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Chapter 64
By Goth Kitty Lady Posted in Story on 23 January 2023 3529 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 64

Outside in the street, Arthur had his hand on the pommel of his sword and was glaring death at two of the bully guards who had pushed their way to the front of the gathered crowd, while Jack’s heated blue gaze seemed to be making a few men off to one side reconsider whatever choices they had made recently. “The boy?” Arthur tossed over his shoulder.

“He’s fine now, no more taint,” Merlin replied, loudly enough so that everyone would hear it. “I caught it in time enough to force it back out. Where are the other boys, the ones he was swimming with?”

Several people tried to answer him, a helpful chorus to other voices made ugly by fear which were calling for the burning of the house. “The magistrate said burn it out!” one of the guards insisted. “There’ll be no taint in Calabrun!”

Arthur drew his sword, which was glowing like a vengeful star. “If you take one step toward killin’ an innocent woman and her child, I’ll make you regret even havin’ the thought in your head,” he promised. “Back. Off.”

The guard swallowed and stepped back. “That’s Excalibur.”

“Yeah, and she doesn’t like you much,” Arthur told him. “She says she can feel murder on your soul.” The man backed up even more, going dead white. “Run.”

He broke and ran, and the other guard swallowed and shook his head. “I’m…I’m no murderer.”

“Apparently not.” Arthur sheathed his sword again, although the glow could still be seen around the top of the scabbard. “So do your job and get these people away from here before someone does somethin’ stupid. There are more kids who may need help, we don’t have time for this.”

“That we do not,” Jack agreed. He indicated two people who had sounded like they were trying to help, and they hung back from the rest. “Where?”

“The blue house on the next street over,” one of them said. “That’s the rugmaker Arv Kilim and his wife, their two boys are friends with young Timéo.”

“The kind of friends who get him into trouble,” the other man chimed in with a snort. “They run a bit wild, those two, but they’re still just kids.”

“Thank you,” Jack told them. “We will go there as soon as the crowd has been dispersed.” He waited until they were out of earshot. “Are you going to hide the house, Merlin?”

“Yes, I think I should.” He quickly marked a string of characters on the wall beside the door and pushed a bit of magic into it. The wall shimmered briefly and he stepped away “There, no one who doesn’t live here will be able to tell which house it is for the next few days. I’ll never not hate having to do this, though.”

“Know what you mean,” Arthur said; it was nowhere near the first house they’d had to hide over the years. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Merlin told him. “It was somewhat difficult but not too draining, so I should be able to cleanse the other two boys if they need it. That will likely be my limit for today, though. Hopefully no one else has turned up sick.”

“We can hope,” Hans said with a shrug. They followed the people who were being herded out of the street, turning up onto the next one. “There,” he said, pointing. “The blue house with the rug hanging in the front.”

This house was much larger than the previous one, and the woman who came to the door when they approached looked at them with suspicion. “What do you want? My husband is at his shop today.”

“The taint that causes the shadow sickness was found in the water your sons were swimming in, Madam Kilim,” Merlin answered. “Their friend Timéo was sick from it, so we came to see if your sons also needed my help.” He offered her a bow. “Prince Merlin Emrys, and my companions Prince Arthur, Prince Hans, and King Jacques.”

She started. “I…the shadow sickness? But there’s no taint in Calabrun, it isn’t here!”

“I assure you, madam, it was here,” Merlin said. “There was a patch of it in the waters of the harbor. May I check on your children please?”

The woman hesitated, then stepped aside to let them in. This time they all went in, as on drawing near the open door the sound of yelling and crying from somewhere within the house had been clearly audible. A small girl came running out to her mother, tears streaming down her face and blood splattered on her dress. “Mama, he bit me!”

Merlin immediately went to one knee. “Let me see that, sweetheart,” he requested, and the girl’s mother nudged her toward him. He took her little hand in his, eyes already glowing, and in seconds a fat slug of taint had oozed out of the bloody bite mark and been captured in a ball of magic which promptly crushed it. “There, now your mother can clean up your arm for you, the bad shadow is gone. Your brother bit you?”

“He’s all mean now!” she exclaimed, with the sort of terribly affronted pout only a very small child can produce. “Are you magic?”

He ruffled her dark curls and stood up. “Yes, I am. Stay with your mother, we don’t want your brother to get at you again.”

Her mother picked her up, fearful now. “My sons are in the back room, they were feverish and it was cooler there. Will you…”

“I’ll do what I can.” They waited until she was out of sight, and then Jack vanished beneath his cloak and Hans and Arthur both put on their heavy leather gloves. Merlin had drawn a slip from his sash, although it was just barely glowing. “I’ll startle him with a flash,” he murmured. “Hopefully that will get us into the room and we’ll be able to contain him from there.”

A young voice inside the room screamed again, and he threw open the door. The little boy hiding behind an overturned cot kept screaming, as well he might since the larger boy trying to get at him looked like something out of a nightmare. “I’m hungry!” he was howling. “I can smell it, I need it!”

The bright blue flash did indeed startle him, and he fell away from his brother with a screech, scrabbling on the floor to get away from it. He looked to be nearing his teens but not quite there yet, pale and sweating and wild-eyed with blood staining his mouth. Hans had already moved to get between he and the smaller boy, and Arthur caught his eyes and nodded slowly. “You need to calm down, son,” he rumbled. “Just calm down, it’s all right.”

“It’s not all right, I’m hungry and it hurts!”

“I know, that’s why I’m here,” Merlin soothed. “But I can’t try to help if you’re going to be violent. Get back on your bed.”

“No!” The boy tensed like he was going to leap at them, and that was when the bedsheet whipped through the air from behind him and pinned his arms to his sides. He fought the restraint like a wild animal, snapping and squirming. “No! You don’t understand!”

“I wish I didn’t,” Arthur muttered, moving in to help Jack secure the boy. “We’ve got him, Merlin, help his brother.”

Hans was coaxing the terrified smaller boy out of his hiding spot—cautiously, because this boy’s teeth were also clacking together as though wanting to bite. “He cannot hurt you now,” he said. “See? Our friends have him, he cannot get at you. You turned over the cot so your sister could get away, am I right?”

“He…he hurt her.” It came out as a whimper. “Was he going to eat her?”

“He just bit her, it’s all right,” Merlin said. “I fixed it and she’s safe with your mother, so now it’s time for me to help you. Feeling sick?” The boy nodded. “All right, let’s get this cot set back up so you can be comfortable again. Can you tell us what happened?”

The boy sniffed, clambering shakily back up onto the cot when Hans righted it for him. “Emile started saying he was hungry, so Mama brought us the soup she’d said we couldn’t have until tomorrow. But he took mine and his both! And then he started saying he was hungry again, and that it hurt. And then Lucie came in and he…he…”

“It’s all right,” Merlin said again. “What’s your name?”

Another sniff. “Eliott.”

“All right, Eliott, here’s what we’re going to do: I need to look at you with my magic to see where the sickness is, so I want you to close your eyes until I say you can open them. The magic might feel a little funny, but it’s not going to hurt you—it’s going to find what’s making you sick and drive it out.”

He held back a smile when the boy tossed himself down and curled up with a huff. “I want to watch.”

“I’ll let you know when you can.” He placed his hand on the overwarm forehead and let his magic out, seeing basically the same pattern of taint he’d seen before. The entrance in this case appeared to be a small puncture wound on the boy’s hand, probably left by a splinter, and Merlin went to work pushing the taint down to it. He could hear the older brother still screaming, and at one point the shrill voice of the children’s mother joining in, but he kept his concentration focused on his task and finally black blobs were squeezing their way out of the hole the splinter had left and squirming together within the containing ball of magic. Once it was done he removed his hand, which he’d also been using to keep the curious boy’s eyes closed. “All right, Eliott, you can look now.”

Eliott blinked, then blinked again. His jaw had stopped its restless, telling movement. “Those were in me?”

“Unfortunately, yes. And they came from the water you boys were swimming in, so no more of that for a while.”

“Timéo was swimming too.”

“I’ve already been to see to him, he’s going to be fine just like you are.”

“Oh good. He’s my friend.” He yawned. “Mama, I’m tired. And Emile ate my soup.”

Merlin got out of her way to avoid being pushed out of it. “A few days’ rest and he should be fine. You might want to take him out of the room now, though. Emile…is much sicker than Eliott and Timéo were.”

She gathered her son up in shaking arms. “What do you mean?”

“Just what I said.” He met her eyes. “One of us will come for you once I know something. And you might want to send for your husband, if someone hasn’t already. I’ve no doubt there are people massing outside in the street.”

The woman nodded and hurried out of the room with her son, and Hans shut the door behind her. “Merlin?”

Merlin sat down on the chair Jack had pulled over for him, staring at Emile, who was too caught up in crying and screaming and trying to get free of the sheet to have noticed him. “We need to figure out what changed, or what was different. Emile? Emile!” The boy hiccuped through a sob. “Emile, I need you to tell me when it started to hurt. When did it start to hurt? When did you start to feel hungry?” The boy tried to lunge at him, teeth snapping, and Merlin sighed. “I don’t know if you can understand me at this point, Emile, but I’m going to use some magic to try to help you. You might be able to feel it, but that’s all right, it’s not going to hurt you. If you can, though…just try to stay calm.”

“It hurts!”

“I know.” Merlin avoided the snapping teeth again to put his hand on the boy’s head. “I’m trying to find out how to make it stop.”

His magic flared out in a much stronger wave than it had the last two times, and the others waited. And waited. A door slammed open and a loud masculine voice was heard, and Hans quickly traded places with Arthur, who quietly slipped out of the room. “Prince Merlin’s still tryin’ to figure out why Emile is sicker than the other boys were, Master Kilim,” he told the red-faced man, getting in his way to keep him from storming into the back room. “If you interrupt him now he’ll have to start over.”

“What’s he doing to my son?!”

“Seein’ if he can help him,” Arthur said. “Emile had turned violent before we got here. Eliott said he started to say he was hungry, then he took the soup your wife brought in for both of ‘em but after that he was sayin’ he was hungry and it hurt. And then he bit your daughter but Eliott helped her get away from him, and when we came in he was tryin’ to get to Eliott behind the cot and screamin’ about bein’ hungry.” He looked the man in the eye. “People infected with the shadow sickness eventually lose their minds and start attackin’ other people, sir. We don’t know if Merlin can fix it once someone’s that far gone.”

The man went from red to pale. “But if he can’t…what then?”

“I don’t know.”

A few long, tense moments later, the screaming abruptly cut off and Hans came out from the back room. “Merlin managed to put him in an enchanted sleep, that is why he stopped making noise,” he said. “You can come in now. We believe we know what happened. Emile took in some blood…”

Madam Killim gasped. “I put fresh meat into the soup! I…”

“No, that’s not what started it,” Merlin interrupted her as they all came back into the room. “It looks like he was pulling a splinter out of his finger with his teeth, and a bit of blood must have come out with it. That seems to have started the sickness into its second stage, and the meat in the soup wasn’t able to appease the intense craving for blood he was experiencing. That was also when his stomach started to hurt.” He blew out a breath. “If it helps any…Emile may have saved his little brother’s life by taking that soup from him. The meat in it could have been enough to trigger the second stage in Eliott.”

“But our Emile…”

Merlin met the devastated father’s eyes. “Emile is fully infected with the shadow sickness, Master Kilim, he’ll…it’s only going to get worse, so you’re going to have to make a decision as to what you want to do about it. In other places people have locked the victims up and just let the sickness run its course, but it would take a week or more for it to kill him and he would suffer terribly the entire time. Restraining him so he can’t harm himself and then locking him away might shorten the process, but not by much. Ending his suffering now would be the other option, but the…gentler ways of accomplishing that probably wouldn’t work thanks to the nature of this sickness.”

The man shuddered. “I can’t…”

“Of course not. No man I know could.”

Madam Kilin’s eyes were hard for all that they were streaming with tears. “Magic. You can do it with magic!”

Merlin swallowed and shook his head. “I can’t do that.”

“You can! You fight…”

“We fight monsters, and men who’ve turned so bad that killin’ them’s the only option,” Arthur rumbled, drawing his brother back so he could get between them if need be. “And the way Merlin fights with magic wouldn’t be right for…this any more than me usin’ my sword would.”

Master Kilim pulled his wife to him and let her bury her renewed sobs in his shoulder, looking even more devastated. “But to let him suffer…a week? More? How can we do that either? There has to be another way! If magic can’t kill him, could it…turn him to stone, keep him in an enchanted sleep, something! He’s just a child!”

“Enchanted sleep was the first thing I thought of,” Merlin admitted. “I’ve got one cast on him now, but you can see that it’s not working very well—he should be still as a stone, and he’s not. I’m willing to try a stronger version of the spell, but to prevent it coming undone or worse you’d have to…” He took a deep breath, shaking his head. “No. There’s one other thing I might try, it’s a very old spell but in this case it may be the best option we have. So if you agree, I could try to turn Emile into a stone.” The man nodded. “All right then. Everyone needs to leave the room again, I’ll…bring him out to you when I’m done.”

Jack was the one who herded everyone out, nearly having to push Arthur to get him through the door, but he himself stayed inside when he closed it. “No,” he said when Merlin started to protest, and raised one hand to the spot where his medallion hung in a meaningful way. “I felt that, and I am sure the others did as well. What is this terrible spell?”

Merlin shook his head. “I’ll tell you all when we get back to the castle. The purpose it was created for is more than terrible, believe me, and I have my doubts about the way it works. But all of our other options are infinitely worse.”

Jack nodded. He could feel echoes of his patrons’ power stirring within him due to his own upset over the situation, and a mournful flash of what might have been agreement from Lady Tia. “Do it. I stand as your witness.”

Merlin at once turned to the boy on the bed, a boy whose eyes were trying to open and whose teeth were clacking together, and he raised his hand. Magic swelled forth in a way it hadn’t before, dark and heavy as a whisper of some ancient tongue left his lips and fell on the boy…and in a blink, the cot was empty save for a rectangular stone like one that would be used to build with, grayish white veined through with black. The black looked oily and seemed to be somewhat in motion, and with a scowl Merlin touched one finger to it and shoved the taint out. This time the shadow slugs were more active, writhing in a very disturbing way, and the magician’s face lost some color as he collapsed the ball around them to burn them up.

Jack moved quickly to catch him before his knees could buckle, lowering him onto the chair and then digging in the pouch at his side for the bottle of elixir he’d brought. “Drink it all,” he murmured, shoving the bottle into Merlin’s shaking hands and pulling the cork. “I knew you would not want to be carried back to the castle if it was at all preventable.”

“That I wouldn’t.” Merlin drained the bottle, grimacing at the strong flavor and then shaking himself before standing back up with Jack’s help. He made sure he had his balance before picking up the stone—which was solid and not at all light—and when Jack opened the door for him he walked out to the front room of the house and presented it solemnly. “Master Kilim, your son’s suffering is ended, and he is at peace. It would be best to bury his stone uncarved and unbroken, due to the magic involved.”

The devastated father took the stone from him, seeming surprised by the weight of it. “We can’t put his name on it?”

“I wouldn’t, no. You can mark the grave, of course, but not the stone itself. It could cause his spirit to come back and haunt you.”

The man blanched. “We’ll bury it today.”

Merlin bowed. “My condolences for your loss. We’ll take our leave now, that your family might grieve in peace.”


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