Chapter Twenty-Five

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On the roof of the palace, Shel's avian form sheltered in the concealing shade of a window alcove and waited. The sun was fully risen. Her sisters were late. Perhaps they hadn't received her message. It was possible. The wind was unreliable these days. Distorted and restless, tainted with a vaguely metallic odor.

So there she sat, still and alert, watching clouds drift overhead. What would she do if for some reason the clan did not heed her call?

I will need to breach the palace alone, she decided, though the thought made her blood run cold. There was no guarantee that if she went into this viper nest alone she would ever emerge alive. Still, she had little choice. The girl couldn't be allowed to remain within easy reach much longer.

Shel arched her neck and stared up at the pale sky. Perhaps, if she acted quickly, she could snatch the Sorceress away, but...

And then she saw them. Sharp black shapes cutting starkly against the paleness of cloud. Her sisters had arrived.

If she had not feared discovery, Shel would have cried out in joyful greeting.

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Guin walked quickly, trying not to feel like some sort of pet that had been temporarily let off its leash. Thesul strolled along behind, his gait casual yet somehow effortlessly managing to keep up with her rapid stride. Every time they came to a bend of corridor or set of stairs, he would give her a gentle direction to turn left, or go down, and so on. And they definitely seemed to be going steadily downward.

"To your left, Guin," he called cheerily. "Just down those steps."

Guin paused and glanced left. She'd been hoping he wouldn't tell her to turn down that way—though she'd suspected he would, if their route thus far was any indication of his intended destination.

The stairwell was narrower than any she had yet encountered in the palace. It was also much, much darker. Small brass bowls of low-burning blue fire were affixed to the walls at intervals, but they only seemed to succeed in making the shadows deeper and more lively.

"You've got them down there?" Guin asked, peering mistrustful down the passage. She couldn't see where it ended.

"Oh, yes," Thesul came to a halt beside her and nodded. "It's not much further now. Down you go, my dear."

Down the rabbit hole, Guin thought uneasily as she placed her foot on the first step. It was cold. She tried not to think of the zombie king's endless labyrinth of tunnels in the earth. Tried, and failed miserably. I just hope they're actually down here.

Thesul was right behind her. He'd begun whistling a merry tune.

The stairs sloped sharply downward, and seemed cut from solid limestone, instead of fashioned from the flawless white marble Guin had seen everywhere else in the palace. When her hand brushed the wall of the passage, her fingers came away damp. And there was a smell. Not a foul smell, exactly, but... unsettling. Moist and a little sour, like overripe fruit on the cusp of rotting.

Guin felt like the deeper they went, the more they left the glittering palace behind. All its smooth artifice and ostentatious grandeur, its bright sunlight and deceptive cleanliness were gone, replaced by dank, decaying darkness.

At last, they reached the bottom of the steps and entered a low tunnel. More than ever, Guin was reminded of the zombie-king's lair. Her palms began to sweat.

"Just this way," Thesul said, moving ahead of her to take the lead. "Come along, my dear. They're waiting for you."

"They had better be," Guin said. Her voice sounded small and afraid. She hated herself for that.

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