Nothingness held claim over her, at least until the smell of fresh-cooked bacon began to stir the spellthief awake. The arcanist stood amused in the doorway, carrying the offending tray and watching the girl yawn and wriggle on the bed, atop the scorched outline of herself. Beautiful. He set the tray at the table and walked to her side, sitting down on the edge of the bed just as her eyes began to open. “Good morning, little thief,” he said. “How are you doing?“
Her lips curled as pleasantly as the rest of her body, but then it seemed reality set back in, and her look hardened—regret, spite, confusion, likely many more emotions were brewing under the surface of it. “Better,” she said eventually, for lack of any other words.
“Then won’t you join me for breakfast?” he smiled at her, and her own smile twitched a hair in reply. He went across the room and held her chair as she began the process of getting out of bed.
Her legs looked to be working with some degree of competency, as did her knees and feet. She brought herself up to sitting, then stood in one motion that made her sway and fall, but she caught herself on the wall. She cursed through labored breaths as he watched.
“Are you alright?” he asked, “Breathing trouble?”
The thief steadied herself and took steps forward, hugging the wall. “Fine,” she spat, before her eyes darted to his and then back to the floor. Her next step was slower, more cautious.
“The bacon cools while you dawdle,” he chuckled, and she gave him another look before sighing, taking a sharp breath in, and taking two quick steps, though they made her weight pitch forwards as she turned and fell into the seat. He had meant to be able to assist her, but he’d barely any time to react at all. He pushed the chair back towards the table as she breathed with difficulty. “It’s good to see you on the mend.”
“... good to be on it,” she answered, opened her mouth to continue, and then stopped, then opened again. “About last night, I...”
“Saw me as a symbol of your oppressor, instead of a person. You spoke venom against an idea, little thief, and it can cause me little harm.” The arcanist extended his hand to her, the plate of fried bread and bacon looking like some gesture of peace.
She hesitated before taking it, and longer still before speaking again. “You’re a person,” she reiterated, as though it were a foreign concept, “and you... deserve respect, because of that and... because of your kindness.”
“Finer words than perhaps I deserve, keeping you as I do.” He hoped his smile betrayed more than just smugness.
“You’re still wrong. And you still have no reason to hold me here,” she held up a hand before he could give any snide remark, “but it’s a lie to deny that you have any good in you, and, you do your work with good intent. And,” her voice was quiet and embarrassed at her admissions, “some good effect, too. The work you’ve done, that you do is... positive. It’s not good work—it’s deeply flawed, egotistic, rotten to the core, but... it still benefits many.“
“Not good work, but still it benefits many. I’ll have to puzzle my way through that one.” He shook his head. “There will be no convincing you, I fear. You may as well stick your knife in my ribs now, and watch what happens to farmlands over the next twenty years. Perhaps then you’ll know.”
For once, she didn’t rise to his jabs. “I’m not here to hurt anyone. I don’t kill, and the hurting is only when there’s a threat, but even then—trap, trick, delay, but not maim.” She started on her food, and after only a moment’s delay she was filling her mouth with vigor.
“Trap, trick, delay.” He nodded. “You and I have much in common.”
“We have nothing in common,” she scoffed.
“Oh, I don’t know, there’s an interest in the common good, and an appreciation for the fine form of Magdara Seilund.”
She snorted. “Here I thought you’d be calling me a self-serving and self-righteous thief.”
“Well just because you are doesn’t mean I have to say it,” he laughed. “You are my guest, after all. Deliberately offending you would be the height of rudeness.“
“If you wanted to be a good host, you’d let me leave.”
“If you wanted to be a good guest, you wouldn’t have set my room on fire.”
“Guests have a choice of staying,” she fired back. “Don’t try to antagonize me.”
“And why not?”
“Because if you do, I’ll do much worse than refuse to cooperate with your research.”
He coughed, which covered the little motion of his hand. “And why not?”
She blinked, then spoke matter-of-factly. “Because I could very well burn everything within a mile of this place.”
“I’m not sure that you could, although I don’t think I’ll put you to the test. A mile around may be beyond your reach, but this room is not.”
She smirked this time, and rolled her shoulders back. “With a focus like mine, it’s like I’m just playing with little streams and brooks and trickles of magic. But with this...” Her free hand gestured in the air, eyes following it as though it was submerging in some unknown depths above her head, “I feel like I could pour out everything. All of the magic there is out there, in here, in everything. Like breaking open a levee.”
“It’s possible that you could. But I doubt that you would. It’s not something conducive to self-preservation.”
“I wouldn’t ever. It’s just... a frightening feeling. Knowing I could burn this whole forest if I wanted to, and knowing you could do much worse, and much more precisely. Just being near it is like... like it demands to be used, and like I’m perched on the top of some mountain, and like any move I could make would cause an avalanche.”
She stopped speaking, and so did he. They ate quietly.
“I don’t know how you can stand it,” she murmured.
“It makes no such demands on me. It waits. It’s there, patient and calm. Not like a flood, but... more like a well.” He scratched his cheek, thinking. “I can draw when I need, and it doesn’t rise when it’s not wanted. It was wise for me to build the tower in order to deepen the well, to grant me a stronger rope and a broader bucket. You understand?”
The thief’s brow moved downwards, and he saw that she didn’t understand at all. “How is a bucket supposed to contain a whole river?” she asked. “Before, when I didn’t know it was the tower... I thought that’s just how it should feel. But now that it’s all there, now that it’s a focus and not, some, whatever I thought it was... I don’t know how to control it. I can’t, not like a normal focus. It doesn’t feel like one at all.”
“Then maybe we ought to examine that?” The arcanist offered openly, smiling at her nod. With a movement of his hand, he cut off her magical connection entirely. “Let’s try from the other side of it. We’ll take it easy.” He slowly traced his fingers in the air, grasping between them the bonds he’d placed on her access to the power and slowly loosening the chains. “Tell me when it’s at a point that it becomes demanding to you.”
He watched with some amusement the process he’d seen, the process he’d felt many times before. To be cut off from one’s magic could feel like a deadening, a numbness, a lack. Everything seemed less alive, less bright and full when one couldn’t feel the flow of magic through it all. And though he never traveled without a focus, he knew the invigorating sensations that were running through her nerves now, had felt them gradually build whenever he’d come close to the tower from some other place. He felt that rush then, only from watching her body tremble with energy, and he wasn’t surprised that he could feel some echo of it through their shared connection. She put up a hand, and his fingers stopped in place.
“... slowly,” she said, and he obliged, feeling a different sort of rush at her look of contentment, her closed eyes and naked body, the risen hairs that he could spy even from across the table.
He couldn’t resist prodding. “I gather that this is... pleasurable?”
“Stop,” and again, his hand ceased. She opened her eyes with a glare, perhaps more distant than she’d intended, but it softened quickly. The thief held out her hand, palm-up, and took a breath. He felt her reaching clumsily with her mind, but she did take hold, and the point of power above her fingers grew quickly into a bloom of fire.
“Why fire?” he asked, without accusation. It was simply wondering, and he did watch with some wonder at the flickering light. He wasn’t sure if it was the question, the heat, or his gaze that made her begin to blush. With how easily it happened, it could have been all three.
She kept her eyes closed tight and steadied her breathing. “Fire is life, and death, and hate and love, and danger and safety all at once. It’s why there’s anything.” He was quiet, and she seemed to take it as confusion. “Magic is like water,” she went on, “it flows and it feeds life into all, but... people need more than just water. We need food in our bellies and roofs above our heads and fires in the hearth to keep us from freezing when the sun is gone away. Magic is what feeds all life, but fire feeds ours.”
He smiled in the light, not that she could see. “Finer words have not been spoken by the finest poets—though I meant for you, personally, and this spell, specifically.”
She sighed. “Because it’s the easiest fucking thing I can manage with this gods-cursed tower built from all the ashes in all the hells.” She cursed again, in Keld this time.
“Then let me take away some of that strain.” He walked behind her and put his arms lightly on her shoulders. They stiffened immediately, and the flame wavered, but stayed lit. He took a deep breath of his own, slowly tracing the line of power from the fortress, to her, to the flame, and lending his strength not to the spell itself, but to the defenses she was holding in her mind to keep it in line.
“Mhmm,” he said without moving, feeling her start to relax as he took some of the load onto his back. “There. There, do you feel that, little thief?” He drew her attention to the flow of power. “Right there. You’re working far too hard right in that moment. You’re pushing back against it, trying to restrict the natural flow. You need to step aside and let it move around you.”
“What else am I supposed to do?” she hissed. “It’s not my focus, how should I know how it naturally flows, fucking... here, let me...” Her shift in attention forced his to follow, and the fire in her hand shot up an inch.
“You’re... oof, gods, hold on...” He shifted his stance, and his grip on her body tightened. “Careful,” he said, as the weight became manageable again, “I see what you mean. You’re trying to hold it back, and it does feel like holding a whole river. Try...” The arcanist pursed his lips together, and the weight on her lessened considerably—moving around her, rather than trying to push through; simultaneously, the flame leapt up as though oil had been tossed on it.
“H-hey, don’t, shit,” her body was trembling, muscles shaking and threatening to buck him off like a wild horse. The flame grew higher still, starting to smoke. “How in the hells am I supposed to...” He heard her wince, and the weight slid off his shoulders and onto hers again.
“Stop trying to control it!” He snapped. “It will do what it wants.” His fingers squeezed, and he felt how tight his hands had grown to her skin, and how tense beneath them she had become. “Breathe, little thief. Breathe. In, and out. In, and out.” He took the breaths along with her, once she had taken up the rhythm, and little by little, the weight started to even out.
“Focus on the sound of my voice, focus on the flow of the power. Calm. Easy. Just like that. Just breathe... just focus. Breathe. In, and out. Carefully, gently, just... let the magic go where it will. Don’t try to impose your ideas, just let... it... flow...” The hold she was trying to gather loosened, then faded, then disappeared entirely. The fire calmed itself, the tightness in her shoulders, her face, slowly disappearing. He felt the magic rush around them both, fuelling the flame, going wherever it willed.
“Just like that,” he whispered, slowly caressing, gently massaging her shoulders, “exactly like that. In, and out. Easy and calm, little thief. Focus on that feeling. You are not the master of this power. You borrow and you shape. You do not control. In, and out. Do not restrict the flow, do not stand in its way. Be a part of it. Be one with it. Let it move around you, feel the flow, it’s not meant to be challenged...” He had leaned down, his voice dropping with him. Calm, sweet, and low. “Give in, and let go, little thief... give in, and let go...“
Her cheeks were pink in the firelight, her skin humming with excitement and energy beneath his soothing touch. The current was drifting, carrying her mind upwards and downwards, the flame moving this way and that with the rhythm, rising and falling on each breath. In, and out. The flow was around her, pulling her thoughts and focus along, shaping it ever so gently to his words as it flowed into her spell.
“You have been fighting so hard to control... just relax now. Relax and breathe, in, and out... give in, and let go... You don’t need to fight, little thief,” the arcanist cooed into her ear, close enough to nibble if he hadn’t been so distracted by the spell they wove in tandem, by the words he was using to lull her mind, “fighting is exhausting, fighting is tiring. Control is unnecessary. Just work with the magic... work with the flow... do not resist it. Just relax... give in, and let go.“
He could feel an unwanted stirring, an errant thought twisting itself in her mind to try and block the current. “The power flows around you, through you, and you flow with it.” He put a hand to her cheek, listened to her sigh in response as his honeyed and enchanted words slipped into her ear, “You are in the river, you are in the current. You can shape, little thief, but you cannot dam. You cannot resist. Just relax...”
She swallowed, yet another small disturbance, and the words dripped off her tongue. “I...” Another soft sigh at his caress. “I cannot dam...” The words were music to his ears, devoid of tone as they were, but full of feeling. Her mind was adrift with the sorcery, and his words moved seamlessly into the receptive place she’d made for him in so doing.
“Shape. Do not challenge. Just shape.” He let the channel of power slowly open as she repeated another whisper of his words, and the flame in her hand began to dance. Spinning like the sun on some unseen axis, the heat radiating, shapes starting to coalesce from the small but blistering mass of fire like a sculpt on a potter’s wheel. She didn’t think about it—he would have felt it; the forms were coming on their own.
If only it had been this easy to learn when I started, he thought to himself with some envy.
The ball became like a spinning top, bending and blurring as it reshaped itself endlessly—conical, then ovoid, now swirling ropes of light spiraling around one another, then a disc, here a twisting ladder, there a winding stair.
You are not in control, the great teachers had written. You work with the power, you guide it, you shape it. Show the power the way you want it to go, and it will. Show the plant the shape it ought to take, and it will. Show the mind the thoughts it ought to think, and it will.
The light spun faster and faster, brightening the whole room with white, flashing in his eyes as it revolved and dazzled. It became impossible to tell shape from shape, until with some finality, the rings and coils coalesced into a single, stunning, brilliant mote of blue. Smaller than a pin, floating barely an inch above her hand, but still casting its ethereal light and hot air through the room, across his skin. Even as the magic grew and flowed into it, the point remained constant, only the heat and brightness of it growing with each passing moment.
“Very good...” he murmured, watching the display with more fascination than he felt he should have had, and he brought a different pattern to her attention—he pulled her focus to the flow of power itself.
Show the student what to learn, and she will learn.
He made her awareness drift to the lines of power through the room, how the magic moved, how it flowed, how to sense it and track it. He showed her what he saw, what he felt; he showed her what she was doing even now, the knowledge punching through the quiet warmth of her empty mind. Not just instinctual, but intellectual, trying to help her understand.
And soon, he saw that she did. The lines of heat, of magic, traced out from the blue, blazing pinprick, meeting each surface and wall and hair and cheek and speck of dust. Some strands of it were stronger than others. The flow drew her aimless mind to those first, moved through them, branching the energy out from the center and into an array of invisible specks, suspended in the air. He watched, and she felt, as the heat moved unseen to those spaces of strength, the points where the magic was strongest, filling them up like more little wells, with buckets and ropes to draw on, growing them with the rushing current.
First embers, dripping specks of light, then flames, then larger and larger, each growing, floating, rising, and falling with each breath, spinning and shrinking and flashing into new, brilliant white stars. The arcanist checked to assure that the power would not leave the room, and was surprised to find his hand still stroking her cheek when his awareness returned.
Huh. Each time relaxation washed through her, his body relaxed with it. Each time her thoughts floated to some point, his went with it. It took more and more effort each time to pull himself back to his own body, to think and examine and intellectually review, rather than becoming lost in the feeling and sense of the spell, just as she was.
His own insistent arousal was a boon in this regard, at least. “Good, little thief,” he said, trying to keep some restraint, “just relax. You see the value in refusing to fight?”
“Yes,” she answered in featherweight monotone, the sound tinted with calm and wonder. The new flames filled with power, and again, her mind sought out the strongest remaining spots of the room and flooded them with the same energy and heat, into a new set of embers, the constellation around them expanding even faster.
“Wow,” he heard, and the expanse of stars shuddered as both their focuses and awarenesses wavered at once—he stammered out a spell to deaden her awareness, made sure her magic was stable, and then looked up, to see Henry standing fixed in the doorway, the guard’s eyes wide with wonder.
“Henry,” the arcanist said slowly, “this is a delicate moment.”
The guard’s eyes wandered over, and he got control of his slack jaw. “Well, I mean it certainly looks like it, sir. Is all this...?”
“Magic, yes,” the arcanist answered with a touch of annoyance, his hands holding the thief’s shoulders as she sat, looking as though she was asleep, but all the while spinning out new stars along the paths of the spell.
“Wow,” Henry said again, and wandered inside, looking from point to point with both interest and a complete lack of fear, even at the near-sweltering heat. “It’s amazing, boss, did you do this?”
“That’s,” he let out a flustered sigh, “yes, and no, it’s more her than me, you see, we’re—”
“Her?” The old guard gaped, finally setting his eyes on the spellthief in her chair. “But she’s—“
“Asleep? No, she’s very much awake,” the arcanist managed to chuckle, very aware of the shifting strain in his concentration, “she’s just... otherwise focused, I suppose.” He leaned down towards the girl’s head, murmuring in her ear, “Nice and easy, say hello to Henry now, little thief.”
“Hello Henry...” Her voice drifted out like a song, and even Henry seemed to blush at the sound.
“See you? No, of course not, I made sure that—”
“Yes,” the thief spoke on her own, drawing a look of confusion from the arcanist. Her web of stars had been slowly growing, but now the whole thing seemed to flutter and rumble as her consciousness asserted itself through the fog. “I can...”
“A-ah,” Henry nodded, “w-well, miss, I mean, I’m sorry that I’m interrupting like this, but, I did say I’d come and see you today.”
The sphere of stars jiggled with the sound of the thief’s quiet, sleepy laughter. “I’m... glad you’re here,” she murmured, “it always... makes me so happy to see you.”
The arcanist looked back up, and Henry was flushing furiously. “Maybe you’d like to visit again tomorrow, Henry,” he said, and gave the guard a look of deep intent for a moment, “the two of us have a lot of work in here today.”
“R-right,” Henry nodded quickly, “sure, I mean, yes sir, yes miss, I—” He sighed, shook his head, and moved back behind the open doorway, peeking his head inside the room. “I’ll come again, then.”
“Thank you,” the thief whispered, the guard stammered some bashful remark, and then he shut the door.
The arcanist heaved a breath, and put his focus back entirely on the naked woman sitting in the chair lost in a heavy state of magical entrancement whose mind was practically mush for him to mold. Albeit very powerful mush. And very arousing mush.
He swallowed. “You shouldn’t have been able to hear that.”
“I wanted to say hello,” she said, though the lightness and emotion had left her voice again, leaving only the delicious and enticing emptiness. He cursed himself and shifted his legs.
“I put a spell in your way. How did you get around it?” he asked, as he slowly kneaded her shoulders while a new set of stars sprung to life at the edges of the sphere, still spinning around them.
“I went around.” Her voice was blank, and he stopped himself from pushing any further. She wouldn’t understand the how of it any better than he, and he understood very little of it as yet.
The what of it all, on the other hand, was clear—and both visually and spectrally—quite beautiful. The constellation kept growing as he stoked the thief on, spinning farther and farther out until its extremities touched all of the room’s walls, floor and ceiling. He swiveled his head around to admire it, to fix the feeling and extent and shape of the spell and power in his mind, before slowly stemming the flow of power, watching the stars wink out little by little. “That’s enough for now, little thief. Enough for this morning.“
“Enough,” her lips moved, and the stars kept fizzling while his hands played against her collar, the sphere shrinking in size and density, quicker and quicker until only the bright blue mote in her palm remained. Held aloft by her breath, it flickered once, then disappeared.
Her arm dropped like dead weight, and at the same time, the arcanist involuntarily fell to his knees, shuddering as the weight drained out of him like a plug pulled from a bath. His arms held for dear life to the chair as his body sagged to the floor, breathing hard, trying to reorient himself; trying to untangle himself from their interlaced energies and consciousnesses.
He heard her weak, exhausted breathing over the din, but his own immediate needs had to come first. He kept to his knees, kept to himself, flesh on fire, mind on fire. Preserving energy, drawing on reserves, sinking deep into the well of his power, clutching the chair tight. The next breath was warming, the next still was rejuvenating, as he conducted the whole of the space’s energy inwards, to revitalize, if only to keep a façade while the thief recovered from her own crash.
She, though, looked in a worse state than he. Through half-lidded eyes and dulled senses, the arcanist saw her body loosening, going limp in the seat, wincing and wheezing. He saw, no, felt her energies moving along the paths of the room, searching, following, most definitely on instinct alone, moving with her hand to the strongest point—landing on his wrist with a chilled, gentle touch.
His eyes shot open wide.
You can’t use me as a conduit, he wanted to say. The tower is mine, he wanted to say, and I am not yours to draw on. You cannot command the power to bend to your will, he wanted to say.
But he was transfixed; held by her fingers as sure as he would be by irons.
The power was drawn up, through him, and the spell, and his control, and traveled involuntarily between them. His power. The energy of his focus left his body and mind, and filled her instead. He felt the thrumming of life in her fingers, the brimming excitement and magic forcing her thoughts wide open, heard her take a clear, deep breath of new life, of energy that should have been his, followed by an even clearer shudder of pleasure.
He knew what was happening, what had happened, but he had no physical strength left to lift himself from the ground, nor the magical power to do anything about it. The energy ran over him, let him be, left him dry, until without warning, her fingers left his skin, and he was left limp. Released from the steel-bound grasp of her fingertips, he finally let go of the chair, and collapsed, letting out a shaky breath. Not unconscious, but he wouldn’t be moving for a while yet. The flow returned to normal around him, and he knew that he could manage it, manipulate it if he had to; but he really didn’t want to.
The thief heard the fall, felt it, and he sensed her panic before she started scrambling. “No, no, no, gods, please...” Her voice was distant, coming from all corners of space. He tried to focus, but he was a wreck. He’d been awake for days now, had pushed his body beyond its limit. Being pulled away from the flow of energy keeping him upright was devastating, even if it was only for a moment.
A lurch threw the girl onto her feet, then her momentum sent her onto the floor after him. He heard her stifle a cry of pain, heard her crawl to his side on her knees, heard a word uttered, and then unexpected power bloomed into his side, sensation, life, healing, the warm glow of a desperate spell. Of a worthless spell.
He tried to wave her off, but his body wouldn’t move. Finally, trying not to waste any more of her energy, he closed the conduit to her, cutting her spell entirely. He put his voice in her mind, though it was as weak as he, Stop. I’m fine. Just exhausted.
She slumped back helplessly against the chair, breathing hard, her eyes moving in and out of focus while she held his weakened, scarcely moving gaze. “Shit,” she said, once her breath had been recaptured, “don’t... fucking scare me like that, you idiot.” One wrist rose, limply wiping at a dampened eye before thudding back to the floor again.
The arcanist at least had the energy to be touched by the sentiment, but he could only watch, and wait. His head settled, and now the ceiling’s show would play out. Much more interesting, he thought dryly. At least it might keep his arousal from draining still more of his attention.
He couldn’t spare any power to feel her mind, thoughts or state of her body, but he knew that she was tired. Her breathing was slowing, and not purposely so. The sound of her voice seemed to sway around in place, as though her head were bobbing weakly.“Fine,” she chuckled, “be that way.” He heard her tug herself up by the chair’s arm, nearly knocking the thing over as she put her weight against it. He could see the edge of her face in his vision, lip bitten, a cold focus in her stare as her eyes flicked around the room.
Is she about to leave me here? The thought struck him. She wouldn’t. Couldn’t, could she? I could stop her. She’s as drained as I. All of it was true, or at least it should have been, but he couldn’t help but recoil from the thought of trying to defend himself or assert himself in any kind of magical contest, from his current state.
The thief appeared to decide on something, took a sharp breath in, and pushed both her hands at his body. He braced himself, involuntarily, but of course, nothing could happen. Even the smallest sliver of his magic would keep her powers sealed off entirely, and he felt her struggling mightily against that sliver, to no avail.
“Fucking hells,” she swore, “work with me, for once, for gods’ sakes...” Seeing her less hysterical, and not clearly trying to harm him or carry out some appreciated but ultimately useless act, he relented, and let a trickle reach her.
She took hold of it, and pushed his block back even further. “Better, but just a little more...” The trickling widened into a steady stream, one that she was boxing in, again, rather than letting flow as it would. She would need more training yet, he sighed inwardly, and then the prickling of magic started to tug at his physical senses. A smell like sulfur, a twist in his stomach, the hairs of his arms all standing on end.
“Don’t interrupt me, or this might hurt.” She smirked at him, cracked her knuckles, and thrust her hands out again. He felt her mind dancing between intricate calculations and estimations and prayers, before her hands took the same ember-colored glow as that of her irises, and the lurch in his stomach jumped. And jumped higher. And drew his focus, and his whole body, up off the ground, hovering just a few inches off the floor at first, but steadily climbing.
He always preferred to teleport. Levitation made him sick.
But he rose up past her, to a height that he assumed would be over the bed, and began to drift backward. He heard her voice, low, continuing the channeled incantation at a volume somewhere between a mutter and a grunt, floating his empty body through the air, past the footboard, up to the pillows, and gently, gently down. Her grip, and her magic, released him, and he gave an audible sigh. The bed at least remained soft and comfortable, despite its rather wretched state.
She took her sweet time getting over to him, but when her face loomed above his, it was with a triumphant grin. “Tables’ve turned, it looks like.”
He did manage a glare that conveyed don’t be so sure more economically than any telepathic message might have.
“I could walk out that door… and you couldn’t stop me.” She paused a moment. “But,” she shrugged and set her palm on his chest, without any magic or binding touch, “that’d be poor bedside manner. Even worse than yours.”
He forced air out of his chest in a clearly-derisive, “Hah.”
She shook her head and laughed back at him. “Nah.” Her hand patted against his body, then traced slowly up, to his collar, around and up his neck, chin, cradling his cheek and turning it just towards her own. “I’m not going anywhere. So don’t fret it.”
A questioning eyebrow rose, and his nostrils flared—the first voluntary, the second, less so.
Blush teased her cheeks, just as involuntarily. “You need your rest, that’s all.” The thief said it flatly, moving her pleasantly cool touch away and letting his head loll back onto the pillow. “Get some sleep, for once in your life. The whole indomitable, unbreakable, impossibly powerful arcanist façade’s broken up as it is.” She gave that coy smirk again, and began to step away.
“Where?” he gasped, swallowed, and tried again. “Are you. Going?”
“Over there,” she rolled her eyes, “so I can pass out while you pass out. Trust me, I’m not running away like this. I wouldn’t make it two steps.”
The magic reached out. He didn’t want it to, but it was his hand that directed it.
I want her here. Right here, beside me.
The spell came easily, even before he’d thought about it. “Where... are you... going?” he asked again, watching as the tendrils of magic slipped through the memory of her answer, covering it, washing it away, changing her response.
Her eyes blinked. Her body swayed, and for a moment, he thought she might’ve fallen over just there. “I’m... going to rest, too.” Her eyes momentarily lit on the more-scorched side of the bed. “Yeah. Just close your eyes, get some sleep already.”
He let out an affirmative moan, something approximating “Uh-huh,” and let his eyes close lightly. Deep breathing was already happening. Sleep, on the other hand, was not, despite outward appearances. She hesitated above him, until she breathed her relief, and slowly crept around the bed to mount it from the other side. She landed carefully, and might not have disturbed him, had he truly been at rest.
But he was not, and adjusting slightly to the new weight, managed to get an arm around her shoulders and back to hold her closer. He could tell she was blushing, but she didn’t resist, and let herself be dragged over and brought against his body. Hers quivered against him, shaking like a leaf caught in the gentlest gust. “Cold?” he asked, eyes opening with a smile above her forehead.
“No. I mean, maybe,” she muttered quickly. “Just tired.” She held his stare a moment, then moved her head closer, into the folds of his robe as if to hide herself. “Quiet. You need rest.”
He held her tighter, anyway, letting the power flow in him to create a little warmth for them to share, stitching it to the fraying segments of the bed’s spell of sleep. He squeezed her softly. “Thank you...”
A curt breath from her nose. “For what?”
“Caring,” is all he said.
More ruddiness coloring her complexion. “Don’t get used to it,” she replied, hiding even deeper into his clothes. “Sleep, already, or I’ll have your head when I wake.”
He was able to lightly chuckle, and give a short and tender rub on her back. He felt the tension seep out of her body, as her breath slowly deepened. He lay there, regaining strength, absorbing power, and thinking. There was much to consider. Not the least of which was how desirable the beautiful young nude thief was, and how small and wonderful she felt, curled up against his front.
Dreams danced nimbly away from her thoughts as the spellthief awoke. She yawned and stretched as she often did, oblivious of the body she shared her heat with, or the face she shared a smile with, until she made herself turn around.
She was surprised, and not surprised. “Hey,” she breathed quietly, and her stomach took to a similar fluttering as that of her eyelids.
“Hello there, little thief,” the arcanist breathed back, his fingers coming to rest on her side and tracing the edges of each rib, counting them out with little cause to remember, and so often sliding back and forth again. “How are you feeling?” He asked.
“Fine,” she replied, though she hadn’t yet had time to spare any thought to her condition. She recalled the events of the morning with some detached interest—it was easy to remember waking up, compared to the regret that the night before made creep up onto her at even the suggestion of memory.
There was breakfast, that was certain. And then... there was little. She remembered the cacophony of magic that the tower had provided her, and she remembered the serene, single-minded purpose it had granted her, too. What she had done hardly mattered, the feeling of that power was far more important. But now, she could feel neither. Not a buzz, not a hint, not the faintest impression of it. “You’ve got me cut off from it,” she said, when she realized that the arcanist was staring.
“I do. Would you like it back?” His tone, and his offer, seemed sincere. A quality she was noticing more and more from him.
But she didn’t have to accept every offer just for veracity’s sake. “No. Not now, at least. I don’t think I could handle it.” The spellthief settled her head against the pillow, and let her eyelids close as his hand came up to rub and tickle through her short, pale hair. “How’s your everything?” she smirked.
“Physically?” The arcanist chuckled. “Exhausted. Aching. You would be glad to know that I did follow your direction, and I had my first hours of sleep in... well, it’s no matter now how long it was.” He smiled at her when her eyes opened, evicting the argument that was already making its lodgings in her throat. “Magically, though, I am fine. Why,” he said, while his thumb explored the space of her cheek, “were I to have never heard your melodious tones before, I might have read the concern in your voice as earnestness.”
“It is earnestness,” she made known, and her hand felt slowly for the shape of his body through the layers of his robe. A thick, unflattering garment, she thought. There aren’t really any reasons for wizards to wear robes. They’re free-flowing, yes, to better let one make the somatic gestures for spellcasting... but so are a plain cloth shirt and trousers. They’re warmer in the winter months and cooler in the summer months, but they’re more dangerous in the case of a fire, or tripping, or a sword flying across one’s chest. The only somewhat sensible reason is that a robe could enhance a spell of deflection over its many folds and wide surface, better than a flat shirt or cuirass can, but who in the hells actually works a deflection to their clothes instead of to the air?
Mages like this one, probably, she thought to herself. The real purpose of a sorcerer’s robe was threefold: tradition, hegemony, and arrogance. Wizards had worn robes since hawks first learned to fly. Robes cost money, which the wealthiest and most finely educated can always afford, while few others often can. And those that can afford one will always wear it, even if they are outmoded by virtually every other modern invention in the world of garments.
A robe is a status symbol. His robe wasn’t the worst status symbol she’d laid her hands or eyes on. It was soft to the touch. Smooth beneath her fingertips. Thick, certainly, with rippling layers of a dark gray and only the slightest embellishments. Simple, like his traveling clothes. But still a sign of wealth, and power, and a fundamental misunderstanding of that which was outside his own sphere—he clearly wanted to appear simple, homely and humble, but he didn’t. She didn’t think he could. There was too much... too much him. All of his self-importance and self-assuredness bled through the material, staining it with an obvious scent and color of naïveté, idiocy, hubris, vanity...
The spellthief became aware that she’d been staring, at her hand which had most definitely explored the entirety of his right side. She let it slip around the back. She wasn’t sure whether to continue on her circuitously unhelpful path of thought and assumption or to take a different road, but the arcanist made the choice for her.
“Physically, I can barely rise from the bed,” he said, “while I am certain you can do much more than that. Of magic, I am as strong as ever, though you’ve not a drip to work with.” He finished with an infuriating smirk.
“I said I don’t think I could handle it. I didn’t think I could set fire to half the room or break out of your captivity, but I did that anyway. Don’t test me.” She smiled back with sweetness on the surface, but venom beneath.
“So,” the arcanist said, moving his arm around her back and pulling her even closer to himself (something that even she could not form an objection to), “if you had that magic, what would you do?” His eyebrow came up with that equally inflaming curiosity that bade her to answer.
“Get myself out of this lovers’ tangle,” she muttered, less than half serious about the idea.
“Lovers, now, are we?” He sounded surprised, even delighted. Of course she felt the heat crawling onto her face, beginning at the tips of each of her pointed ears.
“You’re confusing dream with reality,” she said.
“It’s easy to do,” he said casually while keeping that expression fixed, “considering you are so very dreamlike in your body, in your eyes, in your face, in your hair...” His embrace tightened with each word, though not uncomfortably, and she knew that he was doing this on purpose.
That exasperation made its way out in a sigh. “I wasn’t sure before, but now I know that I would get myself away from this.“
“The thief doesn’t like being bound up,” he said. “Interesting.”
She rolled her eyes. “Moreso who I’m being bound up by that’s revolting.“
He chuckled. “Are you so sure of that?”
“You doubt me?” she asked, “Am I not honest?”
He blinked at her with a look of some disbelief, as though what she’d said had obviously been false. “You are a thief,” he pointed out.
“Like you’re much better, squirreling away all your secrets and coin.”
“You asked if I thought you honest.” He smiled and found her cheek with his fingers. “I merely answered.”
She let him stroke against her skin. “You didn’t say no.”
“Should I have?”
“That depends on the truth,” she smiled.
“... gods help me,” he said, the realization crashing onto his cocky expression with waves of confusion, disbelief, and some small level of revulsion at himself. “I trust you. You are a thief, but when you speak I cannot doubt your sincerity, even if I believe you wrong.”
The smile she had been harboring broke into a grin. “My, my, I thought the object of the game was my own mind’s changing, not yours.”
“And has it not?” He laughed. “Can you deny that you trust me as deeply as I trust you?”
“Trust you?” She scoffed and forced her face to a blank mask. “You’re a secretive magicmonger with the most insufferable opinions on learning, knowledge, truth, really anything you could have an opinion about.“
His smile kept still as he traced a little circle around her scalp. “You didn’t say no.”
She swallowed. “No, I didn’t.”
“Should you have?”
She hesitated. “You have... given me few reasons to believe you shouldn’t be trusted. Besides that you’re an enemy.”
His hand tousled through her hair, masking the common, simple, powerful gesture that leapt off of his fingers and into her mind. “Should you have?” She blinked.
“... no,” she decided again. “I don’t think so.”
“So now we know, little thief. We trust one another.”
“As hellish as the idea is,” she murmured, “you’re right.”
“Oh, believe me, I’m not overly fond of it myself,” he grinned as his hand worked its way around her back.
“What, you aren’t eager to share some bond with a common, petty thief like myself?”
“Oh, dear thief,” he shook his head, “you are many things, but you are hardly common, or petty.“
She rolled her eyes and made them look down and away from his stare, settling on the robe that she was slowly stroking again. “Neither are you,” she admitted, “much as you try and fail to dress like a commoner.”
“Oh? How would you dress me?”
“Difficult question,” she sucked in a breath, “you could use some work everywhere. Maybe a touch of yellow, bring out that color your eyes get. Less of this,” her hand wound up along his front, squeezing and releasing the thick robe, “likely more of this.” Her hand settled above the collar, on the small opening where his bare chest was visible.
His tongue clicked, and her body felt a vibrating numbness as the item dissolved off of him, vanishing off to somewhere else and leaving him in a plain shirt and trousers. She couldn’t help but smile. “Like so?”
“It’s a start.” Her hand was moving again, more of its own will than her own now, fingernails running down the loose shirt and caressing his side through it. “Less bulky, at least. You dress like it’s the winter.”
“Show me?” he asked softly.
She blushed deeper. “Show you...?”
“How you would like to see me.”
Her fingers had made it to the buttons of his shirt before she put a stop to them. “Is this another test of yours?”
He shook his head, and she thought she heard his breath catching in his throat. “Merely a request.”
“Well...” she began shyly, and her finger loosed a button, “Since I’m lacking any magic of my own...”
“Yes?” He asked quickly, too quickly, enough for her to notice. Enough to make her smirk.
Another button. She kept her eyes trained on the sight and shape of his chest, slowly being revealed. “Things would have to proceed a bit slower...” Something itched around her mind when she reached for the next button, and the pressure of a small stream of power started pressing on her once again. Not enough to be overwhelming. But enough that she could use it.
“Expedience is a virtue,” he said with a little more cool, but she could hear the excitement he was suppressing.
Her fingers skipped past the button, as she reached for it with thought, and it removed itself. She tugged the next free on her own. “Eager?” she asked, still not meeting his eyes. She could already hear everything that they might’ve told her.
“Interested. That’s all.” Trying to detach himself, but two more buttons were undone in tandem, and he must have seen her appraising gaze sliding up and down his front. “And are you?”
“Interested in?” she smiled, and the last buttons all slid free at once. The next part took more attention, and her hand steadied itself on the hair of his chest while her eyes wandered, took in the shapes, the weight, the motion... She slid the shirt off his body without lifting a finger, and floating in the air, her magic tossed it behind her, hearing it land on the floor somewhere near the melted ruin of a cabinet. One more moment spent lingering on his skin, then she looked up to his face.
“Interested in my... wearing nothing?” The arcanist said, both carefully and curiously.
“You haven’t given me any other clothes to dress you in, so... losing the shirt is a start,” she blushed, and let the pressure of the magic fade as her spell dissipated.
“Why not finish the job, then?” The words seemed to fall from his lips, and he looked just as shocked as she to hear them form in the air.
“Um,” she started, but she had nothing to say after. Both eyebrows were raised on her, while he tried to keep his own flat. She felt her ears burning.
“Surely you’ve had an interest,” he continued, more confidently. Which made her sweat.
“A-an interest in what?” The spellthief brought her body up by placing a hand on the bed, her head higher up than his, but not daring to break eye contact.
He reached to touch her arm, even as she slid it away with a small movement. “You’ve made attempts at seduction, little thief,” he said undeterred, “there must be a reason.”
Can’t deny it now. Memories of the last night. Memories of his face and hers. Memories of his lips and hers. Memories of his hand and hers. “Th-there’s work to be done, research,” she stated.
“I’m not in much of a state to do a lot, right now,” he reminded. “You might as well admit it.”
“It’s not you that has to work,” she snapped back, “I’m the one whose magic is being tested.”
“After this morning, we both need a break, don’t you think?” There was a hint, a slightest taste of power in his words. So subtle that, as she noticed it, she forgot about it. And she was nodding, just barely, but entirely of her own power.
“... you said it, though,” she said even still, “you’re not in much of a state.”
He chuckled. “The rest of me might not be able to stand, but...” He trailed off, leading her to go bright red. But she inched closer still. She had no clue why she was moving closer, but she was, and she couldn’t help it.
“You gave me a chance to recover last night. Shouldn’t I show you the same courtesy?”
“Should you? Then why do you advance? Why do I feel your focus tugging at my power?”
She stopped, chewed at her lip. “It can’t hurt to be prepared.”
Eyebrows rose now. “For what?”
“In case I change my mind.” She tried to smile coolly, to throw him off, to upset the balance as she laid back down on his level, but he looked undeterred. Sounded it, too.
“What have you decided to do, that you’re thinking of changing your mind away from?”
“I’m going to not push your body any farther than it’s been already.” The spellthief leveled a look at him. “Your pestering mind might be fully intact, but the rest of you needs time.“
“Just here to keep me warm then?” he smiled, and his hand settled onto her cheek once more.
“You aren’t in a position to have me do anything else.”
“I beg to differ, little thief, and I can think of a few positions I wouldn’t mind seeing you in,” the arcanist retorted.
Eye roll. “Save it for when you have the body to back that kind of talk up.”
“Who’s to say I don’t?” He grinned. “Done right, I don’t have to do much more than lie here.”
She laughed. “If that’s your idea of right, I’ll consider this entire seduction a waste of my time.”
“There are many possible ideas of right. And I’ll have you know that I’m very well read, and very well traveled.” His hand was on her side. A magical shock tickled her muscles, made them convulse in a most pleasurable way along the whole length of her ribcage. “I know a great many of those rights.”
“All the more reason to wait,” she managed to say, “maybe see if I can learn some of those rights too.”
“From what I’ve seen thus far, you don’t need many lessons from me.” His hand came to rest on her hip. A strong charge came out this time. She shivered, moaned softly as the electric pulses dashed through her body.
And when her eyes opened, she saw the lust of her own look reflected in his. “... then maybe I’ll be the one teaching you.”
“I crave learning as some men crave food, little thief,” he replied, his voice thick. “I would be honored to learn from you.”
“In that case,” she smirked, sat up, rolled closer to him and pushed herself up. For a moment, she was suspended right above him on all fours, staring straight down into his eyes and close enough to meet his lips—
The moment dissolved, she was standing at the bedside, grinning at his expression. “It’s time we got back to the research.”
He stared at her dumbly for a few moments more, almost in disbelief. Then he chuckled. Then rasped. Then coughed. Then laughed hysterically.
She was stunned into silence by the noise, which took her seconds to actually process what it was. “What?” she asked while he went on, “What?!“
The arcanist’s hand wiped at a tearing eye. “You, little thief. You. You tease, then you turn. You mock, then you respect. I cannot read you, it seems, from one moment to the next, without putting my awareness in your mind.” He shook his head from the bed, still laughing. “Were you sent here to torment me?”
And her smile grew, face still painted with strokes of surprise and redness. “I was sent here to acquire some of your work. I think the both of us are getting more than we bargained for...” She sat on the edge of the bed, aside his leg, looking down at him over her shoulder. He smiled back.
“You are definitely that, little thief. And hardly a bargain. Ruined furniture, ruined sheets, ruined body...” He chuckled darkly. “I believe that you will have been worth it, when all is done.”
“Careful,” her tongue clicked teasingly, “talking of worth and wealth is dangerous around a thief.” With a look, her body leapt back up onto her feet as though it’d been wound up by a spring, the point of her elbow using his stomach as a fulcrum. He gasped, and wheezed, and hacked.
“I thought you were worried about my condition,” he complained, but the spellthief only giggled. He was funny when he was injured. She felt that it was her duty to prolong such a state, as long as it was mutually beneficial. And judging by his quick recovery, and the way he sat up and took interest as she twisted her arms behind her back, bent over and reached for her feet, and practically presented herself to him... Beneficial was the order of the afternoon.
“Of course I’m worried,” she said with a singsong tone, while her hips flexed back and forth, with plenty of flexibility and plenty more nakedness. “Laughter, though, could mean you’ve caught some madness. Certain you didn’t hit your head on the ground?“
“I’m just tired,” he said distractedly, “not wounded, at least I wasn’t, until your dagger-like elbow shredded my liver.“
More giggling. She spun around and rubbed the sore spot tenderly with her hand. “And I thought all arcanists were supposed to be impervious. I could take you down easily,” she mused.
“We are human, all, like our assassins,” he said, and took her hand in his own. “Is this your master plan, then? To murder me in my moment of weakness and steal my library? If so...” Another deep but weak chuckle. “I can just throw you back out the window.”
“Unlike some people,” she glared, “most don’t have miles of master planning in their heads. I improvise. Which probably won’t include killing you.“
“Then what are you improvising?” He shifted backward, propping himself up to better see her, as she began to count on the fingers of her free hand. One. Two. Three. Four. Five...
“... everything, at this point. I’m not sure what the protocol is for being taken captive. Probably to slit your throat the first chance possible.” She smiled wide, showing her canines.
“I don’t expect that you will be doing that any time soon. You may find it rather more a challenge than—“
Her hand shot out toward the arcanist’s neck, and reacting on impulse rather than fear, the thrum of magic caught her before she’d even passed his shoulders. ‘Hey,’ she tried to speak, but the power holding her body still was oppressive.
It didn’t hurt—it was bigger than hurt. Deeper. It was numbness, but without the pins and needles to let her know that she had once felt. She felt nothing. Nothing but her thoughts sinking into a quagmire, while her hand and the rest of her body were suspended in mid-strike. Her hand held nothing, only a pointed finger, and her face only bore a grin below panicked eyes.
The arcanist sucked in a breath, then let it out on half of a chuckle. “As I was saying, you would find it more of a challenge than attacking my side. You may find that to be more of a challenge than you first thought, too.” He spoke to her as though she weren’t pointing a slender finger at his neck, as though her body wasn’t paralyzed on its feet, as though it would not take her an immense effort to discern the words through the stunning spell, and as though it took him no effort at all to maintain it. He was casual. Maybe it didn’t take effort to maintain it. Something moved in her stomach, and to her horror, she wasn’t sure if it was a lurch or a leap.
He smiled. She saw it through the blur that her vision was becoming.
You’re enjoying this, you little... As if to forestall her finishing of the thought, his hand danced in the air, and the weight bearing on her changed, shifted. She could feel, she could breathe, she could think and see, and she felt her body straightening itself up out of the half-crouch and into... a salute.
The gods shitting on my path yet again, she cursed in her head, while her straightened fingers pressed to her temple, and her back and legs stood tall.
“Isn’t that a good little soldier?” he laughed, and his hand moved again, making her lips curl into a smile with a sickening tingle down her spine.
Her eyes, though, were her own, and she stared death in his direction. He shook his head with a smirk, and she felt her lips come loose. “Fuck you, y-you putrid smelling—”
Her jaw clamped shut again. And yet again, she felt the power changing with it.
“Back straight,” he said, clearer than ever, and this time she felt it was her own choice to straighten. “Eyes forward. Shoulders back. Just like that. Arm... there you are,” he said with satisfaction, though she couldn’t see his beaming or his leering. “A good little soldier just follows orders, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, sir,” she heard a voice answer in a flat tone.
“Good little soldiers don’t think, do they.” Not a question.
“Yes, sir,” she heard herself answer in a flat tone.
“A good little soldier won’t even remember her orders. She has no need. She need not even remember that she is a soldier. But her orders will still complete themselves. Won’t they?“
She didn’t hear an answer. She didn’t know if there was an answer, or if her blank stare and perfect posture had been a fine enough response. She was waiting for orders.
And then the magic changed again, and she opened her eyes, looking at his grin strangely from above. “What?” she asked.
“I asked if you would bring that small table over here, with the book and pen. So that I may note our experiments.” His expression only seemed to broaden.
“What?” she asked again, incredulously. “Do it yourself!”
And again, there was a shift. A shift she knew.
Back straight. Eyes forward. Shoulders back. Arm up. She heard, and felt praise. She was waiting for orders. She heard something in the din.
Then her eyes opened again, taking in that saccharine smile. “What is with you?“
“Am I not allowed to enjoy your company, little thief?” he laughed to himself and pulled the small table closer.
Huh, she thought. When had it moved?
“Regardless, I seem to be... hm.” He glanced around, lying too low to properly write on the table, and then his wry look fixed on her again. His lips opened, and hers did to raise some objection, and then a shift.
Back. Eyes. Shoulders. Arm. Praise. Wait. Orders... and up again.
He was already writing notes when she looked on him again, the quill having been properly drowned in black ink and scrawling out some unreadable mess of letters onto the page.
“That will be all,” he said, but the spellthief felt as though he wasn’t talking to her. “I have no more need of a soldier.” Something magical released its grip around her, and she sagged on her feet, then onto the edge of the bed. She looked over, but the door was already closed. Whoever had been there must have left.
She swallowed, and looked back to him. He was sitting up now, arranged in a small throne of pillows that, admittedly, looked quite comfortable. “Now what?” she asked warily, knowing that she’d missed something critical but too... too much knowing that he would avoid the question to ask it at all.
“What do you remember from your last lesson?” The arcanist responded, without looking up.
“Uh...” Her brow furrowed. “It’s something of a blur, you sort of interrupted breakfast.”
“You stopped fighting, little thief,” he smiled, “you stopped trying to force the flow of magic to do as you wanted, and you started guiding it. Letting it show you the best way to accomplish your task.“
“Sure,” she said, “that’s what happened, but what’s the point in asking it now? I only had to do that because you’ve got too much power inside of... this, thing.” Her hand gestured around aimlessly, unable to grasp the enormity of the tower and its well of energy in a single motion.
“Because I think that you may find, when you reacquire your own focus, that you will get much more out of it by using that principle. And if you can make a connection to another’s focus, as you have with mine, the principle will be quite potent there as well.”
“Casting is casting,” she said with annoyance. “Principle doesn’t matter. Why would I want less control when I don’t need it?“
“Because in giving up control, you can sometimes gain something else entirely.” A flash of a smirk across his face, one she didn’t like.
“I don’t care.” She crossed her arms. “I don’t need to. Will we come to a point in all this, any time soon?”
He smiled at her, and raised his eyes briefly. “Did you show such arrogance to those who taught you to pick a lock, or to climb a wall? I want to know how it is you’ve made this connection, so that you might best, and most safely, make use of it.”
“You can control a lock, and you can control your grip. You can’t just claim to... to let go of magic, you can’t just do that. That’s how you end up exploding.” She tightened her arms around herself. “I can make use of it just fine.”
Wordlessly, he pointed with the tip of his pen to the remnant of the cabinet, before flipping the page and beginning to write again.
“That was before I even knew what I was doing,” she blushed.
“We are currently still in that state, little thief,” he reminded her.
“Okay, when I knew even less of what I was doing. Better?“
“More accurate, anyway.” He looked up at her. “Show me something, would you?” She felt the tower’s energy back around her mind, but it was smaller. It still had a feeling of dwarfing all else, but it was more contained, a familiar shape and size. “Pretend that my tower is your amulet. Show me a simple spell.”
She shrugged, and her fingers pointed in the air. She grasped onto the magic, and found it easy to hold, fitting to her thoughts and easily shaped. Good. She whispered two words, quickly, and between each of her outstretched fingers, a thin bright line shaped itself out of the air. She relaxed her fingers, and the pentagon of light changed shape with them.
“Good.” He waved his hand without looking a second longer than he needed to, and her spell winked out as he jotted down a quick note. “Is there a particular name to that spell of sensing? Something that I could find in a book?”
“Lirdekon Bevunai,” she said. “It’s Keld.“
“I can tell,” he chuckled. “Bevun’s Five Points. Or something close to that.” He shook his head, and scratched something out on the page. “Being Keld, I’d have better luck reading it in the shape of my morning porridge than in any book. Show me again.” The power returned just as she thought better of replying, so she obliged. Her fingers and lips cast the spell, and it sparkled with the pale and cool hum of magic. And then it was gone. The pen scratched. “Again?” And, again, the power came back. So she did it again. Light, winking out, ‘again?’, power, light, winking out, ‘again?’, power, light...
“This is exceedingly boring,” she muttered, on what she felt must’ve been her fiftieth cast.
“This is science, little thief.” The arcanist hummed to himself as he took another note, extinguished her magic, then gave it back again. The process moved wordlessly, by this point. “I’m sure that you haven’t noticed, considering you haven’t complained of it,” he said, his voice sounding soft, “but I have a need for less empirical observations, as in all magic. Tell me how it feels.“
“How what—” The energy came around her, and it was... “Strange,” she said. “I didn’t notice it before, but...”
“Go on,” he urged, a bit quickly.
“But I have to fight with it.” Her teeth ground against each other. “It’s like it’s receding. Not even that, like it’s trying to push me over. It’s hard.”
“And if you cast?”
She could make the shape with her hand easily enough, and the words were on her lips... but it was a challenge to pour any meaning into them, to speak the ancient words with the focus and conviction that spellcasting demanded. The clarity of purpose, the oneness of intent and action. But she did, anyway, because she wasn’t a coward, and she knew she was a damned good sorceress. The spellthief grinned, looked over at her bedfellow—and saw him struggling now, his jaw set in frustration and his pen quivering across the page. “Are you...?“
“Yes,” he groaned, and when the light disappeared again, she felt the flow right itself as he took a rather large sigh, his head rolling back onto the pillow. Her hand went to his thigh.
“Are you alright?” she asked, and he nodded.
“It is... difficult—physically taxing, it seems... to control the flow of power, in... that way.” The arcanist took a deep breath. “Tired as I am, that was a challenge.” Another deep breath, righting himself and sitting back up. “I’m watching how you use the power, how you reach into my well of energy. You seem to have nearly the same facility and access that I do to use the tower as a source.”
“Why did you keep it from me?” she questioned. Now that the magic was gone, she longed to put the tingling lights between her fingers again, her hand forming the gesture on an impulse. “To see if I could exert enough to wrench it from you?”
He crossed his arms. “To see how you work with it. That’s why it had to be something simple; anything complex would have been more difficult to follow. If we were in the field, and I tried to use your amulet, it would have felt like that for me, I’m certain. Perhaps more difficult, if not impossible.”
“But my amulet is bound to me, like yours should be bound to you. It’s mine—the focalist took all week setting the patterns and enchantments right on it.”
“It is bound to me,” he replied with a frown, “but you seem to have accomplished the impossible, I think. You’ve stolen my focus. Quite the impressive act of thievery, I might add.“
She smirked, with some self-pride stirring in her chest. “Not really stolen if you still have a hand gripping it, is it? More like borrowed. You can still keep me from accessing it, or give me less of the power, and I can’t do the same to you...” She trailed off. Her mind was working on a plan.
“Thinking of something?” He cut through her thoughts like a knife. “It is still my tower.“
“Yours on paper.” She pointed out. “You own the walls, you own the floors, you own the furniture, but if I’ve stolen the power within...” One of her hands twitched, and she could feel his power bristling against her.
“You will not. To challenge me would be no fair fight, little thief.”
“I know, I know,” she shrugged it off unconvincingly, “I won’t ruin your whole equilibrium... not on purpose, anyway.”
“It would rather undo all of the progress you have made toward my sympathy,” he said with a grin.
The spellthief’s hand landed on his knee, and for a few moments, her eyes searching his face, she thought about it seriously. If she were to try in earnest, he wouldn’t hold back. Even a playful stab, one that could be transformed into a cutting wound, would be read as a true offense. It wouldn’t work, not while he’s on guard... but after? In the dead of night, while his weakened body is fast asleep? Or in the disorienting fuzziness of a post-orgasmic bliss? She would stand a chance. But while she did quite like the latter idea, she wasn’t able to rouse any enthusiasm to a real fight.
I’ll be gone in a day, she thought, and while the idea sounded insane, that an arcanist would just let her go, she believed it. Knew it. She couldn’t deny his trustworthiness.
“So,” she said to fill the silence, “I can use your focus just as strongly and precisely as you can. Theoretically.” She added when his lips opened to object. “It needs more practice and more work, but it’s possible. Agreed?”
“You have it correct, insofar as I understand it. I can’t fully understand it either just yet. But we are working still toward that goal. I want to know why, but I don’t think that one will be solved in just a day,” he chuckled. “Do you practice invisibility?”
She shrugged. “Makes me queasy. It’s hard to think straight while I’m doing it, but... I can manage it in in pinch.”
“Hm.” He pondered it thoughtfully, and made a note in his small book. “Don’t, then. One of us, at least, should be physically well. Do you have any personal enchantments you use regularly, that you’re comfortable with?”
“Sure, a few of them. Stealth and speed, reflexes if things come to blows, but not many more I practice often.”
“Stealth, then. It seems... safest.” He nodded. “I would hate to muddle with your speed or reflexes and cause you to stumble.”
“Going to meddle with my stealthiness? I doubt that you’re just going to sit there and watch...”
“If I was here just to watch you, I wouldn’t ask you to practice hiding. Though it might be a pleasure to observe, all the same. Perhaps later.”
Her eyes rolled, and the spellthief stood up. She cracked her knuckles, looked at her fingers as they twisted through the motions without any power, just yet. “Now, then?”
“Any time, I’m ready,” he confirmed.
She planted her feet apart, wiggling her toes as she took a deep breath in. The magic came easily, far more simply than it had when the arcanist had been holding it back and forcing it around. She felt it tingle in her fingers before the spell even entered her mind, and both her hands moved to a point right below her sternum, pointer and middle fingers touching.
Inhale, her fingers moved and twisted, exhale, forming a fairly perfect circle in the haze of the channeling, while her lips spoke the words of the enchantment, burning them into the loop drawn by her hands while the circle shimmered faintly on her skin.
“That’s not a spell with which I’m familiar,” he said from the bed. “The gaze simply wishes to slide off, which is no small feat given the body it is refusing to look at.”
“That’s the aim,” she murmured, too focused on the casting to pay any heed to his comments beyond the barest of recognitions. “The eyes, they only really see the one thing they’re focusing on.” She let her hands drop and the circle glow on its own, moving around the bed in an arc, coming into his periphery. “The rest is guesswork. Taking what the eyes think should be there, filling it in for the mind. But when the eyes refuse to see or even guess that there’s something out there...”
He nodded. “I know you’re there, little thief, by the traces of your power,” he said, still writing. “Are you comfortable with the spell? It’s settled? Stable?”
She nodded back, then remembered that he couldn’t see her. “Yes. It’s going, cycling properly.”
“Cycling. Huh. Terminology is fascinating. The harder you work, of course, the clearer the trace you would be making.” He marked down a number and she felt the power diminish a hair, not nearly enough to affect the enchantment.
“You’d better have some idea on how to fix that. Don’t want to end up in a tower and be like a needle stabbing its owner, whenever I cast.” She paced idly, and watched as his eyes darted every now and again, catching the movement but seeing nothing, then refocusing on the notes he was scrawling. “I’ve never done much enchanting, never learned it formally. I can barely read a dozen of the runes.”
“Now that’s interesting,” he said, though she could tell from the sound and his absorption on what he was writing that he wasn’t even listening to her. The drain of the power stopped, and he began to write excitedly. “Now that’s very interesting.“
“What?” The spellthief moved closer to look over his shoulder. “I can’t tell what you’re doing.” The enchantment kept running its course, cycling through the runes and symbols to maintain itself, but she knew that she had no energy left to draw up another spell.
“I can’t drain energy from the enchantment itself. I can see it, I can break it, but I can’t stop the flow without doing that first. I would have thought differently.”
“It makes sense to me,” she thought aloud, “if you drained energy as it was flowing through the circle, then it could act quite strangely. It’s an orderly thing, it would be unnatural to just... stall it out right in the middle, wouldn’t it?”
“And yet, I can do this.” She saw his fingers twitch, and then a rushing wave assaulted her mind. She still couldn’t cast, still had no power to spare, but the enchantment was livened, strengthened by the new influx and growing stronger still.
“Woah.” She reached for the bedpost to steady herself, but missed it, and slumped toward the wall instead. Dizziness made itself known, stronger than the light haze of a simple and small enchantment. The arcanist didn’t seem to notice, and as he wrote, she felt the energy rising further. Her head swayed, the lights in her vision swimming, dancing, brightly colored afterimages between heavy blinks. She tried to hold her forehead, but her hand missed, again, and she was just cradling her cheek. “H-hey,” she mumbled, “getting... hard to manage...”
His head perked up. He looked around for a moment. “Little thief?” The arcanist asked curiously, as though he’d forgotten she was around.
“Mmm,” she made a noise, stumbling forward off the wall and barely catching her balance, knocking against the side table. The weight and fuzz of keeping the circle cycling left her overpowered, outmatched by the focus it constantly demanded of her.
“Damn it!” He cursed, righting the ink well and steadying the swaying table. “Did you do this, little thief?” He looked at her, through her, then over to the corner. “Practicing forcemagic?“
She groaned, understood the problem, and didn’t care about the clumsiness. Standing, swaying, taking a big turning step—then falling down flat and onto his legs, a collapsed heap that bade him to finally notice.
“What? Oh!” The enchantment snapped like a twig, making her detectable again. “My apologies. Are you alright?”
“Mmnnuhh,” she moaned, crawling forward to the spot on the bed that his hand was patting. Her eyes fluttered between open and shut, unfocused and dilated. “Too much... stealth...” The arcanist took her by the arms and pulled her close, laying her head on the pillows and holding her shoulder tenderly as she took deep, slow breaths of rest. “There’s a reason that I don’t cast that with much power...” she muttered.
“As I said, not one I was familiar with.” He shrugged as an apology. “Still, you didn’t want to stand out like a, what did you say, a needle stabbing its owner? I was for a moment there far more interested in the enchantment I was working with than I was in you.”
Seems to be common for you, the spellthief said inwardly, then she turned her head to face him. “I don’t expect any other arcanists will be putting enchantments on me.“
“No?” His brow rose. “If you are caught, I would suspect a great number of enchantments would be placed on you.”
“If I’m caught,” she corrected him, “I’ll be put to far worse than experimental enchantments. You’re about to say, ‘well I’ve never heard of an arcanist maiming, torturing, and doing worse to their intruders,’ but I have. I’ve seen the results.” Her voice had dwindled to a whisper, and she had looked down at her hands.
“I was about to say no such thing,” he responded softly.
“Sure.” She said it to dismiss him, and twisted her hands in her lap. Still gnarled and scarred. Had she been less lucky in choosing a quarry... they might as well be stumps now. “I’m... not trying to attack you in this. But the impression I came here with, of your profession, it’s not reversed just because I’ve met you.”
The arcanist’s hand shifted through the hairs on her head. “What about reversing your impression of this arcanist, because you met me?“
A smile twitched on her lips. “Reverse is a strong word. I’m reconsidering it.”
He chuckled. “I look forward to your conclusions, little thief.”
“What’ve you concluded in there?” She glanced over at the small book, now lying closed on the now-bedside table.
“Nothing solid yet,” he shook his head. “Part of me wants to suggest that you’re an anomaly, that no one else can draw on other people’s foci without them being released and redirected. But, if that’s the case, then what you do can’t be taught, assessed, examined as a technique. I don’t really know. I don’t even know if you can do it with anyone else’s focus. I would really like to keep you here and find out more.“
The smile on her face turned to, what could be described ‘neutral’ at best, and ‘scowling’ at worst. “You’re not keeping me here.”
“I’m not planning on it. I keep to my bargains, little thief.” His hand eased down to her shoulder. “I would like to, though. If you ever tire of burglary, I will gladly provide you with room, board and salary just to test this ability of yours.”
She stared at him, and then laughed. “You are serious, aren’t you. You’re also insane to think that I would ever come back here willingly. Couldn’t pay me in millions to do it.”
“Think about it! You may well be unique in the world, but you might not, and being able to train and develop this skill will add new dimensions to the working of magic.”
If there was something more to it, a wider application or use, it could be revolutionary. Whole new fields of study, a deeper understanding of magic and reality. An understanding which, of course, would be his to claim. She shook her head. “And let you and your friends control all of that knowledge? Actual sorcerers wouldn’t benefit for decades.“
“Do you really want any and every child in a mile’s radius casting spells from your focus, little thief?” His tone was conversational and casual, in contrast to hers. “Until the mechanism is understood, and the limitations and dangers known, it’s unwise to unleash something like this.”
“I agree completely,” she said to his surprise, “it would mean chaos for something like this to become widespread. It’s safer for sure in my hands, rather than anyone else’s.“
“Don’t you decry me for the very same, in my workings of the sky?” He smiled. “Interesting that the thief would keep knowledge to herself while making demands on all others.”
“This is different,” she snapped. “This would be more fattening still for the worst hoarders of information in the land. You know I’m not wrong, you know that your associates are vile things.”
“Always an answer for everything,” he said with a bit of a yawn. “It reminds me of a complaint I heard among some hated nobility: ‘If the people saw me walk on water, they would complain that I couldn’t swim.’”
She rolled her eyes. “The only way this knowledge would be safe is for it to be found naturally, like all magic has been before your beloved bureaucracy subjugated discovery and innovation and made them into weak little machines. I showed you the lirdekon, that wasn’t the product of some academy research or some finely tuned statistics,” she waved her hand at the book sitting in front of him. “It was found, and learned, and we speak the old words just the same as they’ve been spoken for centuries now. What I do ought to be the same. I don’t care about the mewls of the rich.“
“You don’t care about much, it seems.” Not a heated statement at all, not rising to the bait, merely statement of fact. Perhaps some amusement in his voice. “Not so long as you stand to gain from it, no matter the cost to others.”
“Oh, sure,” she said sarcastically, “and you’re an altruistic exemplar. I couldn’t care less about myself, my gains. As long as I have enough in my pocket to sleep in a bed, fill my stomach, and take back what belongs to everyone.”
“What you’ve already decided belongs to everyone, sight unseen, consequences be damned.” He sounded perhaps a little... bored? His hands now rubbing her shoulders. “You could be doing something to help those that don’t have enough to sleep in a bed or fill their stomachs, but no, I understand, the ideology is more important.”
She could feel the heat rising in her gut. “You’ve as yet refused to hear a word of what I’ve had to say, so, no, I haven’t troubled you with the details of us lowly peasants and hedge mages, and how I’ve helped things, since we’re all obviously just bumbling idiots that can’t be trusted with anything stronger than a dousing wand.“
“And you don’t hear me,” he shook his head. “I’m no entitled nobleman, just the fortunate son of merchants making the best of his opportunities and giving back what I can to make everyone’s lives better, safely. But you’ve cast me as the opposition, so you’ve no interest in anything I have to offer. I know how this goes, little thief.“
“If you know how it goes, then keep your gods-damned mouth closed before I shut it myself. Gods,” she sighed with exasperation and rolled away from him, putting herself far out of his reach, “you might not be a nobleman, but you’re more intolerant and insufferable than five of them together.”
His voice, though, still wafted toward her like a bad smell. “I doubt any nobleman you crossed thus would tolerate or suffer your continued existence.”
“Only if I’ve got something they want. Don’t try and act different than that.” She drew her arms in towards her chest, the hole in her stomach yawning.
“You’d have lost a hand, at the least, should just about any nobleman have caught you as I did. Probably your head. I made you my guest, instead.”
“Great,” she snorted, “you’re less blazing than the deepest of hells. Congratulations. I should be thanking you for showing such overflowing mercy.“
“Why do you try me, little thief?” He asked. “What do you mean to gain, by anger, by provocation?”
Her head turned just enough to glare at him. “Why are you so intent on torturing me? You put an animal in a cage, you feed it, you play with it, you study it, and you threaten it with blades. And you act surprised when it bites back. Hells,” she propped herself up on one elbow, “at least be consistent. Don’t try and earn my appreciation then talk and act like a fucking ass.“
“You’re no animal,” he replied, calmly, “nor are you under threat here, except, it seems, from yourself.” His gaze wandered back to the scar where a cabinet once stood. “You invaded my home, attempted to steal from me, and you expect, what, gratitude? Thankfulness?”
“You let the actions that brought me here paint me as less than human, you treat myself and my ideals with no respect.” She moved away again. “If I’m no animal, then kindly, quit treating me like one.”
She heard him turn to face her backside. “I treat you with the utmost respect, and I’m sympathetic to, if not in agreement with, your ideals. They are noble. Wrong, but noble. But I have no time for your fanaticism, nor that of anyone. Fanatics tire me. They are no good for discussion, seek no sharpening of their thought, brook no weakness in orthodoxy.
“If anyone in your organization thought, for a moment, that you had, even on a whim, entertained the hint of a possibility that I might be correct in anything, you would be... what, removed from your position? Exiled? Executed? You know things. People. Faces. Locations. Codes. Secrets. Can you be allowed to live, little thief, if your loyalty is less than ironclad?”
She ignored him. Keeping silent, bringing her left hand to grip her right shoulder. Eyes closed, breathing, trying to quell the raucous responses, thoughts and imaginings he made her mind conjure up.
And then he spoke again. “There is no room in my life for that sort of restriction of thought, of activity, or that lack of imagination.”
“Is that how I seem?” Her voice was embarrassingly small, the words in the question quiet and worried.
“You pull in to the inflexible fanatic act whenever you’re challenged, or upset; but I think that to an extent, it’s an act. You haven’t bought in with your whole heart and mind to the fanatical aspects of your colleagues. You are, as yet,” he paused, she heard the smile in his words, “human. And reasonable. Not entirely, of course, but you can still think for yourself, and that’s a good start.”
But she couldn’t stop herself from scoffing. “I don’t appreciate being called a fanatic. And if you could try and keep your condescension to something of a minimum, maybe I could take you more seriously.”
“There it is again,” he said with a sigh. “You can take me as seriously as you choose, little thief, and you’ve only rarely chosen to do so.”
“Would you stop?!” She groaned, “Perhaps I’m trying to, for once, and you keep acting superior and all-knowing and then have the gall to complain about my behavior. This isn’t even about your profession. You’re just being an ass.“
The arcanist sighed again and was quiet until she was done speaking. “Fine. What do you want, then?” His voice softened. “What do you need from me?”
“Just...” She turned her neck back to look at his eyes. She didn’t know how her own looked, but she expected they were the same—tired of fighting. “Give me some patience, if I’m going to give some to you. I want to be understood, and I want to be heard, and...” She fit the words out between her lips, “I want to hear you.”
“I will wait, although, of course...” He smiled. “I would be insane to think you would ever come back willingly, so our patience must be rewarded soon, I think.”
She rolled her eyes, nodded, and turned onto her other flank, facing him. “Then can we continue these experiments instead of prating each other mad?”
“No. You’re tired, I’m tired, and I think you were in danger just a moment ago, were you not?” She opened her mouth to speak, then nodded again with resignation. “The danger has passed, but all these are reasons to recover for a few short hours. Don’t you think?”
“I hate all of this resting,” she muttered and laid on her back to watch the ceiling. “It’s something about this damned bed. I’ve slept more on it in this week than I have in the last three.”
He chuckled, but she wasn’t certain why. “It can have that effect, this is true.”
“Don’t be getting any ideas,” she warned with a glance sideways.
“Oh?” His face lit up, “Ideas like what?”
She blew out a puff of air. “Walking me in my sleep, or doing gods know what else I’m sure you think about.”
Another small laugh. “You don’t need to worry about that at all.” Silence settled as the moments dragged on, and as her eyes refused to close. “I am sorry if my earlier behavior gave offense,” he said slowly.
“Are you sorry for that behavior?” Sarcasm slipped into her tone, but he wasn’t off put by it.
“Yes,” he replied simply.
“Ah.” She hadn’t expected that. Now what? Only one thing to do, obviously. Her teeth nibbled at the inside of her cheek while she worked up the courage. She sighed. “I’m sorry for getting so... you know. You saved me,” she murmured, “you healed me, and... I thank you for it. You’ve treated me better than I deserve, and even if you can be a pain, you’re still kind, so... I’m sorry.”
His fingers drew out surprise on her chin, stroking it softly. “How could I refuse such an apology?”
He smiled genuinely, and she felt herself smiling back. “... well, I have been poor company,” she admitted, “not that you’ve been perfect.”
“I have not,” he replied. “A week ago, I’d have scoffed at the idea that you had anything in your blood but the bile of your cause.”
“Oh,” she blinked. “Well... then what do you think is in my blood now, then?”
“Hemoglobin,” he answered. “And a surprising warmth and, I think, humility, which has been scarce in its application up until now.”
“He-ma... hemo, he-what?” Her brows knitted together. “I don’t know the word.”
The arcanist laughed at her, making her cheeks burn with more than just the pleasure of his gentle touch. “It’s what makes blood red, little thief.”
“Oh,” she perked up, “you mean Morrol, or one of the other blood gods? Which one do Dameans call Hemoglobin?”
He laughed, again, and she shrank down. “No, no,” he shook his head, smiling and cradling her cheek, facing her head at his own. “It is a part of the blood. It is the part of the blood that is red.”
“It’s...” The spellthief stared at him strangely. “I don’t understand. I should visit more shrines.”
“They won’t help you here.” He said, tapping against the point of her nose with a forefinger. “You need an anatomy lesson.”
“No more lessons,” she whined, and sank far into the pillow behind her head. “This magic is bad enough, I don’t want to learn any chirurgery.”
“Think of it this way. Some lessons in anatomy will help you drive your knife into much more vital locations.” He chuckled again. “Or perhaps will help you improve your seduction techniques.”
“You doubt them?” She smirked over at him, “It’s fair to say that they’ve succeeded on you.”
“Think of how much more potent they could be, then,” he grinned while his fingers danced across her collarbone.
“I’ve had some excellent teaching on the subject,” she said while pulling herself close to him, the space between shrinking, “what could I have to learn from a stuffy arcanist?“
“Stuffy?” He looked skeptical. “I have much that I could teach you.”
“We’ll see,” she winked, and one of her hands crept closer to wander on his side, “I’ll show you what I know.”
The hands on her back brushed, ever so delicately, over her buttocks, and she shivered. “I already mentioned, I think, my love of learning.”
She shivered, the muscles beneath his hands tensing and relaxing with the movement. “And while I enjoy learning,” her voice sank to a low, smooth whisper, “I enjoy play even more.”
A low, slow laugh. “You might be surprised at how I play, little thief.”
“I’d rather see how you fuck than how you play,” she let out a purring chuckle, her hand slithering to his chin, “perhaps I can get a hands-on lesson in both?”
His own hands were on her sides. “And why not? We could both use the break, I think.”
She moved closer, tantalizingly so for her and him both, tracing two fingers from his chin down to his navel, teasing around his waist. “Oh yes,” she agreed, “we could,” her fingers moved lower, closer to his crotch, right until she lifted her hand away, grinning cheekily while she yawned, rolled again out of his grip and onto her back. “If only we weren’t so tired.”
The arcanist laughed. “Alright, little thief, I’m absolutely enrapt. What would it take to get you back here in to my arms?”
“A few hours’ rest, a full meal, an evening of meaningful progress, a strong lack of condescension, and of course, your renewed ability to move yourself.”
Fingers flew before her eyes, and she blinked at the rush of magic. “What would it take to get you back here in to my arms?”
The lines of her grin slackened. “The right words, and the right time in saying them.”
“Well then, little thief, how about you slide back up here, curl up and relax with me, and rest a while. I’ll have dinner brought up, and we can discuss this in the evening.” He paused. “At length.”
She smiled warmly, blushingly. “That, I can do.” The spellthief sidled her body up to his, moving her back to meet his front and letting herself be pulled into an embrace. His arms moved slowly, tightly, tenderly to wrap around her.
“Rest here, then,” he said, and a hint of a kiss brushed off her forehead.
“Mmh,” she breathed and nodded softly, smiling, calm and at peace amidst his bundling. The kiss made her eyes shut tight, as if it would soothe the burning in her cheeks. There was something obvious, though, that demanded her attention even as she started to drift. Her hips wiggled, just barely against it as she grinned. His hands pressed her closer, one lightly squeezing her bottom. “Rest,” she murmured, stifling a giggle, “you need it more than I.”
“Do I?” He muttered into her ear. His hand hadn’t yet released her flesh.
“Yes,” she grew insistent with a whisper, her hip jostling again. “You need your strength.”
“It grows moment by moment, little thief,” he replied, the hand moving to slide across her thigh.
“Your strength...?” She asked.
“Some might call it that.”
She laughed, and the tiredness showed in it. She formed a retort, had it in her head and on her lips, but she forgot to answer with it, and seconds stretched to minutes, and before she saw it coming, sleep took her, leaving her body breathing soft and slow, warm and hot against his, dropping into an unenchanted slumber.