Chapter Forty-One

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Shel circled the highest spire of the palace, crying out again and again for her sisters to join her in the safety of the sky. They came, one by one, in a slow trickle--running out of doors, across courtyards, or leaping through windows, each taking wing and calling out in turn to those still fighting.

Shel counted them as they joined her. How many had been lost? Her insides were a jumble of pain and rage, fear and frustration. She felt each death like a needle in her skin, but there were too many, and she could not trace each one to a fallen sister.

She felt a fierce urge to dive back into the battle, to fight tooth and nail until every Alavardian soldier lay dead at her feet. With a painful effort of will, she resisted the impulse. This fight was never one her and her sisters were meant to win. Their only goal had been to allow the Reader to escape. In that aim, they had succeeded.

There would be a time to mourn, and a time to avenge. A time to count the lost and heal the wounded. All of this would come in good time--but now, as much as Shel loathed admitting it, they had to run.

"Sisters mine!" she screeched in the language of birdtongue "Retreat! The enemy has regrouped. The Reader has escaped. Our task is done. Retreat!"

"Sister mine!" One sister wheeled toward Shel, her green scrarvorbird eyes flashing with fright. "Something moves within the palace. Not Alavardians. Our kin are still within--trapped! And they hunt us! They hunt us!"

Shel swooped down and matched her flight with the panicked scrarvorbird. "What do you mean, trapped? Not Alavardian?"

"Trapped! Locked in corridors by soldiers! Trapped! Hunted!" The scrarvorbird jerked her beek downward. "Black skin. Long fingers. Smell of rot. Not Alavardians!"

Shel stared at her sister for a moment, her already muddled instincts flaring into senseless terror as she absorbed the waves of distress pouring out of the scrarvorbird's shuddering body.

Trapped. So the guards had lured and contained some of her sisters. But how many? She could barely count those present, and those missing were a blur, a paralyzing mass of faceless grief clouding Shel's thoughts.

Black skin. Long fingers. Smell of rot. Not Alavardians...

What did that mean? What new horror had these pitborn, soulless monsters unleashed on them now? Or had her sister simply lost her senses, and begun seeing things that weren't there...

Shel's eye caught a stealthy movement, and she directed her gaze sharply downward. Something tall, pitch-black and unnaturally thin was moving through the garden below.

The sight of it froze Shel's heart in her breast.

Not Alavardian. No. Not Alavardian at all.

It was heading in the direction she had last seen the Reader and her companions, by the wall. There were more behind it, all moving with the same relentless, plodding speed.

Whatever these things might be, they were hunting the girl.

______

The city was in a panic. Guin was glad of it. If all of Alavard hadn't been running around like chickens with their heads cut off, a motley group of seven sopping wet people, one of whom being lugged about like a sack of flour, would not have gone unnoticed.

As it was, they kept getting sideways looks--but everyone was too busy trying to get somewhere else to really pay attention. Guin suppose the rest of Alavard had no idea that there were prisoners on the loose. Even if they had known, Guin suspected they probably had no clue what the 'fugitives' looked like. All they knew was that an alarm bell had sounded, and they wanted to get out of the open street.

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