Chapter Seventy-Eight

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As Lorn burst out of hiding and ran toward Guin, he saw flames bloom in her hands. The book was on fire.

At his side, Igren cried out in panic and dismay.

Shel screamed and grabbed for the book, but some invisible force threw her back and sent her sprawling.

The pale giant, still in the pond, shrieked. "Stop! What are you doing?"

Guin made no response, but got slowly to her feet. Flames licked her hands, began to spread along her forearms. Her gaze remained fixed on the book as it burned to ashes in her hands.

Guin, what are you doing? Lorn thought, suppressing a horrified shout of his own. He had to believe she had a reason--he just hoped it was a damn good one.

The other witches had spotted them, and after their initial shock, were drawing weapons and moving in to attack.

"Split up!" Igren ordered, and dove to the left. She began to fight savagely, slashing and stabbing her way through each witch she encountered. Snake or not, the woman was a fiend with a sword.

Lorn continued running toward Guin, dodging and weaving to avoid assailants. The flames were spreading faster, climbing down Guin's body, engulfing her--yet, somehow, she was not burning.

The silver-haired woman, still half-submerged--she seemed unable to leave the water--grabbed for the book. Her fingers brushed the flames and she recoiled with a howl or rage and pain. "Stop! You'll destroy everything!"

Guin smiled up at her, a look of serene satisfaction playing across her features as the fire caught her hair. "Exactly," she said.

Behind her, Shel had regained her feet and was advancing, blade in hand. "You filth," she hissed, and brought the weapon down--just as Lorn came between them. He raised his sword to catch and deflect the blow away from Guin's head. The impact shuddered down his arm with enough force to send him to his knees.

Shel snarled and raised her blade again. "Out of my way, boy."

"No." Lorn struggled to his feet, but only made it halfway before she hit him hard across the face with the hilt of her sword. He cried out, fell--then gasped as her blade plunged into his chest.

Behind him, Guin screamed--and the world became a blinding storm of light.

____

Guin felt like she was being torn apart and remade at the same time. The moment she'd set the book on fire, the witches' clearing had fallen away. Now reality flickered, an uncertain flame in the vast and endless void of what was yet to be--could be--would be...

Past, present, future poured through her fingers, colorful crystal sand, fragmented pinpricks of brilliance. Hers to hold, shape, destroy. Every shade of forever spun itself into a tapestry of galaxies, an endless stream of nothing and everything at once. Hers. It was all hers.

For an instant and an eternity, Guin considered taking it. Her soul was ablaze, her mind broken open and spread across the whole of creation. She saw everything. It was terrible, and beautiful, and more vast than words could contain.

You could be a God, a voice in the dark whispered. Not simply a voice, but millions of voices as one. It was soft, and cruel, and beckoning. You could eat your own heart, child, and set the sky aflame. You could die a thousand times and rise again, stronger with each fall. You need only destroy yourself, child. You need only die to be born again.

Sounds fun, Guin replied, toying with the tail of a passing comet. But I am not a God.

You could be. Oh, you could be...

And then what? Guin asked. Spend eternity blasting planets and demanding dance-off tributes? Do I get a fancy hat?

The voice in the dark seemed to hesitate. You--you could become anything you want to be. Create anything you wish...

Would get a bit dull after a while though, wouldn't it? Guin asked.

You don't wish to be a God?

Guin thought for a moment. No. I want to be me, I think--whoever she is.

The voice tried again. You could have Ther...

No. Guin was vehement. Ther isn't going to belong to anyone. Not anymore.

The void laughed softly, a rumble of dying stars. You will die all the same. You cannot contain this power. Only, without us--without accepting our offer--you will fall to dust.

Yeah, that's where you're wrong, Guin replied. That's where everyone was wrong. Even me. Because you think, if someone has power, they've gotta keep it. They've gotta hold on for dear life. But I think everyone forgot something.

And what was that? The voice asked, mocking.

When something's yours, you can choose to let it go, Guin said simply. Like you said. Sometimes, to live, you had to die first. Now hush. I'm concentrating.

She turned away from the darkness, and focused on the fire dancing along her fingertips. Every word that caught blazed with a million colors before it died. Kevin's magic was vibrant. It was beautiful, despite his damaged heart. But now it was time for him, too, to be set free.

Ther doesn't belong to anyone any longer. It won't be bound by words on a page, commands spoken from a single being's lips. Ther will be a creation unto itself, a story of its own making. It will be whole. It will survive. It will be free.

Somewhere in the chasm of nothingness at her back, Guin heard a scream of rage. But it was fleeting, and weak. It couldn't hurt her.

As the final ashes of Kevin's story drifted from her palms, Guin's eyes snapped open.

And, just as the world came alive once more, she saw Lorn die.

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