CHOICES: PART ONE.
Outline by Todd Jensen.
Written by Todd Jensen.
Artwork by Lain
Previously on Pendragon....
Mary's ears picked up the whistling noise only too late. A dart embedded itself in Merlin's left shoulder just as he was a few feet away from the door of the Mystic shop. He staggered back, a shocked look on his face. Mary rushed forward with a cry and caught him in the nick of time.
~~~Out of the Blue.~~~
* * *
ARTHUR (to Titania): Human magic, human science, and the arts of your people - all have been tried, and all have proven powerless against the poison. What else is left?
TITANIA: One path remains that you have not yet considered. A path that you have not yet trodden, although many others have. Seek out that path, Arthur Pendragon.... When you find it, it shall be as much comfort to you as a cup of cold water is to a man half dead with thirst.
~~~Return to Avalon.~~~
* * *
ARTHUR: The Grail was, in legend, thought to cure even the most fatal malady. Finally I can see the new quest before us. It would seem that the only way to cure Merlin is to locate the Grail.
~~~The Mists of Eynhallow.~~~
* * *
ARTHUR (to Duval): No! You are not Lancelot! You cannot be?
DUVAL: And if I were not Lancelot, how would I know the things that I do?
ARTHUR: You are not Lancelot!
* * *
DUVAL: To make amends, I can promise you this: I will be declaring the activities of you and all close to you off-limits to the Society until further notice.
* * *
DUVAL: We all act, and we all bear the responsibilities for our actions.
~~~Iris, Lily, and Rose Part Two~~~
* * * * *
THE ILLUMINATI SOCIETYíS HEADQUARTERS: LOCATION UNKNOWN.
"So is there any further business for us to attend to, gentlemen?" asked Mr. Duval.
A man halfway down the table to the right nodded. "There is one matter, sir," he said. He produced a small tape recorder and placed it on the table. "This is a message that our intelligence service discovered while tapping Sir Nigel Seftonís phone. The call was made only last night. I think that youíll all find it most interesting."
He pushed the "Play" button. A young girlís voice promptly sounded from the recorder.
"Yes, father, itís true. King Arthur and I are off on a quest for the Holy Grail."
"The Holy Grail?" It was a manís voice, sounding incredulous. "Mary, youíre not serious?"
"I really am, father," the girl replied. "Weíre going to look for it. Heís even named me his squire." There was a strong tone of eagerness and even pride in her voice as she uttered the last sentence.
"His squire?" said Sir Nigel. "For goodnessí sake, Mary, this is the 20th century, not the 12th! What are you going to be doing next? Hunting for dragons to slay?"
"Iím not joking, father," said the girl. "Itís true. Arthur believes that the Holy Grail is still around, and weíre going in quest of it."
"In quest of the Holy Grail," repeated Sir Nigel, speaking the words slowly as though he was pondering every single one. "Well, I still say that this enterprise of his sounds utterly daft, but - well, you will be safe on it?"
"Donít worry about that, father," Mary answered. "King Arthur will be looking after me."
"He had better," said Nigel sharply. He was silent for a moment, then added, "Very well, then. But keep close by him, and don't take any foolish risks. And I expect to hear from you regularly, too."
"Oh, I will, father," said Maryís voice. "I promise."
The Illuminatus switched off the tape recorder, and spoke to the rest of the table. "And there you have it," he said. "Arthur Pennington, or King Arthur, whichever you prefer, is embarking upon a quest for the Holy Grail, with Sir Nigel's daughter, at least, accompanying him."
"Thank you, Balfour," said Mr. Duval, nodding. He had a slight, perturbed frown upon his face as he spoke, and his brow was creased in thought. "Well done."
"So Arthur Pennington is actually seeking the Holy Grail," said William Powell, across the table. "Gentlemen, I donít need to explain to you what that means."
"But does he really expect to find it?" asked Senator Blackwater. "I mean, I would have thought that the Holy Grail was nothing more than a legend."
"People have said the same thing about a great many other things that we know to be true, Senator," replied Powell good-naturedly. "The Fair Folk, for example. Or gargoyles, before the ĎHunterís Mooní incident in 1996. Not to mention this very Society. No, I would say that itís more than likely that the Grail really does exist, as well."
"It does indeed," said Duval, speaking softly, more to himself than to the other Illuminati, yet loud enough for them to overhear him. "But why would he seek after it? He did not embark upon the Quest the first time. All the accounts agree on that," he added quickly. "Sir Thomas Malory was most clear on that matter."
"A quest for the Holy Grail," said an Illuminatus, seated near the end of the table. "Do you realize the implications of this? The Grail must still exist. And if it does, then we would be able to claim it!"
"Exactly," said Powell, nodding. "Think of it, gentlemen. If the stories about it are true, the Holy Grail can cure any illness, restore youth to the aged, even bestow immortality. Just imagine what a boon that that would be for us."
There was much enthusiastic murmuring, particularly from among the senior members. "These rejuvenation drugs are all very well," one of them was saying, "and I donít want to sound ungrateful for them or anything like that, but even they have their limits. With the Grail itíd be a different story."
"Yes, yes," said another. "So what are we waiting for? We should find the Grail and bring it back here!"
Several voices cried assent at once; indeed, almost everyone seated at the table was eagerly supporting the proposal now. The chief exception was Mr. Duval himself, who sat watching them in silence.
"The self-proclaimed movers and shakers of the world," he murmured to himself, in too low a voice for them to overhear him, "and they donít even comprehend what they are speaking about. If they had only seen what I had seen, all those centuries ago...."
* * * * *
SOMEWHERE IN BRITAIN - THE EARLY 6TH CENTURY A.D.
Sir Lancelot du Lac, son of King Ban of Benwick, foremost knight of the Round Table, stood in the prow of the mysterious ship, gazing ahead at the shore as it drew nearer. Already, he could make out the shape of the magnificent castle that was coming into view, looming up in the night. Its towers and turrets soared upwards, lit with a silvery glow that did not come from the moon nor the stars. He knew in his heart that it could only be one thing.
"Carbonek," he murmured to himself. "The Castle of the Holy Grail. I have found it at last."
For him, the Quest of the Holy Grail had been a nightmare. He had undergone one humiliation after another ever since he had left Camelot. He had been unhorsed in battle more than once, a fate that he had never undergone prior to this quest in all his life. His helmet and sword and horse had been stolen from him while he slept, and he had regained them only to have his horse slain from under him by a knight in black armor at a ford. He had fought in a tournament, and there had actually lost and been taken prisoner, another fate that he had never experienced before. And after every misfortune, he had regularly encountered a holy hermit who, each time, had lectured him, with much eloquence, as to the reason for these misfortunes: his sinful love for Queen Guinevere, which, this succession of hermits had said, had barred him from the Grail.
He had long since given up any real expectation of achieving the quest, for he knew that their words were true, and knew also that, despite this, he would never forswear his love for the queen. Indeed, he had considered turning about and going back to Camelot, rather than continue any further on a quest that he knew now was not for him. But something had always held him back from so doing. It had been as though he had something yet to do before the quest would be over for him, although he as yet had no idea as to what that might be.
But now, the mysterious ship that he had found and boarded some days ago, a ship without any crew, that sailed about of its own accord, had brought him to this lonely but awe-inspiring castle. He stood in silence, watching as the boat reached the shore and came aground. The gangplank lowered by itself, touching upon a short path that led from the shore straight to the castleís water-gate. He recognized this as a sign, and walked down the gangplank onto dry ground. The gate was only a short distance away.
Despite the lateness of the hour - for it was, by the positions of the stars and of the moon, midnight - the great oaken doors were open, and the portcullis raised, granting free access to the courtyard within. But as he drew closer, he saw that the entrance was not unguarded. Two great lions sat by the gates, one to the right and one to the left. Both were awake, and both watched him with great unblinking eyes as he approached the portal.
Lancelot did not hesitate. He drew his sword at once, so swiftly that it was almost by instinct, and held it out before him, then advanced upon the gates. He had scarcely taken three steps, however, when a bolt of lightning shot down from the heavens, and struck the sword out of his hand. It went spinning over his shoulder, to embed itself in the path behind him. At the same time, a voice rang out from thin air, addressing him reprovingly.
"Put up thy sword, fool!" it said. "For in this place, and against these beasts, earthly arms will avail thee naught, but only thy faith!"
Lancelot bowed his head penitently at once. "Forgive my folly," he said in a low voice. "And I thank you for rebuking me for it. I will do as you command me." And with those words, he retrieved his sword, and returned it to its scabbard. Then, without making any attempt to draw it again, he strode forward, past the lions. The two great beasts growled at him, but remained where they were, making no attack upon them. And so he passed between them and through the gate, and entered the castle itself.
The courtyard was empty, devoid of any signs of life. Perhaps that should not have been so strange, Lancelot reflected, for at this late hour, the household should all have retired to bed. But there were not even any sentries making their rounds upon the battlements, to serve as a night watch. Nor was there the familiar smell that clings to a castle courtyard when inhabited, a smell that betokens not only people, but horses and hawks and hounds as well. It was as if, apart from the lions, there was nobody in this place except for himself. Yet he felt no surprise at that. If this was indeed Carbonek, then it was what he would have expected. Quietly he proceeded across the yard to the keep, mounting its steps, and opening the door that led inside. He entered the great hall.
The hall was as devoid of life as the courtyard had been. In the great halls of other castles, including Camelot itself, or his own stronghold of Joyous Garde, there would have been people sleeping here at night, the servants and minor knights upon their pallets, slumbering on the rush-strewn floor, and a number of dogs to boot. But there was no trace of them here. Rich tapestries hung upon the walls, and banners embroidered with heraldic charges and blazons from the rafters, but he was the only one here to behold them. A few torches burned in cressets mounted upon the stone pillars in the hall, to provide light, but their illumination made it clear that he was alone in this place.
He paused before the dais, wondering what to do, when he heard a faint sound coming from the hallway to the right. He turned at once, and proceeded down the corridor in its direction. As he continued on his way, the sound grew clearer, and soon he realized that it was singing, of the sort that one heard in the choir of a church or chapel during a service. His heart quickened as he walked in the direction of the singing, for he could easily guess what the significance of it might be.
He reached the end of the corridor, and there before him was the entrance to what must be the castle chapel. The door was open, and Lancelot could see inside. It was furnished much like any other chapel, with pews and altar and stained-glass windows depicting tales from the Holy Scriptures, but its furnishings the knight barely paid heed to. For his eyes were drawn to what stood before the altar. It was a three-legged table, wrought all of silver, and upon it sat an object covered with a veil of samite. He could not make out its shape clearly, but it strongly resembled a cup or chalice, and from beneath its covering, a great light shone, that illuminated the chapel. The singing came from all around it, although Lancelot could see no choir, nor anyone else who might have produced the voices.
The Holy Grail! This could only be it, the object of his quest! Eagerly, Lancelot rushed towards the chapel. He was almost at the threshold, when the same voice that he had heard at the gates now spoke to him again. "Sir Lancelot!" it cried. "Enter this place not, for it is forbidden thee! And if thou shalt enter, thou shalt verily repent it!"
But Lancelot barely heeded the words. His eagerness for the Grail was too great for that. He stepped over the threshold - and at once, was struck full face by a blast of white light and what appeared to be fiery wind. The impact hurled him back out of the chamber, and into the corridor. He struck his head against the stone floor, and blackness descended.
* * * * *
When he had come to, he had found himself lying out in the open, with no sign of the castle anywhere about. It was then that he had realized that his quest was over, and that he would not achieve the Holy Grail. With a heavy heart, he had returned to Camelot, to tell the story of his failure before King Arthur and his court - and Queen Guinevere.
He had not been alone; nearly all of the knights of the Round Table had done no better, and most of them had done worse - they had not even reached Carbonek at all. Sir Gawain was among them, as well as his own half-brother Sir Ector de Maris and his cousin Sir Lionel. More than half of the knights, however, had not even returned from the quest, having perished in the course of it. And of the three knights who did achieve the Holy Grail, only one of them, his cousin Bors, would return to tell the tale. The other two, Percival and his own son Galahad, were gone forever. The quest had come with a heavy price.
He was jolted from his memories by the sound of his fellow Illuminati in the middle of some heated argument. Clearly it must have developed while he was reminiscing. A fine leader Iíve proven myself to be, he thought ruefully, when I allow myself to become lost in such reveries during our councils. He listened closely, to see exactly what it was that his followers were discussing.
"The one thing about all of this that is certain," Powell was saying, "is that we will need to do something about Arthur Pennington. We cannot afford the possibility that he will find the Grail before we do, and claim it. We have to remove him from the running, so that we can carry out our own expedition in search of the Grail without having him for a rival."
"I agree with you, Powell," said Senator Blackwater. "So what do you propose? A kidnapping, or an Ďaccidental deathí?"
"Preferably a kidnapping," said Powell. "After all, the information that he has on the Holy Grail could prove valuable for us, when we begin our search for it. Weíd be fools not to wrest it from him. And Pennington could use a relaxing holiday at the Hotel Cabal."
"And his companions?" asked another Illuminatus, near the foot of the table. "What about them, Powell?"
"Well, he'll most likely have at least that griffon-like gargoyle who's accompanied him before," said Powell. "He'd certainly be of use to us. As for Miss Sefton, weíll want to tread more carefully with her; her father, after all, is a colleague of mine. But there would be certain advantages to having Sir Nigel Seftonís daughter in our custody for a while. Nigel and I have had a few disagreements on certain issues in Parliament lately, and it would certainly be much to the Societyís advantage if he had a motive for being more cooperative with our goals."
"Gentlemen," said another Illuminatus, seated a couple of chairs to Duvalís right. Duval recognized him as Andrew Singleton, the man whom, he recalled, they had appointed as handler to that New York detective Bluestone, the one who was so utterly bent on finding out all that he could about the Society, during his recent visit to Washington, D.C. "Should we not let Mr. Duval have a say in this matter? After all, he is the head of this Society."
Duval took the opportunity to speak, mentally thanking Singleton for his words. "Very true," he said. "Now, as far as the abduction proposal is concerned, I rule against it. It is unnecessary, not when there are more civilized methods of dealing with Arthur Pennington as a potential rival to us in this enterprise."
"And just what are you proposing, sir?" asked Powell.
"Iíve met with Pennington recently," said Duval. "I can do so again. We donít know why he is seeking the Holy Grail, and it is entirely possible that his goals are not incompatible with ours. If that is the case, he might well be amenable to the offer of an alliance, as partners. We could work alongside him, seek the Grail together. That will certainly be much less troublesome for us than moving against him. Certainly, based on what we have learned concerning him so far, I would prefer to have him for an ally rather than an enemy."
"And if he refuses?" asked Powell.
"We will deal with that eventuality if and when it happens," said Duval. "In the meantime, there will be no abduction or assassination attempts. Remember, my orders relating to Arthur Pennington still stand. He and his friends are not to be harmed, endangered, or disturbed in any manner, until I say otherwise. They are still under my aegis, and there they will remain until I revoke my decree."
Powell appeared about to protest, but Singleton spoke up first. "I agree with Mr. Duvalís proposal," he said. "The alliance certainly strikes me as a more profitable route for us. A willing partner is certainly going to be much more cooperative, and it will require less expense on our part."
Powell sat back in his chair, a resigned expression upon his face. "Very well, then," he said. "We will put your way to the test first, Mr. Duval. So how do we arrange this meeting with Arthur Pennington?"
"We do not," said Duval. "I will be meeting with him on my own." Before anybody at the table could protest, he continued, "Mr. Pennington so far has no good reason to trust us, not in view of the fact that our past dealings with him have been anything but harmonious. We do not wish to awaken certain unpleasant memories that might prejudice him against our offer. But I may be able to convince him that we are on the same side - and I have better hopes of doing so if I meet him in private, unaccompanied by any other members of the Society."
"And where exactly do you intend to meet with him?" asked Senator Blackwater.
Duval turned back to Balfour. "Did your wire-tapping reveal any information on where Pennington intends to begin his search for the Holy Grail?" he asked.
Balfour nodded. "Yes, sir," he said. "It was in the final piece of conversation on our tape."
"Then play it for us," said Duval.
Balfour nodded, and switched the tape recorder back to "Play". "So where are you and Arthur Pennington headed first, Mary?" Sir Nigelís voice inquired. "Have you decided on that?"
"Yes, father," she replied. "We're going to-"
* * * * *
"So this is where our quest begins," said Griff. He stood beside Arthur, Merlin, and Mary as they looked at the sleeping town, some ways off in the distance. The great mass of Glastonbury Tor loomed to their right, beyond the apple orchard that grew behind the fence that the foursome were standing by.
Arthur nodded. "It seemed the most appropriate place to start," he said. "According to the old tales - and they were ancient even in my day - it was here that Joseph of Arimathea came, when he first brought the Holy Grail to Britain."
"Do you really expect to find the Grail here, then?" asked Griff.
"I do not know," said Arthur. "The same tales said that Joseph did not keep the Grail here for long, but that it was taken elsewhere. So I doubt that we will actually discover it in this place. But even if we do not, it is more than likely that we will learn much that may help us upon our quest, some valuable clue to guide us on our travelling."
"Assuming that there are any genuine traditions left here, after all the centuries of mythmaking," commented Merlin, a shade cynically. "Not to mention all the touristy folderol that must have gotten overlaid more recently."
"There is that, true," said Arthur. "I certainly saw some of that at Tintagel when I was there a few years ago. But I am hoping that it will be different in our case."
"Well, shouldnít we be looking for a place to stay, first?" asked Mary. "I mean, Griff and I wonít be able to tour the town in the daytime, and weíll need some quiet place to hide away during that time."
"That has already been taken care of, fortunately," said Arthur. "Leba sent me a message about having found a lodging-place near the Tor. Itís a guest-house which is currently empty and whose owners donít ask too many questions. She gave us directions to it, as well. We should go there now and meet with Leba and the others - who should certainly be there by now."
"Good idea," said Merlin. "Actually, though, Arthur, I was wondering - as Mary was pointing out a moment ago, she wonít really have the opportunity to do that much sightseeing tomorrow. And so I thought that maybe I could show her about a little tonight first. We obviously wonít be able to see that much, given that everything should be shut up by now, but itíll at least give her something of an outing."
"And youíre certain that you two will be safe?" asked Arthur, looking closely at his wizardly advisor and his new squire, a cautious look upon his face.
"Weíll be fine, Arthur," said Merlin. "Iím not completely useless yet, after all."
"And Iím certainly not helpless myself," agreed Mary. "Iíll see to it that he doesnít get into any trouble."
"Well, very well, then," said Arthur. "But donít wander about too long. Here are the directions that Leba provided." He handed Merlin a small note on a piece of paper. "Join us there once youíre done."
"Will do," replied Merlin, nodding. And with that, he and Mary strolled off together down the lane. Griff watched them go, then turned to Arthur, and asked, "Youíre certain that itís safe for them to do it?"
Arthur nodded. "Mary has proven herself to be capable enough in perilous situations at Eynhallow. And in any case, I doubt that they are in any grave danger. What could possibly be lurking about in Glastonbury to prove a threat to them, anyway?"
* * *
The shadowy form watched from its vantage point in the trees close by, as the two young humans parted from the older human and the gargoyle. It smiled in silent approval. It would want the boy apart from his two elders, for what was to come next. Making barely a sound, it followed them stealthily from one tree to the next, as they walked along down the country lane.
* * *
"Thatís Glastonbury Tor up there," said Merlin, pointing at the hill to Mary. "Iíve only been there once or twice, but itís quite an atmospheric place. A few centuries ago, people actually believed that the Tor was hollow, and that the Fair Folk held court within it. In fact, thereís an old tale about a hermit named Collen -"
Mary shushed him in mid-sentence. "Did you hear that?" she asked, pricking up her ears.
"Hear what?" Merlin asked.
"Somethingís moving in those trees," said the girl, frowning thoughtfully. "I could hear it rustling just now."
"And youíre sure itís not an owl out mousing?" he inquired. "Or some other bird settling down for the night?"
"It didnít sound like a bird," she replied. "I donít know how to describe it, but it sounded as if a person was jumping from one tree to another."
Merlin looked up at the trees. "Well, whoeverís doing it must be very stealthy, since so far, I havenít heard anything," he said. "But if your ears didnít deceive you, then -". He glanced back the way that they had come, but Arthur and Griff were already out of sight. "All of a sudden, Iím starting to wonder if maybe this wasnít the right time for a little exploratory stroll after all," he said.
"There it is again," said Mary, turning to face the apple tree just beside them. Something was moving within its foliage, something human-sized by the sound of it. The two youngsters stepped back cautiously, both tensing. And then, the cause of the noise sprang down from the tree, landing before them. It was a humanoid figure, but with wings.
For one brief second, Merlin wondered whether the figure was Griff, come back to fetch them, but then he saw at once that it was not. It was more humanoid in shape, its wings were batlike rather than feathered, and finally, its outlines were far too feminine to be the familiar griffon-gargoyle knight. In another moment, he realized just what they were facing.
"Demona!" he gasped. He had only seen the red-haired female gargoyle twice, once during his visit to Castle Wyvern in the guise of a wandering minstrel over a thousand years ago, and once when she had slain his father at the Conservatory Garden in New York City in May, but he had heard enough about her to know the danger that she posed. He began moving backwards, clutching Maryís hand tightly in his.
"The gargoyle that we saw at Eynhallow?" she asked him, though it was clear enough from the look on her face that she already knew the answer to that question.
"Iím afraid so," said Merlin. "And thatís reason enough for us to get out of here."
"No!" said the female gargoyle to them sharply. "Do not run, either of you!" She managed to gain control of her voice, and proceeded to address them in a softer, more gentle tone. "I come in peace, Merlin. I mean you no harm at all. I wish to have words with you."
Merlin halted, looking at her cautiously. "I understand that itís not like you to seek out humans peaceably," he said. "Not in light of the reputation that youíve earned over the centuries." He paused, suddenly, and looked at her closely. "How did you recognize me? After all, weíve never properly met before."
"I saw you in the Conservatory Gardens in New York in May," Demona replied. "And I overheard enough to know who you truly are. It seems that you have rejuvenated yourself over the centuries."
Merlin nodded, a trifle stiffly. "So what do you want from me?" he asked her.
Demona paused, a mildly uncomfortable look upon her face; evidently, she had no particular enthusiasm for whatever had brought her here. At last, she spoke. "I need your help, Merlin."
"My help?" asked Merlin, looking astonished. "Itís definitely not like you to go around asking humans for help."
"Youíre not a human," she retorted. "Or not fully, anyway. And even if you were - I may have no love for the entire wretched species, but there are times when I must nevertheless seek aid from it. There are so few of my kind left, and most of them have grown weak and soft, with little to offer me; they certainly lack the will to help me. Your race has the ascendancy now; you possess the wealth and power that I need in my allies, even if you gained it all by murder and usurpation." Her eyes flickered crimson for a moment, but she calmed herself down, and continued, in more level tones. "So I must turn to you for help."
"And just what do you want from me?" Merlin asked. "You should know, Demona, that if this is another one of your schemes to destroy humanity, then itís perfectly obvious that I wonít participate in that willingly."
"This has nothing to do with the humans," said Demona. "It concerns another gargoyle. A treacherous and deceitful gargoyle named Thailog. He stole my company, and drove me out of New York. I want your help in taking back what is rightfully mine from that monster."
"So why are you asking me?" Merlin asked. "Wouldnít it be more appropriate to look up Goliath and his clan for help? I mean, Iím sure that Angela would be willing to lend you a hand here."
"Thailog has already prevented them from helping me," she replied. "How else do you think he was able to depose me? I cannot seek help from them, nor from Xanatos; Thailog knows his ways all too well, especially since Xanatos was his teacher. I need for an ally someone whom Thailog has no experience with, someone whose tactics he has not familiarized himself with. And it must be someone who has much to offer me in his own right. Which is why I have chosen you. I know your reputation, Merlin. Your skill at magic is greater than any other human that this world has ever known, even greater than that of the Archmage. With you by my side, I can overthrow Thailog and win back what is rightfully mine.
"Come with me to New York, Merlin. Together, we can topple Thailog, and from there, who knows what else we can accomplish?"
Merlin shook his head. "Iím sorry, Demona," he said. "But thatís quite out of the question."
"Are you rejecting my proposal?" Demona asked him sharply. "Have you forgotten how I saved your life in the Conservatory Gardens? If it wasnít for me, Lord Madoc Morfryn would have blasted you to dust there."
"True," said Merlin. "But I doubt that you were that concerned about my fate at the time. You struck me as being far more concerned that he was also about to kill your daughter. If she hadnít been in danger as well, youíd probably have looked the other way."
"So, your being in my debt does not move you," said Demona, frowning. "What do I have to offer you, then, to get you to change your mind?"
"Nothing," replied Merlin. "My place is with Arthur, and that is where I am staying. You wonít be able to lure me away from him."
"Oh, I see," said Demona, nodding. "Your loyalty to your precious ĎOnce and Future Kingí, is that it? Merlin, are you not tired of constantly being in Arthurís shadow? With your vaunted magic, you could be a king yourself if you chose; why do you settle for raising someone else to the throne and letting him enjoy all the power that comes with it, while you remain in the background? You could be a force to be reckoned with in your own right, not merely a lackey to your pupil."
"Iím hardly Arthurís lackey," replied Merlin, "and Iím perfectly content to serve him. Youíll need a better temptation than that, Demona. Not to mention that Iíd be no use to you anyway, even if I was willing to come. For one thing, being in an adolescent body has played havoc with my magic; it could be years before Iím able to properly assist you on a large scale."
"Iím willing to wait that long, if I must," said Demona. "After a thousand years of life, I am used to waiting. And in a few yearsí time, you should be a proper ally for me."
"Itís not going to happen," said Merlin grimly. "Especially since I donít even know if Iím going to be around a few years from now."
"And just what do you mean by that?" Demona asked him.
Merlin swallowed hard in alarm, realizing suddenly that heíd said too much. He glanced nervously at Mary, who had been silently observing the entire conversation; she looked back at him troubledly, but did not speak. At last, with a sigh, he answered her question.
"Iíve been poisoned," he said. "Iím dying now, and thereís nothing that can be done to save me. In only a yearís time, Iíll be dead. So that will definitely make me useless to you."
"Indeed?" asked Demona, staring at him fascinatedly. "Well, now, this is interesting. That certainly changes the situation."
"So youíll withdraw your offer?" Merlin asked her.
"On the contrary," she replied. "It seems that I now have something to offer you. The possibility of saving your life."
"Thatís absurd," he said. "You canít save my life. Itís beyond your power."
"I hardly think so," Demona said, shaking her head. "I have certain resources still, which can undo even the most potent of poisons. The elf-shot wound that your father dealt that detective in New York was also incurable, but I have the very talisman in my keeping that was able to save her life. I could use the Bloodstone upon you, just as I did to her."
"Thanks, but I doubt that even it can cure this particular poison," Merlin answered. "Weíve already discovered that itís been strengthened to such an extent that no magic nor medical science can stop it."
"There are still other ways," said Demona, hardly sounding concerned. "Loopholes to make use of. I can simply extract a sample of your DNA, and have a skilled geneticist clone you, then transfer your consciousness and brain-wave patterns into your cloned body. That would grant you a new lease of life."
"I doubt that it would work," said Merlin, though he hesitated before speaking. "Something would most likely simply go wrong with that one too."
Demona was about to reply to that, when Mary broke in. "Youíre wasting your time with Merlin, anyway," she said. "Thereís only one thing that can cure him; we already know that. And itís the Holy Grail. Weíre currently on a quest for it, and we will find it. So we donít need your help."
"You are extremely bold to interrupt me," said Demona sharply, turning to stare Mary straight in the eye, her own eyes briefly glowing red again. "Be fortunate that Iím here in peace, or Iíd deal with you properly, brat of a human!"
Merlin stepped a trifle closer to Mary, in a defensive position, although the girl displayed not even a hint of fear in her eyes. "What Mary says is the truth," he replied. "The Grail is the one hope that we have left, and that is why we are seeking it. As long as thereís some possibility of finding it, thereís no need for me to consider your proposals, helpful though they might be."
"Oh, indeed?" Demona asked. "I have not studied the Holy Grail much - I have little time for the religious relics of your pathetic race, after all - but I have heard a few things. King Arthurís knights went in quest of the Grail long ago, and most of them never found it. Indeed, less than half of them ever returned from that particular quest; most of them perished in the course of it. How do you know that the same fate will not befall those who seek the Grail today, as well? Are you willing to have your kingís followers meet their deaths trying to save you? Especially since the girl there appears to be one of them," she added, pointing at Mary. "What if the price for your life was hers? Embark upon that quest, and it very likely will be."
Merlin stared at her, as silent as if he had suddenly been struck dumb, a look of horror springing in his widened eyes. He turned to Mary, and trembled as he gazed at her, still not saying even a word, but clutching her hand tighter.
"Donít listen to her, Merlin," said Mary, sounding not the least bit fazed. "Sheís just playing games, trying to lure you into working with her. Weíve gotten through dangers before, and we always survived. Why should it be any different this time?"
"Itís the Holy Grail, Mary," Merlin answered. "That makes a considerable difference."
"If you continue upon this quest with your friends," Demona continued calmly, but with a hint of a gleeful smile upon her face as she saw the look of fear in his eyes, "then it very likely will mean your doom. But I can offer you a different path, one that will save your life without endangering your companions at all. Thereís no reason to go chasing after phantom cups, Merlin, when I can offer you a more concrete solution. What do you say?"
Merlin hesitated for a minute, looking back and forth between Demona and a still defiant-looking Mary. At last, he spoke.
"I canít make the decision tonight," he said. "Not just yet. I need some time."
"Very well, then," said Demona. "I will give you twenty-four hours to make up your mind. I cannot remain in this town much longer than that; I must be on my way shortly. Come back here when the time is up, and present me with your choice. But I warn you, I will not offer you this choice again. Is that clear?"
Merlin nodded slowly. "Youíve made yourself clear," he said. "Very well, then. Iíll be back here tomorrow evening."
She nodded. "I will await your answer," she said. And with that, she leaped up onto one of the branches of the apple tree close by, and launched herself from it off into the night. Merlin and Mary stood together, side by side, watching her glide off into the distance. Neither one said a word.
* * * * *
"Youíre certain that this is the right way, Arthur?" Griff asked. The two of them were walking towards a small cottage, nestled beneath the Tor itself.
Arthur nodded. "It matches the description and the directions that Leba gave me," he said. "Therefore I would conclude that it is. Of course," he added, with a slight smile, "you might want to hang back until we know for certain who is there. If somebody other than our friends is within the cottage, the sight of you could raise some awkward questions."
"I can imagine," said Griff, nodding. He quietly stood behind a tree while Arthur came forward and knocked on the cottage door.
The door opened at once, and Leba stepped out. "Arthur!" she cried eagerly. "You made it!"
"Greetings, Leba," Arthur answered, with a smile. "Is it safe for Griff to join us?"
"Rory, Dulci, and I are the only people here," said Leba. "The man whom we rented the cottage from left town this morning, and wonít be back until the night after tomorrow. We have the place to ourselves."
"I am glad to hear that," said Arthur. He signalled to Griff, who emerged from his hiding-place, and followed the Once and Future King inside.
Rory and Dulcinea were in the living room, just finishing getting a fire going in the fireplace. They turned around at once as Arthur and Griff entered. "Welcome to Glastonbury, Your Highness," said Dulcinea cheerfully. "The accomodations may not be quite as palatial as those that Camelot enjoyed, but we hope that you approve of them."
"Indeed I do," said Arthur. "I must commend you, Leba, for providing us with this sleeping-place. I hope that this bodes well for the journeys that lie before us."
"I hope so as well," said Leba. "So where are Merlin and Mary?"
"Still engaged in a bit of exploring," Arthur replied. "They should be joining us before too long."
"And youíre certain that theyíre not in any danger?" asked Rory. "I mean, these days, Merlin may not be quite up to defendiní himself if thereís trouble."
"He has Mary with him," said Arthur. "The girl has proven herself to be most resourceful and brave at Eynhallow."
"Yes, you mentioned that youíd made her your squire," said Dulcinea. "I must admit, I never expected to see her gain any official position in our ranks. I always assumed that sheíd forever be the outsider among us."
"Yes, that surprised me as well," said Arthur, nodding. "She has certainly changed since we first met her at Rivencroft."
"And I take it that you donít mean her regular Ďgirl-to-wolf-and-backí metamorphosis, either," said Leba. "Well, in the meantime, we should be able to start on our investigation in the morning."
Arthur nodded. "I hope that it will prove fruitful," he said.
"We may not even have to leave the house for it," commented Dulcinea, looking at the bookshelves. "The regular owner of this place does seem to take a certain interest in the local legends. Thereís quite a sizable collection here of books about Glastonbury and the traditions concerning it. Even several about you."
Leba nodded. "I noticed that as well," she said. "Itís a pity that we couldnít tell him about who you really were, Arthur. That would definitely have interested in him."
"Iím grateful that you didnít," said Arthur. "I would prefer some respite from the attention that Iíve received lately. I suppose that it hasnít died down yet."
"Well, the media attention has quieted down some," said Leba. "Regina Fitzwalter and the rest must have figured out that they could only run the ĎWho is Arthur Pennington, Really?í stories so long before their audiences got tired of them, and have moved on for the moment to more current topics. The usual mix of whatís going on in Parliament, gossip about the Royal Family and celebrities, that sort of thing. Though I still wouldnít go about dueling people in public with Excalibur just yet, if I were you."
"Well, that certainly comes as a relief," said Arthur. He looked over the bookcase and at last took down from it one of the books that Dulcinea had pointed out to him, then took it over to an armchair, where he settled down to look it over. After reading a few pages from it, he shook his head in amused disbelief. "Where do these people get some of their ideas?" he said.
There was a sudden knock at the door. Rory went to it to answer it. He swung it open, to find Merlin and Mary standing on the doorstep.
"Ah, good, youíre both here," said the Irish knight. "Come in, both of you. You donít want to be lettiní too much of the cold in."
"Thank you, Mr. Dugan," said Mary, as she stepped over the threshold. Merlin nodded silently, without saying a word. Rory closed the door behind them.
"Welcome to Glastonbury, both of you," said Leba. "And congratulations on your appointment, Mary. Arthur told us about it."
"Thank you, Leba," said the girl, nodding. "So I suppose that that makes me a bit less of a stranger in the group now, does it?"
"Quite likely," said Dulcinea. "We really should have planned some sort of Ďwelcome aboardí ceremony for you, too. Maybe we can arrange one later."
"So how was your little tour?" asked Griff. "Did it go well?"
"I suppose so," said Mary. "Itís a pity that I wonít get to see more of the town tomorrow. I suppose that I can catch up on my sleeping, though, while most of you are out."
"So how are you feeling, Merlin?" asked Leba, turning to the boy. "Better now?"
"For the moment, yes," said Merlin, after a pause. He sat down in an armchair close to the fireplace, without saying another word, and stared into the depths of the fire.
"Heís in a cheerful mood, isnít he?" asked Griff, staring at him. Everyone else was doing the same. "I wonder what got into him?"
"I do not know," said Arthur. "But in light of his present concerns, perhaps we should not be so surprised at him."
"Well, I believe that you should get some sleep now, Merlin," said Leba. "Youíll need a proper nightís rest for touring Glastonbury tomorrow."
"Yes, I suppose so," said Merlin, sighing. He did not immediately move from his seat, however. Instead, he continued staring into the fire, in utter silence. In the end, Rory and Arthur had to nudge him upstairs to bed.
* * * * *
"Even if we donít find anything to guide us to the Grail here, Arthur, you should certainly find this place worth visiting," said Leba, as she, Arthur, and Merlin stood in the queue in front of the ticket office, the following morning. Only the three of them had gone out exploring the town; Griff was in his stone sleep back in the cottage, Mary napping in her wolf-form, and Rory and Dulcinea were watching over both of them.
"So I have heard," said Arthur. "I must admit, I still feel surprised by how much this place has changed. In my day, it was mostly marshland. The part that most astounds me, still, is how so many people ever developed the notion that this place and Avalon are one and the same. There is a certain resemblance in places, but still - ."
"Thatís not all of it," the minstrel replied. "Just wait until you see your grave."
"I am not entirely certain," said Arthur, with a slight smile, "that I wish to. But - I might as well. What do you think, Merlin?"
"Hmmm?" asked the youth, looking up at them. "Sorry, Iím afraid that I got a little distracted." He went back to staring at the ground again, returning to his brooding silence.
Arthur and Leba looked concernedly at him, then turned to each other. "So do you have any idea whatís eating at him?" she asked.
Arthur shook his head. "Heís been like that since he woke up," he said. "So far, I canít learn the reason for it. I hope that he shares it with us soon."
Leba nodded. "Does it have anything to do with Eynhallow, do you suppose?" she asked him. "I understand that he had some fairly trying experiences there."
"We all did," answered Arthur. "But this only began after he returned from his walk with Mary last night. Something must have happened to him on it. The question is what it was."
* * *
Merlin sighed as he listened to them talking about him. A part of him wanted to share the encounter that he had had with Demona the night before, tell them about her offer, and ask them for counsel, even if it did feel odd for him to be the one to be taking advice from Arthur. But another part of him felt that he shouldnít disturb them with her words. They had problems enough as it was, after all. He had the uneasy suspicion that this was something that he would need to resolve on his own.
He had passed an uneasy night, mulling over her words to him. He doubted that the means that she had offered him to escape Morganaís poison would actually work; if even Oberon could not cure it, how could the Bloodstone or cloning help? And he certainly felt no eagerness to become her ally; it might be against this Thailog person now (and from what he could tell, Thailog was certainly not a gargoyle of the same cut as Goliath and his clan, or Griff), but what would happen if she decided, after that, to return to her old ways of scheming to wipe out humanity? Angela had indicated to him, in their past conversations, that her mother was putting those days behind her, but what if she had been mistaken? So it would have been, under normal circumstances, easy enough to simply refuse to work with her. Except for one thing that she had said to him.
She was correct about one thing; the original Quest of the Holy Grail had decimated the Round Table. So many knights had perished during it, through one misfortune or another, that by the time it was over, the order was only a shadow of its former self. It had taken years for Arthur to bring the roster up again to anywhere near its full number - and even then, the death of Galahad on the quest had ensured that the Siege Perilous would never be occupied again and that the Round Table would never again reach its full number of a hundred and fifty knights. Arthur did not even have that many to spare this time around. And surely seeking the Grail had not grown less dangerous in more recent centuries. What if they were facing the same fate that the original knights had met?
Those thoughts had been enough, in fact, to give him nightmares when he did fall asleep. One horrifying vision had displayed itself after another, as he watched helplessly, unable to intervene. He had seen Arthurís knights pitted against monsters the likes of which he had never beheld, creatures that would be able to slaughter every last one of them. He had seen a host of warriors descending on Arthur, surrounding him on all sides, but then they had changed to an angry mob, and it was Mary whom they were attacking rather than Arthur. He saw Arthur a prisoner, strapped to a bed and being interrogated by a man whose face was veiled in shadow. He saw Mary again, weeping as a sword descended towards her throat, a sword that he ought to have recognized but which he had been unable to identify in the dream. He had seen Arthur caught at the edge of a chasm that had opened in the ground, about to topple in. How it was that those sights had not caused him to wake up screaming, he could not tell.
He had tried to tell himself that they were only dreams, but nevertheless, he knew in his heart that that fact did not change matters. Arthur and Maryís lives would be in jeopardy if they embarked upon the Grail Quest. What if they did perish upon it? And if the only means of saving them was to make a pact with Demona - .
"I wish that there was another way," he murmured to himself. "I really wish that there was."
* * *
"Here it is," said Leba, pointing to the sign. It stood within a rectangular outline of bricks upon the ground, in the middle of the ruined abbey. "Your grave."
Arthur looked at the sign and read the writing on it aloud. " ĎSite of King Arthurís Tomb. In the year 1191 the bodies of King Arthur and his Queen were said to have been found on the south side of the Lady Chapel. On 19th April 1278 their remains were removed in the presence of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor to a black marble tomb on this site. This tomb survived until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539.í"
"Most curious, donít you agree?" asked Leba, with a slight smile.
Arthur nodded. "I agree," he said. "It certainly feels strange to be looking at it. So they claimed to have found both my remains and Guinevereís?"
Leba nodded. "Thatís how the story goes. They even say that there was still a lock of Guinevereís hair left when they dug up the bodies, but that it turned to dust when one of the monks touched it. I wonder if it really was hers."
"We will probably never know," said Arthur. "She might have been laid to rest here, after she died. Even in my time, Glastonbury had gained a reputation for holiness; there was a monastery here, although these ruins clearly date from a time many centuries later. But the identity of the man whose bones they uncovered still remains a mystery."
"Indeed it does," said a voice from behind them. "Iíve wondered about it myself from time to time."
Arthur turned around, and stared at the man who had walked up quietly to join them, while they were still talking. "You!" he cried, his hand almost instinctively moving to Excaliburís hilt before he checked himself. "What are you doing here?"
"Thereís no need to panic, Arthur," said Mr. Duval, raising one hand in a reassuring gesture. "I come in peace this time. Good day to you, Master Merlin," he added, turning his gaze to Arthurís companions. "And to you, Leba; weíve never met before, but Iíve already heard much about you."
"Do you know this man, Arthur?" asked Leba.
"Unfortunately I do," said Arthur grimly. "And when we met, he gave me little reason to trust him."
He turned back to face Duval. "You gave me your word that you and your people would trouble us no more," he said. "May I take it from the fact that you have sought us out here that a solemn promise means nothing to you?"
"Iím not here as an enemy this time, Arthur," said Duval. "Nor am I breaking my word to you - I have betrayed you in the past, but this time I am not. I merely wish to speak with you, as one old friend to another."
"You have a strange way of defining friendship," said Arthur. "You claim to be someone I knew, but that man is dead and dust by now. How can you possibly be telling the truth when you declare yourself to be him?"
"But I am him, Arthur," said Duval. "Itís a long story, though, too long to go into here." He looked about him, at a few tourists approaching though not yet in earshot, and spoke again. "And this is too public a place for us to discuss such matters. Meet me three hours from now, atop Glastonbury Tor, by St. Michaelís tower. I can assure you that nobody will disturb us there. We have much to discuss, you and I."
Arthur looked him in the face, frowning suspiciously. Then he nodded. "Very well," he said. "If for no other reason than that we must have this matter resolved."
"And indeed we do," said Duval. "Good day to you." He paused, glancing down at the place where the purported tomb had once stood. "I doubt that it was her that they found," he said. "Although I was elsewhere at the time. I considered visiting the abbey to investigate the truth of their claim, more than once, but something always came up. And maybe I did not really want to return. This place has certain memories, after all, memories that still bring me much discomfort." Then he turned, and walked away from them.
"What was all that about, Arthur?" asked Leba. "Who was that man?"
"Merlin and I met him near Lindisfarne while we were fugitives earlier this year," said Arthur. "From what Iíve gathered, his name is Mr. Duval, and he is the head of the Illuminati Society. But he also claims to be Lancelot."
"But Lancelot died over fourteen centuries ago," said Leba incredulously. "He canít possibly still be alive. And even if he was, running something like the Illuminati doesnít strike me as the sort of thing that heíd most likely be doing."
"I know," said Arthur. "I thought the same, myself. But when we last met, he said things that only Lancelot could know. He knew about my associating with gargoyles, particularly the gargoyles that lived in the North Wood near Camelot. If he is not Lancelot himself, then at least he has strong ties to him."
"So what are you going to do?" Leba asked him.
"Meet with him, of course," Arthur answered.
"But are you certain that thatís wise?" she asked. "After all, you said yourself that heís in charge of the Illuminati, and so far theyíve kidnapped you once. Not to mention that theyíve also been something of a problem for Griff and the other gargoyles. For all that we know, he might have an ambush prepared for us at the Tor."
"That is possible," he admitted. "But I need to have this question resolved. If he is not Lancelot, then I must find out who he is, and how he knows what he does. And if he is Lancelot, then I must find out how he has survived down through the centuries, and why he now leads the Illuminati. Not to mention that, if he truly is who he says he is - well, there are other matters regarding him that I should resolve. I never thought that I would meet with him again, and there are some issues that we never properly talked over."
Leba nodded. "Very well," she said. "But weíd better come with you, just in case there is a trap."
Arthur nodded. "Yes, I suppose that that would be a good idea. But we go back to the cottage only after speaking with him and not before. That way, if there is any trouble, at least the rest of our party will be safe.
"Well, we have lingered here long enough. Let us be on our way, now, shall we? We have much more to see, after all."
* * * * *
For the next couple of hours, they toured more of Glastonbury. They visited Chalice Well, and the Glastonbury Thorn atop Wearyall Hill (which, as Leba commented, was much taller than she had been expecting - a proper tree, when she had thought it would be only a bush). They briefly explored a couple of bookshops, only to come to the conclusion that almost everything on sale there pertaining to the Grail was "New Age nonsense", as Merlin put it, so hopelessly inaccurate that there was no point in wasting money on any of it. At last, as the deadline for their meeting neared, they left the town, and proceeded to the Tor.
"Maybe you should go back to the cottage, Merlin," said Arthur, as they halted at the foot of the great hill. "Iím not certain that youíre up for this sort of climbing."
"Nonsense, Arthur," said Merlin, a trifle sharply; fortunately for his dignity, he sounded more like an irascible old man than a petulant boy as he spoke. "Iím not that helpless yet. And I want to meet Duval just as much as you do, to find out the truth about him."
"Very well, then," said Arthur. "But I suggest that you lean on us if you get tired. You must not overtax yourself, my friend."
The three of them climbed up the hill, if at a fairly leisurely pace; Merlin occasionally had to stop to rest. They reached the top, however, to stand under the shadow of the church tower dedicated to St. Michael on the top. The Somerset countryside lay spread all about them below. They looked down upon it, as the wind swept around them.
"Camelot stood over there," said Arthur, pointing to a hill lying off to the southeast in the difference. "I understand that they call it by a different name now - South Cadbury, if I am not mistaken - but it is good to see it again, even if from afar."
"I feel the same way myself," said Duval, walking out from around a corner of St. Michaelís tower. He checked his watch. "On time as well, I see. Very good."
Arthur turned to face him. "So you are here," he said.
Duval nodded. "We can speak now, at leisure. Nobody else will interrupt us. Iíve made provisions to keep any tourists away from the Tor while we are here."
"And just what business do you have with us?" asked Arthur.
"Much, actually," said Duval. "Some of it new, and some of it unresolved. We never had the opportunity to speak to each other properly at the Holy Island, and it is high time that we completed that conversation."
"You claimed to be Lancelot there," said Arthur, looking at him sharply, "but how can that be? Lancelot is dead. Everything that I have learned, all the books that I have read on that subject since I left Avalon, all agree upon that."
"My survival was a carefully guarded secret," said Lancelot. "I wished people to believe me dead. Only a few know who I really am. You are among them, Arthur. Elaine is another - but let us not speak of that matter for now. She has no bearing on what we must discuss."
"But if you are Lancelot," said Merlin, "how did you survive for so long? Arthur was in his enchanted sleep on Avalon, and Iím a halfling - and I can regenerate, as well. But youíre an ordinary human, Lancelot, with no faerie blood in your veins. What is the reason for your longevity?"
"I cannot tell you just yet," said Duval. "Perhaps later, but for now, I am not ready to reveal that secret to you. Let us establish that I am still alive, even after all these centuries, and let it suffice."
"Very well," said Arthur. "But that still leaves much that is unexplained. Such as why you are now leading the Illuminati Society, for example. I know very little of it as yet, but what I do know is not good."
Duval shifted, looking uncomfortable. "The Society has done a few things which I am not proud of," he said, after a few momentsí silence. "That much I will admit. But as you yourself said, Arthur, you donít know the entire story about it."
"I do not have to," Arthur replied, "to mistrust it. Your people have attempted several times to capture gargoyles - and gargoyles whom I am familiar with and know to be loyal and courageous friends, with true hearts. If you were indeed Lancelot, a man who knew their nature, you would be leaving them in peace, rather than seeking to deprive them of their freedom. Nor have your followers drawn the line at humans. Or are you not familiar with the actions of Feldman and Ratcliffe, in the Caledonian Forest?"
"The men whom you name are no longer in favor at the Society," said Duval almost at once. "Certainly their recent deeds received no sanction from us. You cannot blame me for what they did in Scotland."
"But there is more to it than that," Arthur continued. "I have only been awake in this world for a few years, but already I have learned other matters regarding this Illuminati Society of yours. You have an alliance with various organized crime syndicates, receiving a share of the money that they have wrested from innocent people through their activities, and shield them from the law in return. You blackmail those in high places, forcing them to do your bidding. And I do not even want to know how often you may have engaged in such foul practices as murder to achieve your goals. That is what I do not understand.
"Were your true identity that of Mordred or King Mark of Cornwall, I would be less surprised; such methods were the ones that they all too frequently used in my day. But Lancelot? Sir Lancelot du Lac, the greatest of all my knights, the flower of chivalry? A man to whom honor was meat and drink? I know that you did prove false to me once - but that was in a matter of the heart, and one that you strove valiantly against for so long, even if you yielded to it in the end. But this - this is much worse. Why would you stoop to the level of the very robber-barons and felon knights whom you fought and overthrew, Lancelot? Why?"
Duval looked down at the ground, unable to face his former kingís gaze. Leba and Merlin watched Arthur stare at the man who had once been one of his closest friends and leading champions, with sternness in his gaze, but a sternness that proceeded more from sorrow than from anger. The two men were silent for some time. At last, Duval spoke again.
"It - it was not supposed to turn out this way," he said. "I know that I cannot entirely defend my actions to you, Arthur. Not when I know in my heart that there is much truth in your words. But let me at least explain them to you.
"You do not know what Britain was like after you were taken away to Avalon." He gave a bitter laugh at this point. "How could you? It could only have happened once you were gone. But the aftermath of the battle of Camlann was a veritable nightmare. With you sleeping on Oberonís mystic isle and most of the knights of the Round Table dead, the kingdom descended into chaos. It was like the years between your fatherís death and your drawing Excalibur from the Stone of Destiny, only worse. The petty kings whom you had held in check took to fighting each other once again, over land and power, or to settle old feuds, or simply for the sport of it, shattering your peace, ravaging the land with war. Camelot was sacked, and the Round Table burnt. The Saxons renewed their inroads into British land, and this time you were not there to check them; most of the island fell to them within a few decades. And soon, all the glory of your reign was little more than a memory.
"Those first terrible years I spent here, secluded in the hermitage with Bedivere and Bors and a few others. But even isolated as I was, I knew what was taking place - and why. My weakness had brought it about. Had it not been for my love for her, Camelot would never have fallen. And I knew, even then, that I must make amends for what I had done, find some way of undoing all the sorrow that I had brought about. And when at last she died, I knew that it was time for me to act.
"What happened after Guinevereís death, how I left my retirement here and wandered the world, and how I founded the Society, are all tales that I currently have no time to tell here. Those must be for another day. But suffice it to say that depart I did, allowing my companions and kinsmen here to believe that I had died. I returned to my homeland in Gaul, only to discover that matters there were just as bad as they were in Britain. My fatherís kingdom of Benwick had been overrun by the Franks and Visigoths, and so had the rest of the land. Gaul had descended into anarchy and chaos, and peace and learning had all but perished there. There was nothing left but war and famine, petty chieftains all battling each other and laying the countryside waste about them. And I knew that I must find some way of ending it.
"That was why I founded the Illuminati. Its purpose was to make things right again, to bring back everything that had been lost with the fall of Camelot. I had to relight the candle that had been extinguished by the wind, restore learning and justice and civilization to the world. We labored at it, steadily over the centuries, preserving whatever we could, encouraging people to rebuild what had been leveled in the wars. We advised kings and great noblemen, nudging them down the paths that would lead Britain and Europe back to the light. Perhaps we could not create a new Camelot or revive the Round Table, but we could still see to it that the quest for justice and peace might continue. Without the Society, who knows what the world might be like today? You might have returned to find yourself among savage tribes as rough and brutal as those that dwelt in Britain prior to your reign."
"And how do such actions as hunting gargoyles and accepting money from criminals fit into such a design?" asked Arthur sharply.
"It - is complicated," said Duval. "I cannot explain those matters in great detail just now. All that I can say is that they were necessary, for the sake of the greater good. To achieve my goals, I have been forced to make certain compromises. I take no pleasure in these acts, but they were still necessary."
"Yes, I have heard of such policies," said the former king of Britain, in a grave voice. "The concept of the ends justifying the means, if I am not mistaken. But I still cannot believe that you are doing this."
"Believe what you will, then," said Duval. "But I am straying from my purpose in meeting with you, Arthur."
"So you did not seek me out to explain your actions for the past thousand years and more?" Arthur asked him.
Duval shook his head. "It is your actions, not mine, that I came here to discuss," he said. "Arthur, I understand that you have embarked upon a new quest. You and your followers are seeking after the Holy Grail. Is that true?"
Arthur stared at him in shock and astonishment, as did Leba and Merlin. "How - how on earth did you know that?" Arthur asked him at last. "I had thought that I had been very cautious in concealing my movements from everyone else."
"The Illuminati have their ways of learning things," said Duval. "But what matters is this: I know indeed that you are in quest of the Grail. It intrigues my colleagues greatly; most of them would certainly like to own it, as if such a thing was possible. And in my case, it puzzles me. Why are you undertaking this quest, Arthur? You did not join us in the original quest - indeed, you even expressed sorrow at our departure, as though you could sense how we would fare upon it, how many of us would not return. What has happened to make you change your mind?"
Arthur frowned perturbedly. He briefly considered the possibility of giving an evasive answer, but then changed his mind. He still was not quite prepared to accept the fact that this Mr. Duval was really Sir Lancelot, still alive after all these centuries, and yet, the way that the man spoke, the genuine concern for the ideals of Camelot that he had displayed in his voice and in his eyes, even if placed in conflict with the path of expediency that he had taken, all fitted the knight who had once been his most stalwart warrior, and a close friend. At last he spoke.
"Merlin has been poisoned," he said. "If you look closely, you may see how the venom in him is beginning to sap his strength. I have learned that only the Grail may save his life, and so have set out to find it. There is no other cure for him in this world."
Duval bent down to examine the young-old wizard leaning on his cane by Arthurís side. He gazed carefully at the youth, staring into his eyes, observing his posture, inspecting every inch of him or so it seemed. At last, he straightened up and turned to Arthur again, concern upon his face.
"He does indeed show signs of illness, as you declared," he said to the king whom he had once sworn fealty to. "I do not have the means here to put this report fully to the test, but certainly your words ring true, Arthur. You have never given me cause to doubt or distrust you before; would that I could say the same for myself regarding my own dealings with you." The way that he spoke those last words indicated that he was not only speaking of Arthurís previous clashes with the Illuminati Society. "So this quest is for Merlinís sake?"
"It is indeed," Arthur replied.
"Well, this does indeed change the situation," said Duval. "I had not been entirely willing in my heart to make the offer to you that I had come hither to make. It was a necessary stratagem to protect you from the rest of the Illuminati; they covet the Grail themselves, and clearly will not welcome rivals upon their search for it. But after seeing Merlin faring thus and learning of his plight - this puts an entirely different face on the matter."
"What are you talking about?" Arthur asked him.
"That the Society joins forces with you upon this quest," said Duval. "I am offering you an alliance with the Illuminati, to help you find the Grail."
TO BE CONTINUED.