remotely easy.

“Thank you.” She sucked in a deep breath. “How are we doing?”

Before the god could answer, she heard a grunt of pain and felt a few warm spatters of blood across her outstretched hands.

“Oh. That good?” Widdershins forced her eyes open and craned her neck to see.

The combatants drew ever nearer to Sicard and Julien, despite the best efforts of the aristocrat and the thief to hold the line. Renard was bleeding furiously from his left arm and shoulder, where Iruoch's touch had ripped strips of skin from his body. It hadn't slowed him much-not yet-but he winced in pain with every step. Evrard didn't seem much better off, favoring the same spot on his body, even though it bore no visible injury. Iruoch seemed to be playing with them as much as battling them, casually brushing their blades aside, sometimes feigning a lunge at one or the other without bothering to follow through.

Igraine Vernadoe stood between the two groups, shouting prayers and malisons, her icon of the Shrouded God raised high. It was brave, no doubt, but if it had any appreciable impact on Iruoch's advance, Widdershins couldn't see it from here. The glistening sweat on the priestess's forehead, which was visible to Widdershins, suggested that Igraine didn't expect much good to come of her defiance, either. Since neither she nor Julien still held their pistols, Widdershins assumed that they'd taken their shots during the brief moments when she was insensate on the lawn.

And speaking of Julien…

“-better idea?!” the Guardsman was shouting, shaking Sicard by the shoulders. Clearly, any courtesy or respect he'd normally have felt inclined to show the bishop was long gone.

Widdershins grunted, trying to rise without drawing Iruoch's attention, and strained to listen in on the argument. Her ears tingled as Olgun lent a hand to her efforts.

“Even if she wasn't too far away and too busy,” Sicard was insisting through clenched teeth, “it takes ten or fifteen minutes to cast! This'll be long over before-”

“You can try! I can't just stand here useless like this!”

The bishop shook his head, and it was only Olgun's power that enabled Widdershins to hear his muttered reply. “It didn't help Brother Ferrand much, did it?”

“Gods damn you, we have to do something! We-”

Widdershins felt the roiling tumult of Olgun's emotional shouting, strained to make sense of concepts too complex to be easily conveyed. “What? I don't…But…Are you sure? All right, you don't have to yell! Julien! Your Eminence!” She winced even as she raised her voice, knowing she'd just announced to Iruoch that she was up and around. “Just start casting!”

“But-,” Sicard began.

“Trust me!”

“Trust her,” Julien insisted. “Do it.”

The bishop jogged back to where he'd left the iron brazier and began scooping up the last of his stock of herbs and incense. Julien trailed behind, his rapier drawn, watching the ongoing melee.

“Awake, awake, our little girl's awake!” Iruoch actually clapped his hands with glee as he bent over backward and stepped to the left, allowing both Renard's and Evrard's blades to pass harmlessly through the space he'd just vacated. “Oh, I'm so happy!” He straightened with impossible speed, a living catapult snapping upright, with one arm outstretched. The creature's palm slapped against Renard's wounded shoulder, sending him tumbling-and screaming-across the grass, leaving a serpentine trail of blood behind him.

“If you're not awake,” Iruoch continued, his voice dropping in mock disappointment, “you don't actually feel anything.” The fingers of his left hand twitched and flexed, parrying even the fastest and most ornate of Evrard's thrusts. “And that's no fun at all!”

The children booed at the very idea.

“Yep, I'm awake!” Widdershins scooped her rapier up from where it had fallen, slashed the air before her a time or two. “Not feeling anything, though. Why don't you come get me?” Even before the creature took a step, she had begun to fall back, retreating with a slow but steady pace, trusting Olgun to warn her if she was about to back into an obstacle of any sort.

“Aww…Step and dance and run away, thiefie doesn't want to play?” Iruoch took a pace toward her, a second, and then, “Thiefie thinks I'm really, really stupid.”

Rotating so swiftly that it should have neatly snapped his knees, Iruoch bounded back toward the others. Evrard took a desperate swing, but again caught nothing but the hem of the filthy coat. The creature landed beside Igraine, flinched away from the holy symbol, and then kicked her in the gut with the toe of his boot. The priestess doubled over, tumbling to the earth and spitting blood-tinged vomit.

Their trick with the tombstone, and the mass of injuries they'd inflicted, had left some enduring effect. His leap was less steady, his pace not quite as swift as Widdershins remembered it. Even so, as she broke into another run, ignoring the growing pain in her sides and the exhausted patina that lay across every one of Olgun's emotions, she knew that she could never reach the creature before he reached Julien and Sicard.

The volume of the bishop's incantation grew louder, the tension in the major's shoulders more obvious, but neither of them could do anything but press on, and hope.

Because she'd told them to. Because they trusted her.

“Olgun! Olgun, it has to be now!” She was gasping, forcing each word out between harsh breaths and pounding steps. “It has to be now!”

The god's power lashed outward, a whip of sheer, stubborn intent. Widdershins had never felt anything quite like it, and stumbled as she ran. She felt her god reach out, snagging the raw strands of the mystical link that were only beginning to form around Julien, the earliest stages of Sicard's spell. She felt him grasping the remnants of the prior spell that clung to her, the broken link that had joined her with the late and lamented Brother Ferrand; felt him sculpting it beneath his intangible touch, forcing it into a new form.

And she felt the two ends, of the two distinct but similar incomplete magics, touch and fuse into one.

Sicard could not have done it. Olgun could not have done it. But together, they forced the magics to meld. In perhaps a tenth the time it should have required, Widdershins and Julien were joined.

Again she felt a brief moment of disorientation, of overlapping memories and shared experiences, but it was gone half a heartbeat after it began. Widdershins had experienced the effect once already, and knew better how to work through it-and because she knew it, so, too, did Julien.

Iruoch was two steps away from him when Julien rose, faster than a striking serpent, and plunged his sword through Iruoch's throat.

It wasn't enough to kill the creature, not by far, but Iruoch stumbled to a sudden halt, gagging and coughing up rusty powder. He staggered back, pulling himself off the blade, hands clutching briefly at the wound.

Again Julien struck, the tip of his sword moving too swiftly even for Iruoch, and two of those spidery fingers tumbled through the air in an almost graceful arc to land, flopping and twitching, in the dust.

Everyone-Iruoch included-fell silent and stared at the thrashing digits for a moment, until they swiftly decomposed with a puff of grayish, peppermint-scented powder. Several of the beetles boring through the nearby soil abruptly metamorphosed into bright scarlet moths. They fluttered away on the summer breeze, their flight paths awkward and very, very confused.

Slowly, gradually, Iruoch turned to gawp at Julien. “Those were two of my favorites!”

“Um…” Julien sounded utterly at a loss. “I'm sorry?”

Iruoch lunged; the Guardsman parried. Back and forth, step and cross-step…And then, before the creature could even begin to wear his opponent down, Widdershins was there.

Finally, finally, it looked as though they might have a chance. The two of them shared not only in Olgun's gifts, as Widdershins and Ferrand had done, but in Julien's skill and experience in the Guard. Not only her speed, but his training, allowed them to block strokes that might otherwise have laid open their flesh; to stab through the tiniest openings in Iruoch's own defenses. Blood, both dusty and liquid, flew-but for the

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