Chapter Seventy-Seven

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Lorn spotted the sentinel witch standing in the shadow of a tree. He signaled to Igren, but she had already seen the woman. She motioned for him to remain hidden in the underbrush, then crept forward. As she moved, Lorn noticed how Igren seemed to melt into the environment; to become one with root and soul, just another shadow in the night. Even though he watched her progress from start to finish, he struggled to remain focused on her shape.

The witch didn't see her coming until it was too late. A knife flashed in the gloom, and the woman sagged to the ground with a soft gurgle.

Igren glanced back at Lorn and motioned him forward with a flick of her wrist. He obeyed, moving swift and silent across the forest floor. He could see fire flickering through the trees. They were drawing close to the witches' camp.

"We will be outnumbered," Igren murmured.

"Guin counts for an army," Lorn hissed back. "We just need to free her."

"And if she has been incapacitated?" Igren asked, raising an inky eyebrow.

Lorn grit his teeth. "If you have a better plan, Emissary, I would love to hear it."

Igren shrugged. "I have no plan. There are too many variables. Shel is clever, her sisters strong. We will most likely die."

"Wonderful," Lorn replied, unsheathing his sword as they crept ever closer to the dancing light. "If we are indeed to perish, know that I despise you."

"Believe me, I am fully aware of that," Igren sighed, and drew her own weapon.

They were in sight of the clearing now, and could make out figures gathered around a blazing bonfire. Concealed behind a clump of dense shrubs, Lorn scanned the space until he spotted the tall, dark figure of Shel. She stood at the edge of a pond. Before her, a huge, pale woman with scales glinting on her skin and hair that seemed woven from pure moonlight loomed out of the water.

Between them, Guin sat on the ground, wet and dripping, with Kevin's book open in her hands.

A jolt of panic seared through Lorn as he realized her lips were moving. She was reading. Reading the Sorcerer's book.

He turned to Igren. "Plan or not, we must act. Now."  

____

Guin read slowly, shaping each word with care. Kevin's juvenile scrawl was difficult to decipher--wrought with grammatical and spelling errors, smudged in places, food-stained and occasionally scratched out entirely.

Still, she read on. She'd already reached page three--and nothing was happening.

She sensed Shel and the mermaid's growing impatience. Did they guess what she was doing? Ol' Mama Mermaid apparently could read minds, or at least invade them. Guin knew it was only a matter of minutes before they realized she was deliberately holding back, refusing to let the words seep into her heart. She scanned Kevin's words like a textbook, the back of a cereal box, a list of ingredients--coldly, objectively, without interest. There is no magic here, she repeated, over and over. There is no magic, only empty, dead words.

She wore the dry hum of her own calculated disinterest as a shield while beneath the surface, her thoughts raced madly, searching for a way out, some loophole, anything she could use to escape or at least thwart her captors. So far, she was drawing a blank--and the clock was ticking.

Everyone wants Ther. Everyone wants to own this bloody world, write its story for it. But even Kevin said a story doesn't really belong to anyone, once begun. It has life. Life isn't meant to be owned...

Her head throbbed. Her mouth was dry. Words stuck to her tongue like insects to flypaper. Shel had begun to fidget. The mermaid was staring. She couldn't keep up the farce much longer. 

Ancient Kevin's accusation echoed in her head, "--you can't steal a whole world, girl, you can't steal a whole broken mind..."

On its heals, Evelyn's warning, "Even if you think you can do it all, don't. It'll break you. Once the book is safe, you're gonna need to let go."

Guin frowned, struggling to keep her eyes on the crumpled page before her. Something was jabbing her in the leg. She shifted uncomfortably, put a hand in her pocket, and pulled out a red crayon. What had Abby said, about fixing the story?

"... you're gonna need to let go... you can't steal a whole world... if I end the story, Ther will end with it... that's the thing about stories—once you start, they're not yours anymore. Not really... let go..."

And then she saw it, so clearly, so perfectly, and it all made a wonderful kind of sense. The solution. The way out. It had been there all along, really. She'd just been to daft to see it.

Despite herself, despite paralyzing pain and fear, Guin smiled.

Then, she looked down at the book in her hands and whispered, "Fire."

___

Connal Hawkins paced back and forth, nearly shouting down the phone as Emily watched from her huddled position beside Evelyn's hospital bed.

"What do you mean you haven't seen her for hours? Guin doesn't just--yes, yes I know she went out but--for Christs' sake, Lucile, it's dark and raining outside, where the hell could she have gone?"

Connal scowled as Lucile's voice buzzed in his ear. The woman sounded frantic.

Emily's hands tightened around her styrofoam cup of rapidly cooling coffee. Guin, gone. How was that possible? Guin hardly ever even left her room. She just sat around on sofas and chairs and read. Guin wasn't the kind of teenager who disappeared into the night without a word, especially not at a time like this...

"And she didn't take her mobile," Connal growled. "Bloody typical. Where's Hawk? Still out searching? Dear God..." He yanked off his glasses with one hand and rubbed his knuckles across his eyes. "Lucile, this... this is the last thing we need, right now. Was she acting strange at all? You don't think--" He shot Emily a worried glance. "You don't think she'd do something stupid?"

Her fingers were beginning to crush the coffee cup. Emily forced herself to place it back on the side table, and transferred her grasping fingers to the arms of her chair. She had to hold onto something. Both of her daughters were slipping away--she had to hold onto something.

"Uh-huh." Connal nodded curtly, even though Lucile couldn't see him. "Yeah. Yes, I know. Jesus, no, we don't blame you, she's a big girl, just--just find her. Ring the police if you need to. But find her. Please."

He hung up, shoved the phone back into his pocket, replaced his glasses and turned to Emily. "Hawk's still looking."

Emily nodded, but found herself unable to speak. Panic was clawing at her throat, devouring her words. She wanted to scream.

At last she managed, "They'll find her."

Connal nodded. He didn't look convinced. "What the hell is she playing at?"

"I don't think she's playing at anything," Emily said, fingers tightening on the chair arms. "Guinny doesn't play, Connal. She's sixteen, and--"

A sharp beep from one of Evelyn's monitors made her jump. It came again, and again. A line jumped across a screen, doodling a jagged, toothy row of spikes. The spikes leapt higher with each shrill beep--then vanished altogether.

Emily and Connal stared at the relentless, screaming flat line, unable to comprehend what they already knew to be happening.

Moment later--though it felt like a long span of eternity--a storm of nurses arrived. Emily was shoved aside, into her husband's arms. Their eldest daughter disappeared behind a wall of jostling backs and shouting voices and machines.

And still, the monitor kept on screaming.

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