They found a door of solid iron after they left Gideon and Isha with Finn downstairs.
Whisper nodded at Carter as they stepped onto the platform at the top of the stairs. There was a panel about halfway up the door, and Carter experimentally touched it. There was a handle on one side, and he slid it open. He was immediately hit with the stench of rot and balked.
Glancing once more back at Winnie, he stooped reluctantly down and peered in. His heart hammered in his chest as he surveyed the room inside.
It might have once been a vault of some sort, Carter thought, but now it looked more like a prison.
He spotted the Undying first. He sucked in a quick breath and the only thing that kept him from staggering backwards and likely falling down the stairs was the iron between him and it.
The thing was not armoured like all the others before it. In fact, it wore fine clothes. A royal blue tunic with silver embroidery, a sash to tie it shut, and even a velvety looking cloak swallowing it and the floor around it. Carter’s heart crawled into his throat, still beating too fast and too hard. The Undying itself was nearly all bones, threads of white hair barely clinging to a dusty skull. Patches of skin and muscle still covered over its bones.
It wasn’t like seeing a gaping flesh wound, which was enough to give Carter nightmares and nausea for a straight week, though his fever-curse already had him at a disadvantage. This was different, and still so much worse. And it was fascinating, in a horrific, macabre kind of way.
Worst of all, though, were the murky brown eyes clinging loose to the skull itself. One rolled back and forth while the other rested steady on Carter. His tremors were not from cold or sickness.
He had to close his eyes, which barely helped because that was now forever seared into his mind. Carter swallowed, hard, his hands trembling on the panel he’d opened.
Then a soft, “Carter?”
Carter opened his eyes. Then he saw, in the far back corner and drowning in a threadbare, dusty blue blanket or cloak, Shiloh peered at him. She looked gaunt in a harrowed sort of way, and so incredibly small. She was pressed as far to the wall as she could get, and she only held his gaze for a moment before she glanced back over at the fancy Undying with her.
He began to breathe faster without noticing. He pressed both his palms flat against the doors. “Shiloh,” he whispered. “Are- are you okay? Um, are you- did you-”
There was dried blood smeared over her cheek, above her mouth and under her nose. Her hair was wild and matted, only partially in the braid he’d seen her with last. As far as any other physical injuries went, he couldn’t see any.
She smiled, and even from here, Carter could see her mouth wobbling. “I am now,” she whispered. Her eyes kept darting over towards the Undying, who still stared with one eye at Carter. “But I’d really, really like to not be in here with that anymore.”
“What’s in with her?” Whisper asked beside Carter. He flinched, pulse thundering in his ear, before he stepped aside and waved them to the opened panel.
When Winnie leaned forward, he could see the crinkle around their eyes as they squinted in the cell. A moment later, a sharp intake of breath and they drew away. Their hand pressed to their mouth, which was shaking. Carter felt his stomach roll like a ship in a storm. “Winnie?”
To his further surprise and worry, they set themself against the wall and squeezed their eyes shut. Their breathing because ragged, though quiet, and they shivered.
Carter sent a glance towards the little window and then put his hands cautiously on Winnie’s arms. When had he ever seen them react to something like this? They weren’t calm all the time, sure, but he’d never seen them this shaken. It… he couldn’t describe the feeling that reverberated through him at seeing them in such a state, only that it sunk deep into the fibre of his being and made his blood chill. “Winnie?”
They reached up with the hand not pressed into their mouth and gripped Carter’s wrist. They had opened their eyes but did not meet his gaze. “Carter, I-” Winnie took a steadying breath. “The one in there, I- it’s Guillaume.”
The name didn’t register to Carter for a moment. It sounded familiar in a wrong sort of way- because he’d always heard it accompanied by Comte. He squeezed Winnie’s wrist and didn’t know if it was for them or for him. “Oh,” he said, comfortingly.
“Call Gideon, get Shiloh out.” Winnie took their other hand to pat Carter’s, but still did not look at him. “I- I just need a moment.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Yeah, I- um. Sit down?” he suggested. Taking their arms gently, he lowered them to the floor to sit, and squeezed them once more before letting go. He turned and felt like he was trying to run underwater. When he reached the top of the staircase, he peered down. “Gideon- um, we need you?” he called down. He cleared his throat, unsure if Gideon even heard him. He hadn’t exactly shouted that.
A few moments later, he heard the tell-tale patter of Gideon’s boots. When he reached the top and glanced over to Carter and Winnie, he frowned.
“I- what’s going on?” he wondered. His gaze travelled to the door behind them. “Oh. Is Shiloh in there? Do you need me to open it?”
Carter nodded, mouth dry and throat aching like he’d never taken the healing-infused wine. He swallowed and it hurt. “Um, you don’t… have a weapon. Do you?”
Gideon brow furrowed deeper. He eyed Winnie. “No?” Then, nodding towards the door. “Shiloh isn’t…” Gideon gestured towards his eyes. Carter shook his head.
“No,” he murmured. “No, it’s- um.” He glanced at Winnie, who still watched neither of them. “Um. One of the Undying. The um, the last Comte.”
For a moment, Gideon stared at Carter, his expression never changing. Then he exhaled a low, long breath, and blinked. “Well. That’s haunting.” He approached the door and crouched next to the keyhole. “The Undying. Was that you or Isha that came up with it?”
Allowing himself a breath as he watched Gideon work with the keyhole, Carter’s mouth twitched upwards with the ghost of a smile. His chest felt a little looser. “I said it, and um, Isha- she decided that’s what we would, um, call them.”
The lock finally clicked, and Gideon stood up, tilting his head to peer into the room before he opened the door. Lucky him, being short enough to do so with so much ease.
He opened the door slow and carefully, and Carter felt himself tensing all over as he did so. He was only just behind Gideon, and now that the door was open, he could see the full horror of Comte Guillaume. He was sitting on a chair, at a makeshift table where moss and mould had begun to grow up. In fact, the whole room looked like it’d begun its own ecosystem.
Now, he watched Gideon instead of Carter. The one eye had slowed its erratic rolling but hadn’t stopped. The other was just as eerily still as before, locked on Gideon. Carter reached out to grab Gideon’s jacket for lack of something better to hold on to.
Gideon was stiff and unmoving in front of him, until he raised his hand in Shiloh’s direction with his chin tilted towards the Undying. “Shiloh,” he said under his breath. “Come here. Slowly.”
Glancing towards the corner, Carter found his sister eyeing Gideon and the Comte with wide eyes. She looked like the horses when they’d been spooked by something.
Slowly, so much so that Carter’s chest hurt, Shiloh collected herself to her feet. She let go of her wrap at the same time, moving slower even than Carter could breathe. Underneath, she wore a grey-brown dress that reached her knees. Her feet were bare.
Once she’d gotten to her feet, she began to step gingerly in the direction of Gideon, Carter, and the door. Carter could see her chest rising and falling rapidly and knew his own looked the same. Gideon, at least, had the curtesy or the pain tolerance not to mention how tightly Carter was gripping him now.
The Comte’s good eye, Carter noticed with a leap to his heart, had panned over to watch Shiloh. The skin still left around it wobbled. Then he made an odd, warbling noise.
Shiloh froze and Carter swallowed back a whimper. But the Comte did not move from his chair, nor did he make another noise. He simply watched and quivered slightly.
Then Shiloh sprang forward, crossing the last half of the cell at a sudden sprint. She grabbed Gideon’s hand as soon as she was close enough and he yanked her out and right into Carter’s chest. In the same motion as Carter caught Shiloh in his arms and let go of Gideon, Gideon slammed the door shut.
There was a silence, only broken by a low gargling, growling noise from inside the cell. Gideon peered in again and let out a breath before he turned back to Carter and Shiloh. He reached up to touch Shiloh’s forehead softly, and she allowed it with only a slight wince.
“We need to get you and Isha back to Elizabeth,” Gideon said. He removed his hand and Shiloh leaned against Carter, closing her eyes with a nod.
“I need to take her to the Spire.” Whisper was clamouring back to their feet. Their skin looked a little ashen, bloodless, but they didn’t appear to be trembling any more. Gideon reached his hand out and they used his arm for support. Shiloh shifted against Carter to look at them. “Carter and Isha aren’t sick, they’re cursed. So is more than half the island, I’d guess. If you feel okay, I need to take you back and-”
“-undo it,” Shiloh finished hoarsely. She cleared her throat. “Remove the magic, right?” When Winnie nodded, Shiloh did the same and let out a shuddering breath. “That’s what Aelina wants. My magic. No matter how she gets it, she wants it released.” Carter ran his fingers through some of her stray hair to try to untangle it. “She thinks killing me will do that. I want it out of me, I want to reverse it.”
Carter’s fingers stilled and he exchanged a glance with Gideon. “We’ll take care of Finn and Isha. Try to fend off Aelina if we can. Get to the stables and get to the Spire, as fast as you’re able,” Gideon said. Carter nodded in agreement, but found his mind was too blank and fuzzy to try to speak.
Shiloh shifted in his arms and wrapped hers around him. Carter pressed his nose into the crown of her head and shut his eyes, pretending like she smelled like soot or leather or honeysuckle and not death or mould. “I love you,” he murmured into her knots of hair. “And I forgive you.”
She pulled away with wide, glistening eyes, staring up at him. Then she smiled widely, and nodded, and tugged on his shirt to pull him down. She pressed a kiss to his forehead and drew away. “I love you too. I’m really proud of you.”
“Keep yourselves safe,” Winnie told Carter and Gideon. They took Shiloh’s wrist and led her down the stairs. Carter released a shaky breath and shared another look with Gideon.
Was this an appropriate moment to kiss him? Was Carter still allowed to do that? Should he ask permission?
“Come on,” Gideon said. Carter tried not to slouch, but it wasn’t hard when Gideon offered his hand to Carter. His palms were warm, and Carter hadn’t noticed when he’d stopped feeling feverish and started feeling icy. He could see it in the way Gideon’s brow twitched that Gideon noticed it too.
They got to the bottom of the staircase just as Isha, Shiloh, and Whisper were finishing their goodbyes and exiting the door of the tower. Gideon let go of Carter’s hand to return to Isha’s side and crouch beside her.
How were they going to move Isha and Finn? Wouldn’t it look awful suspicious if Carter and Gideon carried a body through the streets between them, regardless of the hour? And what of Isha? It seemed like a miserable affair to try walking with a dagger jammed into her hip. It also seemed a good way of hurting herself further.
Gideon was opening his mouth when Isha, looking worriedly down at Finn, said, “Did you notice he has blood in his hair and across his cheek?” Carter glanced down, and sure enough, blood. But Gideon had hit him over the head, surely that was ground to bleed? “Or that his dagger was already stained when he first got here?”
“We need to leave. We can worry about that later,” Gideon said. And then the door opened.
The brief thought that Whisper or Shiloh were returning was dashed almost immediately from Carter’s mind as several city guards filed in. They all had swords drawn, armour clinking in the otherwise silent tower.
“You’re under arrest for trespassing on the Comtesse’s private property,” one of the guards said. A man, not wearing a helmet, with thick greying hair that might have once been black as a crow’s feather. His eyes, to Carter’s relief and discomfort, were not glowing. The man who had spoken glanced down at Finn, and his eyes twitched.
Carter glanced at Gideon. He wasn’t sure whether he was hoping Gideon might have a clever plan to get them out, but if he was, it was futile. Gideon was eyeing the room, but when he met Carter’s gaze, he shook his head.
Dropping his gaze to the floor, Carter bared his empty hands and prayed silently that Whisper and Shiloh made it out and got to the Spire.
word count: 2,370