If descending into a dark, damp, and cold tunnel – cave? Hidden passage? – wasn’t bad enough, the suffocating question Whisper had thrown at him before bounding off to go back to Finn was making Carter feel a little weak.
His hands were shaking. His stomach was tense enough to make it ache. Despite the chill as they walked down the jagged stone stairwell, he felt hot, sweaty. But goosebumps ran up his arms and he was shivering.
Neither Isha nor Gideon seemed affected by any of this, although Carter reasoned that they hadn’t just been told that magic was real, and Shiloh could easily have been lying somewhere in the depths of this cave, unmoving.
Okay. Whisper hadn’t really said that. And the reason was a lot simpler: Isha and Gideon weren’t Carter.
The part about the magic wasn’t so concerning. Carter didn’t know or care much about all those legends of great sorcerers or Divines. It was that Shiloh could have done something, believing she was reactivating magic, and instead it rebounded on her. It was how worried Winnie looked- they got that furrowed brow and downturned lips when Carter did something that impacted him negatively, but they looked past that point.
It might have been the other, more painful part of what they had told him. The part that felt a little more like big needles, like knives, digging into his skin and made him dizzy.
Why did Whisper know magic had never left?
Finding out the tapestry, beautiful as it was, that Shiloh had woven him over the years was all lies was something Carter had been locking in a repression box at the back of his mind. The idea that Whisper was too?
It was when he was watching Gideon disappear down his assigned tunnel absently after having brushed past Carter – Gideon was as tense externally as Carter was internally and, well, maybe everywhere, and he didn’t look good like he normally did. Not a sick not-good, and not that he didn’t look good, but in the sort of deep scowl-y way, looking ready to attack the walls with his knives – when Isha cleared her throat.
He turned and found her crossing her arms. But her brow was knit together. She looked worried, and more than that, he could swear he saw her sway a little. She looked pale.
“Are you going to be okay on your own?” she asked. Before he could do more than open his mouth, he stepped forward and gently touched his elbow. “Kitten, it’s okay if you don’t want to. You don’t look so hot,” she paused, “or I should say, you too hot. Not in the way Gideon would normally notice.”
“Oh! Oh, um. Yeah I’m o- what?” Carter blinked at her. More than Gideon would what? “He- what?”
Her lip quirked. It looked tight, like it was for show. “Don’t think too hard about it, you’ll hurt yourself.” She sobered. “I’m serious. Are you okay?”
As much as Carter wanted to brush her off, I’m okay, I’m fine, because it had become reflex, he didn’t. He didn’t know if he was okay. But he couldn’t stop now, couldn’t sit down right now and try to digest it. No, it was better if it stayed like the sort of secret that only gossipy noble women would whisper about over tea, scandalised.
He wasn’t sure what Isha saw on his face, but whatever it was, it made her nod and step away. “Shout if you need anything. And Carter?” she said, before he could turn away. “Shiloh is one of the strongest women I’ve met, and that’s saying something, I promise. She’ll be okay. We all will be.”
His mind went blank. He didn’t know how to respond to that, but it didn’t matter much anyway. Isha had already turned and walked away down her assigned passage. Which left Carter, alone, to venture down his tunnel. Alone.
Trying to take a normal, not at all too large of a breath in, he sent only one last glance down both passages his friends – were they friends? What were they? – had been swallowed by. Then, feeling both dizzy and light-headed, Carter set off down into the enveloping darkness.
After several minutes of blind fumbling around, Carter wished he had brought something to light up the passage. A torch, or a lantern, or something. But he hadn’t, because Carter didn’t have the foresight to think about supplies when going into the pitch-black underground system. Who did?
Probably Gideon and Isha.
His eyes adjusted as best they could just in time for Carter to walk headfirst into a wall. He grunted, cursed quietly, and then felt his cheeks grow hotter than they already were. There was no one around, but still.
But he had been using his hand to follow the wall. Unless the tunnel stopped, in which case he could go right after Isha and Gideon which made him let out a soft sigh.
Until he glanced around and realised it wasn’t an ending- he’d walked into the division of two pathways. The cave was splitting again, and this time, it was just Carter and he had to decide which way to go and what if he chose the wrong one and Shiloh was down the other and something happened to her-
Maybe he should have simply agreed to follow after Isha or Gideon.
He swallowed, his throat dry and cracked. He should have brought water too. But he decided that right was the right answer – that was sound enough logic, right? – so that was the direction he set himself down.
This was all a terrific plan. Until he came across a five-way split several minutes later.
Despair clawed at his stomach, turning it over and over as he stared at the passages that loomed before him. Two different pathways had been too much for him already, five was…
He didn’t notice as his breaths came out faster, more shallow, as he tugged at the hem of his shirt. The worst part about it was that he came to notice they didn’t look like forks in a cave, they looked deliberate. One went straight ahead, two were directly off his sides, one was behind him on the right, and one went to his left diagonally.
The edges of the stone were smoother here, with only a few nicks and cracks.
Was this just some horribly expansive underground system, or was this a maze?
He picked the far-left passage, because he didn’t know what else to do. He was afraid of stopping, of standing idle for too long and letting his mind catch up to his body.
The farther he went in, the worse he felt. Instead of the prickling heat, like standing in direct sunlight on a exhaustingly hot summer day, Carter felt cold. Sweat still coated his skin like a fine, sticky mist, but now his shaking had turned to real shivering.
He realised he was breathing too hard and too fast, like he had just run miles and he had to gasp to catch up, when he was overtaken by dark fuzz clouding his vision. He stopped, having just turned down another split in the path that seemed to spiral, and leaned against the wall.
Carter had half a mind to call out to Isha, to Gideon, even to Shiloh. Maybe he did, Carter wasn’t entirely sure, but his throat felt scratchy like he’d swallowed a chestnut once he started to recover. He’d also sat down, though he didn’t remember doing this.
His heartbeat had finally sedated itself to a less frantic, bruising thumping against his chest when Carter heard something. It took a moment of listening, of holding his breath – which perhaps, given what had just happened, wasn’t a good idea – to realise it was the sound of footsteps.
He must have called then. And Isha or Gideon had heard him, Thank God.
But then he heard someone shout. It was a deep, gruff voice. Male, probably. And it wasn’t Gideon, or even Finn – it definitely wasn’t Finn.
Down the tunnel he’d come from, he saw the flicker of firelight. Something buzzed through his veins like currents, and before Carter could process the situation, he was on his feet and running the opposite way of the fire.
An icy grip fixed itself around his chest, clawed and turned his stomach around like a squishy, gutsy salad. Carter couldn’t have pinned down what it was that had triggered such a response in him, only that something whispered in the back of his mind that whatever it was coming down the tunnel wasn’t friendly. Whatever was coming down the tunnel was something to fear.
When he came upon another forked pathway, he reacted on instinct and turned down the left one.
He hadn’t heard any footsteps before he heard the voice and frankly, hadn’t heard any after either. But now his own feet pounding against the ground seemed to echo through the caves. He felt like a very small creature, being hunted by something with sharpened fangs and elongated claws, snarling and snapping at his heels.
It made him feel sympathy for all the rabbits and mice and other prey animals. Especially as he rounded a corner and nearly ran headfirst into another man.
He froze, nearly tripping over all his limbs as he went from a full-out sprint to a dead halt.
The man, who was holding two jagged knives that made Carter’s insides turn to jelly, looked as startled as Carter felt. Unfortunately for Carter, the man recovered faster.
He wasn’t holding any sort of light, but his brown eyes glinted like he was. He had rugged, messy blond hair and, on his both biceps, a sharp and twisting black brand. And he grinned like a predator.
Instinct was what kicked Carter’s body into motion more than his rationalisation. He turned around, sweat trickling down his brow, and took off back down the tunnel.
Another terrific plan. Until another man, with the same dirty blonde but much better kept hair, cut off his path.
“Rémi! Get-” the man behind him cut himself short. Whatever instinct had kicked Carter into motion before was gone now, and he could do more than glance between the two coterie members he was pinned in between.
“As usual,” grumbled the one who was wearing a long-sleeved leather jacket and therefore Carter could not see any brands if they were there and might have been Rémi. “I’m doing your work for you.”
The one with the brands’ grin widened, perhaps growing even more feral. It made Carter shudder. “Perks of being the youngest.” Then his gaze fell on Carter and his eyes narrowed. His smile didn’t falter, which Carter rather wished it would. “One of three isn’t so bad,” he said, eyeing Carter from head to toe.
“If it were one of the three,” the other one, maybe-Rémi, spat.
Carter’s chest hurt too much to breathe. All he could think of was that he should have gone with Isha, or Gideon, you absolute fool. What were you going to do anyway? Panic until Shiloh magically appeared?
“Where’s your friends?” the one still grinning asked, addressing Carter directly now.
Any words that might have come out got clogged in his throat. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t. He couldn’t tell them where Gideon or Isha was, or even Winnie or Finn. Couldn’t do that to his friends, regardless of lies or how scary they looked when they scowled.
“His tongue will loosen back at camp,” maybe-Rémi said dismissively. “We continue scouring the tunnels. If none of the others show, they can come and get him if they want him back.”
Before he could protest beyond making lots of unintelligible noises, the one with the twin brands grabbed him. Carter thought he said something, but the blood was rushing through his ears and his heartbeat was pounding too loud.
Then there was a sharp pain in the side of his head, and Carter’s vision went. He had all of two seconds to concentrate on it, wonder if this was what death felt like, before everything – his wheezing breaths, the icy sweat on his spine and forehead, that horrible stinging pain on the right side of his head – melted into a limp nothing.
word count: 2,053