In the Land of Stories Old
The next morning, the Rescuer moved to just outside the entrance to Odinson’s shadow-befouled harbor and the exercise with the dinghy was repeated—only this time there were four even larger magical explosions, and people could be seen watching from the upper windows of the castle. A rather rough-looking wooden bird flapped its way up to the tower window soon thereafter and in short order brought back an answering message:
Ten souls remain here, including the royal family—all the others who had escaped the sickness fled the castle weeks ago. We do not know where they went, or if they were even able to get out of the town, but their leaving allowed the sickened to come in and we became trapped in the upper levels of the castle. The Royal Magician charmed the doors to stay closed and the one pump we have to purify the water, but he vanished three days ago and the king will only say he was doing something foolish and unnecessary and died for it.
As you have asked, we will continue to keep a watch and we will be ready for you to come for us tomorrow. King Hugin says to tell you he already knows we must abandon Odinson, and he will be pleased to take any advice you have to give regarding what should be done to keep our island from spreading this awful taint to others.
Vali Olsen, Steward to the King of Odinson
This resulted in the rest of the day being devoted to planning out how best to get to the survivors and get them out of the castle. It was decided that going in with the dawn tide would not suit, as they felt they should have as much light as possible if they were to safely make their way from the shore to the castle and back again. The pier was visibly corrupted to the point of rotting by the shadow taint and so were the two remaining ships docked there, meaning they also had to find another place where the Rescuer could safely get in close enough to put out her gangplank. Noki went back to work with his glass and finally discovered a small docking area that seemed to have been used by boats needing repairs, and which also looked to still be intact enough to be put to use. It was much farther from the castle than anyone would have liked, but the Fearless Seven had faced worse odds in the past. They stayed up late into the night planning for every possible contingency, and rose well past sunrise the following morning. The ship eased herself in abreast of the small dock but only as near as the length of her gangplank, which she then pulled back up as soon as her seven royal passengers had disembarked.
This far to the less-populous end of the town everything was quiet as a grave and just as disturbingly peaceful. Nothing was moving save where the morning breeze lazily flapped a curtain in a dark window or tugged at rags of abandoned clothing dangling from a sagging line, but the nearer they drew to the town’s center with its arrow-straight cobbled road the more the terrible fate which had befallen the people of Odinson began to show itself. Bodies lay decaying in the streets, victims all in death. Doors and shutters hung broken from their hinges, the contents of the shops and homes they had protected scattered and trampled. From the ruins of what had once been the central market area a thick track of dried blood and filth led down to the pier where the infected had tried to make their way to the blood-hungry source of their cursed state, and here and there a water-warped shape barely recognizable as having been human twitched and crept along the shore at a snail’s pace, driven only by the shadows that had consumed it.
The castle gates were standing open, as they had been two months before, but now the massive iron-banded doors beyond them were open as well. “Straight up to the fourth floor,” Arthur reminded everyone, Excalibur glowing and humming in his hand. “And knock open every shutter you see, we’ll need all the light we can get. Merlin, go.”
Merlin at once threw a marked slip of paper into the shadowed entrance hall and followed the lightning he’d created inside, his own sword at the ready. There were more upright bodies here, half-living victims who cringed from the light even as they moaned and turned toward the smell of living blood. Sharpened steel cut down any who came close as the Seven plunged through the hall and into the larger chamber beyond it, making their way to the wide stone staircase which would take them to the castle’s higher levels. Lightning flared again, blasting open the shutters that covered unreachable windows, letting in light that seemed too pure and kind for the scenes of grotesque ruin it was now touching. Scuttling noises, only some of which sounded small enough to be scavenging rats, seemed to be coming from every hall and door they passed, and looking back down the way they’d come showed more of the infected staggering onto the stairs in their wake and collapsing in despairing defeat as in their starved state even crawling up the steps was beyond them. Two flights became two floors, then three, and then at the top of the fourth they came to a halt as an intact set of doors appeared, rimmed with a weakly flickering line of magic and surrounded by piled bodies both twitching and deceptively still. Seven swords swung like scythes, cutting safe passage through the tainted, tangled mass, and then Merlin touched the doors with his magic and the protective flicker went out like a blown candle. “We’re here!” he called out, not yet pushing open the doors. “We’re coming in now, don’t attack us!”
Arthur and Jack pushed open the doors, everyone keeping well to the sides and out of easy reach of arrows or spears or thrown objects just in case—except for Merlin, who stayed where he could be seen with a ball of magic in his free hand. He quickly extinguished it when no one attacked, and the seven of them quickly but cautiously came into what had likely been the family part of the royal wing. Hans and Noki hung back with Jack, guarding the doors, while the others moved further in. “Come on, everyone, we’ve got to get out of here!” Arthur yelled. “Where are you?”
“Here!” a gruff voice called back, and King Hugin himself came out of a side door with a sword in his hand and two men behind him holding long knives. He all but sagged with relief when he saw them. “I made everyone wait at the top of the stairs, just in case. Bran, get them down here, quickly!” One of the two men ran back the way they’d come. “How bad is it?”
“Bad enough you’ll want to blindfold the children before we leave this room, Your Majesty,” Merlin told him, offering a bow. “Have any of you been bitten?”
“No, no one,” Hugin told him. “If they had been?”
“If they weren’t too far gone to be cured, we would have,” Arthur said. “If not, all you can do is put them out of their misery.”
“That would make sense, yes.” He sighed. “If it’s going to be a fight to get out, I don’t know how much use we’ll be…”
“We have already planned for that, do not worry,” Pino told him. “We will carry the children, and once we are out of the castle we should not have to go as fast.”
Hugin nodded. “Down to the pier?”
Merlin shook his head. “The pier is rotted through, our ship is anchored at an old boat dock on the northern side of the harbor. Do you think there are any other survivors in the town?”
“I don’t know how there could be.” Hugin’s eyes widened with sudden alarm. “You weren’t thinking to go looking, were you?”
“No,” Merlin assured him. “But I can try to send a message of sorts once we get back on the ship. Lightning, maybe, or fireworks—something loud and bright to draw them out.”
A patter of feet became a stream of frightened people bursting into the room, three of them carrying children and some with bundles as well. The triplets at once took charge of the children, Pino and Noki getting the two oldest up on their backs while Kio secured the youngest against his chest with a length of cloth. Merlin and Arthur tied on blindfolds and arranged everyone to their satisfaction, then went to the head of the straggling line. “We’ll be in front, then the Princes Vinci with the children right behind us!” Arthur announced. “You’ll all follow next, and then Prince Hans and King Jacques will bring up the rear. Just stay together and don’t run off and we’ll all get out of this. Let’s go!”
Hans and Jack threw open the doors and he strode past them, Excalibur glowing brightly in the dark corridor. Merlin was right behind him, and then everyone else fell into line and down the stairs they went, Hans pulling the doors to the family wing closed simply because it didn’t feel right to him to leave them open. Swords and magic cut down everything in their path, landing by landing, and finally they were in the large chamber and slashing their way past desperate reaching hands and clicking jaws to get through the entry hall and out into the morning’s over-bright sunlight. “We cannot stop!” Jack called out from his place at the back when the rescued king and his people froze in horror at the sight of the devastation before them. “They are following, keep moving!”
Back down the fouled road they went and through the death-strewn streets, and now there was purposeful movement seemingly everywhere where none had been before and they knew it was going to be a near thing for them to make it to the ship. But make it they did, Merlin sending up a shower of sparks to let the ship know when they were near, and they arrived at the old dock just as the gangplank was lowered and quickly herded everyone up onto the deck. And then Arthur was helping the crewmen haul the gangplank back up and a magical wind swelled the sails and pushed the ship away from the shore before any of the infected could reach the dock. Hans helped the triplets divest themselves of their terrified young burdens and brought them to their parents, who had collapsed to the deck in shock and exhaustion with the rest of the survivors. Merlin checked through them all for bite marks or other signs of taint, and after thankfully not finding any he went to the bow and tossed a slip of paper up into the air, causing a golden shower of fireworks to explode out over the harbor. He kept the light and noise going for several minutes, Noki beside him using his glass to search the visible streets and windows for any movement that might be another survivor.
There was nothing. They waited half an hour more, just in case, and then Merlin went back to King Hugin. “Your Majesty, what would you have us do?”
Hugin blinked up at him as though he were surprised to be asked. “Will fire kill it?” When Merlin nodded he nodded back, trembling but decisive. “Burn it…burn it all.”
Arthur was already unwrapping his bow. The ship drifted closer to the pier and he positioned himself at the forward rail, holding out an arrow so his brother could impale a glowing slip of paper on its head, and then he drew the bow back and sent the arrow into the shadow-rotted wood of the pier. Five more arrows followed, landing in various places around the harbor; in each spot, a blue-glowing fire immediately sprang up and then spread into ferociously burning red and gold flames. Lightning exploded in the Rescuer’s wake as she sailed out of the harbor, igniting brush and trees and even blackening the mottled rocks all along the shoreline. And the kingdom of Odinson burned.
In the Land of Stories Old