Chapter Seventy

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"Can't you, like, use your medieval badass tracking skills, or don't you have any?" Guin asked.

Lorn held a branch aside so she could pass without getting whacked in the face. "I'm not a tracker. Not much of a hunter, to be honest. Which is why we had Zolga and Talon along on this quest to begin with."

"That's really inconvenient," Guin remarked.

"Agreed," Lorn said. "I suppose I never developed enough of a liking for skinning small, furry animals. I apologize."

Guin threw a baleful glance over her shoulder. "Was that supposed to be funny?"

Lorn shrugged. "Diavarda isn't exactly vast. We should find them soon."

"We'd better," Guin muttered. "We don't have time to dawdle about."

"I know," Lorn said quietly.

Something in his tone made Guin stop and look back. "Hey," she said, reaching out to catch his arm. "How are you, anyway?"

He didn't meet her eyes. "I'm alright."

"No, you really aren't," Guin said.

He took a deep breath and let it out between clenched teeth. "Doesn't matter," he replied.

"It does, actually," Guin insisted. "You hold stuff in too much, Lorn. If you need to freak out or something, just tell me. I'll therapy-slap you. Deal?"

A hollow smile tugged at his lips. "Does it need to be a slap?"

Guin dropped her hand. "What would you propose as an alternative?"

Lorn gave her a strange sideways look and seemed on the verge of saying something—but he only shrugged. "I'll manage. It's what I've always done." He shook himself and began walking again. "I think it was this way. That piece of rock looks familiar."

Frowning, Guin followed him. They hadn't gone far when the deathly silence was broken by a clatter of hooves on parched ground. Moments later, a tall black horse cantered into view. On its back was Kip, and a tall, austere-faced woman with flowing black hair who Guin recognized as the Emissary from Dwoll.

The horse came to a halt before them with a sharp whinny and stomped its hooves. "M'Lord!" the woman said, her pale eyes scanning them both with an expression Guin could only describe as simultaneously deeply suspicious and triumphant. "You are unharmed, and have the Reader with you. This is excellent news."

Lorn opened and closed his mouth for a moment, seemingly at a loss for words. Finally, he managed to blurt, "Emissary?"

"Guin, are you alright?" Kip asked, eyes wide and dark in his pale face.

Guin noticed with a jolt that there was dried blood on his forehead and shirt. "We're fine. What the hell happened to you?"

Kip swallowed. "Thesul," he croaked. "The wires—they didn't hold."

The cold lump of dread that had begun forming in Guin's stomach became a gnawing chasm of terror. "Oh God," she breathed. "Oh my God, what happened?"

But she knew. She saw it on Kip's face, and in Igren's grim stare. Thesul had hurt her friends—maybe even killed them...

"Are they still alive?" Lorn asked. His voice was low and cold, though Guin saw his hands trembling at his sides.

Guin covered her mouth with one hand, as if that would hold back the small, wounded sound that escaped her lips. What have I done, her mind screamed. Oh no, no, what have I done—

"They live," the emissary said. "Though some of them, just barely. If we make haste to the camp, there is a chance our healers may be able to help..."

"What camp?" Lorn demanded. "Emissary Igren, why are you here? What has happened since my departure from Dwoll? I have had word that—that my sister—" he took a faltering breath. "That my sister is dead."

Igren gave him a long look before replying, "Yes. She was assassinated by an Alavardian spy not a week ago. I am sorry."

Lorn's breathing turned rapid and irregular. His eyes closed briefly as he struggled for control. Guin expected him to scream, or hit something—but he just stood there, silent and shaking.

After a few moments of tense silence, he opened his eyes again and glared up at the dark-haired woman. His voice was cool, clipped, edged with dangerous calm. "My companions are wounded. That is the most important matter at hand. Once they are safely in this camp you mentioned, there are other dire issues which must be discussed. I expect a full report on all that has occured in my absence."

Igren nodded shortly, watching Lorn as one might watch a stick of dynamite about to blow its fuse. "There isn't enough room for all four of us to ride," she said. "But your companions are not far. Follow me..."

Her words were cut short by a piercing cry form above.

Startled, they glanced up and saw a shadow bearing down on them. Before anyone had time to react, the thing landed and Guin found her wrist seized in a tight grip. The thing now standing between her and the others was tall, wild-eyed and black as a starless night. She couldn't make sense of its form—it seemed to shift in an instant from woman to animal, and back again; a creature made of smoke and feathers, teeth and talons.

Breath heavy with the stench of carrion blasted Guin's face as the thing leaned forward and hissed, "Thank you, Sorcerlingggg..."

She found herself wrapped in its bone-crushing embrace, smothered in inky plumage. The ground was torn away, breath snatched from her lungs—and they were flying, soaring through the air on huge, powerful wings—

Guin screamed. The sound was plucked from her lips and thrown to the wind. Above her, the thing that was neither woman nor bird laughed. It sounded like the harsh, mocking croak of a raven.

They soared higher and higher, until the air grew thin and white spots danced before Guin's eyes. Her breathing became labored; panic-spiked pulse more and more irregular—until her mind finally surrendered and slipped into roiling darkness.

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