Druze peeled his cheek out of its cast of dried mud.

Druze peeled his cheek out of its cast of dried mud and lifted his face off the floor. His right hand lay intact beside it, once again attached to his arm.

He hefted the weight of his torso onto his elbows and lifted his hand out of the dust to feel around the back of his skull. Intact. The crazework of crumpled bones in its mesh of skin and membrane had soldered itself solid. It was over. It was beginning again.

He flopped his head over onto his forearm.

He flopped his head over onto his forearm, lifting one ear towards the roof for a while. He heard the tinkling music of water falling into water, near and far. He heard the whisper of chitinous bodies sliding over one another in the dark. He did not yet hear breathing.

Finally he pushed himself up, preparing to pull his knees up beneath him, but he stopped flat on his belly when he turned his face towards the fallen light.

He stopped flat on his belly.

A body. Most of the upper half of a body.

The last thing he recalled before collapsing was dragging the woman’s dismembered body down to the pool. With only one hand remaining and his back torn open he had been obliged to take her piece by piece. He liked to save the head for last.

Druze leaned a hand against the wall and pushed himself up. His bare feet crunched through gritty plaques of dried bloodmud and the ichor of his own ooze.

Druze pushed himself up.

How much of her had he waterburied before he had sunk into his sleep? There remained the ribcage, somewhat flattened, one arm and most of the other, and the skull. Half?

And she had not awoken.

She had not awoken.

She had not awoken.

It could not be the woman. Someone else had crawled into this pit and died.

He stooped and tipped the skull to the side. Pale, slithery insects sieved out of every hole and trickled beneath the stones to soak into shadows. Druze shook the silvertailed droplets off his hand and crunched them underfoot. Then he drew the cavewind into his lungs and roared.

Druze bellowed.

He had seen the jaw stonebashed, pulverized still. He had beaten the woman’s chin against the rock until he had nearly torn it off. She was just as he had left her.

She was just as he had left her.

She had not awoken.

He had won.

Silea shook her head wryly at his bellowing. She was the quiet one.

Silea shook her head wryly at his bellowing.

Druze took another breath to speak. “Belovedest,” he wheezed. “It is done.”

Silea turned her face to the side and stretched one languorous, luminous arm towards the body draped over the stone. Druze awaited her pronouncement, breathless now as he had always been when hoping to impress her.

But Silea did not speak. A flick of her fingers, and the broken twin bones of the arm came unstuck and toppled onto the dirt, startling more silverscaled insects into slithering away. Silea fluffed out the folds of her skirt and smoothed them over the bloodstained stone beside her.

O grace. O felicity. Druze touched his bloated fingers to his lilylove’s cheeks. O petal powdered by a nightmoth’s wings.

Druze touched his bloated fingers to his lilylove's cheeks.

Pale moon, bright star,” he whispered. He could still whisper as sweetly as ever he had done. “Unclose thy lips.”

Silea shook her head and smiled with her lips tightly shut. She was the impish one.

Silea smiled with her lips tightly shut.

Druze lifted her flowerface towards his, pulling her neck straight as a stem. Her petaleyes duskclosed.

Druze closed his eyes and kissed her. O love. O soul. She opened her mouth only when it was pressed against his. His tongue lifted the cold iron key that lay on her tongue, drawing it into his mouth. Lifted and fumbled. It fell.

He heard a thump beside the stone.

He heard a thump beside the stone, and looked down to see only armbones tumbled on the dirt. A silvershimmering swarm scattered from the impact then flooded back into the hollow. There was no key. There was no Silea.

Druze leapt off the stone and looked down. There were no swishes of skirts in the dust. There were no prints of feet. There was only the skull lying shatterfaced on the stone where he had left it.

She was just as he had left her.

She had not awoken, and she would never again wake.

He had lost.

He had lost.

Druze lifted the skull and hurled it at the wall, spraying silvertailed insects across the cave in a shimmer of shivering antennae. The skull exploded into shards for the last time. He had always saved the head for last.

Then he picked up a stone and began to dig.

Then he picked up a stone and began to dig.