Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for violence and mature content.
content warning: graphic descriptions of decay, bodily fluids, and gore.
The Undying stopped in a circle around them, and Isha’s stomach dropped to her toes. Not all of them wore helmets, but many of them did. The ones without stared at them with eyes that were the worst kind of bloodshot, pupils rolling around like they were trying to look everywhere at once. Oddly enough, the ones wearing helmets were the ones a visible red glow came from the eyes. It was so faint on the rest, it was barely visible.
Whisper held up the lantern and a few of them hissed, stepping backwards and shielding their eyes from the light. Shiloh did the same, but as soon as she stepped towards them with her lantern, the chaos broke out.
Several of the Undying rushed at her, howling at the lantern like it burned to look at. Gideon turned immediately and he got three arrows off before any of them reached Shiloh. Isha saw, for a fact, that he put one arrow in one of their throats, another in one’s eye, and the last in one’s shoulder. The same Undying took the arrow to its throat and to its shoulder and was the only one that faltered even a little.
Isha staggered forward and slashed at one that had reached out the grab Shiloh’s arm. It released its grip and spat at her. It hit Isha’s nose and she winced. The thing shoved her aside and she tripped. Instead of falling, however, she suddenly felt meaty hands locking around her wrists. Squishy hands, hands that gripped like iron but felt like dough.
She had opened her eyes again already to see three of the Undying grabbing at her. Her hand was immobilised, she couldn’t even lift it to try swinging at them. So, she kicked instead, at their knees and their shins. They gurgled and snarled and hissed but none of them let her go.
“Shiloh!” Carter screeched behind her. “Shiloh!”
The smell of rot filled her nose. Isha had smelled death before but it was overpowering now. Her eyes water and her stomach lurched violently.
Something hot and sticky ran down her arm and Isha hoped it was blood but didn’t dare look down to see. The other one had bled when she stuck it, but the liquid had been gooey and almost stringy, and she didn’t have any desire to see it up close, all over her.
She pinpointed one of the Undying and twisted in its grip. Then she pulled back and brought her head forward right into its nose. Or, tried to. It turned its head at the last moment, and her forehead went right into its jaw.
A sickening crack filled her ears and Isha shuddered. When she pulled away, she found the thing’s jaw hanging half-off its face. Tendrils of skin were still attached to its jaw, and it made the bone swing grotesquely from its face. Isha went still, her mouth wrenched open in her horror and her breath coming out in short, uneven gasps.
The thing growled from its throat and shook its head. Isha shouted as its jaw flung back and forth, and some of the skin snapped like frayed rope. “Oh Divines, oh Divines, oh Divines,” she said. Isha tried to yank herself away but it was no use. They were all boxed around her, pressing into every inch of her and effectively trapping her.
She felt something wet drip onto her neck and then the graze of something hard against her skin. One of them was trying to bite her- sweet heavens, it was going to bite her.
Another suddenly shrieked, unceremoniously shoving away the one with the swinging jaw away and shrieked again right in her ear. This time, it almost formed a no sound, but Isha couldn’t have been sure.
The pressure left her neck and she heard an angry squeal from behind her. She had squeezed her eyes shut, not quite sure when she’d done that, and clamped her mouth closed. She’d have plugged her nose too, if she had hands.
She realised she’d dropped her dagger too, and again, didn’t know when she’d done that.
They were shoving her along, she realised, and her feet were barely touching the ground. They couldn’t die and they were ridiculously strong- perfect. That was fine. Perfect.
But they’re not trying to hurt you.
She opened her eyes again and caught a glimpse of dark curls to her left, wriggling and getting swarmed by the Undying. “Carter!” Isha screamed. She saw his gaze darting around, searching for her. “Carter!”
He opened his mouth when he spotted her but then a hand covered his mouth before he could respond, and he looked about ready to be sick all over the blackened, deformed hand. A moment later, the stench around her got worse and Isha only realised a second too late what was happening.
The hand that covered her mouth was cool and felt the same as getting raw meat pressed to your skin. Isha’s eyes watered. The third finger digging into her skin felt hard and pointed and- she didn’t think that was rotting flesh clawing at her cheek.
She was acting on instinct, and if she’d given a thought to what she was doing, Isha definitely wouldn’t have parted her jaw. She would not have tilted her chin, and clamped her teeth shut around the hand covering her mouth.
Her mouth was immediately filled with a bitter, thick ooze, and Isha immediately regretted the impulse. She slackened her jaw and the hand pulled away, and someone might have screeched behind her, but it didn’t matter. She spat out the rush of liquid, but Isha wasn’t sure she’d ever get that taste out of her mouth. Even worse was the underlying metallic of blood.
When she couldn’t swallow back the bile in her throat – and frankly, didn’t try because it meant swallowing whatever fluids had gotten in her mouth – and doubled over to hack it out, the Undying only kept shoving her along. She thought the vomit might have run over the knee of her trousers, but it was already covered in a dampness that Isha had no way to tell.
She was still hunched over when she was suddenly shoved forward. Isha almost fell but the groping, meaty hands kept her from doing so until-
Until she was shoved forward and fell onto the floor, hitting her knee and letting out a sharp cry. But there were no more hands, and the stench of decay had receded just slightly.
Isha blinked back the stars in her eyes and managed to turn just in time to see Whisper shoved towards her by the Undying. Then, they pulled on a giant metal ring, and a stone door she hadn’t seen began to swing shut.
She realised what was happening only in time to get halfway to her feet, just in time for the door to swing shut and plunge them into a haunting darkness.
Aside from the thunder of feet retreating and fading into the distance, the chamber or room or whatever it was went completely silent. And then it was broken, by the sound of someone retching.
After a moment of panting and panic that physically hurt in her chest and her stomach, Isha collapsed back onto the freezing dirt floor. It was dirt here, not gravel, and at least it wasn’t stone, because she didn’t bother bracing her head for the impact.
“Who all is here?” Gideon’s voice broke the silent after a moment. He sounded shaky, but he had his tough voice on- in which he pretended to sound steadier than he felt.
Isha twisted on the ground and spat, trying to get more of the awful-whatever out of her mouth. She tasted mostly bile now, but the memory of the other stuff still burned into her tongue and she wanted to make sure. There was a silence for a moment as she did so, before she said, hoarsely, “I am.”
Carter whimpered a second later, followed by Whisper. The tremble in Whisper’s voice shook Isha to her core, and she laid back against the floor, gripping her arms tightly. Tears stung her eyes and her cheeks were already wet. She didn’t understand why she was gripped with the sudden need to cry but wasn’t entirely sure she hadn’t already begun some time ago.
It took her a moment to realise that nobody else spoke, and she sucked in a sharp breath. “Shiloh?” she asked.
The air shifted, and with it, Isha shivered violently.
She heard another quiet whimper. “I, um…” Carter sounded like he was on the verge of tears. “I think they- that they- um, I, um. Oh God.” The last two words were muffled and Isha tilted her head. Her eyes were only partially adjusted, but she could see his figure a few feet away. His knees were tucked to his chest and his head buried in his hands.
Gideon, or who she supposed was Gideon, shifted closer and allowed Carter to bury into his shoulder. “They took her,” Gideon whispered. He put an arm around Carter and Carter shifted to burrow deeper into him. Gideon suddenly made a soft “oh” noise. Carter glanced up, and while Gideon kept him close, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a vial. He cursed under his breath. “One of them broke.”
“One of what?” Whisper asked. They were somewhere above Isha, she was sure, and sounded at least a little steadier now. A blessing in itself, Isha wasn’t sure she wanted to ever hear Whisper trembling like that again.
“Vials. Wine, I think. Finn slipped them to me when we were released.” Isha couldn’t see Gideon’s face well enough but was sure he was frowning right now. “I think. I don’t know- they weren’t there before. And he like, bumped my shoulder when we got out of the prison house. I think he slipped them in then.”
Isha swallowed, hard, and forced herself not to conjure any images of what horrible things could be filling her mouth. “Well. He didn’t say anything?”
“I, uh. He said, ‘give my regards to your lover and your golden sister for me’. Or something like that, I don’t know what he was talking about.” Gideon grew quiet, but at least Carter had too. If Isha squinted, she thought she might be able to make out Gideon running his fingers through Carter’s curls.
She sat up quickly. Too quickly, because her mind began to spin so fast it hurt. She dug the heels of her palms into her eyes. “You said there were two of them, and one broke.” Gideon make a noise of confirmation. “After he met with the Comtesse?” Another noise. Isha made her own, but it was one of frustration. “Gideon! What kind of magic is Aelina supposed to have? Which are the two of us that are sick?”
“Oh,” Gideon said, softly. “But- but Carter and me- but you’re not- there’s only one vial.”
“Is there only one drop of wine?” Whisper asked dryly. Gideon began with “No, but-” and Whisper snorted. “They each drink half then. It should still work.” Then, Isha heard a rustling and turned to see Whisper standing behind her. “I’m going to check the situation out.”
“Carter gets it first,” Isha said. She crossed her legs in front of her and took several deep breaths.
She was never going to un-see any of that. Isha had seen so much with her parents and the coteries. She’d seen Gideon trying to claw his own skin off, she’d seen an apprentice trip into a brazier once and burn alive screaming in front of everyone in the room. She’d seen every wound she’d thought imaginable. But this?
“I hate magic,” she grumbled. “You think Aelina doesn’t know you’re here, Winnie?” Carter made a noise, and she saw him rolling over in the darkness to hold out the vial towards her. She took it and stared at it. Her stomach churned. It looked like blood. You’ll feel better. But Divines, she didn’t want to drink it.
“I suspect I’d have been killed back there if she did,” Whisper replied. “Until the assassins back in the woods, I didn’t think she even knew I existed. My father’s the one who ordered it the first time.” Isha could see well enough to spot Whisper moving around the room – and yes, it was a room, and there didn’t appear to be another door anywhere. “I was with the guard captain the first time. They protected me,” Whisper’s voice softened, “but I heard that he was trying to rope citizens into it so I wouldn’t suspect an assassination. I think he was trying to convince one of the blacksmith’s in town, but I didn’t stay long enough to find out.”
Isha took a deep breath while Whisper was speaking, and then threw her head back to down the vial. It tasted like wine and Isha had never had a taste for alcohols, but right now it tasted like the fabled ambrosia.
Something washed through her. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, but maybe it wasn’t- exactly this. Some of the fatigue washed away, and she grew a bit warmer. Her throat hurt a little less. But otherwise, she felt renewed and better but not… not sick.
“You just... left?” Gideon wondered.
Whisper turned back towards them, but their expression was unreadable at such a distance and in such a darkness. “Sort of. The guard captain helped me and my mother escape. We were supposed to wait for someone else, a boy, but that was all I know. He never showed up and we had to leave. That was it.”
“I remember your mother,” Caspar rasped softly. Isha scooted across the floor and handed the vial back to Gideon, who pocketed it. “Didn’t see her much, but she always made the best pastries.” He reached up to pat Gideon’s chest lazily. Despite the horror of their situation, Isha felt some of the fear melt away and give way to a warmth. They truly were good for each other. “We’ll introduce you soon enough,” Carter mumbled.
“How do you two feel?” Winnie asked. They came back over to them and when Isha glanced up towards them, they shrugged. “No entrances or exits I can find.”
Isha rolled her neck and rubbed her eyes again. “Okay, I guess. If you’re asking whether I still feel sick or not, I do. But it’s a little better.”
Carter hummed in agreement. Gideon glanced up at Isha and Whisper sighed loudly into the otherwise empty room. “I don’t think you are sick. If Finn really did get wine laced with Aelina’s healing magic, it should have done something more. Healed you. I think it’s a curse, not an illness.”
A groan tore from Isha’s throat before she could help it. She was still trembling and at this point, she wasn’t sure if it was even from the cold or not. “So, what? Now we die? I think my soul died back there when we got ambushed by dead men.”
Winnie considered that for a moment, then another sigh. “No. More complicated than that. I think this is an old curse. Whoever enacted it, even Etienne couldn’t heal it.” They sat back down near the rest of them, and wrapped their arms around themself. “I think we have to take Shiloh back to the Spire, and we have to remove the island’s magic again. I also think that’s why the Comtesse took Shiloh. Shiloh didn’t release magic so much as she absorbed it- I think the Comtesse wants to actually release it. She needs Shiloh.”
“Why not just keep her then, when she already had her in a cell?” Gideon asked. Isha was just glad that he hadn’t asked what releasing the magic entailed- because Isha was pretty sure she had idea what Whisper was suggesting. Carter didn’t need to hear that, not now. And frankly, neither did Isha.
The only sound in the air without someone speaking was the quiet puffs of their collective breathing. Otherwise- silence. Not even a rat, or distant noises. Silent as a grave, Isha thought bitterly.
“I don’t know,” Whisper finally said. They spoke quiet, but it sunk deep into Isha’s bones. She shivered, and this time, she knew it wasn’t from the cold.
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