Chapter Thirty-Nine

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Shel soared up into the clear sky and looked down on the palace grounds. Her sisters were spread across Thesul's domain, hunting and fighting by turns. So far, their assault on Alavard's glittering heart had been absurdly easy. In the Sorcerer's absence, the Alavardians had grown soft and complacent. They were still strong. Shel could see that easily enough. Strong, and old—very, very old. Yet, though many of them possessed strength and endurance beyond mere mortals, they only fled in terror of their attackers, or froze in place and allowed themselves to be felled like grain for the harvest.

They were allowing themselves to be slaughtered. Shel could hardly believe it. These were not the creatures she remembered from her imprisonment, who would tear a child limb from limb if it cried, who would rip open her kinsisters with eager fingers only for the sake of hearing them scream...

Had they forgotten what it was to kill prey that fought back? Or were they so decrepit in mind and pampered in body that they simply couldn't fight anymore?

Shel supposed it mattered little why the Alavardian court had changed. All that mattered was what she now knew as a certainty: Somehow, in the past seven years, they had become prey.

Shel couldn't have wished for more.

Her only real concern was Thesul. Shel hadn't seen him yet. She very much doubted he had become as soft as his subjects. The Reader had escaped his clutches on her own—a surprise in itself—but she was still within the city walls, and thus, within Thesul's reach.

Shel crested a gust of wind and swiveled her head to survey the lush palace gardens. A movement caught her eye, and she angled her flight downward until she caught a clear glimpse of seven huddled figures near the garden wall.

Ah. There you are...

But where was Thesul?

Once again, Shel curved her flight and cast her gaze over the palace. Was he inside its walls, hiding in the shadows? Had the Reader perhaps incapacitated him in some way? Surely, if he were able, he would have come forth by now to defend what wa shis—

A shrill scream reached Shel's ears and stabbed her through the heart like a shard of ice. She knew it immediately as the cry of a kinsister in terrible pain.

Shel spun, unbalanced in her haste, and careened through the air toward the source of the scream. It had arisen in the palace forecourt. She had been there only moments ago—had left her sisters in charge of finishing of a panicked group of guards...

Another scream tore the air, and was cut abruptly short.

Shel landed in the courtyard in a skid of wet gravel. She came up with her weapon ready and her teeth bared.

Thesul was there, standing with his back to her, his body smeared in gore. It matted his hair and made his silken garments cling like a membranous second skin. He almost resembled a newborn infant, yet to be washed clean of its mother's blood.

All around him, corpses littered the ground. Some of her sisters must have taken wing, for there were fewer bodies than she had left behind. Shel was glad of it.

The other bodies were Alavardian, and not all slain by her sisters' hand. It seemed Thesul still had the habit of killing his own people when it pleased him.

Shel stepped forward.

"Ah. Hello, my dear." Thesul turned to face her. He was grinning. "I was wondering when you would join the fun."

He held something in his hand. With a jerk of his wrist, he flung it at her feet. Shel looked down into the empty, blindly staring sockets of one of her kin. The woman's head had been twisted off—but not before her eyes had been gouged out.

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