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Chapter 72
By Goth Kitty Lady Posted in Story on 4 April 2023 3764 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 72

In not quite three months Caray, the Isle of Deer, had become nearly unrecognizable. Her shoreline was black as pitch, strewn with disintegrating corpses and white bones, and the water for quite some distance out might as well have been ink. The Blood Wood was visibly glowing red even in daylight now, and its branches were tossing to and fro without wind to move them. The remains of the pier had rotted down below the level of the water, and behind the great swath that had been burnt beyond it the collapsing ruin of the village could now be clearly seen. The very air reeked of rot and darkness, and Merlin hastily did something to the ship that rimmed every part of her in blue light and held the taint in the air at bay. Jack was clutching his medallion, and when Arthur touched the pommel of his sword Excalibur hummed a low, rough warning. “This…this is bad.”

“Even worse than I expected,” Merlin agreed. “I hadn’t thought the ones that went in the water would get here, I expected those that didn’t get caught by a random current like the ones on the Black Isle would just sink into the depths of the sea and rot there. But it seems the curse was able to draw them back to itself even from that.”

“We could not have anticipated that,” Jack said, frowning at the shadow-filled water, trying to process the horror and fury he could feel from his patrons at the very sight of it. “We should keep a watch on the sides of the ship, two men at all times. Something that could get this far…we do not want it slithering its way aboard. Or for the shadows to begin crawling up either.”

“Yes, here we cannot afford to be lax, not even for a moment,” Pino agreed grimly. “Merlin, where do we begin?”

“First things first, we need to move the ship farther from the shore,” Merlin said. “Given what it looks like has happened, the water here may not be deep enough to protect us.” The crew immediately set to doing that. “If we go around to the far side of the island and start burning at the same time I start working on the water, we might be able to get a good start on it before the cursed wood begins trying to protect itself. This area before us will have to be done last, because once we start on the Wood itself…well, I won’t be able to stop.”

No one had any better ideas, so that ended up being exactly what they did. Clearing the waters around the shores of Caray was not like doing so anywhere else had been: These waters fought back. Merlin again went out in the dinghy, but this time he rowed out to get close enough and a rope was attached to the back of the dinghy which could be used to tow it back to the ship if necessary. The fires they started on the shore kept more taint from flowing back down into the water, and before the sun began to set the ship moved quite far out to sea and stayed there until the sun was well up.

Those five nights were something none of them would ever forget. The fires, heavily bolstered by magic, ate their way steadily inward across the island and put off dense clouds of smoke that stank of blood. Merlin was pushing himself as hard as he dared, and every time he sent out a net of cleansing magic into the black water it boiled violently before erupting into the air along with thick columns of black smoke. He could barely climb back up onto the deck after each section of the coast was done, barely managing to stay awake long enough to eat and then sleeping heavily until it was time for him to rise the next morning, down a bottle of elixir and start again.

The morning of the sixth day saw them again drawing near to the area of the pier, they were dismayed to see the water there now so thick with shadow-taint it looked nearly solid, and the Blood Wood glowing behind curtains of smoke like a vengeful second sun. Malevolence shivered in the air, and the Seven looked at each other. “It knows what we are doing,” Jack said, feeling the warning pulsing through his medallion and burning along the ghostly lines of his Mark. “I do not think we are far enough back.”

“We are back as far as we can go and still use the rope,” Noki countered. “But all the same, I agree with you: We are not far enough back.”

“I believe we would only be far enough back if we were too far away to see that,” Kio said, pointing at the glowing, thrashing trees. “I feel like they are watching us.”

“They are,” came from Merlin, who had already drunk his bottle of elixir and was now nursing a mug of tea. He shrugged tiredly when everyone turned to stare at him in horror. “The curse has…awareness, of a sort? It knows we’re here, knows it’s under attack, and it’s angry.”

“Like a cornered animal,” Hans observed. “I do not think you can go out in the dinghy, not even with the rope. The shadows are jumping out of the water like fish even now, and if you go out there I think they will swarm you—given what you just said, they may be waiting to do just that. Look over there, in that place where there seems to be a lighter, calmer spot in the water. There is no way that is not the kind of invitation a spider offers to a fly.”

Noki got out his glass to take a closer look, and when he lowered it he was pale. “Hans is right. Jack, come look at this. Do you see what I see?”

Jack came and took the glass, and after a moment he used it to follow something in the water and then he cursed. “This spider is reaching out for us, we must get farther back at once!”

A burst of magical wind swelled the sails, pushing the ship farther away from the shore, and in the spot they’d been observing the water heaved and shook before disgorging wave after wave of shadows…and as they got even farther away a stream of blackness became visible, deep below the surface of the water, where more shadows had been creeping toward the ship. Merlin’s jaw set as he looked at it. “All right, we’ll have to finish things off a bit differently. Fire first—we’ll burn what’s left all the way up to the Wood. Keep watching the water, so the shadows don’t sneak up on us.”

Five arrows magically assisted in getting to their targets and a rather petulant burst of lightning later when the arrows weren’t enough, an inferno was raging on the land, eating up the last of the tainted ground, and Merlin was fending off protests as he untied the long rope from the dinghy. “I’ll need to be farther away than that!” he repeated for the third time. “Not so much closer to the land, just farther from the ship—what I’m about to do is going to move a lot of water, we can’t afford to have the ship get sucked up in it.”

Arthur made a face. “But we just set that fire.”

“And I’m not going to put it out just yet,” his brother assured him. “We’ll give it long enough to reach the edges of the wood, then I’ll go out.” He made a face of his own. “Someone may have to swim out and row back when I’m done, though.”

“Or someone could just row out with you,” Jack pointed out dryly, and held up a hand when Merlin started to protest that idea. “No, it would be far more dangerous for someone to dive from the ship to try to get to you, especially if the sea is going to be so disturbed by what you are doing. And my patrons will warn me if something is going wrong, a warning it would be difficult for me to share with you from a distance.” He turned to the oldest member of the crew. “I believe it is time for you to fully take charge, Captain Gerralt.”

The man so addressed nodded, pushing a long white braid back over his shoulder. A scar that slashed across the left side of his face had left one eye milky white as well, but the other was a sharp, piercing blue. “It’s going to be that bad?”

“Worse,” came from Merlin. “In fact, as soon as Jack and I cast off in the dinghy you should move the ship back as far as you can while still being able to see us, and be prepared for rough seas—you’ll understand once you see it starting.”

He finished off the last of his tea and ducked below, and Jack shrugged when everyone looked to him. “I believe he plans to do the same thing he did to cleanse Valeureux, just on a much larger scale,” he said, taking off his sword belt and handing it to Pino. “And much more quickly, of course. We can only hope the water that is thrown up in the air does not throw any shadows up into the air with it.”

“Yeah, a rain of that we do not need,” Arthur agreed. “We’ve got Merlin’s protections on the ship, though, and Excalibur will warn me if anything gets through. You’re sure about this, Jack?”

Jack snorted, shrugging out of his jacket. “Since it will be a miracle if the dinghy stays afloat and in one piece? Yes, I am sure the strongest swimmer on board should be the one to go out with him. Just keep the ship as safe as possible, and I will make sure we both get back to her.” Merlin came back up on deck, minus his own jacket and sword. “We are ready, or do you need more time?”

Merlin shook his head. “I’m as ready as I’m going to get. We either finish this now or we may never get the chance again.”

They both climbed down into the dinghy once it was lowered and then rowed off at an oblique angle, and Captain Gerralt gave the order for the ship to move even farther back. The Blood Wood was glowing brighter than the fire that now surrounded it, and the air was vibrating as though some very loud sound was being made that they could not quite hear. Shadows began to mass in the water, creating shapes like twisted roots stretching out, reaching for the ship and then retreating only to reach again a moment later; one managed to touch the hull, but Merlin’s spellwork repelled it. The shapes could be seen reaching for the dinghy as well, but Merlin’s hands were already on the waves and the shadows near him were being drawn into a swirl of glowing blue seawater that tore them apart into smoke and bubbles. The blue glow started to spread, and the reaching shadows pulled away from the Rescuer only to be drawn in and destroyed as more and more water began to move toward the swirl, first deepening it and then piling up behind it to form a growing tower of water like a huge wave. The triplets shared a look with each other and then Noki went to inform the captain of what they thought was about to happen, pointing out something that made Gerralt’s blue eye widen in alarm. Hans was already below, helping the crew double-check that things were secure, and Kio went to join him while Pino came to stand ready with Arthur. “The level of the sea is dropping,” he explained, and shrugged when Arthur stared at him in horror. “That is not a wave, it is the leading edge of a stream like the one Merlin created on the cliffs above Valeureux—he is using magic to create a current which will force the water to flow onto the land. And once the magic-infused water hits the Wood…”

“It’s gonna explode.”

“And then fall and rush back into the sea. Which is not going to make for smooth sailing. We are not much safer than the dinghy if the return stream hits us broadside.”

“If she goes all the way over, jump off and swim away from her,” came from Captain Gerralt, who had come to the bow to get a better look at what was happening. “She’ll suck you under if you try to stay in close, even if she doesn’t go all the way down. Will it be safe for us to go ashore if we have to?”

“Even if it would, I am not sure we would be able to get to shore against the currents that will be created,” Pino told him. “We will just have to hope the ship stays at least somewhat upright.”

“We can hope,” Gerralt echoed. “Watch out for the mast, Your Highnesses; if she snaps she’ll pull all the ropes to one side and net you like fish.”

He went back to the wheel, sending Noki below to get everyone out of the hold, and they all watched the now-monstrous tower of water as it began casting a long, dark shadow up the shore and over the blackened, burning land. It seemed to be moving slowly, but once its wide base made landfall billows of black smoke began to rise up into the air and glowing bubbles rushed up to burst above it…and that was when the leading edge came crashing down onto the land to become a roaring magic-infused river.

Which promptly exploded, sending water so high into the air that it briefly hid the sun and then came crashing down as a hard, dense rain that made it impossible to see anything. Arthur swung Excalibur through the falling water, checking to see if it was still tainted; when it proved not to be, he sheathed the humming sword and secured her across his back, just in case. The ship was starting to yaw, and he moved back to the mast with Pino as it seemed like the best thing to hang on to—not to mention, if they were touching it they’d be the first to know if it started to crack. The vibration in the air became a shrieking whistle and then an inhuman scream of pain and rage as the last of the bloody red glow was extinguished and a gigantic glob of smoke erupted into the air and just briefly formed a twisted fairy shape with ragged wings and a screaming mouth before magic and wind ripped it apart and it scattered into southward-streaming streaks of dirty gray. The roar of the magical river continued for several long minutes, and Pino squinted. “Is it doing what I think it is doing?”

Noki was tying off a rope, so Hans took the glass and looked. “I think it may be digging down…yes! It is uprooting the trees!”

That prompted a curse from Gerralt which was echoed by several other crewmen. Arthur and Pino left the dubious safety of the mast to help with the main sail, Kio and Hans moved to stand behind the captain at the wheel, and Noki had reclaimed his glass and climbed halfway up the mizzen-mast, doing his best to keep an eye on both sea and shore. So when the wind tore a hole in the mist and smoke, he was the one who saw what was happening and gave the alarm. “The trees have come down with the water! They are headed right for us!”

The ship began to pitch and then to roll as she was turned somewhat broadside to the oncoming current. The mist had closed back in and they were back to not being able to see much of anything, so when the first log glanced off the hull everyone who wasn’t hanging on to something was nearly thrown off their feet. Arthur’s Mark started to echo with panic—his own and everyone else’s—and Excalibur began to hum a very dramatic tune in time with the crashing waves. More logs shot past the sides of the ship, some whose torn roots were visibly entwined with bones, and a few more knocked into the Rescuer and caused her to sway alarmingly even as the sea heaved her around like a child’s toy. The sails were flapping violently overhead, buffeted by the wind instead of catching it. Arthur braced one foot on the mast and leaned all his weight on the rope, pulling with all the strength he had, and overhead the main sail finally caught the wind and the Rescuer slid out of the way of the worst of the current.

But the sense of panic coming from the Marks didn’t lessen. “That is Jack!” Pino called out. “Noki, can you see the dinghy?”

“I cannot see anything!” Noki called back, right before something impacted the port side of the ship and almost knocked him off his perch. His glass fell out of his hands and dropped to the listing deck, but he didn’t need it to see what had happened. “One of the trees has pierced the hull! We look to be stuck on it!”

“Get down off of there now!” the captain ordered. The wheel was jerking in his hold. “Someone get below and see how bad it is!”

Two crewmen and Hans rushed below deck, and only a moment later one man reappeared and made his way to the wheel. “It speared us like a fish, Gerralt,” he said. “We’re takin’ on water, but not too much yet because it’s pluggin’ its own hole.”

The wheel jerked again. “If it comes out, can we patch it?”

That got him a snort. “You’d best hope it doesn’t come out, it’ll crack the hull like an egg. Rolly and Prince Hans are bringin’ up everything they can.”

Pino had made his way over. “My brothers and I may be able to cobble together a raft for the supplies, if nothing else. The bunks are made of slats, we can make them serve our purpose.”

“Do it—but be ready if we need you on the ropes again,” Gerralt told him. “Even with our extra passenger, we’ve got to try to get ourselves into calmer water. If we go down here, we’ll all die.”

The next twenty minutes felt like hours to the Fearless Seven and the six-man crew of the Rescuer as they tried to keep the ship afloat and steer her away from the currents that were trying to capsize her. The triplets took over bringing up everything they could from the hold along with wood from the bunks, freeing up Hans and Rolly to go back to the sails. Arthur had moved to the wheel, helping the captain hold it steady, but it still was almost jerked out of their hands when a terrifyingly loud grinding noise sounded up from somewhere in the sea below them and the entire ship abruptly stopped moving. A crewman skidded to the port rail to look, then yelled out, “Drop the sails! We’re caught on somethin’, drop the sails!”

Everyone who could rushed to lower the sails, and the ship went terrifyingly still save for the waves crashing into her hull. Hans had gone to the rail to look for himself, and relief crashed through the Marks. “They must be near…there they are, I see them!”

He ended up diving into the water to help Jack, and it wasn’t too long after that all three of them were back on board, Merlin unconscious and Jack’s medallion still glowing. “I briefly lost him in the water when the dinghy was swept under,” he explained through chattering teeth as he traded his sodden clothing for a dry blanket. “Once I found him again we began swimming away from the shore, hoping to catch sight of the ship. We were mostly out of the path of the water and the trees.” He shuddered, not from cold. “Did you see…her?”

“We saw her,” Pino said. “A grand high fairy?”

“Merlin thought she must be the one Ari told us about, and my patrons seemed to agree.” Jack shuddered again, pulling the blanket tighter around himself. “She looked nothing like Elana, that is for certain.”

“No, she looked nothing like our beautiful wife-to-be,” Noki agreed, handing him a cup which he then poured wine into. “The smoke went south, against the wind. But there is nothing we can do about that now.”

“There’s nothin’ we can do about much of anything right now,” Arthur groused from where he was trying to get Merlin’s wet shirt off of him. “I’m guessin’ you saw the tree hit us.”

Jack nodded, drinking deeply from the cup. “He called the stone up from the sea floor; you could not see it, but there was another tree coming that likely would have hit near the first one and broken the ship apart. He was dead weight after that, but that was not such a problem in the water as it would have been on land.”

“So now what do we do?” Kio wanted to know. “We are safe on the ship for the moment, but we cannot stay here.”

Captain Gerralt shook his head, somewhat creakily kneeling down to help Arthur as the younger man’s hands were shaking too much to accomplish their task. “Not for too long, no, but we should be good until tomorrow at least—maybe even longer than that if no storms blow up.”

“I hope you did not just jinx us,” Hans muttered, drying his hair with a corner of his own blanket. “I think we have had enough excitement for one day, thank you very much.”

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