The northern edge of the Rim was always quiet with the mountains ranging ahead. I found Coal asleep, an arm flung over his eyes.
“Edge Guard,” I snapped at him, using his proper title. He propelled himself up, his eyes blurry.
“Damn, Lark. You scared the life out of me!” He gave me a grin that slipped off as his eyes focused on me. “What’s wrong?”
Breathless from the fear coursing through me, more than the run, I finally got the words out. “Do you know if my father is back from the eastern front?”
Coal shook his head. “No, he’s still there. The last guard change came with news, the eastern edge is having problems with the trees dying still.”
Closing my eyes, I breathed in the air and tried to still my mind. Who could help me? “Be careful, Coal”—I turned my back on him—“promise me that. It isn’t just a disease, it’s the lung burrowers.”
“Hey, aren’t you going to stay and keep me company?”
I dared a glance over my shoulder to see him beckoning me back, his eyes full of heat. A surge of answering desire whispered over my body, giving me a shudder of unease. The last thing on my mind was sex, so why the desire?
Forcing myself to step closer to him, to test my theory, shock faded to need, the heady thrum of blood rushing through my body heightened. He moved toward me and I swayed. I kept myself from touching him. “Coal, something is wrong.” His green eyes, they had that same pink tinge that I’d seen in Mal’s eyes when he’d made a move on me.
“Nothing has ever felt so right,” he whispered, catching my hand in his, and then his lips were pressed against my own, that strange haze flowing over me. The comfort of his love, the familiarity of his touch, the smell of his skin—they sucked me under. We were there, cocooned in that feeling for what seemed like hours, not doing anything but touching, holding, kissing. No sex, just together.
Like we were under some kind of spell.
I jerked backward, the light around us having shifted enough that it was easy to see the hours that had gone by. My stomach growled, loudly, and I put a hand to it. I was starving and so thirsty. I reached down and scooped up Coal’s kit of food and water. The food was rancid, mold growing on it. The water, though stale, was clean and clear, and I gulped it down, the raggedness of my mouth and throat grateful.
Hours, it wasn’t hours I’d stood there with him but days.
“Shit on a green stick,” I gasped out and really looked at Coal. Like I was trying to see him use his abilities. That faint pink glow hovered in the whites of his eyes. I never would have seen it if I hadn’t drawn so close. I stepped back, easy to break away now that I knew what was happening. Days—days had been wasted here.
Frowning, I continued to back away.
“Lark, please don’t go.”
That clinched it. “You never ask me to stay with you, Coal. Not in all our time together.”
He tipped his head and the pink faded from his eyes. “What? I didn’t ask you to stay.”
Anxiety began to heat in the bottom of my belly. “No, of course not,” I said and turned away from him. I put a hand to my head; was I going crazy? Seeing pink glowing eyes, and feeling things I shouldn’t be feeling, hearing words Coal would never say . . . .
I trudged back to the barracks, my body exhausted and unable to give me more than a clipped walk. I slipped into the barracks through the back door. There was no one waiting for me, no one to ask me where I’d been.
A cold rush of air circled up and around my legs. A faint hint of herbs and sour sickness crept along with the air and I followed it down to the healers’ rooms. I’d only been in the room once, when I’d first started my training, to be sure there was nothing seriously wrong with me.
Then, the room had been large and spacious, the skylights letting in plenty of natural light to brighten the room. The beds had all been empty, the room rarely used. Bottles and jars of herbs and healing ointments, a couple of curatives from the Pit had been lined up along the walls then. Everything in order.
Now, every bed was taken with an Ender, and the recruits were using the floor. Jars and herbs were scattered, blood on the sheets, wriggling worms weaving their trail of death down the bodies.
The healer, Orchid, saw me, gasped, and ran to my side. “If you aren’t sick, leave, now. Ender Ash is the only other one not showing symptoms.”
I pushed against her hands. “Is my father sick? Raven?”
The sorrow in her eyes was all I needed. “Yes. Everyone except the queen, and Ash. And now you.”
Chills swept through me, followed closely by a rush of heat. “Why am I not surprised?”
A rattling cough drew my eyes to the wall on my left. Granite sat in the bed, but only just barely. His shoulders slumped forward, as if he was no longer able to hold his own head up. I moved as if to go to him and he held a hand up, stopping me.
“Don’t come any closer. I’ll be okay, go help Ash. Tell him I ordered you to go with him.” He held out a piece of paper to the healer, as another cough rattled through his chest, shaking his entire body with the aggressiveness of it. A ripple of pain passed over his face. Gingerly, I stepped forward and took the paper from the healer, then quickly stepped away, putting space between the disease and me as much as I could.
I looked at the bed next to him, Oakley laying there, barely breathing. The burrowers were there, just under his skin, breeding, and then their spores were coughed out into the air ready to dig into another set of lungs.