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The Hero's Brother (33)

by mellifera


“Did you know that- um. The crypts have been closed? For near a decade now?”

Whisper glanced up from the kitchen table where they’d been idly writing something down on a piece of parchment. “Carter,” they said with a heavy dose of exasperation. That tone had gradually been growing over the last hour. “You can’t go to the crypts, that are off-limits, because you’re restless.”

He stood up and walked over to a window. His whole body ached, bones and joints creaking as if he’d aged centuries, but at least the brand had stopped hurting a while back. It was just itchy sometimes now. He heard a rustling and watched Isha splay herself across the loveseat now that Carter wasn’t on it anymore. “How do you have so much energy? I’m exhausted.”

Carter was too, but he wasn’t about to be near ready to sleep with Shiloh, Gideon, and Finn gone, for several hours now. Malika had disappeared some time ago and Carter hadn’t asked about it.

“The citizens complain about the crypts being shut down,” Abraham, one of Malika’s companions, commented from his post by the door. Elizabeth was sitting by his feet, playing with what looked like cards. “The Comtesse claims its for renovation, but no crews have gone down there. There’s some,” he winced, “fantastical tales about it.”

“But isn’t it weird?” Carter said and walked over to the table. He sat down, and began to bounce his leg up and down, jitters running through his body. Isha was watching him with something akin to envy. Carter had been sick so often when he was younger, though, and given up letting exhaustion get a hold on him. “I mean- that’s kinda when Finn left the Capital.” He sent a glance towards Whisper. “It’s when you left the Capital.”

They hummed absently. “If you’re asking what I remember about it, I don’t. She probably didn’t do it until after I had left.” Then they put their hand on Carter’s thigh. “You know they’ll be okay, right?”

He shrugged but tried to concentrate on not bouncing his leg. He tried to itch his arm instead, but that bandages wrapped around the gash in his arm prevented any meaningful solution to how bad it prickled. “I know,” he said quickly. “I just- are we just going to sit here? What if- um, what if there’s something down there. Um, you know what happened that year too? Ten years ago?”

“Comte Guillaume died,” Abraham chirped from the door. Elizabeth glanced up but deigned to return to her cards.

Carter stood up again. His chair squeaked against the floorboards. “See! It’s weird, right?” Then he grabbed a jacket he’d set out on the loveseat.

Carter,” Winnie said. This time, they stood up. “You can’t go to the crypts. It’s getting dark out, and it’s off-limits. Shiloh, Gideon, and Finn will be back soon.”

“Are you- well, um. Are you going to stop me?” Carter asked. Abraham frowned at him, as if unsure of whether he should be allowing Carter outside or not. Carter ignored the trickle of sweat running down his spine.

Whisper sighed, and he noticed Isha had stood up. She still looked pale, but she was grabbing a jacket too and that made Carter pause. She waved dismissively at the look he sent her. “Someone has to watch you two,” she said. “Besides, fresh air will probably do me some good.”

“The air won’t be fresh in an ancient crypt,” Whisper muttered, but was shrugging on their own jacket. They grabbed a lantern, too, and Carter was sure that he would appreciate their foresight later. He appreciated now, already.

Despite the look Abraham had been sending them, he allowed them through the door without trouble. Carter’s chest loosened as he stepped outside. It was growing chillier, and he was glad he’d grabbed his jacket. But he was tired of sitting still. First, as a prisoner of the coteries, then riding to the Capital, and now here. Waiting for Gideon, Shiloh, and Finn.

Also, he was pretty sure if he did sit still, he’d start freaking out. Meeting the Comtesse didn’t take this long, it had been hours. Surely, they were done by now? Surely, they should have gotten by now? You know they’ll be okay, right?

No, Carter didn’t. Not really. Who could?

* * *

For being off-limits, the crypts are surprising easy to sneak into.

Whisper lead them to a private entrance that was relatively close to the Comte’s Hall. Which Carter glanced at longingly, hoping to spot Gideon, Shiloh, or Finn. He saw none of them, and pretended that his chest hadn’t just caved, pressing hard against his rapidly beating heart.

There was a guard, but it hadn’t been hard to wait for him to drift away momentarily. Isha was already at the door by the time Carter realised what was happening, picking the lock. Every moment she spent there, metal clinking against metal as she crouched in front of it and worked it open, felt like hours. Carter kept glancing at where the guard had disappeared to.

Then he heard the click of the lock and Isha was unravelling the chains. She opened the right door and waved inside, glancing at Carter. “It was your idea. You first.” Her hair looked like dust in the dying light, and her cheeks looked gaunt. Carter felt a pang of regret for her being there.

But then she shoved him inside and he felt less guilty. She wasn’t fragile. The illness was draining her, but it wasn’t breaking her.

Inside the crypt was dank and musty. Frigid too, even just inside the doors. He tugged his jacket around himself tighter, but the cool air was welcome against his flushed skin.

He ended up appreciating Whisper’s foresight more, because they pulled out the lantern from earlier and lit it with one deft motion. Isha hummed as she stepped inside and closed the door. “Should have realised the crypts weren’t going to be all ready for us to explore,” she said, but sounded more alive than she had before. Carter realised she had a dagger strapped to her thigh – was it a dagger? It looked kind of like the one Gideon had said was a dagger.

Was she expecting danger? It was an empty crypt. Right? Who would even be down here?

Whisper took the lead this time, since they were the one holding the lantern. The ground was made of gravel that crunched underfoot. Even though Carter’s feet had begun to heal – and like all his other injuries, itched something fierce – he still winced at the noise. He had a newfound appreciation for shoes.

The crypts were black as an inkwell, the only light the flickering lantern in Whisper’s hand they held up in an attempt to illuminate as much of the space as possible. The ceilings towered above them and, on the walls surrounding them, there appeared to be some kind of marbled pillars that stretched into an arch above them.

“We haven’t even gotten to the sarcophagi or burial places yet,” Isha said breathily. She was glancing up at the ceiling, and the walls, eyes wide as she tried to take in the darkness. Carter couldn’t help but feel the way she sounded- a little awe filled. “Is this place really so big?”

“It was here before Grand Verterre,” Whisper told them, but sounded no less in wonder than the two of them were. “It was a mine before this. Biggest gold mine on the island when the French first landed here. It was already set up, like people had been here before them. There were settlements too. And the Spire.”

The passage turned twice, once right and then several yards later, back to the left. There, the walls became lined with cut-outs in the wall. Carter’s stomach rolled as the stench hit him, and he realised he could make out wrapped bodies lying in the alcoves in the wall.

“So, they found this gold mine and decided it should become a crypt?” Isha asked, sceptically. She approached on of the alcoves and Carter watched as he played with the bandages on his arm.

“No. A part of the gold mine collapsed and killed many of the miners down here. As they started construction to building the fortress, they also began clearing out the rubble and strengthening the support systems. Then it became a crypt,” Whisper explained. They’d paused for a moment, waiting patiently for Isha to be done with the corpse. “It spans the whole length of Grand Verterre

Isha noticed them watching her and quickly abandoned the body. She began to trek just ahead of Whisper. “Who needs a crypt this big? What, was someone planning mass genocide?”

Nobody had an answer to that, and they fell back into silence as they delved further. The path began to sink down, and Carter realised after a pause that they were starting to travel downwards.

The farther down they travelled, the colder it got. Carter started getting a strange sensation prickling up his arms. He also began to slow down, his feet aching. He hoped he wasn’t reopening any wounds – Shiloh would kill him when she got back from meeting with the Comtesse.

“There’s magic down here,” Whisper said abruptly. They were glancing around the passages, splitting off into several hallways now on the walls and leading into more darkness and further parts of the crypt. Carter could hear a nearby shuffling and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. There were also a few rooms, some with doors shut and other that were too crumbled to hope to get through to the burial rooms on the other side.

The shuffling grew loudly. Or rather, not a shuffling, but footsteps. Carter hesitated. It had to be just Isha, or Whisper. The crypts were off-limits. They weren’t even supposed to be down there. Unless the Comtesse had guards patrolling in the crypts as well as above them.

“Carter,” Isha called, turning on her heel and keeping up with Winnie by walking backwards.

“I’m com-”

He heard the snarl before he saw the person. Carter whirled around to face the direction of the noise- only to be tackled by a solid wall of somebody ramming into him.

His feet betrayed him and sent him sprawling to the ground. The person crawled on top of him and began to scratch at any available skin, still snarling and spitting and attacking without abandon. He heard his name shouted several times by both Winnie and Isha. Carter’s stomach dropped at the smell- the man smelled like decay so horrid it was appalling even to Carter. He’d smelled bad things before but- not this grisly, death smell.

And then Isha was standing behind his attacker – who was wearing an ill-fitting helmet that blocked his face from view – and she’d driven her dagger into his back. She gave him a kick for good measure, and he tumbled off Carter.

“You okay?” Isha asked, her voice breathy. She offered her hand and he took it, brushing dirt off of himself. His heart pounded against his chest, but he took deep breaths and tried to recollect himself. He’d gotten a few scratches that had begun to bleed, but considering everything else he’d been through already, it didn’t feel significant.

“I’m okay,” he confirmed. Isha looked pale, but offered him a smile-

And then there was another snarl and Carter glanced down to see the man rolling over, scrambling to his feet again. Isha, bless her reflexes, yanked him back away from the man. Her face was pale, eyes wide as she stared at the man who was already back to standing up.

He bent his arm around to his back in a way that an arm should definitely not be able to bend. Carter continued to stagger back with Isha, and his heart crawled into his throat. “Oh- wha- what? What?” he said. If his voice was an octave high- well.

The man yanked the dagger out of his back with a squelching noise that made bile sting at the back of Carter’s throat.

“There’s some kind of magic on him,” Whisper said urgently behind them. “Come on.” The man turned back to them with the dagger in his hand, dripping blood. For a moment, Carter thought he saw something glowing red under his helmet. And a long gash down his neck that no person should be able to live with. “Come on!” Whisper insisted.

Isha yanked on Carter’s wrist but he didn’t need the urging. He turned with her and they began to run.

A wrathful howl that sounded inhuman came from behind them, and Carter could hear the thud of the man’s footsteps as he followed behind them.

They only stopped when Isha shouted, “Get into one of the burial chambers!” Whisper shoved through one of the sturdier looking doors. They held it open long enough for Isha and Carter to tumble through. Then they slammed it and braced it with their shoulder. Isha let go of Carter’s wrist to join Whisper at the door.

She got there just in time for the door to shudder with the weight of their pursuer, likely throwing himself at the door. Another inhuman wail come from outside. A pounding came from the other side of the door and Isha had broke into a sweat now. The lantern lay on the ground, miraculously not broken.

Carter saw a pile of debris where a chunk of the ceiling must have fallen. He bounced to his feet, adrenaline singing in his ears. He lifted a piece of the rubble, wincing at the effort. He brought it over to the door and dropped it at Isha and Whisper’s feet.

He repeated this a few times until at least half the pile was barricading the door. Isha and Winnie tentatively stepped away towards Carter, who was panting in a way that he wouldn’t have back at Bazzoli’s. He could have moved the whole pile in that amount of time.

Their pursuer continued to pound on the door – with his fists? – and the door wriggled but did not move. A moment later, there came an odd, snapping noise that sounded like bone. Images began to sprout in Carter’s mind, and he promptly threw up to the side of the room.

He sat down on the icy, stone floor then. Isha was bent over, with her hands on her knees, breathing heavily. Whisper was the only one of the three of them that was staring at the door, quiet, with a slight frown on their face.

“Did you notice that his eyes looked like they were glowing red?” Whisper asked. They sounded less like they were asking Isha and Carter and more as though they were simply speculating aloud. The pounding continued and Carter shivered at the noises.

Isha laughed, and it flirted the line of hysterical. “Hey, did you notice that I severed his spine and he didn’t die?!

Carter stared at the doorway and pulled his knees to his chest. “Hey, um. Did you notice he- that he um, smelled like death?”

The other two both glanced at Carter. Isha wiped her face. Her hand was trembling just enough to notice, and she joined him on the floor.

After a few moments of silence from the three of them, the thudding against the door stopped. Carter heard a muffled gargling noise, and then it went quiet. He shivered, feeling no better in the absence of noise that he had in the presence of it. His stomach still turned with displeasure.

“The legends say that Etienne could heal any injury or illness,” Whisper murmured finally. They settled down, but now there was a deeply troubled frown etched across their features. “Aelina’s been asking for dead bodies.”

There was a pause where they all exchanged panicked glances. Then Isha began to laugh again, and it was about as genuine as it had been before. “No, of course not!” Isha said, as if Whisper had just told them a joke. When Carter and Whisper did not join in her strained merriment, she sobered and took several deep breaths. “You don’t… you really think so?”

Carter stared at the floor. The animalistic scratching of the man burned on the back of his eyelids and the stench tickled his nose as though he were back there again. He buried his face in his hands, his throat tight.

Nobody said anything for a long time. Carter tried to wrap his head around everything, but his mind was so loud and all over the place and-

He’d come to find Shiloh. Now he was hiding in a forbidden crypt, locked in a burial room to escape some sort of risen corpse that the leader of the island was magicking back to life?

Let nobody say that Carter’s luck was anything but rotten anyway.



word count: 2,827




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We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
— T.S. Eliot