“We can’t stay here forever,” Isha pointed out. And it was true- they’d been sitting in the burial chamber for ages. “It’s been quiet for a while. We can’t be so far from the entrance.”
She glanced over at Carter and Whisper, who were both sitting cross-legged on the floor. They’d moved only a few times and were now sitting back to back in an endearing sort of way. Carter glanced up at her, where she stood a few paces away. Whisper still looked deep in consideration.
To be honest, Isha wanted nothing more than to find a bed, any bed or surface gentler than stone even, and sleep forever. She was exhausted, freezing, and damp with sweat. Carter looked no better. Head lolling every few moments, eyelids drooping, and arms squeezed tight around himself as if to preserve his own heat.
“What if-” Carter frowned uncertainly. “What if there are, um, more of those… whatever they are?”
Isha had been resolutely not thinking about that since it had grown silent outside their door. She’d been resolutely not wondering if they were intelligent- what if that creature was waiting outside the door for them to come out? She couldn’t fight off something that couldn’t die. Could they even die?
“Then I hope you have energy to run,” Isha remarked. “But we still can’t stay here forever.” Carter looked down at the floor with a mournful expression, and her heart wilted a little at the sight. He deserved a good rest. Didn’t they all? “Sorry if this doesn’t compare to being stuck with Gideon underground.”
Interestingly enough, Carter’s mouth twitched and even in the dim light and for all of Carter’s dark skin, she could see the dark spread of a blush over his face. Oh Gideon, she thought, her own mouth twitching. Get your boy.
“I hope they’re all right,” Carter said after a moment. Isha sobered. They had been gone a while. Maybe it had been a mistake sending Gideon, Finn, and Shiloh. On a scale of everyone in their party, Isha would rate them most likely to get into trouble collectively.
Whisper stood then, abruptly, and Carter almost toppled backwards. They walked towards the door, throwing a gentle “Sorry,” over their shoulder to Carter. Then they closed their eyes, stepping carefully onto the rubble, and pressed their hands to the door. Isha watched, tilting her head slightly. With the motion, the room spun around her a little, and she began to blink rapidly and stagger backwards.
“There’s no magic traces outside,” Winnie said. They removed their hands from the door and turned back to face Isha and Carter. “No fresh ones, anyway.”
Isha glanced down at the debris blocking the door. When she glanced at Carter, he met her gaze and his brows suddenly curled upwards. He exhaled and it made a small “oh” noise.
“I’m sorry, Kitten. It was a good idea,” Isha offered. He shot her a pained look, and she walked over with only a little light-headedness. She held out her hand and he took it. The resulting actions nearly sent them both to the floor when Carter gently tugged and Isha almost tipped right over. Miraculously, they both stayed on their feet. Carter sneezed, thankfully not on Isha. Whisper watched them both with concern.
“Don’t,” they said as Carter shuffled over towards the debris. “You need your strength more than I do.”
And then they began to move the rocks without even touching them, and Carter shot them a dry look. “You couldn’t have done that earlier?” he muttered. There was no malice in his tone, though he did sound more than a little grumpy. Whisper, concentrating, ignored him.
Once all the rocks were moved, Isha was the first to shift open one of the doors and peer outside. She trusted Whisper to be able to detect the magic, but sometimes she needed to just see things with her own two eyes. When she found empty, black corridors, she let out a long breath.
She pulled open both doors and the other two followed a moment later, Whisper clutching the lantern that was surprisingly still lit and flickering enough to cast light unto the shadows of the walkways. Isha pulled her jacket around her tighter as they stepped into the icy hall, and her stomach pitched this time at the sight of the bandaged corpses in the walls. Could they rise, at any moment, or was Aelina only magicking some of them back alive?
Alive? Awake? What were they even?
“Come on,” Winnie said, turning left to lead them forward. “The two of you must get back to a bed so when you keel over, it is onto something soft.”
“Did you forget the part where dead men are patrolling the hall? Or- Divines, whatever those things are.” Isha sneered and tucked her hands underneath her arms. Her fingers were stiff with cold, and yet, her cheeks still felt flushed.
“Undying men, more like,” Carter mumbled beside her. Isha shifted right until their shoulders were pressed together, hoping that even through the illness, they could share what warmth they had left. Carter, the angel, wrapped over of his arms around her, and she let out a heavy sigh. He was warm.
She hummed, hair pooling over his shoulder now. “Clever. Let’s call them the Undying. Makes them sound like something out of a story book instead of a wretched nightmare.”
It made Carter huff out a little bit of laughter anyway. That, at least, made her feel better.
* * *
At some point, they’d taken a wrong turn. Carter mumbled something about it being just like with Gideon, and Isha wondered if the fool boy hadn’t gotten himself and Carter lost while trying to escape the coteries.
The coteries. That seemed like so long ago now. Everything did. And yet, they were in the Capital because of them.
“Wait,” Whisper said suddenly. Isha froze and it made Carter stop too. They stood still and silent for a moment. Then she heard it.
Footsteps. At least two pairs, getting closer. Isha reached out to bump Whisper’s heel with her toe, and then shoved Carter around the last corner they’d rounded. Whisper was close behind them, and they all pressed into the wall as if they could meld with it if they tried hard enough.
Isha glanced down nervously at the lantern. Could the Undying see light? Could they understand it? Could they even see in the dark? This was awful. An enemy she knew nothing about. At least, when she’d been with the coterie, it’d always been the same.
Then Whisper touched Isha’s wrist lightly, and Isha glanced back at them. They were frowning. “Isha, I can only feel one magic signature, and it-”
“I can’t believe him,” a voice muttered from nearby. Isha saw the flicker of another lantern. “He gets restless, and his first thought is ‘oh, let’s go into the off-limits crypt’. He never would have done this before, you know. Divines, how’d Whisper let him go off like that?”
The fear clasped around Isha’s ribs loosened and she let her head fall back against the wall, a grin spreading across her face.
“He fell off Reese once because a wasp came too close to him. How is an ancient crypt less scary than a wasp?” That was Gideon, and Isha knew now that the first voice had been Shiloh.
“Crypts can’t sting or chase me,” Carter called back. The footsteps stopped abruptly, and she glanced up to see him smiling too. “And for, um, for integrity, I did try to convince them to let me just wander out of the house.”
The lantern light grew closer, the footsteps resuming, until Gideon and Shiloh had rounded the corner. Shiloh held the lantern up towards them and let out an audible sigh. Carter stepped forward and Shiloh held out her arms until Carter had stepped into them and she hugged him tightly, mindful of the lantern.
Turning to Gideon, Isha raised an eyebrow. “Don’t I get a hug?” she asked. Gideon rolled his eyes, but his lips twitched, and he held out his arms. She stepped into them and only crumpled against him a little, mindful of the bow over his shoulder. He was even warmer than Carter, and she nuzzled into his shoulder.
It took her a moment to realise that he was holding her up and also that both of his hands were on her back, and then she shoved him off. Gideon stumbled backwards and she stared at him. She could see Carter pull away from Shiloh to watch them. “Where’s your cane?” she demanded. “You fool, you’ve been walking around for how long without it down here, looking for us? You’ll be the death of me one day.”
“Would you relax?” Gideon asked. He sent a longing glance at Carter, but only shifted on his feet. Isha blinked when he leaned on his bad leg. “It’s okay now. Aelina… well, she did something.” He frowned at where Shiloh had moved past Carter to hug Whisper. “Why were you hiding?”
Isha sobered abruptly. She exchanged an uneasy glance with Carter and saw Gideon’s frown deepen. Then she glanced back at Shiloh and- “Hang on,” she said, glancing around them, “where’s Finn?”
Now it was Gideon and Shiloh’s turn to exchange a glance. Shiloh stepped away from Whisper, head bowed, and Gideon sighed. “With the Comtesse, I suppose.” At Isha’s raised eyebrow, he shrugged. “We went to see her. She put Finn and I to sleep, we woke up in a prison cell and-” Gideon bit his lips and shut his eyes. “There’s something weird going on. I- there was-” He raised a hand to rub at his face and Isha’s stomach knotted. He looked ill. It was the kind of look he used to get whenever he saw blood.
“Finn talked to the Comtesse while we were asleep. He did something to get us let out, I guess, but he didn’t say what,” Shiloh finished. She glanced up at Isha, and then to Whisper, then towards Gideon. “We saw something down there. Gideon-”
“It didn’t happen to have, um, red glowy eyes, and smell like death?” Carter asked. Gideon’s chin jerked up to stare at him, and Shiloh’s brow twisted in concern. Carter shrugged and winced. “That’s why- um, that’s why we were hiding. We got attacked by one of them earlier.”
Shiloh’s brows twisted further. “Are you okay?” she asked him, then glanced between Isha and Whisper with the same kind of worry.
“We’re fine. It shouldn’t have been,” Isha said. She crossed her arms over her chest. “I put my knife in its spine. It stood up, pulled the knife out, and chased us. We had to hole up in a burial chamber.”
A silence fell over them and it felt like a harrowing. Everyone shifted, disquieted by the information. Isha shivered and glanced back towards Gideon. He looked nauseated.
Then Whisper’s head lifted, and they scanned the corridors with widened, alert eyes. Isha cleared her throat, a chill running down her spine. Whisper narrowed their eyes, and then glanced at Shiloh. They frowned. “Shiloh,” they murmured. And Isha saw it too- a small thread of copperish light wrapping around a few locks of Shiloh’s hair. “There’s a lot of them, the Undying. They’re coming.”
“Here?” Carter squawked. He glanced wildly around the hallways, as if he might be able to see them. But they couldn’t, not yet. But Isha could hear them now too, the din of footsteps. Of running footsteps.
“If they don’t die, what are we supposed to do?” Gideon hissed. He pulled his bow off his shoulder and reached back for arrow. He didn’t nock it, but he did hold it down and close, ready.
Shiloh was reaching up to touch her hair where the faint copper glow was coming from, even though Isha was almost entirely certain there was no way Shiloh could possibly see it. “Aelina- she put something on me. When she let us out of the cell, she touched my hair,” she spoke as if they weren’t about to be surrounded by a bunch of creatures that wouldn’t die. “She tracked me, why? Why not both of us?”
“You wield all the island’s magic,” Whisper said. The footsteps were growing louder. “How about we talk later?”
But as soon as they said it, the Undying came into view. And they’d been right, there was a lot of them. Isha pulled out the knife on her left thigh, even if the world was tilting sideways a little. The one she hadn’t used for the other man. Gideon nocked his arrow and pointed it- but they were surrounded.
word count: 2,127