Yrene counted every step. Not that it helped, but her brain just produced the numbers in an endless tally.
One, two, three … Forty. Three hundred.
Seven hundred twenty-one.
Down and down they went, scanning every shadow and aisle, every alcove and reading room and nook. Nothing.
Only acolytes quietly working, many packing up for the night. No Baast Cats—not one.
Eight hundred thirty. One thousand three.
They hit the bottom of the library, the lights dimmer. Sleepier. The shadows more alert. Yrene saw faces in all of them.
Chaol plunged ahead, sword like quicksilver as they followed Nousha’s directions.
The temperature dropped. The lights became fewer and farther between.
Leather books were replaced with crumbling scrolls. Scrolls replaced by carved tablets. Wooden shelves gave way to stone alcoves. The marble floor turned uncut. So did the walls.
“Here,” Chaol breathed, and drew her into a stop, his sword lifting.
The hall before them was lit by a sole candle. Left to burn on the ground.
And down it: four doors.
Three sealed with heavy stone, but the fourth … Open. The stone rolled aside. Another lone candle before it, illumining the darkness beyond.
A tunnel. Deeper than the Womb—deeper than any level of the Torre.
Chaol pointed to the rough dirt of the passage ahead. “Tracks. Two sets, side by side.”
Sure enough, the ground had been disturbed. He whirled to her. “You stay here, I’ll—”
“No.” He weighed the word, her stance, as she added, “Together. We do this together.”
Chaol took another moment to consider, then nodded. Carefully, he led her along, showing her where to step to avoid any loud noises on loose bits of stone.
The candle beckoned by the open tunnel doorway. A beacon. An invitation.
The light danced along his blade as he angled it before the tunnel entrance.
Nothing but fallen blocks of stone and an endless dark passage greeted them.
Yrene breathed in through her nose, out through her mouth. Hafiza.
Hafiza was in there. Either hurt or worse, and—
Chaol linked his hand with hers and led her into the dark.
They inched along in silence for untold minutes. Until the light from the sole candle faded behind them—and another appeared. Faintly, far off. As if
around a distant corner.
As if someone was waiting.
Chaol knew it was a trap.
Knew the Healer on High had not been the target, but the bait. But if they arrived too late …
He would not let that happen.
They inched toward that second candle, the light as good as ringing the dinner bell.
But he moved forward nonetheless, Yrene keeping pace beside him. The sole candle grew brighter.
Not a candle. A golden light from the passage beyond. Gilding the stone wall behind it.
Yrene tried to hurry, but he kept their pace slow. Quiet as death.
Though he had no doubt whoever it was already knew they were coming.
They reached the turn in the tunnel, and he studied the light on the far wall, trying to read for any shadows or disruptions. Only light.
He peered around the corner. Yrene did so, too.
Her breath snagged. He had seen some sights in the past year, but this … It was a chamber, as enormous as the entire throne room in Rifthold’s palace, perhaps larger. The ceiling held aloft on carved pillars receding into the gloom, a set of stairs leading down from the tunnel onto the main floor.
He knew why the light had been golden upon the walls.
For illuminated by the torches that burned throughout … Gold.
The wealth of an ancient empire filled the chamber. Chests and statues and trinkets of pure gold. Suits of armor. Swords.
And scattered amongst it all were sarcophagi. Built not from gold, but impenetrable stone.
A tomb—and a trove. And at the very back, rising up on a towering dais
Yrene let out a small sound at the sight of the gagged and bound Healer
on High seated on a golden throne. But it was the woman standing beside the healer, a knife resting on her round belly, that made Chaol’s blood go cold.
Duva. The khagan’s now-youngest daughter.
She smiled at them as they approached—and the expression was not human.
It was Valg.