Chapter Thirty-Two

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At first, Guin thought maybe Alavard was having another murder party. But these screams didn't sound like the jeers and joyous shrieks she'd heard the previous night. They sounded chaotic, and shrill, and afraid.

"What's that?" Kip asked nervously.

They all exchanged a worried glance, but said nothing, instead focusing their energy on climbing the last of the stone steps. They tried their best not to jostle Lorn, but carrying him was difficult and awkward work in such a narrow space, and they accidentally made him cry out in pain more than once. His injured leg was limp in Guin's hands, which made it feel heavier, somehow. He seemed to have completely lost the use of it.

Still, they limped and struggled on, and finally, they saw a square of daylight up ahead. A few moments later, they emerged dripping and disheveled from the stairwell, and were nearly bowled over by a pair of shrieking, silk and sequin clad girls running pell-mell down the sunny corridor.

For a moment they only stood, blinking in the light and staring after the fleeing girls. Then, Talon turned and glanced back down the corridor. Guin saw her face freeze in a mask of shocked dismay.

"No," she whispered. "Not here. How--"

The company turned in the direction of her gaze.

There was a woman standing roughly five meters from them. She was tall, nearly seven feet, with skin as black as pitch and eyes that glowed like moons. Her mane of raven hair hung in many braids and dreadlocks, decorated with silver beads and small animal bones. A grey sleeveless tunic that left her muscular arms exposed hung low over black leggings. Her feet were bare. In her hand she held a long, curved knife, its blade smeared with blood.

At her feet lay a slender girl, much like the ones who'd just disappeared down the corridor. She was sprawled across the marble floor in a pool of crimson, glassy-eyed and limp. She'd been gutted like a fish.

When she saw them staring, the dark woman lifted her mouth into a wide, sharp-toothed grin--and every hair on Guin's body stood on end.

"Ah," she said. Her voice soft, yet carried clear and strong across the space between them. "I see you've done a fine job of saving yourselves. Pity. I was just beginning to enjoy this." She nudged the girl's corpse with one foot and chuckled. "They've grown soft. So very, very soft. Almost a shame."

"Shel," Talon said. Her voice came out flat, and hushed. There was an edge to it that Guin hadn't heard since they'd both been trapped in that hole beneath the ground--raw, panicked, and deeply afraid.

The dark woman laughed. It was a hard, harsh sound. "Hello, Sister Mine. So you do remember my name. How sweet." She curled her lip. "Rest assured, I haven't forgotten yours. But there is time and a place for all things, and this, I am afraid, is neither." She shook her head ruefully, then slid her glance sideways to meet Guin's. "You had best leave while you can. There is a hidden door in the eastern wall of the city. Use it." She raised her knife in a dismissive gesture. "Go. We will keep their attention here as long as we can."

For a moment, nobody moved. It was like they were frozen in some kind of group paralysis. Then, another scream rent the air close by, and before Guin realized what was happening Talon had gathered up Lorn's limp body, flung him over one shoulder and they were all running like every fiend in hell was after them--which, Guin supposed, was more or less true.

______

The water was cold as death, but Thesul hardly felt it. He had long ago ceased to mind such frivolities as temperature. Like pain. Pain was useless, an affliction of the weak, the imperfect, as was the tiresome function of breathing.

But fear, now. Fear was a wholly different animal--and that animal was at this moment creeping up Thesul's spine as he fumbled in the darkness, looking for a way out.

There had been light, momentarily, but it was gone now. Gone, like the girl. That filthy, deceptive little slut. Oh, he would find her, he would find her again and when he did, oh, the things he would do to her soft, fragile body...

But first, he had to find the door. He had to get out of the dark, cold water. He had to get away from--from it. From her.

He didn't know what she was, or where she'd come from. No doubt a minion of the wretched Reader. And, of course, she could not kill him. Nothing could. Still, Thesul did not fancy finding out all the ways she would try.

He could feel her moving in the water, cloaked in the darkness. He could feel her yellow eyes on his back, her long, pale fingers reaching, reaching...

His hands slid along the slippery wall, clinging to metal hooks and grooves in the stones. The current buffeted his body, tried to pry him loose, to fling him out into that vast, empty darkness were she was waiting. But he wouldn't let it. No. He was too strong, too clever to be outdone by mere water. The door was here. Somewhere. He knew it. Just a little further.

Something brushed against his leg. He recoiled violently, and nearly let go of the wall. A hand! A hand on his calf! She had him, she--

But then Thesul felt another hand, on his hip, and a body pressed against his--and he knew it. Knew it by the sharp line breastplate, the softness of one smooth cheek, and the fearful tightness of that clumsy grip.

Mordel. Mordel had found him in the darkness, and was now clinging to his leg like a limpet.

Again, from somewhere out in the center of the room, Thesul felt her move. Had she drawn closer? Could she see them? He thought so. He thought she could see them very clearly, and was simply waiting--perhaps to tease him, perhaps to savor the hunt. Perhaps both. But Thesul well knew the patience of predators was short. Soon, she would tire of playing and strike.

The door, he had to find the cursed door!

Mordel still clung to him. The fool was slowing his progress. A stone around his ankle. He had to get rid of him. She was coming. She was coming and he needed that door--

Thesul's searching fingers found a seam in the stone. If his heart had still beat, it would have leapt with joy. He curled his nails into the crevice and began prysing it open. There was no lock, he simply had to force it open, but the weight of all that water made the task difficult.

Mordel was moving, trying to pull himself up Thesul's body, to grasp him about the waist like a frightened child seeking comfort from its mother. Thesul struck out sharply with one knee, and felt a satisfying crunch. It seemed to him that perhaps the man screamed, but he continued to hold fast. Pathetic, vile piece of doggerel excrement! He would get them both killed with his stupidity. And to think he'd seriously considered replacing Ranyor with this imbecile! At least he would have had the decency to die and leave his master in peace.

The door was moving, Thesul could feel it. He just needed to apply a little more pressure, force it open a crack, and the water would do the rest.

And then, out of the corner of his eye, Thesul saw something flash in the darkness. Something bright and golden. Eyes.

She was there. Stars, she was there, and she was reaching, reaching for him with her long white hands--

With a sudden, feverish heave, Thesul thrust the door open. It was nearly torn off its hinges by the sheer force of the water flooding the passage beyond. At the same time, he felt cool fingers brushed against his neck.

With a silent cry Thesul threw himself forward into the passage. As he did so, he kicked out violently, and this time Mordel did let go. Or perhaps the creature already had her claws in the fool, and had simply pulled him loose. Thesul didn't care. Let the man be torn apart, defiled and devoured. It was no less than he deserved.

All that mattered was he, Emeld Thesul, was free--and the Reader? Why, he would find her. Yes. He would find her. No more games. No more niceties. She would see his true face at last. She would see the folly of her actions, learn the value of obedience.

As he propelled himself down the long, dark, upward-slanting passage, Thesul smiled. He could almost hear her screams already.

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