CARBONEK: PART ONE
Outline by Todd Jensen.
Written by Todd Jensen.
With additional material by Ed Reynolds.
Previously on Pendragon....
Maryís ears picked up the whistling noise only too late. A dart embedded itself in Merlinís left shoulder just as he was a few feet away from the door to the Mystic shop. He staggered back, a shocked look on his face.
* * *
UNA: The poison was clearly magically strengthened, to give it its full power. It has been rendered proof against any antidote that I could produce.
~~~Out of the Blue~~~
* * *
ARTHUR: It is clear to me that the only way Merlin may be saved is for him to drink from the Holy Grail. Knights in my service have searched for it before; many failed, but Galahad, Percival and Bors all succeeded. It is not impossible.
~~~The Mists of Eynhallow~~~
* * *
POWELL: So Arthur Pennington is actually seeking the Holy Grail. Gentlemen, I don't need to explain to you what this means.
~~~Choices Part One~~~
* * *
DUVAL (to Arthur): I will hold them back as long as I can.... I will tell them that it will be more to their advantage to leave you unmolested, in the hopes that you might lead them to the Holy Grail. And hopefully they will accept that answer, and abide by it.
ARTHUR: And when we do find the Grail? What will they do then?
DUVAL: I do not know. We will simply have to face that trouble when it arrives.
~~~Choices Part Two~~~
* * *
ARTHUR: He's Lancelot.
SIMON BARNES: I... I beg your pardon?
ARTHUR: Hector Duval is Lancelot du Lac.
* * *
SINGLETON (to Barnes): The details of Arthurís whereabouts and future plans are helpful for plotting a chronology of his journey but when I asked you to explore his personal link with Duval I never dreamed that this would be the truth.
* * *
DUVAL: Truthfully, I'm beginning to wonder what I would do without a reliable aide like you to assist in these matters. Your assistance is much appreciated.
SINGLETON: Not at all, Mr. Duval.
~~~Someone to Watch Over Me~~~
* * *
NIGEL: Morgana. Thank you for coming. It's been much too long.
MORGANA: I agree, Nigel. I'm sorry for being away for so long myself. I hope that we'll be able to remedy that problem soon.
~~~Home for the Holidays~~~
* * *
JENNIFER: He made a prediction. Some kind of prophecy....
ARTHUR: A prophecy?
JENNIFER: Don't you remember? He said that... that when the days of shadow pass, the Great Quest would be upon us.
~~~Flight from the Enchanter~~~
* * *
"His condition has stabilized," said Rani as she stood by the bed, in which a semi-conscious Merlin lay, looking frailer than ever. Mary was seated beside the bed, gazing down at the boy sadly. "My treatment has helped him some. But it will not last for long. The poison is weakening him still further and he has little time left. Maybe less than a month."
"And we're out of possible locations to search for the Grail," said Griff. "And it doesn't look as if we have enough time to search for some fresh ones."
"Then the Quest has failed," said Arthur, speaking with pain in his eyes and his voice. "It was all for nothing."
"So what do we do now?" Griff asked.
"There is only one thing," said Arthur sadly, as he watched Mary bow her head in silent grief over the dying boy. "We must take him back home and be with him in his final days. That is all that we can do now."
* * * * *
Tanaburs descended the spiral staircase. It was dimly lit, with only an occasional torch in a bracket upon the wall to provide illumination. He reached the foot of the stairs and entered the great hall of the castle. His footsteps echoed upon its stone floor as he walked down its shadowy length.
Halfway down the hall was a great stone fireplace. Before it sat an old man in a wheelchair shaped like a throne, gazing into the depths of the flames that crackled upon the hearth.
"You wished to see me, my lord?" Tanaburs asked.
The seated figure turned around and looked up at him. "Yes, Tanaburs," he said softly. "I did."
"This is about Arthur Pendragon, sire, isn't it?" said Tanaburs.
"Yes, it is. The hour is almost at hand. It is time for you to seek him out."
"At last," said Tanaburs. "He has been searching for us for a long while. Us, and that which we keep."
They both turned to gaze at a three-legged silver table some feet away, further down the hall. On top of the table stood an object over which a veil of white samite had been draped. Its outlines were hidden by its covering, but a shimmering golden glow shone from underneath.
"I hope that he fares well," said the old man. "So much is depending upon his actions. But we can only wait and see."
Tanaburs nodded, then turned and walked out of the hall. Behind him, the other man gazed into the fireplace once again, silent and thoughtful.
From outside the castle, a rushing sound arose, steadily growing louder and stronger.
* * * * *
ALL SAINTS' HOSPITAL
Jennifer smiled sadly as she entered her father's hospital room. He seemed more fragile than before: his breathing heavier, his hair thinner. A drip was leading from under his sheets to the bedside now, and he showed no signs of stirring. Jennifer stepped up to the bed and kissed him gently on the forehead.
Outside the window, she heard several birds twittering excitedly as dying rays of sunlight filtered through the half-open blinds. Jennifer went to the window, stared out in awe for a moment as she watched the birds twittering overhead and then shut it, before pulling the blinds closed.
"Miss Camford," came a voice behind her.
"Dr. Tanna," said Jennifer as she turned.
"You look well," said the doctor. "I was quite worried about you earlier in the year, but this break of yours seems to have done you a world of good."
Jennifer smiled. "Yes, I feel much better. But tell me, what's the situation with dad?"
Dr. Tanna sighed. "Well, there's nothing significantly new that I can tell you. His condition is deteriorating steadily now. He's seldom able to eat food himself. I'm sorry to say this, but I think it might be wise to start gathering any family together that may wish to see him before...."
Jennifer nodded, blinking back tears. "Thanks, doctor. I know you've done your best. It won't be a problem bringing my mother in, and my uncle died some time ago. I don't think there is anyone else that will wish to be here."
"Well," said Dr. Tanna softly, "I should be moving on with my rounds. But if you need me I'll be around the floor. Just ask Hope at the desk."
"I will," smiled Jennifer. "And thanks again."
Dr. Tanna walked out, and Jennifer sighed and took a seat by Leonard's bedside. The time on the large clock in the room ticked forward. She looked back at her father and started. His eyes had opened, and he had become rigid - for a moment she thought he was having a seizure. He gazed up at the ceiling with astonishing intentness, so much so that she instinctively glanced up herself to see what could have caught his eye.
"Something is coming," he said, in the same tone of voice that he had used before when he had spoken about the Great Quest and the hall of the Fisher King. "Something... powerful."
Jennifer stared at him for a moment before asking, "What's coming, father?"
He made no reply. Instead he continued to stare upwards, betraying no sign that he was even aware of her presence. His eyes were filled with a growing wonder and awe.
Outside, even with the window closed, Jennifer could hear the bird songs reaching a crescendo.
* * * * *
THE MARTER ESTATE
The door to the library opened. Colin Marter, Caspian, and Brock looked up from the book-laden table as Rory and Leba entered the room. Aidan followed closely behind Rory, staring at the two gargoyles with wide eyes; it had been a week since Rory had brought him to the estate from London but he still had not quite gotten over his awe at its winged inhabitants. To be perfectly fair to him, many of the older gargoyles still watched him cautiously whenever he was about as well.
"So what's the news, Leba?" asked Colin. "Is there anything important going on in the city? Anything that we should be aware of?"
"Nothing," said Leba. "Yet again."
"It's been like this for two weeks now," said Colin. "I never thought that I'd be anything other than glad to see this much peace and quiet. But instead, I find myself waiting for something to happen."
"I know," said Leba. "It's more like a lull before a storm. I've been almost longing for the Minions to go on another crime spree or an Unseelie to show up for a wild night on the town, just to break this tension."
She sat down at the table. "So, how are you doing in your research?" she asked Brock. "Have you found out anything about that odd dragon-lady? Anything that could help us figure out who she was and what she's doing in London?"
"Still no progress, I'm afraid," said Brock. "I've checked and double-checked every record that we have of anything involving dragons or dragon-like creatures not only in the British Isles, but in western Europe as well. I probably should have asked the other delegates about her when they were here earlier for the Gargoyle World Council; maybe they could have been able to help."
"So why didn't you?" she asked.
"I took up the matter with Michael, but he didn't consider it a good idea," the badger-like gargoyle explained. "He pointed out that we already had enough matters to discuss at the Council, and that it wasn't really a clan problem anyway. So I wasn't able to make any inquiries. At least we know that whatever she was, it wasn't an Unseelie."
"I'd still like to know just what she's up to," said Leba. "First Rory and I had that run-in with her, and then she tried to steal the Godslayer. If we only knew what she had been planning to use it for. Then we'd have some idea as to what she was up to, and maybe even how to stop her - if we had to."
"We've seen no sign of her since Arthur and Griff's battle with her," said Caspian. "Perhaps she's left Britain and gone elsewhere. I sincerely hope that she has. We have enough to worry about as it is."
While the others were talking, Rory had walked over to the fireplace. Cavall was lying on his side upon the hearth, half-asleep; he whined a little as he shifted about. The young Irishman bent over him and patted him on the head gently. "There, there, boy," he said. "It'll be all right. Arthur'll come home soon. Just you wait and see."
"I hope that Arthur and his companions do return soon," said Brock. "It's not just Cavall who's been worrying me. There's Brianna as well. Every single night the first thing she asks when she awakens from her stone sleep is whether Griff's come back home."
"When was the last time that we heard from Arthur, anyway?" asked Rory, straightening up.
"A couple of weeks ago," Leba answered. "You were still in Ireland then. He and the others were on their way to the Himalayas, after they found out that that Grail conference in New Zealand was a hoax, but I haven't heard from them since. I tried to reach them on Mary's phone, but there was too much interference. I wonder if the Illuminati had something to do with it. I hope that nothing's happened to them."
"And you haven't found out who was behind that set-up, either?" Rory inquired.
"I'm afraid not," she said. "Whoever masterminded the scheme was very good at cleaning up after himself. Even Detective Maza wasn't able to turn up anything."
"I certainly don't like this," said Colin Marter. "Somebody was able to dupe us all into believing that there was a grand scholarly conference about the Holy Grail in New Zealand, to such an extent that Arthur and his companions went there and were ambushed by Steel Clan robots. Steel Clan robots that our mystery man was able to obtain from David Xanatos, I might add. I'm wondering whether the Illuminati had something to do with that as well."
"So have I," said Leba. "I know that Mr. Duval told Arthur that he'd keep the Society from doing him any harm, but in light of its reputation, I'm not about to believe whole-heartedly anything that he says about it. And even if he was being sincere, he may not have the power to hold all of his people in check. For all that we know, somebody like Powell might have set the incident up behind his back."
Brock was about to say something, when a commotion arose out in the courtyard. The sounds of two young gargoyle beasts eagerly barking and yipping filled the air, followed by the sound of running feet rapidly approaching the library. Then the door burst open and Lucy and a few of her rookery siblings, accompanied by Ranger and Treacle, rushed into the room.
"Children, what have we told you before about interrupting us during these meetings?" asked Brock, looking down at the young gargoyles with as stern a face as he could manage.
"We're sorry," said Lucy, as she and the others came to an abrupt halt. All of them, that is, except for Ranger and Treacle, who were racing about the room, jumping up and down and barking next to Cavall. Cavall lifted his head, looked at them, and groaned in a particularly unenthusiastic way before lying down again.
"Now just what is this all about, anyway?" Brock asked.
"They're back!" cried Lucy, jumping up and down in her excitement. "They're back!"
"Who are back?" Brock inquired.
"Arthur and the others!" she said. "They just got back!"
"What?" asked Leba. "Where are they?"
"Out in the courtyard!" cried Lucy. "Everyone else is there already."
Leba and Rory ran out of the library and down the hallways to the courtyard of the ruined manor, followed closely by Aidan, Caspian and the gargoyle youngsters. Cavall jumped up and ran after them with Ranger and Treacle close behind them. Colin and Brock brought up the rear.
The rest of the gargoyles (except for Leo and Una, who were once again at the Mystic shop that night) were gathering in the courtyard around Arthur and his three companions. Leba managed to push her way through the crowd to reach them. "Welcome back, Arthur!" she began, then stopped short as she had a better look at them.
Griff was standing beside Arthur, holding a barely conscious Merlin in his arms. The youth was looking thinner and more frail than he had when they had left London nine months before, and there was a great deal of grey in his hair now. Mary stood on the other side of the gargoyle knight, looking sadly at her boyfriend. She, Griff, and Arthur all looked utterly dejected.
"You didnít find it, did you," the bard said to Arthur. It was a statement rather than a question.
Arthur shook his head. "We searched every continent, but could not find the Grail anywhere. We could not even uncover a clue as to its whereabouts. And time has almost run out for Merlin now. In less than a week he will be dead, and nothing we can do can change that. The quest was all for nothing."
A funereal hush descended upon the courtyard and the crowd assembled within it. Even Lucy and the other young gargoyles were silent. Arthur sighed.
"We must get Merlin to his room," he said. "We cannot save his life, but at least we can tend him for what few days he has left."
He and Griff bore the young-old wizard into the main building, Mary walking beside them. Leba and Rory quickly followed after them.
"Arthur," said Leba, placing one hand upon his shoulder, "Iím sorry."
"So am I," said Arthur.
* * * * *
"So how is he?" Brianna asked Griff, an hour later. They sat together on the weathered battlements of the outer walls of the ruined manor-house, looking out at the woods that surrounded the London gargoylesí home.
"Not very well, Iím afraid," he replied. "Heís asleep at present - heís spent most of his time asleep since Canada, in fact - but when heís awake, heís so very tired. He canít even walk any more, and he can barely speak above a whisper. I really think that itís the end for him."
"At least your journey is over," said Brianna. "Although Iím sorry that it didnít turn out the way that ye were hopiní it would."
Griff nodded. "I feel sorry for Arthur, myself," he said. "In less than a week heíll be losing his oldest friend, and thereís nothing that he can do to stop it. He really feels as though heís let Merlin down." He sighed and shook his head. "I feel as though Iíve let him down," he added.
"Ye did not," Brianna protested. "Ye did all that ye could do to help him."
"I know," said Griff. "But all the same - Bercilak said that I was worthy of achieving the Grail, when Arthur and I met him at the Green Chapel. So what changed after that? Did I do something wrong during the quest? I wish that I knew."
Brianna put her arms around him, but said nothing. There was nothing to say. They stared out together into the distance in silence.
* * * * *
Arthur and Mary sat by Merlinís bedside, staring down at him in a saddened silence. The boyís thin, fragile-looking hands lay upon the bedclothes, while his half-fair, half-grey hair hung limply over his forehead. His face was ashen pale and his eyes closed, as he breathed softly in his sleep. Mary reached out and gently brushed a lock of his hair away from his brow.
Colin Marter stood behind them, leaning on his cane. "I realize that this probably isnít the best time for this," he said to them in a low voice, "but there's a bit of news that you really ought to know about. We tried phoning you about it a few days ago, but weren't able to get through to you."
"Mary's cellular phone ran into a few problems on our way to the Himalayas," said Arthur. "We haven't been able to have it repaired as yet, unfortunately. What was this piece of news about?"
"Sir Nigel Sefton and Morgana Cornish are finally getting married, after Ďvarious complicated delays involving Professor Cornishís workí," said Colin Marter. "The dateís been set for the day after tomorrow."
Mary started to her feet. "Iíd forgotten about that," she gasped.
"Itís true," said Colin. "He sends his apologies about not being able to invite you to the wedding, but hopes that youíll understand, considering not only the fact that you might still be abroad at the time, but also certain matters regarding your condition that heíd rather not be generally known at the time, and the fact that he really couldnít hold the ceremony at night."
"But he canít," said the girl. "I mean - I canít let him marry Morgana. I have to stop him, somehow." Her face fell. "But I donít even know how," she added. "How do I tell him that my future stepmotherís really a bitter old medieval sorceress? Telling him about my being a werewolf was difficult enough."
"Thatís true," said Colin. "It certainly doesnít look easy."
"And it gets even worse," said Mary. "Merlin could die any moment now, and if I leave to try to talk my father out of it, it could happen while Iím away. I should be at his side when it happens. What am I going to do?"
"I wish that I knew," said Arthur, gazing down at Merlinís thin face as he spoke. He gently clasped Maryís hand in his as they stood there, side by side.
* * * * *
THE ILLUMINATI SOCIETYíS LONDON HEADQUARTERS
"So is there any more business left for us to attend to?" asked Mr. Duval.
"There is one piece of information that I thought you should see, sir," said an Illuminatus seated near the foot of the table. He pulled out a folder. "This is information that our instruments picked up in southern Hertfordshire, sir," he said. "It looked as though it might be important."
He passed the folder to the Illuminatus seated next to him, who did the same to the next Illuminatus, and so on until it had reached the head of the table. Duval opened the folder and began to read the paper inside aloud.
"At 7:26 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time, an unusual energy pattern began to shape itself over southern Hertfordshire," he said. "Instrument readings describe it as similar to the pattern that appeared at the Brocken in the Hartz Mountains in late October, 1997, shortly before the region was cut off from all radio contact and satellite surveyance, but with some notable differences and striking anomalies. Accompanying this event were a number of Fortean incidents, as follows...." His voice trailed off. As he silently read the report, his eyes grew wider.
"Sir?" asked Andrew Singleton. "Is there anything wrong?"
Duval looked up from the report at the eager faces of the other Illuminati. Everyone at the table was leaning forward, staring him straight in the eye, awaiting his answer.
He sighed and spoke. "Itís a succession of portents that can mean only one thing," he said. "The Holy Grail is about to appear in southern Hertfordshire - and not just appear, but fully manifest itself, on a scale that it has not done for the past fifteen centuries."
"Then why are we sitting here?" cried William Powell. "We should head out there at once, to be ready for it when it appears." Several of the other Illuminati nodded in agreement with him.
Duval shook his head. "I believe that it would be wiser for us to do nothing as yet," he said.
"But why not?" Powell protested. "We canít miss this opportunity. We have to act now."
"I hold with Mr. Duval," said Singleton. "We need to proceed cautiously, instead of rushing rashly to the scene. We must take the time to understand better just what we are dealing with here."
"Thank you, Singleton," said Duval. "Those are my thoughts exactly."
"Very well," said Powell. "But we still need to go to Stand-by Status at once, and to alert all our units stationed here to be ready to move out at a momentís notice."
"Agreed," said Duval. "But do not actually head out to Hertfordshire until I give the word. Have I made myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," said Powell. The other Illuminati at the table nodded in agreement.
"Then this meeting is adjourned," said Duval.
* * * * *
"Iím worried, Andrew," said Mr. Duval, as he and Singleton left the meeting room. "Arthur is almost certainly going to be drawn to the Grail when it appears in Hertfordshire, if he finds out about it - and since our latest reports say that he has just returned to England, it wonít be long before he does learn about it. And even I cannot hold the Society back for long, not when too many of them are eager to lay claim to the Grail themselves. Unless we can think of something, we could have a full-scale clash between Arthur and the Society, and that is one thing that I do not want to see happen."
"Nor I, sir," said Singleton. "I suppose that simply forbidding Powell and the others to investigate these events is out of the question?"
"No," said Duval. "They'd simply go anyway behind my back." He frowned, thinking it over, then sighed. "I suppose that thereís only one thing to do," he said. "I will have to lead this expedition in person. That is the only way that I can watch over Powell and the rest, and restrain them when Arthur arrives."
"That's probably the wisest course, sir, said Singleton. "If I might make a suggestion, sir, I would advise you to redeploy the Sword well away from the British Isles. That way, Powell and his allies will not be able to make use of our most elite fighting force against Arthur and his friends."
"A very good idea," said Duval. "I will give the orders at once. Thank you, Andrew. I'm grateful to still have at least one member of the Inner Circle on my side."
* * * * *
"So tomorrowís the big day. Are you ready for it?"
"Yes, I am, Sybil," said Morgana, as she cut up the salad upon her plate. The two women were seated at a table together, in the open-air portion of one of the more fashionable restaurants in London. "I'm glad that it's finally happening. We've had to delay it for far too long."
"Well, my best wishes to you, then," said Sybil. "I hope that it turns out as well as my own second wedding - without any outbursts from interfering busybody monks like that horrible little - what was his name again?"
"Gildas," said Morgana in a slightly absent tone.
"Oh, yes," said Sybil. "What business was it of his, anyway, as to what happened to my first husband? Why -" She stopped in mid-sentence and looked at Morgana more closely. "You seem distracted," she said. "Is anything wrong?"
"Itís Mary," said Morgana. "I wish that she could come to the wedding, but it doesnít seem so likely now. Especially not with her having spent all that time with Merlin and Arthur lately. She hasnít strayed from their side for a moment."
Sybil sighed and shook her head. "Iíd give up on her, Morgana, if I were you," she said. "The poor girlís become hopelessly brainwashed by those two. Sheís a lost cause. Forget about her."
"But sheís my stepdaughter," Morgana said. "Or she will be after tomorrow."
"And I donít think that she cares one bit about it," said Sybil. "Anyway, what does it matter? Merlinís dying, and according to everything that Iíve heard so far, Arthur still hasnít found any way to save him. That poison has definitely done the trick. Congratulations on it, by the way."
Morgana nodded. "Yes," she said. "Merlin will soon be dead - and then it will be all the easier to bring Arthur down."
"Perhaps," said Sybil. "Although itís more complicated than that, Iíd say."
"What do you mean by that?" Morgana asked.
"Even when Merlinís not there, you still havenít fared well against your brother," said the former Queen of Northgalis. "Think about it. All of those schemes of yours against him, fifteen hundred years ago, just failed. You werenít able to be more than a nuisance to him. And then there was the occasion that he was wandering about the countryside, just after heíd awakened, looking for Merlin. You could have destroyed him a dozen times over, and yet again you failed. Even your Connection scheme miscarried. And thereís a reason for it all. Iím afraid that youíre much too lenient."
"I hardly think that thatís the case, Sybil," said Morgana. "When have I showed any signs of mercy towards Arthur or Merlin? Iíve thrown everything that I could against them both."
"Ah, yes, everything against them," said Sybil. "But not Arthurís knights. Youíve always spared them, only fought against them when they left you no choice, always went easy on them. Take that incident at Sicily, for example. If youíd immediately struck down that gargoyle knight of Arthurís with a bolt of magic, then you could have gotten rid of Merlin and Arthur immediately afterwards. But instead you just distracted him with a giant skeleton, and so he was able to defeat you once heíd taken care of it."
"What are you trying to tell me?" Morgana asked.
"That if youíre going to destroy Arthur and Merlin, youíll have to destroy Arthurís knights, as well," Sybil replied. "Every last one of them. Because as long as theyíre around, they can thwart your schemes, protect him from you, turn the tables against you. If you slay the lot of them, then they canít help Arthur any more."
"That isnít necessary," said Morgana at once. "Arthur and Merlin have committed wrongs against me, and against my family. For that, both must pay the price in full. But these poor deluded fools in my brotherís service - they have done nothing to me. They played no part in Utherís destruction of my family or the betrayal of my parents, no part in Accolon or Morfyddís deaths. Theyíre just unfortunates whoíve been led astray by the old lies about how Camelot was a place of glory and beauty and justice, and havenít perceived the truth behind those falsehoods. They should live."
"So that they can do what?" Sybil asked. "Continue to foil every strategy that you bring to the field? And have you even thought about what they would do to you if you ever did slay Arthur and they were still alive? Theyíd hunt you down and slay you themselves, or turn you over to the authorities if they werenít quite that prepared to play judge, jury, and executioner. No, theyíre not innocents. We are fighting a war, and you donít win a war by sparing the enemy. And as long as they fight for Arthur, those knights are the enemy. If you expect to defeat your brother, youíll have to get rid of them as well. No mercy, no quarter, no soft-heartedness. They all have to die."
"Not Mary, though," said Morgana quickly.
"Her too," said Sybil. "As I told you, sheís a lost cause. Sheís eagerly serving Arthur as his squire; do you think that sheís going to step aside when you attack him next? Not to mention the way that sheís given her heart to Merlin. Do you honestly believe that she'll forgive you for poisoning him? No, you canít afford to go gentle on her. Maybe sheís your stepdaughter-to-be, but sheís also part of the enemy. Youíll have to deal with her too."
"But, I can't do it to Nigel's own -" Morgana began.
"You donít have to let him know that you were responsible for his daughterís untimely death," said Sybil. "You can always find some way of keeping it from being traced back to you. If you want a child, you can always have one with him. But youíre never going to get Mary to view you as a mother. That ship has sailed, believe me."
"Sheís still young," Morgana said. "I can find some way of undoing all the lies that theyíve been telling her."
"Thereís little hope of that, Iím afraid," Sybil replied. "Not when you consider that all those falsehoods about Arthur and his court have become so strongly anchored in the popular consciousness; theyíre almost a cornerstone for Western culture now. Do you really think that you can get everybody to forget everything that Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory, Tennyson and the rest have said about him, and only remember your version? Thatís what I always thought was so unrealistic about your little paper, by the way. Itíd take more than that to persuade the British public to start viewing Arthur as a tyrant rather than a hero.
"But what Iím saying is this. If you want to defeat Arthur, youíll have to abandon your Ďsurgical strikeí policy. Youíll have to get rid of them all. His knights, his squire, those gargoyles that heís allied with, and all the rest of them. Clear the entire modern-day Round Table at one blow. Then youíll win."
"I still donít think that itís necessary," said Morgana. "Just two deaths. Thatís all that itíll take."
Sybil sighed. "Thatís one thing that you have in common with your brother," she murmured. "An overdose of the milk of human kindness."
"I donít know what youíre talking about," said Morgana. "I certainly showed none to Merlin. Heís dying, at least, and thereís nothing on this earth that can save him."
* * * * *
Arthur stood over Merlinís bed, looking down at him. Mary, back in her wolf-form now that it was daytime, sat beside him, resting her head upon the bedclothes. Merlin, awake at last, looked back at them.
"Weíre sorry, Merlin," said the young grey wolf. "We couldnít find the Grail. We failed you."
"Thereís nothing to be ashamed of, either of you," said Merlin gently. "You did everything that you could; itís not your fault that you were never able to find it. The truth is, maybe you never were supposed to find it. After all, I have lived for over fifteen centuries, and thatís a longer life-span than most humans enjoy. Maybe it was simply time for me to move on, to let go."
"But you canít die, Merlin," said Arthur, almost frantically. "We need you. Both of us."
"You can get by without me," Merlin answered, smiling slightly. "You were able to handle things on your own, Arthur, after I was imprisoned by Nimue in the Tower of Air, and you did a fine job, too."
"But I did not," Arthur argued. "I allowed Mordred and Agravainís lies and Gawainís thirst for vengeance to plunge the kingdom into a civil war. My folly helped destroy Camelot."
"And youíve learned from that," said Merlin. "So you wonít make the same mistakes as before, Arthur. Iím certain that youíll do a fine job with - with whatever it is that youíll do this time. Itís a shame that I wonít be able to see it, but Iím sure that itíll thrive. Youíll do well, Arthur."
He turned to Mary. "And I know that youíll miss me, just as Iím going to miss you," he said to her, petting her gently upon the head. "But promise me this, all the same. Donít spend the rest of your life mourning for me. Thereís someone out there for you, Iím sure of it. I was able to find love again, after Nimue; you can do the same. Donít shut the door against its sweetness. Keep it open, open to admit the right one to your heart."
"But he wonít be you," said Mary.
"True," said Merlin, stroking her ears. "But perhaps heíll be someone even better."
"Thereís something else that I have to tell you about, Merlin," said the girl. "My father - heís marrying Morgana tomorrow."
"I suppose that it doesnít matter now," said Merlin, after a momentís thought. "Certainly thereís nothing left that she can do to me. It doesnít worry me at all."
"But it worries me," said Mary. "Maybe she doesnít mean Father any harm, but I still donít feel certain about it. She was only using him for her big scheme when she first got engaged to him - for all that we know, she might have other plans for him. What if she tries to use him to attack Arthur next? I donít want Arthur and Father fighting each other, I mean. And she might be able to pull it off."
"Perhaps," said Merlin. "Well, if you really think that itís a bad idea, you should go see your father and tell him. Warn him about Morgana."
"But I canít leave you here," the girl began.
"Oh, letís not be silly," said Merlin. "Iíve still got a few days left; I can hold out a bit longer. Iím not going to be dying this very day. But I donít think that thereís going to be any more wedding delays possible. Iíd say that itís now or never. Go warn him, Mary. I can wait."
Mary hesitated, then nodded. "All right," she said. "You can last a couple more days, then, canít you?"
"I believe so," said Merlin. "Best wishes with your father, Mary. Letís hope that you can get through to him."
"Thank you," said the girl. She turned and walked over to the door. Arthur opened it and let her out into the hallway, then sat down by Merlin's bed.
"Well, I suppose that this is it, Arthur," said Merlin. "I never thought that it would end like this - but then again, there are some things that even my gift of prophecy never revealed to me. It's a pity that it had to be this way, but I canít complain about it. It has been a long time, hasnít it?"
"Yes, it has," said Arthur.
"Then I suppose that itís time for me to give you some last little words of advice, before I go," said Merlin. "Arthur, I honestly donít know exactly what it is that youíre meant to do in this age; it certainly hasnít been shown to me yet. And maybe thatís just as well, since I have the feeling that, whatever it is that youíre meant to do, youíll need to discover it without my help. The original prophecies were certainly never all that helpful, Iíll admit - and we both know now that whatever your destiny is, it doesnít mean becoming King of Britain again."
"I know," said Arthur. "I should have realized it from the start, when I had to come to Manhattan to reclaim my sword."
Merlin nodded. "And what was it, again, that the Lady of the Lake said to you when you came?" he said. " ĎThis is not Britain, but a larger stage.í Thereís a meaning in her words there; Iím certain of it. Youíll just have to find them. Maybe that was the real reason for the Quest. Maybe you were never meant to find a cure for me on it; instead, the real purpose was for you to see more of the world beyond Britain, and understand that you were not supposed to be confined to one little island this time. Although I suppose that Iíll never know for certain," he added.
"I wish that we did," said Arthur.
"Yes, Iíve sometimes thought that itís a pity that Elisa awoke you ahead of schedule," said Merlin. "Maybe thatís why things have been a little out of joint - you werenít supposed to return just yet. But we canít undo whatís already been done, so youíll just have to forge ahead. Just remember a few things. Choose your new knights carefully. There probably wonít be a Mordred or an Agravain applying for admission to the Round Table this time around, but still, itís best to keep a sharp eye out. Keep your knights working together, and see to it that they donít divide up into rival factions, the way that the original knights did. You might also want to start meeting with the British government soon."
"But why?" asked Arthur. "If I am not to be King again, then I have no business left with them."
"Well, thatís not quite the case," said Merlin. "For one thing, youíll definitely need to officially assure them that you have no designs upon the throne. And also, if youíre going to follow the same route as before, sending your knights off on quests to battle evil around the world, youíll need some sort of official permission from the authorities, given that youíre not one of them this time. You donít want the new Round Table to be viewed as a band of vigilantes. Theyíll need some sanction for their activities." He looked thoughtful. "Maybe youíll need to even have some meetings with the United Nations," he said. "After all, thereíll be more people involved than just the chaps at Westminster and Whitehall if youíre going to extend your operations beyond Britain."
"Yes, that is true," said Arthur. "Thank you for the counsel that youíve given me, Merlin."
"Thereís one last thing," the boy added. "I understand that youíve had some difficulties with Jennifer Camford lately. Am I correct?"
Arthur nodded. "She was rather concerned, when I had dinner with her last Christmas, about my hardly ever being around. And then when she lost her company to Darien and I was not there to prevent it - . I really do fear that I have abandoned her."
"Then itís time for you to do something about that," said Merlin. "Make time for her, Arthur. It wonít be easy, I know, given how much has been on your slate lately - but thatís the point of having knights. You can delegate responsibility to them. You donít have to head off on every quest yourself; you can send a knight or two in your place. But you need to work things out with Jennifer. Be there for her. Share things with her. It may not be easy, but it can be done. And it has to be done."
Arthur nodded. "I know," he said. "Thereís been hardly a day during the Quest when I did not think the same myself, but I scarcely had the opportunity to do so. Until now, that is. And thank you."
He was silent for a moment, and then added, "Itís a little odd to hear such words from you, by the way." He smiled slightly as he spoke. "After all, I recall that when I was in love before, you did all that you could to discourage it."
"Yes, Guinevere," said Merlin. "I know. But - itís different this time. I havenít seen much ahead, but I really do believe that Jennifer will prove true to you - if you allow her the opportunity. And don't forget," he added, with a wry smile, "that was before Iíd discovered just how precious a thing love can be. I hadnít even met Nimue at the time, let alone Mary. Iíve sometimes wondered whether my objections werenít just due to what I knew about Lancelot then, but also that I was a bit of a grumpy old misogynist at the time. But the fact remains that the two of you need each other. Donít go putting it off any longer. Make time for her."
"I promise," said Arthur. "And thank you, my friend."
Merlin nodded, still smiling. Then a concerned expression stole over his face. "This - this really is it, isn't it?" he said. He began to tremble, clutching the sheets tightly. "Iíll be gone by the end of the week, wonít I?"
"Iím afraid so," said Arthur.
"And thereís nothing that can change it," said Merlin, sounding increasingly more like a frightened boy. "Nothing that any of us can do. Iím dying. And whatís going to happen to me, afterwards? I mean, there is that matter of how I helped Uther seduce your mother, Arthur. And Madoc is my father, as well. Am I -"
"Donít think it, Merlin," said Arthur firmly. "Not even for a moment. Itíll only make your last days worse. Rest, Merlin. Donít worry about it any more."
Merlin sighed. "Thank you, Arthur," he said. "Iím sorry about that. It really was very childish of me."
"Thereís nothing for you to apologize for," Arthur replied. "Just rest now, my friend. It will be all right."
Merlin nodded and closed his eyes. Arthur watched as he drifted off into a gentle sleep, then turned and left the room, in silence.
* * *
He turned at the sound of the familiar voice as he entered the great hall. Dulcinea was standing by the entrance next to Rory and Leba.
"Dulcinea!" cried Arthur, walking over towards her. "What brings you here? I thought that you were in Spain with Quetzalcoatl."
"I was," she replied. "But a week ago, he told me that I should come back here for a little while. He said that something very important was going to happen here and that I needed to be there for it. You wouldn't happen to have any idea as to what he was talking about, do you?"
"I fear that I do," said Arthur sadly.
"Yes, Rory and Leba told me about how the Quest went," said Dulcinea. "Iím sorry, Arthur. I know how important Merlin was to you."
"At least heíll be glad that you came," said Arthur. "Heís still alive, but not for long."
"And what will happen after that?" Dulcinea asked. "I mean, when he -"
"Iíll be taking him back to the Caledonian Forest," said Arthur, "to the ruins of the house where he once lived. Iíll lay him to rest there. I believe itís what heíd want."
"Howís Mary doing?" asked Dulcinea. "Knowing her, she must be taking it very hard as well."
"She is," said Arthur.
"Well, can I see her?" the Spanish equestrienne asked. "I mean, maybe I could find something to say to her, something to comfort her."
"Iím afraid that sheís not here," Arthur replied. "She just left for her fatherís house. She still hopes that she can talk him out of marrying Morgana."
"I hope that she succeeds," said Leba. "That womanís trouble enough as it is - but if sheís married to somebody as important in the Government as Sir Nigel Sefton, then sheíll have even more influence than before. Sheíll be practically unstoppable."
"I know," said Arthur. He walked towards the door leading out into the courtyard.
"Where are you going, Arthur?" Dulcinea asked.
"To London," he replied.
"Arthur, are you certain about this?" Leba asked at once.
"I agree," said Rory. "I mean, theyíve quieted down about you, but just one glimpse of you and the whole media circus will be startiní up all over again."
"I know," said Arthur. "But there are some things more important than that. Iím sorry, my friends, but this is something that I must do. Iíll be back soon enough, I promise." And with that, he walked out into the courtyard.
Rory, Leba, and Dulcinea watched him go in silence.
* * * * *
Mr. Duval stepped into his private study and carefully locked the door behind him. He walked over to an old wooden chest in one corner of the room, bent down, and unlocked it with a small key that hung from his key-ring. From it he removed an object carefully swathed in a thick cloth, and gently unwrapped it.
He looked down at the old sword in a well-cared-for leather scabbard that rested in his hands. It was simply made, with no jewels on its hilt and no fancy trappings upon its sheath. But when he drew it forth, its blade gleamed keenly. Duval ran one hand gently across its flat.
"It has been a very long time since I last bore you into battle, Joyeux," he said softly. "These days I fight my wars from behind a desk, not mounted upon a charger. I may not need you in this coming expedition, if it indeed becomes necessary for me to embark upon it, if I cannot hold back the Society any further. And yet, for this adventure, I would feel more comfortable to have you hanging by my side again."
He sheathed the sword and hung it at his belt, before leaving the room.
* * * * *
"With all due respect, sir," said Dr. Carpenter, as he followed his employer through the sewer tunnel, "I still don't understand why we're looking for these people. Couldn't we obtain some more Steel Clan robots instead?"
"It won't work a second time," said Singleton. "Xanatos has some idea as to what's happened; he doesn't suspect me - so far as I know - but he's on his guard now. No, we need a different set of allies for this venture. Fortunately I know where to find them."
They walked on in silence until they heard a faint murmur of voices ahead. A dim light shone around the corner to the left.
"This is the place," said Singleton in a whisper, coming to a halt. "Wait here. They're less likely to be spooked if they only receive one visitor - and I need to convince them that I come in peace. If I come alone, it won't be as likely to seem like an invasion to them."
"Very well, sir," said Carpenter. He stood still while Singleton turned the corner and entered a large stone chamber.
Several pairs of eyes looked at him, eyes set in the faces of a small crowd of people. All of them were dressed in ragged clothes and none of them looked as if they had had a square meal in months. They stared at him in silence, many of them inching back against the walls.
"Good afternoon, my friends," said Singleton, holding up both hands to show that he was unarmed. "You've no need to fear me. I come in peace."
"What do you want with us?" asked a frail-looking dark-haired woman at last. "And how did you find us?"
"I'm afraid that I can't answer your second question just yet," he answered her. "But as to your first question - well, that's simple enough. I want to help you."
"Like the scientist and his friends who turned us into - into whatever we are now?" the woman asked. She looked at him suspiciously.
"No, not at all," said Singleton quickly. "Now, I know of your plight. Your lives have been hard enough as they are, with no homes, no jobs, no families, and scarcely anybody to turn to. But in your case, itís even worse than the average homeless person in this city, because of whatís been done to you. Your old masters in the Unseelie Court abandoned you, and now you need to hide down here, as your one hope of surviving. Most of the people on the surface would be afraid of you, if they knew about you, would call you monsters and try to kill you. So youíre doomed to a miserable life, forever. Or maybe not." He paused meaningfully.
"What are you talking about, stranger?" asked the woman.
"I sought you out because I have learned of a way to help you," said Singleton. "Listen. Not far away from here, out in Hertfordshire, the Holy Grail is about to appear."
"The Holy Grail!" said a man. "Ha! You might as well be telling us that Nessieís going to be swimming up the Thames next! Things like the Holy Grail donít exist."
"And neither do vampires, Flynt," said the woman. "But thatís what weíve become, havenít we? And if we exist, and the creatures that made us what we are, then maybe the Grail does as well."
"My point exactly," said Singleton. "And the reason why Iím telling you about the Grail is this. Iíve read much about it and I know what it can do. And one of the things that itís capable of is undoing the transformation that was inflicted upon you. Even a sip from it could change you back into ordinary humans. Youíd no longer have to hide from the rest of the world. You could walk about the streets of London again, homeless, perhaps, but with your human natures restored. It could be the greatest blessing of all."
"And just why are you telling us about it?" the woman asked. "Out of the goodness of your heart?"
"Well, I do have my own interest in the Grail," Singleton admitted. "And I know that I canít take it on my own. But perhaps if we could work together, we could recover it - and once we do, Iíll let each and every one of you drink from it. It has more than enough to undo the curse upon you all. What do you say to that?"
The London vampyres murmured among themselves as they turned to each other, all speaking about the offer in quiet voices. Singleton watched in silence. The hope that they had just been offered, a hope for the mutation that Sevarius had inflicted upon them in the service of the Unseelie Court, an end to the unnatural state of life that had been thrust upon them, was so powerful, that it was more than enough to overcome their suspicion of an outsider such as himself. At last the dark-haired woman spoke again.
"Very well," she said. "Weíre interested."
* * * * *
Arthur Pendragon walked down the pavement, his coat pulled closely about him. A few passers-by glanced briefly at him, but then continued on their way, apparently too busy with their own errands to give any real thought to him.
He scarcely noticed them. He was too busy gazing down at the ground immediately in front of him, with a look of near-despair in his eyes. He walked past a shop window with a stack of televisions piled inside, all of them turned to the same station, without once noticing it. Regina Fitzwalter was seated behind her desk on every screen, speaking.
"Tonight, meteorologists are still baffled as to the unusual pattern of air currents forming over southern Hertfordshire. However, they have assured the public that there is no evidence that these are heralding a return to the bizarre winter weather that plagued the entire planet over a year ago. In the meantime, other unusual occurrences have been reported in the area.
"In these gardens just outside St. Albans, flowers that only this morning were beginning to droop and wilt underwent an amazing rejuvenation, springing back into full bloom in a fashion that local botanists have still been unable to explain. And in St. Amphibalusís Hospital, patients in a local cancer ward -"
* * * * *
A strange glow formed in the alley, startling a few stray cats that had been poking about near the dustbins intently. It formed into a man dressed in medieval garb of tunic, breeches, and mantle. A badge was sewn upon the upper right-hand corner of his tunic, depicting a golden cup. He bore a small white baton in one hand, and a grey metal cap sat upon his pepper-and-salt hair.
Tanaburs looked down thoughtfully at his attire, and shook his head. "This obviously isn't going to do," he said to himself. Then he snapped his fingers. His clothing transformed itself immediately into an elegant three-piece suit that could have come from any high-quality tailor's shop on Bond Street. His rod became a rolled-up umbrella and his helmet a homburg.
"Much better," he said to himself with a smile. "And now to find him."
He walked out of the alley and down the pavement. He passed a sign with an arrow upon it, labeled "To Westminster Abbey."
* * * * *
THE ILLUMINATIíS LONDON HEADQUARTERS
"The portents are multiplying, sir," said Mr. Powell, standing in the meeting room. "If we delay any further, we stand in danger of missing our opportunity. We must act now."
Duval looked at his face, and the faces of the other members of the Inner Circle, as they clustered about the table, looking at him, awaiting his response. Where is Andrew?, he thought. I can't stand against them by myself, not when all the rest of them are for it. If I had just one voice on my side, it would be all that I need to get them to back down. At last he nodded with a sigh, recognizing with a sinking heart that he had been beaten.
"Very well," he said. "We leave at once. Tell all our Regular Ops units stationed in London and the Home Counties to move out."
"Regular Ops?" asked one of the Illuminati. "Wouldn't it be more advisable to deploy the Sword instead?"
"No, it would not," answered Duval firmly. "We are not fighting a battle here. Our purpose is to secure the Holy Grail and nothing else. We need men who can move in and out quickly. And it would be extremely dangerous to have a bloodbath near Carbonek. No, we are using the Regular Ops only."
He rose from his chair and left the room. As he did so, he murmured in a low voice, little more than a whisper, "Forgive me, Arthur. Again."
* * * * *
"So what are we to make of this miracle story, where an entire ward of patients is suddenly cured of illness overnight?" Regina Fitzwalter was saying. "And also, what are we to think concerning eyewitness accounts that the ward was filled with a smell like roses only moments before its inmates' recovery, and that there was an unexplained light seen in the sky only moments afterwards? Are we truly entering another Age of Miracles -"
Harthoth switched off the television set. "Well, Iíd say that it looks as though the Ďsilly seasoní is lasting longer than usual this year, Isfet," he said. "What do you think - Isfet?"
He was the only person in the room. Isfet, who had been watching the news with him only moments before, had gone.
"Very odd," said the ancient Egyptian gargoyle. "The last time that sheíd done this was during that ĎGodslayerí business. But she isnít still plagued with that little obsession, is she?"
* * * * *
The sun set and the gargoyles awakened, stretching and roaring. Griff hopped down from his perch, to see Leba, Rory, Dulcinea, and Colin Marter standing in a small cluster in the courtyard below. He jumped down to join them.
"Good evening," he said. "Whereís Arthur?"
"Heís gone into town," said Leba. "We tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldnít listen. I think that heís gotten desperate about Merlinís condition."
"Merlinís not dead yet, is he?" Griff asked concernedly.
"No, heís still alive," said Rory. "Though he wonít be for too many days. Arthur looks very upset about it all, especially about not beiní able to do anythiní to save him."
"Yes, itís just how heíd respond," said the gargoyle, with a sigh. "Merlin is his oldest friend. Arthurís known him even longer than heís known me, remember. So losing him would definitely shake him up quite a bit."
"But heís really lost it, if heís gone into London," said Dulcinea. "I mean, if somebody sees him - we really ought to go there after him. Talk to him, try to persuade him to come back."
"I donít think that heíd appreciate it," said Griff. "If heíd wanted some company on this one, Iím sure that heíd have invited one of you along. From what youíve told me, Iíd say that he wants some time alone, to deal with the fact that Merlinís going to die soon. Heíll come back when heís ready, Iím sure of it."
"But he could still be in danger," said Leba.
"I doubt it," said Griff, with a smile. "After everything that weíve faced on the world tour that weíve just had, from fugitive Unseelies to savage wolf-men to Steel Clan robots, Iíd say that Arthur doesnít have too much to worry about from a few curious Londoners."
"Iíd still like to know just what he's doin' there," said Rory.
* * * * *
Arthur reached the door to Westminster Abbey. The spires of the medieval church first built by Edward the Confessor almost a thousand years before loomed above him in the gathering gloom, but he gave them no heed. Instead he tried the door, only to find it locked. With a regretful sigh, he drew Excalibur from its scabbard and brought it down upon the timbers, cleaving them in two. He stepped through the ruined door into the abbey.
Tanaburs watched him from the shadows, and then silently followed him inside.
* * * * *
Mary Sefton rang the doorbell and waited. A few moments later, the door opened. Gargrave looked down at her, looking genuinely astonished.
"Miss Mary," he said. "We were not expecting you."
"Iím sorry about this, Gargrave," she said to him. "But I really need to speak to my father."
"Very well," said Gargrave. "Although I should warn you, Miss Mary, that it will not be especially easy. Heís hosting a reception tonight."
She had noticed the cars parked in the driveway and heard the voices and laughter inside, so she felt anything but surprised by the information. "I know," she said. "But. itís really important. If I could just have a few minutes alone with him, please?"
"Very well," said the butler. "Come inside, Miss Mary."
She followed him to the living room. It was crowded with various friends of her father's, mostly people whom she had last seen at his Christmas party the year before. Nigel was talking to the Starkhams when Gargrave reached them. "Your daughter, sir," he said.
Sir Nigel turned to look at her. "Mary?" he said in surprise. "What on earth are you doing here?"
"Father, can I speak with you for a moment?" said Mary, looking up at him. "Itís very important."
"Very well," said Sir Nigel. He turned to the Starkhams. "Iím terribly sorry about this," he said to them. "Iíll be back shortly."
"Quite all right, Nigel," said Mr. Starkham, nodding.
"Itís nice to see you again, Mary," said Mrs. Starkham, looking straight at the girl. "My word, though. You look even paler than ever. I thought that you were abroad."
"Well, I was," said Mary. "But itís difficult for me to get some sun these days." She felt relieved to follow her father away from the conversation, out of the drawing room and to his study. She most certainly did not feel in the mood just now for a lot of people asking probing questions about what she had been doing lately.
* * *
"Isnít that your stepdaughter who just came in?" asked Sybil, turning to Morgana.
Morgana stared as she saw Mary and Sir Nigel leaving the room together. "Yes, itís her," she said. "But I donít understand. What on earth is she doing here?"
"I donít know," Sybil replied. "But Iíd say that itís something that needs looking into, donít you agree?"
Morgana nodded uncomfortably.
* * * * *
The Stone of Destiny had been removed four years before from its old place underneath the Coronation Chair, and Arthur knew this well. So he wasted no time looking for it. Instead he entered the Henry VII Chapel and knelt before the altar, both hands clasped about Excalibur's hilt and his head bowed low.
"Perhaps I should not have come here tonight," he said, speaking softly. "Merlin has already resigned himself to his fate - more or less. Certainly I know that our failure to find the Holy Grail may be a sign that he was never meant to be cured. But still - I cannot let him die. Not just yet. I know that I have no right to make such petitions to you, but have mercy upon him and let him live. Not for my sake, but for his and for Mary's."
He closed his eyes as tears began to form in them, and remained kneeling before the altar in silent prayer.
"Arthur Pendragon?" said a voice from behind him.
Arthur at once leaped to his feet and raised Excalibur, ready to fight any assailant off with it. But what he saw was only a man with greying brown hair, dressed in a business suit and carrying an umbrella, who smiled gently at him.
"There's no need for that," he said. "I come in peace."
"Who are you?" asked Arthur. "And how do you know my name?"
"I know a great many things about you, actually," said the stranger. "I have been watching your travels for some time, you see. Ever since you began your quest for the Holy Grail on Eynhallow, in fact. As for your first question, my name is Tanaburs, and I am the seneschal of Carbonek Castle. The Fisher King has sent me here to speak with you."
"Carbonek?" Arthur asked, his voice breathless. "The Fisher King? Then you -"
"Quite correct," said Tanaburs. "This is about the Holy Grail."
Arthur said nothing. He only gazed at the man, his eyes widening in wonder.
"I have been sent to tell you," Tanaburs went on, "that you are mistaken about the quest. It is not over at all. In fact, the castle of Carbonek is due to appear in these parts very soon. Tomorrow night, to be precise. And it brings with it the Holy Grail."
"The Grail is coming here?" cried Arthur, his eyes alight with hope. "Then the Quest was not in vain? Merlin will be saved?"
"Perhaps," said Tanaburs gravely.
"Perhaps?" asked Arthur. "What do you mean by that?"
"The matter is complicated," said the seneschal of the Grail Castle. "But this is not the best place to discuss it. We should return to the Marter estate and speak on the matter there."
"Very well," said Arthur, sheathing Excalibur. "But might I ask one question of you first?"
"Yes, you may," said Tanaburs as they walked down the nave of the abbey.
"I wish you no disrespect," said Arthur, "but why did you not come until now? My friends and I have been seeking the Holy Grail for almost a year now, and yet we have found not a trace of it. Indeed, I was beginning to fear that we would never find it, that it might indeed have been removed from this world long ago. Why have you only revealed yourself now, when Merlin is at death's door?"
"Ah," said Tanaburs with a smile. "I was hoping that you would ask that question. And in answer to it: we could not act as yet. You had to be tested, Arthur Pendragon, just as your knights had to be tested when they sought the Grail fifteen hundred years ago. Of course, the tests and trials were of a different nature, since the goal of their quest was not the same as yours. But tests and trials there had to be, before judgment could be made over whether you were worthy of achieving the Grail."
"I understand that," said Arthur. "But there is a life at stake here. Without the Grail, Merlin will die."
"That is true," agreed Tanaburs. "The Holy Grail is indeed the only thing that can save him from the poison that your half-sister Morgana used against him. There is no other remedy for him in this world. But there are complications."
"What do you mean?" Arthur asked.
Tanaburs sighed as they walked out of the abbey. "We know much of what lies ahead for your friend and advisor, Arthur Pendragon, should the Grail heal him," he said. "And we know this - if he lives, there will come a dark time upon the world centuries from now, that would have been averted had he succumbed to the poison. And in that time, Merlin will look back and wish that the Grail had let him die."
"Then must we abandon him?" cried Arthur, almost desperately, staring at the seneschal with horrified eyes. "Are you saying that he must die?"
"No," said Tanaburs. "For even out of that dark time, some good will come as well. Sometimes great good can come out of great evil, just as great evil can come out of great good. And he has still much left to do, tasks that can never be performed if he does not live. His fate must be judged by the whole of his future, not merely by the evil in it. But I still felt it right to warn you. You need not fear, Arthur. The Grail will save him - but there is one last test to be undertaken. And you must face it, as you and your companions have faced all the others."
"What is it, then?" Arthur asked him.
"Patience, Arthur," said Tanaburs, as they continued on their way down the pavement. "I will tell you when the time is right."
* * * * *
"Finally tonight," Regina Fitzwalter was saying on the small television set in Duval's limousine, "officials from the Department of Health have ordered the immediate evacuation and quarantine of the village of Crickley in southern Hertfordshire, on the grounds of a serious health emergency. No further details have as yet been issued, and the Minister of Health could not be reached for comment - "
Duval switched off the set. "They've worked quickly," he said to his aide Giles, who was at the wheel of the car.
"Yes, sir," said Giles. "Crickley should be ready to serve as the Society's base of operations in only a few hours."
"And our troops?" Duval asked.
"All three requested units are on their way, sir," said Giles. "They should be present and in position by 0600 hours tomorrow morning."
"About eighteen hours before the manifestation is due," said Duval. "Very good."
Giles nodded. Duval looked out the window at the nighttime English countryside going by, and fell silent again. When he felt certain that there was no danger of his driver seeing the motion, he placed one hand upon the side of his overcoat, feeling the hidden sword that hung from his belt beneath it.
* * * * *
Sir Nigel Sefton seated himself behind the desk in his study and looked up at Mary. The girl stood before him, still wearing her travel-stained hiking clothes from the long quest for the Holy Grail. Although her eyes were moist with tears, she had remained calm, if with a significant effort.
"Now just what is this all about?" he asked her. "I hope that it's something important."
"It is, father," she replied. "Very."
"Then let me hear it," he said.
"Father, you mustnít marry Morgana Cornish," said Mary. "Sheís evil. Sheís a witch, and sheís tried to murder Arthur several times."
Nigel stared at her in silence for a moment. "A witch?" he asked her. "I didn't hear you wrong, did I?"
"It's true," said the girl. "Her name isn't really Morgana Cornish. Her real name is Morgana la Fay. And she hates Arthur just as she hates Merlin. She even poisoned him."
"Poisoned Merlin?" asked Nigel, seeming all the more taken aback now.
Too late, she realized what she had said. But she could not take back the words that she had just spoken. Well, I'd have to tell him sooner or later, she thought. I'll just have to do it now.
"Remember Emrys Hawkins?" she said to him. "He's really Merlin. The Merlin."
"Mary, you're not joking, are you?" asked Nigel, looking at her concernedly. "I mean, that boy was no older than you are. Besides, Merlin was only a legend. Everybody knows that."
"Well, he's real," said Mary. "And he's dying now, because she poisoned him. Father, you can't marry her! You have to call the wedding off! Please!"
"I'm beginning to wonder if I should have let you go on those travels with Pennington," said Nigel troubledly, shaking his head. "It sounds to me as if you've gone more than a little strange in the head."
"But you know now what I am, father," Mary insisted. "Why can't you believe me about Morgana as well?"
"Mary," Nigel said to her, "I know that my remarrying must be difficult for you. You still miss your mother, and you see Morgana as a substitute for her, a replacement that you don't want. But you really have to come up with a better argument against my marrying her than that she's some mythical enchantress from the Dark Ages. And furthermore -"
His words were interrupted by a knock on the door. "Nigel?" asked Morgana's voice. "Is anything wrong?"
"I'm sorry, Morgana," said Nigel. He rose from his chair and opened the door. Morgana entered the study, gently closing the door behind her. Mary looked sharply at her, but said nothing.
"Ah, Mary," said Morgana, turning to the girl at once. "I didn't even think that you'd come. Will you be staying for the wedding tomorrow? Nigel's told me that you've some sort of health problem that will prevent you from attending it in the daytime, but I'd still really like you to watch it."
"Morgana, could you help me calm her down?" asked Nigel. "She's suddenly got this absurd notion that you're really Morgana la Fay from the Arthurian legends. I've tried to reason with her, but she won't listen to me. Perhaps you could say something?"
Morgana looked at him, her eyes troubled. She was silent for a moment, an uneasy expression upon her face. At least she spoke.
"I'm afraid that it's the truth, Nigel," she said. "She's correct about me. I really am Morgana la Fay."
"Um - you're joking, aren't you?" asked Nigel, giving a nervous laugh. "Just trying to lighten the tension a little? You don't really mean it, do you?"
"I'm afraid that I do," said Morgana. "Nigel, I'm sorry. I should have told you this before, long before. But I was afraid that you would believe me to be either lying or mad, and so I held my peace. But it's time for me to tell you the truth."
"And the truth is that you're the legendary Morgana la Fay?" asked Nigel, looking at her concernedly. Mary wondered for a moment if he really believed her, but then she took a closer look at his eyes and saw that he did not. Instead, he seemed convinced that Morgana was indeed not quite right in the head.
"Yes, it is," said Morgana. "Let me show you."
She raised one hand in a gesture. A sparkly glow surrounded her, and her clothing changed into a medieval-style gown and flowing mantle. A golden circlet rested upon her brows, and jewelry sparkled at her throat and wrists.
Nigel's jaw dropped and he grabbed hold of the desk to keep himself steady. Mary merely looked at her stepmother-to-be in an icy silence, her arms folded across her chest.
"I know what you must be thinking," Morgana said to him. "How can I be the original Morgana, when she lived fifteen hundred years ago? The answer is that I bear the blood of Avalon in my veins and it has kept me alive all these centuries. I am an enchantress of no common rate, remember."
Nigel merely looked at her numbly. At last he struggled to speak, managing to force the words out. "And - this boy Emrys really is Merlin?" he asked her.
"It's true," she answered. "Just as Arthur Pennington really is King Arthur. But you should know this, Nigel. All the stories about them, and about me, are lies. Well, not quite lies; they record the facts, it is true. But they do so aslant, distorting the truth. They portray Arthur and Merlin as heroes and me as an evil witch-queen. But that's not how it is. You should understand that. Let me tell you the truth, Nigel." She raised one hand, and shimmering images began to form across the oak-panelled wall of the study.
"Fifteen hundred years ago," said Morgana, "Uther Pendragon, a dark tyrant who had become High King of Britain, cast covetous eyes upon my mother Igraine, caring naught for the fact that she was then wedded to my father Duke Gorlois of Cornwall, without whose might all this island would have been lost to the Saxons. So he invaded Cornwall and ravaged it, besieging us in our castles." As she spoke, two banners appeared waving upon the wall. One depicted a crimson dragon, wings outspread and mouth open, spitting fire, and the other a wild boar with fierce-looking tusks, preparing to charge. Beneath them two bands of knights were fighting outside the walls of a rough-looking castle, little more than a wooden palisade surrounded by a ditch on top of a hill.
"At last," Morgana went on, "through the help of Merlin, he murdered my father and forced himself upon my mother. He married my older sisters Morgause and Elaine off to two of his vassals in order to secure their allegiance, without giving either of them a say in the matter. But because I was still too young to wed, he sent me away to a nunnery until I was old enough to be used in the same fashion." The scene on the wall changed again as she spoke. Now it depicted an eight-year-old Morgana mounted on a pony, riding down a road surrounded by a troop of knights on all sides. Her head was bowed in grief.
"He destroyed my family," said Morgana, keeping her voice level only with an effort. "Who's the greater monster? Myself, because I sought to avenge the wrongs that were committed against my house? Or Uther, who committed those very wrongs? And it is that same butcher-king, Uther Pendragon, who was the father of the very Arthur whose name so many people wrongly honor to this day."
Nigel still stared at her, looking visibly shaken. He struggled to speak, but no words came to his mouth.
"Yes, I am Arthur's enemy," said Morgana. "But I have to be. My family, my childhood, all were destroyed just so that he could be born. Just so that his precious Camelot could be built! And his own hands are stained with blood! He murdered Sir Accolon of Gaul, the man whom I loved, running him through with his sword Excalibur. And he burned my daughter Morfydd alive." The scene on the wall changed now to a young girl, whose features bore a striking resemblance to Morgana's, attempting to unpin a mantle from about her throat. Before she could do so, she burst into flames and collapsed into ashes.
"It was you who got them both killed!" Mary shouted. "Arthur killed Accolon because you tricked them into fighting each other! And Morfydd got burned because you tried to use her to burn up Arthur and your plan went wrong!"
"Please, Nigel," said Morgana, ignoring the girl's outburst. "I'm not some evil witch, plotting one scheme after another just so that I can take over Britain and inflict misery and suffering upon its people. I only did what I did because Arthur and Merlin had to be punished for the wrongs that they did to my family. What would you have had me do? Let my father's murder and my mother's humiliation go unavenged? But my quarrel is with Arthur and Merlin, and Arthur and Merlin alone. I don't want to bring harm to anyone else. Once they are both gone, then I can give up my scheming and plots. I can live a normal life again with you. With both of you," she added, turning to Mary. "Mary, I want you to be my daughter," she said. "Just like Morfydd. Wonít you accept that?"
"You should have thought of that before you had my boyfriend poisoned," said Mary coldly. "Well, you'll be pleased to know that he's dying now. We couldn't find the Grail anywhere, and Merlin has so little time left that it's too late for us to look anywhere else. You've finally had your revenge on him. I hope that you're satisfied."
Morgana looked sadly at the girl for a moment, then turned back to Nigel. "Please remember this," she said to him. "Mary's spent so much time in Arthur and Merlin's company - too much, in fact - listening to their side of the story. So it's no wonder that she's been led astray by them. That is why I didn't think that it was a good idea to let her travel with them. All those lying storybooks out there have caused enough damage already as it is. Remember, Nigel: I was there. She wasn't."
Nigel sat down in his chair, still appearing shaken to his very soul. For a long while he looked at his fiancé and then at his daughter. At last he recovered his voice and spoke.
"This - is going to take some getting used to," he said. "But - I suppose that I can learn to live with it. Indeed, it appears that I will have to."
"Father, you canít be serious!" Mary began.
"Iím very much so," said Nigel, his voice growing briefly firmer again. "Iím not saying that Arthur Pennington and your boyfriend are in the wrong, but I do think that it is possible that Morgana here may have been - misunderstood. At least sheís done nothing to either of us, and that should tell you something."
"You're wrong!" she cried. There was one last card that she could play, her trump. "Morgana was the one who framed Arthur in the Connection business! She ran that gun-smuggling ring, and she hired that man who tried to kill the Royal Family! He could have killed you!"
"Now this is getting out of hand, young lady," said Nigel sternly. "The Connection case has been closed. Everyone in that smuggling ring has been arrested and there has been no evidence that Morgana had any involvement in it. Whatever you may think of your stepmother, that does not give you the right to go about making up stories, especially not stories as wild as that particular one. You realize that what you just said could count as slander."
"But-" Mary began. Then she halted, realizing that there was nothing left that she could say.
"Thank you, Nigel," said Morgana. She turned back to Mary and added, "And you'll soon understand, my child. You'll see that I did what I had to do."
"Don't hold your breath," said Mary stiffly. She turned around, opened the door, and walked out of the study without giving either her father or her stepmother-to-be another glance. Morgana watched her go with a look of utter distress upon her features. Nigel looked at Morgana with a troubled frown.
* * * * *
"Arthur, you're back!" cried Griff, rushing across the courtyard to greet his just-returned friend. Then he saw Tanaburs standing beside the former king and came to a halt. "Oh," he added uncertainly, "and you've brought company with you."
"Arthur, what on earth is the meaning of this?" Michael cried, staring at the Fisher Kingís seneschal. "Why have you brought this stranger to our home, without consulting us first?"
"Itís all right," said Tanaburs. "Iím fully aware of your kind and its true nature, and I promise that I will keep your secret."
"This is Tanaburs," said Arthur. "He has come from Carbonek to speak with me about the Grail."
"And that is reason enough to bring him here?" Michael asked sharply. He was still gazing at the man suspiciously.
Cavall pushed his way through the gathering crowd of gargoyles and humans and trotted up to Tanaburs. He sniffed at him for a moment, then barked eagerly and wagged his tail. Tanaburs smiled, bent down and patted the gargoyle beast on the head.
"This is about the Grail?" asked Griff. "I mean - you can tell us where it is? Can you bring us to it?"
"There'll be no need for that," said Tanaburs. "The Grail will come here. It is already on its way."
"Can it get here in time to save Merlin's life?" Dulcinea asked.
"Patience, my lady, patience," said Tanaburs. "There is still one thing left to be done." He turned to Arthur. "If you would conduct me to Merlin's room, please. Just the two of us: nobody else."
"Very well," said Arthur. "Come with me."
Merlin was still asleep in his bed when the two men entered his room. He tossed and turned, murmuring something in so faint a voice that Arthur could not make out the words; sweat plastered his greying hair to his forehead. Tanaburs stared down at the lad in silence for a few minutes, his face unreadable.
"Itís not long until the end, is it?" he asked at last.
"Less than a week," said Arthur. "You and the Holy Grail have arrived in time. Barely," he added.
"And the Grail can indeed save his life," said Tanaburs. "But its gift comes with a price."
"A price?" asked Arthur uneasily. "What do you mean?"
"I cannot name it as yet," said Tanaburs. "There is one other who must be here for that. Until that one's arrival, I must wait."
"Very well," said Arthur. He looked at Merlin apprehensively, wondering what the price was that Tanaburs had spoken of and who the "one other" might be, before at last turning about and following the seneschal out of the room.
* * * * *
Faulconbridge, Imogen, and Cervus alighted upon the shattered battlements of the ruined manor-house, folding up their wings. They then dashed down the stairs leading from the walkway to the courtyard, where Michael and Brock were standing.
"You three are back in a hurry," said Brock. "Is something wrong?"
"I'll say," said Faulconbridge. "You know the village of Crickley?"
"Yes, I am aware of it," said Michael. "Has something happened there?"
"The entire place has been evacuated," said Imogen. "All the villagers have left, and a new bunch of humans has just moved in. A lot of them look like soldiers."
"And they're bringing a lot of fancy equipment with them as well," said Cervus.
"Did you let them see you?" Michael asked concernedly.
"Don't worry," said Faulconbridge. "We kept a low profile. But it still looks really important."
"From what you have told me, I believe that it does," said Michael. "I had better speak with Captain Marter about this. He might have some idea as to what is taking place here."
"Let's just hope that it's only a coincidence that they're moving into a village only a short distance from here," said Brock. "I don't feel at all comfortable with the notion of humans like that setting up camp so close. If they've begun to suspect something -"
"I can go and check it out," offered Leba. "They won't pay as much attention to humans as they would to gargoyles."
"Good idea," said Rory. "We'll come with you." He indicated Aidan and Dulcinea as well as himself.
"Tanaburs had better not have anything to do with this," said Michael grimly to the other gargoyles, as the four humans left. "If he has, then Arthur has brought danger upon our heads in leading this man to our home."
* * * * *
Lucius Adrians leafed quickly through the old book in front of him, glancing at one heading after another, before he found what he was looking for. He began to read the text, checking the handwritten notes on the piece of paper at his elbow. "Rejuvenation of flowers in autumn," he said to himself. "Diseases miraculously cured. Sweet scents and strange singing coming from the air with no visible source."
He bent his head over the passage before him, reading aloud, " ĎWhen all these omens should appear together, then know ye that the return of the Castle of the Sacred Cup is at hand. Then shall the Blessed Chalice bestow its greatest gift of all, upon he who comes to the hall of the Fisher King to -í"
The page ended abruptly, the bottom half chewed off. "I should have rescued this volume before the rats got to it," said Lucius, closing the book. "But no matter. The auguries have spoken. It is time to act."
He rang the bell upon his desk. Eddie and Char hurriedly entered the study. "You wanted us?" Eddie asked.
"Yes," said Lucius. "Assemble all the Minions that you can find, NOW!"
* * * * *
"Theyíve occupied the entire village," said Leba, creeping back through the woods to join Rory, Aidan, and Dulcinea in the clearing where they had been waiting for her. "I couldnít get too close without risking being spotted, but it definitely looks like a full-scale paramilitary presence. Theyíve got troops everywhere and a lot of very sophisticated-looking equipment."
"Doesnít sound good," muttered Rory. "Weíd better get back to the estate and let Arthur know about it."
"Do you really think that theyíre here after the Grail?" Dulcinea asked, as they made their way back through the trees, moving as cautiously and silently as possible.
"Itíd be a very big coincidence if they werenít," said Leba. "And Iím pretty certain that itís the Illuminati. I didnít see any pyramid logos, but I doubt that theyíd be that blatant about it."
Rory suddenly halted. "I heard something," he said. "Off to the left of us. Do you think that they discovered us?"
"I hope not," said Leba. "Weíd better hope that itís just a small patrol, something that we can easily handle. And if we do get ourselves into a fight, weíd better make certain that itís a quiet one. We donít want to alert the entire base to our presence."
The sounds of stealthy movements drew closer to them. Arthurís three knights took up battle stances, Rory clutching hold of his staff, hoping that he would not have to change it into the Gae Bolga. Aidan crouched behind him, his eyes widening in alarm. And then a slight red-haired figure emerged from the trees.
"Molly?" Rory asked, staring at her in astonishment. "What are you doiní here? I mean, we havenít seen you since that business with the Roman spirit."
"Iíve - been away," said Molly, in a low voice. She clearly did not seem too comfortable with being present. "Listen, Rory - I donít know why I came back here, but - Iíve been noticiní the signs from this part of Britain recently. Something big looks as if itís about to take place. I donít know just what it is, but itís already lookiní as if itís even bigger than the Unseelie Court."
"Yes, weíve been noticiní the same things," said Rory. "Arthur thinks that it could be the Grail."
"Well, I suppose that that would explain it," said Molly. "At any rate, I thought that Iíd better warn you about it. But, since you already know about it, well -" She turned around. "Iíll be seeiní you later," she said.
"Where are you goiní, Moll?" Rory asked.
"I donít know," she said. "But Iím not certain that I want to stay around here. It looks as though thereís a big battle cominí, and I canít get involved. Not so long as Oberon and the Sisters are still ready to haul me back to Avalon again. I have to lie low, so they wonít know that Iím here." And with that she moved off into the trees, fading into the shadows.
Rory and the others watched her go, then looked at each other. "Weíd better get back to the estate and tell Arthur," said Leba. "Letís go."
They moved off again, although Rory still glanced back over his shoulder once at the part of the woods that Molly had disappeared into.
* * * * *
Mary opened the door to Merlinís bedroom and walked over to the bed where the youth still lay. She sat down upon the stool that had been drawn up to the bedside and touched his brow softly.
Merlin stirred, then opened his eyes and looked up at her. "Mary," he said, in a barely audible voice.
"I talked to my father," said the girl. "I told him everything, all about Morgana."
"And what did he say?" Merlin asked.
"Heís - heís still going through with it," said Mary. "Even now that he knows. I mean - Morgana actually admitted it, told him that she really was Morgana la Fay. Not to mention the usual rant about how sheís some poor unfortunate whose life was ruined by you and Arthur. And he accepted it all."
"Iím sorry about that," said Merlin, nodding sympathetically.
"It doesnít matter," she replied. "Not any more. What matters is this, Merlin. Iím back, and Iíll be with you to the end. I promise that."
"Thank you, Mary," said Merlin.
She clasped his hand in both of hers gently until he returned to sleep. Then she sat by him, looking sadly down upon him. She barely heard the sound of footsteps in the hallway outside until the door opened.
"Mary?" asked Arthur softly. "Thereís someone here who wishes to speak with you. If you could step outside for a moment -"
"Is this important?" she asked, not looking away from Merlin.
"It is," he answered. "Itís about the Grail."
Astonished, Mary arose from the stool and walked out into the corridor.
* * *
"Ah, here she is now," said Tanaburs as Mary Sefton joined them in the hallway. "Now that you are both here, I can explain."
"Who are you?" the girl asked, staring at the suit-clad man with the umbrella.
"My name is Tanaburs, seneschal of Carbonek Castle, the Castle of the Holy Grail," he replied. "I have been sent here to tell Arthur that the Grail is about to arrive."
"Then - then itís going to save Merlinís life after all," cried Mary, almost shouting out the words in her joy, barely managing to keep herself calm. "Itís going to be all right! Oh, thank you!"
"Yes," said Tanaburs, looking down at her sadly. "I wish that it was that simple, though."
"What do you mean?" Mary asked. "Whatís wrong?"
"As I told Arthur before," said Tanaburs, "the cure that the Grail provides must come with a price. The poison that Morgana la Fay used upon Merlin is an especially potent one. The Grail can cure it, but a great sacrifice must come with it, a sacrifice of love and courage to pay for Merlinís renewed life."
"What do you mean?" Arthur asked, as he and Mary both looked at the seneschal of the Grail Castle.
"To save Merlinís life," said Tanaburs, speaking the words slowly and carefully, and looking at Arthur straight in the eyes, "you must sacrifice Maryís in exchange."
TO BE CONTINUED....