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Chapter 47
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 25 July 2022 2510 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 47

They continued traveling to the south and east, following the wall of the hidden valley until it fell away into a rocky fan-shaped bowl with what looked like a large, shivering lake surrounded by low vegetation filling the bottom, but which turned out instead to be a small inland sea whose shores were crusted with thick layers of salt and colorful minerals deposited there by the slowly evaporating water. The water was also contaminated with old magic to such an extent that every one of them could feel it, and from their camp far up the slopes on the other side of the valley that night they could see the water glowing and shivering over a now-visible web of dark cracks. Kio speculated that those cracks had let the seawater in long ago and had then slowly collapsed in on themselves. Fresher water could in some places be seen seeping up from the cracks in bubbly tendrils. Whether the magic had gotten in the same way was anyone’s guess, as Merlin had only been able to say that it was not evil and was definitely not grand high fairy magic nor the remnant of some terrible curse.

Speculation that it might mark the resting place of a sleeping god, or that the cracks may have breached such a place, was not much comfort to anyone.

The land was rising sharply now, and the consensus between the triplets was that this had once been a mountain range, possibly one taller than anyone alive had ever seen before. There were no cracks to follow on the ground here, most likely because the collapse of the mountains had buried them, but it wasn’t all that difficult to keep going in the direction previous cracks had been pointing in. Especially as walking in that direction gave Jack a strange, stirring feeling if he was touching the marble he’d been given.

If he was finding himself touching the marble more and more often as their journey progressed, he didn’t mention it to anyone. Although he did learn very quickly not to sleep with it bundled up within his coat as a pillow, as the dreams he would have then were disturbing to him and made little sense.

After several days the endless rocky rubble that had once been mountains finally came to an end, trailing messily down and scattering across a wide but not very deep plain which happily terminated at the sea. Luckily they’d remembered Captain Roberts’ warning and were being quite careful, however, as the tall, tough grasses which covered the plain turned out to be concealing a good many narrow but horrifically deep fissures that were mostly not wide enough to completely fall into but would likely cause severe injury to an unwary person who might accidentally step into one. Finally, however, the concealing meadow grass gave way to sparse sea grass and then to a narrow strip of rocky sand and sullen black waves. Jack squinted down into the water. “That is a hole.”

“Yeah, looks like.” Arthur wrinkled his nose. “Maybe we’re supposed to throw the marble from Valeureux into the hole?”

Jack took the marble out of his pocket and looked at it, getting the strange, stirring feeling again and much stronger than he had before. “No, I do not think so. I believe we must find someone who knows what it means and give it to them.”

Merlin was squinting down into the water too, and he abruptly moved back. “I think you’re right. Everyone get back…!”

A body exploded out of the water, followed by two more, and they hovered in the air in what Arthur thought might be the most horribly beautiful sight he’d ever seen—a time for terrible firsts, this trip. On the bottom they were long and had wide, flat fish tails, and the sun’s dull glow shivered over their black scales with just a hint of iridescence. But from roughly the waist up they were made like women, their skin an odd purplish brown and their long dark hair whipping around them in an invisible wind. Their smiles were cruel, displaying sharp fish teeth, and their eyes were flat, oily black.

And then, they started to sing. It was a beautiful, wordless music which came from their fierce mouths, and it wrapped around the seven men like seaweed tangling around a doomed diver, ensnaring their minds and bodies and leaving them standing helpless and blank-eyed. Snow’s attempts to shake them out of it had no effect, and she was contemplating the best way to try to attack the fish-women when a ghost appeared, floating legless above the sand. He looked to have been an older, curly-haired man wearing a long ragged coat, and he was quite plainly furious. His fury was nearly soundless, however, and the fish-women laughed at him.

Which had the effect of breaking their song just long enough to let at least one of the men they were enchanting shake off enough of their spell to move…and the move he made was to grab the ghost’s arm. The shade filled out at once, legs appearing beneath it terminating in leather boots, torn coat turning blue and repairing itself into a clean garment with brass buttons and neatly turned cuffs. The impotently shaking fist became a pointing finger. “I said stop that, you harpies!” the ghost ordered in the firm, loud voice of a man who knew what it was to be obeyed. “Don’t you see what he has in his hand? You’ll break the treaty!

“There isss no more treaty!” one of them hissed. Her tongue was black and forked like a snake’s. “There are no more of the old blood!”

As my name was Ari Torson, the man holding the sign of the treaty is one of the old blood!” the ghost yelled back. “You may not remember, but I do! There’s no way this man isn’t a descendant of the royal line of Arendelle. Just look at him!

The wind stirred, and all three of the creatures swooped to surround Jack, one of them pushing Arthur away from him with two of her four black-clawed, pearl-webbed hands. He would have moved back in, intent on protecting his friend, but the ghost’s surprisingly solid hand stopped him. “Don’t. They won’t hurt him, but they’d kill you where you stand without a thought.

Arthur looked down at the ghost’s hand, then turned a scowl on Merlin. “You insufferable pillock, you never learn!”

“He obviously had something to say, and he seemed to think they would listen to him,” Merlin said absently, holding his wife back as well but not taking his eyes off the hovering creatures. “What are they, Master Torson?”

Just Ari is fine—a shade has no need to stand on ceremony.” The young man let go of him, but the power remained—more power than Ari had felt flowing through him since before his Lord had been taken by the Sleep. “They’re merjin, the offspring of merfolk and djinni, borne children of the Lords of the Waters and the Winds.” He shrugged. “Not that anyone has ever lived to share that knowledge until today, since they use men for their pleasure and then eat them. Which is a great irony considering how much hatred they still bear for the daughters of Circe who used to do the same thing.” One of the merjin turned her head to hiss at him, and he raised an eyebrow. “Deny it, I dare you. Now are you going to speak to these people about why they’ve come bearing the sign of the treaty, or have you just become monsters who prey on innocent humans for your own amusement?

“I liked you better when I couldn’t hear you,” she hissed.

And I liked you better before I had to watch you and your sisters shame your ancestors with your descent into barbarity,” he shot back. “You’re meant to guard the sea here and what lies beneath it, not seek your own pleasure above all else like a preening Daughter of Circe!

She actually growled. “I sshould kill thiss magissian for giving you back your voisse, you annoying sshade.” She ‘swam’ closer to them, sniffing, her tongue tasting the air as well. “Hmm. They have all been to the curssed land…or landss, now.”

Merlin nodded. “It’s why we left our own lands, yes, my lady. A new curse arose, and it is just barely contained—if we do not find a way to stop it, what peoples managed to survive the Cataclysm may well be wiped out.”

“And why sshould we care about the fate of mortalss?”

A faint smirk of dark amusement quirked one corner of his mouth. “You eat men, don’t you?”

Ari tried to hold it back, but the laugh broke out. “He’s got you there.

“Sshut up, sshade.” She went back to her sisters, who were still circling the wide-eyed Jack, hissed at them, and then they all abruptly dove back into the water, surfacing partway again a little ways out from the shore. “If you would prove yoursself worthy of your line, throw your token in and retrieve it from the ssea’ss grassp with your own handss, young one.”

Jack raised an eyebrow, flicked invisible lint off his sleeve. “And if I do not feel the need?”

One of them spat. “You cannot fool uss. You are not a coward.”

He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Fine.” He stripped off his jacket, shirt and sword belt, handing them off to Pino, and then toed off his boots and socks and tucked his belt knife into his waistband. Jack, for all his sometimes foppish affectations, had the same sort of slender yet strong build Merlin did, like a finely tempered sword that spent most of its time hidden in a fancy sheath. He climbed up on one of the rocks, and gave Hans a look over his shoulder. “If I do not come back up, cook them and have a feast in my honor,” he requested, and then he drew back his arm, threw the marble token far out into the black water, and dove gracefully in after it. The three merjin disappeared beneath the waves as well.

Merlin found himself with an armful of trembling Snow. “Jack’s a really strong swimmer,” he tried to reassure her.

“But they…”

They won’t touch him,” Ari told her. “If they break the treaty, their lives would be forfeit—it was accepted by the Lord of the Southern Waters himself.

Snow blinked at him. “But we’d still lose Jack.”

Ah. True.” He bowed. “My dear lady, I apologize. Once you’re dead—especially once you’ve been a shade as long as I have—it’s easy to forget that the living see these things differently.

“How long has it been for you?” Noki wanted to know.

The ghost shrugged. “Probably well over five hundred years, at this point. I haven’t always been lingering like this, though. Lord Sel, King of the Northern Waters—that was this part of the world, by the way—called me from my rest to help visit his justice on one of my descendants, and I stayed of my own volition because another descendant of mine was about to ascend the throne of Arendelle and needed all the help he could get.” He peered out over the water. “One of you might want to get a blanket out for your friend, maybe start a fire farther up the verge? The water is quite cold here, especially in the Hole.

He watched with amusement as they all scattered immediately, half of them up onto the verge but the magician, the burly one with the magic sword, and oddly the woman as well, all made their way right to the water’s edge. He cocked his head, seeing the strong family magic in the woman. Interesting…

There was a disturbance farther out in the water, and then Jack’s head broke the surface and he sucked in a great breath of air. He looked around—looking to see which direction the shore was in, obviously—and then started swimming in their direction. “You can’t help him,” Ari murmured when the burly one seemed like he was just itching to dive into the water and try to do just that. “This wasn’t about that bauble he brought from Valeureux; he has to prove he’s worthy to assume the burdens and blessings of his bloodline.” That drew several horrified sets of eyes to him momentarily, and he shrugged. “With Lord Sel gone, this is likely the only way. It’s very old magic.” Farther out he could see the merjin watching, although he thought the living humans hadn’t noticed them…or at least he thought they hadn’t until he saw the magician’s hand hovering near the sash that was wrapped around his waist rather than near the hilt of his sword. Hmm, he’d have to ask about that later as well.

Luckily, though, the descendant reached the edge of the hole and then pulled himself up onto the rocks, gratefully accepting the help of several sets of hands to gain his feet and taking a moment to catch his breath before straightening and looking Ari in the eye. The marble was in his hand, yes, but around his neck was now hanging a medallion that looked to be made of old gold, inscribed with a round pattern of lines and symbols. “I am only related to you by marriage, shade,” he said.

Ari smiled. “Your ancestor, King Adam, couldn’t swim.

Jack snorted, flipping wet hair that was much longer than might have been expected back away from his eyes. “A third son needs his own trade, prince or no. If I wanted pearls to grace the adornments I crafted, it was only right that I harvest them myself.” He gratefully accepted the blanket Kio brought him, using one corner of it to rub at his hair. “Please tell me that there is a fire, the water here is like ice.”

“There is a fire,” Snow said, and then swept him up in her arms, blanket and all, and carried him over to it with a lack of effort that widened Ari’s eyes while the others cheered and laughed. “Family magic,” the magician told him. “He…I didn’t realize how much Jack looks like King Adam.”

“He does, doesn’t he? The hair was throwin’ it off, I think,” Arthur agreed. “Who was Queen Elsa, though? Adam’s wife was named Belle.”

Ari made a face. “Oh, that’s a story and a half…


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