The restoration of the Tortoise Shell Inn got started quickly. With the entire village united in a singular goal, they proved that they could accomplish greatness. Together they established a dumping site, cleared the loose rubble, and sold whatever of the refuse was of any value. It remained unclear whether the mayor backed the project or not. Nobody imagined that he hadn’t heard—it would have been impossible for anybody to miss the news—but he did not show himself at the site.
By contrast, Henry was there almost every day, helping out however he could. Generally that meant moving small objects, and providing moral support. People seemed to appreciate it. But Jamal had him beat on both counts. The man never left, and he presided over an endless keg of beer. He made incessant jokes about drinking while on the job. If anyone stuck around too long, the jokes would become sincere and sometimes tearful thanks—so most of the volunteers took their cups and ran.
Long days sweating under the autumn sun became the only times in which Henry could see his friends without the dark cloud of his worsening condition hanging over their heads. They could pretend, if only for a little while, that the only injustice that existed was the destruction of the Tortoise Shell Inn. And that, they were fixing. The problem was with others.
“Can you help him?” a tearful Mrs. Donald asked him one afternoon. “I’m so sorry to bring it up, it isn’t fair… but… but could you? Could you bring him back?”
Kara, standing nearby, rushed in to save him from stuttering and stumbling. “We all miss Ted,” she said, “but he’s gone. I know it hurts.” Henry went home early that day.
The memorial service for the three deceased was held in the Anderson warehouse, in order to accommodate the turnout. More people than expected still showed up, and by midday the ceremonies were moved outside. Relatives and friends who hadn’t been seen in the village for years came to pay their respects. Henry met Benny, the man who technically owned the house in which he was little more than a squatter. The man embraced him, kissed him on the cheek, and loudly announced that he was proud to provide housing to someone such as himself.
Leia Thao came dressed in a plain black dress. She stood in the back, hung her head, and did not speak to anybody. After an hour she left, and wasn’t seen around the village for several days to come.
“Do you think what you have is a ‘wycked spreading rott?’” Niles asked. He was stretched out on the sofa, flipping through one of the Brihte family books. They kept the three in recognizable English, and farmed the rest out to Teresa, Kara, and Clair—who each promised to find some way to help, digital translator or otherwise.
Henry closed his own book. Largely, it seemed to be a bestiary of animals and creatures which he had never heard of before, and did not in any way believe in. “Description matches,” he said, joining him on the sofa. “What does it say?”
Niles read down the page. “Spreads rapidly, sometimes unpredictably, across the body. Inflicted by a powerful magus. Horrible punishment, agonizing death, so far and so forth… oh, it says it is sometimes attached to an opposing magus’ ‘animus’ to prevent them from using their magic.”
“That sounds like it might be it!”
“There’s nothing else here,” he said, turning the page back and forth. “Only instructions on how to cast it. Which, if you’re curious, make no sense to me. But nothing on a cure.”
“Maybe that’s because it doesn’t have one.”
Niles pulled him close. “Well find something. Now we have a name. Teresa can work with that.”
This was the new order of things in Tortus Bay: if someone needed a drink, they stopped by the Tortoise Shell construction site. If someone needed a drink, and silence in which to enjoy it, they went to the park. Word had long since spread that Mathas Bernard’s remains wound up amongst the trees, and to honor his memory people had gotten into the habit of taking long walks and spitting at every pile of disturbed earth.
Henry was one of the only people who knew the true location of the corpse. It was there he liked to drink, with his back against the wide trunk of the gnarled oak, and a cooler at his feet. Oftentimes he took to staring at the ground. He thought about the man decomposing underneath, and the woman buried not too far away who had finished that process a long time ago. Two people—two dead people—who he put back into the earth. Two people who knew far more than he about magic in Tortus Bay. If they could talk to him, would they have anything to say about his condition? Would they help him, if they could?
A rustling of leaves announced that he was not alone. Sofia’s angular face appeared through the greenery. “Mind if I join you?” she asked.
“Sure. I’d offer you a beer, but I think your mom is mad enough at me as it is.”
The girl was dressed warmly for the season, and her face seemed paler than usual. She sat beside him, and stuffed her fists into her sweater. “She’s not mad at you. I think she’s mad at the world. Or him.” She spat at the ground.
“I would be mad at me, in her place.”
“We already did it once,” she said. “What was the harm in doing it a second time?”
Henry tried to catch her eye, but she turned her head away. “I don’t know. What is the harm?”
“I didn’t come here to complain.”
“Just wanted to sit and spit? Come on, we all have the right. And you more than most.”
“You’re the only person I can think of to talk to. I know that sounds messed up, but it’s true. Everyone keeps saying that I need to talk about it, but there’s nobody. You were here. You know what happened.”
Henry finished his can, and cracked a new one. “That might be true. I still can’t imagine what it’s been like, for you.”
“I’m scared,” she said. “Don’t tell me that it doesn’t make any sense, because I know. I’m scared all of the time.”
“Of people like him?”
She shook her head. “Mom used to treat people from outside Tortus Bay. I don’t remember all of them, but I definitely remember a couple. They were dirty. They were mean. I don’t know what the matter was with them. The worst we had here was Clint, and he was never mean.”
“Tortus Bay used to be filled with the good guys. Now it seems like anybody in the world could be evil.”
“Yeah,” she said, “I guess that’s it.”
Henry took his time with the second can. “I’m sorry for what happened to you. And I’m sorry for what you had to do, but to be honest I’m glad that you did. It went a lot better than it might have. I’m sure you know that.”
“It felt good, at first. Both times.”
“I think you do need to talk to someone. Someone qualified.”
“My mom wants to bring in a therapist, but it’s hard. And digital appointments just aren’t the same.”
“Have you ever tried leaving the village?”
“Never seriously. I ran away a few years ago. The deeper you get into the magic here, the harder it is to leave. For me it would be impossible.”
Henry’s pocket buzzed. He checked his phone, and denied the unknown number. “This might be nonsense,” he said, “but a lot of what you’re talking about reminds me of Clair. Do you know Clair?”
“I know of her.”
“Let me introduce you sometime. You might get along—at least until something better can be figured out.”
“I would like that. Now answer your damn phone.”
Same unknown number. “Hello?” he said.
“Hello, Henry,” a familiar voice said. “I hear you wanted to have a meeting with me. I must confess, I was surprised to hear it—but also impressed. Perhaps we can settle things in a sophisticated manner. That’s all I ever wanted, as you remember. Yes, I think we ought to talk.”