Chapter 21: The Sacred Valley

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"I think she's waking up. Look, her eyelids fluttered."

"Kenna, can you hear me?"

The intrusive sound of the voices intensified the dull throb in my head, making it hard for me to think straight. I lay in bed, probably in Mrs. Berrywood's house, although I had no idea how I had ended up in here. Bright sunlight blinded me when I opened my eyes, and I could only make out the dark, oval shape of a face before two arms came around my back and pulled me into a hard chest. Recognizing the scent of soap and wood, I rested my head against Rowan's shoulder and enjoyed the intimacy of our embrace. A shaky sigh ruffled my hair as Rowan rested his chin on my head.

After four or five seconds, he seemed to remember that we had an audience and pushed me a few inches away so that he could look at my face. I spotted the Dwarfs and Mrs. Berrywood standing behind him and gave them a brief smile before returning my attention to Rowan.

"What happened?"

"I could ask you the same question," he answered, his brow furrowed with concern. "After you'd defeated that Dark Sorceress, you fainted. We thought you were having a seizure and tried to wake you up, but you remained unresponsive. I was worried sick, Kenna." He raised one of his hands to brush away a lock of my hair.

"Well, I'm awake now," I reassured him, rubbing the back of his hand with my thumb. As reality finally kicked in, my heartbeat picked up a higher pace and I stared at Rowan, eyes wide with panic. "Where are the Dark Sorcerers?"

"They left," Ellie said while she walked to the other side of the bed and sat down next to me. Larry followed her like an overprotective nurse, shuffling along the wall until he stood next to the bedside table. Rolling her eyes, Ellie turned her back on him and I giggled. "As I was saying, that sorry band of Dark Sorcerers took to their heels as soon as you collapsed. It was actually quite satisfying to see the panic on their faces. Anyway, before they left, they said that we have a week's time to reach Vallinstra, as promised. If we miss the deadline, they'll come fetch you themselves and kill Rowan, Larry and me, blah blah blah. The usual stuff."

"They also told us to give you this." Rowan reached into his pocket and handed me a wrinkled piece of parchment.

I took the note from him and inspected it, raising my eyebrows higher and higher as I read. Judging by the sloppy form of some letters, the author had been in a hurry when they wrote this.

True hearts walk the path of Darkness,

but beware of the rose's thorn.

At the Red Fountain, blood shall be spilled,

as the eight-eyed beast is born.

Beauty is but a deception,

a mask for the rot underneath.

When in doubt, left is your right,

because Death's revenge is sweet.

Do not listen to the voice of Reason,

for She will lead you astray.

Sometimes you need to take a leap,

to find the right way.

Bewildered, I stared at the parchment, trying to process what I had just read. Why would the Dark Sorcerers give me a poem? Had my duel with the Sorceress gained me a secrete admirer who attempted to seduce me with their fine words?

Rowan smiled when he saw my confusion. "The lines of the poem are instructions," he explained. "To guide you through the Maze of Thorns."

As if that wasn't cryptic at all. "The Maze of what?"

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