first time, there was far more of the former than the latter.

Renard and Evrard hovered around the edges, lunging when an opportunity presented itself but mostly keeping Iruoch from easily retreating out of the others' reach. Widdershins and Julien shared a grin-quite literally-at the thought that this might soon, finally, be over.

But again, Iruoch's implacability dashed those hopes even as they began to sprout. Yes, they pressed him hard, far harder than they had; yes, his injuries were many, slowing him down. Still, still they could not land any crippling or killing blows. Still all but the worst of his wounds knitted themselves closed in moments, the ragged edges interlacing with and grasping at each other. Widdershins tried every trick in her repertoire, from head-on dueling, to tumbles and twists that would shame an acrobat, to balancing on and bouncing off the tombstones and tree branches like a rubber ballet dancer. No technique worked better than any other.

The mortals verged on exhaustion, propped up only by the strength they borrowed from one another, or from Olgun. And the god, too, teetered on the edge of collapse, his energies coming more and more sporadically to even Widdershins's most urgent need.

And ultimately, as everyone knew they must, Widdershins and Olgun stumbled together once too often.

She'd just twirled aside from another of Iruoch's grabs, then kicked off with one foot against a drooping old tree in hopes of coming back at him before he was prepared. She twisted in the air, blade coming sharply down-and Iruoch sidestepped the blade and caught her. His injured hand wrapped her wrist, fingers and stumps digging into her flesh, holding her rapier at bay. The other closed around her neck.

“It always makes me a little sad,” he said conversationally, his shoulders leaning this way and that as he dodged her friends' attacks, “when I outgrow a playmate.”

Widdershins tried to thrash, and could not. Tried to speak, and couldn't force so much as a squeak through her throat. Blood pounded in her ears, and her chest began to burn.

“If it's any consolation to you,” Iruoch continued, “there are plenty more people for me to play with in your beautiful city. I know it's a consolation to me.”

Her skin burned where his fingers lay across it. She could feel it tear as he moved, feel the blood welling up. Her hand spasmed, dropping her rapier. She wondered why the others had ceased attacking, wondered where Julien was, and only realized when her sword fell away that they now hung above the ground. Using the tips of the same fingers that clutched at her throat, Iruoch had climbed over a dozen feet up the trunk of that tree. There was nothing the others could do.

She couldn't move, couldn't breathe. Olgun, I don't want to die this way….

Through eyelids that she struggled to keep open, she looked down past Iruoch, past his feet that dangled perfectly straight, parallel to the trunk. She saw Julien running toward them, saw him leap, felt the faintest surge of Olgun's power. But she felt how weak the god had become, knew that Julien couldn't possibly reach them….

But what he swung at them was not his rapier at all, but Bishop Sicard's staff of office, which Ferrand had been using as a bludgeon.

The curved end of the crook hooked around Iruoch's arm. Widdershins had the brief satisfaction of seeing the creature's jaw go slack before the weight of Julien's body yanked them both off the tree.

They hit the ground and rolled apart, bark and skin clinging to Iruoch's fingers. Widdershins sucked in an agonizing breath, and it was only the fact that she couldn't stop her desperate gasping that kept her from screaming at the agony in her wrist and her throat. She rolled to her knees, coughing and choking. A hand closed on her shoulder, and she almost lashed out before she recognized Sicard standing over her, offering her a sip from his flask.

She reached for it, wheezing-and then saw the bishop's face go white, his lip begin to quiver. And she felt…

A sudden surge of fear, overwhelming, held at bay only by the memory of the life he had just saved….

Pain, roaring, screaming pain, the tearing of flesh, the breaking of bone, the bursting of a beating heart….

Delight that, at the last, he'd overcome his doubts, his hesitations. That she'd known, before the end.

Widdershins…Adrienne…I love you….

A final surge of magic, as Olgun gave almost everything he had left to once more sever the link before it was too late.

And Julien Bouniard was gone.

No screams. No tears. Widdershins rose, everything inside her absolutely numb. Iruoch stood some yards away, Julien's rapier jutting obscenely through his chest-he seemed scarcely even to notice it-and Julien's broken body hanging from a two-fisted grip.

Casually, dismissively, Iruoch tossed the corpse aside. It bounced once, wetly, off the tree trunk and then slammed to earth. Evrard and Renard stood close, their own blades trembling with fatigue.

“Now,” Iruoch said, gripping the hilt of the rapier between two fingers and slowly sliding it from his body, “perhaps we can-”

Widdershins reached back and shoved Sicard aside, ignoring his startled yelp. Hands held at her side, empty of any obvious weapon-though one fist was clenched around something that glinted in the sun-she strode steadily up toward the creature she hated more than anything else in the world. As she clearly was not attacking, didn't appear armed, Iruoch let her approach.

“Was there something?” he asked lightly as the sword finally sprung free from his torso with a moist pop.

“Yes.” Olgun, I need you to stand for just a moment more….“Heal this!”

Widdershins sprang forward, opening her fingers to reveal the silver Eternal Eye amulet she'd yanked from the bishop's neck as she'd shoved him, and jammed it hard into the slowly closing wound left by Julien's blade.

Iruoch's scream rose above the graveyard, the twin voices undulating across a dozen octaves. He collapsed to his knees and instantly began scrabbling at the flesh of his chest, hurling desiccated, lightly smoking chunks of muscle and bone aside as he worked desperately to dig the holy symbol from his body. Widdershins calmly, resolutely watched his efforts, even waving off the others as they approached with weapons raised.

Finally the silver-now tarnished and pitted-flew free, and Iruoch gasped in relief, seemingly oblivious to the gaping hole in his chest.

A hole through which Widdershins reached, her hand tingling with the last inklings of power that Olgun had to give, and grasped Iruoch's shriveled, unbeating heart.

He looked down at the arm jutting into his chest, then up into the face of the woman who'd killed him.

“Well…Darn.”

Widdershins yanked. The voices of the children wailed once in the distance, and were gone. Iruoch's body fell at her feet and exploded into a puff of dust that flew, with utter disregard for the wind, up into the open sky. In her fist, she held only an undulating mass of maggot-white sludge.

It smelled of peppermint.

“It's over, Shins,” Renard gasped from behind her. “You did it.”

“Yes.” Her voice was raw, gravelly, every word a stab at her aching throat. “It is over, isn't it?”

She staggered a few steps, fell to her knees beside Julien's body, and willed-even begged-the tears to finally come.

But she was too exhausted even to mourn.

EPILOGUE

My dearest Robin,

I'm telling you all this in writing because, to be entirely honest, I don't think I have the strength- the

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