The Ultimate Sacrifice

by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)


To say that the morale of the Istrion Army was at an all-time low would have been a severe understatement. Rumour flew with the speed of wings, and everyone at field headquarters knew that the Semaskans had destroyed every fort and camp from there to the border. And now they were heading for the Istrion field headquarters, where the bulk of the remaining army waited for them.

From his place on the ramparts of the castle in the centre of camp, Kale stared out over the valley and tried not to think of the approaching mass of enemy troops. If it was a question of sheer numbers, Istria had a nearly three-to-one advantage as well as being on familiar ground. But the mana cannons the Semaskans had built wiped out any possible chance Istria might have had.

Kale didn’t really understand the details of how the things worked. He was only a lowly private, and nobody had bothered giving him the full explanation. Frankly, he didn’t really care. All that mattered was that barring a miracle, they were all going to be dead by the end of the day. Kale’s courage was worn thin as a strand of silk, but he was hanging onto it with all his strength of will.

And Jaren still wasn’t back. That was the part that was really eating at him. Kale almost thought he could bear to face certain death as long as he had his lover by his side, but waiting alone was slowly driving him mad. Jaren had promised to be back in time to fight by his side, but Kale wanted him there now, not five minutes before the battle.

Cursing under his breath, Kale propped his arms on the crenellations and rested his head in his hands. His eyes burned and his head ached, the result of days spent straining to find a way to adapt his innate ability to detect magic so he could use it over a distance. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take. At least they’d moved out of the stuffy atmosphere of the mages’ scrying tower, but he wasn’t having any better luck out here.

“Private Coulter.” The deep, gruff voice jerked Kale out of his self-pity, and he pulled himself upright and hastily saluted. Lord General Harson, the commander of the Istrion forces, looked back at him with a hint of sympathy under his grim expression. “Private, you’re done in.”

“Sir, no sir,” Kale forced himself to say, though he wanted nothing more than to agree. “I’m just… resting my eyes and taking a moment to refocus. I’ll be fine.” What he really needed was about twelve hours of solid sleep, but with the enemy right on their doorstep he was unlikely to get it. Nor did he actually want it, not when he might be sleeping away the last hours of his life.

Besides, if the lord general dismissed him, he’d have a choice between trying to find a unit out in the main camp that would take him on as an extra fighter, or going back to his tiny closet of a room to brood himself into a panic. Frankly, he’d rather be up here. At least at the lord general’s side he got the latest information on what was happening out there.

Another in a long string of messengers came pelting up the stairs of the battlements. “Sir!” He saluted Harson, and waited for the nod of acknowledgement before launching into his message. “Sir, the captain of the 64th Elite has returned, and he’s requesting…”

Kale missed the rest of the message, lost in the smothering wave of relief that washed over him. Jaren was back! He’d made it safely through enemy lines and returned just as he’d promised. Kale sagged back against the stone wall, his knees going weak for a moment.

“Send him up, then,” Harson ordered the messenger, and the younger man nodded and saluted again before turning to head back down the stairs.

“No need, sir,” a familiar tenor voice said before the messenger had taken more than three steps. “I’m right here. I figured at the pace I’m moving, if I’d waited for him to return and tell me you wanted me, you’d have been up here half the morning before I got to you.”

Jaren dragged himself into Kale’s line of sight, wearily mounting the last of the stairs to stand on the parapet before he saluted the lord general. Kale gaped at his lover, stunned. Jaren’s uniform was torn, bloodied, scorched and dirtied in various places, and his fine blond hair and pale skin were equally mussed. To say he looked exhausted didn’t even begin to cover it. But most alarming of all was the state of the warrior-mage’s aura.

When Kale had first met Jaren, he hadn’t thought the older man was a very powerful mage. What he found out later was that Jaren had exhausted himself trying to cover the company’s retreat under enemy fire, to the point that his aura had been dangerously low.

Compared to the way the Elite looked at this moment, that first glimpse of his lover had been as bright as the sun. If Kale hadn’t known Jaren was a mage, he’d have thought the older man was an ordinary trooper who’d somehow gotten into an Elite uniform by mistake. His energy was so low that he didn’t have an aura Kale could detect, and that was frightening.

“Jaren,” he gasped without thinking about it, taking a step towards his lover in concern. He half expected the man to keel over dead at any moment. Indeed, when he caught Jaren’s arm in his hand, he could feel the tremors of exhaustion running through the older man’s body.

Remembering the company they were in, Kale flushed and turned towards the lord general with an apologetic expression. But he didn’t step back again; Jaren had already leaned a significant portion of his weight on Kale, and if the younger man moved he thought the warrior-mage would fall on his face.

“Captain Delwash,” Harson greeted him solemnly, apparently choosing to overlook Kale’s impertinent interruption. “You look dead on your feet, man. It wasn’t that imperative that you get back here so quickly.”

“Begging your pardon, sir, but it was,” Jaren replied, his voice steady. “I had a promise to keep.” He glanced briefly at Kale, his vibrant blue eyes warm. “The Semaskan forces are dressing their lines just on the other side of the pass. They’ll probably start coming through shortly, but it will take them a while to set up the mana cannons. Until then, their priority will be guarding their own camp, not taking stabs at us. I’ll have enough time to rest a bit, and I’ll be strong enough to fight when I’m needed.”

And since they all knew that they had no chance to defeat the Semaskan’s deadly new weapon, the unspoken addition to the Elite’s words was that it didn’t matter how much energy he had left. Whether he fought with magic or a sword, it wouldn’t make a difference to the inevitable outcome.

Maybe it was selfish of Kale, but he was glad Jaren had pushed himself to get there so fast. He felt guilty, of course, but still grateful. He did his best to convey the tangled emotions he was feeling through nothing more than a look – hopefully a look that Jaren would be able to interpret, but which wouldn’t be pathetically obvious to the rest of the officers present.

He had a feeling he’d failed miserably at trying to be subtle when Lord General Harson gave the two of them a tight smile. “Take your rest while you can then, captain. Private Coulter, you’re not accomplishing anything here other than giving yourself a headache, by the looks of it. Make sure the captain has everything he needs, and then you’re off duty until the final push as well.”

Blushing furiously, Kale saluted and mumbled something he hoped would serve as an acknowledgement. It always embarrassed him to get confirmation that the entire damned army knew about his relationship with Jaren, though at least Harson wasn’t cruel about it.

On the other hand, time alone together before the end was an unhoped-for bonus, and he wasn’t going to look the horse in the mouth, so to speak. “This way, captain,” he said formally to Jaren, waving to indicate that the older man should follow him back down the stairs.

The moment they were out of sight of the general, Jaren closed the scant distance between them and draped his arm over Kale’s shoulders, apparently not caring whether anybody saw them. Or maybe he just needed the support that badly, because he certainly rested more than a bit of his weight on Kale. “I’m glad I made it back,” the Elite murmured, showing even more weariness now that they weren’t in the presence of their commanding officer.

“You shouldn’t have pushed yourself so hard!” Kale scolded him half-heartedly. “Gods, Jaren, I’ve never seen you so exhausted. Your aura is just about gone, it’s almost frightening.” More than ‘almost’, in fact, but he wouldn’t admit more than that.

“I was afraid I wouldn’t get back in time to find you before the battle started,” Jaren shrugged. “Really, Kale, it’s not as bad as it looks. I’m at the end of my stamina as far as magic is concerned – but there’s an easy way to fix that. At least enough of a patch to last me through this battle.” He gave the younger man a suggestive look, and Kale blushed harder.

“If I didn’t know you so well, I’d accuse you of pushing yourself just so you’d have an excuse to have sex that I wouldn’t be able to argue with,” he muttered as he steered them towards the tiny closet that had been turned into his bunkroom. Not that he was objecting, not really. He wanted nothing more than to lose himself in his lover and forget about the coming disaster, at least for a little while.

“What makes you think I didn’t?” Jaren teased him with a brief smile. It faded as quickly as it had appeared as he added, “Has anyone else gotten back?”

“Are you kidding me?” Kale shook his head. “You’re the captain for a reason, Jaren. None of the others have your strength or stamina, they wouldn’t have had a chance of making it back this fast. I heard Leor, Trant and Jaysan report in via spell, but some of the others might have made contact while I wasn’t present and I wouldn’t have been told.”

“At least they’re not all dead, then,” Jaren said softly, mostly to himself. Kale tightened his grip around the older man’s waist, wordlessly offering his support. Losing someone under his command always hit Jaren hard.

Well, the best thing Kale could do was distract him, and he already knew exactly how to do that. His poor cot wasn’t up to much, but it was better than the floor.

As they approached his room, he was surprised to see the same messenger from before emerging. The lieutenant saluted Jaren briefly and smiled sympathetically at Kale. “I thought you might bring him here, private, seeing as there really isn’t anywhere else for him to rest. Forgive my presumption, sir, but I took the liberty of having the staff bring up a warm bath for you.”

Surprised, Jaren stared at the other man for a moment before he visibly gathered his wits to respond. “Thank you, lieutenant, that was thoughtful of you. Do I know you? I feel like I should.”

The young man grinned, his teeth white against his tanned face. Like Kale he was peasant stock, dark and sturdy with muscles developed from years of hard labour. “I wasn’t sure you’d remember me, sir. I was the sergeant in charge of the company you and the 64th rescued after the battle of Marmont Peak, nearly half a year ago. I and the rest of my people owe you and Private Coulter our lives. A little thoughtfulness on my part was the least I could do to repay you.”

“Sergeant Hemsorth!” Kale finally recognized the man. He’d been confused by the officer’s uniform.

“Of course,” Jaren shook his head and offered the lieutenant a weary smile in return. “I’m sorry, I’m exhausted or I’d have recognized you sooner.”

“Then get some rest, sir. And don’t worry – after the mess at Marmont, I’m about willing to believe the two of you are capable of beating damn near any odds. We’ll take the Semaskans yet, new weapon or not.” Hemsorth sounded certain of his prediction – Kale just wished he could share the other man’s confidence.

“Maybe so, but a few prayers to my Lady Amera might not go amiss,” Jaren replied with a tired laugh. “It’s always a good idea to have the goddess of luck on your side. It’s how I’ve survived this long. C’mon, Kale, that bath is calling my name.”

“Just don’t fall asleep and drown in it,” Kale muttered as he helped his lover through the door Hemsorth helpfully held open. The lieutenant saluted them once more, then closed the door and left them alone in the tiny room.

It really had been a closet before it was commandeered to give Kale a space to rest, and not a very big closet at that. Kale’s narrow cot had been folded up and braced against one wall in order to give the tub a place to sit, but it was big enough for a grown man to stretch out in and the water was steaming. Kale couldn’t imagine how Hemsorth had gotten the tub and the water here so quickly, until he noticed the faint haze of magic lingering just over the water. Only the tub had been carried; the water had been conjured. Hemsorth wasn’t an Elite, so he must have bribed one of the mages to do it for him.

Well, Kale was certainly not going to complain, and it didn’t look like Jaren was either. The older man was already halfway through stripping out of his filthy uniform, clearly eager to be in the hot water. “Here,” Kale said, and helped him shed the rest of his clothes. He took the opportunity to admire the older man’s sleekly muscled body, beautiful despite the dirt, soot and blood that streaked his almost inhumanly pale skin.

“Gods above and below, that feels good,” Jaren groaned as he stepped into the tub and slid down to sit in the water. He picked up the bar of soap and scrap of cloth that had also been left for him to use, but held it out to Kale instead of scrubbing himself. “Help me wash?” he asked with a pathetic excuse for a leer that was probably all he had the energy for.

“Are you sure you’re not too tired for that sort of ‘recharging’?” Kale asked him ruefully, taking the cloth and soap. Jaren shifted so Kale could get at his back, and the younger man started scrubbing carefully at the patches of filth. The blood meant there were probably half-healed wounds under some of that covering dirt, and he didn’t want to cause Jaren any more pain than he had to.

“Kale, we may well be about to die,” Jaren told him, twisting to look back over his shoulder and meet Kale’s eyes. The heat in the older man’s vivid blue gaze was almost enough to scorch Kale. “Be damned if I’ll lose my last opportunity to feel you against me because I’m a little tired. Don’t worry, I’m not going to die on you in the middle and leave you unsatisfied.” He managed a more normal-looking grin, and Kale swatted him lightly on the shoulder.

“I’ll be a hell of a lot more than just ‘unsatisfied’ if you go and die on me, so don’t,” he said gruffly, trying not to think about the rest of it. At least they would die together – he supposed that was something. He honestly couldn’t imagine life without Jaren; they’d been together too long and been through too much.

The water was still steaming by the time Kale had gotten the last of the dirt off Jaren’s back, and carefully cleaned out the burns and cuts there as well. Kale assumed it had to be the work of another spell, because it should have been lukewarm at best. It was also still as clear as it had been to start with, which had to be more magic because the amount of dirt that had come off of Jaren should have left it brown.

“There,” he declared, stepping back and shaking the water off his hands. “You’re as clean as I can get you.”

“No, I’m not.” Jaren shook his head and roused himself from the light doze he’d obviously fallen into, blinking sleepily at Kale. “You only did half.” He grinned and gestured. “You’ve still got the whole front to do. Not to mention below the waist, which you certainly can’t do properly from over there.”

“Jaren…” Kale shook his head, exasperated with his lover. “What do you expect me to do, climb in the tub with you?”

“That’s exactly what I had in mind, actually,” Jaren replied, a bit smug. “It’ll be a tight squeeze, but we can manage. Strip down and get in here, private, that’s an order.”

Kale eyed the size of the tub dubiously, but reached for the buttons of his tunic as ordered. He was in his dress uniform, which took a little longer to get out of, but Jaren didn’t seem to mind. Far from it, the older man was watching appreciatively as Kale removed each piece of clothing. It probably should have made Kale embarrassed – it would have, once. Now it only turned him on, because seeing that heated look in Jaren’s eyes always meant good things for him.

He scrambled awkwardly into the tub, trying to find a way to perch on Jaren’s legs that wouldn’t press on any of his lover’s wounds. He ended up kneeling with his knees on either side of Jaren’s hips, straddling the older man’s lap but lifted up slightly so he wasn’t actually in contact with Jaren’s thighs. It was a bit of a strain on Kale’s legs, but he’d spent enough time riding horses in his time with Jaren that he knew he could handle it.

Jaren looked a little disappointed, but submitted to Kale’s efforts to wash his front. Kale did his best to concentrate on each bit of skin as if it wasn’t connected to anything else, not wanting to be distracted before he’d finished. It was difficult, because all he really wanted was to press close and soak up the scent and feel of his lover around him for what might be the last time.

Apparently Jaren was thinking much the same thing. Kale had just finished the older man’s shoulders when he felt Jaren’s hand brush over his hip, fingers trailing lightly over the skin and making Kale shiver in reaction. He tried to ignore it, which only made Jaren give him a shameless smile and do it again. This time he didn’t lift his hand away, continuing the caress around to Kale’s back and down over the top curve of his ass, then back up to dance his fingers along Kale’s spine.

“Hey, you’re falling down on the job here, Coulter,” Jaren taunted him when Kale had to pause and close his eyes, struggling to regain his mental balance. “You’re supposed to be getting me clean, not lazing about.”

Kale opened his eyes again and gave Jaren a look, but his lover only smiled wider. Fine, then. Two could play that game. Kale bit down hard enough on his lower lip to feel the sting, giving himself something to use as an anchor and a distraction as he set to work carefully washing Jaren again.

This time Jaren brought both hands into play, curving them around Kale’s hips. Kale wasn’t exactly a small man, but Jaren’s hands were just big enough for him to be able to cup the top curve of Kale’s ass in his fingers and still stroke his thumbs down into the sensitive area where thigh met hip. He teased, first sliding his hands forward far enough to flirt his thumbs along the edges of the dark curls between Kale’s legs, then back until he could slip the tips of his fingers into the crack of Kale’s ass.

Fighting the urge to squirm, Kale took a bit of revenge of his own. He’d reached the upper part of Jaren’s chest, which didn’t seem to be injured. Setting the cloth aside for the moment, he lathered the soap over his hands and slid them along the smooth curves of Jaren’s pectorals, fingers tracing the familiar faint lines of old scars. Jaren shivered when Kale ran his fingertips over the tight peaks of his nipples, so Kale did it again. And again, with a little more force behind it, then again light enough to hardly be felt. Without warning he pinched them hard, and Jaren groaned and jerked against the side of the tub.

Jaren retaliated by sliding the fingers of one hand further down between Kale’s cheeks, searching for and finding the tight ring of muscle there that protected the younger man’s entrance. He circled it with his fingertip, using the other hand to pull Kale’s cheeks apart until he could feel the heat of the water against the sensitive skin.

Kale moaned softly, his breathing ragged as he forced himself not to press back against Jaren’s finger. He wanted it inside him, wanted Jaren inside him, but the longer they could draw this out, the longer it would be before they had to remember the fate that awaited them outside this room. For this moment, in this place, they could pretend they still had all of eternity.

Also, they longer they drew it out, the more energy Jaren would be able to gather from it. Already Kale could see the faintest of glows around his lover, the return of the aura that should have been there. It was barely visible, but even that was enough to reassure Kale immensely.

Determined to make this as good as possible for both of them, Kale rocked forward a bit and felt Jaren’s cock brush over the back of his thighs. Jaren was hard already, despite his weariness, and Kale felt a little thrill of pride that he could still affect his lover that strongly. He settled himself a little lower, just enough that Jaren’s cock rubbed over his skin with every breath the older man took, and was pleased when Jaren moaned and tried to press up into him. Kale lifted himself to keep the pressure even, and got a dirty look from his lover as a reward.

“I’m supposed to be cleaning you,” he reminded the older man with a slightly smug smile, picking up the cloth again and carefully wiping off the soap he’d left behind earlier. He made a point of dragging the rough bit of fabric repeatedly over Jaren’s sensitive nipples, which won him another moan.

And then Jaren turned the tables on him abruptly, thrusting one finger inside him to the knuckle and making Kale gasp in reaction. Kale pushed back against him without meaning to, silently asking for more. He wasn’t really surprised when Jaren denied him, working that one finger slowly in and out without going any deeper.

“Jaren…” Kale moaned, then bit his lip again to keep anything else from escaping. Sometimes Jaren liked making Kale beg for it, but he wanted to have to work for it, not have Kale start pleading at the first hint of frustration. From all the signs this was going to be one of those times. Kale was going to be half out of his mind with need before Jaren gave in and finished it.

Unless, of course, he could find another method of persuading his lover. Tired though he was, Jaren had to be balanced on the knife-edge of frustration himself. The Elite had been days out on this scouting mission without the time, energy, or opportunity to do anything to relieve his body’s needs. Indeed, Jaren had deliberately worked himself up and not finished when he’d used that mirror spell to contact Kale a few days ago.

All at once Kale settled himself down on Jaren’s thighs, moving so the older man’s cock was trapped beneath him. The move forced Jaren to pull his hands away, which Kale regretted, but it also drew a startled moan from the other man and that was more than enough compensation. If he was aggravating any unseen injuries, Jaren didn’t seem inclined to mention it.

Leaning in close, Kale slowly trailed lips and tongue over the path his fingers had taken earlier, while dropping his hands below the waterline to wash Jaren’s abdomen. He felt the strong muscles jump beneath his gentle touch, and once again marvelled that someone as deceptively slender as Jaren could be so wonderfully defined.

Jaren hadn’t yet conceded defeat, bringing his hands around to Kale’s front and slowly dragging his fingertips over the sensitive skin of Kale’s inner thighs. Kale was so hard now that his cock would have been weeping if the water hadn’t washed it away. Every so often Jaren would tangle his fingers lightly in the coarse curls between Kale’s legs and tug, but he refused to touch where Kale needed it most.

Groaning, Kale ducked his head and bit hard at Jaren’s nipple, then sucked on it. Jaren gave a muffled whimper, but didn’t stop teasing Kale. At this rate it was going to be Kale who broke first after all.

Then a wicked thought occurred to Kale, and he grinned. He was finished washing Jaren’s upper body, but as his lover had rightfully pointed out, he hadn’t even started to work below the waist.

It took an effort of will to pull himself back out of Jaren’s reach when what he really wanted was to press as close as he could get. Jaren’s eyes had been half closed with pleasure and weariness, but he opened them completely with a questioning expression as Kale settled himself over his lover’s knees.

Then he closed them again and tipped his head back, shuddering as Kale dragged the bit of cloth down further and wrapped it around Jaren’s cock. The fabric felt rough even against his callused hand, so Kale could only imagine how it would feel against far more sensitive flesh.

“That’s cheating,” Jaren accused him breathlessly, rocking his hips up into each stroke of the cloth. This time when he opened his eyes, Kale felt burned to his soul by the heat in his lover’s expression.

“Cheating?” Kale repeated, as indignantly as he could manage given how husky his voice emerged. “I’m not cheating, I’m being thorough. You told me to wash you – you don’t want me doing a half-assed job, do you?”

“Kale…” Jaren gave a lustful chuckle and shook his head. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned to count on, it’s that you’re never half-assed about anything.” He pushed himself away from the side of the tub, fast enough that he caught Kale by surprise. The next thing Kale knew he was being kissed within an inch of his life, and he participated enthusiastically.

“You win this one,” Jaren declared when he broke the kiss, trailing his hands up and down over Kale’s back. “I don’t have the patience to drive you crazy today. I want you too badly.”

Now that surrender had been offered, Kale was free to beg as much as he wanted. “Gods, Jaren, please,” he moaned, wrapping his arms around the older man’s neck and pressing close. This time their cocks rubbed together between them, and they both made a desperate noise. “Please, I need you, need you in me, Jaren…”

“Damn it, I didn’t think to grab any oil,” Jaren muttered, sounding irritated. “We’ll have to get out.”

“Nnh… use the soap, it will be good enough,” Kale told him. It would sting like a bitch, but he could handle it and he didn’t want to wait even an extra thirty seconds.

Apparently Jaren felt the same, because he stopped trying to get up and fumbled for the bar of soap instead. “On your knees, brace your hands on the sides,” he ordered Kale. “This won’t work if the water is just washing it away.”

Kale obeyed, lifting himself until he was mostly out of the water. The air in the room was cool, especially compared to the steaming water, and he shivered as goosebumps broke out over his skin.

Then he shivered for an entirely different reason, as Jaren slid soap-covered fingers over his entrance. No, Kale realized when he felt something unyielding and slippery pressing slowly inside him, Jaren was using the soap itself to stretch him.

The bar was much used, and constant wear had curved the solid shape of it into something more rounded. Even so it was big enough to stretch Kale quite a bit, more than was comfortable so quickly. He gripped the sides of the tub hard and did his best to relax. There was no way in hell he was asking Jaren to slow down, not when he’d prodded the other man into exactly this kind of desperate haste.

And not when he was enjoying it so damn much, either.

Broken little whimpers and desperate noises escaped him as Jaren forced the soap deeper into his body. The tip of Kale’s cock dragged in the water as he rocked back into the pressure, and the contrast between the heated water and the cooler air was an intense stimulation. At this rate Kale wasn’t even sure he would need a hand on him to help him reach the peak.

“Now, Jaren, please,” he choked out, almost sobbing the words. He wanted it so bad, needed it so bad…

And then Jaren obliged him by pulling the soap away and thrusting inside him in one long, rough motion, and Kale barely managed to muffle his scream of mingled pleasure and pain.

It wasn’t gentle – it never was when they teased each other this much, but now there was an added quality of desperation. They were going to die, and it was as if they fought to wring every last bit of life and pleasure out of their remaining time together. Jaren slammed into him, slopping water over the sides of the tub with the force of his thrusts. Kale pushed back into him with equal fervour, closing his eyes and trying to memorize every sensation so he could make it last.

Unfortunately they couldn’t keep up such a frantic pace for long. Jaren came first, his rhythm becoming jerky and his hands clamping down on Kale’s hips as he went stiff. Kale could feel the heat as his lover spent inside him, and that was enough to push him over the edge as well.

They both collapsed, and might have drowned except that Jaren somehow found the strength to turn them both over. They ended up lying reclined against the side of the tub, with Kale sprawled over Jaren’s lap and half turned so he could rest his head on the older man’s shoulder.

For a long moment neither of them moved, recovering and trying not to remember what lay ahead.

Finally Kale sighed, unable to keep his thoughts at bay any longer. “Jaren? Will you think less of me if I admit there’s a part of me that wants to just run away?” he asked in a small voice, half afraid of what the answer would be.

“Only if you think less of me for the same thing,” Jaren replied. He ran his fingers through the tangled curls of Kale’s dark brown hair, a soothing gesture.

“You? Never!” Kale exclaimed, astonished.

“Oh yes, me,” Jaren said. “I thought about it, but in the end I couldn’t leave you to face it alone.”

“We could go together,” Kale suggested, attempting to make a joke of it but only half kidding. “You’ve gotten enough energy from this that you could probably keep us both invisible just long enough to get away.”

He tried to imagine life for the two of them outside the army, and failed. If not for the unique circumstances created by this war, they’d never have even crossed paths, let alone fallen in love. High-ranking noblemen meeting and falling in love with hearty peasant wenches was something that only happened in the bards’ tales – and even the bards didn’t mention it happening to hearty peasant lads. Not to mention that guilt for leaving their fellow soldiers and Elite behind to die would eat them both alive.

Which was why he was so startled when Jaren sat up abruptly, dumping Kale off his lap and almost under the water. “Kale, that’s it!” he said, staring at the younger man as if Kale had just said something brilliant instead of treasonable. “I’m such a fool, why didn’t I think of that before? I’m so tired my mind was addled. Never mind, it doesn’t matter now. Hurry and get dressed!”

Kale sat in the still steaming water and stared as Jaren scrambled out of the tub and started hunting for clothes. Someone had brought Jaren’s packs along with the bath, and the warrior-mage was more than halfway into a fresh field uniform by the time Kale’s tongue caught up with his brain.

“Jaren, have you lost your mind?” he asked, bewildered. “We can’t actually run away!” Could they? That cowardly part of him was willing to try, but the rest of him was appalled.

“What?” Jaren froze in the middle of pulling his shirt on, then shook his head. “No, of course not. But I can use magic to hide us long enough to get us behind enemy lines. If you can identify the power source of the mana cannons, we might have a chance of destroying them before Semaska turns them on the army. Don’t just sit there!”

Kale’s heart leapt into his throat and nearly choked him with fear. Go behind enemy lines? With his lover in this state? “Jaren, you’re half dead. The energy you’ve got now is just temporary, you’ll kill yourself if you try to maintain a spell that complicated for that long.”

“I’ll last long enough to get us there, and that’s all that matters,” Jaren insisted. “We’ll take the horses; the set-spells for silence and camouflage on their tack won’t take as much energy to sustain as a constructed spell on us.”

Jaren was dressed now, and he impatiently held a hand out to Kale to help him out of the water. Kale took it and clambered out of the tub, but even as he reached for a uniform he was trying to talk the warrior-mage out of what was essentially suicide. “Why don’t we talk to the lord general and take an entire troop with us?” he asked reasonably. “Or even just a few Elite who aren’t as exhausted as you are?”

“The Semaskans will be watching closely for any attempt from us to attack the cannons,” Jaren pointed out, pacing the close confines of the tiny room as he waited for Kale to be ready. “An entire troop would be noticed, but two people might be able to sneak in. I’d send you with another Elite, but none of the 64th are back yet and frankly I don’t trust someone who hasn’t worked with you to take you seriously enough. Besides, I know your energy and aura well enough to be able to cast spells on you quickly in an emergency, but most Elite never learn how to cast on anyone but themselves. A true mage could do it, but they’d be worse than useless otherwise.”

He paused and grinned. “Actually, the fact that I’m so drained will be an advantage in getting close. The enemy mages will be watching for approaching power signatures that might indicate someone hiding behind an invisibility spell, but in this state I’ll hardly register. Taking any extra Elite with us would negate that.”

Kale still thought it was nothing less than suicide – but at least they would die doing something, instead of waiting in rank with the other troops for the cannons to cut them down. “All right,” he agreed helplessly, and finished dressing hastily. The moment he’d tugged his last boot on, Jaren grabbed his hand and all but hauled him out of the room.

The halls of the stone keep felt oddly empty, and after a moment Kale realized that everyone must be out on the battlefield readying themselves for a useless defence attempt. The courtyard was nearly as empty, except for one familiar man standing guard at the stable door.

“Lieutenant Hemsorth!” Jaren called, relief evident in his voice as they headed for the guard. “My Lady Amera is feeling generous today. I was afraid I’d have to knock out the guard to get at our mounts.”

“Sir?” Hemsorth looked startled and confused. “Lord General Harson gave orders that no one but the upper echelon are to have access to the horses.”

“I figured. He’s worried about deserters – or worse, traitors and spies. Not that the enemy needs them, not when they’ve already got us backed into a corner like this. Is he out in the field?” Jaren asked. When Hemsorth nodded, the Elite muttered a curse. “We don’t have time to track him down and ask for permission. Lieutenant, you’re going to have to trust me – we need our horses.”

Hemsorth looked back and forth between them, then stepped aside with a quick salute. “You didn’t leave me and my people to die on that mountain, sir. I can’t much picture you doing it now. Go ahead.”

“Thank you, lieutenant. You won’t regret it,” Jaren promised him as they hurried into the stable.

“Yeah, because if this doesn’t work he’ll be dead before he has a chance to,” Kale muttered, and Jaren smacked his shoulder.

“Think positive,” his lover ordered him.

They saddled the horses in record time, and Jaren took a moment to activate the spells that had been worked into the tack. They wouldn’t be invisible, but the camouflage spell helped them blend into their surroundings and the silence spell hid the sound of the hoof beats.

It also prevented them from speaking to each other, so Jaren used hand signals and Kale strained his eyes to see them past the camouflage effect. In a way Kale was grateful for the enforced silence – it meant he couldn’t give voice to his doubt and fears even if he’d wanted to.

The main part of the Istrion forces were arrayed in the centre of the valley, planted firmly across the road that led out of the mountain ranges to the capital in blatant defiance of the advantage the Semaskans held. There were a few outlying units on the flanks just to make certain no enemies tried to get behind the Istrion ranks, but Kale couldn’t imagine why they would. They’d be caught in their own crossfire.

Jaren led them deftly around those flanking units, and they didn’t encounter any trouble. They pushed their mounts to the limit as they pounded up the valley towards the arrayed Semaskan forces, and the war-trained horses gave it their all. Kale felt bad for misusing the beasts like that but this desperation manoeuvre was intended to save their lives, too.

When Kale got his first good look at the Semaskan entrenchment, he nearly lost his seat in shock. The sheer strength of the ambient magic hanging over the enemy army was enough to make his eyes water. Glancing up at the sky, Kale saw thick clouds and belatedly realized that what he had thought was a bright, sunny day was actually the radiance from the Semaskans.

Clinging to his saddle like a tyro, Kale felt sick to his stomach. How could anything produce that much power, let alone a weapon? How could anyone try to control it and survive? No wonder they had been chewing through the Istrion defences like a teething child with a bit of milk-soaked bread.

He wanted to ask just what in all the hells Jaren thought they could accomplish against that, but it was more than just the silence spell that stayed his tongue. Jaren couldn’t see the magic the way Kale could, even with a spell to help him. There was no way Kale could convey the sheer scale of the wall they were about to throw themselves against. He was afraid that if he tried, he would only sound scared and hysterical, so he said nothing.

About three quarters of the way up the valley, just before they would have encountered the first Semaskan sentry line, Jaren gestured and kicked his lathered mount up the side of the valley at an angle. They climbed steadily, leaving the grass and scrub of the valley behind and travelling through increasingly dangerous rocky areas.

Exhausted by the rough ride, Kale’s mare slipped on a spill of shale and went down. Kale felt her leg snap and threw himself out of his saddle just before she rolled him beneath her body. Once away from the silencing effect of the spell, the sound of his body impacting the rocks sounded unnaturally loud.

Kale scrambled for hand- and footholds to stop his momentum. The slope was steep here, and he had no desire to slide all the way back to the bottom over razor-sharp pieces of shale and flint. He managed to bring himself to a halt a few feet below and to one side of his mount. The spells were still in effect; he couldn’t hear the way she was undoubtedly screaming in pain and could only really see her by watching the way the rocks shifted around her.

Jaren appeared abruptly, having dismounted as well. He glanced at Kale, who waved to show he was mostly unhurt, then turned to the fallen mare.

Kale couldn’t see what his lover was doing, except for the faint glow of dark green magic. After a moment the rocks stopped moving, and he knew the mare was either dead or unconscious.

Hauling himself up, he went to the older man’s side. Jaren’s aura was low again, and Kale didn’t like the way his lover was panting and sweating. Jaren was pushing himself too hard, but what other choice did they have? “Now what?” he whispered, trying to keep his voice as low as possible so it wouldn’t carry.

“Now we walk,” Jaren replied grimly. He reached out and swatted his own mare on the rump, and from the vague blur of movement Kale assumed the horse took off back down the slope. She would head towards her safe stable, and though the spell would wear off without Jaren to power it, she should remain hidden long enough to make it back to their own territory.

They started to climb, and Jaren pushed them no less hard than he had the horses. Kale slipped and fell a dozen times, and the bruises and cuts he’d picked up in the fall from the saddle multiplied rapidly, but he bit his lip and refused to complain.

It seemed as though hours passed, but the sun had only moved a thumb’s length in the sky when Jaren signalled for them both to drop to the ground. Kale crawled up beside his lover, and they both flattened themselves to peer over the edge of a shallow cliff.

The ambient ‘light’ had been growing progressively stronger as they went, but when Kale looked down on the enemy camp directly he thought he would go blind. The highest concentration of magic was only a few dozen spear-lengths away, centred on a large area. When Kale forced his streaming eyes to focus, he made out vague shadows moving against the light, and surrounded by brilliant auras of their own. Those must be the mages, then.

“There,” Jaren murmured, pressing close to Kale’s side and pointing down into the camp. “See those long metal tubes? Those are the cannons. They focus all that power I assume is making your eyes water like that, and turn it into a blast of destructive force.”

“I see them,” Kale whispered back, blinking rapidly in a futile effort to clear his eyes. “They look so… harmless. Almost silly.” How much threat could a scant handful of hollow pipes really be?

The greatest threat that Istria had ever faced, and that made them seem less ridiculous.

“So what are we supposed to do about them?” Kale asked. The cannons were heavily guarded by Semaskan Elite and entire units of regular troops.

“The cannons themselves aren’t the weak point,” Jaren told him. “They can create more of the focusing tubes easily enough. We need to find where and how they’re storing all this power.”

Kale felt like an idiot. Of course the Semaskans were storing the power somehow. Even with the unbelievable number of mages he could see, they couldn’t possibly be producing that much ambient magic out of their own personal energy.

He scanned the camp again, searching for a concentration of magic. It was not unlike trying to find a pile of iron filings in a massive mound of sand by weighing a handful at a time. What he was looking for was noticeably denser, but he had to sift through all the lighter sand first to try to find it.

In moments his eyes were aching and his head was pounding with the worst headache he could ever remember having. Kale gritted his teeth and forced himself to concentrate anyway.

Just as he was ready to despair of ever finding anything, he realized he was searching for the wrong thing. He shouldn’t be weighing every grain to determine whether it was sand or iron, he should just be looking at the colour.

Kale had been shocked when he’d discovered that even most true mages couldn’t tell the different kinds of magic apart. To him everything was a rainbow of hues, with the intensity and depth of shading telling him finer details. Most of what he was seeing was the pale wheat yellow of undirected magic, with the brilliant scarlet of offensive power around the cannons themselves. But there was a knot of ugly red-brown energy off to one side, a shade that reminded him of dried blood and actually made him feel sick to look at.

“There,” he whispered, his voice shaking as he pointed. “Gods, it’s… disgusting. That’s got to be it, I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Whatever it was that was storing the energy, it had been tucked away in an innocuous-looking stack of crates, off to one side of the encampment but still well within the inner sentry lines. There didn’t seem to be any extra guards around it – the Semaskans were being careful not to do anything that would mark the pile as a tempting target. It was close enough to the mages that the centre of power would have been hard to pin down for someone who saw all magic alike.

“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” Jaren declared. “I’m going to create a diversion, and you are going to sneak in and get at the power centre. If we can disrupt the containment spell for even an instant, they’ll lose it all and won’t be able to fire the cannons. Our troops will be more than able to handle them without that advantage.”

He searched through the rocks around them; shale had given way to granite bedrock some ways back, and he didn’t have to look long to find a piece of quartz crystal. “Take this,” he said, and a dull orange glow sprang up around his hand and slowly sank into the crystal. Even that small exertion left him visibly more drained, and Kale bit his lip when he saw how faint his lover’s aura was.

“Smash it against the crates,” Jaren continued, his voice and hand shaking as he passed the crystal to Kale. “It’s crude, but the resonance spell I put on it should amplify that destructive force and transfer it to the containment spell.”

“Jaren…” Kale clutched the crystal in his hand, and tried to think of something to say. This was still suicide. Jaren wouldn’t be able to fight for long in the shape he was in, and even if Kale by some miracle made it as far as the crates, he would be killed immediately afterwards when the Semaskans realized what he’d done.

But if they didn’t do it, everyone was going to die. Not just the troops here, but all the innocent farmers and merchants and nobles who were counting on the army to protect them. People like Kale’s own family, farmers who’d tended their land for centuries not that far from where Kale now stood.

“Let’s do it,” he finally finished, doing his best to sound brave and confident.

That won him a brilliant smile from his lover. “That’s the spirit,” Jaren said. “That’s the stubborn idealism that made me fall for you in the first place.” He leaned in and kissed Kale briefly but fiercely. “I love you, Kale Coulter. In this life or the next one, I swear to you we’ll be together again.”

“I love you too, Jaren,” Kale replied, his voice choked with tears he refused to shed.

Then Jaren was gone, scrambling down over the cliff as quietly as he could manage. Kale watched him go with his heart in his throat, clutching the crystal so tightly the facet edges dug into his skin.

When Jaren was almost to the inner ring of sentries, he drew recklessly on his fading resources and threw lightning bolts at the nearest group of Semaskans. He killed at least two in that first blast, and successfully drew the attention of everyone in the area. The troopers and Elite converged on him, and Jaren drew his sword and threw himself into the battle with a fierce yell of defiance.

Kale all but tumbled down the steep slope, trying to move quickly but without drawing any attention. Jaren’s diversion would be over the moment one of the enemy mages targeted him, because his fragile shields would never hold up against a magic attack.

Except the Semaskan mages seemed to be ignoring the ruckus around them – other than that first strike of Jaren’s, Kale hadn’t seen a single fireball or lightning bolt, let alone anything more complex.

Daring to take his eyes off his target, Kale hid briefly behind a tree and looked around to find out what the mages were up to.

He located them clustered around the cannons, and nearly panicked when he realized what the rapidly rising power levels around them meant. They were getting ready to fire, and couldn’t pull their attention away from channelling the power.

Not that it mattered – the five Elite who were heading for Jaren would make short work of the exhausted warrior-mage. Kale didn’t know how long it would take the mages to fire the cannon, but surely they couldn’t channel much more power than this without burning themselves out.

Kale was out of time, and out of options. Desperately he abandoned the idea of trying to sneak in and just bolted for the pile of crates. The power levels in that area were pulsing like a frantic heartbeat, and he couldn’t actually look directly at it for fear of blinding himself.

The goddess of luck was apparently still dabbling Her fingers in the mess. Kale wasn’t sure if it was a sign of Her favour that the chaos allowed him to make it most of the way to his target without being noticed, or if the shout of discovery behind him before he was quite in reach meant She’d turned Her face from him entirely.

Kale put on a burst of speed, drawing on energy he hadn’t even known he possessed. A sharp line of agony drew itself through his leg, and when he stumbled and looked down he saw that one of the arrows had pierced right through his knee. A second spike of pain in his left shoulder nearly drove him to the ground, but somehow he forced himself to lurch forward.

More arrows fell around him, but if they struck him then Kale was already too deep in shock to notice. With the last of his rapidly fading strength he threw himself forward and extended his hand so the crystal impacted the nearest crate before he collapsed to his hands and knees in the dirt.

Quartz should have been too hard to break, but the crystal shattered to pieces on impact. Orange magic flared up and was met by the bright purple of a shield spell, but the shield was quickly overwhelmed. The wooden crates all but exploded, revealing odd constructions made of crystal, mirrors and wire that were saturated with ugly blood-coloured power.

Kale had the space of a heartbeat to realize they’d forgotten something. When the containment spell failed and all that energy was released, it was going to have to go somewhere. And he was at ground zero.

Then the orange magic of the resonance spell reached the bloody energy of the contained power, and the world dissolved in an explosion like nothing Kale had ever dreamed of.

It went on and on, and if there had been air left to scream with Kale would have been shrieking. Fire burned over and through him, and all he could do was pray it would end quickly.

Then it was over, and he was left coughing and gasping for air in the aftermath. More than a little shocked that there was an aftermath, Kale knelt on dirt that had been melted into glass and tried to figure out what the hell had happened.

He couldn’t see; the blast had blinded him and everything was lost in a haze of darkness. Kale waited for the blow that would kill him, that surely had to be coming when the Semaskans recovered and realized what he had done, but it never fell.

“Kale!” Jaren’s voice was distant and hoarse, but it was the sweetest sound Kale had ever heard in his life. “Kale! Are you okay?”

“I can’t see,” Kale called back. “Jaren, what’s going on?” In the distance he could hear shouting and screaming, but nearby there was nothing but an eerie silence.

“They’re dead.” Jaren sounded closer now, and Kale managed not to flinch when a hand fell on his shoulder. “The backlash of the magic killed all the mages, and all the troops in the area. I got a shield up around us both just before it hit.”

“You…” Kale’s throat went dry at the thought of how close they’d both come to dying. “I can’t believe you had enough energy left for even one shield that strong, let alone two.”

“I can’t believe I had it in me, either,” Jaren admitted with a shaky laugh, sinking to the ground and pulling Kale down to sit beside him. He slung one arm around Kale’s shoulder and pulled him close, careful of the younger man’s injuries, and Kale tucked his head against the taller man’s shoulder. “I guess you never know just what you can do until you have to.”

“Why haven’t the rest of the troops killed us yet?” Kale asked. He still couldn’t see anything, and from the way Jaren was trembling against him the Elite wasn’t up to menacing a bunny, let alone an enemy soldier. They were both helpless.

“They’re a little busy,” Jaren said, and his voice was wry. “We outnumber them three to one, remember? They’ve lost all their mages, and having their secret weapon blow up in their faces has them more than a little scared – of us, since we’re the ones who did it. For all they know we could be faking being exhausted. We just have to wait for our people to get to us.”

“And then what?” Kale wanted to know.

“And then… I guess the war is over,” Jaren replied, his voice soft. “But don’t worry, it won’t be instantaneous. There will be a lot of clean-up left to do. And you and I are going to be heroes.”

“I’m just happy to be alive,” Kale said fervently. He groped for Jaren’s hand, and twined their fingers together when he found it. “I can’t believe we actually did it.”

Jaren laughed outright. “Kale, I’m starting to believe that there is nothing the two of us can’t do together. I don’t care what it takes; I’m never letting anyone separate us again. If you’d just been with us on the scouting mission, we wouldn’t have had to go through all this.”

“I won’t argue with that,” Kale murmured. He didn’t know if his sight would come back, or what would happen to them once the war was truly declared over – but if Jaren said he would find a way for them to be together, that was good enough for him.

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