Chapter Forty-Three

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Ygrael slid down from the dragon's back and landed on the cavern floor. She stood for a second, swaying—then her knees buckled, and she fell hard on the cold stone.

Varyn dismounted the beast and hurried to her side. "M'lady—"

"I'm fine." Ygrael held up a hand to stay the captain. "Please, leave me be."

Varyn fell back and watched Ygrael as she struggled to stand on her own. Behind them, the dragon huffed and let out a low, rumbling sound somewhere between a growl and a roar. It reverberated through the cavern, echoing down the many dark tunnels that branched out from the main entrance. By the time Ygrael had managed to gain her footing again, that sound had been replaced by another—a low, rough susurration, like the hiss of sandpaper. It took her a moment to realize it was the rasp of scales on stone.

When she looked up, Ygrael saw many pairs of eyes glowing in the darkness. She sensed many more hidden in the shadows beyond.

So, the dragons had come to gape at the murderess. Well, let them look.

Forcing herself to swallow the hard, cold lump of her own terror, Ygrael stood as straight as she was able, meeting each gemlit stare in turn. At last, her gaze landed on a mismatched set of eyes—one glossy white, like a pearl, the other sharp and red as a garnet.

Ygrael's heart stilled in her breast, and the only sound was the roaring of blood in her ears.

"King Orv," she breathed.

The golden dragon moved out of the deep shadows to loom over her and Varyn. He was impossibly large, burnished and bright in the dim cavern. When he spoke, his voice was a little more than a hiss.

"Ygraeeeel." The king arched his neck and glared down at her. "Have you come to beg?"

"No." Ygrael took a step forward and squared her shoulders. "I have come to bargain."

______

Guin wouldn't have thought it possible, but she did run. Ran like hell, even though every step sent a jarring bolt of agony thrumming through her body, even though her lungs felt like she was breathing steel wool, even though the world was spinning and she could hardly make out which way was up--

She ran, and the thing gave chase.

Though its gait was awkward and shambling, the creature somehow managed to keep pace with them. It was as if nothing stood in its way--no obstacle, no fatigue, not even regular physics. It moved like oil through water, like the world around it was inconsequential--as if it were a thing wholly unto itself, and all that mattered in the universe was that, eventually, it would catch them.

The wet slap-fwap of its flat feet on the ground vyed with the frantic beat of her heart as she ran, not daring to look back. Zolga had one hand clamped around her wrist, and was tugging her along. Up ahead of them, Lorn, who had the misfortune of facing backward over Talon's shoulder, couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from the emaciated monstrosity.

They continued to weave their way through twisting alleyways and back streets littered with Alavard's garbage, Talon barking directions, only now Guin couldn't even think about the eastern wall, or the promised secret gate. This wasn't an escape anymore, it was a hunt. What the hell was this thing? Had Thesul set it on them? And, if it did catch them, what would it do?

Doesn't matter. Not gonna find out. Keep. Running.

But she was flagging, and she knew it. The thing was reaching for her with long, glistening fingers. Guin thought she felt it grasp a strand of her hair. She was too slow. They all were.

They turned another corner, another sharp twist of cobblestone road. And suddenly, there were things underfoot--sharp, stabbing things that glittered in a dim shaft of sunlight.

Glass. Broken glass.

It sank deep into Guin's bare feet and she stumbled. The pain was shocking, louder than her scream. Her vision spun, became full of dark patches and stone. She hit the ground hard, knees and palms slicing on fragments of shattered light. Red mixed with the black and gray swirling behind her eyes.

A cold, clammy touch circled her ankle. But there was another hand--a rough, warm, calloused hand, still holding onto her arm, still tugging her onward.

"Get up you fool!" Zolga yelled, grabbing both Guin's forearms and heaving with all her might. Guin gasped as the shattered glass worked its way deeper into her flesh.

There were other voices. Lorn. Kip. Mrs. Ironsong. They all melded and warped into one voice, one urgent cry. Get up, they screamed. Get up! Get up!

But she couldn't get up. She couldn't even move. She was pinned to the spot in a rigor of terror and exhaustion.

The cold, damp hand had her. Its coldness was spreading, freezing her from the inside, filling her with dark, lapping water. Guin gagged, and spewed up black liquid.

Inside her head, she heard a voice. A low, gurgling moan, repeating one word over and over, "Sleep. Sleep. Sleeeeeep..."

Guin couldn't breath. The dark liquid filled her lungs, her eyes, her soul. She was drowning. Drowning with no water in sight.

"Get your filthy paws off her you pit-slime!" Zolga growled, and dove forward. Something gleamed in her hand. Glass. She held a shard of glass--

No. Guin's thoughts struggled up from the smothered depths of her mind. No. You can't kill it, not like that...

Too late. There was a sound, a damp, sucking sound. A sharp crack. Zolga cried out. More screams, rushing feet--

Guin couldn't see anymore. She could only feel. And all she felt was cold.

Then, just as she was slipping into the deepest darkness she'd ever known, she remembered something.

Guin remembered that she couldn't die. She couldn't die, because this was her story, and it wasn't over yet. She was The Reader. She was Guinevere Hawkins--and her mind was the most dangerous weapon in the universe.

So Guin did a very simple thing. She opened her heart, and let all of her nightmares go free.

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