It pained Whisper to push the horses so hard. They didn’t know how to justify that, if they could, if knowing that Carter and Isha could die if they didn’t was worth it.
But Fabella and Napoleon were strong, resilient, and they carried Whisper and Shiloh fast and sure back to the Spire. Whisper had little reservations about taking Finn’s horse. One, they hoped if Finn did not have his horse, it might buy them even a little time for him to find a new one. They knew he’d come after them and Shiloh.
Fabella and Napoleon were the tallest, aside from Achille, and the fastest. Taking Achille had seemed like a recipe for disaster, as easily as he was spooked.
The horses were both hot and wet, foamy sweat coating their necks, as they slowed with the Spire coming into view. Whisper led Napoleon towards the thicket where the entrance to the underground lay at a walk and pat his neck despite the precipitation. They gave him the reins and he stretched his neck, letting out a heavy snort. He was a steady ride, if not somewhat bouncy, and they could see why Finn had chosen him.
They dismounted behind the cover of the trees, shrouding their entrance like silent guardians. Whisper made quick work of tying Napoleon up after they had cooled down, even though it hit somewhere in their chest that they really needed more walking even if they’d had some on the walk to the Spire.
Shiloh had gotten Fabella secured to a tree, the mare bobbing her head up and down and nickering softly. Shiloh was already at the old water pump. Whisper glanced at the slate on the ground that they had seen when they’d come after Carter. Sure enough, after Shiloh had worked at the handle for a moment, it slid open. Cold air drifted out of the encompassing darkness.
“Come,” Whisper said. They nodded down the tunnel and glanced at where Shiloh was staring at it with twisted brows. It was hard to blame her. Given the option, Whisper wouldn’t have chosen to go down there either, and they hadn’t even been down there before.
But they had to. And Shiloh only hesitated a second before nodding and making her way hurriedly to the entrance, and then down the stairs. Whisper took a deep breath, glanced up at the horses once more – for reassurance, maybe, or maybe not – and then followed Shiloh.
They had no light, both stepping blindly down the staircase. They’d come from the cover of nightfall, sure, and it was better than entering from broad daylight but that didn’t mean it was any easier to see.
It was when they go to the bottom of the staircase that a distant, muted golden light glittered from the tunnel to the left. As Whisper looked at it, it appeared to pulse. And it was the one that Shiloh began to hurry down. Whisper paused only a moment before following.
The stone seemed to sing around them, a comforting warmth wrapping around Whisper. The way their mother used to tuck them into bed. It smelled of her too, and the flowers she used to pick to put on their nightstand in cheap mugs.
And then the cavern opened up and Whisper forgot all their reservations about descending into this system. It was beautiful, enough to make them pause just to take in the view from above. Clear, shimmering gold water. Flora, blossoming as if kissed by Ismeria herself, bright and colourful and thriving.
There were the pictures on the wall. They told a story, Whisper was sure. Regret at not having the parchment or time to attempt recording it weighed hard in their stomach. But then there was Shiloh, calling their name, and Whisper reluctantly turned from the murals.
Shiloh had paused at the golden oasis’ edge, staring down at it with a frown. Whisper approached her, and the water shifted, as if trying to lap at the shore around both their toes.
“I almost drowned twice,” Shiloh said quietly. “Once crossing, and the second time because Gideon was laying motionless there.” She gestured weakly to the centre of the pool. “The things I saw in there – it made me see things, things that scared me. Terrifying things. But they were that. Just visions.” She let out a breath and looked down at her hands. “And then I woke up, after I… touched whatever… the onyx sphere. And Gideon was just- he was lying there. I thought he was dead, and I didn’t think about those visions when I went in after him.”
Although Whisper wanted to crouch down to the water, to know if they could sense the magic of it, they watched Shiloh carefully. They stayed quiet, waiting for Shiloh to finish before they spoke.
And sure enough, she laughed humourlessly and rubbed at her cheeks as if tears lay there. Her eyes glistened, but she did not cry. “And then, not even an hour later. I said I’d kill him.” She glanced up at Whisper and the expression across her face spoke of a deep pain. “We used to fight, used to disagree, but I love him like he’s my second brother. He’s always been good to me, you know? This was all his idea, escaping. It was because Corin was forcing me to marry. He’d protected me before, from men in the coterie. Corin could never really stop him, only punish him, but what was Gideon going to do about something as explicit as marriage? And I turn on him the moment someone suggests he liked Carter. Just like I always have.”
“You want to protect Carter. Anyone in his position could be a threat,” Whisper pointed out. Then, they glanced over at the dais across the water. “That does not justify how you treated him, but there is time. Make it up to him. He is like a second brother to you? Look after him and Carter both. If you want my opinion, Carter has more control over them than Gideon does.”
They glanced back at Shiloh, who watched them with bright eyes. A tear streaked down her cheek and she swiped it away before nodding and giving Whisper a small smile. “Yeah. Yeah, he- I- thank you. Sometimes, I forget you’re always the smartest person in the room.”
Whisper’s mouth twitched. “No. Just the most observant. And the quietest, perhaps.”
Shiloh chuckled, warm and real this time. Whisper felt something gentle bloom in their chest. But they couldn’t stand around all day.
They stepped into the water, and then held out their left hand to Shiloh. She took it with a moment’s hesitation, and then they were making their way through the pool of the golden water. Shiloh’s breathing had because shallow, coarse, but Whisper did not let go of her hand as they held their head up and shoulders steady.
It took hardly any time at all for them to cross the water. They were on the dais in moments and Shiloh blinked somewhat dumbly between the water and Whisper. Then she let out a breathy laugh and ran a hand through her hair. Whisper let go of her hand.
They approached the pedestal rising from the centre of the dais first and walked around until they were once again facing towards the water. It felt like the times they’d tried to climb behind the pedestal at the local chapel. That’s what the dais looked like, really. Some kind of beautiful, black alter that belonged in somewhere like the White Cathedral, not a cavern.
Reaching out, Whisper let their fingers brush against the pedestal. It was in the shape of hands, or at least partially. Carved obsidian reached up, thin strands like bones reaching up to clasp the shut display case in front of them. Inside lay a smooth, black sphere. It looked less like the colour black, more like the absolute absence of light.
“It was gone,” Shiloh said, coming to stand at Whisper’s shoulder. “It was gone after I touched it, and the case was open and-” Whisper could see her glance at them from the corner of their gaze. “I don’t understand.”
“Magic isn’t made to be understood,” said Whisper as they reached out to the case. They ran their fingers along pedestal but felt nothing. In fact, it was like the sphere itself- almost an absence of anything. It was not absorbing, but not quite existing either. It was an odd sensation. “Do we understand everything of water? Of fire?”
“One you can drown in and the other you can burn in,” Shiloh murmured. “Underneath the case, there’s an indent. Push it, it should open.”
Whisper did as Shiloh told them, finding the indent and pressing into it. The case shuddered for a moment, and then clicked open. The lid swung back, and Whisper could feel the stirring of magic with it.
How fascinating the world could be with magic. How many mechanisms could be crafted? How many things innovated? Reinvented? It hadn’t been the first time Whisper had imagined what it would be like, if magic was not for only a few people who had the pull strongest in them. If magic filled the world. What a beautiful place it could be. And terrifying.
And they had to wonder what it was that the Comtesse Aelina would have done with it. What kind of ruler would she be with magic everywhere? She had nothing to gain from it, not more than she had. Whisper had pondered over that too.
They reached forward into the case to cup the sphere in their hands. Whisper allowed themself a moment to wonder over how such an orb came to be. But soon enough, they turned to Shiloh and held it out for her.
Shiloh glanced at her warily. “Should I? Last time I touched it- well.” Her brows knitted forward.
“Take it. It would be best closest to you, so I can transfer the energy from you to it easier,” Whisper explained.
“I don’t… quite understand that. But I’m not sure I understand most things about the magic.” Shiloh sucked in a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. Then, she gingerly took the sphere from Whisper’s hands and cringed away from it, pinching her eyes shut.
When nothing happened, Shiloh opened her eyes again and hummed thoughtfully.
“Are you ready?” Whisper asked. Shiloh met their gaze and shrugged.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to be ready for, but I trust you. Unmagic me.”
Whisper closed their eyes and reached out for the magnet coursing through Shiloh. It was crackling, volatile energy seeking an escape and finding no where to go. It was the sky at the brink of a storm, a volcano at the edge of eruption.
They reached out with their own magic. Control. It was controlling the magic, tamping it down so that it wouldn’t get out between the transference, between Shiloh and the sphere. It was what Whisper was best at, it was what their magic was designed to do. They anchored a thread of magic to the sphere and began to pull the rest to it.
word count: 1,868