Shiloh couldn’t feel much of anything after Whisper closed their eyes. She hurt all over, a throbbing sensation filling her whole body. But she’d been like that ever since she’d touched the orb in the first place. It had become something to live with, a nuisance but a constant.
There was something that seemed to roll through her, wrapping itself around her bones and pulling. But otherwise- nothing. Whisper had their eyes closed, and nothing looked to be happening. Or well, that was subjective. The golden pool had begun to emit a sweet, soft melody. Shiloh glanced at the shimmering surface and swore she could see a pale vapour beginning to rise from the water.
She was entranced by it, but not enough to miss the sudden drum of footsteps.
Glancing up towards the top of the staircase, Shiloh felt something familiar hit her in the chest. Only, instead of running down towards her and Gideon like before, Finn had paused this time. And Koshar wasn’t with him.
Whisper had explained the situation on their way to the Spire. Comtesse Aelina was controlling Finn and he’d attacked them when they’d come looking for Shiloh.
Even from all the way down on the dais, Shiloh can see the violent haze of red around his eyes. It seemed to wrap around his head, in fact, like a transparent visor or blindfold. Whisper had said his eyes were glowing, but not that much.
And then he was making his way down the staircase at a moderate jog, and Shiloh’s heart began to thud against her chest painfully. “Winnie,” she hissed. Whisper didn’t stir. “Whisper!”
Finn paused again in front of the pool. Closer up, Shiloh could see the unnerving blankness of his stare. There was a bruise bloomed over his left eyebrow, violet and a sickly green, partially washed out by the crimson around his eyes.
She did trust Gideon, she did. And she was trying hard to believe what he had said about trusting Finn. But there he was, standing across the water from them. He was there to kill them; she could see the dagger in a sheathe at his hip. And he had made a deal with the Comtesse who wanted them dead, who wanted Shiloh dead.
The Comtesse had told her that. She wanted the magic released, and it couldn’t be released when it was trapped in a human vessel until the body had no way of trapping it. It clung to her life, supposedly. As soon as that was severed-
Agony burst through her veins and it felt like walking through fire. Shiloh nearly dropped the sphere, crying out in pain. It had started glowing, in her hands, a gold too bright to look directly at. Shiloh had to turn her neck away, biting down on her tongue to try to subvert the pain. It was tearing through her, and she wanted nothing more than to crumple to the floor.
Movement caught her eyes and she glanced over just in time to see Finn, who had pulled out his dagger, step into the water. His eyes never left her and Whisper. When he touched the water, it turned to red around him. It looked like dipping someone with open wounds into a river, except the red clung only to him.
He got no more than a few steps into the water when the red around his eyes began to waver. Finn paused, blinking rapidly, and then began to breathe rapidly. The dagger slipped from his hands and sunk in the water. He brought his hands to his head and clutched at his hair, making quiet hissing noises of pain.
“I-” Finn began. There was a moment where he glanced up, underneath the palms of his hands still gripping his hair, his eyes were clear. The only red glow left was in the water and it was beginning to dissolve like powder.
And then, as if someone had struck him, his head lolled backwards, and he went limp in the water.
“Whisper!” Shiloh shouted. She made to step towards him, to get him out of the water because as much as she didn’t trust him, he didn’t deserve to drown like that. Instead, she found she could move, not even to twitch. Even her head was paralysed where she’d turned it. The glow from the sphere, now more ivory than gold, was becoming overbearing even from the corner of her eyes. She shut them instead.
Heat filled her veins, but ice clung to her bones. It felt as if every fibre of her body was being torn out. Shiloh opened her mouth but if she made a noise, she did not hear it. There was a cacophony of shrill noise in her ears, like dozens of tea kettles all reaching a boiling point at once.
Something washed through her, a surge that, for a moment, felt like a disconnect. As though she were no longer connected to her own body. As if she could float away if she wanted, into the atmosphere, and never come back down.
And then it was gone. All the pain, all the noise. The hot-cold that had filled her.
She was trembling, badly. She could feel the violent shivers before anything else. Shiloh cracked open her eyes and found there was no more sun-like glows. She was on her knees on the ground and sweat clung to her like clothes too small. Hair stuck to her forehead as though she’d stuck her head in a bucket of water.
Her head swam, and her eyelids were heavy. In fact, all of her felt heavy, like her bones were made of stone and her skin made of lead. Shiloh let her head drop forward, but her eyes caught on movement in front of her.
Whisper was standing, or rather, wobbling. The sphere was in their hands and they were standing in front of the pedestal. Shiloh watched as they reached out and carefully placed the sphere back into its resting place. The case snapped shut as soon as Whisper had pulled their hands away.
And then, without prompting, Whisper collapsed.
Shiloh blinked, mouth parting slightly as she stared at Whisper’s now-prone figure on the obsidian surface. Her heart wasn’t racing as it probably ought to be but beating so sluggishly it felt like the beginning of a military march.
“Whisper,” she croaked. Warm condensation dripped into and from her mouth and Shiloh spit it out. But not before the thick, metallic taste of blood embittered her tongue.
She raised a hand to wipe her face, and her hand came back bloody. Shiloh blinked again, hard. She wasn’t hurt, though she did feel light-headed. But where was it coming from?
When she swallowed, she could taste the copper in her mouth. It was already there, she realised, in her mouth. In between her teeth and under her tongue. She spit more of it out, but she’d already swallowed back some of it. She didn’t know why she was bleeding and where it was coming from.
Shaking her head only made her more dizzy. Her eyes felt as if filled with tears but didn’t sting of them.
She glanced to her right, away from where Whisper lay on the ground. In the pool, Finn floated face down. She turned back to Whisper.
What would happen if she went after him without Whisper? She had a feeling that the only reason she had been able to go through the water unscathed was because of them. Or because of the magic, because she hadn’t been affected when she’d saved Gideon. Or maybe she’d already paid her dues, and nothing would happen when she dove into the water.
Whisper was breathing, chest rising and falling as if only asleep. Their hair was frizzed, more so than normal, and their hands twitched. But Shiloh couldn’t do anything about that. She couldn’t help them. She couldn’t even bring herself to feel anything, or maybe something was preventing her from doing so.
Gideon had said Finn had saved him. Gideon had said that Carter trusted him. Maybe it was time to follow both their examples.
She made her way to the staircase that dipped into the pool on her hands and knees. Then, wiping at her face once more to wipe away the blood, she slipped in after Finn.