Chapter Seventy-Three

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Thesul ran through the fields of Avain, bare feet digging deep into the soft soil with each step. Crimson blooms tore free of their stems and flew into the air as he passed, leaving a drift of petals scattered in his wake.

Alavard. He had to reach Alavard. Someone, or something, was picking away at the fountain's protective magic. Thesul felt each stealthy scrape at the door like a clawed hand tightening around the base of his spine.

He ran faster. The world sped by, a blur of color. He would reach the palace by sunset.

Stars willing, he was not too late.


Orven bumped against the rough walls of the passage, blind and breathless. He was lost. Utterly, hopelessly lost in the twisted bowels of the mountain--and he wasn't alone.

Ygrael's footfalls echoed behind him like the relentless approach of death itself.

Not an entirely inaccurate comparison, he thought bitterly. She had ceased to call after him some time ago, and was now simply following the sound of his ever-slowing footsteps. Her silence was almost worse than her curses.

The passage was growing narrower, and, if possible, more damp and fetid. Moist walls pressed close, forcing Orven to move in a crabwise shuffle. He hadn't come across another branch of the tunnel in some time. Grimacing, Orven forced budding panic and revulsion to the back of his skull. It couldn't be helped. With Ygrael at his back, the only way was forward.

As he moved onward, the passage grew steadily narrower. Were Ygrael's footsteps closer? He couldn't tell. Sounds were distorted, muffled and multiplied by echoes. If she was gaining, he had no way to know for certain.

The tunnel was suffocatingly tight now, pressing against Orven's back and ribs, grinding into his shoulder blades. The careful dam he had constructed around his growing panic began, bit by bit, to disintegrate. It was too dark to see if this tunnel had an opening, or if he was wedging himself into a corner. What if this was a dead end?

Well then, it will be a literal dead end, and you will have only your own idiocy to blame...

Orven had a dagger on his belt, but very little notion of how to use it. After seeing Ygrael's display of murderous prowess in the courtyard, he knew there was next to no chance of winning a fight with his cousin. Even blind in the dark, she had the advantage.

He could barely breathe now. Each step forward was a squeeze. The tunnel's rocky surface snagged at clothes and scraped skin. If he had been a bulkier young man, Orven knew for certain that he would have become lodged in the passage like a clog in a drain. Even so, he nearly got stuck several times.

Just when Orven was beginning to despair that this passage was indeed a dead end, a flash of light pierced the darkness and lanced across his vision.

Orven gasped and blinked, unsure if his eyes were deceiving him--but no, there was light ahead; a narrow sliver of palid dalight.

The sight lent Orven renewed determination. He wiggled and shuffled on, growing more frantic with each passing second to reach the jagged slice of light. Air--he needed air...

And all at once he was free, staggering out onto a windswept mountain plateau high above the southern stretch of Sarn valley. Though the sun's light was weak and muted by thick clouds, Orven's eyes watered after so long spent stumbling through darkness.

He leaned against the mountainside and gasped, taking in greedy lungfuls of cold, clear air. The stench of the mountain tunnels still clung to his hair and clothes, eager as the embrace of an unwanted lover. Orven grimaced, wiping a sleeve across his sweat and dirt-streaked face. He needed a bath at the first available opportunity...

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