"Your destiny, oh Thrall!" laughed Karlk. "Can you die like a king?"
Thrilled with his supremacy, obsessed with revengeful hatred of the dynasty and its ruler, and seething with concealed fury over his recent treatment, the magician was oblivious to any possible danger from his rear until the swift patter of racing sandals warned him—too late. Even then, he half turned from his proposed victim before the bright steel, swung in a mighty arc, struck down to shear his right arm from his side and sheathe itself deep in the ribs. Shrieking, he fell, to writhe on the stone flags.
Rald looked at his sword. It was no longer bright. "Damned wizard!" he said.
"Wait!" cried Thrall, as several guards converged about the thief with ready swords. "There is something here I do not understand! Surround him but do him no harm—yet!"
Grimly, the king slashed Thrine's bonds and extracted the cloth from her mouth. In a second her lithe form was upright and within the circle of menacing steel about the prisoner. Gaping in bewilderment, the men lowered their weapons.
"Rald saved your life, brother! All your lives, I think!"
"Aye!" groaned the dying magician through clenched teeth. "With his own sword the fool dethroned himself!"
"If ever I seek a throne again," growled the thief, "I'll do it with steel and not with magical death from accursed hands held on helpless men! You promised me a cleaner triumph, wizard! Why did you not let me fight as a man should?"
"Karlk is not a man!" exclaimed Lady Thrine.
"No—not as you know men," agreed Rald. He shuddered, thinking of the weird scene in the room where he had been a prisoner. "Perhaps he never was."
"Of course he never was! Tear off the disguise!"
King and thief and awed guardsmen stared at the Thing weltering in its blood on the stone flags. No one made an effort to touch the dying form; the horror and chill of intense malignancy penetrated the nerves of the boldest. They stared in silence, but no man moved.
"Must I perform my own tasks?" demanded Thrine, imperiously.
Her answer came from Karlk alone: "No, my Lady! You discovered my secret when I seized you, did you not?"
Weakly, with fumbling fingers, the remaining hand grasped at the shaggy beard, and a cry of amazement arose from all save Thrine as the entire mass of hair came off to disclose the pale, oval features of a woman! The convulsive effort threw back the black hood, and long, raven-black ringlets fell forth to spread about the ashen cheeks.
"By the Seven!" swore Thrall. "A woman!"
"Partly," answered Karlk. The wizard's—or witch's—eyes were beginning to glaze. "And—partly—something else."
One of the slender, white-furred arms came from its concealment beneath the dark folds and dipped into the spreading pool of blood. The guardsmen cried out in amazed terror; one dropped his torch and fled. Thrine shrank against Rald's side; only the instinctive habits of royal self-control kept her on her feet.
"Be not so horrified, Thrall!" admonished the tortured lips. "Your own regal blood, from the veins of an Ebon princess, flows on the stones this night!"
"Blasphemer! What distorted brain in a disfigured body gives you such wild——"
"I have lived many times the life-period of man," interrupted Karlk. Her