Chapter Twenty

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Guin was lost. Hardly surprising, really. Every damn room and corridor in this freak-show palace looked the same—and at night, it was even worse.

She ran on regardless, bare feet thudding against cool, smooth tiles, through shafts of graying pre-dawn light and pools of shadow. Her lungs were on fire. Sometimes, Guin thought she detected an extra pair of footfalls, and would whirl around to see if she'd been followed—but all she saw were empty corridors of bleached-bone marble.

Every once in a while, she heard the unmistakable sound of distant, high-pitched laughter.

Guin kept running, heedles of her pain. If anything, she welcomed the discomfort—it gave her something to think about. Something besides blood, and brightness, and teeth...

No. No, just run. Keep running. Don't think about that.

Then, all at once, she was in front of the doors again. The doors Thesul had thrown open for her that very afternoon. The doors to the fountain room, with its glowing blue light and shadows like fat, restless eels...

How had she ended up here?

Turn around. Turn around and keep running. Don't go in. Whatever you do, don't—

But her hand was already on the knob. It turned easily.

She pushed the door inward and stood on the threshold. Her breathing was harsh and loud—louder even than her heartbeat.

No. No, turn around. Please.

Her feet moved without her bidding, as if she were a fish being reeled in by an invisible line. With all the indifferent relentlessness of a nightmare, Guin's treacherous legs bore her along until she stood once more at the edge of the shimmering pool.

She looked down into its bottomless depths. There was something moving down there—something big and serpentine. It was rising. Rising fast.

Guin saw a pair of bright golden eyes.

At last, Guin got control over her own limbs and staggered away from the water just as the shape broke its surface.

The silver-haired mermaid rose up out of the water until her gleaming body towered over the room like some ancient monolith. Glittering droplets of water cascaded off her as she turned to face Guin. Somehow, she seemed bigger than last time they'd met. The top of her head nearly brushed the ceiling as she grinned with her long, sharp teeth.

"Hello, Sorcerling. Enjoying your stay in the sunlit land?"

For a few seconds, Guin couldn't speak. It was like her throat was clogged with screams she hadn't the strength to utter. How many horrors could one person stand in such a short time without going mad?

Finally, she managed to swallow hard enough to free her voice and croak, "It's not as nice as the brochure said."

The Mermaid's grin widened. "I take it you have not yet partaken of the local delicacies?"

Guin shuddered. It shook her body from head to toe, rattling her bones. "They... they eat souls."

She could hardly believe the words, even as she said them aloud.

The mermaid shrugged. "They devour life. It is what they crave, you see. The price of this fountain and its gifts. What it takes..." she swept her long, muscular arm out in an all-encompassing gesture, taking in the room and the water. "They are empty. And no matter how hard they try, they can never be filled." She chuckled like a brook. "A rather cruel joke, don't you think? The Sorcerer had his moments, I'll grant him that."

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