Hours could have gone by with the level of exhaustion she felt, but Kaylin knew they had been fighting this creature for a double handful of minutes at most. Andorran had shown up at her home well before dawn with word that Shadows were massing on the inner border of Nightshade. With the fieflord gods only knew where there were grave concerns that the border might not completely hold against a concentrated assault. Helen had sent messages to Teela and Severn, as well as to Tiamaris, at Kaylin’s request while she roused Mandoran and Annarion to join her. They had all met up on the run to the Ablayne with Tain rounding out the party.
The distant cries of ferals had reached them as they charged into the fief, along with the rumblings of a larger foe. The streets were deserted as they rushed towards the inner border and the sound of fighting led to where Nightshade’s men were trying to hold off the horde. The Barrani guards were cutting through the worst of the insurgents, but the shadows seemed to fall back and simply reform in some new, more deadly shape.
A billowing cloud of shadow had begun to coalesce behind the main enemy lines and dread had flashed through Kaylin as it finally stabilized. A dragon like creature with six legs and twin heads had emerged from the dark roil, its blood-red eyes trained on her, mouths opened to speak with dissonant voices, “He knew you would come.”
As the Barrani guards continued to fight the main bulk of the enemy, Kaylin and her fellows had taken on the giant monster threatening them all. Teela and Tain, armed with the swords she was still not accustomed to seeing them wield, had been weaving a dance amongst the creatures legs, cutting quickly before darting away to avoid its vicious talons. Mandoran and Annarion had paired off to keep the attention of one of the heads, while she and Severn worked on the other.
Kaylin took a moment to look around and see that they were slowly losing this battle as the tide of shadow kept growing while her forces kept dwindling under the onslaught. Even her close companions all sported an injury of some kind, though they hadn’t let it slow them in the fight. Tain had a long gash across his forehead, Teela a slash down her left thigh, Mandoran’s back showed several gouges, and Annarion had an expanding blossom of blood at his right shoulder. Severn had sustained numerous cuts, the worst of which sliced a deep line along his abdomen. Still they fought, buying time for the dragons they could hear roaring back in the city to hopefully bring reinforcements.
The creature whispered promises of death as something within its shadow body caught Kaylin’s eye. She squinted as she dodged a beam from one of the eyes and made out a Word. Cursing, she began to run, looking for a better vantage point to see the word at the things heart. “Severn, I think I might be able to stop this monster, but I need to get closer and I need time.”
Grimly he joined her, chains spinning to protect against the fire and light pouring from the beast. As she finally found a good point from which to study the Word, he took up a stance to ward her from any incoming attacks.
Slowly the sounds and sights of combat faded from her awareness as her vision was taken up by the form of lines and dots within the rolling darkness. She could almost grasp the meaning of it just out of reach, almost feel the shape of it on her tongue, as she struggled to bring it into full focus. Heat flared around her as Severn’s blades parted a wave of fire raining down upon them. Then she was violently shoved out of the way as Severn yelled, “Look out!” The creature’s tail flew through the space she had just occupied, smashing into Severn and sending him flying off into a swarm of shadow creatures.
Agony flared briefly through the link she shared with him before immediately being cut off. She tried calling to him in her mind, but received no answer. Kaylin began to panic, fear and anger rising in her as the marks on her skin began to shine with a brilliant, intense blue glow. Power radiated from her as she began to speak, light pushing back against the darkness, the shadows shrinking away as if the brilliance burned. The sound of dragon wings closing in did not reach her in this state of rage as she advanced on her enemy, words pouring from her lips, forcing the darkness to retreat. Pressure built within her, finally releasing in a shout as energy blasted the shadow dragon, shredding it into a thousand motes of dust.
Silence fell upon the battlefield as everyone stopped to stare. Only then did Kaylin realize that she no longer stood on the ground, but floated in a nimbus of light. As the light faded and she slowly sank to earth, the remaining enemy fled beyond the inner border, the weary defenders taking stock of the injured and dead.
Kaylin immediately went in search of Severn, eyes roving over the clusters of bodies strewn about. Buildings in the area were aflame, smoke billowing around making it harder to see. As panic began to rise in her, a familiar figure came into view. Her mind cataloged his injuries as she rushed to him: blood matted his hair near the right temple and the side of his face was clearly beginning to bruise; his right arm was clutched to his side, a deep laceration running down his bicep; and his pant leg was shredded, bloody abrasions marring the skin beneath, an obvious limp slowing his progress.
She ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck and holding on for dear life as she cried. “Don’t you EVER scare me like that again! I thought I had lost you when you wouldn’t answer me.”
Before she had plowed into him, Severn had managed to come to a halt, bracing his feet and releasing his right arm so he could catch her with his uninjured free hand. Now he simply held her as her tears fell and she cursed him in every language she knew. As the torrent of words abated and she pulled back to look at him, he gently brushed the tears from her cheek and whispered, “Feel better?”
“No. What happened? Why didn’t you answer me?”
“Slamming into a wall and being knocked unconscious makes it hard to hear someone talking, even if it’s in your head.” He smiled ruefully, “When I came to, you were a glowing angel in the sky and the creatures took off.” His eyes dropped to examine her and he pulled away to take off his shirt, wincing as he drew it over his injured arm.
Kaylin frowned. “What are you doing?”
“Giving you something less revealing to wear.” He chuckled at the expression on her face as she looked at the tattered remains of her clothing, much of which had been burned away by the light from her marks.
She cursed as she pulled his shirt over her head, then looked at the criss-cross of scars, cuts and bruises marring his chest. Her frown deepened and she reached out her hand to touch him, “You need healing.”
He clasped her hand to his chest, but shook his head. “You expended a large amount of energy with whatever you just did. None of this will kill me and that isn’t necessarily true of everyone here.”
His heart thudded beneath her palm as she stepped closer to him, “Are you sure you are all right? I can’t lose you.” She felt his pulse spike as he looked down into her eyes and murmured, “I’m all right. I won’t die and leave you so easily.”
Her heart thundered as she stepped even closer, her free hand reaching up to trace his jaw. The gesture surprised him and he froze, eyes widening slightly as a tremor rolled through him at the sensation of her fingertips lightly gliding along his skin. Her voice in his mind was a benediction: I can’t lose you, Severn… I love you.
I have always loved you, Kaylin, and I will always stand by you until the day you send me away.
That will never happen.
Just as he loosed the hand on his chest to reach for her cheek, a humor-laden voice behind them said, “Please don’t stop on our account. This is really quite the show, though I really didn’t picture you or Severn as exhibitionists.”
Kaylin broke away flushing bright red as Teela clapped. The Barrani woman gave her a slow, approving smile before continuing, “About time, by the way. We were all beginning to think no one would win the pool. So, can you kids keep from fondling each other long enough to help with the clean up?”
A long spate of cursing erupted from Kaylin and Severn actually flushed as he ran his hand through his hair. Both of them sobered quickly as they noticed the destruction around them and set to work helping out.
Severn’s voice whispered through her thoughts. We’ll discuss us later. We have plenty of time.
Weary to the bone after aiding the wounded and then reporting to Marcus, Kaylin only kept from falling flat on her face as she stumbled home thanks to the arm Severn had wrapped around her. Nominally she was supporting him as he was the one injured, but she knew he was still managing to do more to help her than she was helping him. At the door to the house he softly kissed her cheek and turned to leave.
"Where do you think you're going? You still need healing."
His eyebrow arched as he looked her up and down, "You barely have the energy to stand there, much less heal me. I'll be fine after I clean out these cuts."
She frowned, unwilling to cede the point that she probably couldn't fix a gnat right now. "Come in and at least let me help bandage you up. Besides, there's plenty of room for you to stay here tonight. Someone might try and jump the shirtless wounded man on his way home."
His slight chuckle put her at ease as he replied, "I'm not THAT injured that I can't defend myself against a few street thugs." Still, he followed her into the house.
Helen greeted them as they entered, telling Kaylin that she had left food up in her room before hurrying off to fetch some hot water and bandages.
Opening the door to her room, Kaylin was pleased to find a fire burning merrily in the hearth and the makings for sandwiches on the table along with a pitcher of water. She flopped into a chair and waved Severn to the other as she began fixing herself something to eat. He looked around for a moment before joining her, a question clear on his face.
Kaylin looked sheepish as she said, "Helen does laundry once a week since 'an officer of the law should look presentable.' She also said it wouldn't hurt if my room failed to look like an infestation of packrats had taken up residence."
Severn laughed, then winced slightly as he tried to surreptitiously touch the gash across his abdomen. She noticed anyway and ordered him to eat while they waited for the medical supplies.
After Helen dropped off the water and bandages, also whisking away the empty plates, Kaylin pointed at the bed and told Severn to sit. He glanced over, then back to her, his voice soft, "Right here is just fine."
She frowned and pointed again. "It would be easier if you were lying down to get at your stomach wound and the ones of your leg. You'll need to take your pants off, too."
It could be her imagination, but she thought his face looked a bit flushed. He simply said, "No."
Frown deepening, she grumbled, "We need to get the dirt and whatever the hell else is in those cuts cleaned out. Take off your pants."
Now she was sure his face was turning red as he failed to meet her gaze. "I can take care of my leg by myself later. Just focus on my upper body."
Her expression became puzzled and not a little irritated, "Why are you being stubborn?"
Closing his eyes briefly, he let out a small sigh before opening them to look at her, "Because I'm not wearing anything under them."
It took her a moment to figure out what his statement meant and then she also flushed bright red and couldn't meet his eyes as he continued, "Your call was urgent and I put on the bare minimum to get out the door faster. So..." His words trailed off and he looked slightly uncomfortable.
She licked suddenly dry lips and looked anywhere but him as she mumbled, "Sooooo..." She coughed a couple times and took in a deep breath, "Right. Let's see that arm." Scooting her chair closer, Kaylin dipped a cloth in the hot water and began slowly washing away the grime and blood caked around the laceration. Severn also took up a rag and started wiping at his abdomen.
"I'll get to that after I finish with your arm."
"It gives me something to do to distract from the pain and there is no sense waiting when I have a free hand."
By the light of the fire she could see the dozens of scars scattered across his bare torso, some bare nicks, while others were testament to close calls like today. Part of her wanted to reach out and trace each one, hear the story behind them all. His softly whispered "Kaylin?" made her start, blushing that he had caught her staring at his chest. She hastily grabbed some salve and a bandage to finish the process of patching up his arm as he studied her face before returning to his own task.
Once his arm was set to rights, she took another cloth, dipped it in the water, and reached out to his face to clear the blood near his temple. Her touch was firm, but gentle, letting the rag rest against particularly thick clots to soften before wiping, rather than scrubbing hard. Eyes drifting shut, he leaned into her touch, tension slowly releasing from his muscles. The wound was free from detritus, and she found herself cleaning the rest of his face, strokes gently gliding over the contours of his brow, his cheeks, his jaw. Setting aside the rag, she leaned in closer, fingertips hesitantly tracing the scar on his face that hadn't been there when they were children.
Severn opened his eyes, gaze locking with hers, his voice a rough whisper, "Kaylin."
She could see the desire he held in check as she trailed her fingers down to softly brush his lips, her own voice low and ragged, "Severn..."
He reached up and caught her hand, kissing her fingertips before slowly closing the distance to her, allowing her time to say no or back away before claiming her lips. The kiss held a question and a promise, brief and sweet, lingering only for a moment.
Yet as he pulled back, fearing rejection, she moved forward, lips seeking contact, her free hand grasping his shoulder, pulling him closer. They remained locked in the kiss for some time, exploring this new, heady sensation building between them.
It was Severn who eventually pulled away, stroking her cheek before rising. "I should go to my room and finish cleaning up."
Kaylin blinked and stared at him, mouth opening and closing before she managed, "Huh? What? Why?"
He chuckled and kissed her forehead, murmuring, "Kaylin, we're both tired. I'm surprised you are still awake with the amount of energy you expended. We can continue where we left off after some sleep..." A trace of sorrow filled his tone, a look of someone expecting to be disappointed flashing across his face as he finished, "...if you still want to come morning light."
She caught his hand, rising to face him. "I will. I do. I want to see if we can make this work, but I can't promise it won't be painfully slow. I'm not even sure I can ever completely get over what..." She shook her head and tried again. "I just know I want to try. I want to stop living in fear. I want to make a choice as a strong woman rather than a scared child. My heart knows you'll never lay a finger on me in anger and that if you somehow did you'd hurt yourself more than I probably could. I'm not sure where we go from here, but I want to go with you, to try and make something real with you. So, please, stay with me tonight. Let me fall asleep curled up against you so I can wake up in the morning and know it wasn't some weird dream."
As she'd spoken, he'd been studying her face, searching for something in her eyes, her expression, and he gave a small nod as she finished, kissing her forehead again, whispering against her skin, "I'll stay." Severn sat back down, pulling off his boots and reaching out in invitation to remove hers. Then he stood and made his way over to the bed, lying on his side facing the wall.
"My injuries would make it uncomfortable to have you in front of me and I think we'd both feel better if you curled up against my back, though for different reasons."
She stared at him for a moment longer before grabbing a rag and wiping off the worst of the grime on her, realizing that she was still dressed in the tatters of her clothes and his shirt. Quickly removing the scraps of cloth, but keeping his shirt, she climbed into the bed to nestle against the expanse of his back. She quickly fell fast asleep, comforted with the knowledge that she was safe and that he'd be there when she woke.