I did not expect the snow.
Or the moonlight.
The chamber must have lain beneath the palace of moonstone—shafts in the rough rock leading outside, welcoming in snowdrifts and moonlight.
I gritted my teeth against the bitter cold, the wind howling through the cracks like wolves raging along the mountainside beyond.
The snow glittered over the walls and floor, slithering over my boots with the wind gusts. Moonlight peered in, bright enough that I vanished my ball of faelight, bathing the entire chamber in blues and silvers.
And there, against the far wall of the chamber, snow crusting its surface, its bronze casing …
It was a massive, round disc—as tall as I was. Taller. And the metal around it had been fashioned after a massive serpent, the mirror held within its coils as it devoured its own tail.
Ending and beginning.
From across the room, with the snow … I could not see it. What lay within.
I forced myself to take a step forward. Another.
The mirror itself was black as night—yet … wholly clear.
I watched myself approach. Watched the arm I had upraised against the wind and snow, the pinched expression on my face. The exhaustion.
I stopped three feet away. I did not dare touch it. It only showed me myself.
I scanned the mirror for any signs of … something to push or touch with
my magic. But there was only the devouring head of the serpent, its maw open wide, frost sparkling on its fangs.
I shuddered against the cold, rubbing my arms. My reflection did the same. “Hello?” I whispered.
There was nothing.
My hands burned with cold.
Up close, the surface of the Ouroboros was like a gray, calm sea.
But in its upper corner—movement. No—not movement in the mirror.
I was not alone.
Crawling down the snow-kissed wall, a massive beast of claws and scales and fur and shredding teeth inched toward the floor. Toward me.
I kept my breathing steady. Did not let it scent a tendril of my fear— whatever it was. Some guardian of this place, some creature that had crawled in through the cracks—
Its enormous paws were near-silent on the floor, the fur on them a blend of black and gold. Not a beast designed to hunt in these mountains. Certainly not with the ridge of dark scales down its back. And the large, shining eyes—
I didn’t have time to remark on those blue-gray eyes as the beast pounced. I whirled, Illyrian dagger in my freezing hand, ducking low and aiming up
—for the heart.
But no impact came. Only snow, and cold, and wind. There was nothing before me. Behind me.
No paw prints in the snow. I whirled to the mirror.
Where I had been standing … that beast now sat, scaled tail idly swishing through the snow.
Watching me. No—not watching.
Gazing back at me. My reflection. Of what lurked beneath my skin.
My knife clattered to the stones and snow. And I looked into the mirror.
The Bone Carver was sitting against the wall as I entered his cell.
“No escort this time?”
I only stared at him—that boy. My son.
And for once, the Carver seemed to go very still and quiet. He whispered, “You retrieved it.”
I looked toward a corner of his cell. The Ouroboros appeared, snow and ice still crusting it. Mine to summon, wherever and whenever I wished.
Words were still foreign, strange things.
This body that I had returned to … it was strange, too. My tongue was dry as paper as I said, “I looked.” “What did you see?” The Carver got to his feet.
I sank a little further back into my body. Just enough to smile slightly. “That is none of your concern.” For the mirror … it had shown me. So many things.
I did not know how long had passed. Time—it had been different inside the mirror.
But even a few hours might have been too many—
I pointed to the door. “You have your mirror. Now uphold your end. Battle awaits.”
The Bone Carver glanced between me and the mirror. And he smiled. “It would be my pleasure.”
And the way he said it … I was wrung dry, my soul new and trembling, and yet I asked, “What do you mean?”
The Carver simply straightened his clothes. “I have little need for that thing,” he said, gesturing to the mirror. “But you did.”
I blinked slowly.
“I wanted to see if you were worth helping,” the Carver went on. “It’s a rare person to face who they truly are and not run from it—not be broken by it. That’s what the Ouroboros shows all who look into it: who they are, every despicable and unholy inch. Some gaze upon it and don’t even realize that the horror they’re seeing is them—even as the terror of it drives them mad. Some swagger in and are shattered by the small, sorry creature they find instead. But you … Yes, rare indeed. I could risk leaving here for nothing less.”
Rage—blistering rage started to fill in the holes left by what I’d beheld in that mirror. “You wanted to see if I was worthy?” That innocent people were worthy of being helped.
A nod. “I did. And you are. And now I shall help you.”
I debated slamming that cell door in his face.
But I only said quietly, “Good.” I walked over to him. And I was not afraid as I grabbed the Bone Carver’s cold hand. “Then let’s begin.”