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Vanyel was cold, half-starved, and down to the very last of his energy. Tylendel wasn't looking any better, and was bleeding from a dozen scrapes, as well. But they were here, the castle was clear, Yfandes and Gala were safely away, and they were going to get the bastard who'd killed Mardic and Donni.

This particular mage had been attacking strategically placed castles and keeps - all in areas that should have been safely behind Valdemar lines. Searchers found nothing but horrible remains, the castle’s occupants torn to pieces. It made Vanyel shudder to remember the demonic taint at the sites he and Tylendel had investigated. The Karsite mage was opening dimensional portals to call swarms of vicious, piranha-like demons through, and then sending them back when nothing was left to feed on. It among the worst things the two Heralds had seen on the Border - though that was always a competition with too many contenders. The worst sort of blood magic: deaths used to power more deaths.

This time though, they’d gotten ahead of him. If they were lucky, far enough ahead of him that they could raise the power they both desperately needed to fight another battle. Exhausted as Van and Tylendel were after their months riding the Border Circuit, it was damned lucky that they had the time and space to set up a circle. Sex magic affinity had its curses to go along with its blessings, but times like this Van was glad to put up with all the embarrassing moments in his history for the ability to recharge without rest and a good meal. The fact that it was also one of the few ways to reliably counter the enemy mage’s blood magic was a happy bonus.

If only the flesh and spirit were more willing, Van thought tiredly, as he used the dregs of his energy to clear a space in castle's main hall.

::Van-ashke, I did not think the day would come when we had time and opportunity and even the duty to go to bed and I'd want to just... go to bed, but here we are,:: 'Lendel sent, his mindvoice full of exhaustion and affection.

Yfandes sent a weary giggle and an image of the two of them curled up snoring and naked in the throne room at Haven. ::'Fandes! Are you ever going to let that lie?:: Vanyel still blushed to think of that incident. 'Lendel was more philosophical. At least he’d finally stopped asking Van to play Bardic’s account of the whole saga.

Sex magic was -- fortunately -- rarely the answer to problems out on Circuit. Even more rarely on the Border, taking, as they did time, to set up, flat space to conduct, and the two of them available and, heh, functional.

But up against blood magic nothing was more effective, and Vanyel and Tylendel --powerful enough taken separately-- were astoundingly--

::Potent!:: cackled 'Fandes, so exhausted she was developing a hysterical edge.

::Get some sleep, you rude lady,:: Van sent back. ::It's not like you'll miss the fireworks, so you may as well.:: He felt her agree and drop out of active contact with him, Shielding him enough that she wouldn't catch the echoes of the ritual once he and 'Lendel got started... one more lesson he blushed to remember.

So, since this particular mage was using the worst sort of blood ritual, sex magic it was-- even if all Vanyel wanted to do was to curl up next to 'Lendel and sleep for about a week. Still, he'd managed under worse conditions before, and he probably would again.

'Lendel was much better at the precise, intricate set up of the circle that would contain and channel the energy they'd raise; Vanyel's role was the raw power, and the combat magic. So Tylendel crawled around their space with the chalk, and Vanyel dug out some of the sad fare they were currently calling rations. He hoped that the few bites of stale flatbread and over-salted jerky would lend him enough energy to craft a few wards for the outside of their circle. And, he thought hopefully, perhaps once they'd put this bastard down for good, they'd have time to search out some better provisions. He could keep going on mud and air for a while yet, but 'Lendel was looking dangerously thin.

“Here, eat,” he said, holding some of the jerky out where 'Lendel could take it in his mouth without interrupting his work.

“So long as you’re eating too,” 'Lendel looked hard at Vanyel. “You look like a walking scarecrow. A particularly pretty one, but a scarecrow nonetheless.”

Vanyel snorted. “Well, we’re a pair for the Summer Faire scarecrow prizes, then. I could count your ribs from here.”

“At least I had the muscle to lose, Peacock. After this, we're taking a break. We have to. We’re both running on nothing, and I don’t want to find out the hard way that neither of us can muster the energy to turn a blade, let alone win a mage battle.”

Van sighed. It was a nice thought, a break in Haven --or even a break in a quiet shack somewhere; just let it have a hot bath-- but there were so many Incidents in so many places, and the Herald-Mages were stretched so thin that until Randale sent a courier to recall them or someone came off convalescent leave to take over their Circuit, there wasn’t much either of them could do except keep pushing on. He had no idea how he would have survived this without Tylendel. And to think that 'Lendel had once been the one of the pair of them who was more devoted to duty… though it hadn’t taken long at all for Vanyel to prove himself ten times as stubborn on the subject, once his Gifts woke.

'Lendel sent him a quiet wave of love and support. “Well, maybe the Karsite bastards will have their claws blunted for a while once we’ve seen this one off. We can catch our breath at least.”

“Let’s hope. Now let me see if I can find us a node to tap into.” Van settled down against their packs and fell into a light trance. The quiet sounds of chalk on stone and 'Lendel’s Whites scuffing the floor were soothing, something to anchor himself to as his mind reached out, questing.

There. Just beyond what he would be able to reliably tap on his own, a good strong node. With ‘Lendel’s extra boost, he could reach it easily. It was one of the things that made them such an effective team. Ritual magic was notoriously difficult to control --add in a battle situation, and one mage in a hundred had the skill to even attempt it. But with Tylendel’s knack for ritual, Vanyel’s sheer power and combat instincts, and the lifebond that let them pool their resources without splitting precious attention to do so, they were a formidable pair. With time to plan ahead and peace enough to add the extra punch of sex magic, there was damned little they couldn’t accomplish.

What was difficult was the need to be in perfect accord with one another. Back when they’d first discovered what they could do --entirely by accident, and may Moondance forget about that one day please-- Van had thought that the lifebond he and ‘Lendel shared would make everything easy. That delusion had lasted less than a day. There couldn’t be any doubts or shadows between them, not for the delicate control sex magic required. They both had to commit, and they’d found out the hard way that one of them holding back or lashing out ended in a backlash headache if they were lucky, or explosions if they weren’t. (The Vale recovered, and they were banished to their own private Workroom to practice after that.)

He and ‘Lendel were a mess at that age. Van was terrified of his own Gifts, resenting ‘Lendel for waking them and feeling guilty about that, shrinking away from the life of duty he now saw ahead of him, awash with joy at finding Yfandes, fighting a haywire Empathy Gift and his half-mad lifebonded, and still adrift in the world with no one but ‘Lendel and Savil to lean on.

At the same time, ‘Lendel was recovering slowly from the psychosis triggered by Staven’s death, in a killing rage one moment and crushed by despair the next, plagued by guilt for what the lifebond and his aborted revenge attempt had done to Vanyel, ashamed, heartsore over Gala’s distance with him, terrified the Heralds would kick him out, and feeling just as lost as Vanyel. And still, they were a lifebonded pair of teenagers, and they’d almost lost one another; seeking comfort in each other was only natural. The Vale-wide lightshow they created the first time they lay together with both of their Gifts active was, perhaps, less natural.

After that, they were careful to Shield from each other when they went to bed, just a little. And after Savil finished laughing herself sick, and Van had his near-terminal case of embarrassment under control, Moondance had the joy of instructing the two of them in the use of what was a rare ability. “I am damned glad,” Savil had commented at the time, “that this didn’t happen in Haven. I don’t know what I would have told the court.”

So sex and practice it was, which sounded wonderful until they discovered that it just didn’t work without an awful lot of soul-baring discussion. Else, explosions. So Van had to forgive ‘Lendel. ‘Lendel had to forgive himself. They both had to stop feeling guilty. And on and on until they both --finally, finally-- reached a point of perfect accord. How Moondance hadn’t dashed their heads together even once was a mystery to Vanyel to this day. Savil certainly didn’t last more than a few sessions as mediator before she bowed out for good.

And then they had to tell Withen, and Elspeth, and --by extension-- all of Haven. As far as the court knew, Savil left with a half-catatonic, violently unstable Herald-trainee and the bratty nephew who hated him, and returned almost a year later with two full Herald-Mages-- a shaych lifebonded pair who had more power between them than half the Heraldic Circle combined. And then they saved Haven with a Shield-spell powered by sex magic. In the throne room. It was certainly a lively year in Haven.

Vanyel felt a gentle tap on his awareness. ::Wit-wandering, Van-love?::

He pulled back from his trance and stretched stiffening muscles. “Thinking about how hard it was to make this work, in the beginning… and remembering Savil’s singed hair in the Vale,” he smiled.

‘Lendel huffed a laugh. “It never did grow back quite the same way. Did you find a node?”

Van nodded. “Right at the edge for me, but we’ll reach it easily together.”

‘Lendel settled himself on the floor beside Vanyel and heaved a sigh. “Right, so, are you thinking about our early experiments in explosions because we need to talk anything out before we get started?”

Tylendel always knew. And as hard as Van found these discussions, these sort of things were easier in Mindspeech. All the nuances that didn’t quite fit into words but were an intrinsic part of their thoughts made misunderstandings far less likely. ::This mage… he killed Mardic and Donni. He sets demons on civilians. I’m so angry, I want to destroy him. I’m worried because neither of us are good at pulling back from revenge. I have to trust you, and I have to trust myself, and I don’t think I do.::

During those bad old days, Tylendel would have stormed away, hurt. Now, he leaned against Vanyel and took his hand. ::Gala? I need you and ‘Fandes for this.:: Van felt the two Companions drop into the ‘link. ::Van thinks that he and I have a revenge problem that might go wrong with this mage.::

::I know you don’t, Chosen,:: sent Gala, with no hesitation. Van knew how hard ‘Lendel had worked to win back her trust, and how much it meant. If Gala thought her Chosen was stable, then Tylendel was not going to have any problems. That left himself. And while ‘Lendel’s rage had had a cause, and a terrible target, Vanyel knew that he himself was capable of a far more cold-blooded anger. His ruthlessness was part of him --a part not often woken-- but a part of him nonetheless. He could step over the line with this mage, and he knew it. Without ‘Lendel by his side, he knew himself well enough to know he would. And since in this kind of spell, ‘Lendel fed him power and Vanyel chose what to do with it, that was a problem.

::’Fandes?:: he asked, ::Can I ask you to ride along this time, and give me a kick in the pants if I need it?:: ‘Lendel would have no attention to spare once the ritual began-- not handling the node’s power stream as well as the power they raised themselves.

::Of course, Chosen,:: she sent.

::I understand, you know,:: ‘Lendel sent, stroking Vanyel’s hand. ::I don’t blame you for feeling that way, and I’m proud of you for recognising it. I’m not afraid of you or anything you might do. Trust yourself, ashke.::

::I’m too exhausted to know up from down right now, love. I’m not sure I can manage right from wrong when we’re against someone this evil. We can’t leave him alive, you know that.::

::So long as you act to defend Valdemar, and not with intent to punish, you’ll make the right choices.::

Van blinked. ::Oh. Sometimes I have the most trouble with the simplest ideas, ashke,:: he sent ruefully.

Yfandes snorted. ::That’s my Chosen.:: Her amusement and love washed over him.

He blew a mental raspberry at her. ::Okay. Thank you, ‘Lendel, Gala, ‘Fandes. I think we can get to the naked part now.::

The Companions giggled in an eerily similar way, dropping out of the ‘link. He and ‘Lendel sank into their lifebond a little further, enjoying a few moments of quiet closeness.

Van sighed and leaned away. “Okay. Let’s eat a little more, and then let’s start charging this circle.”

*

The ritual went smoothly, Vanyel sinking into ‘Lendel’s body with a feeling like coming home. His exhaustion dropped away and he let himself float in the moment, wrapped up in his beloved. There was no peace on the earth like the peace he found here.

Sex magic did work between partners who felt nothing for one another, but it worked ten times better when hearts and souls joined along with bodies. So it couldn’t be just mechanical between them --not that that was a problem Vanyel and Tylendel often had, even when the reason for the ritual was dire. Van still had moments of disbelief at the luck that gave him this beautiful and brave man. He was heart-stoppingly gorgeous under him, his warm brown eyes managing to laugh up at Van even now.

The power built and built as the passion rose between them. Every time they did this, the world fell away and everything felt new again. The difficult part was in not getting so caught up he couldn’t remember to focus on why they were doing this in the middle of a drafty castle hall. The control that let them split their focus between the physical act of their lovemaking and the attention it took to direct energy was hard-won, even if it was also one of the reasons they still came in for so much teasing among the Heralds-- no one ever could understand that their kind of training wasn’t any easier than lessons in the salle-- but for the most part it was good-natured.

Van still shied from discussing his sex life with anyone but his lifebonded, but ‘Lendel had no shame. He delighted in challenging the Herald doing the teasing to see how he or she managed something so simple as lighting a candle --with or without magic-- in bed with a partner. Then tease them about practicing until he and Van could do anything with their magic in bed that they could do out of it.

It was a blessing to have ‘Lendel’s lighthearted nature to balance his own tendency to brood. Van bent down to kiss his beloved, and with an effort, steadied himself to reach out for the node. He rode ‘Lendel’s power boost, even as his body pushed them both closer to completion. The node answered him, and he and ‘Lendel coaxed it painstakingly into alignment with their spell circle. He passed control of that power stream to ‘Lendel and reached again, pushing power out through the castle this time, searching.

He needed to find the trigger that would open the demon portal when the enemy mage activated it. It would be somewhere in plain sight, probably, delivered recently or ‘accidently’ left by a visitor.

And there. Malevolence, slowly creeping into the stone of the castle itself. Vanyel traced the feeling of wrongness back to a copper coin, wedged between flagstones in the hall. Easy to transport, fast to conceal for a chance-come visitor, and likely to be kept by one of the servants if found. Vanyel shuddered to consider what would happen to an unfortunate soul who had the coin in their pocket when the mage triggered the portal.

Now, though, Vanyel could counter. He dared not destroy the coin-- or do anything else that might cause the enemy mage to stay away-- but with this time to study the blood magic stamped into the coin he could, perhaps, temper its effects.

He took a moment to study the set-spell. So, to open the portal. So, to harness the deaths of the demons’ victims. So, to call the mage. He pulled from the power of their ritual and armoured himself against the taint of the blood magic, manipulating the strands of the abhorrent spell until they settled into new patterns. A warning sent to Vanyel when the mage reached to open the portal. Change the power draw component to accept power from other sources. Call the mage when Vanyel wished. He couldn’t know what set-spells the Karsite mage had on his end, so Vanyel left the coin active to do essentially as the mage expected: open a portal, gather magic, call him when ‘full’.

And then so, to contain the demons when they came. Vanyel pulled more of the power he and Tylendel raised, and used their magic to burn a circle into floor, anchored to the stone of the castle itself. He made it the strongest Shield he could, but it was a wall to contain and entrap more than a Shield to protect.

With the portal trigger Shielded and the circle around him and Tylendel strong, all they had to do was wait. Vanyel let his full attention return to his body, moving so perfectly in sync with his lover. Now that they could afford to let the ritual close, all he wanted to do was lose himself in the moment. He touched ‘Lendel’s mind softly, felt his love and the strain of holding the power steady, the strain of holding back from completion.

That was all Van waited for. He closed his eyes, dropped a hand down to ‘Lendel’s hardness, and stroked him until he stiffened and cried out. He was beautiful like this: blond curls sweat-slicked to his temples, even with his too-thin chest and healing wounds, power shining white in his eyes, and --despite the hunger and exhaustion-- the surety that there was nowhere in the world Tylendel would rather be than right here with Van. It was enough to tip Van over the edge with him, and he fought to hold himself steady until ‘Lendel could ready himself to hold the onrush of power that would come when he did.

After they caught their breath, smiling into each other’s eyes, they disengaged slowly. Tylendel held the power quiet, most of his attention on keeping it controlled. He settled back to sit on the blankets, and Van clothed them both in cloaks of glowing white magic. If they had to face enemy mages, it was better to do it clothed-- and the power-fuelled cloaks were both fast and impressive.

With magic to spare now, Vanyel swept the castle for any extra traps left, and disarmed two more minor but nasty set-spells. He set wards around their packs, and reached out for Yfandes to ward the Companions’ hiding place, just in case. Then they settled down to wait. Van fell into a light trance, letting the node energy start to replenish his reserves.

An interminable time later, Van felt the tap on his personal shields that meant the trigger was activating. He pulled himself out of the trance, tapped ‘Lendel in turn, and asked Yfandes to link in with him.

Power thrumming through him like a living thing, Vanyel fed the Shielded circle until it hummed. Tylendel was lost inside the power, glowing with it, as he fought to contain and hold it steady; he fed power to Vanyel as it was needed.

Starting as a tiny, blackened tear in the air, Vanyel saw the portal beginning to open. Two hand spans wide was all it took for the swarm of demons to pour through --a cloud of the creatures. The portal snapped closed, and Vanyel got his first good look at them.

They beat at the Shield in a frenzy, all tooth and head and wing. They had no eyes that Vanyel could see, and their ferocity as they slammed against the invisible prison was chilling.

For ‘Lendel, time was not passing. Vanyel was glad of Yfandes’ company as he waited out the swarm’s rage, slowly feeding power into the set-spell until it neared full. Vanyel was gambling that the Karsite mage would not be able to assimilate his power immediately --at least not before he could destroy the coin-- and if he was wrong, well, he was confident that he and ‘Lendel would be a match for him anyway.

It was less than a candlemark before Van judged the coin ‘full’. Steadying himself, and sending a pulse of warning to Tylendel, he activated the part of the trigger spell that would call the enemy mage.

He was clearly waiting; eager to claim his stolen power and be away before Valdemar’s searchers could find him. Heartbeats later, the air tore open again, a spinning, man-sized gap this time.

The mage stepped through-- and was visibly shocked to see Vanyel, wreathed in a cloak of light, with Tylendel sat serenely behind him.

Before he could react, Vanyel had him trapped in coils of power, unable to move or speak. He wondered if the mage’s shields were good enough to protect him from his own demons. The thought was so tempting.

And so easily caught. This mage was an assassin, his strengths in slow magics. Killing Mardic and Donni had been pure luck, and more the result of their protection of the village he had threatened than of his combat ability.

He was slimy in the grasp of Vanyel’s magic, the taint of the blood magic and demon contact an almost physical reek. He was an ordinary-looking man, but everything about him revolted Vanyel.

He forced the mage nose to nose with the Shielded demons. They threw themselves at the barrier in a frenzy, desperate to reach the food they sensed just out of reach. The Karsite froze in horror.

“I could turn them loose on you, mage. I could turn them loose on your country. It’s what I might have done.”

It would be fitting, if he did. Teach the Karsites what trafficking with demons wrought. Maybe, just maybe, they’d stop doing it. Maybe, in a generation or so they’d work their way around to outlawing demon summoning entirely.

Taken coldly, it was the best solution. But Vanyel couldn’t do it; he couldn’t put civilian Karsites in the way of evil like that, even if it was a time of war. He couldn’t do that and come out the other side still Van, still Tylendel’s beloved. And he felt Yfandes approve as he decided what he would do --though he was uneasily sure she would not have stopped him if he’d chosen differently.

He turned the mage in coils of power, until he faced him. With a flick of magic, he opened a portal to send the demons away, and took down the Shield. The mage felt the barrier drop and stiffened in dread, then warily relaxed when teeth did not meet his flesh.

“Never again. You’re raised demons to murder innocents, and in Valdemar that is a capital crime. As a hand of the King’s Justice, in the name of King Randale, I hereby carry out your sentence.”

He wanted to punish the man, for a moment. But Tylendel had said “protect”, and he was right. Vanyel reached out with his Fetching Gift and stopped the mage’s heart.

He dropped to his knees, reaching carefully through the link for Tylendel, letting him know he could begin releasing the power. And then he lay down again on the bedroll, exhausted.

He’d passed his own test, and he could keep standing by Tylendel’s side.

*

The ballad Bardic wrote this time was even worse than the one about the throne room incident.