Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Old and bony though I was, I’d taken down the nearest witch and moved onto the second before they noticed me. It probably didn’t help that my Sword was aflame and hissing violently, but it certainly made beheading them easier. The second enchantress managed to raise her arms as the strike came, and her hands tumbled off with her head.
As I rounded on the third, my senses nudged three facts to the edge of my thoughts. First, two of seven—no, eight—of the Sisters were down. That left three for me, and three for Hasda. Second, the djinn had extended his aura to Hasda’s sword, mimicking the celestial fire engulfing mine. I’d need to ask him about why his presence deterred the witches, and keep an eye on him learning any more tricks he probably shouldn’t know. And third, the spirit lines connecting the remaining witches flared with every death, concentrating their power. Maybe killing all of them would be a bad—
Another headless body collapsed before me, and suddenly the Serynis aura felt very divine.
Roots burst from the water beneath me, tangling around my legs, through the gaps in my bones, snapping as I thundered through them. I felled the fourth as she sought to bring a tree down on me and had my Sword in the throat of the fifth as the sundered log splashed the swampwater where I’d been. Three more, only one still on Hasda, and they were quickly breaching the limit between demigod and deity.
The last two had the sense to separate as I bisected the back of the one brave enough to keep its eyes on Hasda. Her breath huffed out, her eyes wide as she tried to turn and found no strength in her lower body. A backstroke, and she joined her fallen sisters in the marsh.
Hasda held himself well despite the stained, stinking water I’d splashed all over him. His eyes reflected none of the demented hunger I saw in the djinn’s, which was good, but left me wondering how much control he still had over the spirit. Adjusting his stance, he smiled. “Thanks for the help.”
“We’re not out of it yet.” I kept my eyes on the witch to the left, feeling the heat of the second as she circled to flank us. Scowling, I swapped back to my Spear and shifted to put Hasda behind me. “Can you get to the hydra?”
“We can try.” The dissonant undertones that laced his voice sent shivers down my spine. Without another word, he picked his way through the swamp, plashing all the way.
I blocked out the snarls and yowls, adding Hasda’s fierce cries to the list. Only two sorceresses left. The thread of their shared power hung taut in the air, a silver cable of animosity as thick as my fists. I couldn’t cut it, and if I couldn’t kill both at once, I might not be able to stop their ascension. My momentum had stalled, and now I had to play the fun game of catching the homicidal hags.
They weren’t going to go quietly, either. Maintaining a steady stream of howling, they raised a troop of viney sylvans, tree-bodied creatures with a vaguely human shape. Balls of leaves floated around their heads, fluttering gaps in the foliage standing in for eyes and mouths. Stringy swamp weeds, dripping dark water, clung to their shoulders and elbows as they emerged from the marsh. Wind rattled the wet leaves, and I realized the sylvans were screaming at me.
Light pulsed along the connecting thread, and the witches changed, too. Since I’d spun, the one on my left was now on my right, and she’d taken on the most dramatic change. Her hair curled around her in a dramatic halo, waves twisting the strands in chaotic directions. Her body looked more human, although the skin was translucent enough to show the forest behind her without revealing any bones. It made her teeth stand out as she shrieked and was slightly unnerving.
The other Serynis Sister, now on my left, had shriveled. Less glowy than her opposite, she hid her sullen face behind a veil of straight, dark hair that reminded me of a willow tree after a torrential downpour. Her frame was skeletal, accentuating her bony hands as she drew more sylvans to join the summoned throng. The vines that wrapped her body would have been revealing, if she’d had anything worth showing. As it was, the valleys between her ribs were almost enough to raise my sympathy, discounting that she’d just been trying to eat Hasda.
And I couldn’t just ignore the sylvans. Before I’d mowed down most of their coven, I would’ve blown these little conjurants over like so many sticks in the wind. But now, they had some real spine to them, and I didn’t like the itch they put on the back of my hands. They stank of loam, the kind that swallowed the dead and decaying corpses to dissolve them into the dirt. Almost an after-death.
Which meant they were going to be a total pain in my ass. And my wrists, based on how easily they fell to my Spear thrusts. But there were a lot of them, and only one of me. Thrust, pull, aim, push. Over and over, as the little stickmen swarmed me, and I hadn’t even dented their numbers.
The witches cackled and summoned more.
Sweeping them off their feet, crushing them, drowning them in the water—nothing slowed them. The broken ones clawed on, and the unbroken clung worse than the swamp weeds swirling underfoot. I stamped away as best I could. With the viscous marsh, however, that was easier said than done.
A wet crackling broke through my focus, followed by bits of speckled, sea-green eggshells floating on the water. When the hydra roared, I ran. The stupid sylvans fluttered their leaves in celebration right before a massive neck slammed down and crushed them. All around us, trees shrieked and splintered as the remaining hydra heads rose and smashed their bulk against the first.
My sprint put me past the witches, who watched the thrashing hydra in confusion. They hadn’t spotted the broken eggshells yet, and with the hydra rampaging there probably wouldn’t be any remains for them to notice anyways. They had, however, floated closer together, and I nearly speared the willow-haired one before they split again.
That crushed egg was definitely the hydra’s, which meant civil conversation was out of the question now. I wanted to check on Hasda because both he and the mongoose were submerged under all those writhing necks, but I had bigger concerns at the moment, like the fact that the witches’ soul bond glowed like a bar of steel in Phaeus’ forge. The bushy-haired one seemed to radiate the greater power, although my instincts didn’t trust how quiet the willow-haired one was being.
Under the water, the sylvans burst like overcooked berries as the Serynis Sisters lost control over them. Or flooded them with too much power. Either way, the sorceresses were dangerously close to deciding what their divine form would be. One body or two, it didn’t matter to me. I needed to end this fight, quickly, before I let a fledgling goddess loose. We were in no position to recruit her, even if she were amiable, since I’d most likely be bringing the heartbroken hydra in by force.
They had other plans. The willow-haired witch wailed like a banshee. Dark bands raced across their bond as she fell and her sister rose. Shriveling, the black-haired enchantress curled under the water as her face paled. Her sister hovered with a triumphant glow, vines uncurling their leaves across her skin. With a final shriek, the bond collapsed, leaving no trace of the frailer witch.
I leveled my spear at the remaining sorceress. “Finally ate your own, did you?”
The witch licked her fingers, flashing eggshell fragments she held pinched between her teeth.
I tensed. Where did she get those?
“Mmm.” She purred and swallowed the chipped pieces. “What tantalizing power.”
“That’s not enough to push you past the boundary.” I slid forward, careful not to slosh.
Her eyes, aglow with orange light, settled on me. “We’re so close. Would you help us?”
“You’d forfeit your freedom so easily?” Calculating the best angle for an underhanded thrust that might reach her—them?—before they realized the danger made it hard to concentrate on the best way to angle them into verbal submission. And their use of the plural gave me pause, since if the witch I saw hadn’t absorbed her partner, then there was a possibility she could still use the other as an avatar. Or they were co-forms of the same almost-deity. But they weren’t divine yet, so there was still a chance I could kill them even if they started hopping their consciousness between bodies.
“Names hold power.” Her eyes danced with mischief. “With whom would we be binding ourselves, were we to swear this bond?”
Were they seriously considering this? I shook my head. “Not just me. You would be bound within our pantheon, a protected member of our family.”
The drowned snarls and turbulent water made for a strange backdrop to an even stranger conversation.
Closing her eyes, she inhaled the thick swamp air, ignoring the conflict behind her. When she opened them, the orange light had dimmed, but the sly look had not. “We smell guile on you.”
“Sorry, the swamp isn’t the best place for a bath.” A few more steps, and I’d be in striking distance.
“What is your name?” They were totally drunk on power, the intoxication weighing heavily on their words.
I gave them a thin smile. “You wouldn’t recognize it.”
“Okay.” My spear flashed as I thrust.