The mountain loomed above them now; the pass that had brought them there stretched out behind and below, the setting sun pouring a flow of molten gold over the snow.

Before them – finally – the mouth of a cave beckoned. There could be no doubt that it was the right one; the stone had been carefully shored, and the pilings were recent, no more than a month old. Footprints had trampled the snow outside. It had even been guarded, and guarded well – but no longer.

“I think that was most of the ones that ran off, night before last,” Hark said, prowling around the fallen. He nudged one with the butt of his spear. “Some of them were already hurt. And this one looks quite familiar.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Mulin agreed. The fighting had been hard, and the guards had fought better as more of them fell – as their true foe had fewer bodies to keep track of, he suspected. But now they stood in the wash of the mana font; they had to push harder to get their magic to do anything, but there was effectively no limit to how much they could try.

They had moved with care, climbing over the cave mouth until the mana tingled over them; and then, from as great a distance as they could muster, they had begun their attack. The fighters had most certainly done their part, striking with renewed vigour, but the magic-users – the twins, and Liri – had claimed about two shares of the battle for every one of the other’s. Vhish, of course, had hung back, darting forward to reinforce one of the fighters in time of need; but even she had been so much less constrained now that they were past the mana void.

Healing was a longer and more painful process with the magical inertia, but there was no worry that she wouldn’t be able to finish.

And so… here they were. How deep the caves went, none of them could say; nor how many foes they still had to reckon with. But the surge of mana welling out from below was like an infallible beacon. If their sense of that flow ever weakened, they would know they were on the wrong course. They would reach the source – eventually.

Ducking into the mage-lit corridor was a blessed mercy; Mulin had forced himself to fight to full effect, but the stench of the dead was nauseating.

An hour in, with not another soul seen, they called a halt, and started to set up camp in a side chamber, one which, rather conveniently, had been carved into living quarters.

“It’s warm in here,” Srin observed to Kisa, honing his daggers as Mulin trudged past his chosen berth.

“Well, a mana font needs to get power from somewhere,” she replied. “There must be a magma flow under here somewhere – a big one. Whoever tapped it without making it erupt must’ve been very, very good – if only they’d put that skill to better use.”

She was probably right. Whatever the cause of the warmth, it meant that for the first time in days, the Vhark were in good spirits. They had come this far; the end could not be too far ahead. They had pushed past the worst of the resistance. They even had a bit more variety to their foodstuffs, even if all of it was in different sorts of preserves; Vhish could work wonders with such a selection. There was an almost celebratory mood among them.

They parted for bed, with Kralin and Vhish standing the first watch; maybe they wouldn’t need two, not with only one entrance to guard, but they’d got into the habit, and it wasn’t a very bad idea. Mulin was a few steps away from the room he’d chosen when Hark touched his shoulder, beckoning toward his own; curious, and trying not to let a sudden thrill of jubilation run too wild, Mulin followed him there.

Once the door had shut, there was an awkward silence; Hark glanced aside, tail curling, and finally drew a breath. “I’m sure there’s something I should be saying here,” the big Stonekin rumbled. “About how well you’ve done, getting us here; about how strong you’ve been, expected to carry so much. In truth…” He sighed, and reached over to trace a finger along Mulin’s right horn. “You’re beautiful when you’re happy and at ease, Mulin, and I haven’t seen you like that since we met, until tonight. I haven’t dared ask, but… would you join me, tonight?”

The delight in his eyes must have been so easy to read, even without it casting a green haze over them, green that swam with hints of orange-gold. Oh, yes, the answer was plain. The lightest of touches was all Hark needed to draw him closer, to bring muzzle to muzzle. And the big male trembled against him in turn, as though equally amazed to find his interest – interest that Mulin had hardly dared dream might exist – not only accepted but enthusiastically returned.

Where Mulin, without his cloak or harness, was a whirl of colour, Hark was a being of much more stable contrasts. His thick, slightly rough grey hide had always offset the bright topaz hue of his eyes; when his member rose to meet Mulin’s inquisitive touch, it shone like burnished gold, a bit thicker and a few inches longer than his own, or Kralin’s, or Srin’s. And he responded to that exploring contact with an utterly delicious moan of uninhibited delight.

Lying somewhat awkwardly across a Sachi-styled nest of a bed, he watched Mulin with open fascination as the Magekin crouched over him, stroked Mulin’s half-mantled wings as the smaller male hunkered down, and gripped his wing-joints, groaning and shivering, as Mulin’s forked tongue coursed along his flesh.

With tongue and muzzle and fingers he attended to that golden pole, trembling in delight from the shivers and sounds its owner made, from the slide of quivering fingers along his wings. He curled first his fingers around it, low down, then his tongue, near the tip; Hark thrust up into the paired grip with a deep moan. He was incredibly responsive – every little touch, whether to his rod or otherwise, seemed to electrify him. Mulin was not surprised, but was immensely gratified, when the Stonekin thrust up against him, swallowing a hoarse cry, hot, musky seed spattering on his muzzle, over his tongue, down his waiting throat.

Nor did his arousal flag when that was done, nor did he flinch from the touch; their eyes met, and Mulin knew he was ready for more.

He also knew what he, himself, craved; his tail flicked upward in anticipation. He was a fair bit bigger than Srin, yes, but Mulin had come to crave that particular stretch; it shouldn’t be so very different.

“Be gentle,” he whispered, grinning.

Hark smiled back. “I’d never want to give you pain, Mulin,” he replied, rolling onto his side, then pushing up to his knees. “Just relax, and it’ll be quick and easy.”

“Not too quick, I hope.” Mulin tried to keep his chuckle quiet, for the sake of their neighbours; these quarters weren’t soundproof, after all. He stretched out belly-down over the space Hark had vacated, shivering as his aching arousal slid over the fabric, quivering as the big male moved into place over him.

“I’m sorry,” Hark breathed, his arm shifting.

Mulin glanced over at the motion. “For -” For what, he’d been about to ask – but then he saw the knife.

He didn’t think – he just seized as much of the flood of mana as he could. The fringe crackled over his skin as lightning; Hark was close enough that it raked over his flesh. His body jerked, lurching back and tumbling to the floor; the knife fell with a clatter.

Mulin leapt to his feet, shuddering in sudden revulsion. All that time he’d been yearning to share himself with the big Stonekin, admired him so; and when Hark finally brought him close, it was just… just…

No, he told himself. That wasn’t Hark.

Their nightmare had come to pass. Without Sharliss’s full protection, Hark had been taken, made into the enemy.

Not wholly. The shaman’s talismans, or some lingering efforts, must have made it impossible to seize his will – but he’d been warped, twisted. In his mind, Mulin must have been the enemy…

Hark was still, now; not as the dead – he still breathed. But with the convulsions past, he was unconscious.

Mulin paused only to grab his crysknife from his harness, and eased the door open.

All was still – too still. Vhish and Kralin were nowhere to be found.

Which, he reminded himself, probably meant that Kralin wasn’t dead. A healer could subdue someone more easily than a Stonekin warrior could; he had to believe that was what had happened. That Vhish had incapacitated his twin, and brought him… somewhere.

He thought only briefly of checking the others, before he discarded the thought as foolish. He couldn’t trust them; if they were safe now, it would only be a matter of time before they weren’t. He had to end this, and he might just have to do it alone.

Swallowing hard, he drew a deep breath and slipped out into the great stone passage.