Chapter Seventy-Five | Part Five

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Guin woke with a thump and opened her eyes to flickering darkness. Slowly, the blurred images dancing across her vision resolved into solid shapes. Guin saw where she was, and wished she hadn't.

It was a large clearing, hemmed in on all sides by dense, dark forest. Night was closing in, and with it a chill had crept into the air. The flickering came from a blazing campfire in the center of the clearing. Flames leapt and cavorted with wild abandon, licking the sky. Shadowy forms stood just outside the fire's ring of illumination—tall and female. Their eyes glittered, reflecting the bonfire with predatory malice.

Guin barely had time to take all this in before rough hands seized and hauled her upright. She cried out, struggling in vain as the bruising grip tightened on her arms and dragged her away from the bonfire.

Twisting in her captor's grasp, Guin looked up to see the same black-skinned woman she'd encountered in Alavard—the one Talon had called Shel.

The witch glanced down at her and grinned. "Hello, Sorcerling."

Guin made a sound that was half gag, half whimper, and dug her heels into the earth. It did nothing to slow Shel's progress. The woman was pure muscle, her limbs hard and smooth as polished stone. Seized with panic, Guin kept struggling all the same. She was disoriented, terrified; thoughts running senseless circles inside her throbbing skull.

Shel chuckled, tightened her grip and dragged Guin a few more feet before throwing her to the ground with jarring force. All the air rushed from Guin's lungs on impact. She lay for a moment, too dazed to move, or even think.

When she finally found the strength to raise her head, Guin saw that Shel had thrown her onto the edge of a pool of water. The pool's circumference was perfectly round, its surface smooth as glass—more like a huge mirror than a body of water.

Ignoring the tremble in her limbs, Guin heaved herself up onto hands and knees. She lifted her face until she met Shel's glowing white stare. "What," she gasped. "Do. You. Want?"

Shel's grin widened, revealing row upon row of long, sharp teeth. "Freedom," she replied. "And justice."

In one swift, fluid motion, she bent, picked Guin up like a rag doll and threw her into the pond, shattering its smooth surface. Guin's scream burst from her lips in a stream of bubbles as the water swallowed her thashing body. The pool was much deeper than it looked—deep, dark, and cold as a corpse's throat.

Guin took in a lungful of icy blackness and sank like a stone. Numbness crept into her bones, paralyzed muscles and dimmed her vision. Far above, the surface danced with fragmented light.

I'm drowning. After all that, I'm going to drown in a bloody pond.

She wanted to kick, swim, claw her way through the water until she broke free. But something, either inside of her or in the water itself, had turned her limbs to stone.

As the last flicker of light vanished from sight, Guin felt hands around her waist. Soft lips caressed the nape of her neck, and a familiar voice murmured, "Aaaah. So you found it at last. Good."

All at once, Guin was no longer sinking, but propelled upward so fast it felt almost like falling. She broke the surface, choking, sputtering and painfully alive.

The mermaid rose up behind her, hands still firmly planted around Guin's waist. "I received your summons, Daughter Mine," she purred, addressing Shel, who still stood at the pool's edge. "I must say, this is the finest gift you have given me yet."

The witch inclined her head. "Mother Mine, we have the book."

Mother? They're related? Despite being three quarters drowned, Guin was incredulous. How did a giant mermaid give birth to a bunch of cannibalistic bird-women? Did she lay eggs? Guin didn't really want to know.

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