Chapter Forty

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Deep within the palace, the fountain trembled. Smooth ripples swelled and lapped softly at its edge. Something moved just below the glassy surface. Something black and glistening.

There was a sound--not quite a hiss, not quit a whisper. A long, boney hand crept out of the water and lay flat on the tiles, its cole-black skin stark against the white marble. The hand was followed by a long, sinuous arm, a sharp shoulder, a humped, knobbled spine--and finally, a head of lank, oily hair.

The creature pulled itself out of the water and lay on the tiles for a time, shaking and heaving, filling its emaciated chest with foreign air--practicing the nearly forgotten art of breathing. Then, slowly, it stood up. Its legs were long and twig-thin, supported by wide, flat feet that slapped wetly against the floor as it walked.

The Sleeper left the fountain chamber at a slow lurch, following the sound of pounding feet, and the scent of blood. Behind it, another long, boney black hand was already crawling out of the water.

_____

Guin's eyes flew open. She sat up with a sharp gasp--and headbutted Lorn in the nose.

He let out a short, startled gurgle and fell backward.

"Now you've done it," Zolga said from somewhere to Guin's left. "You've gone and finished him off."

Guin moaned and clutched her throbbing skull in both hands. The world spun, a revolving funhouse mirror reflecting blurred color and distorted sound. For the first and only time, Guin was grateful for her recent starvation--if there had been anything at all in her stomach, she would have vomited for sure.

"Did I kill him?" she asked. Her voice was little more than a feeble rasp. She tried to swallow, to moisten her lips with her tongue, but the inside of her mouth was gummy and dry.

A muffled moan she assumed was Lorn replied, "NrrImffine."

Guin stuck a finger in her mouth and bit down hard. The pain sent tiny red sparks shooting across her vision, but at least things had mostly stopped spinning now. The large pink blob that had been dominating her sight resolved into the face of Mrs. Ironsong.

"Are ye alright, lass?" She reached out to brush the hair back from Guin's brow with gentle fingers. "Ye look a'fright. Can ye stand, d'ye think?"

"Doubtful," Guin croaked.

Now that everything was more or less staying still, Guin saw that they were no longer in the palace. This place looked like the garden she'd glimpsed out of the window. The atmosphere was moist and warm, even though Guin knew it was almost autumn in Ther. The surrounding foliage was dense and lush, heavy with showy flowers and fruit--but, oddly, no sounds of insects or birds. There was a tall stone wall in front of them covered in brightly-colored creepers.

She turned her head and looked down at Lorn, who was sprawled on the damp ground beside her with both eyes shut and a hand clamped over his nose. "You okay?"

Lorn opened one eye and looked up at her. "No."

"Same." Guin nodded, then winced at the stab of pain that small action sent through her head. "Sorry about your nose."

"S'fine," Lorn mumbled, cracking the other eye open and squinting. "Always thought It was too long anyway."

Behind him, still shirtless and shivering, Kip said with a trace of sardonic amusement, "Good thing you didn't try and kiss her."

Guin raised an eyebrow. "Wha--?"

Before Guin could complete her question, Talon loomed into view. "We have a situation with a door."

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