His head was splitting open. He was sure it was, sure he would see the crimson staining the edges of his vision, dripping down his fingers when he finally managed to pull his hands away from the head. Except, he was afraid if he let go, his skull would crumble.
And it’s not that he feared this killing him. He knew that was inevitable. Gideon was afraid that it wouldn’t. That the pain would never leave.
He felt some warm roll down his face and he knew it then. It was blood and his head was splitting open and-
It was sweat. And maybe he should have guessed because he was drenched all over and it should make him cold, the cave was immeasurably frigid, but Gideon felt as though he body was made of fire. He was so hot. He could feel the sweat trickling down his spine.
If he hadn’t already been shivering, the sensation would have made him. But he was trembling already, like a leaf poorly clinging to a tree in a hurricane. And he wanted to let go, wanted to stop trembling, God he was drained. Exhaustion clung to his bones and shook him in its hold, demanding that he shut his eyes and his body would do it for him, but he couldn’t.
His stomach curled, dangerously empty, but Isha had already tried to get him to eat. She was gone now, and Gideon knew if he tried, it’d just come back up.
There was a boy, standing in front of him, and Gideon could barely make him out with sweat dripping in his eyes. He tried to blink- when had this boy gotten there? But the boy looked familiar, and though Gideon couldn’t place him he felt something tear at his stomach like he’d been run through with a dagger.
He dry-heaved over the side of his bed.
There was a boy standing there, and his eyes were impenetrably blank. Glossy, unfocused, much like Gideon probably looked. His skin wasn’t a normal shade, it was grotesquely pale like he had no blood, but there was so much of it on his clothes, like all of that which should be inside was not. His skin was warped like it was stretched out over his bones.
Kill him, Gideon, a voice hissed in his ears. He tried to kill Valérie.
The boy was holding out something to him, but Gideon was still reeling because he hadn’t heard that name in so long. And that he knew, somehow, the boy hadn’t. He wandered into the cave when he was playing with his friends. He hadn’t threatened anyone at all.
Prove yourself or you two can share a fate.
The flash of green in the boy’s hand, skeletal with peeling skin like his flesh was rotting, and Gideon was heaving over the side of his cot again even though there was absolutely nothing in his stomach. And the room was spinning and rolling, and Gideon was tumbling-
His shoulder hit a plank of wood and Gideon yelped. It was a mistake, because his mouth was suddenly full of water and it tasted like pouring a bucket of salt in your mouth and nose and it burned. He coughed, suffocating on the brine but he couldn’t get it out of his body. It felt like it had ravished his system and was trying to tear apart his lungs.
And then he was rolling again, trying to grasp on to something, anything. A rope, there were so many ropes everywhere, they were all over the ship and he still couldn’t grab one.
He heard someone scream just before he hit another plank of wood with his hip and then felt a bone-deep chill wrap itself around him. He was in the water, and oh God, it was so cold, and it was everywhere. Everything was so dark, and Gideon blindly grasped for something, anything. Where was the ship?
Something touched his neck, but he couldn’t find it in himself to scream. He wasn’t wet anymore, and he wasn’t cold. At first, it felt like there was just something solid there, touching him, but suddenly blinding pain seared through his neck and down his shoulder. The scream rose then, and Gideon bit his lips so hard they bled to keep from crying out because he knew Adrienne wouldn’t hesitate to sink a dagger into his stomach, or something worse because that would be tame for her, if he showed weakness.
Valérie had already undergone the ceremony. Think of something else, think of anything else, she said, and so he tried. But it didn’t work because his neck felt like it had been pressed into the hot coals in the furnace nearby.
Someone was calling his name, and maybe it was Valérie- no, that wasn’t her name. It wasn’t her name, but then, what was-?
There was something pressing into his chest. His throat felt clogged, and panic rose in Gideon’s chest. He was back in the water, he could feel it in his lungs and throat and he couldn’t breathe.
The pressure was gone and then something hit him in the chest, hard. “Gideon!”
He started coughing without thinking about it, his body acting on instinct as his eyes flew open and he tried to expel the water from his lungs. He was drenched, this time with water and not with sweat, and the water he coughed up was not salty. It was almost sweet, if he hadn’t been choking on it.
Two hands held him, one on his back and the other on his arm and hauled him into sitting up. He bent over, still spitting out water. Whoever was holding him was warm and all the panic that had seized him before slowly evaporated.
“Shh,” a voice cooed next to him, soft and not at all malicious. “You’re safe here. You’re okay now.”
More coherent, Gideon became aware he was gripping one of his daggers so hard he couldn’t feel his hand. He let go of it and it clattered onto the mossy cavern floor.
Gideon blinked and leaned back, gasping for breath as he did so. He took in his surroundings and realised he was back in the cave, with the strange drawing and the golden pool and-
He whirled around, too fast apparently because pain shot through his neck and shoulder and he winced, but it didn’t matter. Staring up at him from where she was settled on her knees next to him, Shiloh was holding him up and watching him with her dark, stormy eyes. Her expression was gentle, but there was something severe in her expression Gideon had never seen before.
Were her eyes glowing?
But as their eyes met, she smiled and patted his back. Before she said anything, Gideon frowned.
“Your hair. It’s short,” he said. And then, promptly, started to cough again.
“Your skills of observation have not dulled since I last saw you,” Shiloh said, dryly. “Yes- I cut it. I hoped it would give me some leg-up against Corin. I thought trying to dye it would be extreme, but at least give them pause if they heard it was short and not long.”
She waited, patient as always, for him to stop coughing and take deep breaths before she let go of him as he turned to face her.
One thing, Gideon thought as he took her appearance, was that her hair did not look like Carter’s. They had the same smooth, dark skin and hair like the rich obsidian of the Spire, and both had blue-grey eyes – Carter’s were lighter – but Shiloh’s hair was straighter, more like Isha. Carter’s was a disaster of curls, so soft in appearance and such a mess that Gideon wondered what it would feel like to run his fingers through and try to tame. Well, maybe not tame. His messy curls were- were defining.
Which was… strange. It made his fingers twitch whenever he rode behind Carter, or when they were in camp and the light caught them just right, but he wasn’t sure why.
He blinked and was brought back to the cave. Shiloh was still watching him, but her brow was furrowed slightly, her mouth tense. She looked concerned, and it certainly wasn’t the first time Gideon had seen that look. But it was the first time that he was filled with a sudden heat, like someone had poured magma down his throat.
“You left,” he accused. His brow twisted, and he clenched his hands into fists. “What the hell, Shiloh? What happened?”
Her patient smile dissolved and something flickered in her eyes. “A lot,” she said, looking much more tired than Gideon had ever seen her. “I- I meant to tell you and Isha and I- it was-” she took a deep breath and glanced away from him.
Gideon’s stomach turned. Hesitantly, he reached out to touch Shiloh’s elbow. He was mad, sure, but he wasn’t cruel – or tried not to be, as best he could. She glanced down at his hand, brows curled, and then let out a harsh sigh and leaned forward to wrap her arms around him.
He stilled for a moment, and then reluctantly wrapped his arms around her. He was angry! He would comfort her, but she was supposed to be explaining what was going, not hugging him.
“I hope you brought Isha,” Shiloh said, “I missed you two.” Then she laughed. It wasn’t joyful. “God, Gideon, I feel like I’m hugging a rock. Do you ever relax?”
She said this to him every time. Somehow, Shiloh had forced herself into the friendship Gideon and Isha had – “forced” was a stretch, Isha was a large part of that. They got along well – and somehow acted like she’d been there the whole time. Gideon didn’t like being comfortable with people if he could help it, but Shiloh was like…
Like an annoying big sister. It seemed ironic now. She had been so like Isha, but there had always been some imperceptibly different.
He pulled away. Shiloh’s brows had smoothed out, but there was something stirring in her eyes.
“Explanation,” he grunted. Shiloh’s lips twitched.
“Glad to hear you missed me too,” she said. Then glanced at her hands she’d folded in her lap. “Things went wrong. The night I left, I had stayed up late to read through the manuscripts that Corin had been dumping on us, remember?” He nodded as she spoke. “I found one and it was old. I mean, it was really old. You could barely read it, but at the same time, it was clear as day. Does that make sense?”
Gideon stared at her.
“It doesn’t matter. But it was about the Divines and I found a passage about the relic and the Spire, but the story was odd. It read like the relic already existed, and all this,” she waved her hand around, “already existed.”
He tried to follow her hand gesture, but only ended up staring at her and blinking. “…Okay,” he said cautiously.
Where Isha would have rolled her eyes, waiting for Gideon to pick up some obscure hint she was dropping, Shiloh waved her hand again. “The Spire, the relic. Things were already here, over the island,” she said. When his expression didn’t change, she dropped her hand. “Before the Divines, Gideon. But history says they found it first, during the nine year war. Right at the end of it.”
He reached up to rub his temple. “That’s not much of an explanation,” he said.
“Well, it was that. That was all that was translated, the rest I couldn’t read. That was something else that was strange, as if the text knew what I was looking for. Don’t scowl like that Gideon, you’ll get wrinkles before your old enough to warrant them.” Despite her scolding, she paused, and her expression twitched. “It wasn’t just that. I overheard a conversation, because the study was supposed to be empty. Corin didn’t know I was in there.”
Now Gideon perked up. If it was strange that he was already mostly dry, strange that Shiloh was dry and that he wasn’t cold at all, he wasn’t considering it.
“He was talking to someone from-” Shiloh winced. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice dropping until it was so soft, she sounded as though she was speaking to a child. “It was someone from the Dragon’s Associates. Rémi, I think I heard.”
Gideon felt his muscles seize and he gritted his teeth. He knew how that must look to Shiloh and she watched him warily – they were best friends, but Gideon knew that Shiloh knew he was dangerous, and he saw the way she watched him like he was explosive that hadn’t gone off yet – and Gideon tried to force himself to relax. Not successfully. “I know,” he managed to say. Just not about Rémi.
Before he can collect himself enough to say anything more, Shiloh blinked. “You knew?”
“No, I- not then,” he said. Shiloh had a way of saying things accusing without making them sound accusing. Now, anyway. She certainly hadn’t been afraid to fault him when they’d first met. “They’ve been after us while we’ve been trying to find you.” He frowned. “They’ve been oddly quiet too.”
Shiloh reached out to touch his shoulder carefully, and Gideon realised his muscles were started to ache from being so wound up. He sighed.
“I just hope the earthquake shook them,” he muttered, realising how completely stupid it was of him not to realise they had seen no head or hair of either coteries in weeks.
But then Shiloh frowned. “Earthquake?”
He glanced around the cavern. Maybe she hadn’t been in here when it happened, but where would she have been so as not to feel in? Although, that cavern didn’t look like it had just suffered an earthquake. “Earlier today, or maybe yesterday now, there was an earthquake,” he said, gauging her reaction. “You couldn’t have not felt it. Half of us got thrown from our horses.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t, but I might have been out too. I- I don’t know how long I was asleep for, but after I touched the-” Shiloh’s eyes suddenly grew bright and sharp as she stared at him. “Half of us?”
Gideon felt his face burn and he ducked his head. Shiloh stiffened, and Gideon knew that it was because he never avoided her gaze like that. She’d probably never seen him blush either. Which he wasn’t doing now either.
But whatever blindly thrown together mess of an explanation he’d been about to try to give was interrupted by a loud, “Gideon!”
Now, Gideon stiffened. His gaze snapped up towards the entrance, where the path spiralled down until it melded with the platform he and Shiloh were on and found Finn sprinting towards them. He slowed when he saw Gideon and Shiloh, but if he was surprised to see her, he didn’t show it. For once, he looked worried.
Koshar ran at Finn’s heels. Gideon’s expression pinched. “Why is the cat with you?”
“I- what?” Finn adjusted his hat, which was tilting off his head, and glanced at his feet. “Huh. Must have followed me or-”
“Never mind about that cat,” Gideon said. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Shiloh staring at Koshar. Her eyes seemed to glow as she watched him, and there was a terrible sort of dawning spreading across her expression. Gideon cleared his throat, face still burning. “Why are you here? You’re supposed to be watching the horses. I thought you needed rest.”
Finn glared at him and Gideon was momentarily silenced. Finn didn’t glare, he laughed or shrugged things off. Now, he looked angry. “You can be nasty later, after you realise I specifically asked Winnie to take the horses because I knew you still don’t trust me. I am perceptive, you-”
“Winnie?” Shiloh asked, and Gideon watched as she leapt to her feet. Koshar pranced over to her and she stared at him. She looked as though she were on the brink of a storm. “That’s Koshar. What is going on? Who are you?” she asked Finn now, whose expression grew more intense by the second.
“I could explain if everyone shut up and stop interrupting me,” he snapped. Gideon felt his chest bubble but couldn’t bring himself to get so worked up – he’d never seen Finn angry before. “We’re out of time. They’ve caught up.” He shot them both hot glares when they both opened their mouth, challenging them to speak. They didn’t, and he nodded. “Thank you. It’s the coteries, they’re here. Now you can ask questions.”
word count: 2,784