many duties and responsibilities to indulge in self-pity, and now he was the last Herald-Mage. The only other person he would have let see him like this was gone, and it was his fault

He was too tired for rage anymore. Too tired to pretend this was just another mission. Too tired to remember that he was supposed to be strong.

“Don’t worry about all that, Van-ashke. You don’t have to be strong right now. Just rest and get better. And—let yourself mourn her.”

That set off a fresh spate of weeping. Oh, Savil, I’m sorry, so sorry. He clung tighter to Stefen. And it may all come to naught in the end. I’m going to die too, and I can only hope Stef will actually bring the Guard in time—he choked a bit at that. Not for himself, but for Stefen. All the pain and loneliness I had to endure, feeling like I had a hole inside my chest. I don’t want Stef to go through that. And I had Yfandes to help me bear it all. How will Stef…?

With a sudden, ice cold feeling of dread, Vanyel knew exactly what Stefen would do after Vanyel’s passing. After all, hadn’t Vanyel tried to do the same?

“Stef,” he said, raising himself up to look down on his lifebonded. “Stefen, promise me you’ll stay safe. Promise me you won’t ever risk your life for some foolishness, or, or give in to despair.”

“Hey, now, Ashke, what’s all this?” Stefen asked, stroking hair back from Van’s forehead.

“Just promise, Stefen. Please.”

True concern washed over Stefen’s face, and he sat up. For the first time Vanyel noticed they were in a cave, or underground, and the cavern was lit with multihued mage lights drifting near the ceiling.

“Vanyel, what’s going on? Tell me what’s got you so upset,” he said, soothing but stern.

Vanyel just shook his head, fresh tears streaking down his cheeks. “Please. Please. I need you to promise. I need your word, you won’t ever try to harm yourself.”

Looking even more concerned, Stef asked, “Why would I try to harm myself? Vanyel? Ashke?”

But Vanyel wouldn’t, couldn’t speak of the dream right then. Laying his head in Stefen’s lap, he once again begged, “Please. Promise me. Please.”

A sigh overhead. “Alright then. I’ll promise to never try to harm myself. If,,” he said ominously, “you tell me why you think I might.”

Stefen stroked the back of Vanyel’s head; but Vanyel couldn’t look his lifebonded in the eye and tell him he was dying, maybe they both were, unless Stefen promised. But if Stef knew, he wouldn’t promise; Vanyel wouldn’t have promised, after all.

So he just lay there and quietly cried, until the first notes of a familiar lullaby sent him back to sleep.

***

When Vanyel woke again, Stefen was sitting up next to him, a rough looking stone bowl held in his hands. Slowly, Vanyel sat up, carefully cataloguing all the aches and twinges of his half-Healed body. Silently, Stefen held out the bowl and Vanyel took it. Some kind of thin broth with chunks of meat and mushrooms floating about in it. He took a careful sip, still warm, but not hot enough to scald, and a bit bland, but as soon as he swallowed, his appetite returned with a vengeance.

The silence held while Vanyel ate. As soon as he finished Stef said, “If you need to take a piss, I can show you the cave Hyrryl said we should use.” At Vanyel’s nod, Stefen rose up with enviable grace. As Van struggled to his feet—grateful Stefen didn’t offer assistance—he ruefully reflected that not all his aches could be blamed on being injured.

“Hyrryl?” Vanyel asked, his voice a dry croak.

“She’s the shaman here. We ran into a kyree on the road. Yfandes told him you were wingbrother to k’Treva, and he said that meant they were honorbound to help us. Well, I say “he”. Aroon says he’s neuter, but calling him “it” seems rude, but he doesn’t seem very feminine, so.” He shrugged. “Aroon says there’s a third pronoun the kyree use for people like him, but that it doesn’t really translate into Valdemaran.”

Stefen kept up the onesided conversation, letting Vanyel know all that had happened since Vanyel escaped from the Bandit Keep, and stayed close to him, and once or twice put out a steadying hand when it seemed Vanyel might need it, but they managed the short trip to the designated cavern with no mishaps.

The necessities seen too, Vanyel opted to take a soak in one of the hotsprings. Stefen stripped as well and sank into the water with him, and without asking, pulled Vanyel back to chest. Vanyel let him; he never objected to displays of affection when they were alone, and in any case there was a quiet, entirely understandable feeling of desperation in the embrace.

For a while Stefen was content to let the silence hold, but then, quietly, he said, “Tell me what happened last night.” No asking, no tentativeness in the statement. For all that they were softly spoken, there was an implacable tone to them. Stefen wanted, needed to know what had prompted such an embarrassing emotional outburst—

Stefen huffed into Vanyel’s ear. “Not embarrassing, Van. Gods know you needed to let some of that out. But there was something more going on than just grief for Savil. You were terrified of something. You’ve never woken from a nightmare Feeling quite like that before.”

Feeling trapped, he made to move away, but Stefen tightened his hold on him.

“No, Vanyel.” Quiet command, but Vanyel had no choice but to heed it. “I let you have plenty of space before. I let you pull away, and keep things bottled up, and it didn’t do a damn thing to help either of us. Am I your partner,” he said, his voice getting hard. “Or your plaything?”

Vanyel remained tense for a few long moments, before the tension drained out of him and he sagged against Stefen.

“I’m going to die.” He said it flatly, with an undeniable sense of finality. This time it was Stefen’s turn to tense in shock. “I won’t survive the confrontation with the enemy. And I was afraid—not for myself, but for you. For what you might—do, after.”

“What makes you so sure—“

“I have the Gift of Foresight, Stefen,” he said angrily. “And I’ve had this dream before. Right after I was Chosen. And a few times since then. It always ends the same.”

He could feel it, then, Stefen’s despair, and frantic denial.

He still wouldn’t let go.

“I thought I’d made peace with it,” Vanyel said. He couldn’t keep the emotion from his voice. “Then you came along. I can’t—“ he broke off, unable to trust his voice. “I know I can do what needs to be done,” he said, regaining control. “But I need you to be safe. I need to know that you’ll be all right.”

“Well I damn well shouldn’t be all right if you’re dead, Vanyel,” he said angrily.

“Not immediately after, no,” Vanyel agreed, calmly. “But it gets bearable, after a time. You might find someone else—“

There won’t be anyone fucking else.”

Vanyel waited for a few seconds before replying, “I once thought the same.” He turned in Stefen’s arms then, needed to look at him, make him understand. “I never thought to meet someone like you. I never thought I would be happy again. That I would get to know love again. It’s possible, beloved. No matter how much it hurts in the beginning.”

Stefen looked at him incredulously. Then he pulled Vanyel in for a bruising kiss.

No,” Stefen said fiercely. “You don’t get to do this. You don’t get to make me love you and then just—I had plans. I thought I knew how my life would go, what I wanted. Then you came along and changed everything. Changed me. You had better just—“ he brought their lips together again. “You had better just figure out a way to not get killed, then. I only just found you.”

Vanyel wrapped his arms tight around Stefen, hating the circumstances that had brought them to this point. Why did it have to be now? he thought bitterly. Stef’s right, we haven’t even known each other a year. Couldn’t we have had a few years together before this happened?

Stefen continued kissing him, hands drifting under the waterline to cup his ass and bring their groins together. Vanyel gasped into Stefen’s mouth, always amused and thankful that Stef was so forward about sex. He reached between their bodies, cocks already halfway to hard. But the water was not so facilitating, and Vanyel had no idea how many of their supplies had been salvaged. Did the kyree have any use for oil or some other lubricant?

No matter. He urged Stefen out of the water, and Stef hoisted himself up and sat on the edge of the pool, knowing what Van was after. He spread his legs wantonly, but instead of the usual smirk, he looked down at Vanyel with pleading eyes. He gave himself a few strokes before Vanyel claimed him with his mouth, tongue swirling around the tip, before sinking down all the way to the base. The lifebond, coupled with his Empathy, weak though it was, meant that this was possibly one of Vanyel’s favorite things to do in bed. He could feel his own cock stirring and growing harder from the phantom sensation of his own mouth. Stefen hissed in pleasure, his hand resting on the back of Vanyel’s head, content to let Vanyel do as he pleased. He sucked for as long as he could manage, before pulling off and panting for air. Gentle, nibbling kisses followed, all along the shaft while Vanyel cupped Stefen’s balls and rolled them gently. Reaching the base once again, he licked a stripe right back to the head, tongue searching out the bitter taste of precome, teasing back the foreskin before diving right back down, and up, and down again. Stefen whimpered a bit, and Vanyel could Feel just how aroused he was, his own cock throbbing and jerking despite remaining untouched.

“Not going to last for much longer,” Stef moaned. Taking one last fortifying breath, Vanyel went down again, intent on bringing Stefen to completion, just as eager for release as he was—Vanyel moaned at the sensation of his lover’s quivering body, trying to simultaneously draw the pleasure out and bring it to it’s conclusion.

When Stefen finally came, he swallowed all of it, savoring every drop. He had no particular objection to the act, but knowing how much Stefen loved seeing him do it made him want to wring out every last bit of seed he could.

“Come here,” Stefen panted, flushed and languid. Vanyel climbed out of the pool and Stefen pounced, pushing him flat on his back and wasting no time on returning the favor. Phantom pleasure gave way to the warm, wet reality of Stefen’s talented mouth. Stefen didn’t waste much time on finesse; Vanyel had explained to him once just how his Gift of Empathy worked in this regard, so he knew that Vanyel would be as desperate, if not more, for his climax as Stefen had been.

They were both left trembling wrecks, Stefen’s head pillowed on Van’s stomach. For a moment Vanyel simply let himself stroke Stefen’s hair while he let his blissed out mind wander.

As always, though, reality came crashing back far sooner than either of them would have liked.


Chapter 2


Vanyel could hear Yfandes’ hoof beats echoing long before he saw her.

:Sorry to interrupt, Chosen, Stef.: she said apologetically.

Stefen sighed melodramatically. “At least you had the courtesy to wait until the proceedings were finished.”

Vanyel chuckled at that, then sat up, dislodging Stefen. “Wait, what? You heard her?”

:Of course he did. I meant for him too. It would be rude to go back to not speaking to him, now that he knows I can.:

He looked at Stefen in confusion. “But you don’t have Mindspeech,” he said to Stefen almost accusingly.

Stef shrugged. “Confused the hell out of me first time she did it, too.”

:There was need of it, Vanyel. I can speak to whomever I wish. All Companions can, even the unGifted. We just prefer not to.:

Vanyel simply shook his head after a minute, deciding the mysteries of Companions weren’t worth attempting to unravel.

:Hyrryl and the kyree elders are calling a meeting. I’ve given them as much information as I can, but now that you’re up and about they want to speak with you.:

“Of course.” Vanyel stood, and cast about for his clothing. Once dressed, he turned to follow Yfandes out of the cavern, and stopped dead in his tracks, a pained sound coming from him.

Her tail was gone.

“Oh, ‘Fandes,” he whispered in horror. “What did they do to you?”

:Oh, horseshit, Van, I forgot you probably wouldn’t have remembered, if you were even still conscious when they did it. Thankfully I wasn’t. I suppose they meant it as a trophy or somesuch.:

Vanyel just stood there with an utterly lost look on his face. He wanted to feel rage, but his rage was spent. The ones who had dared to mutilate Yfandes were already dead by his hand—and he shied away from those memories, not able to face them at the moment. The only thing left for him to feel was guilt. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied with arguing with Stefen, maybe they wouldn’t have had a chance to ambush us, maybe I wouldn’t have been captured. Gods, I am such a blind fool.

“It wasn’t your fault, Vanyel. Nothing you did or didn’t do caused this. We were outnumbered, they had magical weapons…blame the ones who actually did it. Not yourself,” Stefen said, coming closer to him, shirt still in hand. “Hey, ashke,” Stef said, slipping his arms around him. “I mean it. No more blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault. You have enough burdens as it is.”

For a moment Vanyel leaned into the embrace, before forcing all thought of what had happened from his mind. They had business to attend to, after all. And Vanyel was very curious to meet the kyree, after all, and needed to express his gratitude.

“All right,” he said thickly. “Lead the way, ‘Fandes.” Stef reluctantly let him go, and Vanyel took a few steps out of the cave before he realized Stefen wasn’t following. “Stef? Aren’t you coming?”

Stefen looked up in surprise. “I…didn’t think I was meant to.”

“Of course you’re meant to,” he said, sounding confused. “We were separated for a significant amount of time; I still don’t know all the details of what happened. All of us need to pool our knowledge before I can plan what to do next.”

Stefen brightened momentarily at the thought of being included (needed), before his face darkened again at the words what to do next. He put a determined face on, though, and Vanyel knew he still hadn’t accepted what Van had told him. He still thought there was a way to avoid Vanyel’s death. Oh, beloved, he thought with bittersweet fondness.

***

The kyree were all sitting in another chamber, this one much more magnificent than the ones they had previously occupied. The stone looked as if had been shaped, almost molded somehow, but Vanyel could not think how the kyree could have done it, unless they had enlisted the aid of some other species with hands to carve it?

The snow-white kyree with the sky blue eyes had to be the shaman, Hyrryl. Not having actually met any kyree before, and unsure of the protocol, he fell back on a mixture of Tayledras and Court habits, bowing deeply before the assembly and lowering his shields just a bit. Stefen followed his lead and also executed a perfect Courtly bow, and Yfandes nodded her head.

“As a Herald of Valdemar, and wingbrother to the Tayledras clan k’Treva, I thank you for your aid. I am Vanyel Ashkevron, and I am indebted to you for providing shelter, Healing, and food, all unasked for.”

:Well met, Herald. I am Hyrryl, shaman of the Hotsprings Clan,: Hyrryl said. :Put all thought of debt out of mind, for you cleansed this land of a growing rot. In time, it might have proven a danger to us. We were undecided, you see, if it would be wiser to continue to hide our presence, or make it known by wiping the vermin out. You have taken the decision from us, and for that, we are grateful.:

Well, that was an unexpected bonus. Vanyel would hate to leave Stefen the one left to pay off a debt of gratitude, since he doubted there was much he himself could have done, given that he still had a rather urgent mission to see through.

“It is as you say. I trust you have spoken with Yfandes and Stefen about why we are here?”

:Not at length. We know you are in pursuit of a greater enemy, possibly the master of the ones you wiped out. Nothing more than that.:

“Indeed. You can see I am a mage of some power. I was—am—counted among the best. Now I am the last. This enemy has been slowly and in secret killing all the mages in Valdemar, and I think, killing or subverting even children born with the Mage Gift before they can be Chosen and trained. Because I was the last, he finally showed his hand. But he shall soon wish he hadn’t.” Vanyel smiled grimly.

:This is grievous news,: one of the other kyree elders said. :I mislike the thought of such a one operating so near our territory. It appears we were right to keep our presence hidden. I shudder to think what he would have made of our clan, as we are rich in mages.:

:Indeed,: Hyrryl agreed. :I must ask you, Herald, what this enemy did to tip his hand, and what made you think to search in this direction.:

“I expected no less, Honored One,” Vanyel replied. “My aunt, Herald Savil, was my equal in power, and she was the first to suspect that there was foul play involved in the deaths of our mages. I did not take her seriously,” his voice broke, and he paused a moment to regain his composure. “Later that very night, she was killed by a mage construct; it had secreted itself inside the palace, inside her very powerful wards, by disguising itself as firewood. It appeared to have once been a crow, or based on a crow’s physiology. It was sustained magically, and appeared to have been created for the sole purpose of assassinating her. I was able to use a spell I know to see into the past; that’s how I know how it made it past the wards. I then used a combination of FarSight and Fetching to track where it had gone, and bring it back to the palace, where I studied and destroyed it. It was created using blood magic,” he grimaced, remembering with distaste the unclean, slimy feeling of the unnatural magic. The kyree had a similar reaction, one or two growled in agitation. As well they should; no one wanted a blood path mage for a neighbor, after all. “Once I had an idea of where the enemy was and what he was capable of, I set out with my Companion Yfandes, and my lifebonded, Bard Stefen. The enemy sent some foul weather our way, but nothing more than that, and I began to hope he was underestimating me. But then he sent that gang of bandits to ambush me. They had bespelled weapons, meant to confuse my senses and block my access to my Gifts. I was able to break the spell, however, and wipe them out. Yfandes and Stefen were nearby, and found me and we all left that place. Then your scout happened upon us, and the rest you know.”

:You have given us much to think on, Herald. I am deeply disturbed that we have had a blood mage so near our borders, who was skilled enough to hide his presence from us. You are of course welcome to remain here for as long as you need to regain your strength. We will see you well supplied with meat and furs, and wish you well on your quest.:

Vanyel nodded at that. The kyree, he knew from the Tayledras, were incredibly insular. To have had even this much aid from them was more than he could have hoped for. “My thanks, Honored One.”

“Wait, that’s it? Stefen said incredulously. “Aren’t you going to help us defeat him?”

Stefen,” Vanyel hissed. But Stefen ignored him.

“Maybe you were right to stay hidden before,” Stefen interjected. “But I don’t think you can stay hidden for much longer. Vanyel is powerful, yes. But he’s still just one man. What if we find this enemy, and he’s too powerful for just one man to defeat? What will you do then? Do you really think you can hide forever? And what makes you so certain he doesn’t know about you? What if he’s only left you alone because he didn’t want to alert you to his presence before he was ready to take you on?”

Stefen’s voice echoed around the chamber while the kyree looked around at each other, stunned. Vanyel looked simply horrified. Stefen didn’t appear to care.

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I’m truly thankful for the help you’ve already given us. My lifebonded was injured beyond my meager knowledge to heal. But we need more than just shelter and Healing. We need your help to defeat an enemy to both our peoples. How can you be content to just sit in your caves and hide when you know there’s evil like that right on your very doorstep?”

There was a deep rumbling sound, more guttural than a growl, emanating from several of the kyree. At first Vanyel feared it meant they were upset, but they appeared to be remaining calm, and discussing things amongst themselves.

:If it is as you say, Singer, and this enemy is aware of us, then why not pick us off, as he has done to you?:

Vanyel shook his head to clear it of shock, and started thinking about everything that had been said. “If I may?”

The shaman nodded her head.

“It had not occurred to me until just now, but what Stefen says makes a frightening amount of sense. Picking your mages off one by one and making it look accidental would not have been as effective a strategy on the kyree, because your clan is so very much smaller than Valdemar. You say your clan in rich in mages; you might have accepted one or two accidental deaths, but as more and more died, eventually you would have become suspicious, and investigated. But this tactic worked well against us, because there was simply no way for all mages throughout Valdemar to personally know one another; in addition, we are at war on our southern border, so it’s likely that many deaths were counted as casualties of war which shouldn’t have been.”

The rumbling sound intensified. :Hmmm. That does sound somewhat plausible. But still, the question remains: do we know any of that for certain? Is it truly worth the risk of exposure? We owed you aid because of our treaty with the Tayledras, and because you indirectly aided us by clearing out that nest of bandits, but we owe no allegiance to Valdemar. Your fight is not necessarily our fight.:

“But it’s clear that this enemy is an enemy of all free people,” Stefen said passionately. “What he’s done so far is proof enough of that. And even if he isn’t aware of your presence, then does that mean you really want to spend your whole lives hiding and in fear? And if we fail and he finds you—who will come to your aid? Can’t you see it’s better to fight him together, when he’s not expecting an attack from both of us?”

Hyrryl stood then. :You have given us much to think on, both of you. We will consider your words.:

It was a clear dismissal. Vanyel bowed once again, and they quickly exited the chamber.

“I don’t know whether to be terrified or infuriated. Stef, what got into you?” he asked as soon as they were alone.

“Me? I can’t believe you were going to just let them send us on our way without even asking for their help!”

Vanyel huffed a laugh. “If you knew anything about the kyree, then you’d know we’ve already received more than we could have hoped for. They’re notoriously insular Stefen, and besides that, for all their intelligence, they’re not human. They don’t share human values or possess the same sense of honor—for them, it’s perfectly logical to let us go off and fight this battle for them.”

“It may be logical, but it’s terribly shortsighted. I was right back there, wasn’t I?” Stefen was almost pleading, clearly not as confident as he had seemed back in the council chamber.

Vanyel pulled him into an embrace. “Yes,” he reassured him. “And I think you used the best arguments you could—logic would have a better chance at swaying them than impassioned pleas. It only remains to be seen if they think the risk of exposure and victory outweighs the benefits of staying hidden.”

“There’s no benefit to staying hidden,” Stefen groused. “No one can hide forever. And why would anyone want to?”

“Going to war is a very different matter for them. For us—Valdemar—if the Grand Council decide to go to war, it’s mostly abstract. Just markers on a map, lists and figures. But for a clan like this, there’s a very real possibility that everyone could lose someone they know. Someone they love.”

“That’s still being shortsighted,” Stefen complained.

Vanyel couldn’t help it, he smiled. “I know, love.” He reluctantly pulled out of the embrace. “Come on. I want you to go over everything that happened between the ambush and when you found me. Whether the kyree agree to offer assistance or not, we have to go forward with this mission.”

“Van,” Stefen said, biting his lip. “I know you said that dream was Foresight, but, is there really no way around it?”

:There could be,: Yfandes said.

“How? I know I’m not much use in this situation, but if I can do anything….” Stefen trailed off.

:I think you can, Bard. Look, Vanyel. The one thing that remains constant in the dream is that you’re not alone in the beginning of it. Once we find the mountain pass you always send me and Stefen off to the guard outpost while you stay behind to buy us time. What if Stefen and I left now while you continue north and try to find the pass?:

Vanyel started to protest, but Yfandes persisted. :No, hear me out. There’s bound to be a mage node, or at least a leyline available for you to tap into and boost your Mindspeech so we can stay in contact, and you can give me directions to where you are. Even though an armed force will by necessity travel slower than a lone Companion and rider, odds are by the time you find that pass, we’ll be close enough that you won’t have to call Final Strike to defeat him.:

Vanyel held his breath, thinking, trying to find flaws in the plan.

There were none. Even if there weren’t any nodes or leylines for him to tap, or he didn’t dare use magic, he could still leave completely ordinary signs for Yfandes to follow. He was a competent enough woodsman to make the journey alone.

And especially if the kyree did see fit to offer aid in defeating the enemy….

“That…could work,” Vanyel said, breathlessly, feeling hope bloom in his chest. He looked at Stefen, at the hope in his face. “It just might be enough to change the outcome.”

“You had just better not be trying to get me out of the way, Vanyel, or—“

“No, ‘Fandes is right. You’re always with me in the beginning, and I send the both of you off to get help, every time. And even if I can’t stay in touch with Mindspeech, I can still always leave signs for you to follow. It might still not be enough, but—“

“At least you’re trying,” Stefen said with relief. He pulled Vanyel into another embrace. He sniffed, and Vanyel inexplicably found himself near tears, too. “Ashke,” he murmured.

“If this is really what you think can help, then I’ll do it. You had just better stay alive, Vanyel, I mean it.”

“I’ll do my best, Stef. I don’t actually want to die, you know.” Not anymore. Gods, no, not anymore. He finally had something to live for, after all.

Chapter 3

It was maddening, going at such a slow pace. Stefen felt a deep sense of urgency, and couldn’t shake the feeling that he would still be too late, that Vanyel really had simply been trying to get him out of the way so he could complete his noble self-sacrifice. Yfandes assured him that wasn’t the case, but he knew Vanyel, and that was exactly something he would do. But, he reminded himself, he had felt Vanyel’s hope when Yfandes came up with an alternate plan. Would getting a head start on bringing the Guard really be enough? Would the kyree decide to act?

At least Aroon had volunteered to go with Vanyel to the Ice Wall. That eased Stefen’s mind somewhat; even if the kyree wasn’t a mage, he would still be damn terrifying in a fight. Not that Vanyel wasn’t, too.

The soldiers had all looked pale faced and shaken when they came across the remains of the bandit keep. Most of the bodies were still there, cold-preserved if slightly nibbled on by wildlife. It was a gruesome sight, but nothing seasoned veterans hadn’t seen before. It was knowing that it had all been caused by one man…Stefen himself wanted to curl up into a ball and try his best to forget what he’d seen. But more than that, he wanted to weep when he thought about what must have happened to Vanyel to push him so far over the edge like that. He’d been beaten so badly he likely wouldn’t have survived the night. Internal bleeding, Yfandes had said. His face was so bruised and swollen he was nigh unrecognizable.

It was one more thing he knew they would have to deal with, when they had a chance. Vanyel would continue to do his not-inconsiderable best to ignore his memories of that time, but they would surface eventually. He knew from Yfandes that could be disastrous. She had told him of a few instances after the Demonsbane incident, as well as what had actually happened at Stony Tor. Needless to say, it was nothing like the song said. The last thing anybody needed was for Van to lose himself in his memories, and go berserk in the middle of, say, a Council meeting. Stefen sighed.

“Any word?” he asked Yfandes, for the fifth time that day.

:None yet. But that may not mean anything. We just have to keep following the trail markers he left. You and I would both know if anything had happened.:

Stefen knew that, as she had patiently repeated that each time he’d asked.

“I’m sorry to be so….” he floundered, helplessly.

:I know, believe me: she said. :I hate being separated, too. There was this one time in Highjorune he had to go under cover as a scruffy, down-on-his-luck minstrel to get information, and I had to skulk around outside the city hoping he didn’t have to let himself get beaten up or taken advantage of in order to keep his cover.:

“Really? Gods—“

He cut off as a huge blast of mage energy erupted in the distance.

He’s there! He’s calling for us!: She reared and threw Stefen off. He landed in a snowdrift, slightly winded. :Stay with the Healers, Stefen,: she said as she took off at full speed. :This isn’t your kind of fight. And tell the Guard commander to make for the site of that explosion double time!:

He stared at her retreating form blankly for just a second before relaying her message to the Guard commander. One of the soldiers offered him a hand up, which he took, still feeling a little numb with shock. He had seen the after effects of what Vanyel was capable of, but had never actually seen what that much raw power looked like—

Maybe that wasn’t even him. Maybe we’re still too late—

He focused his attention on the place deep inside that was distinctly Vanyel. There was fear, pain, but dear gods, at least that meant he was still alive.

Please, if there are any gods listening, please, please don’t let it be too late. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair for us to finally find each other again only to be torn apart. For him to have had to live with this vision for most of his life, to live with so much loneliness and pain. A few months of happiness doesn’t make up for that. You owe him this much.

***

Stefen had so far in his young life seen plenty of horrors. He had seen men knifed and left for dead over a matter of a few coins, desperate drug addicts propositioning any who came near in order to get enough money to buy their next fix, children abandoned, women beaten. More recently he’d witnessed one brief skirmish, and seen the aftermath of his lifebonded beaten and tortured past sense and reason. But even that could not have prepared him for the aftermath of a real, pitched battle. The only reason he hadn’t retched his guts up was because there wasn’t anything in them, and he was kept busy helping the lone Healer and two ungifted assistants put as many pieces of as many soldiers back together as they could. It was an unexpected stroke of luck that when Stefen called upon his Gift, he discovered that all those months of using it on Randale had given him strength and control he’d not had before. He was able to easily exert it on ten at a time, which was a blessing to Healer Deven’s limited supply of poppy juice.

When the guard had finally made it to the mountain pass, it had been to scene that was already out of a nightmare. Vanyel and a small band of kyree were desperately outnumbered but holding their own against an army of black-armored, magic enhanced soldiers. Once the Guard arrived, that left Vanyel and the kyree mages free to concentrate on the leader.

It had very nearly not been enough. Stefen hadn’t actually seen Vanyel yet, but when he focused on the Lifebond, Vanyel sent a pulse of reassurance. He was weary, injured but not severely so, and still occupied with the Guard commander. From what Stefen could understand, the casualties were considered pretty light considering the force they were up against. The only things they’d had in their favor were the element of surprise and the fact that pass was a bottleneck. If that army had made it through the pass, they likely would have rolled right over Northern Valdemar before anyone even knew what was happening.

The worst of the casualties had already been seen to, and Stefen was nearing the end of his reserves of strength. He forced himself to keep going, humming when his voice finally started to waver and crack. He had long ago been forced to stop playing when his hand cramped too badly.

A gentle hand on his shoulder slowly drew him out of his trance. “Bard Stefen? Bard Stefen, can you hear me?”

He opened his eyes, unable to focus immediately, but he soon recognized the face of one of the Healer’s assistants, Breven. He was holding a cup; steam rose from it, and the smell of mint. “For your throat,” Breven said, handing Stefen the cup.

Stefen took it with a nod of thanks, and took an experimental sip. Just this side of scalding, with a liberal dose of honey. The cool-hot tea did its job of easing his abused throat, and he took the opportunity to take stock of his surroundings. Soldiers were lined up on pallets and cots, some thankfully unconscious, but many were now grimacing in pain. Breven was going down the row, administering what was presumably pain medicine. The smell of blood and herbs was still heavy in the air, and the braziers were not doing nearly enough to warm the tent.

Closing his eyes again, he sought out the sense of Vanyel, needing once more the reassurance that his lifebonded lived. Vanyel responded with a wordless sensation that oddly felt like he was saying, coming.

And then—there he was, pushing back the tent flap, looking like he’d been dragged face down through the hells, but blessedly alive.

“Van,” Stefen croaked, wincing at the sudden burst of soreness using his voice caused. He put the cup down and stood, swaying as a sudden bout of vertigo hit. Vanyel was at his side in a moment, steadying him. Breven began approaching them, but Vanyel waved him off. Then he pulled Stefen into an embrace, holding him with all the strength his exhausted body could muster. He buried his face in Stefen’s hair, inhaling deeply.

They stood there in silent communion, leaning against each other for support. Vanyel pulled away just enough to bring their faces together, their foreheads meeting. “Ashke,” Vanyel murmured, and Stefen could feel the weight of emotion it carried; relief, gratitude, reverence.

Far in the back of his mind, Stefen wondered at this uncharacteristic display of affection; granted, nearly everyone in the tent was either unconscious or in too much pain to pay attention to the spectacle, but Vanyel was usually so careful.

Vanyel made a huffing sound, closing his eyes. “Stefen, I cannot tell you how little I care about anyone finding out right now. You’re absolutely the most incredible person I’ve ever met. You’re the reason I’m even still alive.” And then, wonder of wonders, he brought their lips together, one hand sliding up Stefen’s arm to cup his face.

“I’m proud of you,” Vanyel said, after breaking this kiss. “I love you.”

Stefen closed his eyes again against the swell of tears. He felt almost embarrassed by the declaration. I didn’t do anything important, he thought at Vanyel.

“Nothing important?” he sounded incredulous. “Stef, if you hadn’t insisted on coming, then I would never have come back alive. If it hadn’t been for you rallying the kyree, I would not have lasted until the Guard showed up. I would have accepted what the dream showed me, but you gave me something to finally live for, ashke, something besides my duty to the kingdom. I owe you everything for that.” He sealed the declaration with another kiss, before tugging him in the direction of the tent’s entrance.

“Come on, ashke. There’s a tent already set up for us; you look ready to collapse.”

Stefen snorted at that, knowing that Vanyel had had by far the more wearying task, but didn’t protest, because Vanyel didn’t release his hold on him as they left the tent, or as they walked though the camp. There were a few eyes on them, but no remarks or comments, not even a raised eyebrow. As Vanyel held open the flap to their tent, Stefen felt, oddly, like they were coming home.

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