Chapter Sixty-Seven

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The witch noticed him first. Her yellow eyes flashed with a deep, animalistic terror in the instant before he lunged for her throat.

Take down the strongest first. It was a simple strategy. And she was by far the strongest, at least physically.

Thesul slashed at the woman with nails extended, taking a chunk of flesh and fabric off her hastily raised forearm. She didn't stumble back, as he'd anticipated, but threw herself forward, crashing into him with her full bulk.

She's mad, he thought as they fell. Her nails gouged his face, clawing deep runnels down his cheeks and narrowly missing his eyes. Blood streamed down his face like tears as he tried to roll out from beneath the witch, but her knees had his chest pinned.

"My dear," he hissed, grasping both her hands in each of his and prying them loose from his flesh. "You have just ensure that your death will be particularly slow."

"I don't care what you do, Alavardian filth," she spat. Then, over her shoulder, she shouted, "Run! All of you fools, run!"

Somewhere out of his line of site, Thesul heard Zilia's voice. "We ain't runnin' anywhere, Captain—move so I can strike true."

Oh, Zilia, Thesul thought, almost wistfully. Such a spirited creature. Pity age has ruined you so...

"No! Run. Run while yo—" the witch began, but her words broke off in a howl of agony as he snapped her left wrist. The bones splintered in his grasp like brittle kindling. So strong, yet so delicate. These witches were all the same.

"Hush, now, my dear," he breathed, and jerked her other wrist back until it shattered. She screamed like a wounded bird.

A deep voice bellowed an oath somewhere to Thesul's left, and he rolled his head to the side just in time to avoid the male Delver's ax. The weapon ploughed into the ground in a spray of dry earth a hair's breadth from his ear.

This is getting tiresome, Thesul sighed inwardly. He slammed his hand into the witch's chest, sending her sprawling in the dirt. He moved to stand, but the heel of a boot landed on his throat and shoved him back onto the ground. Squinting in the pale glare of the sun, Thesul gazed up into the hard, lined face of his former pet. "Ahhh," he said. "Zilia, darling...."

Her weight on his throat increased, crushing his trachea and effectively silencing him.

"I ain't your darling," she said coldly, and drove her sword into his chest—directly where his heart had once been.

If it weren't for her boot pressing down on his throat, Thesul would have laughed.

Then Zilia nodded to someone he could not see, and there followed a flash of light, a whistle of displaced air—

The world tilted, rolled, end over end, around and around, until he came to a rough halt eyeballs-deep in decaying leaves.

Thesul let out a string of curses—or at least, he tried too, but his severed throat only produced a hollow hiss and a gush of blood.

His head. They had cut off his head. Of all the impudent, vile, uncivilized...

"Excellent aim, Mog M'Love," the male Delver rumbled. "Solid follow through. I always said ye 'ave a fine arm on ye."

"Thank ye, Droo," replied his mate.

With a mighty effort of will, Thesul focused on his body. Though it lay some four feet away from his head, it continued to shudder and twitch, grasp and spurt. If he concentrated, Thesul could almost feel the spastic movements. He bent all of his focus upon the body, calling out silent orders for it to get up, attack, and, most importantly, locate its damn head.

"He's still moving!" someone—probably Zilia's runt—yelped. "Look, he's still moving!"

"Stay away from it, Kip," Zilia warned. "See to the captain—"

Gritting his teeth, Thesul willed his body to sit up. Judging by the short gasps and single shriek, it worked.

"Keep him down!" Zilia barked, but it was too late.

Thesul's decapitated body staggered to its feet and lashed out in a wide arc. Thesul felt an almost ticklish phantom sensation where his arm should have been as he struck something—hopefully a face, soft and vulnerable and easily torn—

There was a wet scream. The male Delver let out a shout, whether from pain, grief or fury Thesul couldn't tell. There was a heavy, moist thunk, the crunch of an ax buried in cartilage, but they might as well have tried to fell him with a feather for all the good it did.

Fools! Thesul jeered inwardly as yet another scream rent the dry, dead air. Childish, treacherous, laughable fools! I am the chosen one, the King, the future God of this land, and you—

A bolt of pain lanced through his skull and cut the silent tirade short. Thesul's bloodied lips opened in a gasp as the pain spread, weaving a net of agony around his brain. At first he thought one of them had attacked his skull—but no, this pain came from within. Even if they had decided to cleave his head in twain, his nerves would not have registered pain, only the irritation of further inconvenience.

This was not an injury of the flesh, but a warning. A warning of danger. A deep instinct telling him something was very, very wrong—

Thesul's eyes grew round in his skull. The Fountain. The Fountain is in peril. Something has threatened to breach the doors, contaminate it...

His body jerked around and stumbled forward, crunching through dead leaves until it came to a halt just above him. With a swift movement, it bend, scooped up its skull and lowered the severed neck back onto its shoulders. There was a long, wet sucking sound. A moment later, Thesul sighed and rolled his head from side to side with a loud crackle of vertebrae. There was an ax buried in his side. He wrenched the weapon free, snapped it in half and tossed it aside.

When he glanced back, he saw the female Delver lying in a heap on the ground with a hand pressed to her face, bood swelling between her fat fingers. Her mate lay close by, motionless. The witch still huddled on the ground, pale and gasping, weeping over her broken wrists. The boy knelt beside her, eyes wide, a dagger clutched in his trembling hands.

In front of them all, facing Thesul, stood Zilia; shoulder torn and bloody, sword in hand. Her remaining eye was bright and fierce. He could almost have called her beautiful, if not for the ravages of age. Such a shame.

Thesul smiled and took a step toward her. "I have somewhere I need to be," he purred. "So this will be much quicker than I had planned, my dear."


Deep within the now nearly submerged lower halls of the palace, Silnä's fingers caressed the doors to the fountain room. The charm seal upon them was strong—but she too had grown strong these past few weeks, stronger even than she had been in ancient times.

With a soft hiss, she drifted closer to the doors until her lips brushed against their smooth surface. The doors were warm, and hummed with magic.

My, my, my, Thesul... You are scared of losing this, aren't you? I wonder, what will you become without your precious fountain?

She dug the nail of one webbed finger into the door and, with care, began to carve sigils. They were words in a language long forgotten, lyrics to a song that had died in the throats of her first children more than a thousand years ago.

Slowly, carefully, Silnä began weaving a spell of destruction. It would take time and patience, but she had plenty of both.

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