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Chapter 65
By Goth Kitty Lady Posted in Story on 30 January 2023 3077 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 65

Another crowd had formed outside the rugmaker’s house, of course, but this one was smaller and less aggressive and Hans shooed them away after assuring them that no sickness remained in the house. Two more guards were lingering, claiming they were supposed to bring Merlin before their magistrate to provide a full accounting of what had happened, but they weren’t inclined to attempt to accomplish this through violence and Jack informed them in no uncertain terms that their magistrate had all the information he needed. “Three children became ill from swimming in shadow-tainted water, two were healed and one is dead,” he stated in clipped tones. “The shadows can only be dispelled by magic, there is no other way, so if either the taint or the sickness caused by it appear again on Calabrun you should send a messenger to the Black Castle, as her Prince Consort is the only mage available to help you.” He rested his hand on his belt, very near the hilt of his sword. “Now if you would not mind, we must be on our way.”

Predictably, both guards got out of their way, one bowing and forcing the other to do the same. Jack accepted this with a supercilious nod and ushered his friends past, and the four of them quickly returned to the road which led to the land bridge that they might not be waylaid again. Merlin didn’t speak and neither did anyone else as they crossed back onto the Black Isle, and they stopped only briefly in the village to gather up the triplets. Merlin did request that Guildmaster Kedge come with them, however, and he insisted on stopping at the magistrate’s office in town to make the same request of Magister George and ask that someone be sent to fetch Guildmaster Follet as well. Who joined them huffing and complaining just as they were starting up the King’s Road, but who after a harsh look from George and an even harsher whisper from Kedge kept his complaints to himself.

On going through the castle gates, Merlin at once called for an elf and instructed the one who appeared to request that the queen join them in the meeting room, as he had important information about the shadow sickness to pass on and it could not wait. He led everyone to said room, and they all stood beside their chairs until Queen Snow swept in, her pretty face grave and worried as she took her own seat and waved the rest of them to sit down. “What has happened?”

“Calabrun’s harbor was tainted,” Merlin said without preamble, ignoring the glass of wine Bramble was pouring for him. “It was a small patch and quickly dealt with, but three children had apparently swam in that area the day before and from it contracted the shadow sickness. And because of this, we now know more about the shadow sickness than we did before, and it is not the best of news.” He cleared his throat and addressed their three guests. “Some months ago, I received a message from the Royal Magician of Odinson, stating that a terrible sickness had overtaken that island and those uninfected were besieged within the Castle of Odinson and quickly running out of resources. The rest of the Fearless Seven and I at once made plans to do what we could to help, plans which involved getting supplies into the castle without having to dock there. On arriving, we could see bloody chaos on shore everywhere we looked, and the infected were even in the water and trying to climb the sides of the ship to get at us.”

He went on to describe what they’d discovered on Breyholm, and how they’d felt they had no choice but to pursue the infected who had taken the fishing boats. He spared no details of the devastation and dark magic found on Caray, and Pino also told of the horrific scenes he and his brothers had come across within the town there as well. The taint caused by the shadows and corpses in the water was also described, and that was when Merlin reached the point he needed to make. “I am a very powerful mage,” he stated. “But just cleansing the smallest amount of shadow-taint from that ship and her crew left me unconscious for almost an entire day. I attempted to cleanse the shadow sickness from an infected person with the help of another mage, and he nearly killed himself trying it.” He put his hands flat on the table. “This is when we realized that the power to stop the shadow sickness and destroy the taint which causes it simply did not exist in the Fairy Isles. And so we went on a quest into the Broken Lands to see if the remnants of old magic rumored to be found there might provide us with a solution. We returned only a few days ago with one, although it was not the one anyone wanted. Because what we found was old magic we couldn’t use and a prophecy that made no sense until we stepped back through the gates of the Black Castle. The only way to stop the shadows, which likely spawned from a pocket of cursed old magic as well, is to simply have enough power to push them out and destroy them.”

Magister George bit back a curse, and then drowned it in his wine when it refused to stay behind his teeth where it belonged. Kedge was doing the same, although the fingers of his free hand were clenched into a fist. Follet just gaped. Luckily, Kedge was the first one to find his voice again. “There’s no mage in the Fairy Isles known to be more powerful than you, Prince Consort. But if you couldn’t do it before, then how…”

“The prophecy was about me,” Merlin explained. “It involved ending a curse embedded in the very stones of the Black Castle which had plagued the men of the ruling family for generations—born or married into it did not seem to matter. And once it was ended…well, the next morning I realized just how much that curse had been holding me back. I can now cure someone of the shadow sickness, push out the taint that causes it and then destroy the expelled shadows utterly. But in doing that very thing on Calabrun I also discovered something terrible about the way the sickness works once a person is infected. The taint spreads through them from the point of contact, like a vine pushing its way through a crack in a wall. I believe eventually this would cause the later stage of the sickness, the hunger and pain and the violent madness it drives its victims to. But if the victim takes in blood, in any form, the taint almost immediately spreads throughout their body and…well, takes it over. And no magic can save them once that happens.”

George’s expression darkened. “They have to be killed.”

“And their bodies destroyed, yes. With fire, as the shadows will happily taint both water and wood.”

Follet’s eyes narrowed with oily suspicion. “What was done on Calabrun?”

Merlin shook his head. “Something that won’t be done again unless the situation is equally as desperate.”

“So you killed the infected children, then?”

The reactions this accusation set off around the table were not good ones, but Merlin merely shook his head again. “Only one child was beyond help, and I turned him into a stone,” he replied, “as the only other options available to us were either slitting his throat or locking him in a room and allowing him to starve to death in screaming agony over a week or more’s time. Which would you have chosen, Guildmaster?” He moved one hand to cover his wife’s, which had clenched into a fist. “Or perhaps you would have simply encouraged the mob which was forming to burn the house with the entire family inside, so as to keep your own hands as clean as possible—that was the idea the magistrate on Calabrun had. But we are neither you nor him.”

“You were included in this meeting because any new knowledge of the shadow sickness or the taint that causes it affects trade and the way the port must be managed, Guildmaster Follet,” Snow said, her voice calm and hard although her eyes were all but glowing and the air was beginning to shiver with furious royal magic. “Should it come to my attention that what you learn here has been used by you to attempt to advance your own standing in the town through slander and base rumor, you will be brought back before me by the guards and we will be having a much different conversation. Do you understand?”

Follet’s momentary boldness deserted him and he cringed slightly in his seat. His mouth moved several times before any words were able to get out. “Y-yes, Your Majesty.”

George shared a look with Kedge, acknowledging that they would need to discuss Follet and his treasonous ways later in private, then cleared his throat. “You’ll pardon me for asking, Prince Merlin, but why is the option of turning a victim into stone…not an option? Does it take too much power, or is it dangerous for some other reason?”

“A valid question,” Merlin allowed. “The stone spell is an ancient one I stumbled across an account of in an old book, it’s probably a thousand years old at least. The spell itself doesn’t require too much power to cast, but the conditions of it are…suspicious, and the spell has a dark feel to it which concerns me. King Jacques stood as witness when I cast it, he can confirm this.”

“It did feel quite dark,” Jack confirmed at once. “Not evil, but definitely not a gentle magic or a light one. It changed the boy in the blink of an eye into a solid block of stone, of a size which one might use for building a chimney or a small hearth. I can confirm that the child did not suffer under the casting of it.”

“No, it was even quicker than I’d hoped it could be,” Merlin agreed. “Although the shadow taint remained in the stone as an oily black substance, and I had to cleanse it of that before giving the stone to the child’s parents for burial. I also instructed them not to carve his name on it in case that might call his spirit to haunt them. This was why I said I’d not do it again unless the situation was equally desperate: I need to study the spell further, seek out other accounts of it and perhaps see if I can alter it to better suit our purpose, but I don’t have time for that now. We’ll need to head for Odinson within the week.”

Kedge nodded decisively at that. “I’ll find you a ship, and a few men to crew it.” His glare closed Follet’s mouth. “I didn’t say charter, Follet. Odinson may be the first port of call for this, but all the others will have to come after—the shadows are spreading everywhere and trade is down to a trickle, it’s all our problem now. So until we’re nearer to having it solved the Fearless Seven will need a ship that’s marked for nothing else and ready to go the moment she’s needed.” He looked to George. “That’s a slip in the harbor too we’ll be needing.”

“Not a problem,” was George’s answer. “I believe we also need to assign a man with good eyes to keep watch on our shoreline, on both sides of the promontory. I’ve had my men checking the pier for taint ever since we first heard about it, but none of them noticed it starting in the harbor.”

Jack waved that away. “Princess Serena would not have seen it if I had not told her to look for that specifically, and it is likely her own magic also warned her that something was amiss.” He raised a challenging golden eyebrow at the spark that kindled in Follet’s eyes, and the other man quickly looked away. “As such magic is rare in the Fairy Isles, perhaps a small watchtower built upon the rocks between harbor and cove would better serve this purpose? From there a man with a glass could see both sides, and examine the water much more closely than could be done from the shore.”

“I like that idea,” Snow agreed. “And in bad weather the tower could also serve as a lighthouse—I’ve heard about them, I’ve always wondered why we didn’t have one.” She stood up, causing all of the men at the table to quickly stand as well. “I believe this planning will go better once everyone has had a good dinner and a night’s sleep,” she declared. “Guildmaster Kedge, Magister George, please return to the castle tomorrow morning after breakfast so we can make detailed plans. Guildmaster Follet, your presence will not be needed, and please don’t forget what I said: We have a dungeon, and if you keep on as you have been I’ll have no choice but to put you in it.”

“Your Majesty!” She scowled, and Follet, predictably, cringed again. “Yes, Your Majesty, as you say it.”


Once the guard had escorted their guests out, Merlin dropped back down into his chair like his strings had been cut. “So we’ll show them the docking cavern tomorrow and make plans from there.”

“That’s what I was thinking, yes.” Snow sat back down and took his hand again. “What was that spell?”

He took a long drink of his wine. “It only works on living bodies, so I believe it was used as a method of human sacrifice. The book I found it in spoke of stone buildings whose walls would not stay standing until an innocent life was entombed in them, and the spirit of that person was thought to become the guardian of that structure.” He ran a shaking hand over his face. “The spell can’t be reversed, and I don’t believe the victims are actually…I think it would be more accurate to call their condition stone sleep rather than death.”

Hans was nodding slowly. “The reason you told the rugmaker and his wife to bury the stone and not carve into it.”

“Exactly. The originators of the spell carved symbols and inscriptions into the original blocks…”

“…But that was probably done to call forth the spirit and tether it to the building.” Arthur drained his wineglass. “So the boy…”

“Sleeps forever in stone.”

“That is a mercy, then,” Pino observed. “How draining is this spell?”

Merlin shrugged. “Not anywhere near as bad as performing a cleansing, in fact I think some of the other mages could manage it, but they wouldn’t be able to cleanse the stone of taint afterward so that’s not a perfect solution. Magical fire will be simpler and safer for…most situations.” His sigh seemed as though it came from the bottom of his boots. “One more thing, although this is the only time I’ll speak of it: The boy crossed into the second stage of the sickness because of the soup his mother gave him—just the blood from the meat she’d boiled in it was apparently enough. I didn’t want to put that burden on her, so I told them it was caused by blood from him pulling a splinter out of his finger. Their younger son had become infected through the small wound pulling a splinter had left him, so I thought that would be a lie they would easily accept.”

Noki touched his chest. “That explains what we felt from you—for a moment I thought I might throw down my tools and run for the land bridge.”

“I was afraid the three of you might have done just that, when I felt it,” Jack told him. “The Marks connect us far more deeply than I anticipated they would. King Adam and King John shared such a connection when they were alive, but I believe ours may be deeper than theirs was.” He raised an eyebrow at Arthur. “I do not know how you managed not to run that guard through where he stood. Even though it was just an echo, I could feel how gleeful Excalibur was at the very thought of killing him.”

Arthur just shrugged. “I already didn’t like the bastard, so she was just lookin’ for an excuse.” He knocked back his own wine, draining the glass. “We may need to send someone to check on the one boy and his mother in a few days. Couldn’t help but notice that the people wantin’ to burn out someone’s house to prevent the taint from spreadin’ were only really interested in doin’ it to that house and not the other.”

“Yes, I noticed that as well.” Hans frowned. “Pino, would you like your kingdom to grow by two more citizens, a widow and her young son? I agree with Arthur, and I do not believe they will remain safe on Calabrun.”

Pino raised his glass to him. “New Vinci has plenty of room. And our caretaker could doubtless use both the company and the help.” He too drained the rest of his wine, and then he stood up and his brothers did the same. “I believe we shall go wash away the day’s efforts before dinner.”

Jack stood up too, stretching. “An excellent idea, and one which we should all take part in. An early dinner after?”

“I’ll arrange that, and let Elana and Serena know.” Snow pulled her husband up out of his chair and gave him a lingering kiss. “We’ll all go to bed early tonight, too.”

He rested his forehead against hers for a moment. “I doubt I’d be able to do anything else, honestly.”


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