The wicked heroine, p.59
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.59

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Earlier that day

  Meena had left the Kazhak early in the morning, stopping only to acquire a horse and a few supplies before riding south toward the steaming peak of Heren Garil Sa. For defense, she carried only a short sword and dagger; her bow would only be a hindrance in the confines of her destination. Once out of the city, she was surrounded by toothspice plantations, an encroaching green carpet on the dark red soil of the volcano’s sloping sides. As she rode up toward the peak itself, she could gradually see the larger, southern area of the island come into view. Most of it was comprised of small villages and innumerable fields of toothspice, sloping down to the sea over a dozen miles further south.

  The sea air occasionally freshened the smoky, sulfuric atmosphere with its salty teases as she halted her mount near a few small cave openings. A complex series of lava tubes trailed back into the earth, beneath the scrubby, wind-angled trees that clung to this particular ridge of the mountain’s still-vegetated slopes. A small steam vent a few dozen paces to her right had killed off all the greenery within a windscaped radius.

  Meena closed her eyes, her mind flying back through time. She had stood here, once before. The mountain had loomed much higher over her then; much of it had since blown off and settled on the city below, burying its old iteration, then been formed into ashbricks that created its current streets and structures.

  The throb and pull of what she sought within the tunnels was strong. It called to her, and after so many centuries, the thrill of its silent voice sped up her heart rate. Soon, she couldn’t sit still any longer. She dismounted and hobbled her horse. Pulling a large tool satchel from her saddlebags, she strode toward the fourth tunnel entrance from the left. The call was strongest there, and she trusted her blood more than her memory.

  An hour later, deep in the veins of the mountain, Meena stopped, feeling the pull of the key directly beneath her feet. She breathed in through her nose; the tang of minerals and stale water was strong here, close to the caldera. The air in here was hot and bitter, like a summer day in the Desert of Glass. She set her lantern down and laid her tools by her feet. Hands playing over the smooth lumps of stone, she listened intently to the thrum of the device she sought. Finding the spot directly above it, she placed a finger there and reached back for her sledgehammer.

  Two hours later, Meena was kneeling on the tunnel floor, reaching as far as she could into the new hole she had created, chipping away with a chisel and hammer. She was unmindful of the myriad cuts her arms, torso and knees had received from the sharp, brittle edges of the brownish stone chips. Her shirt sleeves hung in blood-soaked ribbons, though her skin healed over every time.

  Sweat beaded her brow and ran in rivulets off her chin. She was glad she hadn’t needed to add to the atmosphere by blowing anything up with the smoke bombs she’d liberated from the Vinten quest’s armory aboard the Kazhak. Finally, she could feel the top of the key with her fingertips.

  She dragged the lantern closer to the hole, leaving bloody fingerprints on its wire handle. The key gleamed at her. Redoubling her efforts, Meena excavated the small object and lifted it up to the light to examine it. The small, dark sphere pulsed in time with her heartbeat, and as she held it, all the remaining rock fragments that had adhered to it for the last four centuries fell away.

  “You remember him better than I do, now,” Meena told the key.

  It did not reply.

  “Well, it’s you and me again. This time, that treacherous book will get what it deserves.” Meena tucked the key into its old home, scooped up her tools and her lantern, and left the lava tube, muttering about needing that extra shirt she’d brought.

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