Chapter 34

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Her first breath back in her body was pure torture.

Cold. There was so much of it. It seeped into Mal like a toxin, making her joints creak and lungs burn, filling every crack and crevice with blistering winter. Each breath after the first became an agony in the darkness, icy knives rending her lungs into ribbons. Heat-starved, her body struggled to manifest it's own warmth, rendering her a flesh and blood seismic reaction. But the effort failed.

She was too cold.

Too close to the ground.

Too weak.

Though Mal wasn't naive enough to believe in heaven or hell-she knew all too well the dogma of damnation and salvation was the control tactics of an empire built on fear and intolerance-she felt a sliver of dread worm into her brain. All people told stories of Underworlds. Was this her fate? Was she to spend the rest of eternity in frozen confinement after only just learning her sister lived?

Years ago Malena would have laughed and said fate wouldn't be so cruel.

Life taught her otherwise.

Trapped in the hellscape of paralysis in the snow, Mal's awareness fought to return to her sister, but the doorway was closed. The gate was shut, leaving her stranded in nightmarish purgatory. Time and its progression meant nothing. She could have laid there for an hour or days, it didn't matter. All she could feel was the tremble of her limbs and the squirming in her frozen hands, worms wriggling under the flesh, sucking up the fire that had burned through her like starving leeches.

Consciousness already a dimmed lamp, Mal wasn't sure the voices she was hearing were real. There one second and then gone on the back of the wind, she took them for the noncorporeal. Strange, however, how they certainly sounded real enough as they drew nearer. So did the thump of hooves and the jungle of horses tack. Try as she might though, Mal was attempting to catch smoke with her hands. She was sliding back down a black-ice slope when hands suddenly grabbed her, bearing her out of the snow and into the sun's embrace.

When at last warmth found her starved, frozen body it hit with the force of a cannon, blasting holes in Mal's icy coffin. She tried to catch a glimpse of her rescuer but found everything from her eyelids to her extremities heavier than a led curtain. Someone was speaking. Calling out. Barking orders, judging by the tone, but whether it was directed towards her or another went unsaid. Warmth was all she could focus on. The blackness took her again but this time in the velvety arms of a lover's embrace.

***

The eventual process of waking a second time was a slow, arduous task and not one done smoothly. When at last Mal summoned the gumption to rouse herself, the first thing she became aware of was the weight of something familiar resting across the length of her body. A blanket. Several, actually, judging by the heaviness pinning her limbs.

The second was the head to toe throb keeping time with her heartbeat. Every expansion of her chest. Every twitch of a muscle or curl of a joint creaked with all the brittle stiffness of rotting wood. Everything hurt right down to her hair follicles and cuticles. A sharp lance of pain across her forehead bore a reminder of how hard she hit the chopping block on her way down and the gash it must have left behind.

She was a battered ship barely able to stay afloat in the harbor, but she was still alive and breathing.

Prying her sore eyes open so she could face the world, it came as no shock she was in the familiar confines of her room. Wood paneling looked down on her, the grain as familiar as the back of her hand. The how and why could come later. For the moment, Mal was content on drifting, but while consciousness may have finally returned, awareness was slower to reestablish itself until a chair creaked and she froze.

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