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Chapter 45
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 10 July 2022 6467 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 45

The east side of the ruins yielded nothing but broken stone and fallen walls and remnants of a flagstone floor that had probably either belonged to the throne room or a ballroom. Windows were visible on this side, broken leaded glass which seemed to have been depicting vines and roses with long, sharp thorns. The others reported seeing the same, and a back-in-control Merlin insisted on going to look at them—and at the weathered skeletons Jack and Noki had almost tripped over. Which did indeed look as though the bodies they’d come from might have been tossed out of one of the windows above. Merlin kept frowning at those windows, though, and then he went to the other side of the ruins and stared at the ones visible from there, which were closer to the ground. “No,” he finally said. “That isn’t right. Those thorns are actually cracks.” He pulled out his notebook and scribbled in it for a moment, then made a face. “It must be meaningful, that change, but we’ll need help finding out why.”

Snow had been looking over his shoulder. “So those aren’t roses?”

“They didn’t start out as roses, but I suspect the apple tree motif was put there by magic and the change was by design.” He handed the notebook to Pino and waved a hand at the sea of apple trees. “It makes sense, this place was probably known for them once upon a time, and the design would have been everywhere. It might even have been part of the royal seal. Nobody would have thought…I mean, whatever it’s referring to, it was cruel. The fairy who did this was a monster.” He frowned. “Some of the servants must still be here, after a thing like this there’s no way they all passed on peacefully.”

Arthur scowled. The triplets were chattering over the apples-to-roses transformation of the windows, but Jack was looking troubled and so was Hans. “Merlin, you’re not thinkin’ to call them out. What if they’re all tainted?”

“Then I’ll banish them.” There was no trace of his earlier upset on Merlin’s face, although the haunted look in his dark eyes told a different story and Snow was all but clinging to his arm. “We can’t leave this place like this and you know it. She’s already killed, and between her cursed state and the taint there’s no telling what happened to those poor souls.”

“Assuming they are not still here as well,” Jack pointed out, and sighed. “He is right, Arthur. We cannot leave this place with that…thing in the chamber just waiting for an unwary wanderer to stumble upon her. And as her accent is somewhat familiar to me, I am going to make a guess that she may be related in some way to my own people. So as a relation of sorts, it is my wish that we would do whatever we can to end this obscenity and set as many souls as possible to rest.”

“And if it kills Merlin?” Arthur demanded. “You know how holdin’ them drains him, and we’ve got no resources to help him with out here…”

“There’s no way an army is hiding in what’s left of these walls,” Merlin said sharply, although the hand he rested on Arthur’s arm was reassuring. “I only sensed a few, in fact, and I have no intention of supporting the ones who come to my call for any length of time.” His anguished brown eyes met Arthur’s worried blue ones and held them. “Trust me, Arthur. I can do this.”

Arthur’s response was to pull him into a rough hug. “I know,” he said quietly. “I just wish you wouldn’t.” He let go, pretending he wasn’t blinking moisture off his eyelashes. “All right, so what do we need to do?”

“Go back in. We’ll stay in the open part of the hall for now,” Merlin said. “I don’t think the ghosts can get into the library, although I’m not certain if that’s from fear of their former queen or because of the curse. And I’m hopeful that one of them will be able to tell us what became of the fairy, because if she’s still around we’re abandoning this quest and turning all our attention to the protection of our homelands, shadows be damned. Agreed?”

Everyone nodded. “Agreed.”

Merlin climbed back into the ruined hallway with Snow still at his side, and he didn’t let go of her hand until he was ready to summon the ghosts. He laid his palm flat against the weathered stone, pushing more power into his mage-sight than he would normally need to use…and gasped, because he could now see the wall as it had been, and it had been covered by a finely carved stone relief of an apple tree leaved with gold and with fruit made of ridiculously large rubies that would have had Jack speechless with delight. On either side of the tree’s stone bole had been a carved plaque listing the names of what he assumed were former kings, but the last name was rimmed in writhing, sickly gold light: Adam the Gallant. The king to the now-mad queen, then. Merlin drew in a breath, bracing himself. “Servants of King Adam, I summon you by your loyalty and your anger. Come to my call and tell me how I may help you.”

There was a tug on his magic and then a short and somewhat rotund older man was standing there, thankfully outlined in a healthy, untainted blue. The man snorted, looking him up and down. “You’re awfully young, Your Majesty.

Merlin left his hand on the stone, left the call open. He could feel that there were more. “Prince Consort Merlin Emrys,” he corrected politely. “And you are?”

The ghost bowed to him. “Cogsworth will be fine, Your Highness. King Adam gave me a title, but that’s neither here nor there in present circumstances. I am the Royal Steward of the Palace of Valeureux.” He glanced around, rolled his eyes. “Well, what’s left of it, anyway. And your companions?

Everyone introduced themselves, and Cogsworth’s bow to Snow was deeper than it had been to the others. “Your Majesty, I regret that I cannot offer you the hospitality of Valeureux. I assure you, we used to be quite famous for it.” He indicated one of the broken doorways. “Through there was a pretty garden the king had made, where he was wont to entertain guests or just sit about with his family on fine days.

Snow smiled at him. “I wish I could have seen it. We don’t have such a thing at our castle, as we’re built into the side of a cliff and there’s simply no place to put it.”

Cogsworth raised an eyebrow. “You’re married to a man with magic, my dear lady—he can make a place, I assure you.” He rubbed his hands together. “Lumiere!” he called out.

A much taller and thinner, somewhat older-looking ghost stepped out, raising an eyebrow. “I had heard them,” he said. “I was waiting for you to be finished posturing.” The smaller man’s huff made him smile, and he offered a general bow. “Your Majesty, Your Highnesses, welcome. Am I to assume you have seen ze queen?

“We did,” Merlin confirmed. “I’ve never seen or heard of anything like what’s happened to her, and the amount of power it would have taken to do all of what I can sense in your valley…it honestly terrifies me.”

Lumiere waved that away. “As it should, but ze fairies, zey are long gone from zis world. Their last bid for power, it, shall we say, backfired on them.

Arthur wasn’t the only one whose jaw dropped. “Fairies caused the Cataclysm?”

Cogsworth nodded. “Oh yes. They were trying to oust the children of the gods themselves from power by stirring up something called the Deep Magic, if the last message we received from Arendelle, our sister-kingdom, was accurate. Even the Rock Trolls weren’t able to do anything about it.” He bit his lip, and Lumiere put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “So much just destroyed, and for so little reason. Greed…is the most terrible of sins, you know.

At least they were considerate enough to destroy themselves as well,” Lumiere said. He focused on Jack. “You sound like one of my kinsmen, young prince.

Jack bowed to him. “As do you, Master Lumiere. It is always a pleasure.”

Oui, it is always a pleasure to be French.” Jack’s puzzlement over that surprised him. “You…do not know of our homeland by that name?

“Very little of it is left,” Jack confessed. “The Cataclysm, it broke everything apart, and now all we know is the islands. My family rules the Isle Fantastique, and very few still speak the old tongue.”

A great pity,” Lumiere said. “Perhaps, if there is time, you will tell me of it anyway and I shall tell you what you are missing. You are still French, whether you know it or not.

Jack just offered him another bow, and Merlin cleared his throat. “I can feel one more, but they do not want to come out?”

The ghost of a plump older woman popped through the wall. “Well of course I don’t, Your Highness,” she scolded. “We are dead, the palace is a mess, and the queen’s madness is hovering over everything like a black cloud. It’s just shameful.

My wife, Lady Agatha,” Cosgsworth introduced. “Mind your manners, dear, they’re every single one of them royal.

Well that doesn’t make much difference in this situation, does it?” He just gave her a look—Lumiere was hiding a chuckle behind his hand—and she huffed. “Oh very well, we’ll stand on ceremony.” She dropped a curtsey. “Your Majesty, Your Highnesses, welcome to a messy pile of rocks. We can’t offer you refreshments, but if you want to come to a bad end we can introduce you to the shrieking banshee that used to be our queen.

Arthur laughed out loud, and much to her surprise made a very courtly bow and offered her his hand. “My lady, it is a pleasure. Plain speech is a gift to those who appreciate it.”

So I’ve always said myself, Your Highness.” Her ghostly hand touched his, light and cool, and she smiled at him. “Well you’re a good boy. Maybe not as much as our Adam or young John, but then I’m biased.

“And well within your rights to be, I’m sure,” was Arthur’s response. “Is there anyone else still here besides the three of you and your queen?”

Cogsworth shook his head. “We’re the only ones still here. We feel some…responsibility for the queen. If we’d only noticed what that fairy had done to her sooner…

“You still couldn’t have done anything,” Merlin told him. “I couldn’t tell if the bond between she and her husband had been forged between their minds or their souls, but once he died her sanity would have been a sandglass draining its last dregs.” He took his hand away from the wall. “I’ll help her, if I can. But you I know I can help. Your king?”

Lumiere shook his head. “He did not fully pass on, I know it, but he is still beyond ze reach of us all. The fairy, damn her black and twisted soul…she ‘liked’ him. His death, it was much quicker and more peaceful than that of ze others who succumbed to ze sickness. And I do not think she would have made him suffer afterward.

Hans grimaced. “The fairies also started a plague?”

Unbelievable, no?

“Very much so,” Snow told him. “Maybe they were all insane first?”

That made Lumiere laugh. “It would explain some things, yes. But either way, ze damage, it is done. So what do we do now?

“I can release you whenever you like, now that you’re out,” Merlin said. “But I’m guessing you stayed not only because you felt responsible for your queen, but also because of your love for your king.” Three nods. “Well, then my next suggestion would be to see if we can find him. I hate to disturb his rest…”

But we have no way of knowing if he is truly at rest,” Agatha said quietly. “We’re just guessing. If he’s aware of what happened to Lady Belle, to the rest of his family…it’s just too much to be borne.

I agree,” Cogsworth said. “We all but raised Adam, Your Highness. His father was a worthless, selfish wastrel and his mother was worse, but he was a good man, a thoughtful king, and terribly enough considering what’s happened, a devoted husband. That the double-damned fairy who supposedly adored him made this,” he waved his hands, “happen to everything and everyone he loved is absolutely monstrous.

Pino frowned. “These fairies, what were they? Do you know?”

Lumiere nodded. “The daughters of a water goddess named Circe,” he said. “King Adam had that from ze sea gods themselves. She was apparently verry fond of capturing men for her pleasure and then turning them into pigs.” The round of winces made him smile. “Ah, so you have heard of her.

“That story we knew, but not that she was a goddess,” Noki said. “But there is another, which speaks of a curse laid on men who were monsters in their own right?”

The three ghosts winced that time. “The Curse of the Beast,” Cogsworth confirmed. “Our own prince was afflicted with it for ten long years, and Lady Belle was the one who broke it. It wasn’t his fault,” he added quickly. “He was a boy just turned eleven when the Dark Fairy cursed him and the entire valley at the same time, and it was discovered later that she’d only done it to distract everyone from another plan she had brewing elsewhere.

“Well, that explains the curse residue everywhere,” Merlin said. “It’s seeped into the very earth, but luckily it’s no longer actively doing any harm to the valley that I could tell.”

A small blessing, but still a blessing,” Agatha told him, and gave him a frowning sort of look. “You have the look of young John when he was thinking of doing something foolishly noble,” she observed, and switched her gaze to Snow, who had giggled. “Ah, I see you recognize it as well. Very good, Your Majesty; you’ll have to keep an eye on that tendency, since he probably can’t help himself.

“Oh, he can’t,” Arthur agreed. “We could tell you stories…”

“Please don’t,” Hans requested. “We do not need Merlin to lose control of his magic and turn you into a toad.”

That made Merlin snort. “I only wish I knew how to do that sort of transformational magic. It could come in handy.” He was frowning, though, and he abruptly moved back to the wall he’d called the ghosts from, putting his hand out and calling up the summoning magic again. “Ah, of course,” he murmured, and then reached into nothing to pull out a huge ruby which was shining with untainted gold magic. He held up a hand when Jack moved forward. “I wouldn’t,” he said. “Unless you want to play host to King Adam, possibly forever because I’m not certain I could get him out of you again.”

The ghosts clustered around him. “He’s in…of course! It was the one in the center?” Cogsworth wanted to know. Merlin nodded. “That was his ruby, placed for him by the fairy herself. That’s also when we found the apple-and-branch windows…” He scowled then. “All right, that was just completely unnecessary. To turn them into roses, when that was the mark of his curse? It’s like she couldn’t drive Lady Belle crazy enough!

“Maybe she couldn’t,” Kio observed. “Did she have some reason to hate your queen?”

It is possible,” Lumiere admitted. “Lady Belle betrayed Adam, even though to do so was really not her choice, and ze Blue Fairy punished her harshly for it. But that fairy, she was not ze forgiving type. She took a dislike to young John at their first meeting and then months later tried to poison him on his wedding day in this very castle—and that knowing he had become like a brother to Adam.

“So she was obsessive and cruel, even when it came to her favorites.” Merlin held the ruby up into a ray of late-morning sunlight, frowning. “I don’t think he’s in the ruby, but I do think he’s tethered to it. This might be a little trickier than calling a regular spirit…”

He closed his eyes, and although he didn’t speak the force of his calling was such that the ghosts were vibrating in place and his friends could feel it tugging at them. It seemed to take a long time, but finally an answering light bloomed in the depths of the ruby’s heart and a few moments later the ruby shattered into smoke and sparkles and a new ghost was standing there. He was a man with similar coloring to Jack and perhaps five or six years older, and his blue eyes went wide when he saw where he was standing. “What happened?! Cogsworth…Lumiere…

Cogsworth was quick to go to him. “Adam…you don’t remember?

Remember what?

Dying,” Lumiere told him, and his eyes widened even more. “It was ze sickness. You fell ill all at once and died that very night in your sleep.

But the plague didn’t kill so quickly.

It did for you, and I can’t regret that,” Agatha told him. She held out her arms and he went to her like a boy accepting a hug from his mother. “Oh my dear boy, it’s all right. You’ve been…asleep all this time?

He drew back from her and looked around the ruin of his castle again. “Apparently,” he said. He took in the living people standing before him, focusing on Jack. “Are you my descendant?

“Not that I know of, Your Majesty,” Jack told him, and offered a bow. “Prince Jacques de la Mer of the Isle Fantastique, at your service. Although just Jack will be fine, as all the titles become tiresome after a while when there are so many of us.”

The ghost laughed. “They do—just Adam is fine for me as well.” He cocked his head. “So tell me, Jack, how long was ‘all this time’?

He shrugged. “The Cataclysm happened more than two hundred years ago, if that is any help.”

It is.” Adam’s blue eyes narrowed. “Cogsworth, what happened to my wife, and our son? I can feel Belle,” his hand touched his temple, “but she’s…

Insane,” Agatha told him. “That beastly fairy who kept fawning all over you and trying to kill everyone else had connected Lady Belle to you, Adam.

We had noticed…something,” Lumiere admitted. “Before you died, even, but we did not know what it was. Sometimes it seemed as though she could tell what you were feeling even when she was not with you, almost as though she knew your thoughts. But we had no proof, and she would not speak of it.

But after you died,” Cogsworth huffed, “it became quite obvious that Her Majesty was…not well. She retreated to the library, and we told everyone that she was deeply sunk in mourning. She would scream at anyone who entered, and sometimes she would scream even if no one did, but if we tried to go to her she’d become violent and drive us back out.

Annette took our children and ze young prince away. We thought it best for him to be as far from his mother as possible,” Lumiere said. “Not that she asked after him, she did not, and if he spoke outside the door she would fly into a violent rage. Sometimes, however, she would call for him in a verry strange way, and we were afraid she might lure him in…

To kill him,” Adam finished for him heavily. He ran a hand through his hair. “Is she still in there? Did this…magician call her out as well?

“She was already out, Your Majesty,” Snow told him. She was not pleased by the tone the ghostly king had used in referring to her husband, but one of the few things her father had taught her about being a ruler was that she shouldn’t show offense at such slights unless it would get her something. Merlin hadn’t been happy to hear about that lesson, mainly because of why King White had taught her that, but he and the other princes had all agreed that it was still sound advice. “We found her in the library. She…doesn’t look like you.”

“What my lady wife means is that your queen’s curse is visible in her aura, Your Majesty,” Merlin said. “It’s like nothing I have ever seen before.”

Adam’s eyebrow went up. “But you are not very experienced in magic yet, correct?

And Merlin drew himself up. “Does Your Majesty always judge people on appearances?” he asked. “I’d have thought your curse would have cured you of that—mine certainly did.”

The ghost was taken aback. “You were cursed?

“We all were.” Arthur indicated the other princes. “Luckily only a few of us had to nearly die to get out of it.”

“And we have since discovered that such had not been the intent of the one who cast our curse at all,” Kio piped up. He made a very perfunctory bow. “There appear to be forces at work here which are larger than all of us.”

“Our quarter-fairy girlfriend included,” Pino tacked on, and then blushed when Agatha gave him a look. He turned into a dwarf, as did his brothers. “She is the only one of her bloodline, and a princess.”

“And she is like us, only taller,” Noki said. “Our lady was all alone, with no one to properly appreciate her beauty.”

Lumiere started to laugh. “Sacre bleu! I should declare you all honorary Frenchmen, Princes of Vinci.

Princes? Oh…you’re on a quest, of course.” Adam sat down on…well, on nothing and covered his face with his hands. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what…honestly, I truly didn’t earn my curse by being a terrible human being who’s rude to guests.

“No, I’m sorry,” Merlin said, and bowed when that startled the ghost into looking up again. “I should have considered, after what we’ve learned of this magic, that you would be…irritable after being called, Your Majesty.” He raised an eyebrow at the triplets. “Are you staying like that, then? I wouldn’t recommend it around here if you don’t want to risk getting stuck or worse.”

They all three changed back quickly, checking themselves over and muttering about how put-out their princess would be if they did such a thing. Jack cleared his throat to redirect everyone back to the matter at hand. “Merlin, I believe I have an idea. That ruby, it was very large.”

“Ridiculously large,” Merlin agreed. “I wish you could see the carved stone tree that used to be here, there were nearly a dozen of them embedded in it to depict apples.”

That practice was started by my distant ancestors,” Adam put in. “I said we weren’t doing it anymore because it was a poor use of the kingdom’s wealth, and the fairy liked that so she rearranged the relief to add the plaques and put my ruby in the center of everything.” He stood back up, grimacing. “And now I guess we know why she did that.

Jack nodded to him. “Exactly, because gems are good for more than beauty and wealth. Rubies, they are good for the blood magic…”

“And soul magic,” Merlin finished for him. “I could make…” He took a deep breath. “Do any of you want to pass on right now?” Nobody wanted to. “I can’t keep you all out for long on my own, because we have to continue on and the farther I get from you the more draining it would be for me, even with only a handful of spirits to support. But if we can find a good ruby of an appropriate size, I believe I could make a sort of magical anchor that would allow you to stay as you are without me.”

Cogsworth cocked an eyebrow. “What about Lady Belle?

“I need some time to think of a way to help her. Just breaking her curse may not solve the problem—namely, that she was driven mad before she died.” Merlin made a face. “Seeing her husband may help…but I won’t break the spell that traps her in the library until we know for sure that she’s no longer dangerous.” Adam started to puff up with offense, and Merlin pointed to the other side of the ruins. “Have a look on the other side of the tower. We weren’t the first to find this place, Your Majesty.”

Adam frowned and drifted out of the entryway, and this time Cogsworth made a face. “He really isn’t…he was known as one of the most polite, gracious rulers for leagues.

Merlin shook his head. “He’s also been trapped in a sort of in-between state and tethered to an insane spirit for hundreds of years. It’s not his fault.”

Agatha was giving him the look again. “You were one of the ones who almost had to die, weren’t you?

“Him and Jack both,” Arthur told her.

Jack shrugged when Agatha raised her eyebrow at him. “My baby sister was in danger. What else could I do?” He nodded to Cogsworth. “Is there still a hidden cache of stones somewhere? I do not have any large enough for such magic with me, and it will need to be a stone of good quality.”

I don’t believe the royal treasury was ever looted,” Cogsworth told him. “The queen’s crown had one that might suit, let me go see if it’s still there…

Adam came back right about the same time Cogsworth came out with a gold crown in his hands. It was made in a leaf-and-branch design, and the ruby at its center point was cut in a shape that vaguely resembled an apple; apparently Merlin had been right about the apple trees having been the symbol of the Kingdom of Valeureux. The dead king frowned at the crown. “That was the one we chose for Belle to wear on formal occasions. It belonged to one of my ancestors.

“Hmm.” Cogsworth handed the crown to Jack, who looked it over with an expert eye. “This is beautifully made,” he said. “The ruby would suit the purpose for which it is needed—it is a truly lovely stone—but with your permission, Adam, I will remove the stone from its setting and Cogsworth may put the crown back into the treasury where it will be safe.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “You know how to do that?

“Oh yes. I make jewelry and other ornaments, and often work with precious stones,” was the answer. He held out the crown and indicated the back of the ruby’s setting with one finger. “This right here, you see? It holds the stone in such a way that the light will shine through, but also creates the shadow which makes it appear more like an apple. I have my tools, I can have these little teeth bent back to free the ruby from their grasp in a matter of minutes. And it will be a simple matter to replace the stone once you are finished using it.”

If the crown won’t be permanently damaged, of course, go ahead.” Jack at once found a place to sit down and pulled his tools out of his pack, placing the crown on a piece of soft velvet atop a fallen stone and then holding it in place with a small bag of sand before putting on his loupe and starting to work. Adam was fascinated by this process and sat down in front of him to watch, and Lumiere hovered nearby as well. Jack painstakingly bent up the gold prongs which held the ruby in its setting, careful not to scratch the stone, and then removed said stone and examined it most carefully. “It looks perfect?” Adam ventured.

“It is flawless,” Jack confirmed. “A true master cut this stone, most likely to fit this crown specifically.” He gave the crown to Lumiere, who handed it to Cogsworth to be put away again, and then he packed away his tools and stood back up with the ruby held in his hand much the way another man might have held a baby bird. “Where should this go, Merlin? To leave it out here where it can be easily seen would not be well.”

“No, it wouldn’t. It does need to stay within the palace, though, and I don’t think it should be near the tree…that tiled bit of floor over there, was it the antechamber to the throne room?” The ghosts all nodded. “Then I think that would be the best place.” He walked over to that space, Jack walking beside him, and found a depression on a fallen remnant of a wall which would hold the ruby without allowing it to be pushed off by wind or rain. “To get the best effect for you we can’t cover it,” he explained to the ghosts. “It will tether you to the area and prevent you from fading, and it will allow you to speak and give you a bit of ability to touch things—enough, I hope, to prevent any other wanderers from intruding on your queen’s sanctuary unawares.”

We won’t let her hurt anyone else,” Agatha said, and raised an eyebrow that cowed Adam when he started to glare at her. “Don’t you give me that look. Did you find them, on the other side of the tower?

Adam made a face. “Yes. They’d apparently been…thrown out of the upper windows.” He frowned again. “Wait, Belle can touch things—quite obviously she can touch anything she wants. Why can’t you give us that?

“Because I’m not a grand high fairy, Your Majesty,” Merlin told him. “As I said before, the amount of power all of this took…it’s not just a matter of me not having it, it’s a matter of it simply not existing in the world anymore.”

The look this got him wasn’t a nice one. “But perhaps an older magician, one with more power?

Merlin shook his head. “I’m the most powerful mage currently living in the Fairy Isles, Your Majesty. If we find someone elsewhere, however, I will of course send them here to see what else might be done for yourself and your family.”

Adam did not quite huff; he was blatantly ignoring the disapproving looks he was getting from the other three ghosts. “Oh all right, go ahead,” he said. “It’s better than nothing.

Merlin ignored this and put a small slip of inked paper into the depression, then indicated that Jack should put the ruby on top of it, after which he put his hands on either side, closed his eyes and concentrated. The ruby did not start to glow, but the power which began to emanate from it could definitely be felt. The ghosts flickered, most likely because Merlin had let go of his own hold on them, and then grew just slightly more translucent. He kept on charging the ruby for a few minutes more, then pulled his hands away and took a brown-quilled pen out of his pocket which he used to ink a simple circular design around the edge of the depression. “There,” he said once he was finished, straightening up and tucking his pen away again. “Now no one can take it. It should last for quite a while, much longer than the time it will take us to be coming back this way.”

You’ll forgive me for asking this, but if you don’t come back, what then?” Cogsworth wanted to know.

“The power in the stone should last for six months, give or take a few weeks,” Merlin assured him. “If something happens to me, I will see to it that a message is sent to one of the other mages I know in the islands asking them to come see to the stone in my place.”

That is acceptable,” Adam told him. “I find it hard to believe that so much magic is just gone.”

That is because you were not here when it left,” Lumiere said rather sharply, which made Adam’s blue eyes widen. “I was here. I stood here and watched ze end of ze world come, and cursed ze fairy bitches for it with my last breath.” A fierce smile turned up one corner of his mouth. “And now zey are gone, and no longer able to torment innocent people for their own twisted pleasure. People like yourself, and Lady Belle…and young John and his princess. Or has zis new attitude of yours made you forget that your brother and sister were likely ze fairies’ first targets?

Adam’s face twisted with something like anguish, and he put a hand to his chest in an odd way, almost as though he were trying to touch something that wasn’t there. “John is gone. It’s all…gone.

And Lumiere put one hand on his shoulder and gestured to the living people standing before them with the other. “What is left is hope, Adam. Ze human race, it survived to begin again. And our beautiful kingdom has been rediscovered by men who have such honor zey would take time from a verry important quest to free ghosts who could do nothing for them, simply because it was ze right thing to do.” He appeared to shake the shoulder he was holding onto slightly. “As you and John once did, remember?

I remember.” Adam ran a hand over his face. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I feel like me, but at the same time I haven’t felt this unreasonably irritable since…well, you know.

It most likely doesn’t help that Lady Belle was driven insane and you’ve been connected to her all this time,” Agatha told him. “Adam, even these princes and their queen know you’re not yourself. They said so! It’s all right.

And perhaps there is something we can do for them,” Cogsworth mused. “Give me just one moment, I know we had a cache of them in the treasury just in case…” He darted off, and came back a few minutes later with something in his hands which he offered to Jack. “This is the symbol of a treaty Valeureux made with King Triton, the Lord of the Southern Waters and a descendant of Poseidon himself,” he explained, dropping a small glass orb of swirled maroon and crimson with a gold starburst at its center into Jack’s hand. “If any of the merpeople are still left and you happen to encounter them…give them this and they’ll help you. It was a magically binding treaty, forged with the magic of the royal line of Valeureux, so it should still be in effect. And it can only help that you somewhat resemble Adam.

Jack closed his fingers around the marble, which was about the size of a large cherry and felt warm in his hand. “Thank you,” he said. “If I may ask, who is Poseidon?”

The very ancient god of the Seven Seas,” Adam told him, not seeming surprised that he didn’t know. His hand went to his chest again. “King Triton was one of his descendants and…and a friend. But something happened, a long time ago, and all of the old gods went to sleep. John thought it might have had something to do with there being not enough magic to keep them awake, because near the end King Sel of the Northern Waters was supposedly succumbing to the Sleep as well as magic was being drained from the world.

“So they are not dead, just sleeping?” Kio wanted to know. “Can we wake them?”

Adam snorted. “Oh I wish. Most likely not, though. I’m pretty sure that if it could be done, the Lords of the Sea would have done it. There were Lords of the Air, too, but I’ve never met any of them. John and Elsa had, their people were called the Djinn and they were exceptionally powerful.” He seemed to gather himself somewhat. “You know, that’s something I can do for you: I can tell you what we encountered on our quest. Any little bit of information might help, right?

“It might,” Arthur agreed. “We could all go sit out in front of the entryway? It’s a beautiful day.” Truthfully all he really wanted to do was make tracks back out of the cursed valley as fast as they could, but Merlin wasn’t giving any indication that they couldn’t stay a bit longer. Of course, it was entirely possible that Merlin was just this side of exhausted right now and needed to have a bit of a sit-down anyway, so there was that too. “Would you mind if we made a bit of a fire to heat some water for tea?”

Of course we wouldn’t mind, dear,” Agatha told him, but she poked her husband with one finger. “This! This is why I didn’t want to come out. Guests having to sit in rubble and get their own tea right in front of me!


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