CHOICES: PART TWO.
Outline by Todd Jensen.
Written by Todd Jensen.
Artwork by Karen Blackwell.
Previously on Pendragon...
GRIFF (at Glastonbury): So this is where our quest begins.
* * *
DEMONA: I need your help, Merlin.
* * *
DEMONA: If you continue upon this quest with your friends, 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.... What do you say?
MERLIN: I need some time.
DEMONA: I will await your answer.
* * *
ARTHUR (to Duval): What are you doing here?
* * *
DUVAL (to Arthur): I understand that you have embarked upon a new quest.... Is that true?
* * *F
ARTHUR: Merlin has been poisoned.... I have learned that only the Grail may save his life, and so have set out to find it.
* * *
DUVAL: I am offering you an alliance with the Illuminati, to help you find the Grail.
~~~Choices Part One.~~~
* * * * *
"Am I hearing you correctly, sir?" asked Arthur. "You are actually offering us your help?"
Duval nodded. "I have good reason to do so, Arthur," he said. "I know how important Merlin is to you. He was your teacher, your mentor, and I understand that he still remains one of your closest friends. That is explanation enough for why you have chosen to undertake this quest, perilous though it be. I would do the same myself in a heartbeat, were I in your place. And I know Merlin well from the time of Camelot, as well. He helped me more than once, and I cannot - I will not - forget it. I have no more wish to see him perish than do you, Arthur."
"But even so," Arthur inquired, looking at him long and hard, "why should we accept your offer of assistance?"
"Because you genuinely need it, Arthur," said Duval. "I pray you, consider this. The world has changed considerably over the past fifteen centuries. Going on a long journey is no longer a matter of donning your armor, saddling your horse, and riding out down the road. Think of customs officials, passports, all manner of administrative formalities to be undergone at the borders. I very much doubt that you can confine your search for the Grail to Britain alone, not this time. And when you travel abroad, you will have other concerns, thanks to your companions. Your chief knight is a gargoyle, and your squire is a werewolf. Please, donít start like that, Arthur; I assure you, I have my ways of knowing about the composition of your entourage. How easy will it be to arrange passage for them on board a ship or an airplane? Especially since - and forgive me for saying this, my liege - you have much less power and influence in this new world than you did in the time of Camelot."
"That is true," said Arthur, musingly.
"And there is another factor to consider," Duval went on. "Merlin may be the mightiest wizard who ever lived, but even he cannot struggle against this poison of which you speak forever, not if it is so potent that only the Holy Grail may cure it. That gives you a time factor upon this quest. You must find the Grail before Merlin succumbs to his poison, or your efforts will all be in vain. Which means that you cannot afford delays upon your journey. Even the slightest of them could cost your friend his life.
"But I and the Society can solve those problems. A few words to the proper officials, a few quiet arrangements, and we can secure safe, speedy, and inexpensive passage for you anywhere in the world, free from any roadblocks. Your friends and followers can travel about without fear of challenge. What say you to that, Arthur? Will you accept the help that I offer you?"
Arthur frowned. "And how may I be certain," he asked, "that your associates in the Illuminati do not decide to detain Griff and Mary, for the purpose of examining them further? As I said before, the Societyís track record in dealing with those close about me is not an especially reassuring one."
"Your friends will be left in peace," said Duval. "I will see to it myself. Not even Powell would dare to lay a finger upon them, not when he knew how it would go for him as a result. The gargoyle and the young werewolf will be under my protection throughout, as will be all others who travel with you and whom you name friends."
"Also," Arthur continued, "I find myself more than a little uncertain about the Societyís motives in involving themselves with this quest. Your intentions may be honorable, but I doubt that your followers are concerning themselves with my search for the Grail for altruistic reasons."
"Well, there is that, as well," said Duval. "They want the Grail for themselves, as though it was nothing more than a simple magical cup, that they could store away in their vault as they have done with so many other treasures over the centuries." He shook his heads. "The fools," he said, with a sigh. "In my case, it is different. I know that the Grail is not for me - I learned that lesson over fourteen centuries ago - and I have no hope of achieving it. But they do not share my experience with it. If they did, they would know that it was not for them, either. But that is beside the point. The point is that, if we seek the Grail together, as partners rather than rivals, then the Illuminati will have no reason to proceed against you. After all, you would be helping them find the Grail, and so it would be nothing short of folly for them to hinder you - they would only be hindering themselves as well thereby. The alliance that I am offering you offers the greatest certainty of all that the Society will not be a problem to you on this venture. And that is surely another advantage to this offer.
"So what say you, Arthur? Will you accept my help?"
Arthur frowned, saying not a word. He looked over at Merlin, still standing quietly by his side. The lad was leaning on his hawk-headed walking-stick, listening intently to the entire conversation, but remaining silent. Despite his efforts to appear well, the weary slump in his shoulders and the barely-suppressed pain in his eyes told otherwise. He was frowning uncertainly, but said nothing. The poison was at bay for now, but for how much longer would it remain that way? Arthur looked at his oldest friend sadly, then turned back to face Duval, still patiently waiting for a reply.
"I must have more time to ponder this matter," he said. "Might I speak of it to my knights and take counsel from them first? After we have debated this proposal of yours at greater length, Duval, and each oneís voice has been heard, then I may decide better which answer is the right one."
"Very well, then," said Duval, nodding. "Shall we meet back here tomorrow morning, then? Then you can tell me what your answer is."
Arthur nodded. "That I will do," he said.
"Then I bid you farewell, Arthur, for now," said the head of the Illuminati Society. "And to you as well, Master Merlin, and you, Miss Leba." He gave a low, courtly bow to the three of them, and then turned about and walked away.
Arthur watched him go, then turned to his friends. "Letís go back to the cottage," he said, in a solemn voice. "We will need to discuss this with the others."
* * * * *
The tapping at the front door woke Rory up. He had been quietly napping in an armchair in the living room on one side of the fireplace. Dulcinea was asleep in the armchair opposite, and Mary curled up upon the hearth in her wolf-form, also dozing, with the tip of her tail touching her nose. The two of them stirred as well, however, upon hearing the noise.
"Hopefully thatíll be Arthur and the others," said the young Irishman, rising from the chair and stretching. "They should probably have gotten back from their little tour by now."
He walked to the front door and opened it. "Welcome back," he said to Arthur, as the former king, alongside Leba and Merlin, entered the cottage. "Did you have a good time?"
"Well, it was most interesting," said Arthur, in a somber tone of voice. Rory stared at him concernedly, as did Dulcinea and Mary, who were just now walking up to join him. "But something unexpected has come up. As soon as Griff awakes, we will need to hold a council."
"What happened?" Dulcinea asked. "You didnít run into any trouble, did you, Arthur?"
"Not exactly," said Arthur. "Certainly not if you mean by Ďtroubleí, fighting. But we did encounter an old acquaintance of mine, and that has led to the need for this conference. Iíll explain once the sun sets and Griff is awake."
"Well, that shouldnít be too far away," said Rory, checking his watch. "Less than an hour, I should say."
"Good," said Arthur. He walked over to stand before the fireplace, and stared at its embers, without saying a word, his hands clasped behind his back. None of them dared speak to him or break the silence. They merely watched quietly.
"So what is going on here, anyway?" asked Mary to Merlin, looking up at him.
"Arthur will explain soon enough," Merlin replied. "Iíll let him do so." There was a troubled expression upon his own face, as he looked straight at his king.
* * *
The sun sank below the western horizon, and the cottage was briefly filled with the roar from Griff awakening upstairs and Mary letting out a painful cry as she underwent her regular metamorphosis into human form. Griff came downstairs, stretching slightly. "Well, good evening, everyone," he said. "So how was the day?"
"Ah, Griff," said Arthur, turning to greet his chief knight. "Iím glad that youíre awake. Now we can begin. Gather around the table, everyone."
They seated themselves around the table in the kitchen. Once everyone was in his or her chair, Arthur spoke. "The incident that I am about to inform you of is one that Merlin and Leba already know about," he said. "However, the rest of you do not, so I will tell you about it first. We met with an old acquaintance of mine atop Glastonbury Tor today. He calls himself Mr. Duval, and is, I understand, nothing less than the head of the Illuminati Society."
"The Illuminati?" cried Griff, looking alarmed. He jumped to his feet at once. "Theyíre here in Glastonbury?"
"Well, Duval is, at the least," said Arthur. "I do not know if he brought any others with him. However, the fact that Duval is here is reason enough for us to be concerned."
"You can say that again," said Rory. "So what did he want?"
"To talk, mostly," said Arthur. "It seems that the Illuminati have somehow learned of our search for the Holy Grail. Just how that is, I do not know - Duval certainly was not inclined to divulge that information to us. But they have taken an interest in our quest."
"That definitely canít be good," said Griff, frowning. "If the Illuminati are poking their noses into this, then that means that we could be in danger right now."
"I doubt that the Illuminati intend any foul play this time," said Arthur. "At least, not as yet. Duval assured me otherwise. He had promised me when we met in the Holy Isle that he had forbidden the Society from interfering in our lives any further, and that edict still stands. But the Illuminati still take an interest in the Grail, and in the fact that we ourselves are embarked upon a quest for it."
"So what does he want?" asked Dulcinea. "I mean, if weíre still off-limits to him, then what did he see you about?"
"Strange as it may seem," said Arthur, "he wants to help us."
"Help us?" asked Rory. "And why would he want to do that?"
"Because he learned that we are undertaking this quest to save Merlinís life," said Arthur. "And for another reason, as well. He is - or at least, he says that he is - none other than Sir Lancelot du Lac, the chief of my knights before I was taken to Avalon."
"Lancelot?" repeated Griff, staring in disbelief. "But - thatís impossible, Arthur! He canít possibly still be alive!"
"I know," said Arthur. "I still find it as surprising as do you, my friend. I had believed him to be long-since dead myself. But he has made the claim, all the same, and there is much about him that would suggest that he is. He knows things about me that only someone who had been alive then could know, and he has the look and the mannerisms of Lancelot about him, if somewhat aged. But he has yet to explain in full how it is that he still lives, and how it is that he is now in the Illuminati.
"In truth," he went on to say, "he revealed the same thing to me when we met before, at the Holy Isle."
"He did?" asked Dulcinea. She, Rory, and Griff all stared at Arthur in amazement.
"I should have told you before," said Arthur. "I am sorry about that. There was so much else to deal with at the time. And also, I did not believe it then. I still am not quite certain as to whether I believe it now. But that was what he said there. Merlin and Mary were with me at the time, and they can testify to that."
"Itís true," said Mary, speaking up. "He did say that." Merlin silently nodded, to confirm her statement.
"Well, this is something that I find difficult to believe, myself," said Dulcinea. "I mean - well, if Lancelot was still alive today, and I had to make a guess as to what heíd most likely be doing, heading a top-secret society like the Illuminati wouldnít make my list at all."
Arthur nodded. "That is what I thought as well," he said. "But the fact remains this. Mr. Duval offered me his help and that of the Society in an alliance, to aid us in finding the Holy Grail."
"What sort of help are we talkiní about here?" Rory asked.
"Various forms of assistance," said Arthur. "Helping us with our travelling needs, for a start. And no doubt there are others, which he did not describe in detail. But it is clear that he is not joking. He does indeed wish to work with us."
"So what answer did you give him?" asked Dulcinea.
"That is why I called this council," Arthur replied. "I wish to consult with you, with all of you, on this matter, to hear your thoughts on it. This is too important a matter to decide upon alone. I would have your advice, before I proceed on this matter any further.
"And this is a very serious matter indeed, I should make clear. On the one hand, while I have only been awake in the world of today for a few years, I have learned enough already to know that Duval spoke the truth when he warned me about the difficulties of travelling conditions in these times. We must travel with great speed and without delay, if we are to find the Grail before it is too late for Merlin, and that may be difficult to achieve, particularly in light of the nature of some of us." He glanced at Griff and Mary before continuing. "Certainly, if the common rumor about the Illuminatiís capabilities does not lie, their patronage would be most helpful in overcoming these potential obstacles that lie before us.
"On the other hand, the more that I have learned about the Illuminati, the more I distrust them. My past encounters with them, such as at Stonehenge and at Carmarthen, have been anything but reassuring. They are powermongers who will do anything, stoop to any level, to take whatever they want and to achieve their goals. Certainly they have shown themselves to be no friends to gargoyles. And in light of that, I cannot help but wonder whether it is indeed possible for us to make a pact with them and preserve our honor and integrity in so doing. I very much fear that it is not. But refusing them may cost us any hope of finding the Grail in time.
"And this is why I have called you together, to hear your advice. This is too great a matter for me to decide upon my own. I must consult with you first, and hear your words, before I make my choice."
"Well, I know what my advice is," said Griff at once. "And thatís to have nothing to do with that lot. I donít trust the Illuminati one bit, Arthur! Certainly not after my past history with them. They kidnapped Cavall and me when we were at Carmarthen, and they kidnapped me again, and Michael as well, when we were on our way to Scotland to meet Brianna. And they were more than happy to try forcing all the information that they could out of us about the rest of the clan, no doubt so that they could hunt them all down and lock them up. I certainly donít like the idea of making any deals with that lot. Iíd just as soon have made a deal with the Nazis, back during the war."
Arthur nodded. "Thank you, my friend," he said. He turned to Dulcinea next.
"Well, Iíd certainly say that Griff has a point there," said the Spanish knight. "Iíd certainly think twice about making a deal with the Society, in light of their track record with gargoyles. But all the same - well, we are going to need some help on this quest. As one person whoís done a fair amount of travelling abroad, I can tell you this; itís not something thatís easily done. If somebody were to offer us some help here, would it really be wise to refuse them?"
"For my own part, I donít like this at all," said Rory Dugan. "I mean - yes, it might make things easier for us if we did have the Illuminati on their side. But from what Iíve heard about them, I canít help wonderiní whether theyíre only agreeiní to this because they want the Grail for themselves. Maybe they decided that itíd be a lot easier for them to get us to do all the dirty work for them, and then come along afterwards and take the Grail away from us before we can use it to save Merlinís life. As someone whoís been on the receiviní end of a betrayal before, I know that that canít be pretty."
"Leba, you stood by my side atop the Tor, when we met with Mr. Duval," said Arthur, turning to the blonde bard next. "You heard his words. That makes your counsel particularly valuable. What do you think?"
"Well, Iím not quite certain about this, myself," she said. "Certainly, if the Illuminati really are running the world as they claim, are powerful enough to help us out on the level that Duval said that they could - well, from what Iíve seen of things, they canít be doing a very good job of it. And Griff makes a good point; theyíre not putting themselves in good company if they go about kidnapping gargoyles. But Dulciís right as well. Travelling around the world isnít easy or cheap - and if weíre going questing after the Holy Grail, thatís most likely exactly what weíre going to be doing. Getting Griff and Mary past customs would certainly be tricky, and I donít even want to think about the expenses. So it might help us out some if we did accept their help. Although I wouldnít take it lightly, all the same.
"But as for Duval - well, he didnít strike me as being just another high-ranking crook like Darien Montrose, say. He did come across as sincere, when we met him. So either heís a very skilled actor, the most skilled that Iíve ever seen, or else he really did want to help. And itís only fair to point out that he wasnít personally taking part in all those attempts to kidnap the gargoyles. Maybe Powell and Feldman and Ratcliffe were doing it behind his back, without his knowing anything about it until afterwards."
"Maybe," said Arthur. "I wish that I knew for certain." He turned to Mary. "And what do you think, Mary?" he asked her.
"Youíre asking me?" the girl said, sounding surprised. "I mean, Iím only your squire, Arthur. Iím not a knight."
"That is true," Arthur replied. "But you are still one of this party, and seated at the table. And you were with me at the Holy Isle in the north, when we met Duval before. You have seen him and heard him with your own eyes and ears. Surely that made some impression upon you, by which you can judge him. What do you believe?"
"Well," said Mary, after a moment of thoughtful silence, "I should point out first of all that Iím obviously biased on this issue. I mean, this is Merlinís life that hangs in the balance here." She glanced at her boy-friend across the table, who remained silent, his brows creased in thought. "But - well, aside from this, Mr. Duval did say that he was really Sir Lancelot. Now, I know that it sounds impossible that Sir Lancelot would be alive today. But we know that there are two other people who were alive in his time that are sitting in this very cottage right now, at this very table. And as for Rory - well, heís really Cuchulain reborn, and Cuchulain was about five hundred years older than Arthur and Merlin, I understand. And then thereís Mr. Macbeth whom we met in Eynhallow, and if heís still alive - well, maybe Lancelot could have survived somehow as well.
"And if he really is Lancelot - well, this is Sir Lancelot that weíre talking about, isnít it? I mean, he was a hero. The ultimate knight in shining armor, always out saving people from fire-breathing dragons and rescuing damsels in distress and that sort of thing. He was about as chivalrous and noble as you can get. If itís really Sir Lancelot whoís in charge of the Illuminati, then maybe theyíre not so bad after all."
"If he really is Sir Lancelot, then his armorís no doubt become a lot less shining," said Griff sharply. "In fact, Iíd say that itís definitely tarnished by now. I mean, how much nobility is there in running a secret society filled with people whoíll engage themselves in all manner of crooked dealings? We may not know everything that there is to know about the Illuminati, but one thingís for certain; theyíre not the modern-day knights of the Round Table."
"Maybe he didnít know that Feldman and Ratcliffe and the rest were going around trying to kidnap gargoyles," said Mary. "They could have been doing it behind his back. When we met them in the Caledonian Forest, they certainly didnít seem to be acting on orders from anybody other than themselves."
"True," said Griff. "But on the other two occasions, they were - and, quite frankly, if this Duval fellow doesnít even know whatís going on in his own society, he canít be that much of a leader. It certainly doesnít say much for him that he let people like them join it."
"Well, I am not quite certain on that," said Arthur. "Mordred and Agravain were both knights of the Round Table, after all. But I see your point, all the same. If this indeed is Lancelot, still alive after all these centuries, then I fear that he has changed much, and not quite for the better."
"Assuming that he really is Lancelot," said Griff. "For all that we know, he could be just pretending to be him. He could be a very clever actor, whoís read up all that he can about the man and is good at impersonating him. Not to mention that I understand that he used some sort of memory drug on you last summer when he captured you, Arthur. Maybe he got all the information that he needed about Lancelot from you, while you were under its influence."
"That - is a possibility," said Arthur troubledly. "Although it does not explain everything."
"He showed up just as Merlin, Ms. Camford and I were helping Arthur escape," pointed out Mary. "He even had Excalibur with him; he could have stopped us from getting away. But he didnít. He actually gave Arthur back his sword and apologized for what he and the Illuminati had done. Surely that has to mean that heís not so bad?"
"Maybe," said Griff. "But even if he doesnít mean Arthur any harm, I still donít like the notion of working with his people. They certainly donít strike me as beacons of morality."
"Well, Merlin, what do you think?" asked Arthur. "This matter concerns you in particular, since it is your life that is at stake here. You were with me on both occasions that we met Duval. What do you have to say about him and his offer?"
Merlin had been looking increasingly ill at ease throughout the entire conversation, as he had sat by Arthurís side and listened to each of the knights making his or her case. Now, as Arthur spoke to him, he turned and looked at him, a troubled expression in his eyes. "I - Iíd rather not speak on this matter, Arthur," he said, in a faltering voice. "If itís all the same to you, I beg to be excused from this conversation."
"But I wish to hear your thoughts on the matter," said Arthur. "What do you think? Can we trust Duval and his people, or not? Should we agree to this pact that Duval proposed, for your sake?"
"I -" Merlin began, then paused. He looked uncomfortably at the other faces at the table, staring at each one in turn. Then he suddenly rose from his seat.
"Iím sorry," he said, "but this is something that I would rather not give my advice upon. Youíre a grown man, anyway, Arthur. Surely you can decide for yourself."
Arthur looked at him troubledly. "I know that," he said. "But I still wish to hear your thoughts on it."
"Very well," said Merlin. "But I need some time apart first. Grant me that, Arthur, please."
"Very well," said Arthur. "You may have a few minutes to think this matter over, and then decide. But return to us when you are done, and let us know what your verdict is."
"I will," said Merlin. And with those words, he left the table. The others stared after him as he went out of the room, all looking concerned.
"I suppose that I cannot blame him," said Arthur. "The situation is too close to him, after all. I would certainly not relish having to make such a choice, were I in his place."
"And what are your thoughts on the matter, Arthur?" asked Dulcinea.
"In truth, I feel torn myself," said Arthur. "On the one hand, we know that only the Grail can counteract the poison that is killing Merlin even now, and that if we are to save him, we must find it. That cannot be denied. And Merlin is both my advisor and my friend. I must do whatever I can to save him.
"I also know that Duval spoke the truth when he said that we would need all the help that we could find in seeking the Grail, especially in these times. And the patronage of the Illuminati would be of great value in overcoming whatever obstacles lie before us. But Sir Griff also speaks the truth, when he reminded us of the dark nature of the Illuminati. Can we truly work with such people, and still maintain our honor? Or would we lose it by entering into an alliance with them? I fear that it is all too likely that, should we accept Duvalís offer, we may become party thereby to whatever evils they have inflicted upon the world.
"And, even if Duval truly is Lancelot, and has made the offer freely, based solely on old memories of our past friendship, what of the rest of the Society? I doubt that they share his concern for myself or for Merlin. Help from the likes of them is certain to come with a price. What if that price were to reveal to them the whereabouts of the clan near London? Or, for that matter, to help them capture Goliath and his clan in Manhattan? If the Society take such an interest in the gargoyles here in Britain, then we can safely assume that they would also seek to take captive gargoyles elsewhere - and, in particular, the only clan as yet whose existence is publicly known. That would certainly be a price that none of us would wish to pay."
"You can say that again, Arthur," said Griff, nodding vigorously. "I most certainly will not betray my clan to that lot - or Goliathís clan either, for that matter."
"But what if we refuse, and without their help, we never get Merlin to the Grail in time?" asked Dulcinea.
"That is what troubles me," said Arthur. He stared down at the surface of the table, frowning in silence for a few minutes. At last he stood up.
"I will need some time to ponder this matter," he said. "Upon this very decision hangs both Merlinís life, and perhaps our honor and integrity. This is not a choice that I can make without further thought and deliberation." He walked towards the front door.
"Where are you going, Arthur?" asked Griff.
"Outside," he replied. "I find that I think better with the night sky over my head, and all about me. Perhaps there I may come to the right conclusion. Wait here, all of you, until I return."
And with that, he opened the door, and stepped outside into the night. Four knights and one squire watched him go in silence.
Mary arose from the table after a few minutes. "Iíd better go check on Merlin," she said. "He really ought to know how Arthurís faring."
"Good idea," said Leba, nodding. "Maybe thatíll help him make his own decision on the matter. At least, it certainly wouldnít do any harm."
Mary left the room, and headed towards the stairs, leaving Arthurís knights still seated about the table, deliberating quietly among themselves.
* * *
She found Merlin pacing back and forth in his bedroom, a miserable expression upon his face. He turned as she opened the door quietly and entered.
"Well?" he asked her. "How are things downstairs?"
"Arthur went out for a walk," she told him. "He thought that it would help him decide what to do about it."
"I donít envy him," said Merlin, sitting down on the bed with a sigh. "I certainly wouldnít want to face a decision like that myself. And yet - well, Iím facing it in my own way."
"This is about Demona, isnít it?" Mary asked him.
Merlin nodded. "Yes," he said. "And her being a factor in this changes the entire equation. In particular, it may help solve Arthurís dilemma."
"What do you mean?" she asked him, looking down at him. But she could already guess.
"Arthur is stuck with a terrible choice," said Merlin. "If he rejects the Illuminatiís help, then weíre stuck on our own in seeking the Grail, with far less in the way of resources. We might never find it, and Iíll die. But if he works with them, then heíll have practically made a deal with the Devil in order to save my life. And he knows all that. Heís having to choose between his principles and his most trusted friend and teacher. I know that if it was my old master Blaise who had been poisoned, Iíd have had a difficult time turning away the Illuminati if they were offering me a cure for him."
"So what of the Illuminati?" Mary asked. "Do you really think that theyíre that bad? Even if Lancelotís the one whoís leading them? I mean - I know that he wasnít perfect - there was that business about him and Guinevere, after all - but still, he didnít sound like someone whoíd be leading a group of criminals and gangsters."
"Well, we donít know for certain that this man really is Lancelot," said Merlin. "Iím having trouble believing it still, although it is possible. But - well, as Griff pointed out, he could have changed quite a bit. He might be so desperate to set things right that he deliberately ignores what his followers are really like. And it has been over fourteen hundred years since Arthurís day; thereís room enough for some big changes during that time. But as for the Illuminati - well, Griffís right about one thing. In light of what theyíre doing to gargoyles, they canít be all that noble. Iíd like to believe that Lancelot - if it really is he - is in the dark about it all, as you suggested, the old ĎIf the Tsar only knewí syndrome. But Iím afraid that it isnít so likely." He shook his head. "No, I donít think that theyíre trustworthy at all. But at the same time, itís going to be difficult to refuse them."
"You could still try to talk him out of it," said Mary. "I mean, heíd certainly listen to you."
"I know," said Merlin. "But heís ignored my advice before, when his feelings got the better of him. Guinevere was one case of that. If heís really that concerned about my life, then heíll do whatever he can to save it, even if I urge him not to do it. No, I think that thereís only one solution for this." He got up. "Iím going to seek out Demona, and tell her that Iíll go with her to New York and work with her."
Mary stared at him in utter disbelief. "Merlin, you canít actually mean it!" she cried.
"I do," said Merlin. "Itíll give Arthur a way out. If I accept her offer, see if sheís got a loophole that can save my life without our needing to find the Holy Grail, then Arthur wonít need to go on the quest. He can call it off. And that means that he wonít have to decide whether to accept Duvalís offer or not. Itíll solve everything."
"But you canít really be thinking of going to work for her," said Mary. "I mean, for one thing, if only the Grail can save your life, then how is anything that sheís got going to be able to help? Do you really think that she can succeed where even Oberon failed?"
"I donít know," said Merlin. "But sheís worked loopholes before. She mentioned one herself, with the Bloodstone. Believe me, I know enough about it to know that she wasn't bluffing with it. For all that we know, perhaps she could use it to save my life as well. At any rate, we wonít know unless we put it to the test."
"All right, then," said Mary. "Letís say that Demona does manage to work a miracle and save your life without our needing to find the Holy Grail. Even then, youíre forgetting one other thing. Your part of the bargain is that youíd have to help her out, and everything that Iíve seen of her so far, both here and on Eynhallow, suggests that she canít be up to any good. I mean, if sheís actually tried to wipe out the entire human race - ."
"She said herself that sheís not out to do that this time," said Merlin. "She just wants to win back her company from Thailog. I donít know much about this Thailog myself, but he certainly doesnít sound like an innocent. He does seem to be somebody whom I can do battle against without compunction."
"True, thereís that," said Mary. "But what about once sheís dealt with Thailog? Whatíll she do after that? For all that we know, she might decide to try wiping out humanity again. Do you really want to help her do that? Especially since you know that both Arthur and I would be on the casualty list if she succeeded - and you could be, too."
"I know," said Merlin, looking uncomfortable. "Maybe it wonít come to that. I mean, she has been mellowing a little of late; perhaps sheís been able to put aside her hatred. But itís not something that Iíd like to put to the test, all the same. You make a good point, Mary."
"I wish that I knew more about this Demona, so that I could advise you better on her," the girl continued. "But from what Iíve seen of her so far, I just donít trust her. Of course, maybe Iím biased. She reminds me a little of a story that I heard once when I was a little girl."
"What sort of story?" Merlin asked.
"Well, when I was nine," said Mary, "about a year before mum died, she took me on a visit to her grandmother, my great-grandmother, in Paris. And while we were there, great-grandmother told me a story, a fairy tale, about how there was once a bat-winged demon with red hair and blue skin, who wanted to destroy the world, but was prevented from doing so just in time. And - well, when I saw Demona, she reminded me of that fairy tale. I suppose that that would be enough to prejudice me against her."
Merlin looked thoughtful at her words. "I wish that I knew a bit more about your great-grandmother, Mary," he said. "That does sound interesting. Maybe she knew something."
"Maybe," said Mary. "But my point is, Merlin, that Demona definitely doesnít strike me as somebody whom Iíd want to work with as an ally. Maybe she could save your life, Merlin, but at what cost? Helping her with her schemes doesnít sound like a price that Iíd wish to pay. Itíd be even worse than working with the Illuminati; at least I canít see Mr. Duval wanting to wipe out the human race."
"I know," said Merlin. "But thereís something else to consider. What Demona said about the first Quest of the Holy Grail. She was right, you know. A lot of the knights who set out on it didnít come back. It practically decimated the Round Table. How do we know that the same thing wonít happen to us on this quest? What if we wind up getting half our party killed by the time that we find the Grail? If that happens, itíll be all my fault, and I donít want to be responsible for their deaths."
"You wonít be responsible," said Mary at once. "You couldnít help getting poisoned by something that only the Grail can cure, Merlin. You really have to stop supporting the weight of the world on your back all the time; youíre not Atlas, after all."
"But still," said Merlin, "itís a real possibility. I canít let it happen. If we call off the quest, thereís still time enough left to save the others. Even if Demona canít provide a cure, at least itíll keep my friends from meeting some terrible fate, and save Arthur from having to make one of the worst choices that heís ever had to face. Thatís why Iím going through with it."
"What?" cried Mary, staring at him. "Merlin, havenít you been listening to a word that Iíve said? About just how working with Demona sounds like such an utterly bad idea?"
"I have," said Merlin, "and you make a lot of good points. But all the same, right now, itís starting to look like the lesser of the two evils. Iím going out to speak to Demona, to tell her that Iím going to go to New York with her and help her. Maybe sheís got a cure for me and maybe she doesnít, but even if she doesnít, Iíll be laying down my life for a good cause."
"And what do you expect the rest of us to do?" asked Mary.
"Go back to London, I suppose," said Merlin. "And from there - well, Arthuríll just have to figure it out. Iím sure that heíll think of something, anyway. He was my best pupil ever; Iím certain that heíll find something there to do. At any rate, I have to go and meet with her either way, to tell her what my decision was. So thatís what Iíll do right now."
"Very well," said Mary, with a sigh. "But Iím coming with you.. Somebody's going to need to watch your back if you're working with her."
Merlin shook his head. "No, Mary," he said. "You should stay with Arthur."
"I am not abandoning you!" the girl protested.
"Arthur is going to need all the help that he can find if I part company with him," said Merlin. "I want you to be by his side once I'm gone. I'll feel better about leaving him if I know that you're there working with him."
Mary looked at him long and hard, then sighed. "Very well," she said. "I suppose that we can't both abandon him. But I'm still going to see you off."
"Well, I suppose that that won't do any harm," said the youth. "Thank you, Mary."
The two of them headed downstairs together.
* * * * *
Arthur walked down the country lane in the night, deep in thought. He was alone and glad of it; the lack of company gave him the opportunity to ponder the terrible choice that lay before him. It was one that he would have to decide before the night was over, and yet one which he found a positive nightmare to face.
On the one hand, he certainly had to agree with his knights, and particularly Sir Griff, on the matter of the Illuminati. What little he had seen of them still did not encourage him to trust them. Their attitude towards gargoyles, seeing them as something to be captured and held in confinement, even if it supposedly was for their own good, was anything but reassuring. And what had befallen Douglas in the Caledonian Forest, only that summer, had been proof enough that they were not even unwilling to draw the line at humans - his own case was equal proof, for that matter. And that was not even taking into account their general style of secrecy, schemes, and manipulations behind the scenes, none of which betokened them as men of honor. "Men of plots," he murmured to himself, "craft, poisonous counsels, wayside ambushings! Accursed, who strike nor let the hand be seen!" How Sir Lancelot, the epitome of honor and chivalry in all things save that matter concerning Queen Guinevere, could have possibly involved himself with the Society and served as their leader, he still could not understand, and that remained his chief reason still for doubting Duvalís claim to be the peerless knight, even if so much else argued in favor of the truth behind his words.
No, one thing was for certain. He certainly wanted no dealings with the Illuminati. Any bargain or alliance with them would only bring him woe. He might just as well be seeking help from Lucius Adrians and his Minions, or Darien Montrose. He was more than half inclined, at that moment, to let Mr. Duval know upon the morrow that he had no interest in working with the Society, and that that was his final statement on the matter.
But one thing restrained him from making that decision on the spot. And that was Merlin and his plight. He knew already that only the Holy Grail could save his friendís life, and that therefore they must find it. But Duvalís words rang in his ears over and over again, refusing to die away. And the reason why they lingered with him, he knew, was because they were true.
Even though he had barely travelled beyond the British Isles since his original departure from Avalon a few years before - the only exceptions being his unexpected visit to New York and his excursion to the forest of Broceliande in Brittany during the first part of his quest for Merlin - he had already learned, through his talks with the London gargoyles, Macbeth, Colin Marter, and his own new knights on the subject, that journeys were much more complicated these days. On the one hand, they had certainly become much easier to undertake, with fine roads, horseless chariots, and even flying machines; where once it would have taken months to travel from London to Rome, now such a journey could be undertaken in mere hours. But the customs difficulties that Duval had mentioned were also real enough, and he knew, without the head of the Illuminati Society needing to inform him, what danger they could pose to Griff and Mary. And indeed, how was he to travel about with the two of them in his company? If only the skiff had not sunk at Eynhallow - but there was no point in lamenting that, when it could do nothing to change the past. The point was, this enterprise would not be easy to undertake, would be far more complicated than the original Quest of the Holy Grail, in fact. At least his knights then had not needed to venture outside of Britain to find the sacred cup - even if most of them had never even found it at all. He knew in his heart that he might not be so fortunate.
And it was all for the sake of Merlin. Merlin, his trusted friend and advisor, the wizard who had taught him so much, inspired him to rule with wisdom and justice, to found Camelot and the Round Table. Merlin, without whom he might never have come to the throne of Britain. Merlin, to whom he owed so much. Now his teacher was dying, and only the Holy Grail could save his life. For his sake, he had to find it. Failing the quest was not an option. And that meant that he would have to fulfill it, somehow, by any means that he could.
"I lost you once, old friend," he murmured to himself, recalling how Merlin had disappeared, imprisoned in the Tower of Air by Nimue. It had taken him a while to learn the truth of that when it had taken place, he still remembered; all that he had known then was that his counsellor had vanished. In his desperation, he had sent out his knights to seek him throughout all Britain, and even beyond, but without success. At last, Sir Gawain had returned from Brittany with the news that he had spoken to Merlin, trapped in the invisible tower that Nimue had raised around him, and learned from him that he was unable to escape from it, that Arthur should accept that and do without him. Those had been heavy tidings indeed, and Arthur had grieved long over his old friend. But still, he had fared well enough without him, until the end.
But then he had returned from Avalon to the outside world, and after seeking for Merlin all about, had found him again at last, even if much changed, and certainly far younger than he had known him. And together, they had faced whatever troubles came their way as they had before - until Morganaís last attack upon him. And now, it appeared that Arthur would lose Merlin again, and this time forever, unless they could find the Grail. And if he and his knights, a small band of people with little influence in the world of today, had to travel the earth seeking the Grail on their own, they could hardly expect to go far. The Illuminati might indeed make all the difference in this venture. Perhaps he should join with them, after all, and face the dangers in so doing. At least Duval might be able to keep the Society from taking Griff and Mary prisoner and performing various unholy experiments upon them. Yes, what did they really have to lose?
He had just come to that conclusion when he found himself standing in the shadow of a tall building to his right. He looked up in curiosity at it, and recognized it as a Norman-style church, with heavy masonry and a great crenellated tower. The door was closed, but light shone through the windows, and music sounded from within. Apparently somebody was playing the organ. Which could only mean that there must be a service of some sort taking place inside.
"I should join it," he said to himself, placing his hand on the latch of the door. "Certainly it would not be amiss to join with the folk here in their worship and prayers, especially not while I am upon this particular quest. It might even provide me with some guidance as to my choice."
He pressed down on the latch, pulling on the door. Nothing happened. The door, a heavy wooden portal made of great boards and studded with nails, remained solidly in place.
Feeling puzzled, Arthur made the attempt again, but fared the same way as he had done the first time. The door refused to budge. At last, coming to the conclusion that it was either locked or stuck, he knocked loudly upon it, in the hopes that someone inside would hear him and let him in. But there was no answer. The music continued without even faltering for a moment. At last, he gave up and turned away.
"It would seem that I am not welcome here," he said to himself, with a shrug. "Well, I will not disturb them further." And with that, he turned and walked back towards the cottage.
"Itís a pity," he said to himself, "that none of the knights who achieved the Holy Grail are still alive. I would certainly be glad to hear what their counsel would be on this matter. I might find much profit in their words."
As he spoke, his thoughts turned back over the centuries, to Camelot in the days after the last knights of the Round Table had returned from the Quest for the Holy Grail - and, among them, one in particular. Sir Bors de Ganis, cousin to Sir Lancelot, and the only knight who would both achieve the Grail and return to Arthurís court to tell the tale....
* * * * *
CAMELOT - THE EARLY 6TH CENTURY A.D.
"It all seems very strange to me still," said Queen Guinevere.
"What does?" Arthur asked her. The two of them were walking through the castle garden that afternoon, enjoying a break from the usual cares and duties of state. The night before, Sir Bors had told them at dinner of the adventures that he had experienced while upon the Quest for the Holy Grail, and also those of his companions, Sir Galahad and Sir Percival, who would not be returning to Camelot or recounting their adventures to anyone there.
"The experiences that Sir Bors had upon the quest," she said. "Now, I can make sense of what Percival underwent, when he had his share of testings. They were certainly obvious ones. But those that they placed upon Bors - well, they hardly seemed fair to me."
"Which ones do you mean, Guinevere?" he asked her.
"All of them, Arthur," she said. "Let us start with the first one. He sees his brother Lionel being taken captive by two knights and flogged with thorns. But instead of rescuing him, he must go to the aid of a damsel being carried off by another knight, even though Lionel is his own brother. How can that be?"
"He had a duty to save the damsel from that knightís dishonorable intentions upon her," said Arthur. "That came before even Lionelís need. Especially since, as Bors himself had admitted, and as he had heard from the hermits that he spoke with afterwards, Lionel had not made himself the most sterling example of chivalry."
"But still, to leave his own brother to suffer at their hands," said Guinevere.
"But Lionel did not die," said Arthur. "He was rescued by others, while Bors was conducting the damsel that he had saved back to her home, where her family would keep her safe. He paid no penalty for his brotherís making the correct choice."
"Well, I shall not argue with that," said his queen, with a shrug. "Being an only child, I am hardly in a position to debate that particular issue. But that next adventure, with the noblewoman who said that she would jump from the highest tower of her castle if he did not accept her...."
"Ah, but she and her household were not real," said Arthur. "It was only an illusion, and so no one died from Borsí refusing her."
"But he wasnít to know that at the time, was he? For all that he knew then, the lady was real, as real and living as you or I. And her handmaidens as well, who said that if their lady jumped to her death from the tower, then they must do the same. Was he indeed willing to let them perish also?"
"It went hard with him to make that choice, remember," said Arthur. "But again, he chose rightly. Even if his decision had saved thirteen lives, it would have been at the cost of his own soul. That would have been too high a price."
"Well, that I will accept as well," said Guinevere, though shaking her head dubiously as she spoke. "But the final test - when he had to face his own brother in battle. Lionel would have slain him then and there in his anger at having been abandoned, and Bors did nothing to defend himself. He simply knelt and asked Lionel for forgiveness, not taking up his sword and shield, even after Lionel slew the old hermit who tried to intervene, and then Sir Colgrevance after him. He might have been slain himself."
"But he wasnít," said Arthur. "His very return is testimony of that."
"But what if that blast of fire from Heaven had not parted them and healed Sir Lionel of his rage?" asked the queen. "Then what would have befallen him?"
"That I do not know," Arthur answered. "But I do know this. Bors knew that there were certain things that he must not do on the Quest, and that fighting and slaying his own brother was one of them. And if the only alternative to it was his own death, then that was simply the outcome that he would have to accept."
"The ways of the Quest still seem strange to me, all the same," said Guinevere.
"And yet, in a way, they make sense," said Arthur. "Think on it for a moment if you will, my queen. The three knights who alone achieved the Grail - Galahad, Percival, and Bors - understood what it really was. This was not just some search for yet another magical object, like one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain that Merlin showed me when I was a boy. The Grail is something more than that. It carries with it higher obligations to be observed by those who seek it, and those who do not obey them will come only to grief. It means to take the straight and narrow path, not straying from it even when the other road seems easier or more expedient. That is what it means to go in quest of the Holy Grail."
* * * * *
"That is what it means to go in quest of the Holy Grail," Arthur repeated to himself, as he stood upon the country lane by Glastonbury Tor. He looked up at the darkened hill and the tower perched atop it, standing out against the night sky. And it was then that he understood.
"I should have understood it sooner," he said to himself. "I really do need to refresh my memory of the first Quest. If I had remembered it better, then I would have known at once what reply I must give."
He strode back quicker towards the cottage, knowing just what he would say to his companions when he entered it. He was almost to the door when he saw Merlin and Mary Sefton proceeding down the lane, towards him.
"Arthur," said Merlin, halting, and leaning on his cane. "Youíre back already, then?"
He nodded. "That I am," he said. "I suppose that you needed a walk beneath the stars to clear your head as well, Merlin?"
"You might say that," said the young-old wizard. "So how did it go with you, Arthur?"
"Better than I had hoped," Arthur replied. "In fact, Merlin, I have made my decision. I know now what answer I must give to Duval tomorrow - and what answer I will give him, as well."
"And what answer would that be, Arthur?" Mary asked.
"Well, I suppose that I should have all of you assembled at the table first," said Arthur thoughtfully. Then he shook his head and smiled. "But this enterprise concerns you most of all, Merlin, so there would indeed be much sense in sharing this with you first."
"Very well," said Merlin, leaning back against the closest tree. "Go ahead, please."
"I remembered something about the Grail Quest that, in all my concern for you, I had forgotten," said Arthur. "This is not just another search for some long-lost magical object, like the Eye of Odin or one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, or Excalibur itself. If it was, then we could indeed consider making a pact with the Illuminati and accept Mr. Duvalís offer, without penalty to ourselves - beyond the issue of how much we could trust the Society.
"But the Holy Grail is not like that. It is of a higher and holier nature than any of these, and possesses a great sanctity. Those who approach it unworthily will be denied it. Those knights who did achieve it understood that, and abided by those rules throughout. It was those other knights, such as Gawain, who failed to realize it, who embarked upon the quest as though it was just another adventure and not a sublime test in which they were to be weighed in the balance, that returned in defeat, never having beheld even a glimpse of it.
"Now to the Illuminati. If we accept their aid, it might indeed smooth out the path before us. But that help would come at a terrible price. The Illuminati are not innocent, as Griff indeed pointed out. They have shown themselves willing to stoop to all manner of crimes. They have engaged in kidnapping, receiving money from criminals, and perhaps even worse. Their hands are not clean. The influence that Duval has offered to enlist in our support was gotten through dishonorable means, or at least questionable ones. If we accept their help, then we will be approaching the Grail with sullied hands, and if that is the case, then it will be denied us. The door will be slammed shut in our faces.
"No, if we are to have any hope at all of achieving the Grail, we must refuse the Illuminatiís offer, and fare without them. That is the only way. Maybe we will find it difficult to find it without their help, but with their help, it will be impossible. I trust that you understand what I am saying?"
Merlin nodded. "I certainly do, Arthur," he said. "And I have to admit, you certainly are making sense here. I should have thought of that long ago. It appears that the teacher is surpassing the pupil here." He smiled weakly, as he looked up at Arthur.
"I understand as well," said Mary. "But do you think that the Illuminati will accept that decision? I mean - what if they decide, after you tell them no, that you should pay a visit to a lake wearing concrete boots, or something like that?"
"We will simply have to face that problem tomorrow," said Arthur. "But all the same, refusing them is the right thing to do. That is how we must deal with all the choices that await us upon this quest to come, as well. We must not make decisions based on how easy or convenient the outcome will be for us, but whether it is right or wrong. Only then can we have any hope of achieving the Grail. And that is what I will tell the others."
Merlin nodded. "I believe that they will agree with you," he said. "As we certainly do. Thank you, Arthur. Thank you very much."
"Are you coming back inside with me?" Arthur asked the two youngsters.
"Not just yet, Arthur," Merlin replied. "A bit later. I have something to do first."
"Very well, then," said Arthur. "Whenever you are ready, my friend." And with that, he parted from them, to enter the cottage.
* * *
Merlin watched Arthur close the door behind him, and then turned to Mary. "Well, Iíve made my decision," he said. "And this time Iím certain on it. What Arthur told me just now has made it all the more clear. I should have understood it before; I suppose that I just was blinded by my fears. But if Arthur can turn down one temptation, then so can I. Iím turning down Demonaís offer."
"You are?" asked the girl.
"Yes, I am," he replied. "She can threaten me with whatever she likes, but Iím not going to join with her. If Iím to be cured of Morganaís poison, itíll be by fair means, not by foul. If Demona wants somebody to help her in her little plots, sheíll just have to look elsewhere." And with that, he walked down the path, a resolute expression on his face. "And thatís my decision. If there are going to be dangers ahead, weíll face them together."
"Fancy you learning something from your own pupil," said Mary cheerfully, as she joined him. The two of them were proceeding straight down the country lane towards the part of the orchard where they had met Demona the night before.
"I know," said Merlin. "Itís probably just as well, though. It helps put things in perspective, teaches me a little humility. Some day Iíll have to tell him about it, and thank him for it."
"Iíll have to thank him too," said Mary. "Iím certainly glad that youíre not going to work for her."
They finally halted by the same group of apple trees where they had encountered the thousand-year-old Scottish gargoyle the night before, and waited. Some minutes passed by, and at last, Maryís wolf-keen ears picked up the sounds of movement in the branches overhead. Then, Demona jumped down, alighting before him.
"You keep your appointment well, little halfling," she said to Merlin. "So have you made your decision?"
Merlin nodded. "Yes, I have," he said. "And, with all due respect, maíam, weíre going to stay on the Grail Quest. No offence, but Iíve decided to turn down your offer."
"So you have, have you?" she asked, looking at him sharply. "You realize, then, that you are throwing away your only certain hope at life by your refusal? Not to mention that you are dooming yourself and your friends to almost certain death?"
"Maybe," said Merlin. "But - well, there are some things more important than that. Youíll just need to find somebody whoís less fussy about morality and ethics than I am, Demona. Because thatís whom youíll need for your project."
Demona glowered at him, her eyes flaring red for a moment, and a low growl escaping her lips. For a moment, she looked almost as if she was about to spring at them both with her claws unleashed. But she checked herself, and simply stared at them long and hard, particularly Merlin, before speaking.
"Well, if that is your choice," she said, "then you must live with it. Throw away your life on some foolish quest for wandering fires, and see if I care! Itís none of my concern anyway! In fact, I should probably be glad that youíre going to your death. You and your family have never been anything but trouble for me, and if you die now, at least Iíll be spared whatever trouble your offspring might cause me in the future. Iím washing my claws off you! Go, and do not cross my path again!"
She climbed back up into her tree, and leaped off its highest branch into the night sky, spreading her wings to catch the air currents as she glided off out of sight, with a harsh cry. Merlin and Mary stood huddled closely together, as they watched her go, then turned and glanced at each other for a moment, before turning and heading back for the cottage.
* * * * *
The following morning, Arthur climbed back to the summit of Glastonbury Tor. This time, he made the ascent by himself, without any of his companions accompanying him. He still recalled Maryís cautious words from the night before, and while he did not believe that Duval was truly likely to embark upon the methods used by criminals and outlaws to those who displeased them in their crudest form, still, he considered it wisest not to endanger any of his knights for this meeting. And he bore Excalibur by his side as well. He hoped that he would not have to once draw it from its scabbard during this meeting.
This time, Mr. Duval was already waiting for him by St. Michaelís Tower, alone once again. "Good morning," said the head of the Illuminati Society, in a pleasant, good-natured fashion. "So youíve thought over my offer, Arthur?"
"Yes, I have," said Arthur. "And decided upon my answer, as well. Lancelot, or Duval, whichever you call yourself in this century, I cannot accept your offer. With all due respect to you, I must decline any assistance from the Illuminati."
"Youíre quite certain of that?" Duval asked, looking at him long and hard.
"Yes, I am," the former king replied. "I did some thinking during the night, and recalled the original quest, upon which my knights embarked. I remembered the tales that they brought back, and that in particular of Sir Bors. And I understood then that, if I am to find the Grail, it must be without your help or that of the Society. I would only render myself unworthy of it, in so doing. You understand, I trust?"
Duval nodded gently. "I do indeed, Arthur," he said. "And in truth, although I probably should not be saying this - after all, old friend, your decision goes against the interests of the Illuminati - I actually welcome your choice. A part of me was hoping all along that you would choose as you did." Seeing the startled look upon the Once and Future Kingís face, he added, with a sad smile, "Believe me, Iím under no illusions about just what my followers are like, or the nature of their activities. There are limits to the extent that I can justify the Societyís deeds to my conscience, and those limits have been passed over long ago. I am glad that you chose not to become entangled in them, as I have."
"You could leave them," said Arthur. He took a step closer to the man who had once been his friend, and his greatest champion at the Round Table. "Come with us, Lancelot," he said, an earnest look in his eyes. "Leave the Illuminati behind. We would welcome your company on this adventure."
Duval shook his head. "I - I cannot join you, Arthur," he said. "I fear that it is too late for me to walk away from the Illuminati. And even if I could leave, they would have to choose someone to replace me - and there is no telling what my successor might do. At least I can assure some restraint upon their actions, so long as I guide them - but if another were to step into my shoes upon my departure, who knows where he might lead them? And - there is another matter. Arthur, I know well still that the Grail is not for me. My sins have barred me from it, and I have more of them resting upon my soul now than those that besoiled it when I last rode forth. At best, I would have to wait without when you did find the Grail - at worst, my presence in your company would bar you from its holy presence. No, we must part ways for now. Perhaps afterwards, when all this is over, we may meet again, and have more leisure to speak on certain matters. But I fear that that will not be until after your quest is done, Arthur."
"And what of the Illuminati?" Arthur asked Duval. "What course of action will they take, when they learn of my answer?"
"I will hold them back for as long as I can," said Duval. "My edict remains in force as yet, and so long as it does, not one of the Society will dare harm you or yours. 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."
"And when we do find the Grail?" asked Arthur. "What will they do then?"
"I do not know," answered the head of the Illuminati gravely. "We will simply have to face that trouble when it arrives. In the meantime, Arthur, I bid you farewell, and hope that you fare better on your quest than I fared on mine. Not only did I fail, but I also lost my son. Pray that you do not suffer a similar loss."
"That hardly seems likely," said Arthur. "My only child died over a thousand years ago, and I certainly felt little desire to mourn him then. But I thank you for your words."
"My best wishes upon you and your friends," said Duval.
So saying, he held out his hand, in a parting gesture. Arthur hesitated for a moment, then took it in his own hand, shaking it in the time-honored warriorís clasp. "Take care, Lancelot," he said, finally releasing the knightís hand. "I bid you farewell also."
And with that, he turned, and made his way down the hill to join his friends in the cottage below. Duval stood atop the Tor, quietly watching him as he descended. Then he sighed, and turned away. He would have much to tell the Inner Circle at their next meeting, and that would certainly be not far off.
* * * * *
"So he took it well?" asked Leba, as Arthur sat down in the armchair by the hearth.
"Very well, fortunately," he replied. "I believe that he understood, and sympathized. We may have something to fear from the Illuminati as yet, but not him - at least, not for a while."
"So what do we do now?" asked Rory.
"We rest during the day, and leave in the evening, after Griff awakens," said Arthur. "There are a few locations in Wales that seem likely places to visit on our quest. But one thing I am certain of. We will not find the Grail here."
* * * * *
Light and music continued to fill the church that Arthur had stood outside the night before. The pews were empty, and no priest, minister, nor vicar stood beside the altar to address his congregation. Outside, a sign that had been hidden in the darkness from Arthurís eyes read: "St. Patrickís Church. Closed for repairs."
Hovering above the altar in mid-air was an object, covered in a cloth of white samite. Its outlines were hidden by its veil, but light shone from it, filling the church's interior. As the music rose to a grand climax, the light from the object grew stronger until, had anyone been there to behold it, it would have shone brighter than the sun.
The music died down, and the object faded away. And it was silent and still in the church once again.