by Nikki Ellsesser
It was in those magical hours of the evening after the sun has bid farewell to the world for another night, and yet before the day's warmth has completely faded away, that three figures could have been seen ambling along the rocky shores of Bardsey Isle, Wales, had anyone been there to see them. One playfully bounded ahead of the other two, from time to time splashing into the gentle waves that broke upon the beach, barking joyfully. The other two followed at a more sedate pace, obviously immersed in conversation. A quiet, friendly scene, except for the fact that the "dog" was by far too large to be any breed of dog, and one of the other two figures dwarfed his companion, his winged form calling to mind that of the mythical Gryphon of ancient lore. It was probably this very resemblance that had given him his name.
"So tell me again why we're here? Not that this isn't lovely country, mind you, but do you really think Merlin could be somewhere around here?" Griff said amiably as he watched Cavall's antics. Beside him, the legendary King Arthur Pendragon chuckled softly.
"I told you my friend, long ago this was one of Merlin's most prized sanctuaries."
"Ah. And Merlin chose this place because...?"
"You said yourself that this is lovely country, did you not?"
"Well yes, but something tells me Merlin didn't come here for the view."
"No...as a matter of fact he didn't." Griff cocked an eyebrow at Arthur's tone, and waited for him to continue.
"Deep beneath the shore, in a system of caverns, Merlin hid thirteen treasures. " At this bit of news, Griff pulled up short and turned to face his companion, an expression of incredulity plastered on his face.
"And I suppose these aren't your everyday run of the mill treasures?"
"Oh no Griff, these were vessels of great power. Each one of the Thirteen Treasures had a magical virtue set upon it, to accomplish wondrous things. For even one of these treasures to fall into the wrong hands would be a dreadful calamity. For all of them to fall into the possession of evil...well, it would be disastrous."
Griff nodded "Whatever you say, Arthur," he said, sounding far from convinced.
"As a matter of fact, see that outcropping of rock over there?" Arthur pointed to a line of treacherous cliffs that jutted out into the see, their bases white with creamy seafoam as again and again, the ocean slammed into them. Griff nodded silently.
"There stands Merlin's Crystal Tower, a place of powerful magic, and breathtaking beauty."
Griff studied the cliffs for a few seconds and turned back to his friend, a look of bafflement on his beaked face. "I hate to point this out to you old chap, but either I need glasses, or there's nothing there."
Arthur laughed outright now. "It's there Griff," he said. "Believe me; it's there. But it's hidden by magic, so it cannot be seen by human eyes. Or gargoyle eyes apparently."
Griff still looked unconvinced.
"Perhaps you'll better understand if I show you. Cavall! Come here boy!" The gargoyle beast instantly responded to Arthur's voice and abandoned his games, racing back to Arthur's side with a canine grin splitting his mahogany face. Arthur scratched Cavall's head fondly for a moment then began scanning the shoreline before them, his brow furrowed in concentration.
"Now where was it....should be around here somewhere." He murmured to himself as he set off at a brisk pace.
"And what are we looking for?" Griff called as he hurried after his friend.
"The only entrance to the caverns was a cave along this shore, it ought to be close by." Suddenly, Arthur skidded to a halt. "Of course, the shoreline must have eroded somewhat after so long. The cave would be further out by now." Abruptly, he began searching the base of the seacliffs, and after only a few moments gave a triumphant shout. Sure enough, only a few hundred feet into the shallows, a shadowed cleft could be seen dimly in the moonlight.
"Looks like Cavall will get to do some wading after all." With that, Arthur plunged into the waves, Cavall ecstatically racing after him.
"It had better not be cold!" Griff grumbled to himself as he followed the king and the gargoyle beast. Unfortunately, the water was cold, though the salty spray that whipped into Griff's face was quite refreshing. The swirling salt water surged just above his knees, but he found, to his surprise, that a sandbar extended from the shore and the water rose no higher. Cavall, however, was up to his chest, and quite happy with it. Griff couldn't help laughing as the doglike gargoyle cavorted through the waves, managing to thoroughly drench Arthur. Griff found this quite amusing until the current caught him off guard and snatched his feet from under him, sending him crashing into the water. He came up sputtering and snorting, and soaked to the bone. Luckily, the water had not completely erased the sandy beach in front of the cave, and no part of it was under water.
"Goodness Griff, if you wanted a bath, we could have stopped at one of those inns we passed," Arthur said in a mock serious tone. Cavall whuffed softly and shook himself all over, spraying both Griff and Arthur with the sparkling droplets. Griff sighed and wrung out his tunic as best he could.
"Well now that we're all thoroughly clean and in danger of dying from pneumonia, thank you very much Cavall," to which Cavall simply placed his great forepaws on Griff's shoulders and licked his face. Griff pushed him down with a quick pat on the head. "Let's see these treasures." Arthur had already entered the cave, and was quickly being swallowed up by the gloom. Cavall trotted off after him leaving Griff to bring up the rear.
Two gleaming eyes watched from above as the three figures entered the cave. In the waxing moonlight, the silhouette of a woman could be dimly seen standing at the edge of the cliffs, staring downward towards the shoreline.
"Checkmate Pendragon." she whispered softly into the night air. "Your pets will be of no help to you this time. You are mine now." Then a barely visible aura of green light surrounded her, and the woman faded out of existence.
The air outside had still held some of the warmth of the day, but in the dark recesses of Arthur's cave, the air was cool and damp, and carried the faint scent of saltwater mixed with that of growing things. Not altogether unpleasant, but not exactly a place anyone would have chosen for a vacation resort. The wall under Griff's talons was rough coral, slimy in some places, and the sand under his feet held the same chill as the air, not that gargoyles were ever bothered by temperature. Ahead of Griff, Arthur was too caught up to notice the surroundings. Here was one of those rare areas in today's world that still gave of an air of undisturbed and ancient power. Time had not been able to diminish the magic of these caverns, and Arthur doubted it ever would. Unbidden, a flood of memories of his old teacher and friend assaulted him, especially of the first time he had entered these stone and coral walls.
Arthur Pendragon followed his teacher and companion, the old magician Merlin, silently through the twisting tunnels underneath the shoreline of Bardsey Isle, in Wales. Merlin had already shown him the dazzling crystal tower by the sea, had let him wander in its halls. There was something strange about looking out on the world through the transparent faceted walls, and knowing the world could not look back on him. There were powerful spells of invisibility cast on the crystal tower. And below it was even more concentrated magic, if such a thing was to be believed.
Long ago the sandy floor had given way to stone, and the cavern walls were no longer damp coral, but warm rock. The hundreds of stalactites cast wild shadows on the walls in the flickering orange glow of the torch Merlin carried. Behind him, Arthur could make out a tremendous wooden door, the arching stone over it decorated with runes Arthur had never seen before.
"Arthur, beyond this door is a cavern in which are thirteen objects of the utmost importance. Their secret was entrusted to me long before you were born, and I carried them here so that they may be forever beyond the reach of those who would use them for darkness. I am trusting you to keep this secret as well." Merlin said sternly, his voice oddly distorted by the echoing cave.
"Of course Merlin, I give you my word, I shall not reveal their location to anyone." The sternness vanished from Merlin's features, and a bright smile lit his face.
"Good, now come along." Merlin turned once again and pushed the heavy door open, the old hinges creaking and groaning in protest. Arthur hesitantly stepped through the portal and caught his breath. Before him were the thirteen mystical treasures of which Merlin had spoken, each mounted on an intricately carved stone pedestal, each giving off an air of unimaginable power. To walk into the secret cavern beneath the shoreline was to enter a world where sorcery reigned supreme. The cave itself was more of a shrine, hung with rich tapestries and well lit with candles and torches.
"Heed well my warnings Arthur. These objects know no allegiance to good or evil, but they have the capacity to do great things for either. If ever the wrong person should wield their power, the results would be cataclysmic." Standing before the thirteen objects themselves, Arthur had no doubt of Merlin's words. How could he? When every fiber of his being felt the power that thrummed through the cavern.
With a slight shake of his head, Arthur brought himself back to the present. Merlin had only allowed him to stay in the cavern for a few moments, but the impressions and feelings that had gone through him during that time had stayed with him his whole life.
Now his feet easily found the path that he had traversed only once all those centuries ago, even in the darkness that was growing steadily deeper as they left the entrance further and further behind. Soon his boots thudded softly on stone instead of sand. Behind him he heard the clicks of six sets of claws.
"I don't suppose you thought to bring a torch?" Griff called suddenly, after stubbing his claw for the fourth or fifth time.
"Which kind? A real torch or one of those metal cylinders with a glass flame?"
"Either would be nice right about now," Griff answered, and launched into a string of curses as he nearly tripped over some bit of debris.
"Merlin left a supply of torches a bit further ahead."
"Oh come on, they'd be dust by now," Griff called incredulously. In answer, Arthur slid one hand along the floor for a moment until he encountered an oblong box with no lid. Reaching in, his hand closed around a smooth wooden shaft that still smelled faintly of pitch. As soon as he hefted it up, the torch flared to life, casting a warm yellow glow throughout the cave.
"I say! That's rather clever," his comrade whistled admiringly, at last able to see. Gargoyle night vision was a good deal better than any mere human's, but even a gargoyle's vision was useless in total darkness.
Finally granted some true light, the trio's pace was much improved as Arthur led them through endless twists and turns and passageways until Griff was almost dizzy. Cavall, in wonderful canine ignorance, paid little attention to their winding path. Later, of course, he would probably be able to find his way better than either of them, but for now he was content to meander along at Arthur's side.
"Not much farther now, the door is just around this next bend." Arthur announced at last. They had been down in the caverns for hours, dawn could not be far off. Arthur felt a surge of excitement as they neared the end of the tunnels. It was the same in all the places they had searched. Anywhere Merlin might be, whenever they neared it, he'd feel it. Of course, all those other times he had been sorely disappointed, but Arthur could not dampen the small ember of hope, could not silence the small voice that whispered maybe, just maybe this time would be different, this time they would find his mentor.
He rounded the last corner and came upon the ancient oaken door that so long ago Merlin himself had stood before. At any other place in the world, the hinges would be small piles of rusty dust by now, and the door completely gone, but this whole area was protected by powerful magic. The door still stood, the strange runes still as fresh as the day they had been carved. Arthur placed his torch in the brass holder fixed to the stone wall for that purpose and waited for Griff and Cavall to catch up. Cavall, upon appearing, immediately loped up to him and shoved his large head under Arthur's arm, rumbling softly deep in his throat, then sniffed at the door curiously.
"This is it, then?" Griff inquired, running a talon over the lustrous wood of the door.
"Yes Griff, beyond this door are the thirteen magical treasures Merlin was chosen to guard. Please, would you wait out here with Cavall? I gave my word I would never show anyone else the room without Merlin's blessing." For a moment, he thought Griff would protest, but the large gargoyle merely nodded and leaned against one of the walls, crossing his arms over his chest. "Well then, we'll be out here should you need us." Arthur gently pushed the door open, wincing slightly at the loud squeal of protest the hinges let out.
"Sounds like those could use a spot of grease."
"They did the same thing the last time I was....." Arthur trailed off suddenly and stared into the cavern before him. The torch cast mad shadows all about the walls and ceiling, weirdly illuminating the thirteen pedestals upon which sat the treasures. Or rather upon which the treasures should have sat. Instead, the room was in chaos. The beautiful tapestries had been torn down, and most ripped into pieces. The pedestals had been thrown every which way, cracked and broken. The worst of it, however, was that the treasures were nowhere to be seen. Arthur barely noticed when Griff and Cavall charged into the room after him. They stopped short just behind him.
"What on Earth happened in here?" Griff whispered, almost as shocked by the appearance of the room as Arthur was. Cavall whined pitifully at his master's distress, though he couldn't comprehend the reason for it. Arthur felt white-hot rage race through him, as though someone had poured fire into his veins. His eyes swept the room again and again, taking in the considerable damage, which only served to worsen his temper.
"Bandits, thieves! It has to be! Look at this place! Merlin's sanctuary in ruins, and the magic scattered to goodness knows where! They could be in anyone's hands by now." Griff cast a cautious glance in his king's direction, then knelt down in the mess and studied the floor intently.
"This happened recently," he said. "Look at all the dust that was disturbed. It hasn't had a chance to resettle." The calmness of Griff's voice cut through Arthur's anger, and he pulled his temper in check. Blind fury would do nothing to help now. He knelt down beside Griff for a closer look at what his knight had found. Indeed, the dust on the floor had been swept clean in many places by the shuffling of feet, and only a light film had settled over the bare spots.
"Then there's still a chance we could track the treasures down. Unless they're in the hands of a sorcerer." Arthur shuddered inwardly at the thought of someone like Morgana with the power of the treasures at her command.
"These objects know no allegiance to good or evil, but they have the capacity to do great things for either." Merlin's words echoed in Arthur's mind. Then a new thought took hold. Perhaps they hadn't been stolen, perhaps Merlin had moved them. Perhaps the room had been torn apart in frustration over not finding the magical objects. At any rate, he fervently prayed it was so. "But that's unlikely," he continued. Griff glanced up from where he was studying the remains of one of the tapestries.
"What makes you say that?" Arthur began pacing the length of the room, and Griff could almost hear the wheels in his head turning.
"The condition of this room. A servant of the darkness would certainly be capable of doing something like this, but surely we would have had some indication that some such being was wielding the power of the Treasures. And if someone such as Merlin were in possession of them, he or she would not have vandalized this place. Or Merlin may have moved them. Perhaps this is simply the result of someone venting his or her anger on an empty room."
Griff nodded slowly, unable to find any fault with Arthur's logic.
"Well then, what are we going to do about it? If Merlin didn't move them, if this is just the work of a bunch of petty thieves, you can bet they were scattered across the black market as soon as possible."
"All that power in the hands of someone who has no idea what it is. What if someone with untapped magical potential gets hold of one or more of them? Or some novice mage? That cannot be allowed Griff, we must find them! In what city is this Black Marketplace?" Griff laughed shortly and without much humor.
"Not that kind of marketplace I'm afraid. And if they have been sold into that particular network, there's very little chance of finding them again." Arthur's shoulders slumped at Griff's words, but he quickly composed himself. He would find the artifacts, no matter what. He said as much to Griff, who sighed and shook his head, a wry grin on his face.
Now, how did I know that you would say that? All right, Arthur, I agree, but one quest at a time. First, let's see if there's any sign of Merlin around here."
Cavall whined softly, seeming to agree wiht Griff. He began pacing restlessly in front of the door, occasionally glancing at Arthur and Griff, an almost pleading expression on his rust-colored features.
"Very well, Cavall," said Arthur at last. "We're going."
Cavall whined again, a bit louder this time, then ran over to Arthur and Griff, then back to the door. He glanced back and barked once, waiting for them to follow.
"What's the matter boy? Afraid of the dark?" Arthur said, finding Cavall's actions quite comical.
On the lonely moonlit beach outside, the single figure of a woman stood, gazing with icy eyes into a tidepool. A ghostly green light emanated from the water, giving a sickly cast to her pale face.
"Curse that beast! But no matter. Your animals are of no consequence, Pendragon. I've not waited this long to let that creature lead you from my grasp." So saying, she raised her slender arms over the pool and began to chant softly.
Cavall suddenly began barking ferociously, and raced out of the room, only to turn around a few seconds later and race back in. His eyes seemed to be pleading with Arthur and Griff to follow him.
The glow from the water intensified in response to her eerily echoing voice. The wind howled and ominous black clouds began to gather on the horizon, blocking out the soft moonlight.
"Perhaps we should leave this place. It's nearly dawn anyway, and something has certainly disturbed Cavall," Arthur said uneasily, unnerved by Cavall's odd behavior. Just then a soft rumble echoed through the cavern.
"Thunder? On a clear night like this?" Arthur's face creased in confusion. As the sound faded, Cavall rushed forward and took Arthur's clothing firmly in his teeth, then began dragging him towards the exit.
The woman's voice halted, the chanting done. The wind and thunder died down, leaving the air unnaturally silent.
"Cavall, let go of me! Griff, come, we have to get out of here." Griff had already started forward. Cavall, sensing at last that they were heeding his warnings, let go of Arthur and dashed out the doorway, the other two close behind.
The glow faded from the tidepool as well, and the whole world seemed to hold its breath as the magic began to work. A resounding crash ripped through the silence, not from the dark sky this time, but from the cave entrance.
Cavall skidded to a stop in the tunnels, cocking his head as though listening to something. A deep growl began in the back of his throat. An ear-splitting crash reverberated through the caverns, followed by a steadier rumbling. Arthur's eyes widened in horror, and he saw the expression mirrored in Griff's face as the gargoyle turned to him.
"Please tell me that's not what I think it is." Griff's only answer was a cascade of gravel and dust that rained down from the ceiling.
"The cave is collapsing! We have to get out, quickly!" Griff and Cavall needed no further urging. All three began to sprint in the direction of the entrance, the clatter of falling stone becoming louder and louder as they went. Bits of rock began pelting down, and the very ground was bucking underneath their feet as though alive. Griff automatically spread his wings, trying to afford Arthur, not to mention his own head and back, some protection. They ran headlong towards the entrance, the light from Arthur's torch bouncing shadows on the walls until a plate-sized chunk of rock struck his wrist, and forced him to drop it. The light immediately faded away, leaving them in near-total darkness, with tons of rock literally falling down around their ears.
"Well, I'll say this; I've not had a dull moment since I fell in with you Arthur," Griff panted, putting on a new burst of speed. Clouds of grit and dust enveloped them, and left them half blind and choking.
Suddenly, a horrendous cracking sound rent the air and Arthur felt Griff barrel into him, pushing him forward just as a great stalactite crashed to the stone floor and shattered upon impact, leaving little doubt that Arthur himself would have been shattered as well. There was no time to relish the narrow escape from death however, for its hungry jaws were still snapping at their heels.
Griff hauled Arthur back to his feet and the two resumed their frenzied flight. More and more jagged rock formations, some as big as a man, were raining down from the ceiling, their bases demolished by the force of the cave-in. The trembling ground handed up equal dangers, for rocks and boulders of all sizes littered their path.
"Look, up ahead, I can see the exit!" Griff shouted above the clamor. Arthur squinted against the dust and made out the dim outline of the mouth of the cave, already paling with pre-dawn light. With a start Arthur realized that dawn was scant minutes away. If Griff and Cavall were caught in their stone forms in the cave, they would be crushed!
"Faster, the sun's almost up!" He needn't have pointed it out however. Both Cavall and Griff were pushing their limits, well aware that if sleep caught up with them before they were safely out of the cave, they might well never awaken again. Cavall's tongue was lolling out of the side of his mouth, and he wheezed for breath. Griff and Arthur were not much better off, both coughing and gasping. Without warning, a large chunk of rock tumbled down and caught Griff a glancing blow across the side of his head. Arthur reversed his direction and raced back towards him as the gargoyle crumpled to his knees, blood streaming from the gash and tracing a crimson trail down his face and neck. Cavall whipped around and ran back to his fallen friend, whining anxiously.
"I'm okay, I'm okay boy." Griff whispered as he forced himself to his feet despite the waves of dizziness and the grayness that seeped into the edges of his vision. He furiously wiped at his eyes, trying to clear the blood from them as he staggered forward.
Arthur reached out a supporting hand to his companion, who swayed drunkenly for a few precious seconds, but the gargoyle batted it away and began a stumbling run down the tunnel again. Arthur allowed himself a brief moment of hope and relief; it looked as though they were going to make it...barely. But then, Lady Luck often takes a perverse pleasure in mocking those who would enjoy her benefits. The exit was only a few dozen yards away when the remains of the cavern ceiling at last gave out, and tons of rock and coral slammed down upon the floor. The noise was deafening and Arthur was thrown off his feet by the resulting tremors. Two strong arms closed around him as he fell, hauling him back from harm's way and into a small recess in the wall of the cave. Cavall squeezed in with them, of all things barking at the rocks that poured down on the floor.
Something warm and sticky trickled down onto Arthur's face, and with a start he realized that Griff was still bleeding profusely. With one last resounding roar that somehow seemed louder than any others they had heard, the cave-in ceased as quickly as it had started. The silence was broken only by a few loose stones tumbling down onto the immense pile in front of them. The mouth of the cave had been completely blocked off. Arthur disentangled himself from the two gargoyles and cautiously stepped out of the recess, Cavall close at his heels. A shower of gravel and dust rained down on them, but beyond that everything was quiet and still once again.
"It seems to have settled now. Griff, Cavall? Are you all right?" He asked, turning to the two. Cavall wagged his stubby tail and leapt onto Arthur's chest, licking his face in answer. Griff, however, moaned and leaned back against the wall of the tunnel, sliding down until he was resting on the hard floor.
"Compared to what?" he muttered sarcastically, pressing a hand to his head in an attempt to staunch the bleeding. "Sorry. Yes, I'm fine, nothing a good day's rest won't cure. And what about you?"
"Nothing more than a few scratches, thanks to the two of you. You knew something was wrong didn't you Cavall? You tried to warn us. I'm sorry I didn't listen to you boy." Cavall was content to forgive all after a friendly pat on the head.
"Any idea why the place caved in like that? This seems like rather stable terrain after all."
"It is stable terrain Griff," said Arthur. "That cave-in was not a natural one."
Griff glanced up, clearly not liking the implications of that statement. "Looks as though we just can't stay out of trouble," he said, then sighed heavily and placed his aching head in his hands.
"So, how many insane immortal wizards are thirsting for your blood in this part of the world?" he inquired, only half in jest.
"Yes, they do seem to be appearing everywhere," agreed Arthur, shaking his head ruefully. "First Nimue, then Morgana. It seems that the only immortal enchanter whom we cannot find in Britain is Merlin himself."
Further conversation, however, would have to wait, as near the top of the rock pile, where the entrance wasn't quite blocked, a few golden rays of sunlight streamed through. Arthur watched as Griff and Cavall assumed the fearsome stances gargoyles were famous for, more out of habit than anything else he suspected. Their eyes took on the white glow that always accompanied the spectacle and they froze and let the sun's warm light wash down upon them. The flesh of his two companions hardened into stone with the strange cracking sound that had become so familiar to Arthur. Within a few seconds, two statues stood before Arthur instead of his two companions. Then a new sound was heard. A sound that sent chills racing up and down Arthur's spine. Laughter. A woman's cold, mocking laughter.
The laughter bounced and echoed off the walls of the cavern, then dwindled away into nothingness. Arthur felt a flash of searing fury surge through him as he realized what, or rather who, had been responsible for the cave-in.
"Morgana! Show yourself, foul witch!"
"Foul witch....witch...witch." Arthur's own voice was his only answer.
"You'll not get away with this, I'll stop you if it's the last thing I do!"
"Last thing I do....I do...do." Again that infuriating echo, though this time it was accompanied by an ominous rumbling deeper within the caverns. Arthur ducked as a fresh stream of dust and gravel cascaded down on him, and forced himself to remain calm; it would do no good to cause another cave-in.
"It would be rather foolish to get us all crushed in a tirade, eh, my friends?", he said to his two petrified friends. Then he muttered to himself, "Very well, Morgana. If you wish to play with us yet again, then I shall do so. But this game will be your last." His eyes hardened and his face became grim.
With nothing better to do, Arthur carefully backtracked to the torch box and retrieved the rest of its contents, thankful that they had not been buried in the rubble. He placed the brightly burning torches at regular intervals along the length of the tunnels until he reached the place where he, Griff, and Cavall had been trapped. The weak beams of watery early morning sunlight vanished in their warm glow. That accomplished, Arthur regarded the obstacle before him silently for a few moments, gauging the stability of the pile. Breathing a silent prayer, he began scrambling up the heap, occasionally slipping on loose stones and scraping his hands on the rough coral. After a few minutes, he reached the top, squinting in the sunlight that poured through. The few spaces where the entrance wasn't blocked, however, were too small to allow him to get through, much less Cavall and Griff. Disappointed, he slid back down to the frozen gargoyles.
"Well that won't work. I suppose if we can't go over it, we shall have to go through." With that, Arthur unsheathed Excalibur and, silently apologizing to the magnificent blade, began to hack at the debris that blocked the entrance. Periodically, he examined the mass of rock to make sure he was not in danger of dislodging any critical support. He worked for hours to clear a path to the mouth of the cave. Blue and yellow sparks flew as again and again. Excalibur scraped against the hard stone. Rivulets of salty sweat traced their way down his forehead and face as the hours wore on. From time to time he stopped to rest and clear away the fragments of rock he had chipped away. It was agonizingly slow work, and he did not seem to be making much progress. Indeed, if anything it seemed as though ten new rocks settled into place for every one he removed.
By the time the blood red light of sunset found its way into the niches at the top of the pile, Arthur's hands were cut and bruised, and his back and neck ached fiercely. Worst of all, he had barely made a dent in the obstruction before him. He sighed as the last shreds of daylight faded away, and again a cracking sound was heard in the cavern. Beside him, Griff and Cavall burst from their stone skin, stretching and yawning mightily, their eyes gleaming with white light.
"Good evening," Arthur said congenially. "How's the head Griff?" Naturally the formerly grievous injury had disappeared, leaving not so much as a scar. The only sign he'd been hurt at all was the crusted maroon stain of dried blood on the front of his shirt. There were times when Arthur envied his friends their healing abilities.
"Good as new. Now what happened while we were asleep?" The gargoyle asked as he caught sight of Arthur's expression. Quickly Arthur informed them of the laughter he had heard, and his suspicions as to the identity of the owner. Griff's face darkened with each word and anger welled up in his eyes.
"That crazy witch! This cavern system has to run under dozens of the towns on the shore!"
"Calm down Griff. Anger-clouded heads won't help us now." Griff composed himself quickly and turned his eyes to the heap of rock before them.
"My, you've certainly been busy," he said quietly as he examined the rather pitiful fruits of Arthur's labor.
"For all the good it did, I've been going at it all day and I've barely made a scratch."
"Well, let Cavall and me have a go at it, see if we can do any better," the gargoyle replied, cracking his knuckles. Cavall pricked his ears up upon hearing his name and trotted over to Griff's side.
"Okay Cavall, here's something you like to do- go on boy, Dig!" Cavall barked happily and attacked the rock before him, enthusiastically digging his sharp claws into the hard stone. Griff joined him a few moments later, though with no less gusto. Together they began to move the rocks aside at a much faster rate than Arthur had.
As time passed, Cavall began moving more and more to the left of Griff who was too busy digging to notice. Arthur himself was absorbed in making sure Griff's digging was not disturbing the supports of the pile. Thus Cavall burrowed deeper and deeper into the rocks, shoving them aside with canine disregard for where they were going. Naturally, he didn't notice that his every move was destabilizing two ton plus of stone all around him and his companions.
"Griff, stop, something's wrong." Arthur ordered suddenly, noticing that the rocks were tumbling down at a faster rate than they should have. Griff halted instantly, well aware that one false move could bring the whole pile crashing down on them.
"What's wrong?" He asked in a tight voice. Now he was able to feel the tremors that were traveling through the debris under his claws.
"We're dislodging too much support."
"What? That's impossible, I've been carefu- wait, where's Cavall?" With sinking hearts, both Griff and Arthur turned to the area Cavall had claimed as his own, in time to see him nudging a large boulder aside; a boulder that happened to be supporting most of the top of the blockage.
"Cavall! No!" Arthur yelled, but it was too late. Cavall nosed the boulder aside and all the rocks began to tremble and slide downward.
"Oh great," Griff breathed just as the rumbling began to fill the cavern again. Cavall, sensing that something was wrong, beat a hasty retreat to Arthur's side.
"Run! Back into the tunnels!" Arthur shouted above the growing din, as some two and a half tons of rock and coral began tumbling down around them for the second time in as many days. As before clouds of dust and gravel arose, and as before an ear-splitting roar filled the caverns. This time however, the trio were not running for the exit, but rather away from it.
"That's it, next time I plan the holiday!" Griff shouted as they pelted down the tunnels. With nowhere else to run, the three threw themselves on the floor and covered their heads as best they could with their hands, paws, and Griff's wings. This cave-in was much shorter than the last, luckily, and the noise subsided after only ten minutes or so. Griff was the first to cautiously poke his head out of their hiding place.
"Well, wasn't that fun? Stay here a moment, I'm going to see how much damage was done."
"Don't be so pessimistic Griff, perhaps it's cleared the entrance." Griff shrugged and sped towards their excavation. He returned a few moments later, an unreadable expression on his face.
"Okay, there's bad news and there's worse news."
"What a choice. All right then, bad news first I suppose."
"The bad news is, the tons of rock that blocked the entrance before this cave-in has now tumbled about 50 feet further into the cave. The worse news, is that from what I could see, new tons of rock have taken up that pile's former position. So instead of a nearly impossible blockage in our path, we now have a totally impossible blockage."
"Wonderful." Cavall's ears dropped at the tones of their voices, as though he knew what he had done. He flopped down on the hard stone floor of the cavern at Arthur's feet, looking so thoroughly miserable that Arthur and Griff couldn't help chuckling.
"It's all right Cavall, we know you didn't do it on purpose." Arthur reached down and rubbed Cavall's belly affectionately, to which the gargoyle leapt up and eagerly attacked Arthur's face with his tongue, tail wagging in delight.
"All right you two, break it up. Let's concentrate on getting out of here shall we? Arthur, are you sure that was the only entrance and exit?" Arthur thought a moment, searching his memory, refusing to give into the despair that threatened; there had to be another way out. Suddenly, a wide grin lit his face.
"No, no it wasn't! Merlin mentioned a secret passage back in the treasure room. If I'm not mistaken it connects with a larger system of caverns with several exits to the surface."
"Well, that sounds promising," said Griff. "So, just where in the treasure room?"
Arthur's face now turned sober, as he replied. "I'm afraid he never showed it to me. Still, it can't be that hard to find. There aren't that many places one could hide a passage."
"Famous last words," Griff couldn't help muttering, though he trusted Arthur implicitly. If his king said there was a secret passage, then there was a secret passage.
The path back to the treasure room was hard going. Rubble lay strewn in their way, and from time to time a few pebbles or a cascade of dust would drop down on them, startling them all. The torches had all been lost in the second cave-in, and the only light available were the scattered shafts of silvery moonlight that poured in from the places where the ceiling had collapsed.
Arthur nearly lost his balance several times as his feet fetched up against some unseen bit of debris, and Griff was little better off. Both were more than a little jealous of Cavall as he plodded along beside them, easily avoiding the refuse that littered the cavern floor.
"Ah," said Arthur at last. "Here's the door. Or rather, what remains of it."
What countless centuries had been unable to accomplish, the cave-ins had done in little under half an hour. The ornate door hung askew on its hinges, and one corner had been shattered by a falling boulder. The treasure room itself was in even more of a shambles than it had been when they had last been there.
"Was it only last night?" Arthur thought to himself as he surveyed the damage. Time flies when your life is in danger.
"Come on you two, look for any seams in the wall, depressions, trap doors, you get the idea." The three fanned out across the remains of the room, Griff scanning the floor, Arthur carefully inspecting the walls on one side of the room, Cavall sniffing the bases on the other side. It was slow going, and after half a dozen false alarms, Arthur allowed himself to think that perhaps the passage had been closed up. Still, he didn't want to give up; he couldn't let Morgana win. His musings were interrupted by Cavall's excited barking. Arthur quickly abandoned the section of wall he had been examining and hurried over to Cavall's find.
"It looks just like every other bit in here," Griff muttered in confusion. Arthur too strained his eyes to see any evidence of the secret passage. The light was too poor however.
"He must smell something, I can't see a thing," Griff said at length.
"Then let's, oh what's the phrase? Let's check it out, shall we?" Arthur began running his hands over the area Cavall seemed so interested in. After only a few moments, he felt the stone give slightly under his touch. Crossing his fingers, he pushed harder, and a soft clicking could be heard faintly through the stone. That was soon replaced by a dry scraping sound as a section of the wall slid away, revealing yet another tunnel. A damp, chill breeze wafted over them, bringing a horrible scent with it. Cavall brushed his paw over his nose in agitation and Arthur and Griff nearly gagged, their eyes tearing up.
"Bats. Why did it have to be bats?" Griff groaned as he recognized the scent. It was, however, their only way out, and so the trio reluctantly started down the passage way, making a concentrated effort not to touch anything. The tunnel was much worse than the other had been. No light penetrated, and the only sounds were those of their own breathing and a faraway echo of dripping water. The walls were encrusted with a slimy growth, and Arthur heard numerous squeaks and rustles both above and below them, indicating the presence of all the classic cave-dwellers. As they progressed, his boots sank into something soft, and the stench of ammonia became almost overpowering.
"Ah the delicate aroma of bat droppings How much further do you think? This is disgusting," Griff whispered, not wanting to disturb the creatures above them.
"No argument there Griff, and I don't really know how long the passage is." Indeed, Arthur had lost all sense of direction in the perfect blackness of the passage. They had let Cavall lead the way, trusting his bestial senses to guide them. Gradually, Arthur noticed that the shadows were receding.
"Hello, looks as though we've reached the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel," Griff called happily, taking in a much appreciated gulp of the fresher air.
"Indeed. Though I wonder what's causing the light?"
"Perhaps it's another opening," Griff offered, but quickly closed his mouth as Arthur pulled up short with a gasp. Instantly, Griff and Cavall charged to his side, talons poised to tear into whatever threat might present itself. Of course, it would be difficult to consider the scene before them a threat. The dank, dark tunnel they had been traveling in emptied out into a cavern that seemed entirely made up of crystal. The faceted walls caught the few beams of moonlight that penetrated the ceiling and tossed them back out into the room in a myriad of rainbow colors, so that the walls glowed in soft reds, violets, blues, greens, and dozens of other subtle shades that Arthur couldn't identify. One could only imagine what the place would look like in full sunlight. At the very center of the cavern was a large pool of water, as still and smooth as though it were made of glass, save the occasional ripple as moisture dripped down from the ceiling far above. The disturbances cast soothing wavelike patterns on the colorful walls.
The pool reminded Arthur of the home of the Lady of the Lake, though to the best of his knowledge, the guardian of Excalibur had returned to Avalon for the Gathering. Still, this seemed a place that she would have loved.
"Beautiful," Arthur murmured, unwilling to disturb the peace of the crystal cavern. Beside him, Griff nodded mutely, his dark eyes wide with amazement.
"What is this place?" He asked quietly, still staring about him, trying to drink in everything at once. Arthur paused and mentally reviewed their route through the tunnels and caverns.
"If I'm not mistaken, we are directly under Merlin's tower!" he called excitedly, and picked up his pace a bit. "There ought to be a staircase a bit further ahead." In his haste to reach said staircase, Arthur at first didn't notice the soft crunching sound under his boots. As the frequency of the sound intruded on his awareness, however, he slowed and finally stopped, glancing down at the floor. It appeared to be littered with chunks of crystal, as though the walls and ceiling were chipping away, particularly near the banks of the pool. Curious, Arthur knelt down and picked up one of the bits of crystal, letting out a startled exclamation as he realized what it was he held. Cavall sniffed at the object in his hands and growled low in his throat.
"What've you got?" Griff asked from his side, leaning in for a closer look. Resting in the palm of Arthur's hand was a small crystal sculpture, a bat. A perfect likeness, down to the delicate veins in its wings. Looking about Arthur saw dozens of other sculptures- mice, rats, snakes, more bats, even a few spiders by his feet, all perfectly detailed representations.
"Now what do you suppose a bunch of crystal animals are doing way down here?" Griff asked. Arthur, however, was staring at the sculpture, something nagging at the back of his mind. Griff shrugged and began moving down towards the banks of the pool, picking up and discarding more of the tiny sculptures as he went. Thus, he didn't notice the small disturbance in the center of the pool.
"Crystal animals..." Arthur muttered to himself, trying to bring the elusive memory to light. Behind him, Griff was examining a sculpture of a rat when he heard a strange noise. Putting the piece of crystal aside, he glanced out into the center of the pool, and saw the roiling mass of foam that was forming there. He stood slowly.
"Um, Arthur? I think we may have a slight problem here." Arthur didn't seem to hear him however.
"Crystal animals...no! Crystallized animals!" He shouted suddenly, as the nagging memory suddenly flowed into his mind. He leapt to his feet as the entire pool began bubbling and foaming. The increasingly rapid slap of waves against the glassy banks was growing louder by the second. Cavall began barking ferociously as Arthur whirled around to see Griff standing near the edge of the pool, transfixed by the spectacle.
"Griff, get back! Get away from the water!" He bellowed, and was relieved when his voice jolted the gargoyle into action. Griff stumbled back just as an immense pillar of water rose from the pool and crashed down on the spot where he had been standing.
"I take it this isn't a good thing?" he gasped as he rejoined Arthur and Cavall. Arthur shook his head grimly.
"Merlin once told me of two guardians he left in the caverns. They're creatures of magic, Griff, and deadly."
"Well, that's just peachy!", commented Griff in disgust. "He couldn't just keep an Alsatian like anybody else. No it has to be magical beasts."
Griff's tirade was cut short by an unearthly screeching, followed by a gutteral roar that would have had anyone with any sense running for the hills. "Well, Una was forever telling me that I had less sense than a goat," Griff thought to himself as the creatures rose out of the water. Arthur drew his beloved Excalibur and all three dropped into defensive positions as thay appeared.
To call the things monsters would have been an almost criminal understatement. The first was easily twenty feet tall, a mass of razor sharp claws and wickedly pointed fangs. Its eyes were two pulsing coals in its head. The behemoth lashed its sinewy serpentine neck from side to side, its forked tongue flicking in and out as it searched for whomever had disturbed its home. It raised its lizard-like body from the turbulent waters and lumbered out onto the shimmering floor of the cavern, letting out the banshee screech. As before it was answered by the terrible growling of its companion, a horned, humanoid monstrosity with dozens of glowing eyes, all pulsing with the same ruby light of its brother, all filled with the same palpable hatred. It was shorter than the other, perhaps twice as tall as a man, but bulkier, lacking the deadly grace of the snake beast. Both were constructed entirely of the same crystal of the cavern, giving them a strange, chilling beauty. Griff tore his gaze away from them and turned to Arthur.
"Merlin created those things?" Arthur nodded wordlessly in answer, but quickly found his voice.
"Yes, but something's wrong. Something's changed them Griff, they've been corrupted. Those are not the creatures Merlin described to me. They were like pets to him."
"Well something tells me they aren't going to be satisfied with a rubber bone and a dog biscuit."
As if to confirm his words, the snake creature lunged at them with frightening speed, its gleaming jaws open and eager to close on tender flesh. The trio scattered at the last possible instant, and the monster got a mouthful of the wall instead of Arthur and the gargoyles. Arthur leapt up from where he had landed and charged the crystal beast, swinging Excalibur into its chest. The blade bit deeply into the faceted flesh, and the thing screeched its rage. It swung one massive claw down and Arthur rolled between its legs to avoid being hit. Taking advantage of its momentary confusion, he buried his sword up to the hilt in the underbelly of the brute, and again the creature seemed to be in pain, but the wound did nothing to slow it down. Arthur scrambled away from its slashing claws and to the relative safety of a crystal protrusion in the wall. Desperately trying to remember if Merlin had ever mentioned a weakness of his two guardians, Arthur anxiously scanned the room for his two companions, and found them engaged in heated combat with the second beast.
"Stone dragons, immortal sorcerers, crystal monsters...what I wouldn't give for a few ordinary thugs now and again," Griff sighed to Cavall as they rolled away from the "snake", as Griff had dubbed it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Arthur charge the thing, Excalibur poised to strike. He gaped in amazement when the snake simply shrugged off what should have been two mortal blows. His observations were quickly interrupted by the challenging roar of the crystal ogre, which both Cavall and Griff answered. Cavall darted around the ogre's back and leapt onto it, digging his claws in. The demon cried out in pain and began clawing at its back, attempting to dislodge Cavall. It was all the opening Griff needed. Cavall abruptly loosened his grip on the creature's back and jumped to safety, while Griff, with a true gargoyle battle cry, hurled himself into the ogre sending the beast crashing to the floor of the cavern. Cavall darted in and fastened his powerful jaws on the thing's throat, and Griff could hear the faint sound of cracking crystal. With a mighty howl, the ogre grabbed the back of Cavall's neck and ripped the gargoyle from his throat, tossing him aside like a toy. Griff clenched his jaw in anger and threw himself onto Cavall's former position, raking his talons across the crystal monster's eyes. He had a vague impression of Cavall charging towards Arthur's position, before he had to devote his full attention to maintaining his grip.
The beast lurched to its feet, with Griff still hanging onto its throat and clawing at its eyes, thoroughly absorbed in blinding the abomination. He was therefore caught off-guard when its meaty hands closed over his wrists and wrenched him off its face, leaving him dangling in the air. The ogre's thick tongue slithered out of its mouth, obscenely sliding over its crystal lips and suddenly it lunged for Griff's throat. Acting on pure instinct, Griff twisted in the ogre's grasp, so that its sharp teeth sank into his ribs, rather than his jugular. Griff expected to feel it bite him in half, but instead an icy chill stole over him, slowing his limbs, his breath, the blood in his veins. A cold that seeped into his very soul.
Arthur dove out of the way of the snake beast's fangs once again, managing to slash at its neck as it passed. Before it had time to recover, he rammed the sword into its side and pulled it out just as quickly. He had already figured out that his thrusts were doing little or no damage, but they served to distract the beast, which gave him time to try and figure out what would do damage. His thoughts were cut short as his opponent swiped at him with a massive claw. He jumped back, but not in time. The very tip of the claw caught him across the chest, throwing him into the glassy wall with shattering force. He lay stunned for a moment, the wind driven from his lungs, and the creature's jaws opened, fangs ready to tear into him. Arthur couldn't make his muscles work and the thing lunged for him, and was sure that would be the last thing he ever saw, when a ferocious roar sounded from beside him. Cavall darted between his master and the dripping mouth of his attacker, and viciously slashed at the thing's nose as soon as it came into range. Letting out a startled screech, the snake beast stumbled back, more out of surprise than any real fear of them, Arthur suspected. Arthur staggered to his feet and retrieved his sword, then turned his gaze to his opponent, eyes cold with the steel of determination. He raised his blade to charge the creature, but a loud cry of pain and fear quickly drew his attention. He spun around towards the sound and froze at the sight which greeted him, his blood running cold in his veins.
"Griff!" He shouted in horror. The gargoyle knight was caught firmly in the ogre's jaws, thrashing wildly, but his struggles were becoming weaker and weaker before Arthur's eyes. Within a few short seconds, Griff went totally limp in the thing's grip. The sickening red light of the ogre's eyes flared even more brightly, and tiny facets of crystal formed on Griff's body where the ogre's teeth had penetrated. The crystal crawled outward, like some cancerous growth, creeping over his chest and down his legs, over his arms and wings.
With a wordless roar of anger and denial Arthur charged towards the ogre, Cavall at his side. And so it was that both took the brunt of the blow the snake's spiked tail dealt them, catching them high and sweeping them back into range of it's deadly claws. Arthur was desperate to get to Griff, to help him, but it appeared he would be forced to deal with the crystal snake first.
Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw the ogre toss Griff aside like a broken doll. The gargoyle crashed into the floor and lay alarmingly still. The crystal continued creeping up his chest; across his neck and up the side of his face. Arthur felt his chest tighten in anxiety; his knight and friend was at the very least unconscious, maybe even...but no he wouldn't consider that. Not until he saw it with his own eyes. The ogre, finished with its first victim stalked towards Arthur and Cavall, eyes betraying murderous intent. The snake creature, noticing this, loosed its shrill call of challenge once again, causing Arthur's eardrums to ring painfully. Cavall whined softly at his side, pawing at his ears. The ogre slowed uncertainly, then backed away, leaving Arthur and Cavall to its brother.
The snake beast darted forward with its talons outstretched and again they had to dodge. Cavall, however, had not gotten off as easily as he had done previously. Five long, narrow scratches marked his flank. The gargoyle dog's eyes glowed with battle rage and he raced forward, leaping and fastening his jaws on the snake's throat. The graceful, serpentine neck was pulled down by his weight, and Arthur spied an opportunity. Raising his blade above his head, he raced forward and brought it down across the creature's exposed neck. Excalibur bit deeply into the crystal, then all the way through. The snake like head fell away from its body and shattered into thousands of glittering fragments as it connected with the crystal floor.
A gleaming white light blossomed in the center of the snake's chest traveling throughout the rest of it, growing in intensity. Finally, Arthur had to shield his eyes from the dazzling glare as it filled the cavern. With a shrill tone even louder than the snake's roar had been, the body shattered as well, showering Arthur and Cavall with shimmering crystal segments. They hit the floor with a soft tinkling sound, and the light rose up from them, its blinding brilliance reduced to warm, ethereal glow.
Arthur watched in awe as the glow stole over the crystallized bodies of the rodents, snakes, and insects that littered the floor of the cavern, seeping into their frozen flesh. As before the glow grew in intensity, grew into the searing white brilliance that forced Arthur and Cavall to turn away for fear of being blinded. Once again the sound of shattering crystal filled the cavern, as the cave-dwellers burst forth from their glassy prisons. The light faded away into nothingness as the last of the creatures were freed, leaving sunspots dancing in Arthur's vision. The animals blinked slowly for a few moments, limbs that had been immobile for who knew how long twitching erratically as circulation was restored. Gradually, the creatures regained the use of their limbs and, finding themselves at last liberated from the binding crystal, began scurrying out of sight. Arthur tore his gaze away from the spectacle and turned to where Griff had fallen, his breath catching in his throat at the sight that greeted him. The crystal growth had totally encased his gargoyle knight, trapping him as the cave animals had been trapped; Griff's prison had not been shattered with the death of the snake beast....which led Arthur to only one conclusion. Gripping Excalibur tightly, Arthur spun towards the ogre, who was kneeling over the shards of its brother. Their eyes met over the slick floor of the cavern, and the ogre let out a howl of rage.
"Come on then!" Arthur roared, raising Excalibur high over his head. "Come and get me Beast!" Cavall snarled fiercely, and crouched low to the floor, ready to spring at the ogre at a moment's notice. The ogre lumbered to its feet, and bared its fangs at them, all the while warily creeping forward. Where the snake beast had fought with an animalistic frenzy of pure instinct, the ogre seemed cool and calculating. It circled Arthur and Cavall slowly, eyeing them with a frightening intelligence in its smoldering gaze. Arthur faced the creature grimly. Without warning the ogre lurched towards them, claws outstretched. Cavall darted to the left as Arthur ducked beneath the deadly talons and swept Excalibur across its legs, upsetting the creature's balance. The ogre crashed to its knees and rolled forward, but almost immediately leapt to its feet again. Cavall charged it with a mighty howl, stopping just short of its claws, before latching onto the thing's arm with his teeth. The ogre roared in pain and shook its arm furiously, which only served to make Cavall dig in harder with his teeth and claws.
Arthur saw the opportunity and took it without a second thought. He breathed a silent prayer, then dashed forward and swung Excalibur in a wide arc, again sweeping across the thing's leg. This time, however, he didn't stop with setting the creature off balance; this time he severed the appendage completely. Cavall jumped clear as the ogre fell to the cold floor of the cave, and writhed in agony. Arthur stole up behind it and raised Excalibur high.
"Forgive me, Merlin," he whispered, and brought the blade down. One last, strangled roar was heard in the cavern as Excalibur sliced through the thick crystal neck, and the head of the ogre rolled away from its body. Like the snake beast before it, the head shattered with a piercing burst of sound. Cavall pressed against Arthur's side as once again, the blinding light issued forth, caressing every surface with its brilliance. Once again, the two were forced to shield their eyes as the light settled over the remaining cave creatures, fragmenting their crystal shells.
Even with the memories of all his adventures, Arthur was hard-pressed to recall a time when such an immense feeling of relief flooded through him as it did when the crystal imprisoning his knight broke away. Cavall immediately dashed over to the prone form and nosed Griff's limp hand gently. When that failed to elicit a response, Cavall's ears drooped low and he whined anxiously, turning a pair of misery filled eyes to Arthur as the king knelt by his fallen knight.
Throughout his reign, Arthur had seen many a grievous injury received in battle, and the damage done to Griff by the ogre ranked among the worst of them. The gargoyle's side had been badly torn from shoulder to hip; fortunately, and ironically, the crystallization had probably saved his life by closing those same wounds. Arthur touched the gargoyle's shoulder gently, and almost recoiled at what he felt. His skin was like ice! So absorbed had he been in examining his knight's injuries, Arthur hadn't noticed the violent shivers that racked Griff's body.
Now seriously worried, Arthur gripped Griff's shoulder and shook him, carefully at first, then with more force. Cavall leaned over and began industriously licking his face. Their efforts were rewarded moments later with a low groan and a surly, albeit weak, "If whomever is shaking me doesn't stop within the next ten seconds, I'm going to rearrange their teeth." Griff's eyes fluttered open, dull and unfocused.
"Griff! No, lie still; you've been badly injured." Arthur ordered as Griff attempted to struggle into a sitting position.
"Tell me about it." Griff's words were slightly slurred, and his voice was frighteningly weak. The gargoyle laughed softly, then winced at the pain it caused. "Ugh, I must have some rather bad karma catching me up this week."
"'Twould appear so," Arthur answered absently. Inwardly, he wondered how much time was left before sunrise. It was almost a foregone conclusion that Griff wouldn't survive much longer; his wounds were far too extensive.
She watched the little tableau before her with a feral grin playing across her lips. True, Arthur had defeated those darling beasts Merlin had been kind enough to leave her, but the damage was done. Arthur's accursed knight was obviously dying and dawn was far off yet.
"The poor, poor dear. Someone should have told him it is not safe to play with strange animals," she sighed mockingly and chuckled low in her throat. Enough gloating, however. It was time to move in for the kill.
Griff's breathing was becoming more and more labored. "A punctured lung," Arthur said to himself in dismay. Where was the blasted sun? Resolutely, he resumed patching his knight up as best he could and silently urged the dawn to hurry. Griff had lapsed back into unconsciousness minutes ago, which did not bode well with injuries as serious as his were.
Oh, come now, Arthur," said a cold female voice behind him, "why waste your time? Surely you can see that your friend is doomed?"
Arthur froze and gritted his teeth, even as Cavall growled and placed himself between the owner of the voice and his human master, taking up a protective stance. Without turning around, Arthur reached for Excalibur.
"None of that, now," said the unseen woman. "I have other plans for you, Arthur."
Arthur stood and turned around in one fluid motion, his sword in his hand. "It ends now, Morgana," he began.
Before he could do more, however, a cloud of glittering golden dust-like substance obscured his vision. A cloyingly sweet scent filled his nose as the stuff whirled about him and Cavall, choking them. Arthur and Cavall fell to the smooth floor of the cavern, gasping and coughing.
As he inhaled more of the strange dust, Arthur felt the world spinning out of focus. His last thought as he tumbled down into a well of darkness was to berate himself for letting Morgana defeat him so easily.
The first thing he became aware of was the muffled sound of the waves crashing against the rocks. Muted and almost soothing, that sound. Too much trouble to open his eyes, better to just lie there and go back to sleep. But no, there was something needling the back of his mind. Something that demanded his attention.
"Morgana!" The thought was enough to dispel the last effects of the her powder and Arthur's eyes snapped open. His vision was hazy and badly blurred, but he could make out the witch leaning over him.
"Morgana," he said angrily. "Was twice not enough for you?"
"No, guess again," came the unexpected reply. Arthur blinked several times to clear his vision, and as the world swam back into focus, he caught his breath in surprise. The woman before him was certainly not Morgana. Fine boned features, a mass of golden hair, and cruel blue eyes that regarded him as one would an insect one was about to dissect. A cold, predatory beauty that managed to seem dangerous and alluring at the same time. Definitely not a woman to be trifled with.
"I know you of old," said Arthur, frowning. "The Queen of Northgalis, are you not? One of Morgana's sister-sorceresses? What do you want of me?" As he waited for a reply from her, he quickly took stock of his situation. He was tightly bound, spread-eagle, on a hard stone slab in what was obviously the interior of Merlin's Crystal Tower. To his left were Griff and Cavall, both in stone floor. He felt a twinge of worry as his eyes fell on the gargoyles. Both were lying on their sides, as though they had been unceremoniously dumped on the floor after being carried up from the cavern. For a moment, he wondered if the dawn had come in time to save Griff. Then he remembered what Merlin had told him about gargoyles: only living gargoyles turned to stone in the daytime. The fact that Griff was now undergoing stone sleep was proof that he still lived. That was some relief to him.
"Why, what else?" she said with a laugh. "Revenge, of course."
Arthur focused again on her face. "Revenge? For what? I've done you no wrong," he protested, even as he tested his bonds. They were, as he had expected, far too tight to slip free of and too thick to break. It appeared that his salvation lay completely on the shoulders of his friends. Again, his statement was met with mocking laughter.
"Oh no, you've not done me any wrong Arthur Pendragon. And I do want you to understand that I bear you no particular ill will."
"Quite simply, because you have done my dear friend Morgana many a grave wrong. Such transgressions cannot go unpunished, my liege. But be thankful; I am more merciful than she."
"Ah yes, let me guess. You're not going to torture me as long as she would have?" The icy blue eyes narrowed somewhat, but the smug smile remained firmly in place.
"Oh no, my dear. You see, I'm not going to torture you; I'm not even going to kill you." The sun slipped a little further down the horizon and the orange and pink had given way to the warm red glow that came just before nightfall. Only a few more minutes. His tormentor seemed unaware of the quickly waning sunlight.
"What then?" Arthur schooled his features into a mask of indifference. The Queen raised one slender eyebrow and her Cheshire cat grin became even wider.
"I, my king, will merely send you back to your enchanted sleep."
It was only through a tremendous exertion of will that Arthur's expression did not slip. Inside, however, the cold bands of fear were beginning to tighten on his heart. He had come so far, suffered through so much...surely it couldn't end now. His eyes flicked to the horizon where the last shreds of daylight were swiftly dimming and he began a silent recitation of every prayer he had ever heard as the light deepened into crimson.
"You should thank me really, your pathetic quest was doomed to failure anyway."
"And what would you know of it?" Arthur demanded hotly.
"Because Merlin is not in any of these ancient places you so fervently seek. Even now he roams the earth in his new form!" She laughed delightedly at the shock that registered on Arthur's face. "You fool," she mocked, venom dripping from the words. Apparently her majesty's amusement at the verbal sparring had ceased.
The Queen raised her slender arms in the air and began a chant Arthur had heard long ago as he lay near death. A chant that had sent him into a sleep that had lasted for over a thousand years, and which he now seemed likely to re-enter for thousands more. But there! The sun vanished from sight and cloaked the room in shadows, lit only by the soft green light that was swirling around the Queen. For one timeless instant, Arthur was sure that his companions had perished. The Queen's low, melodious voice surrounded him, bringing a dreaded heaviness to his limbs, drowning out all else.
Until a new sound filled the room. To Arthur, the sounds of cracking stone had never been sweeter. With twin roars of ferocity, Cavall and Griff burst forth from their stone skins and stumbled to their feet. Griff looked more than a little dazed, but as he surveyed the scene before him, the protective instinct so finely honed in the gargoyle race asserted itself and he lunged towards the Queen. Her chanting trailed off into a cry of anger and denial as she and Griff crashed to the floor and the green glow of her magic faded away.
"Filthy beast, you'll pay for that," she spat as she shoved Griff off of her.
"Honestly, if I had a penny for every time I've heard that threat....hey!" With a low growl, the Queen raised her hand and "threw" a ball of fire at the feathered gargoyle. "Oh please, that's so cliche .." Arthur watched grimly as Griff continued his flippant taunts, seeming to further enrage the queen with every word. Which was probably his intention. Anger interfered with her aim and she succeeded only in blackening the pristine crystal of the tower. Each time she got a bead on Griff, Cavall would leap at her, forcing her attention away from her intended target. That battle raged across the room, until Arthur could barely see for the acrid smoke that filled the air.
"Come on luv, we're not even breaking a sweat here!" With that, Griff had apparently gone too far.
"Enough!" the Queen screeched, rage and hatred evident on her delicate features. She raised her arms above her head and screamed a phrase in Latin. Immediately, the two gargoyles were engulfed in a blinding flash of green light and when the sunspots faded from their vision, they found themselves quite unable to move.
"Not good, not good at all," Griff thought to himself as he struggled in vain against the invisible force which bound him, his instincts screaming at him to remove the threat to his King. The Queen turned an icy glare on the frozen gargoyles. "Oooh, if looks could kill...."
"A noble effort, if a wasted one," the woman gasped, wearied from her magical exertions. "But then, you gargoyles do seem to relish engaging in such games." She smiled maliciously at them before returning her gaze to the captive King.
"Oh don't concern yourself with their fates, my liege. I'll take good care of them," she hissed. For the final time, the Queen raised her hands and began chanting, finishing what she had started.
"So this is how it ends," Arthur mused, waiting for the all-encompassing darkness of the spell to take him.
It never came.
Perhaps in those last few moments, the Queen realized that something had gone awry. Perhaps it had merely been the effects of the mistake. Whatever the reason, the Queen's voice faltered suddenly and her eyes went wide with horror.
"No!" Such a powerful spell, however, can not be easily halted. With one final moan of denial, the Queen's eyes rolled up and she slumped to the cool floor of the crystal tower, eyes closed and face slack. Griff and Cavall found command of their limbs restored to them an instant later and hastened to their King's side, quickly removing the ropes which bound him. Arthur massaged the raw skin of his wrists for a moment before turning his gaze to the still form of the Queen.
"You must have changed the spell somehow when you crashed into her Griff; it backfired." The gargoyle knight cocked his head and whistled softly
"Now that's what I call Poetic Justice. So what shall we do with this Sleeping Beauty?" he asked with distaste, obviously hoping that his King would order her dropped off the nearest cliff.
"Nothing. Let her rest here, and if the Fates should decide to spare her this punishment, so be it."
"Bah, must you be the perpetual White Knight?" There was no venom in the words though, and Griff was already lifting the Queen's limp body to the slab Arthur had occupied...though he was careful not to arrange her in too comfortable a position. If she ever awoke, she would have a truly excruciating charley horse. "Well, where to now? Another of Merlin's Sanctuaries?" Arthur stared out across the moonlit sea a moment before answering. If what the Queen had said was true...
"No, somehow I don't believe we're going to find Merlin in any of his old haunts." If Merlin were truly on the move, there was almost no chance of him finding his mentor. Still, as long as there was even the slimmest hope, he would press on. And there was still the matter of the stolen treasures. Oh no, his quest was not a foolish one, of that he was certain.
"Come, we've much to do tonight. First off though, we must find poor Griff a new tunic!"