He mistook her tone. “That’s better,” he cooed. “You be respectful.”
It grew in her, feeling something like an urge to retch. There was a point of no return where the spell was coming out of her, and no amount of holding it back would help. It was like giving birth to a dirty flooding swamp. “Run,” she whispered under her breath, then louder: “run, run, run, runrunrunrunrun…” She yelled then, enraged at their sudden, dull, blank stares, their stupid failure to grasp what was about to happen. “Cretins! Run!”
The taller man seized upon a sudden expression of, first wonderment, then realisation. A flicker of real terror crossed his eyes. Maybe he did know enough about the art to see that something powerful was curdling around inside Caewen, that she was barely holding it back. He spun on the balls of his feet, and took off at a run. Meanwhile, the shorter, and clearly stupider, of the two men just put his hands on his hips and started to scold her again. “Here, now, if I have to put a slap across your cheek, then I’ll–“
He never finished. The fey-stroke broke loose.
It arose out of her, tearing through her blood and mind, uncontrolled and unmastered. The raw spell churned upwards, uncoiling and rising on uncanny wings. It gained a sort of living potency all of its own, turning itself into weird patterns of murk and light, as it stretched itself, just like a hawk stretching vast wings after too long cramped in a falconer’s mews. The prey caught its attention then, and the spell leapt and pounced. The short and hefty fool was caught unawares. He had only a second to blink in confused fear before he was bent backwards by the force of it. His eyes changed colour instantly, turning bright red. It was not that he bled from his eyeballs, not exactly, rather, his eyes simply lost their whites as all the vessels inside him broke open. He toppled backwards, making a sickening squelching noise.
Behind him, his friend was now at a full sprint, and nearly at the first twist in the maze. But there is no outrunning hungry magic. The fey-stroke was faster, and it caught him and tipped him over.
When Caewen regained some of her senses, she found herself staring at two crumpled bodies in front of her, both of them bleeding like a pair of mice crushed under a boot-heel.
The spell had killed, them, thoroughly and remorselessly, but as she lurched forward, and fell to her knees, she knew that it had killed her too. She had no pool of old power to draw on for the magic. Too much of her own life had been used up by that spell. Coldness and deadness ran through her flesh in thick rancid cords, so that, shaking all over, she collapsed sideways, and could do nothing better than slump herself into the wall for support. The shivering grew to spasms. She felt colder and colder. Ice strung itself out as pearls in her blood, fingertip to toe. Soon, it was difficult to breath. Before even a handful of seconds passed, she wanted to give up. Just let it all go. Give it all away. Forget about life. Forget about Dapplegrim, and Keri and Keru, and the moot, and the Winter King, whoever he was. Just let the pain flow out, along with her life’s blood. Let death in. Let life out. Be done.
It was as she was sitting there, collapsed, going deeper into the greyness, that she heard new footsteps approaching. A thin shadow fell over her, and though she tried to see who it was, her eyes refused to focus. “Who–?” she tried to say more, but only managed to murmur that single wheezing word again. “Who?”
The shape bent low over her, and a young man’s voice that she did not recognise said, “That was quite something. Herself will want to speak with you.” He sounded oddly friendly. “Quite something indeed.”
She lost her grasp on consciousness. The last sensation she knew was being lifted up from the ground by two hands and firm arms.
Caewen came back to herself. She felt nauseous, dizzy and stuffily warm all at once. Sitting upright–with pain–she yelled, aloud, “Run!” But then she squinted into the fire-lit air, and remembered that it was already too late for the two men, and too late for herself. The spell had already done its work.
So, was she dead then?
She poked herself with a knuckle.