Chapter 28

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She was able to register the sensation of falling from a significant height-her equilibrium losing all sense of gravity-before reconnecting with the earth that gave way, icy water closing over her. Black as pitch, it was so cold it nearly stopped Ria's heart.

For an instant, she wasn't sure which way was up-suspended in a frozen womb with no bottom and no air-but buoyancy and bubbles provided salvation. Struggling against the weight of her clothes, Ria followed the sparkling silver spheres to the surface, breaking through the thin layer of settled ice with a ragged gasp.

Panicking, she used what little light spilled through the sizable hole above to scan the area and honed in on a stony ledge thirty feet away. It was her best and only chance to keep from drowning; the cold a physical force assaulting her from all sides, turning her limbs into dead chunks of stiff flesh.

"Sh-shit," she cursed, hauling herself out of the water on her second attempt, ice making every surface mirror-slick. After living for weeks in eternal spring, Ria had forgotten what it felt like to be well and truly cold.

This brutal reminder was not a welcome one.

Shivering and blind until her eyes fully adjusted, Ria looked back at the hole she'd fallen through, half expecting the woman and her tide of red flowers to be floating in the shaft of light. The wraith's absence was of little comfort. Ria knew she'd jumped from one frying pan and into another. Wet clothes and icy conditions were quick killers.

Hands tucked into her armpits and body locked in a heat-preserving hunch, Ria searched for an exit. There would be no climbing the thirty-foot cathedral ceiling. Even with the shoots and tendrils of plantlife disrupting the stones above-roots soaking in the darkness as if it were nutrient-rich soil-none of them were remotely long enough to reach ground level. And what was worse, whole sections of ceiling had fallen away, allowing shafts of golden light to pierce the inky blackness like breaks in a stormcloud. It was a wonder the whole castle hadn't succumbed to its own weight ages ago.

From what Ria could tell, she stood at the back of a two hundred yard cavern, huddled on the remains of a broken pillar. Strewn throughout the vault were chunks of support stones rising out of the icy black water like the bleached bones of an enormous giant. A few pillars remained intact-half-hazardously supporting the ceiling-while others had fallen, providing impromptu bridges between toothy islands.

"Freezing to death," Ria muttered, the numb skin of her lips struggling to form the words. "Not the way I thought I was going to go." Her bit of gallows humor did little to lift her spirits. How long would it be before someone found her?

Needing to move to keep her body warm, Ria set booted feet on a lengthy pillar leading to another jut of rock and carefully moved along its length, shaking arms out to help maintain her balance. The holes in the ceiling were large enough she could see into the castle, and maybe, if she shouted loudly enough, someone would hear.

"Orin!" The echo of her voice boomed in the cavern, eerie and distorted among the constant drip-drip-drip of running water. "Orin!"

No answer, which wasn't surprising. The likelihood of him being anywhere near was slim. Maybe one of the fae could hear her?

"Anybody?" she called again, watching the holes intently and absorbing as much heat from the light as possible. "I need hel-"

Something hit the water behind her loud enough to make a sizable splash. Startled, Ria spun in time to watch craggy stones slip from the widening hole she'd fallen through, dark water rippling and bending with their concussions. It was a miracle she hadn't been hit by falling debris when the floor gave way.

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