Outline by Ed Reynolds.
Written by Todd Jensen.
Previously on Pendragon....
SIR ALAIN: Within this reliquary lies the great treasure that the Knights Templar gave unto me. It is the Holy Grail itself.
* * *
"Well done, Corinne," said Sir James, ruffling his squireís hair. He then dismounted from his horse and picked up the reliquary. "I suppose that this treasure held a great deal of value for you," he said. He opened the lid and looked inside. "Ah, yes," he said, taking out from the box a beautiful golden goblet, encrusted with jewels of every variety. "The Holy Grail itself. You went to a great deal of trouble to find this, did you not? Such a pity that it was all for nothing." He threw the cup to the ground and brought his mace down upon it, shattering it into fragments.
* * *
MARY: I'm sorry. We had the Grail, but then we lost it - forever.
MERLIN: No, you didn't.... whatever you came across, it wasn't the genuine Holy Grail. It's still out there somewhere - I hope.
* * * * *
EGYPT - 1306
Mailed feet rang upon the stone floor. Three men entered the underground chamber. One came before the other two, holding a torch aloft to provide light. He was dressed in sober black garments. The other two wore chainmail hauberks with white mantles thrown over them; upon both mantles was emblazoned a red cross, the mark of the Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon. One of them held in his hands a golden casket.
"This is the place, then?" asked the knight bearing the casket. He was an old man in his early sixties, his beard greying, but his voice carried with authority in the still air of the subterranean room.
"Yes, it is," said the other knight. "The one place in all the world, perhaps, where it may be safe."
"Then that is where we shall leave it," said Jacques de Molay, Master of the Knights Templar. "No one will ever disturb the Orderís greatest treasure here."
"This is very bold indeed," said his companion concernedly. "To bring it to this very part of Egypt, and hide it almost directly underneath the Mamelukesí noses -"
"That is precisely why I have chosen this location," said de Molay gravely. "Nobody would suspect that the Order of the Temple would hide this precious secret in the heart of one of the mightiest of the Saracen kingdoms. In truth, I doubt that history will ever record our visit to Egypt. Not even the Illuminati will learn of it. Now come; we have much work to do. There are safeguards to be set in place, so as to ensure that this knowledge never fall into the hands of those who are unfit to claim it. And we must raise them at once. We cannot be away from Cyprus for long."
"Very well, sir," said the other Templar, nodding gravely. "To work, then."
* * * * *
EGYPT - THE PRESENT
"And so, according to the legend," Merlin said, "Jacques de Molay hid one of the greatest treasures of his order somewhere in the land of Egypt, and returned to Cyprus - but not for long. Shortly afterwards, a summons reached him from Pope Clement the Fifth, bidding him to come to France and consult with His Holiness upon the prospects of a new crusade. So the last Master of the Knights Templar returned to the West, not realizing that it was a trap. Pope Clement had become the pawn of King Philip the Fair of France, who coveted the Templarsí wealth - and at the Kingís bidding, every Knight Templar in France was arrested on Friday, the 13th of October, in 1307."
"The original Friday the thirteenth, Iíd say," commented Mary. She sat by Arthurís side in the small hotel room that they were occupying, listening intently. Griff was still in his stone sleep in a far corner of the room.
"Under the not-so-gentle influence of the Inquisition," Merlin continued, "Jacques de Molay was forced to confess that he and his fellow Templars were guilty of a number of particularly serious crimes - crimes that, in fact, were the invention of King Philip, in order to supply him with a pretext for seizing the Orderís wealth. He afterwards admitted that he had only confessed for fear of torture, and so was burnt at the stake on March the 18th, 1314. But he never confirmed or denied the rumors that the Knights Templar were somehow linked to the Holy Grail, at any point during the proceedings. Nor did he explain the legends that his order had access to Ďa complete and absolute knowledgeí that caused them to stand apart from their contemporaries. The truth of that matter, he took with him to his grave."
"But you believe that there might be some truth to those tales," said Arthur.
"Itís possible," said Merlin. "Mind you, I believe that most of those speculations about the secrets of the Knights Templar are absolute rubbish; I certainly never saw any evidence at the time that they were anything more than a religious order of knighthood committed to protecting pilgrims in the Holy Land - and making some very profitable financial transactions on the sidelines. But if that rumor about de Molayís visit to Egypt before he received the Popeís summons is true - well, it just might be the Grail."
"But we donít even know where to start," Mary argued. "I mean, it could be just about anywhere in Egypt, and itís a big country! It could take us years - and we donít have years, remember. Weíve less than even one year now."
"I know," snapped Merlin sharply. "I know that timeís running out for me, Mary; you donít have to remind me of it."
"We donít even know that weíre on the right track in the first place," the young wolf continued. "Remember, what prompted this notion that the Knights Templar had something to do with the Grail was what happened to Arthur and me in Sicily. But it wasnít even real; it was just an illusion. Arenít we taking Morganaís deception a little too seriously here?"
"Well, if youíve got a better idea -" Merlin began.
"That is enough, both of you," said Arthur, rising to his feet and holding up his hand. "Granted, what befell us in Sicily is not proof enough that this Order of the Temple did indeed have the Holy Grail in its custody at some point. But as Merlin has pointed out, there are rumors about that linkage, existing independently of the information that we received while in that illusion. That should be enough to make them worth pursuing."
"But where do we even begin?" asked Mary.
"I know little of Egypt, I confess," said Arthur. "In my day, it was at the other end of the known world, and few in Britain had ever travelled that far. I certainly never even dreamed that I might visit it some day. Had I but suspected, I would have listened more closely to Sir Palomidesís accounts of the travels that he undertook there before he came to Camelot. Not that it might have done me much good now," he added, "since the land has changed much over the centuries, even as Britain has, and the tales that he recounted would now be very much out of date.
"But, no matter. I understand that there are a few museums close at hand, containing many antiquities relating to this countryís past. Perhaps we might visit them and see if the scholars there could provide us with some advice. We must not lose hope, my friends. We must have faith that, if we persevere, we will find the Grail, and in time to save Merlinís life."
* * *
"Did you hear that?" The voice was feminine, and spoken in a soft whisper, with a faint purr in the back of it.
"Of course I did," answered a second, similar voice. "Most interesting, do you not agree?"
"Indeed I do," replied the first speaker, as the two figures moved away from the window by which they had been eavesdropping. "The Mistress should be informed about this."
"Yes, she should," said the second. "Let us go to her at once."
Their forms twisted and changed, and the all-concealing robes that they wore burst asunder to reveal two cheetahs. The pair of great cats leaped down from the ledge onto the ground and ran off through the village streets into the desert, disappearing into the distance.
* * * * *
"So where is this place that weíre going?" asked Griff, sitting in the back of the land rover next to Arthur.
"A local museum, about three miles from here," said Arthur, checking the guidebook in his lap. "It might be a good place to begin making inquiries."
"Assuming that they donít look at us in an odd way when we ask them about the Holy Grail, that is," said the gargoyle.
"Iíll start by asking the learned men at the museum about the Knights Templar instead," said Arthur. "They had no official presence in the land, of course, but I understand that they did take part in at least one Crusade here, and that should have left some trace behind. And at least it will seem like a much more sober piece of history to them. From there, I can move on to the more - controversial aspects that we are interested in."
"Weíre probably going to attract attention enough anyway, I suppose," said Griff. "What with the youngsters along - and Iím more than a little surprised that our driver took me as calmly as he did."
* * *
"Is your friend always this strange, Master Hawkins?" asked the guide, turning from the wheel of the rover to Merlin, who was seated beside him. "I mean - going about like that in a bird costume. There arenít even any costume parties in the area."
"Heís - a bit unusual," said Merlin. Just now he wasnít about to risk questioning this man about his stance on the gargoyle issue. At least he wasnít likely to be associating humanoid griffons with the by now world-famous (or infamous) bat-winged denizens of New York. Thank goodness for variety in gargoyle breeds, he thought.
"Ah, an eccentric," said the guide, nodding. "I understand that Englandís crawling with them."
"You might say that," said Merlin, glancing at Mary as he spoke. She was seated next to him, quietly adjusting her headscarf as she looked out over the dunes. The rising wind had shifted it somewhat out of place.
* * *
"I canít say that I like the looks of this, Arthur," said Griff, staring ahead at the approaching dark cloud. The wind accompanying it was howling ever louder as the cloud drew nearer.
"Itís a sandstorm!" shouted the guide in alarm, staring ahead. He frantically spun the wheel around. "We must get out of here, now!"
The four passengers clung onto the sides of the landrover desperately as he turned about and sped off in the opposite direction, Merlin looking decidedly more ill than usual. But it was already too late. The sandstorm drew closer, and in a few minutes it had overtaken them.
The vehicle was turned over on its side at once, jolting all five people on board out of it. Arthur landed on the sands and pulled himself to his feet. He glanced back, to see the guide crawling underneath the overturned rover, but no sign of any of his friends doing the same.
"Griff!" he called out, staggering forward against the force of the desert wind. "Emrys! Mary! Where are you?"
Up ahead, he saw his three companions, all of whom had been thrown wide from the vehicle. Griff and Mary were helping Merlin to his feet. Arthur began to force his way towards them, but by then it was too late. The sandstorm closed in about him, blocking his view of his friends.
Arthur closed his eyes against the sand and grit blown about by the wind, and continued moving forward, placing one foot before the other all the while. "Griff!" he called out. "Mary! Emrys!" He coughed slightly, as some sand found its way into his mouth.
A sudden snarl, like that of some great cat, sounded to his left, and another to his right. Arthur began to draw Excalibur, but before he could unsheathe the great sword all the way something lunged out at him, knocking him upon his back, and all went utterly dark.
* * *
The guide crawled out from underneath the vehicle. The sandstorm had departed as swiftly as it had come, and all was quiet beneath the night sky again. He looked about him. There was no sign of any of his clients.
"Mr. Pennington?" he called out. "Where are you, Mr. Pennington?"
There was no answer. He walked about across the desert sands, shining his flashlightís beam everywhere over its surface. Nothing was moving for as far as he could see, and no shapes broke the smooth surface of the desert. He was all alone.
At last he sighed and walked back to his vehicle. "The desert must have claimed those English tourists," he said to himself. "Itís a good thing that Mr. Pennington paid me in advance."
* * * * *
Arthur came to and sat up. He was in a dimly-lit cell with thick stone walls, and only a single door with a barred slit of a window at its top. Griff was standing over him, looking concerned. Mary was tending to a woozy-looking Merlin in another corner of the room.
"Where are we, Griff?" Arthur asked. "Do you know?"
"Iíve no idea," said Griff. "I came out of it to find myself here with you three."
Arthur suddenly felt about him. "Excalibur!" he cried. "Itís gone!"
Griff nodded. "Whoever brought us here must have taken it," he said. "Obviously they didnít want any trouble."
"This is very serious," said Arthur, rising to his feet. "We have been waylaid and kidnapped, and we do not even know by whom."
"Actually, we do know by whom," said Mary, turning to them. "Well, sort of. I took a peek out the window before you woke up, Arthur. Youíre not going to believe this, but there are a couple of cheetahs outside, standing guard."
"Cheetahs?" cried Merlin, sitting up.
"Thatís right," said the girl. "Merlin, you know something about this, donít you." It was a statement, not a question.
"I should say so," said the youth. "Thereís only one person that I know of who uses cheetahs for guards and servants, and whoís got the resources to kidnap the four of us the way that she did. Sekhmet."
"Whoís Sekhmet?" Arthur asked.
"Another of the leading members of the Unseelie Court," said Merlin. "She used to be worshipped as a goddess in ancient Egypt. She was a very nasty goddess, too. Extremely bloodthirsty."
"How bloodthirsty are we talking here?" Griff asked.
"Well, Ra once told her to chastise the people of Egypt for mocking him and his rule," said Merlin. "She got so carried away with it that she almost slaughtered every last human in the Nile valley, and Ra had to call her off - and even then, he had a difficult time reining her in. She wasnít very happy about it either. Thatís probably why she wound up joining the Unseelie Court. She saw it as her way of getting revenge for having all her Ďfuní spoiled. And she was one of their leading warriors, very fearsome on the battlefield. Very."
"And the cheetahs?" asked Arthur.
"Theyíre werecheetahs, actually," Merlin corrected him. "I donít know that much about it but I understand that Sekhmet has a way of magically altering human women that gives them the ability to become cheetahs, but binds them to her will forever. Our guards must be two of them in their beast-shape."
"But what does she want with us?" Arthur inquired.
"Itís hard to say," answered the boy. "Maybe sheís miffed at us because we were on the other side during the Second Unseelie War. Or maybe sheís in the recruiting mood." He glanced uneasily in Maryís direction as he spoke. "Whatever the case, weíll find out soon enough. To tell you the truth, Iím surprised that she hasnít shown up yet to gloat over her new prisoners -"
Footsteps suddenly sounded in the hallway outside. There was the sound of a bolt sliding back, and then the door swung open and two young women entered the cell, one fair-skinned and blonde, one dark-skinned and dark-haired. The two cheetahs that Merlin had seen outside the cell earlier flanked them, one on each side.
"The Mistress wants the boy and the girl," said the blonde woman. "You will come with us, now."
"You will have to deal with us first," began Arthur, as he and Griff stepped forward.
The two cheetahs sprang forward, blocking the former king and the gargoyle, growling warningly. The blonde woman quickly grabbed Mary and the dark-haired woman Merlin, holding them both tightly. "You will come with us," said the dark-haired woman, as she and her compatriot led the two adolescents out of the cell.
As soon as they were out in the corridor the blonde whistled to the cheetahs, who turned around and left the cell. The door slammed shut, and the sound of the bolt sliding back into place followed.
Arthur ran at the door and threw himself at it, again and again. Griff joined him, but the portal withstood every effort that they made. It was made of wood several feet thick, and reinforced with some unknown but very sturdy metal. At last the two of them were forced to abandon their efforts.
"Too bad that we donít have Excalibur," said Griff. "It could have reduced that door to matchsticks in a hurry."
"Yes," said Arthur. "It appears that, for the time being, we are trapped here - unless we can find another way out."
"Well, weíd better find one quickly," said Griff. "She's got Merlin and Mary now, and I doubt that she just wants to have a polite conversation with them."
"I agree," said Arthur. "I do not know what this Unseelie desires, but if what Merlin says about her is correct, it must be something very dark and terrible indeed."
* * * * *
Sekhmet lay sprawled out full-length on her bed, looking up bleary-eyed at the ceiling. "Iím bored," she murmured, speaking in an unsteady voice. "Bored, bored, bored."
She sat up, wavering slightly. "Two Unseelie Wars Iíve fought in! Yes, two, and for what? What was the point of it all? We never managed to invade Avalon either time! And the second time - it was worse than the first! We barely made a scratch on the human population, no proper devastation at all! Not to mention that Himself couldnít manage to wipe out the gargoyle race - just a few scattered clans left, and he couldnít annihilate them! What did I ever see in his cause, anyway?"
She flung herself back on the bed, her head hitting the pillow, and stared up at the marble ceiling again. "It was a waste of time, thatís all that it was! Nothing but a spectacular waste of time! When I think of just what I gave up to join the Unseelie Court -" She halted, then sighed and shook her head before continuing. "It just wasnít worth it. All for nothing. I should have stayed here, saved myself a lot of disappointment. Pointless, absolutely pointless. And now thereís nothing left for me to do but skulk about here with a bunch of werecheetah servants, with no future, no purpose, nothing." She glanced over at the wall to the left of her. "Oh, yes," she added. "And you two."
Merlin and Mary Sefton were both chained to the wall, their wrists and ankles manacled and attached to heavy, ugly chains, chains that would have been far more appropriate for a torture chamber than for a lavishly-furnished bedroom. Merlin slumped forward wearily, his eyes half-shut. Mary was glowering sharply at the lioness-headed Egyptian goddess without a word.
"Zuri and Amurath thought that you two might cheer me up," Sekhmet continued, turning over on one side to look at the two youngsters better. "You know how it is - the way that cats bring you mice that theyíve caught, thinking that youíll appreciate it. I must admit, any other time I wouldnít have minded having you two around. The old Masterís son and a werewolf girl might have given me some amusement then. But now -" She sighed, and hiccuped slightly. "Whatís the point?"
She languidly raised one hand and waved it in their direction. A few bolts of lightning shot out, striking the wall between the two adolescents. Plaster showered the floor. The youngsters pulled back from the impact as far as their chains would permit them. Merlin stared in numb shock at the smoldering mark left on the wall, while Mary shook a few pieces of plaster out of her hair and continued to stare angrily at their captor.
"Youíre not the first, believe me," Sekhmet continued. "Oh, youíre the first people that theyíve brought here. But theyíve been bringing me other things before that. Little things that theyíve stolen from the towns in the area, pieces of jewelry, old artifacts, that sort of thing." She sat up and pointed her finger at a wooden chest standing next to her bed. It skidded along the floor until it struck a pedestal with a statue of a cat perched atop it, then fell over on its side, spilling out a large assortment of trinkets and small art objects from various stages in ancient Egyptian history, from the days of the first Pharaohs all the way down to the Hellenistic Age and beyond. "But that doesnít work either."
She threw herself upon her back again, sighing. "I canít even go out and ravage Egypt again, the way that I used to a few thousand years ago. Oberon would just find out about it and haul me back to Avalon to be locked up. Of course, maybe that wouldnít be so bad. Thereís nothing to do out here after all; maybe I should give myself up. Being a prisoner back on Avalon might be better than this."
She sighed again and shot out another lightning bolt at the wall, missing Merlin by only a few inches. Mary stared in horror at the singe mark to his right, then turned her head to stare furiously at Sekhmet. "Leave him alone!" she cried. "Canít you see that heís ill? Youíve got no right to treat him this way!"
Sekhmet looked with unfocused eyes at the young English girl. "So you care about him, do you?" she asked. "Youíre his girlfriend, then?"
"Yes, I am," said Mary, nodding calmly.
"Big mistake," said the lioness-headed Unseelie. "Very big mistake. Never get too fond of a boy, little girl. Youíll only wind up losing him. Youíll miss him and gnaw your heart out with grief over him, but itís no use. Heís gone. Gone for good. And thereís nothing that you can do to bring him back. His memory will haunt you and haunt you and haunt you. Youíll do everything that you can, too, to deal with it. Youíll even go searching for the presents that he gave you, track them down to the museum that theyíre being kept, and then, just as youíre about to recover them, be thwarted by a group of meddling -" She halted in mid-sentence and shook her head. "Well, anyway," she said, "donít get close to anybody. Youíre only setting yourself up for heartache."
The two young women who had brought Merlin and Mary into Sekhmetís bedchamber and chained them to the wall there stood by the doorway, watching their mistressís display in silence. They then turned to each other, nodded, and silently left the room.
* * * * *
"We have to do something, Amurath," said Zuri, as the two werecheetahs walked down the corridor.
"I agree," said Amurath. "Sheís becoming almost impossible to live with these days. Nothing but lolling about on her bed, talking about just how futile everythingís become. Even playing with those two children hasnít cheered her up."
"Sheís barely even tried," said Zuri. "I mean, just a couple of years ago, sheíd have had them cowering for mercy by now. And what is she doing instead? Using them as a sounding board to complain to."
"Perhaps we could give her their friends from the dungeon," said Amurath. "She might find them more entertaining."
"I doubt it," said Zuri. "Itíll have to be something bigger than that. She didnít even show any interest when we gave her that manís sword, and it was filled with power. No, we need something different. And Iíve an idea."
She turned right through an opening into a large dark room, strewn with debris and discardings of various sorts. Shattered remnants of chariots from the Pharaohsí armies lay alongside rusting swords and armor from the Crusades, artillery and tattered uniforms that had once belonged to Napoleonís army in the Battle of the Pyramids, fire-blackened fragments of papyrus and parchment scrolls filched from the Library of Alexandria, and other mementoes of the long and colorful history of Egypt, in an utterly chaotic hodgepodge. Zuri carefully made her ways past these to a small shelf near the back of the room. She pushed aside a dented Greek helmet that had once been worn by one of Alexander the Greatís soldiers, and pulled out a book underneath, a small leather-bound codex. This she took back into the corridor where Amurath was waiting for her.
"Do you see this design on the cover?" she said, pointing to an eight-pointed cross on the front of the book. "The mark of the Knights Templar."
"What is it?" asked Amurath, looking closely at it.
"Something that the Mistress took once from one of those knights after amusing herself by torturing him, I believe," said Zuri. "Long before our time. Those travellers believe that the Templars had something to do with the Holy Grail. If theyíre right, then this book could help them find it."
"And what do we want with the Holy Grail?" Amurath inquired. "What can it do for us?"
"Not for us," Zuri replied. "For her. Think of it! Itís one of the greatest treasures of all time. If we present it to her, the magnitude of that gift just might be enough to bring her out of her depression. Certainly I canít think of anything better."
"Youíre right," said Amurath, after a momentís thought. "Letís do it."
* * * * *
"Well, that settles it," said Griff, as he walked back to the center of the room. "Not a single loose stone anywhere. Obviously Sekhmetís too sharp to allow the old Ďsecret tunnel connected to the dungeon cellí concept in her home."
"And the door canít be battered down," said Arthur. "I wonder if we could find some way of luring the cheetahs in."
"They look a little too smart to fall for that," replied Griff. "I must say, if we had to be captured by a villain, why couldnít it have been one who was careless enough to make all the old classic mistakes? Thereís never one of those cliches around when you need them."
"Then there is only one thing left for us to do, I fear," said Arthur. "We will have to sit down and wait."
"Something that Iím not that good at myself, Iíll admit," said Griff. "But I suppose that itís the only option left at the moment. Maybe, with a little bit of time, weíll find some other plan."
The two friends sat down against the wall opposite the door. After a couple of minutes, Arthur spoke again in a trobled tone of voice. "I wonder if we will ever find the Grail. Weíve been searching for it for months now, and weíre still no closer to it than before. I havenít wanted to mention this, not while Merlin and Mary were close by, but now - I am beginning to fear that we will never find it. It may very well be that our quest is doomed to failure."
"Oh, come off it, Arthur!" said Griff at once. "Donít talk like that! We canít give up now! Weíll find it somewhere; we just have to keep on looking!"
"But we have yet to uncover any definite trace of it, anywhere," said Arthur. "In every place that we searched, we have found nothing, not even a clue as to its true whereabouts." He sank his chin upon his hands, his eyes bleak with despair. "I wonder if the Grail may even still exist upon this earth. For all that we know, perhaps it has been taken up to Heaven after all."
"Things looked tough for us when we were searching for Merlin, too," said Griff. "But we didnít give up. We kept on looking,and we found him. And it was the same with Excalibur, too, before that, even when it looked as if Macbeth had gotten to it first and all our searching was for nothing. But we got your sword back as well. And Iím certain that itíll be the same here. If we keep on looking, weíll find the Grail just like we found Excalibur and Merlin. If we can find a way of getting out of this cell first," he added, looking about him. "That still seems to be the tricky part. Iíve got to admit, Arthur, that itís times like these that I wish that I could talk to Brianna."
"I know how you feel, my friend," said Arthur. "Itís been weeks since Iíve last been able to speak to Jennifer, as well. Truth to tell, I never seem to have the time that I need for her. Iíve been on one quest after another since we met, and theyíve kept me so busy that I can scarcely find a moment to talk to her. Sheís noticed that also." He shook his head ruefully, remembering their conversation at Christmas.
"She understands, though, doesnít she?" asked Griff. "I mean, all these quests that weíve been on - well, we had to carry them out. It was part of our job. Youíre the Once and Future King and Iím one of your knights. And these quests and adventures are all part of our purpose."
"I know," said Arthur. "And therein lies much of the problem. I have sworn duties to perform, and I cannot abandon them for the woman that I love. I must not commit the error that Geraint did and neglect my knightly vows for my ladyís sake. But I have a duty to her, as well. Just as I did to Guinevere." He sighed again. "Iíve sometimes wondered about that. Was I as good a husband to her as I might have been? Did I lavish too much attention upon my knights then, sparing little for her? Did she seek solace with Lancelot on that account? Once or twice, Iíve even wondered - and feared - that I wedded her more for the Round Table that her father had in his keeping and the hundred knights that went with it, than for herself."
"It is a nasty tangle, Iíll admit," said Griff. "I remember that, back when the Nazis were bombing London and I was courting Una, she wasnít too keen on my going out to fight them. She did just about everything she could to talk me out of it, in fact. But I knew then that I had to do something, that I had to help protect the city. So I went out anyway and did my duty." He gave a wry half-smile. "Of course, that led to my meeting Goliath and getting brought by him to the 1990ís, where I found that sheíd become Leoís mate. But then I met Brianna not too long after, so I suppose it all evened out. And she understands what we need to do."
Before Arthur could reply, footsteps sounded outside the door once again. It swung open and the same two women as before entered the cell, again flanked by the cheetah guards. The dark-haired one held an ancient leather-bound book in her hands, with an eight-pointed cross upon the front cover.
"What business have you with us now?" asked Arthur.
"The Mistress is willing to bargain with you," said the dark woman. "She will spare your friends and grant them their freedom, in exchange for the Holy Grail."
"That is out of the question!" began Arthur. "To deliver up the Grail to one such as your lady -"
"This is the only offer that we make, the only deal that she will accept," said the blonde. "The Grail, in exchange for your two young friendsí lives. Take it or leave it."
"Very well," said Arthur with a reluctant sigh. "I will do as she bids me."
"Take this book," said the dark-haired woman, handing the tome to him. "Within its pages, you will find all that you need to discover the whereabouts of the Grail."
"And your sword," said the blonde, giving Arthur Excalibur next. "You will need it on your mission. But do not even think to use it against us. If you offer us any violence, either of you, the two younglings will enjoy a slow and painful death at the Mistressís hands."
"Follow us," said the dark-haired woman.
Arthur and Griff followed them silently out into the corridor and down it to a flight of rough stone steps. They emerged with their guides in the middle of a large hall cluttered with scaffolding everywhere. More women and cheetahs were at work on it. Arthur and Griff had no time to study their surroundings, however, for Sekhmetís two minions escorted them outside, down another flight of stairs and out into the desert.
"Go now," said the dark-haired woman.
"And do not return without the Grail," said the blonde. "Or the prisoners will pay the price."
The two were-cheetahs turned and walked back up the steps into the half-finished mansion. A wall of sand blew between the building and Arthur and Griff, momentarily obscuring their view of it. When it cleared away there was no trace of the great house to be seen. Arthur and Griff were left standing alone in the middle of the desert.
"Well!" said Griff, looking at the empty sands. "They certainly know how to do a disappearing act."
"There must be some manner of enchantment at work here," said Arthur, "to make this place invisible. I very much doubt that we will be able to re-enter it and rescue our friends until we have fulfilled the quest that Sekhmet has laid upon us."
"Then I say that weíd better get to work on it," said Griff. "Letís have a look at that book, Arthur. If they gave it to us, then it must contain something in its pages that can help us out here."
Arthur nodded and opened the book. He turned over a few pages until his eyes fell upon a rough sketch. Griff stood next to him, gazing at the drawing over his shoulder.
"From what I can tell," said Arthur, looking over it and straining his eyes to read the scrawled notes at the bottom, "it seems that, to find the Holy Grail, we must seek out a pyramid buried in the sands. The Grail is kept in a secret chamber deep within it."
"So does it say anything about how to find this pyramid?" asked Griff. "I mean, if itís all the way beneath the sand, locating it could be even trickier than the old needle in a haystack."
"Nothing," said Arthur. "The Templars were apparently even more secretive than I had thought. There are no instructions at all on how to locate this pyramid or where in Egypt it might lie."
"Keep on reading," said Griff. "Maybe thereís something a bit later on in the book."
Arthur turned over a few pages only to find more diagrams. "Nothing so far," he said. "Wait a minute," he added. "What is this?"
A miniature golden arrow slid out between two of the parchment pages and landed on the palm of Arthurís hand. Griff bent over and stared at it, his eyes widening. "I wonder what this is for," he said.
"Your guess is as good as mine, my friend," said Arthur. "It must have held some importance to the Knights of the Temple for them to have placed it in this book. But I do not see how it can help us to find their treasure or the lost pyramid."
The arrow began to glow just as he spoke the last word, and then suddenly rose up into the air. It circled above their heads until it pointed to their right, beginning to emit a faint humming sound as it did so. Then, without warning, it sped off as swiftly as if it had been loosed from a bow, leaving a trail of golden light behind it.
"Follow it, Griff!" cried Arthur, rushing after the arrow. "Donít lose sight of it!"
"No fear of that, Arthur!" answered Griff, running alongside him. Together they pursued the arrow off into the night.
* * * * *
"So what are you doing here in Egypt?" Sekhmet asked, reclining on one elbow as she looked closely at Merlin. "Outside your regular stomping grounds, arenít you?"
Merlin sighed as he raised his head. "If you must know," he said, "weíre here on a quest, and one that has nothing to do with you. Arthur and I are seeking the Holy Grail."
"Oh?" the lioness-headed Unseelie inquired. "And for what reason, might I ask?"
"Iím dying," said Merlin. "Dying, and only the Holy Grail can save my life. Thatís why we need it. Listen to me, Sekhmet." He looked at her imploringly as he spoke. "We didnít come here to disturb you, and didnít even know that you were here. You may have fought beside my father in the last Unseelie War, but that doesnít concern us just now. What does concern us is the Grail. Please let us go so that we can continue our quest for it."
"Questing for the Grail?" asked Sekhmet. She began to roll about on the bed, laughing hysterically. "Oh, thatís just too much!" she cried, rocking back and forth. "Questing for the Grail!"
"I donít see anything funny about it," said Mary sharply.
Sekhmet rose unsteadily to her feet. "So you hope that the Holy Grail can save your life, Merlin," she said. "Merlin, the son of His Imperial Pompousness, Lord Madoc Morfryn." She began to pace about the room, striking one overdramatic pose after another. "The son of ĎI will crush this world under my feet, enslave humanity forever, and grind the gargoyles to powderí himself! And you believe that the Grail will cure you? Given everything that Iíve heard about it, itís more likely to send you to join him instead. It doesnít take kindly to our kind, or so I understand." She laughed again. "Youíre endangering your own life and that of your friends, subjecting them to one peril after another, just so that you can find something that will reduce you to a pile of ashes the moment that you take a single sip from it. Youíre doomed, little boy! Doomed, doomed, doomed!" She threw herself back down upon the bed, beating upon it with her fists while she laughed helplessly some more. "Yes, weíre both in a fix, thatís true enough. But at least Iíll be still alive by the yearís end, which is more than can be said for you, Master Ďdoomed if you find it and doomed if you donít.í"
"I donít see what difference it makes to you," commented Mary sharply. "I mean, youíre not doing anything important now. Youíre just hiding out in the middle of nowhere, whining and sulking just because you and your friends werenít able to take over the world. Thatís hardly living at all."
Sekhmet sat up and stared at her, her feline face contorted with a sudden fury. "Be quiet, little girl!" she shouted, then raised one hand and pointed it straight at Mary. A flash of magical energy shot from her finger-tip and struck the girl straight in the chest. She grimaced, letting out a cry of pain, and doubled up from the blast by as much as her chains would allow her to do so. Her hair stood up on end, flying out in all directions in a wild, almost punkish style, sparks flickering at its tips.
"Leave her alone!" shouted Merlin at once. "If you kill her, Iíll -" He broke off, staring helplessly at his girlfriend. Mary had raised her head again and was staring even more angrily at Sekhmet.
"Merlin told me that you were a fierce and relentless warrior-goddess once," said Mary. "But after what Iíve seen of you, Iím having a hard time believing it. If thatís what you really were, youíd be picking on somebody your own size, instead of chaining up a couple of kids to the wall and shooting lightning bolts at them. Itís very brave of you, Iíd say, to be torturing a dying boy who canít fight back. Iíve faced a lot of enemies already since I started travelling with Arthur and Merlin - Anthropophagi, ghosts, giants, Morgana la Fay, and even a couple of Unseelies like you, and they knew how to do some real fighting. But as for you - youíre just pathetic. Youíve got no pride whatsoever. Youíre just a washed up has-been."
"If you do not stop talking now," said Sekhmet, speaking with a feline growl at the back of her throat, "I will cut your tongue out of your mouth."
"If you want something to do," Mary went on, "then Iíll give you some action. Let me out of these chains and Iíll fight you, one on one. At least then youíll be acting like a proper warrior, not like a crybaby."
Sekhmet stared at her incredulously, her anger forgotten. "You fight me?" she asked. "Thatís absurd! I am the Eye of Ra, one of the greatest of the Unseelies. Youíre little more than a child. Youíre not offering me anything even remotely resembling a contest."
"All right, then," said Mary. "If you want to make it a fair fight, then turn me into one of the Third Race, like you." Merlin looked straight at her in a mixture of astonishment, admiration, and alarm, his jaw dropping, but said nothing. "Or find some way of making me tougher, so that we can battle it out on equal terms. What do you say to that?"
Sekhmet silently looked Mary straight in the eye. Mary defiantly returned her gaze, hazel eyes against golden. Even with her hair still wild and her clothing disheveled, she bore herself with a regal dignity that would have befitted a great queen. At last Sekhmet shifted her head away.
"Count yourself fortunate that Iím not about to lower myself by fighting a mere human, barely out of childhood," she said sharply. "Otherwise, youíd quickly find yourself regretting your words." She fell silent, looking at Mary uncomfortably again.
"I donít know whether thatís the bravest thing that Iíve ever seen you do, the stupidest, or both," said Merlin to her in a low voice. "Either way, you just set quite a record for yourself."
"Thank you," she replied, a trifle stiffly.
The doors opened and the two women who had brought the youngsters as prisoners to Sekhmet entered the bedchamber. "Greetings, Your Highness," they said as one, both prostrating themselves before her.
"Well, what do you want?" asked Sekhmet, turning to face them.
"We bring you great tidings, Mistress," said the blonde.
"The man and the gargoyle whom you took prisoner," said the raven-haired woman, "have been dispatched upon a quest. Soon they shall return from it and bear with them, as a present for Your Highness, the greatest of all treasures."
"We speak of the Holy Grail itself," said the blonde.
Sekhmet blinked at them in utter astonishment. "A religious trinket belonging to the humans," she said at last, with a half-yawn. "How very exciting. Be still, my racing heart."
"But, Your Highness, we thought that you would be pleased," said the dark-haired woman. "The Grail is one of the greatest of all legendary artifacts. The humans have sought it for almost two thousand years. Surely -"
"The humans this, the humans that," said Sekhmet. "What does it matter? It canít compare to the good old days when they were worshipping me instead, calling me the destroyer of worlds. Why should I want anything belonging to one of their new religions? Go away."
"But, Mistress -" began the blonde.
"I said, go away, NOW!" Sekhmet shouted at them both. "And donít come back here, if you know whatís best for you. I want to be alone! Well, except for them, that is," she added, gesturing to her two prisoners. "And Iím not even all that sure that I want them much longer."
"But consider this, Your Highness," said the dark-haired young woman. "To find the Holy Grail, the two warriors must pass a great many tests. Their very lives will be placed in great peril. They will be pushed to the very limits of their endurance."
Sekhmet paused, looking thoughtful. "Great peril?" she repeated aloud. "Very limits of their endurance?" She stood up, an interested gleam in her eyes. "Maybe this isnít such a bad idea after all," she said musingly. "It certainly sounds much more amusing than accepting a challenge from that little English Joan of Arc wannabe over there. Very well, then. Letís go see how theyíre doing, shall we?"
"As your ladyship pleases," said both women, bowing their heads in respect.
Sekhmet snapped her fingers. There was a whirling sound and a flash of light. When it had cleared, she, the werecheetahs, Merlin, and Mary, were all gone, and the chains that had bound the two youngsters dangled loosely from the wall.
* * * * *
The arrow was drawing closer to the ground. It had sped before Arthur and Griff as they had pursued it, always keeping a set distance before them, but now it was plunging downwards. Even as they caught up to it, it dove into the sands, burying itself beneath them.
"So what do we do now?" Griff asked.
"That arrow led us here for a purpose," said Arthur, bending down and scooping up one handful of sand after another on the spot where the golden shaft had disappeared. "We must examine this place, and discover that purpose."
Griff knelt down and joined Arthur in brushing away the sand. "Hereís something," he said, a couple of minutes later. He ran his hands across the top of an exposed stone block with a series of strange designs carved upon its surface. From left to right, they were a crown, a cup, a ring, and a sword. "There must be some significance to these," he said.
Arthur nodded. "Well done, Griff," he said. He pulled out the book and opened it. "Let us see if we can find anything about these markings within its pages."
He thumbed through the tome for a while then nodded. "Yes, hereís something," he said. "Take a look at this, Griff," he said.
Griff stood beside his king and looked at the drawings on the page before him. Although the ink upon the parchment was faded, the pictures were clear and unmistakable. They were the same as the engravings upon the stone, down to even the smallest stylistic detail, but ordered differently. From left to right, the book showed first the crown, then the ring, then the sword, and finally the cup.
"I must admit, Iím a bit surprised that they did it in the wrong order," said Griff. He looked closer at it and frowned. "Or did they?"
"What do you mean?" asked Arthur.
"Iíve an idea," said the gargoyle. He placed one finger down firmly upon the chiseled crown-shaped engraving on the stone at their feet. The crown sank slightly into the surface of the stone.
"Yes, I was hoping for something like that," said Griff. "The book is the key to this riddle. We push the other three symbols in succession." And with that, he pushed the ring next, then the sword, and finally the cup.
Just as he finished the last and rose to his feet, the ground began to tremble beneath them. Then only a few yards to their right, something began to rise through the sand. As it broke free from its covering Arthur saw what it was. "The cap of the pyramid!" he cried. "Weíve found it, Griff!"
Before Griff could reply, however, the two adventurers found themselves rising up in the air, tottering wildly, as more of the pyramid emerged directly beneath their feet. Arthur hurriedly brought Excalibur down, point foremost, upon one of the blocks of stone that made up the pyramidís side, embedding it firmly. "Hold on to me tightly, my friend!" he shouted to Griff.
Griff grabbed hold of Arthur at once, while Arthur continued to grasp Excaliburís hilt with both hands, using it to anchor them both. The pyramid shot upwards towards the sky, rumbling as it rose, and then halted, quivering. Arthur breathed a sigh of relief as both he and Griff gazed about them at the desert far below.
"Well, it seems that we have made good progress so far," he said. "This must be the very pyramid that the book mentioned. Now we must find a means of entering it."
As he spoke, the blocks of stone beneath his feet and Griffís, and Excaliburís blade-tip, gave way. The two of them found themselves sliding rapidly down a dark shaft, straight into the heart of the pyramid itself. They landed, with a couple of oofs, on the stone floor at the very bottom.
"Well, I suppose that thatís one way to solve the problem," said Griff, picking himself up. "How about a little light, Arthur?"
"Very well," said Arthur, raising Excalibur; the sword had freed itself from the stone that it had been thrust into even as they had slid down the slope. Light shone from the blade, illuminating their surroundings. The two of them were standing in the middle of a featureless chamber with walls and floor made from hewn stone.
"So how do we get out of here?" asked Arthur, searching about for openings and seeing none. "Do you have any suggestions, Griff?"
Before Griff could reply, part of the wall before them swung outwards, grinding against the rock, and revealing a shadowy passageway. From the darkness there came a succession of clanking, rattling sounds, drawing closer. Arthur held Excalibur out before him, while Griff tensed for battle. Only a few moments later there emerged into the room four skeletons, clad in rusting armor and tattered white surcoats with red crosses. Two of them bore swords, two of them maces, and all four of them had great shields slung upon their arms, each one white with a black eight-pointed cross emblazoned upon it.
"Well, here comes the welcome wagon," said Griff. "Why must it always be skeletons?" he added under his breath.
The skeletons charged at them, saying not a word, making no sound other than the clattering of their bones. Arthur and Griff braced themselves for the attack.
* * * * *
"Not bad," said Sekhmet, watching the battle unfold. She stood upon a sand dune overlooking the pyramid. The air was rippling before her in such a way as to display an image of Arthur and Griff battling the armed skeletons. Two of them were setting upon the former British king and two upon the gargoyle knight, but all four of them were swinging with sword and mace at them in earnest. Arthur and Griff were dodging their blows however, and fighting back with equal valor.
"I must admit," said Sekhmet, a smile beginning to form upon her leonine face, "that I got here just in time. Any later, and Iíd have missed a good first act."
Amurath and Zuri stood behind her in a respectful silence. They held Merlin and Mary tightly by the shoulders. Both youngsters were watching the battle scene as closely as Sekhmet, but with far greater concern.
* * * * *
Arthur brought Excalibur down upon the last knight, felling him to the ground. "Well, that has taken care of the first obstacle," he said, standing over the bones. "Let us hope that there are no worse ones lying between us and the Grail. Are you coming, Griff?"
"Just a moment, Arthur," said Griff, bending down over one of the skeletons that he had defeated. He plucked its mace loose from its bony fingers. "This might come in handy while weíre here," he said, raising it high.
"Then let us go," said Arthur.
They proceeded down the passageway, Excalibur lighting their path before them, the only sound being the thud of their feet upon the stones beneath them. They had proceeded thirty feet, perhaps, when a fresh grinding sound began. Griff grabbed hold of Arthur and pulled him back, just as the floor of the corridor before them gave way, revealing a gaping pit.
"That could have been a nasty one," said Griff "This place must be crawling with booby-traps of every sort."
"Yes, I should have expected that," said Arthur. He looked down into the pit. A sizable assortment of snakes, mostly asps by the look of them, were slithering about at its bottom. Several of them raised their heads, sticking out their tongues to sniff the air, and hissed at Arthur and Griff above them.
"I see that weíve got all sorts of company here," said Griff, looking down. "So now weíre just going to have to find a way across without paying a call on those chaps down below. Iíd say that theyíre eager to receive us, but not in a way that weíd appreciate."
"Can you jump across the pit carrying me, Griff?" Arthur asked.
"Probably," he answered. "But I want to calculate the distance first. If we miss the other side, then that lot down there will definitely be treating us the way that one of their ancestors treated Cleopatra." He squinted slightly, looking at the tunnel on the other side of the pit, attempting to work out just how far away it was.
"Donít linger over it too long," said Arthur, turning around just then and gazing back the way that they had come. "I fear that we have some old friends on their way to greet us."
Griff looked back as well. The four skeletons that they had defeated upon their arrival in the entry chamber had somehow reassembled themselves, and were now advancing down the passage towards them. The one whose mace Griff now carried lagged behind the other three, unarmed, but the others bore their swords and mace up high, ready to renew the battle.
"Now, look here," Griff said at once. "You people just donít seem to understand the rules. When we beat you, you stay beaten. You donít reassemble yourselves."
The skeletons paid him no heed. They merely drew closer, rattling all the way.
"It seems that theyíre more persistent than we had expected," said Arthur. "Or rather, the magic that animates them is. We must get across that pit, before they can reach us."
"Actually, why donít we let them reach us?" asked Griff.
"What do you mean?" Arthur asked. "We canít take part in a second battle with them, my friend; weíd only wear ourselves down all the sooner."
"Oh, this isnít going to be a conventional battle, Arthur," Griff replied. "Iíve got a better idea."
The skeletons advanced, weapons at the ready. Just as they were almost upon the two companions, Arthur grabbed hold of Griff from behind, clinging tightly to him. The gargoyle began to climb up the side of the wall, until he and Arthur were almost at the top of it and out of the skeletonsí reach. The skeletons halted at the edge of the pit, looking up at them, apparently deliberating over what to do next.
"Now!" cried Griff. He leaped down, Arthur still holding onto him, and landed behind the four skeletons. Just as the guardians were turning around, Arthur and Griff rushed forward, Excalibur and Griffís mace held out before them. They struck out at the two skeletons immediately before them, knocking them backwards into their companions at the pitís rim. All four skeletons toppled into the snake pit with a loud clatter. A chorus of disappointed and disgusted hisses rose up from within.
"Sorry about that," Griff called down to the snakes, which were swarming over the inedible bones. "Not very tasty, I know."
"Good thinking, my friend," said Arthur. "Now let us cross this pit ourselves, and continue on our way."
* * * * *
Sekhmet laughed in delight as she watched the skeleton knights land among the snakes. "Oh, this is wonderful!" she cried. "I havenít had this much fun in years! If Iíd known that it was going to be this entertaining, Iíd have brought a bowl of popcorn with me."
She leaned forward eagerly, watching Arthur and Griff press deeper into the heart of the pyramid.
* * * * *
"The woodworkís just swarming with these chaps," said Griff, leaping out of the way of his latest assailant. The skeleton knight, this one mounted on a skeleton warhorse and bearing a great lance, thundered past him before reining in its steed and turning about for a second charge. "This is the third lot that weíve come across since the snake pit. Where do they all come from?"
"The Order must have known how to create formidable guardians to protect its secrets," said Arthur, striking his opponent off its bony horse with a quick blow from Excalibur. He sighed. "I feel almost sorry for our adversaries, actually. Theyíre only obeying the task that was laid upon them, keeping out intruders such as us."
"Well, itís either us or them," said Griff, unhorsing his knight with a sound buffet from his mace. "And we have to get past them to find the Grail and save the others. I suppose that theyíll understand."
Arthur nodded as they continued on down the corridor, past the chamber where they had been attacked. Only a few paces farther he halted, staring at the floor closely ahead, and then brought his sword down upon the trip wire a few inches in front of him. Several arrows whistled out from the wall to the right of him, just before him, to strike the opposite wall and clatter harmlessly to the floor.
"With all these traps and guardians about," said Griff, "this is starting to feel like one of those modern-day adventure movies; even the settingís right for it. I just hope that they havenít gone so far as to put a mummy or two in here. Thatíd definitely be overdoing it."
"I believe so," agreed Arthur as they rounded another corner. Then both halted. Before them an eerie bluish-green glow stretched across the stone corridor, flickering ominously. On the wall to the right a rough inscription in Latin had been scratched out upon the masonry.
"What does it say?" Griff asked Arthur. "Anything about what that barrier is?"
Arthur nodded. "It says that this is the final obstacle to our path. Only those who are worthy of attaining the great secret on the other side may enter. Those who are unworthy and attempt to penetrate the barrier will surely be reduced to dust."
"You know, they could have done that one first," said Griff. "But it looks as though weíll just have to face it if we're going to go any further."
Arthur nodded. The two of them strode towards the pulsating light, and then stepped through it. They felt a tingling sensation about them for a moment, but nothing else happened. They found themselves in a small chamber on the other side.
"Well, it looks as though we passed their test," said Griff, turning to Arthur.
"You have indeed," said a hollow voice. Arthur and Griff spun about in its direction, to see yet another skeleton in Templar armor, this one seated upon a great wooden throne. A large coffer sat upon its lap, clasped in its bony hands. "Welcome to the inner sanctum," said the skeleton, a red glow pulsating in its hollow eye-sockets as it spoke.
Arthur raised Excalibur and Griff his mace at once. The skeleton chuckled slightly as it saw them do so. "Thereís no need of that," it said. "Your trials are over; I will offer you no battle. In eight hundred years, you are the first to have made it all the way here. Those who came here before you were far less fortunate. You truly are most valiant and puissant warriors." It arose from the throne. "I honor and salute you both for it."
"Who are you?" Arthur asked, lowering Excalibur and taking a cautious step forward.
"I am the guardian of the greatest treasure in the possession of the Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon," answered the skeleton. "Jacques de Molay, the Master of my Order, entrusted me with it eight centuries ago. I have been waiting ever since for someone to overcome all the challenges placed before them - and now that time has come at last." It held out the coffer to Arthur. "Take it, sir knight," it said. "Take it and open it. I have long awaited this day, when I might finally learn what it is that I have been commanded to watch over."
"You mean, you donít know what it is?" asked Griff.
The skeleton shook its head. "Jacques de Molay never told me the nature of the treasure. All that he said was that the Order had found it in Jerusalem before it was driven from that holy city, and that it had kept it in custody ever since. Only the Master of the Order knew its true nature, and he would reveal it only to his successor upon his deathbed. And I could not even lift the lid of the box and see it for myself. The magic that made me its guardian also prevented me from breaking the seal and looking inside. But now I will finally have the answer."
Arthur took the box from the skeleton knight and looked it over closely. It was a plain wooden chest, unadorned, except for a heavy brass seal where the keyhole should have been, depicting the traditional symbol of the Templars: two knights riding upon a single horse. He set it down gently upon the floor and struck the seal with Excalibur. The lid of the coffer swung open with a clang. Arthur bent down over it, Griff and the skeleton joining him, and looked inside.
"But this is not the Grail," Arthur cried, removing the contents from the box. Instead of a cup, what the coffer had contained was a small, thin, leather-bound book.
"No," said the skeleton. "But this book must be the repository of the great lore possessed by the Order. The complete and absolute knowledge." It gazed wonderingly upon it - or at least, as wonderingly as a skeleton could manage.
"Open it, Arthur," said Griff. "Even if itís not the Grail, maybe thereís something in it that can tell us where to find it."
"Very well," said Arthur. He gingerly raised the cover and looked down upon the first page. It was blank, unstained by even the slightest drop of ink.
"Not what I was expecting," he said. "But this is only the front page. Perhaps, further inside...."
He turned the page, only to find the next one just as blank. He stared at it in disbelief, then turned it in turn, only to discover the third page just as featureless. Thumbing more and more quickly through the book, he found only a succession of blank pages.
"This is the ultimate treasure of the Knights Templar?" asked Griff. "If I didnít know better, Iíd say that it must have been somebody's diary that never got filled in."
"But this is impossible!" the skeleton protested. "There must be something more to the book than this!"
"Heís got a point, Arthur," said Griff. "Maybe it was written in invisible ink,or something like that. They canít have gone to all this trouble just to protect an empty book."
Arthur walked over to a torch burning on the wall, and held the bookís pages close enough to see if the flame would reveal hidden writing upon them, without setting the book alight. But nothing happened. Turning away, he said with a sigh, "I am sorry. This book must truly have never been used at all."
"No!" cried the skeleton, staggering backwards to its throne. "I have wasted eight centuries guarding a blank book? De Molay deceived me! The treasure is a lie!"
Sinking down upon the chair, he sighed miserably as the rust on his armor began to spread and his bones to decay. "It - is not your fault, questers," he said. "You were fooled as surely as I was. Go back to the surface with your treasure - such as it is." He waved one hand and the wall behind his throne slid back, revealing a long stairway carved into the living rock, leading upwards. "Go now, and leave me."
Even as he spoke those final words he fell apart, bones and armor crumbling into dust. Arthur and Griff stared down at the final remains of the guardian in silence, then turned to each other.
"Come, my friend," said Arthur. "Let us leave this place."
They said not a word to each other as they ascended the stairs. It was only when they had reached their top,and emerged into the nighttime desert, that Griff spoke. "So what are we going to tell Sekhmet now? I seriously doubt that sheís going to be too keen on receiving an empty book, not when she was expecting the Holy Grail."
"I agree," said Arthur. "It appears that we will have to rescue our friends from her by force."
"That wonít be necessary!" called out a womanís voice to their left. Arthur and Griff turned in its direction. For a moment the sand dune before them was empty, but then there came a flash of light, a swirling of wind-blown sand, and five figures appeared. One was a lioness-headed woman in ancient Egyptian-style clothing, bearing herself proudly erect, who could only be Sekhmet. Behind her stood the two werecheetahs, still holding Merlin and Mary by the arms.
"You were right about one thing," said Sekhmet, walking down the slope of the dune towards Arthur and Griff. "I have no need of an old book like that one. You can keep it, for all that I care. But this pyramid -" She walked up to the pyramid, eagerly running her hands across its stones, gazing up at it with delight. "I like it! Itíll make a fine retreat, something for whenever I grow tired of my mansion and want a change of scenery."
"Well, I suppose that we should warn you, maíam," said Griff, "that itís a bit of a fixer-upper. I donít know if the skeleton knights are still around in there, but the snakes and the rest of the traps probably are."
"Any new home needs a bit of remodelling," replied Sekhmet, not sounding the least bit concerned. "Itíll give me an entertaining project for the next few years, at least, something to do. Of course, Iíll need some more werecheetahs to help me out with it. I suppose that itís time for a fresh recruiting drive. Such a pity that the only female in your party is already a werebeast, and a bit on the young side at that. Otherwise Iíd be converting her on the spot. But I can always look elsewhere." She continued to gaze with rapture at the pyramid.
"And our friends?" asked Arthur. "Will you release them now, Sekhmet?"
"Your friends?" asked the former Egyptian goddess, turning back to him and shrugging unconcernedly. "Oh, yes, them." She glanced up at the two youngsters, both still being held closely by the werecheetahs. Merlin was looking down troubledly at the ground, while Mary was staring straight ahead, still appearing as defiantly dignified as one can be while oneís arms are held tightly to oneís sides and oneís hair sticking out wildly in an almost spiky fashion. She looked at them only for a moment and then turned back to Arthur.
"I suppose that they were of some use to me," she said, shrugging again. "In fact, they helped me realize something. Iíve been lowering myself for too long, working for people like Lord Madoc for schemes thatíll never work, or chasing after memories that I can never recover. And Iíd forgotten something; Iím a goddess. Or at least I was worshipped as one once. I should be giving orders, not taking them. And from now on, thatís what Iím going to do. Let all those would-be conquerors out there do what they want to; as of now, Iím out for myself and only myself. They can just look for somebody else to do their dirty work for them. And so - you might as well have the children back."
She motioned to the werecheetahs, who shoved Merlin and Mary, not too gently, down the slope. Arthur and Griff caught them at the bottom, helping them back up to their feet.
"Are you all right, both of you?" asked Arthur.
"Well, I could definitely do with some freshening up," said Mary, smoothing down her hair. "Not to mention a long rest afterwards. Those manacles were definitely chafing me. But - weíre all right." Merlin looked about to say something, then paused and kept his mouth shut.
"All right, youíve got your friends back," said Sekhmet. "And so - get off my property, you trespassers! Now!"
"I think that weíd better do as she says," said Merlin uneasily.
"I agree," said Arthur. "Letís be away from here."
"Are you certain that we should just be leaving, Arthur?" asked Mary, as they walked away, Griff carrying Merlin upon his back. "I mean - how do we know that Sekhmetís not going to unleash something really nasty upon Egypt now that sheís got her spirits up again?"
"We donít," Arthur told her. "But weíve had enough fighting for now, and I doubt that we are in any condition to take her on. Especially Merlin." He glanced at his exhausted advisor, still being borne by Griff.
"And the book?" Mary asked. "I mean, if itís as empty as it looks, then it wonít even help us find the Grail."
"That is a riddle that we will have to solve later," Arthur replied, escorting her gently across the desert.
* * * * *
"We found it, Merlin. We found the Grail."
Merlin sat up, his eyes widening at the sight of the glowing golden chalice in Arthurís hands. Griff and Mary stood beside the king, Griff to his right, Mary to his left. All three of them gazed down happily at him.
"I donít believe it," gasped the wizard. "You actually did discover it."
"And now you can be cured," said Mary eagerly. "Youíll be all right at last."
The Grail glowed brighter as Arthur brought it closer to Merlin, preparing to hand it to him. The youth felt an odd tingling sensation passing over him, that grew stronger as the Grail grew nearer. Eagerly he reached out to take it. His hands were almost about to close around it when a blast of white flame erupted from the cup and struck him.
Merlin screamed in agony as the fire consumed him. Arthur, Griff, and Mary stared helplessly in horror as he collapsed into ashes before their very eyes.
Merlin awoke, still crying out in pain and terror. His friends quickly rushed to his side, gathering about his bed and looking down concernedly at him.
"What is it, Merlin?" Arthur asked. "Was it a nightmare?"
"Yes," replied Merlin, clutching hold of the bedclothes and staring up at them. "I - I donít want to talk about it."
"Not even to us?" Mary asked. "Merlin, weíre your friends."
"I know," said the boy sadly. He looked up at them, his thoughts running back to the terrible dream that he had just experienced and to the fears which he knew had spawned it. Then he spoke.
"Iíve come to a decision. I canít let the three of you go on risking yourselves for me. Youíve put yourselves in enough danger as it is. Sekhmet tortured Mary last night, and the two of you were put through one peril after another, when her minions sent you to that pyramid. We could all have died at her hands, in fact, if she hadnít become just so bored with the Unseelie Court. If it had been one of the other survivors instead of her, like Surtur or the Morrigan, none of us would be alive."
"So what do you want us to do?" asked Arthur.
"Give up the quest," said Merlin. "Just go back home to London and move on with your lives. Forget about me; Iíll just spend the last few months of my life somewhere far away, where I wonít get any of you into trouble ever again."
"Thatís ridiculous!" cried Griff at once. "We are not abandoning you, Merlin, and you know it!"
"But you have to," said the boy. "Itís for your own sakes."
"Iíve heard just about enough of this," said Mary annoyedly. "Merlin, are you certain that you and Sekhmet arenít related? Because youíre talking just like her right now. All that despair and self-pity and the rest of that rubbish. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, and see if you can think of somewhere else that the Grail could be."
"Mary, I mean it!" Merlin protested. "Even if we find the Grail, what good will it do us? Iím Madocís son, born to serve him. His taint lies upon me. If I were to so much as touch the Holy Grail, it would kill me upon the spot. So the questís utterly pointless."
"You have to stop taking so seriously what other people are telling you, Merlin!" cried Mary. "Who told you that the Grail would reject you for being Madocís son? Morgana and Sekhmet, thatís who! And what do they know about it? Do you seriously believe that a bitter, vengeance-crazed sorceress and a psychopathic cat-woman who nearly wiped out everyone in ancient Egypt and likes torturing helpless prisoners are experts on what the Holy Grail will do? Merlin, I care about you very, very much, but sometimes, you just -" She threw up her hands in exasperation, then turned around and stomped out of the hotel room, slamming the door behind her.
Arthur turned around, about to follow her out, but then paused and looked back at Merlin. "Sheís right, you know," he said to the lad. "You mustnít take the burden of your fatherís crimes upon your head. His deeds are his own, and not yours; I do not believe that the Holy Grail will condemn you for them. Did it reject Galahad for the sins of his father?"
Merlin remained silent, looking up at his former pupil. Arthur went on.
"Rest here during the day," he said. "Rest and think about what those who love you have told you, so that tomorrow we can give our full and undivided attention to the Grail again."
He left the room. Griff quietly followed him, leaving Merlin lying on the bed alone.
For a few minutes longer he stared up at the ceiling moodily. At last he sat up and turned to look at the small blank book that Arthur and Griff had recovered from the pyramid the night before. He picked it up and looked it over.
"Itís definitely very old," he said to himself. "In fact, I wonder-" He stared down hard at it, his eyes flickering for a moment. "930 B.C.," he said to himself. "Thatís much older than the Templars. All the way back to King Solomon, in fact. But still - why would the Knights Templar attach so much importance to an empty book?"
He felt it over carefully for a couple of minutes, until his fingers passed over a slight bump in the spine. He shook the book gently, holding the palm of his left hand underneath. A small gold ring fell out, landing neatly in his hand. Its only adornment was the characters engraved upon its band. He held it up to his eyes to get a better view.
"Ancient Hebrew," he murmured to himself. "It really could have been King Solomonís." He read the inscription aloud and then suddenly began to smile.
"Gam zeh yaíavorí," he said. "'And This Too Shall Pass'. The complete and absolute knowledge."
* * *
"Here you are," said Mary, handing her cellular phone to Griff. "I donít know what fatherís going to say about this when he gets the phone bill, but I suppose that heíll understand."
"Thank you, Mary," said Griff. He punched in the London estate's number and listened to the phone on the other end ringing as the girl moved away. "Ah, hullo, Michael," he said. "This is Griff. Iíd like to speak to Brianna, please. If you could find her?"
A couple of minutes passed and then he heard her voice. "Griff?" she asked.
"Hullo, Brianna," he began. "Weíre in Egypt just now. We havenít found the Grail yet, but weíre still looking. At any rate, I just thought that I should call and see how you were doing...."
* * *
Sekhmet stood in the central chamber of the pyramid, gazing about as her servants cleared away the dust and bones that littered it, making it more presentable. Her gaze suddenly turned to the dais at the far end, upon which sat two golden thrones. She stared at them for a moment, then sighed and turned back to Zuri and Amurath. She pointed to the throne on the left, and they nodded in response and dragged it out of the room.
* * *
Mary stood upon the hotel balcony, looking out over the town below, the wind whipping at her headscarf. Footsteps sounded behind her. She turned around to see Merlin standing there, leaning quietly upon his cane.
He smiled gently at her. "Iím sorry, Mary," he said. "And youíre right. I have been giving in to despair too much lately. Thank you for reminding me why I shouldnít."
Mary stepped forward and gently took him by the hand. "So what snapped you out of it?" he asked.
"Letís just say that the Templars really were guarding something helpful all those centuries, after all," he replied, as they walked back indoors together.
* * *
Arthur walked down the nave of the little Coptic church at the edge of town and paused before the altar. Then he knelt before it, holding Excalibur in both hands before him, hilt upwards and point downwards, in the shape of a cross. He bowed his head in silent prayer.