Chapter Eighteen

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The crystal hall lived up to its name. Guin had never seen such a dazzling spectacle, even in Östlor's ice palace. The room was enormous. There were mirrors everywhere—even the floor was mirrored—and where there weren't mirrors, there was what looked like solid carved quartz that had been polished until it glittered like diamond. Here and there, gold filigree gleamed.

The room was crowded with obscenely attractive Alavardians in varying states of stylish undress. Guin noticed they each held a small, empty glass bottle. The mirrored room created a dizzying plethora of reflections from every angle, turning the group of perhaps fifty people into a thousand. It was like stepping into a beautiful prism of the poshest part of Hell.

Guin hugged herself, as if her thin arms could shield her from their stares. It was no use. She felt like they were collectively stripping away her dress, skin and flesh, looking straight through to her frantically beating heart.

Thesul strode ahead with cheerful confidence, red satin robe flapping around his legs as the crowd parted graciously before him.

"Esteemed ladies and gentlemen of the court," he cried. "I am ever so sorry to have interrupted your meal, but, as you can see, we have an honored guest in our midst!" He turned and pointed at Guin. "Before you stands the great Guinevere Hawkins, or, as she is perhaps better known, The Reader."

His announcement was answered by a low murmur of voices. Guin didn't think they sounded particularly friendly.

Thesul, however, was a buoyant as ever. "As you know, I have invited her here, to our beautiful city, in order to show her its many wonders. One such wonder—perhaps the greatest of them all—is the fountain. But, you see, Guin, much like her beloved predecessor, is not satisfied with mere words and promises. She wishes to know the full price of the fountain's power, and will not accept anything less than a demonstration! "

This time, the susurration of voices was undeniably mocking. Lears and sly sideways grins flashed out at Guin like upended sickle moons. Low laughter and one or two indistinct jeers stung her ears.

She hugged herself tighter. Her reflection stared up at her from the mirrored floor, pale and drawn. She looked like a little girl wearing an absurd costume. The room was too bright, too glittering, too filled with flesh and eyes and the cloying scent of sweat mingled with perfume.

Thesul spread his arms and grinned wide. "We all know that there can be no reward without some sacrifice. The fountain gives us everything we could ever dream of wanting--is it any wonder that it should take something, no matter how small, in return? The Sorcerer was wise. He understood balance." He turned back to Guin, his dull eyes gleaming. He held out a hand and beckoned. "But as you will see, we have found a way to circumvent this process, so it is as if we never lost anything at all. Come, Guin. Allow me to show you the price of immortality."

Guin kept her hands clamped tightly on her elbows. Thesul sighed, let his hand fall and turned away from her. The crowd continued to part as Guin and Thesul walked forward, until they were standing at its very center—like a smaller cell being absorbed by a giant amoeba.

They weren't the only thing in the eye of this storm.

A young man and woman lay side by side on the floor. They looked like they were asleep. Guin only knew they weren't dead because she could see them breathing. Both were dressed in matching red tunics that reached their knees.

Thesul stepped forward so he was standing between them. He gave Guin a smile that reminded her of a reptile, then knelt and placed his palm on the forehead of the girl. She had dark hair and a thin face—the sort of haggard, pinched thinness that came from never having enough to eat.

"What are you going to do to them," Guin asked. Her voice sounded small and rasping, barely more than a whisper. Her tongue felt thick and heavy in her mouth, a cumbersome slab of dead meat.

"I am going to put them to good use," Thesul replied. "The only real use they've ever served..."

Guin didn't have a chance to move, or scream. She didn't have a chance to do anything at all.

In the time it took her to draw breath, Thesul's perfectly manicured nails lengthened into two-inch claws. With the same strength and speed he'd exhibited in the dining hall, he fell upon the girl's chest and tore her open.

After that, Guin couldn't make sense of much. There was blood. Buckets of it. Dimly, she thought, It looks fake. Like a bad horror film. Blood can't be that red. One body can't hold so much. This isn't real. This isn't real.

A second later, the young man was likewise opened up. Thesul's grin widened. He looked like an oversized kid unwrapping some sort of grotesque Christmas gift.

This isn't real.

Guin was screaming. Or was she? There were other voices. They were laughing, and shrieking, and babbling. Countless beautiful faces contorted into ghoulish grins of hunger and lust and delight. They shoved and jostled one another to get a better look at the preparation of their feast.

Two bodies won't be enough, Guin thought. The room spun. Too bright. Too fast. Too loud. Not for all of them. Oh God. Oh God oh God this isn't real this can't be real...

But she was wrong. It was real. And it was enough. Because they weren't after the bodies. They didn't want the blood. Or, at least, that wasn't all that they wanted.

The air above the bodies became suddenly, blindingly bright. It swirled and sparkled and flashed like gold dust caught in a hurricane. Guin remembered the dragon prince's spirit, how it had danced and frisked and dazzled in the dark cave—but that had been a dance born of joy, of freedom and delight.

If these were souls, they were not dancing. They were trying to escape.

Thesul held up his bloodied hands and laughed like a schoolboy.

It was then Guin noticed the chanting. When had this senseless clamour of hysteria turned into a chant? She had no idea—but that was what it had become. No less frenzied, no less savage, but it had a rhythm, a brutal cadence that drummed through Guin's blood and made her bones ache to the marrow.

They reached up, up, up, and Guin saw that they now held the empty bottles above their heads as if to catch rain. The souls—was that what they were? Souls?—stopped swirling. They fanned out, dissipated, descended like mist.

So. That's what the bottles are for.

Guin was numb. Numb and shaking and dizzy. She found it hard to breath.

The bottles filled with shimmering nothing. Then, they were swiftly stoppered, so whatever was in them couldn't escape. The bottles were lowered, stroked, cooed over--then the stoppers were removed, the contents lifted to quivering lips.

As one, the court of Alavard drank greedily. They guzzled and slurped and moaned, until every bottle was empty.

Only then did they descend on the corpses.

Guin had seen enough. She ran.

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