It didn't matter who said it, I wasn't listening terribly closely. All of my attention was on the Hollow Child and its lack of teeth. Hollow Man cried out somewhere. Like a caged animal. "Being used by..." That was the question they should have been asking. Who was using him?
Or perhaps I should have been asking myself why I cared. The other person inside me twitched, and I fell to my knees, retching. Oh, Dr Cordet, thank you so very much. Focusing or thinking, whatever it was she had told me to do, had not just woken up some connection. Nor a magnet pull either.
Someone held my hair back out of my face while everyone else kept their shoes clear of my breakfast. I coughed and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. The Hollow Child flickered in and out of my vision now, as if whatever had made it so hard to shake had gone out of me with the removal of the morning's cold cereal.
Demetrius handed me a handkerchief. It was stained yellow with sweat and might have had a monogram at one point in time. I chuckled over it, coughing again. My stomach gave another muscular jump, but I held it in check.
An oath from Chrysander made us all look up and turn to him. He pointed at the Hollow Child for a fraction of a second, and then shook his head and withdrew his hand to hold his head. A bit late. It was gone a second later, so that not even I could see it anymore.
"That was a ghost, right?"
He was asking me. As if he was certain I knew. Still on my knees in front of a puddle of sick, I shook my head. "I don't know what it was. I thought it was a minion of the Hollow Man."
"Why on earth would he have minions?" Noni asked, a scoff creeping into her voice. I couldn't quite be annoyed with her for it. She had the right of it, after all.
Dr Cordet was a bit less dismissive, however. She responded the way I had expected her to, while I had been rooting about in the dark, only half of myself and losing even that. Fascination outlined her features, and I could have sworn that her light globes pulsated at a brighter level. It made it a bit harder to see. "A society of Hollows," she mused. "I wonder if he has a hierarchy of cronies..."
The only reason I did not get up to stagger over and vomit on her feet was that she sounded vaguely horrified by the idea. Also, I couldn't have moved that much. Demetrius continued to hold up my hair.
His hand rested on my neck, warm despite the cold of the cave, but not so warm as my own skin. I could feel a tremendous heat building up, but only in my chest, face, and neck. "That isn't possible. Hollow Man would have to recruit to have cronies or whatever word you can pick. Of all the things we know he does, keeping anything alive is not all that high on the list."
Reaching over for his arm, I nodded. I had to stand up and get away from where I was kneeling. Caves were the worst place to be sick. Someone ought to write that down. "What a good point you make," I said lightly, not sure why I was speaking so calmly. "I thought that thing wanted to kill us or lead us to Hollow Man to be killed. But it didn't have any teeth. Someone wants us for something else."
"You mean..." Soterios paused, then went on in a halting voice. "I don't think it's us, exactly. Call it a feeling, but it's been about you from the start, Athena. Whoever it is wants you for something. That's--that's what it must be, isn't it?"
It was a good point. Well made. But for the first time since meeting him, I wanted to punch Soterios in the mouth.
The urge startled me, so I squashed it out of myself, shaking my head. My temperature was climbing, I could feel it. The uncomfortable warmth had already become an unbearable boiling heat, spreading down past my knees now. Each step was a stagger, and I was actually leaning on Demetrius.
He didn't seem to mind. He just helped me over the obstacles of the cave floor, silent as anything. Noni moved to take my other hand, but he just waved her off.
She stepped closer anyway, and he made another, more insistent gesture. "Stay back," he said firmly. "It's plain to anyone that something isn't right, but I have this feeling that no one should get too close just now."
"Too close?" Dr Cordet repeated, for once apparently at a loss for eloquence. "Then you had better let go, Mr Trevino. Athena, your face is not at all what one would call a picture of health. Can you tell us what is the matter?"
All I could do was shake my head. My vision was swimming, it was like looking at the world through a veil a water. Standing behind a waterfall that was bubbling instead of dropping straight down. I tried to remove my arm from Demetrius, but he held on. Persevering towards the mouth of the cave, or so I expected.
My feet burned. I wanted to remove my boots, but when I tried to bend down to do so, I nearly went for a tumble. "I've got to..."
But I was never able to finish that sentence. The world went black.
At first, I thought that I had passed out, but I had done so once or twice in the past, so I had a basis of comparison. When I had passed out from forgetting lunch and dinner and staying up all night to study for a particularly difficult test, I had not known anything of what was going on until I was conscious again.
This was nothing like that. I could still feel things, the rock around me, the contrasting coolness of it. My temperature had peaked when the blackness overtook me, and then dropped very quickly, almost as if chasing the example of the air around me. Around us. Demetrius was still holding onto my arm.
A jolt travelled up my legs and I realised that we had landed on something awfully hard. Landed. Which had to mean that we had fallen. Didn't it?
There were no more globes of light, but I took some small comfort in knowing that the blackness was only a lack of light. "Where are we?" I asked, straightening. It went against reason, but somehow I felt as though I had just lost everything that had been making me sick before. Almost as if I had been overtaken by a passing viral infection. A very very fast one.
"I was going to ask you. This isn't--you're the one who's been figuring these things out." Demetrius paused, to swallow possibly, and then added, "How were you doing it, by the way?"
In that perfect blackness, like the spot where I had known the Hollow Child was hiding, it was all I could do to remember that I had a hand to put in front of my face. Actually seeing it was beyond me. "Dr Cordet made me focus," I said, attempting to place at least some blame on a known person. An identified being that I could give a good hard shake later. "And after that, it was as if I was in a dream."
"You mean a nightmare."
"Don't use that word."
Was that me shuddering, or him? It was getting colder, but there was something comfortable about it. That second presence inside me nestled up in my stomach like a cat in a sunbeam. Heavy and cloying. I wondered if it had made me throw up to make room for itself. Which would imply that it was physical rather than metaphorical.
The thought was not at all a pleasant one. I covered my mouth with one hand and forced myself to breathe deeply.
"I think we should try to get out of here." Demetrius laughed a little. There was no mirth or even confidence in it, but it had a curious effect on me. It made me feel better. "At least to somewhere there's some light."
Feeling oddly irritated, which is always better than fear, I said, "Capital idea. Which way to you propose we go?"
To my surprise, he started walking. Leading me along as he had several times in the past, as if he knew exactly where he was going and had but to get there. I let him, which was just as shocking. Now that my feet did not feel as though I had decided to stand in a fire, I had felt almost content to stand in that one dark place and never move again. Like a nightblooming flower. Or a mushroom.
"Can you see?"
"Not a thing. But if I feel along the wall, then it ought to lead to somewhere."
"Listen to you, talking like a professor. You've been hanging around Cordet too long." He pulled on my arm a little, and I realised he was trying to drape it across his shoulders. He was very close to the wall, and ended up scraping my knuckles on the rock, but it did make it easier to walk. The landing had twisted my knee.
My chest hurt, and for the first time in days, I was aware of the wounds left by the mimet. It had been easy to forget them while in the laboratory. There was always someone to dress the wounds, always fresh bandages, and no one ever fussed. But now there wasn't even a speck of light. My feelings were all I had to go on.
So I put the throbbing dullness of healing wounds in the front of my mind. Every now and then, I flexed my fingers to touch the wall, though it did little to orient me.
"May I ask you something?"
The broken silence might have been more comfortable than the sounds of our footsteps, shuffling in longish strides to avoid tripping. I could even laugh a bit at the almost formal tone of Demetrius's voice. "You just did," I pointed out.
"Come on, I mean it."
I shrugged. My eyes had adjusted to the dark as much as they ever would, and I still could not see anything. But I was aching, freezing cold, and limping due to my injured knee. Somehow it all felt a tiny bit glorious. I could feel Demetrius's pulse on his neck, if I bent my elbow, and the scrape of his boots had a peculiar rhythm that could only come from a human being. We were both alive, against odds that I couldn't even imagine at. "Ask away."
At that point, I realised something a little frightening. In the dark, nothing really mattered. So everything did.
He cleared his throat, which almost made me laugh. It must not have been an easy question. "Why did you go along with all of this?"
"I'm sorry, but that is a stupid question. You already know why. I didn't have a choice."
"There's always a choice."
Somehow I seemed to remember someone else saying that, but I could not recall who it had been. "Yes, but the alternatives were not particularly attractive, if you don't mind my saying."
"I--" He let out a small, frustrated noise, then continued. "That isn't what I meant."
"Then what did you mean? Honestly, I wish that young men could just come out and say what they mean sometimes."
It had been intended to be a joke, but the way Demetrius responded made it clear that he had missed the humour by several yards. His arm, previously just hanging limply between us, slipped around my waist. It made sense to do so, or would have done if he had done it when he had let me lean on him to limp off into the unseen extent of the cave. Now it just seemed like the thought had hit him rather too belatedly to mean anything. "That's it then. You like him because he always says what he thinks."
"Who?" Probably it ought to have been the other way around, but it worried me that he held his arm just so, not only careful of my wounds, but fully aware of them. Of their location and maybe even of how much exactly they hurt and did not hurt. I almost told him he was scaring me.
"Chrysander Vedas." He said the name like it was a curse. "I wish I could tell you he's a liar."
"He's told me that."
"Well, that was a lie. It's almost the only one he ever tells."
"That would be a reason to like him, if I did."
"If? You don't, then?"
My head was spinning. "Demetrius Trevino, if you don't spit out what you want to say, then I'm going to let go of you and let you be lost in the dark for fully five seconds. See how you like it."
It was a stupid, childish threat, but it did the trick. Or perhaps it didn't, really. The scraping of his boots elongated for a second, halting us, and then he said, "I wish I had never met you."
Instead of angering me, this made me grin. "Didn't I say something like that that to you once?"
"You probably did. But I doubt you meant it the way I do."
His voice was soft, rather unlike him, but still his voice all the same. I felt a smile on my face, wished I could see his. He sounded quite upset, but in a quiet way. "Oh really. How do you mean it then?"
He didn't answer me. At first I thought the conversation was simply over. Then I felt warm breath on my face, and chapped lips touching mine.
It was only for the briefest portion of a second. I could have imagined it. I told myself I had, but that didn't last much longer than the kiss had. Unable to move, I stood there like a lemon, my thoughts in disarray.
Then we were moving again. Neither of us said anything.
My face burned, my knee twinged with every step. Images of Noni kept flashing through my mind, deepening the guilty pit of rot taking up residence in my stomach. It made an appropriate roommate for the heavy sensation that I had been steadily trying to forget about. I should have slapped him, but I still couldn't see my hand in front of my face.
I even tested it, holding up my palm, knowing it was there. But it was connected to me, even if I couldn't see it, my muscles, bones, and nerves all conveyed the correct message. My hand was in front of my face. The distance wasn't easy to guess at without any visual cues, but it was still my hand. I could pull it back and forth rapidly without ever touching so much as my nose. Come to that, I could touch my nose, my closed right eye, a more or less specific spot on my cheek.
They were parts of me which I knew were there. I had two centres of touch that could report to my brain and locate one another in the dark. But Demetrius was not connected to me, he had no such advantages. How had he been able to do something like that without fumbling like an idiot?
And why had he done it?
I shut my eyes, which was delightfully pointless and therefore comforting, counting down from the highest number the popped into my mind without thinking. I was going to ask him. If he could presume that much, then I could ask him a simple question.
"Why did you do that?"
The wrong bloody question. I nearly slapped my hand over my face.
I tried again, but I only made it worse. "Noni would have my head if she knew you had done that."
"Maybe that's one of the reasons I did it," he snapped. "I wish you'd stop going on about her. You don't know anything about it."
"Perhaps not as much as you do, but I know that she wants to marry you, you idiot!" I was shouting, and it echoed so that I started to feel lost, even with my fingers following the rock wall as we continued walking. "Engaged men shouldn't be--"
He stumbled, and the movement went through me as well. We both tumbled, and I cried out. A rock had struck me square in the side, and I felt scabs tear off. Tears streamed down my face, as if they had had time to well up. Whimpering and almost moaning, I sat up, scrabbling for Demetrius's hand, foot, stupid head, something.
Yes, I was furious at him. Yes, he was possibly the biggest idiot I'd ever known. But he was better than being alone in this place, and at the core of it, I was pretty sure we were friends or something like it.
My hand came in contact with warm skin. I pinched it. He swore, sounding a little flattened, but there. Relief flooded through me. I almost apologised, driven by that sensation alone, but I caught myself in time.
"That's my back," he grumbled. "Let me up."
"Nothing doing. I'm not moving my hand for anything."
"It's very uncomfortable."
"Too bad. You did something very, very stupid, Demetrius Trevino."
A slow flurry of scraping filled the air, echoing as he pushed his way up, my hand still on his back. I only moved it when he took my wrist and made me. "There are stupider things I could do," he said, his voice infernally soft again. I felt his hip against mine as he sat down beside me.
"Don't you even try it," I said. My cheeks were flushed, from the fall, I told myself. "I'll tell Noni."
"Maybe I'll just tell her first." He moved his hand from my wrist and wove his fingers clumsily with mine.
I almost told him he would do no such thing, but I was too concerned with blood sticking my shirt to me. "We have to get moving again. There's..." Squinting, I leaned forward as much as I could, sitting the way I was. "I can see a light down there. How far did we fall?"
He was close enough that I could feel him shrug. "Felt like just a tumble. I only tripped."
"That's what I thought, but... Hold up your hand, can you see any part of it?"
A second later, he might have gasped, but it was difficult to tell. "Sort of. I can tell where my thumb is."
There was light a ways in front of us. If I focused, I could see it, steady and unblinking, the size of a baseball.