OUT OF THE BLUE.
Written by Todd Jensen.
Outline by Todd Jensen.
Art by Karen Blackwell.
Dedicated to the memory of Gary Sperling.
* * * * *
The Story So Far....
Fifteen hundred years ago, superstition and the sword ruled. It was a time of darkness. It was a world of fear. The strong preyed upon the weak, and the land of Britain was torn asunder.
Then Arthur Pendragon, guided by the counsel of his friend and teacher Merlin Ambrosius, founded Camelot and ruled over Britain with justice and compassion, bringing peace to the land at last. For many years, Britain prospered under him. It was a time of beauty and civilization, such as the island had never known before. But at last, through the treason of Arthur's own son Mordred, Camelot fell. And Arthur himself, mortally wounded, was taken away to Avalon, to sleep until his country would need him again.
But Arthur was awakened early. The detective Elisa Maza entered his Hollow Hill to seek his aid against the Archmage and broke the spell which had bound him in an enchanted sleep for over a thousand years. After Arthur had helped her and the gargoyles of Avalon in vanquishing the Archmage and his followers, he set out alone to explore the outside world. And by the will of Avalon, he came to London, where he met a kindred spirit, the gargoyle known as Griff. Together, they were sent to Manhattan by the Stone of Destiny, where Arthur reclaimed his sword Excalibur. Then he embarked upon a new quest, to find Merlin, accompanied by Griff whom he had dubbed a knight, and the gargoyle beast Cavall.
After much seeking, Arthur found Merlin in hiding in a village in Yorkshire, reverted to youth through a magical regeneration gone wrong. But they had little time for rejoicing. Merlin's evil father, Madoc Morfryn, the Lord of the Unseelie Court, had recovered his ancient strength and summoned his followers, scattered about the world in hiding, to his side. The Rising had begun and the Unseelie Court once again threatened the world. Arthur, Griff, and Merlin returned to London, where, with the aid of the gargoyle clan there and a few new knights, Rory Dugan, the reincarnation of the ancient Irish hero Cuchulain, Leba the bard, and Dulcinea the Spanish equestrienne, they did battle with the Unseelies. In the end, Madoc was slain and his surviving followers fled and hid themselves in dark places throughout the world once more.
But Arthur's troubles were not at an end. His bitter and vengeful half-sister, Morgana la Fay, still sought his destruction, as she had done in the time of Camelot, and used her subtle arts to delude the British government into believing Arthur to be a criminal. When the police began searching for Arthur, he and Merlin were forced to flee from London to the north. In the village of Rivencroft, they met a young girl named Mary Sefton and with her help lifted a terrible curse from the village, but at a cost; Mary was transformed into a werewolf, by day a talking wolf, by night a human. She joined Arthur and Merlin on their wanderings, hoping for a cure, and in the course of her travels with them, she and the rejuvenated Merlin developed feelings for one another.
With the help of their friends, including Jennifer Camford, whom Arthur had fallen in love with, Arthur and Merlin finally discovered Morgana's plot and foiled it. However, their victory also came with a price. Arthur's secret was revealed at last when he defeated Morgana's accomplice in Buckingham Palace, before the eyes of the world. He can conceal his true identity no longer....
* * * * *
“Can a fifteen-hundred-year-old legend be true? Has King Arthur indeed returned from Avalon to Britain to fulfill the ancient prophecies? Or are we merely dealing with a cunning impostor? Join us tonight as we explore this issue on ‘Arthur Pennington: Ancient King or Modern-day Hoax?’, a BBC News Special Report.”
As the disembodied narrator’s voice spoke, a computer-generated image appeared on the television screen, depicting a sword with a brilliantly gleaming blade, revolving in the air. It finally embedded itself with a thud in a large block of granite, behind which stood a fairy-tale-style stone castle, brightly-colored banners flying from its turrets, while the title of the program appeared in Celtic lettering superimposed over the scene.
“Good evening, everyone,” said Regina Fitzwalter, now appearing on the screen, seated behind a desk. “I’m Regina Fitzwalter. Tonight, we discuss the continuing mystery surrounding the elusive Arthur Pennington, who only last month thwarted an attempt upon the lives of the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, only to disappear without a trace immediately afterwards.” The image on the screen briefly changed to an image of Arthur battling James Seabairn, with a caption in the upper left-hand corner reading “BBC News footage”.
“A month later,” Regina continued, “Arthur Pennington is still one of the most talked-about topics in the nation. The search is continuing for this mystery man, as Scotland Yard scours London to find some trace of his current whereabouts. Michael Chapman is at New Scotland Yard, with his report.”
The screen behind her on the upper right turned on, to reveal a tall dark-haired man with a large nose, standing outside New Scotland Yard. “So, Michael,” Regina asked him, “is there any fresh word on Mr. Pennington?”
“Nothing new, Regina,” Michael Chapman answered. “Inspector Courtney’s made the same response as before. ‘The situation is under control, and we have no reason to believe that Mr. Pennington is a menace to the public any further; indeed, all the charges against him have been dropped. The people of London have no further reason to worry.’ Translation: they’re still as baffled about him as ever.”
“Michael, I understand that Security Service Agent Robert Braddock, who spearheaded the original investigation into Arthur Pennington, has chosen not to take part in the present case,” said Regina. “Have you been able to confirm this?”
“Well, nobody here’s been able to deny it,” said Michael. “The Inspector and the rest won’t talk about it, but all the same, it’s clear that he’s decided to sit this operation out. And nobody that I’ve talked to so far can tell me why he’s had this change of heart. There are a number of rumors, but nothing substantial as yet.”
“Well, thank you, Michael,” said Regina. “Keep us posted, in case anything new happens.”
As the right-hand screen went black, she turned back to face her audience. “Agent Braddock himself could not be reached for comment,” she continued. “So, why all this ado about Arthur Pennington? Well, as most of you may recall, earlier this year, Mr. Pennington was under suspicion of being the Connection, an infamous arms smuggler and reputed terrorist, with designs upon the British government and especially the Royal Family. Further investigations uncovered evidence which appeared to point to the fact that Pennington believed himself to be the legendary King Arthur, and was out to ‘reclaim’ his throne. That, however, came to a dramatic end after Pennington unexpectedly appeared in Buckingham Palace, and with the assistance of Agent Braddock, the leader of the official manhunt for him, defeated the real would-be assassin. In the aftermath, the Government dropped all charges against him - but Pennington dropped out of sight as quickly as he had appeared.
“By this time, however, larger questions had been raised about Pennington’s true identity, after he was seen fighting the would-be assassin in the Palace with this remarkable-looking sword.” The clip of Arthur battling James Seabairn appeared on the screen again, this time with a focus on the sword in his hand, gleaming brilliantly, with an illumination that was clearly not the result of light reflected upon the surface of the blade, as he struck out with it against Seabairn’s own weapon. “This unusual feat, in combination with the previous claims about Pennington’s links to King Arthur and the mystery about his person that Inspector Courtney has just described, has led many people to speculate that he could indeed be the legendary king responsible for the Round Table and Camelot - if such a man ever even existed. An issue which, admittedly, experts in the field are still disputing quite heatedly.”
Leba picked up the remote, and switched the television set off, then turned to the others. “Well, I’d say that that’s it,” she said. “The secret’s definitely out now.”
“Indeed it is,” said Arthur Pendragon, nodding gravely as he sat in an armchair facing the television set, a troubled look upon his face. Griff and Colin Marter stood to the right of his chair, and Rory Dugan and Dulcinea to the left. All of them looked just as concerned as he was.
“Well, I suppose that something like this was bound to happen sooner or later,” said Griff, a tone of forced levity in his voice. “I mean, you can’t stay a secret forever, you know.”
“That is true, and I will not deny that,” replied Arthur. “But all the same, I do not like it. To have defeated the Connection, and proven my innocence - only now to be faced with this. I fear that my defeat of Morgana and Mordred’s plot has become a pyrrhic victory. Now everyone in Britain knows about me.” He sighed. “I dislike hiding like this, skulking here as though I was still a fugitive.”
“I know, Arthur,” said Captain Marter. “The trouble is, this is the only place in the London area where Scotland Yard isn’t likely to find you. Or the reporters, for that matter, who’re probably even worse.”
Arthur rose up from his chair and began pacing about the room. “This is impossible,” he said. “I cannot hide in this place for the rest of my life. I should be out there, doing - doing -” He sighed, and gave up after a minute or so of stumbling for the right word. “Doing something more than what I am doing now.”
“Yes, but what?” said Leba. “You’ve become much too conspicuous these days, Arthur, that’s the problem. I don’t think that it’s safe for you to go roaming about the countryside again. Not after every newspaper in the United Kingdom’s been putting you on the front page, especially the tabloids.”
“So what do you propose that I do?” Arthur asked.
“Well, you could always relocate,” suggested Dulcinea. “Move to another country, and make a fresh start.”
Arthur shook his head at once. “No, that is the one thing that I will not do,” he said. “Britain is my home, my birthplace. I have lived in this island all my days, and even if I am never to rule over it again, I still will not abandon it. I must remain in this land. Even if the entire country is searching for me, I cannot leave.”
“So you can’t leave,” said Rory, “but you can’t spend the rest of your life hidin’ here. If you can’t do either, then what can you do?”
“I fear that the problem goes deeper than that, my friend,” said Arthur with a sigh. “The truth is, even if my secret had not been exposed, I still would not know what to do. That’s one of the matters that has been weighing on me for the past month.
“I’d always assumed, I suppose, that when I returned from Avalon, I would simply resume my rule of Britain, continue from where I’d left off. But now I know that that cannot be. The land has changed too much, become too different from what I once knew. A new royal house reigns here, and I cannot drive it out. And even if I could, what could I do then? Kings and queens these days are mere figureheads, devoid of rule, stripped of their power. Their functions now are nothing more than ceremony.”
“Good point,” said Leba. “Somehow I just can’t picture you being content with a job where you wouldn’t be doing much more than opening flower shows and laying foundation stones.”
“But you were supposed to come back for something all along,” said Griff. “I mean, think of all the tests that we had to go through just to win back your sword, Arthur. We wouldn’t have been given them if you weren’t supposed to do something after that, something really important. I mean, they’ve always called you the Once and Future King! That has to mean something!”
“I know,” said Arthur. “But I still have been given no clue as to what my destiny is to be, beyond the fact that it is not to be King of Britain again.” He sat back down in the armchair and sighed. “Maybe the Stone of Destiny and the Lady of the Lake were right. Maybe I have been indeed awakened far too early, as I feared back on Avalon.”
“Or perhaps you’ve already fulfilled your purpose,” offered Colin Marter. “I mean, you helped defeat the Unseelie Court when it threatened the entire world.”
“Yes,” said Arthur. “But the real credit in that victory goes to Goliath and his clan in New York. That was where the brunt of the blow fell; I only fought against Madoc’s servants here in London, not against Madoc himself.”
“We should talk to Merlin about this,” suggested Leba. “He might have some answers.”
“If he was here, that is,” said Dulcinea. “But he’s still out at the movies with Mary. We’ll have to wait until he comes back. And in any case, I’ve been getting the feeling that he’s as much in the dark on this one as you are, Arthur.”
“I fear so,” said Arthur. He bowed his head, and stared down at the floor. The others turned to look at each other, then quietly left the room. Griff followed last, looking back uneasily at his liege lord before joining the others.
“I really don’t like leaving him like this,” the griffon-like gargoyle commented, as he and the other knights stood in the hallway. “Somebody should be with him now.”
“I know,” said Dulcinea. “But he needs to be snapped out of that mood that he’s in, somehow. He can’t stay like this much longer. We have to find some answers for him soon.”
“So, do you have any ideas?” Griff asked her.
“Not yet,” she replied. “Apart from starting over abroad, and he’s already discarded that plan. So we’ll have to think of something else.”
“It’s not entirely a bad plan,” said Rory, in a half-absent tone of voice.
“And what do you mean by that?” asked Leba, turning at once to face him.
“Well, I’ve been thinkin’ lately,” said the young Irishman, “that maybe I should be goin’ back home to my village in Ireland soon. I’m afraid that I’ve been away from there for too long.”
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with what happened in Trafalgar Square, would it?” asked Leba hesitantly. They had all carefully avoided the subject of how Rory, the last time that he had taken on the form of Cuchulain, had flown into a berserk rage while battling the Minions there, and had only barely been calmed down in the nick of time. Since then, he had undergone no further such events, but everyone was aware that it could easily happen to him again.
“Partly, yes,” he said, in an uncomfortable tone of voice. “But there’s something else, as well. I mean, I - Cuchulain was supposed to be the greatest hero of Ireland. But, apart from defeating the Banshee again just after my former self awakened, and then Queen Maeve again after that, what have I been doin’ there? I mean, really? About all the work that I’ve done in the last couple of years has been over here in England. And maybe we should all be thankful that there’s been no trouble in Ireland of the sort that they’d be needin’ Cuchulain for - the Unseelies didn’t even attack it during the war - but that can’t last much longer. I was once the hero of Ireland, and that means that I really should be there instead of here.”
“You’re thinking of leaving us, then?” Leba asked.
“Well, not forever,” said Rory. “I suppose that I can still be a part-time knight of the Round Table, or somethin’ like that. But I’ll be spendin’ a lot less of my time here, if that’s to be the case.”
“We’ll miss you,” said Leba. “But at least you’ll stay in touch.”
“I hope so,” said Rory. “But that still doesn’t solve the problem over what to do about Arthur.”
“I agree with that,” said Griff. “We need an answer for that, and soon.”
* * * * *
The solitary figure stood in the shadows of the chimney on the rooftop across the street from the “Into the Mystic” shop, staring at the grey pavement before it through his night-vision goggles and frowning. “Come on, come on,” he muttered under his breath. “I can’t wait for you all night. Make an appearance!”
There were still one or two pedestrians passing back and forth by the shop, but none of them answered to the description that he had been given. He checked the dart gun at his side, making sure that it was ready for use. He had only one dart stored in it, so he would have to make it count when his target arrived.
"And it's a good thing that I'm being well-paid for this operation," he muttered, "considering that he's not going to be much of a challenge."
He looked up and down the pavement again, then nodded. Two figures were coming around the street corner, and heading for the shop. He stared straight at them through the goggles, and then nodded approvingly. “Target in sight,” he commented. “At last.”
* * *
“I still think that you’re taking it much too seriously, Merlin,” said Mary Sefton. She was doing her best to keep a straight face, but her eyes remained full of amusement. “I mean, it’s only a movie.”
“I know, I know,” said Merlin, in a decidedly grumpy tone of voice. “But still - it’s really humiliating, being portrayed as some hopelessly absent-minded old wizard who can’t do a single spell properly and always gets his beard tangled up in everything. I mean, really now!”
“Well, look on the bright side,” she said. “At least it should remind you of the advantages to being a boy all over again. No beard to get in the way any more.”
“It’s not just the beard, either,” Merlin went on. “It’s everything else in that ridiculous film, too. I mean - getting whisked overseas just by shouting ‘Blow me to Bermuda!’? I would certainly never be that careless, I tell you! And as for that business with that fat old lady squirrel-”
“Yes, I’ve been meaning to ask you about that one,” said Mary teasingly. “I can’t believe that you never once mentioned that to me.”
“Mary!” protested Merlin, blushing frantically.
“I was only joking,” she said. “Really, Merlin, it’s hardly something to make a fuss over. I mean, I don’t think that if Arthur had come with us, he’d now be grumbling over the mere notion of his boyhood nickname being ‘Wart.’ Do you?”
“Well, if I ever do start forgetting things left and right, I’ll make certain that that particular film is at the top of the list,” said Merlin. “At least we’re almost back at the shop. Maybe we can -”
Mary’s ears picked up the whistling noise only too late. A dart embedded itself in Merlin’s left shoulder just as he was a few feet away from the door to the Mystic shop. He staggered back, a shocked look on his face. Mary rushed forward with a cry and caught him in the nick of time. As she did so, she turned her head for a moment, in the direction across the street from which the dart had come. For a moment, she glimpsed a shadowy figure on the rooftop opposite, before it disappeared into the darkness.
“Come on, Merlin,” she said, quickly pulling him to the door to the shop. “Let’s get you inside, before something else happens.”
The door jingled as she entered the Mystic shop, pulling Merlin in with her. Fortunately, it was empty on that particular night, except for Leo and Una who were manning their counter, wearing the all-enveloping hooded robes that they always donned whenever they had customers to hide their true nature from them. The two gargoyles stared at the youngsters in astonishment.
“Merlin? Mary?” asked Una. “What happened?”
“Merlin’s been shot,” said Mary, as she helped the young wizard to a chair. Merlin had a slightly dazed look upon his face, but was still clearly conscious.
“Shot?” asked Una, as she and Leo came out from around the counter to assist the two adolescents.
“Did you see who did it?” Leo asked.
“Only a brief glimpse,” said Mary. “He was on the rooftop opposite, and ran off before I could get a good look at him.”
Una pulled the dart out from Merlin’s shoulder, then looked at its tip, frowning. “How are you feeling, Merlin?” she asked him.
“I’m fine, really,” said Merlin. “It was just a scratch. Nothing to worry about.”
“I’m not so certain,” the unicorn-gargoyle replied. “There was something smeared upon the tip of this dart. I can see traces of it - and I can smell it as well. It has a very unpleasant odor to it.”
“Do you think that it’s poison?” Leo asked her.
“I hope not,” said Una. “But I very much suspect that it could be.”
“Well, even if it is,” said Merlin, standing up, “I’m sure that we don’t have anything to worry about. I mean, I can survive just about anything. Remember whom you’re speaking to.”
His legs buckled under him just then, and he grasped frantically at the table next to him, grabbing hold of it to maintain his balance. Mary rushed to his side at once, with an alarmed cry, and sat him back down in his chair. She touched his forehead. “You’re burning up,” she said, her eyes widening with concern.
“Leo, help Mary get Merlin upstairs,” said Una at once. “He’ll need tending to at once. I’ll ring up the estate and inform the others. Arthur will need to know about this right away.”
Leo nodded. He walked over to the young wizard, and picked him up effortlessly in his arms. “Follow me, Mary,” he said to the girl. “We’ll see what we can do for him.”
“He’ll be all right, won’t he?” asked Mary, following the lion-gargoyle up the stairs to the upper storey of the shop, where Leo and Una’s private quarters were. “I mean, you do have a cure for this poison, don’t you?”
“Don’t worry,” said Leo. “Una’s library here should contain instructions for an antidote for just about every toxin in the world. And if she can’t find one here, there are more books back at the estate. We’ll find something, and that's a promise.”
Una placed the dart down on a secluded part of the counter, taking care not to touch its tip as she did so, then walked over to the telephone, and began dialing the estate’s number.
* * *
The marksman crouched in the shadows behind the chimney, then pulled out a cellular phone and punched in a number. It rang briefly, and then a voice on the other end spoke. “Yes?” it asked.
“This is Selden,” replied the man. “Mission accomplished.”
“The boy has been hit, then?” inquired the voice. It was electronically distorted to such an extent that the man could not even tell whether his employer was male or female.
“Yes, he has,” said Selden. “The toxin should be taking effect upon him even now.”
“Excellent,” the voice at the other end replied. “Well done, Selden. Expect your payment downloaded to your Swiss bank account straight away.”
“Thank you,” said Selden.
“Is something wrong?” his employer asked at once. “I can detect a hint of dissatisfaction in your voice, Selden.”
“Well, not that I’m complaining or anything,” said Selden. “I mean, your payment is a generous one. But - this has to be the least challenging assignment that I’ve ever had. I mean, shooting a teenaged kid? Where’s the excitement in that? It was much too easy.”
“Don’t worry,” his employer replied. “Stay in the area, and you should be seeing the action that you desire soon enough. Remember, our target has friends - and these friends of his are not fifteen years old. I believe that you’ll find them enough of a challenge to suit you.”
“I certainly hope so,” said Selden, nodding grimly. And with those words, he switched off the phone, and returned it to his belt.
* * *
Morgana la Fay hung up the phone at her end, and nodded approvingly.
“So it’s begun at last,” she said to herself. “I’ll finally be rid of you, Merlin. And once you’re gone, Arthur will follow.”
* * * * *
Arthur sat in his chair, staring down at the floor in silence. He held Excalibur by the hilt in his hands, the great sword pointing downwards to the floor, but barely looked upon it. His head sank against his chest, a troubled light in his eyes.
Somewhere, in another part of the ruined manor-house where the London gargoyles lived, the telephone was ringing. Arthur remained where he was, barely budging from his seat, as someone in whatever room of the house the telephone was in answered it. A couple of minutes later, footsteps approached the door to the room, and there came a loud knock upon it.
“Yes?” Arthur asked, in a low voice. “Who is it?”
“Arthur, Una’s on the phone,” said Colin Marter. “It’s urgent. Merlin’s been shot.”
“What?” cried Arthur. He jumped up at once, and ran for the door, flinging it open. “Merlin has been attacked?” he cried, facing Captain Marter in the eyes. “How did it happen? I need to know everything.”
“Una’s still on the phone,” said Marter, leading the former High King of Britain to the great hall of the manor-house. “She can tell you all about it.”
A small crowd was already assembled around the telephone in the great hall. Not only were Griff and Arthur’s other “neo-knights” there, but a number of the gargoyles as well, including Michael, Brock, and Boz, all speaking to each other in perturbed voices. They parted to make way for Arthur, who snatched up the receiver and spoke. “This is Arthur,” he said. “What happened, Una?”
“Merlin and Mary were just getting back from seeing The Sword in the Stone at the cinema,” Una explained at the other end of the line. “They were outside our shop when somebody shot Merlin, and struck him in the shoulder with a poisoned dart.”
“Poisoned?” cried Arthur. “Una, you must tell me everything! How is Merlin?”
“Feverish,” the gargoyle replied. “Leo and Mary are looking after him upstairs. I’m studying this dart, to see if I can identify the poison that it was tipped with. So far I haven’t found anything yet, but I’m still looking through my books on the subject.”
“Then keep on doing just that, and see if you can find a cure for him,” said Arthur. “I’ll be over at once.”
He hung up the telephone, and turned to his knights. “Merlin has been poisoned,” he said to them. “We must go to the Mystic shop at once, and find out all that we can about this attack upon him.”
“Arthur, are you certain that this is a good idea?” Leba asked concernedly. “I mean, you saw only a few minutes ago on the television about how they’re all still looking for you. Inspector Courtney or somebody else might spot you if you go back to London.”
“She’s right, Arthur,” said Dulcinea. “Perhaps you’d better stay here. We can go to Soho for you and find out everything that we can.”
“No,” replied Arthur firmly. “Merlin’s life is in danger. He has always been there for me, ever since I was a boy. He taught me, helped me to the throne, and stood by my side when my kingdom was threatened by my enemies. I will not remain here, hidden safely, while he is being attacked. I will go to him now.”
“That’s the spirit!” said Griff approvingly. “Let’s be off, then, shall we?”
“Yes, we’d better,” said Leba, in a resigned tone of voice. “I’ll ring up Kevin, and see if he can take us off to Soho straightaway. Except for you, of course,” she added, turning to Griff. “You can just glide there.”
“That I can,” said Griff, nodding. He left the hall, heading outside where he could find something to climb up on that would allow him to ride the air currents all the way back to the Mystic shop. The humans in Arthur’s service stood about him, while Leba picked up the phone and began to punch in Kevin’s number.
* * * * *
“So is it possible?” Regina Fitzwalter said, continuing her report. “Could Arthur Pennington really be the legendary King Arthur, come back to life? Noted medieval scholar Cedric Scott now joins us in our studio, to give us his thoughts on the matter.” She turned to a balding middle-aged man in a jacket and tie, seated to her left. “Professor, we’re glad that you could be with us tonight.”
“My pleasure, Ms. Fitzwalter,” said Cedric Scott, nodding stiffly.
“So tell us, Professor,” Regina went on. “Do you think that Arthur Pennington really could be King Arthur?”
“Absolutely not!” he said, with a snort. “In fact, this has to be the most absurd allegation that I’ve heard in my entire life! King Arthur alive and well in London today? Utter poppycock!”
“Would you care to expand on this, Professor Scott?” Regina asked him.
“With pleasure,” he replied, nodding vigorously. “For a start, even if there had been a real King Arthur, he certainly wouldn’t be alive today. I mean, he’d have to be at least fifteen hundred years old, and that’s scientifically impossible! But in any case, I don’t believe that there ever was a real King Arthur. I know that there are still a few people out there who believe that he was some post-Roman war leader fighting against the Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries, and who base their claims on passages in the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae. But what they’ve overlooked is that both of those writings were composed in the 9th century, long enough after the period of history that they deal with for legend to creep in and contaminate their report. Certainly all that rot about Arthur single-handedly slaying 960 Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon or bearing a piece of the True Cross on his shoulders for three whole days of fighting should be enough to indicate that we’re not dealing with sober, reliable chronicles here. In fact, the only eyewitness report that we’ve got of 6th century Britain is Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae, and he never once mentions anyone called Arthur anywhere in it.”
“So you’re saying that King Arthur was purely mythical?” Regina Fitzwalter asked.
“Exactly,” he replied. “I believe that the Arthurian legend originated as merely a set of folk-tales about some completely fictional giant hero, much like Finn mac Cool in Ireland, or even Paul Bunyan in America. If you’ll take a look at the early Welsh writings about him, they focus more on his fighting fairy-tale creatures than battling historical adversaries such as the Saxons. He goes in pursuit of a giant supernatural wild boar named Troit, and raids the mythical Otherworld of Annwn in search of a magical cauldron. Those hardly sound like the activities of a historical Romano-British general. Most likely, his associations with the Battle of Badon and the Saxon wars in the 6th century - which, by the way, aren’t even mentioned in the bulk of the old Welsh material focused on him - were merely the result of some euhemeristic scholar trying to find a place for him on the historical timeline. Of course, if so many historical manuscripts hadn’t gotten lost or destroyed over the centuries, we’d probably know a lot more.”
* * * * *
Morgana watched with satisfaction as the latest document emerged from the shredder in a set of long thin ribbons of paper, absolutely illegible now. Not even Scotland Yard or MI5 would be able to make anything out of it. She dumped the remains of the shredder’s product in the waste-paper-basket, then headed for the pile of notes left over from her recently-concluded ‘Connection’ scheme, to pick the next sheet requiring destruction. She was almost there when the telephone rang.
Morgana walked over and picked up the receiver. “Morgana Cornish speaking,” she said.
“Morgana?” said the voice at the other end. “This is Sybil.”
“Sybil?” said Morgana. “How are you? How are things in Toronto?”
“Oh, well enough,” Sybil replied. “I can’t speak long, but I thought that I’d better find out what progress you’re making. So how have things gone?”
“Well, I’ve recovered the last few papers from the last project,” Morgana answered. “I should have disposed of them within the next thirty minutes. After that, there’ll be nothing left to convince any court of law in the country that I was involved in the ‘Connection’ business.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” said Sybil. “And Merlin?”
“Selden reported back a few minutes ago,” said Morgana. “His mission has been accomplished; Merlin has been poisoned.”
“Wonderful,” said Sybil, sounding delighted. “Such a pity that you could only make one dose of that particular venom. If you’d had more, you could have used a second dose upon Arthur.”
“I know,” said Morgana. “It is a pity. But at least, with Merlin gone Arthur will be all the more vulnerable to any future attacks that I can launch upon him. I’ll finally be rid of them both. And then I can have peace.”
“Assuming that they don’t find a cure for Merlin first,” said Sybil.
“They won’t,” said Morgana. “I’ve made certain of that. Trust me, Sybil; I’m expert enough on the arts of healing as well as poisoning to see to it that there is no antidote for that particular strain of venom. No, there will be nothing that can save Merlin this time.”
“And good riddance to him, I agree,” said Sybil. “So I suppose that it’ll be safe for you to re-emerge any day now.”
“Yes, it will,” said Morgana. “I’m still going to need to find some explanation for my absence to tell Nigel, though. I know that he was more than a little upset when the wedding had to be postponed.”
“The wedding?” asked Sybil, sounding incredulous. “You’re still going ahead with it?”
“Indeed I am,” Morgana replied. “We’ll have to set a new date for it, of course. But the engagement still stands.”
“That is the one thing that I don’t understand, Morgana,” said Sybil. “Why are you still marrying him? I mean, you don’t need him any longer, now that your ‘Connection’ plan has been undone. I’d have called off the engagement if I were you.”
Morgana hesitated a moment before speaking. “He could still be useful to me,” she said “He is highly placed in the government, and could make an effective ally in the future.”
“Well, if you insist,” said Sybil, not sounding entirely convinced by Morgana’s words. “For my own part, I can’t help wondering how all this commotion about your brother is going to affect any future stratagems that we might employ against him. I mean, look at the stir that’s going about. It’s almost as strong here in Canada as it is in Britain. Arthurian Studies are never going to be the same again.”
“I've seen much evidence of that here myself,” said Morgana. “I don’t know whether this makes him more vulnerable now, or less so. But either way, I will bring him down, Sybil. That I vow.”
“I certainly hope so,” said Sybil. “I’ll ring you up again tomorrow. Good night.”
And with those words, she hung up. Morgana replaced the receiver, and went back to her work. As she picked up the next paper in the stack, however, a troubled expression passed over her face. There was something preying upon her all of a sudden, but she did not know as yet just what it was.
* * * * *
Arthur rushed into the Mystic shop, the bell over the door jingling as he burst in. Griff, Rory, Leba, and Dulcinea followed close behind him.
“Merlin,” he said, running up to the counter where Una sat, looking carefully through the pages of a large book. A microscope sat to her elbow, with a small tranquilizer dart lying upon the glass slide mounted in it. “Where is he, Una? Is he all right?”
“He’s upstairs, Arthur,” said Una, looking up at him, “and calm down, please. You won’t be doing him any good, rushing about like that. Leo and Mary are seeing to him just now.”
“Thank you,” said Arthur. “Wait here,” he told his knights, and ran up the stairs.
Merlin was in bed, his eyes closed and his face flushed. He was shivering as though he had a fever of some sort, and his hair was plastered damply against his brow. Leo was standing over him on one side of the bed, gazing down concernedly. Mary Sefton was seated on a small stool on the other side, looking at the boy with utter distress in her eyes.
“Arthur?” she said, turning towards him as he entered the room.
“How is he, Mary?” the former King of Britain said, as he strode over to the bed.
“Not well,” she replied. “Leo and I are doing all that we can, but he looks very ill.”
“Did you see who did it?” Arthur asked her.
She shook her head. “We were just getting back from the movies when he was shot,” she said. “We were almost at the shop, in fact - just a few feet away from it, I’d say. From what I could tell, whoever shot him was standing on a rooftop just across the street. I didn’t get a good look at him, however. He was just a shadow in the darkness. That’s all that I know.”
“Any ideas as to who you think was responsible for this, Arthur?” Leo asked.
“I am afraid not,” Arthur replied. “But whoever it is, we will track him down and put a stop to him, before he can attack again. And I will find out why he did this.”
He bent over the bed, and looked down at his young-old tutor. Merlin murmured something inaudible in his sleep, but did not open his eyes or show any sign of regaining consciousness. Arthur gazed at the youth with concern for a moment, then spoke to him. “Rest now, Merlin. We will do whatever we can for you.”
He turned to face Leo and Mary. “Keep on tending him,” he said. “Do whatever you can to heal him. My knights and I have a search to conduct.” And with that, he turned and left the room.
Downstairs, Griff and Leba were speaking to Una at the counter while Rory and Dulcinea were standing by the windows, looking out through them at the street cautiously. Arthur walked up to the counter. “Have you found out anything about the poison, Una?” he asked her. “Is there a cure?”
“So far, I haven’t been able to turn up anything,” Una replied. “All that I’ve been able to find out is that it’s been magically strengthened, but I haven’t been able to identify it beyond that. There’s no information on it in any of my books. For all that I know, it could have been concocted very recently - it might even be the first poison of its type ever brewed. But I still have a few more books to go. I’d say that there’s still hope.”
“Let us pray that you are right, Una,” said Arthur gravely. “In the meantime, we must find this would-be assassin. We need to learn why he did this, and who he was working for. We may even be able to learn from him enough to help Una find an antidote for Merlin. Let’s go!”
He hurriedly left the shop, Excalibur already half-drawn from its scabbard as he spoke. His four knights followed quickly behind him.
* * *
Selden watched the five figures emerge from the Mystic shop, as he continued to crouch upon the shadowed roof on the opposite side of the street. He adjusted the zoom feature of his night-goggles to examine them better, and then nodded.
“Well, this night is looking up all the more now,” he said with a smile. “Time for some serious payback.”
* * *
“Shouldn’t we call the police first?” asked Dulcinea, as they looked across the street at the house where, according to Mary, the mysterious marksman had been standing.
Arthur shook his head. “Not yet,” he said. “I don’t want to draw attention to Merlin. He’s been spared the publicity that I’ve had to endure for the past month; I do not wish him to become the center of that sort of attention. No, we will need to handle this ourselves.”
He turned to Griff. “Glide over to that rooftop,” he told the gargoyle, “and see what you can find. There must be some trace of his presence there. Maybe we can use it to track him.”
“Right-ho, Arthur,” said Griff. He climbed up the side of the shop until he had reached a high enough point above the ground to glide across the street to the houses opposite. Arthur and his human followers carefully crossed the street themselves, to wait below.
“I’m wonderin’ if we should have brought Cavall with us,” said Rory. “He could help us a lot if we needed to track this fellow.”
“That is true,” said Arthur, “but he’d also attract a fair amount of attention, which is what we don’t want. It’s better to keep him at the estate for now.”
“So why do you suppose this chap was shooting at Merlin, anyway?” asked Leba. “Do you think that it had anything to do with us?”
“I do not know,” said Arthur. “But I very much fear that whoever was behind this knew Merlin’s true nature. Why else would they have used such a rare poison? They would not have gone to such lengths, unless they knew that he is not quite the ordinary adolescent boy that he appears to be.”
“So it’s somebody who knows that Emrys is really Merlin, and who had the resources to make or find that poison,” said Dulcinea. “That still leaves us with a few suspects. One of the surviving Unseelies, Lucius, maybe even Morgana. Assuming, that is, that we’re not dealing with someone entirely new.”
“And that is itself a possibility,” said Arthur. “But whoever this person is, one thing is clear. We must stop him before he attacks again.”
* * *
Griff alighted upon the rooftop, and looked about him. There was no sign of anyone having been here recently, so far as he could see. He bent down cautiously, and examined the roof itself, looking for any evidence that he could find that they could use to trace the mysterious assailant. Nothing so far. However....
A small metallic sphere whistled out of the shadows near the chimney, heading straight towards him. Griff heard its approach only just in time, dodging swiftly as it struck the tiles where he had been standing and exploded. Even so, the force of the blast almost knocked him off the roof, and he only managed to stay atop it by digging his feet into the tiles and anchoring himself.
From out of the shadows by the chimney, a man dressed all in black, even his face obscured, now rushed out at him, and rammed into him with considerable impact. Griff toppled over the edge, but grasped hold of the rain-gutter to steady himself as he fell. The man standing above him teetered upon the roof, but regained his balance, and produced another one of the exploding orbs from his pouch.
Griff saw the gleam upon the metal in time, and broke free from the rain-gutter before the sphere struck. Swooping down low over Arthur and his knights down below, he called to them, “I’d say that we’ve just found our man!”
“Good,” said Arthur, readying Excalibur. “We need to find a way of getting up onto that roof, now. Does anybody have a grappling-hook, or something similar?”
“I don’t think that that’s goin’ to be necessary,” said Rory. “I’d say that he’s decided to come to us.”
The black-clad figure on the rooftop had produced a crossbow and shot a bolt from it, with a sturdy cable attached, to a lamppost standing on the pavement. The crossbow quarrel penetrated the lamppost’s side, quivered in it for a moment, then pulled taut. The man slid down the cable neatly, to alight upon the pavement, then turned and pulled out a small electromagnetic gun from a holster at his belt, much like the ones that Arthur and Griff had seen Banquo and Fleance wield during their first adventure together, in New York City.
“Duck, all of you!” cried Arthur, seeing the gun and knowing what was coming next.
The knights took his advice, and ducked as the blast of electricity shot over their heads. Rory pulled himself upright, and ran quickly at the stranger, swinging the Gae Bolga in its staff form like a cudgel. The black-clad man fired at him again. Rory dodged, but not swiftly enough, crying out as the blast nicked him in the shoulder. His eyes flashed in pain and anger, and for a moment, he appeared about to change into the form of Cuchulain. But then, with a supreme effort, clenching his teeth, he remained in his modern-day form. He threw his staff at the electromagnetic gun, sending it flying from the man’s hand. Griff caught it, swooping down in time, and hurriedly crushed it.
Seeing himself to be momentarily disarmed, the black-clad man turned and ran.
“Quick!” Arthur ordered his knights. “After him!”
He rushed down the pavement after Merlin’s attacker, Excalibur still in his hand, gleaming brightly beneath the night sky. Rory (after recovering his staff), Leba, and Dulcinea were right behind him, while Griff glided overhead.
The marksman rounded a corner in the street, and pushed roughly past a youngish American-looking couple who were just about to turn the opposite direction themselves. Astonished, they flattened themselves against the wall, and stared after him, then his pursuers, who dashed past them without even a glance in their direction. After a moment of dazed silence, the woman turned to her brown-haired husband and spoke.
“That does it, Brendan!” she said. “This is the last time that we come to London on vacation!”
* * * * *
“So, Professor,” said Regina Fitzwalter, “if there never actually was a real King Arthur, how do you explain Arthur Pennington and that sword of his?”
“That’s not my department, Ms. Fitzwalter, so I can’t say anything definite,” Professor Scott replied. “The best that I can assume is that this Pennington fellow is a very clever impostor, and one with the resources to produce a very convincing-looking faux-Excalibur. No doubt it was something made by one of those major corporations like Xanatos Enterprises or Nightstone Unlimited; in light of their technological breakthroughs, I’d say that they’re entirely capable of coming up with a glowing sword like the one that he was using at Buckingham Palace. But it’s certainly a product of modern-day science, not the Lady of the Lake.”
“Now, Professor,” said Regina, “there is one matter also relating to King Arthur that we’d like to have your thoughts on. Earlier tonight, you said that the only eyewitness account of 6th century Britain was Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae, I understand.”
“That’s quite correct,” said Professor Scott.
“But what about the Scrolls of Merlin?” Regina went on. “Don’t they count as well?”
“I’m glad that you mentioned them,” said Professor Scott. “The celebrated so-called journal of Merlin, discovered by my colleagues Professor Morwood-Smyth and Dr. Duane in Wales in late 1995. Much as I respect those two professionally, I’m afraid that they’ve been taken in by a very cunning hoax. Mark my words; a few years from now, those Scrolls are going to be placed in the same category as the Piltdown Man, Macpherson’s Ossian poems, and Ireland’s Vortigern, and be counted as one of the greatest forgeries in history.”
“Joining us now from Cambridge are the archaeologists who discovered the Scrolls,” said Regina Fitzwalter, “Professor Arthur Morwood-Smyth and Dr. Lydia Duane.” The screen in the upper right-hand corner flickered on again, to reveal the pair of noted archaeologists. “Professor Morwood-Smyth, Dr. Duane,” she went on, “we’d like to thank you for taking time out from your preparations for your archaeological expedition to the Orkneys to share your thoughts with us on this matter.”
“Thank you, Ms. Fitzwalter,” said Professor Morwood-Smyth and Dr. Duane, almost as one.
“Tell us,” said Regina, continuing, “what your thoughts are on the Scrolls of Merlin which you discovered a few years ago. Do you still consider them genuine or a fraud, as Professor Cedric Scott views them as being?”
“Well, we do respect Professor Scott as a colleague,” said Morwood-Smyth, “and commend him for the healthy dose of skepticism that he brings to this field. However, we wish to assure you and the public that the Scrolls of Merlin are authentic. So far, all the tests that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum have run upon them indicate that they genuinely date from the early 6th century A.D. The ink, the vellum out of which the scrolls were made, the style of the letters, all match their supposed period of origin perfectly. If they were the product of a forger, they were the product of an incredibly skillful one.”
“And what are your thoughts on Mr. Pennington?” Regina asked them. “Do you believe that he really could be King Arthur?”
“Well, we can’t give any definite comment on that as yet,” said Duane. “But we have seen stranger things on our travels.”
“Yes, much stranger things,” agreed Morwood-Smyth. “So we’re not inclined to rule out any possibilities as yet.”
* * * * *
Something was still eating at Morgana, and she could not figure out what it was. This made no sense at all. What did she have to worry about? Merlin was poisoned, and as good as dead now. Arthur would soon follow. She had just finished shredding the last pieces of evidence that could point to her being the real “Connection”. With all that accomplished, she could finally re-emerge as Morgana Cornish, and resume her old life again. She could start by ringing up Nigel tomorrow, apologizing to him for having to postpone a wedding, and setting a new date for it. It would be the perfect way to celebrate the impending change for the better in her life, the final end of her long and tiresome feud with Arthur and Merlin, her freedom to move on to other things. She would have a husband once again, and a daughter - or at least, a stepdaughter.
Then she knew just what it was that was preying upon her. “Mary,” she murmured to herself.
How could she have forgotten? She knew about the feelings that the girl had for Arthur’s wizard, and his for her. She had picked up on them while scanning Mary’s memories in the course of healing her from her silver-inflicted wound a month before, and learned them well enough to turn them to her advantage in her effort to drive Merlin to utter despair before she killed him. And, as if that was not enough, after Mary had come to Merlin’s rescue and helped defeated her, she had seen the two of them kiss before her eyes. How could she have not remembered it, all the while that she had put her contingency plan to work in removing Merlin?
Mary would be heartbroken at his death; there was no way that she could pretend otherwise. Not when she remembered the heartache that she had undergone after she had learned of the death of her lover Accolon at Arthur’s hands so many centuries before. She tried to tell herself that the girl would get over it, that it was for her own good anyway. But in her heart, she felt anything but convinced.
There was only one thing to do. She quietly donned her coat, and left the room.
* * * * *
“Merlin!” cried Mary, grasping hold of the boy’s hand.
“Calm down, Merlin, please! Una’ll find a cure for you, shortly!
Everything will be all right!
Merlin showed no sign of having heard her. He was tossing about in his bed feverishly, murmuring something in a delirious fashion. It took a few minutes for Mary to make out the words that he was babbling:
“When priests are more in word than matter,
When brewers mar their malt with water,
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors;
No heretics burned, but wenches’ suitors;
Then shall the realm of Albion Come to great confusion.”
“Merlin, snap out of it!” the girl cried, squeezing his wrist harder. “Please!”
Leo stood over her and gently laid one hand upon her shoulder. “Mary,” he said to her in a soft voice, “I think that you should go outside for a few minutes.”
“A few minutes?” the girl protested. “But I can’t just leave Merlin, Leo! He needs somebody to watch over him!”
“I can carry out that task just as well as you can,” the lion-gargoyle replied. “But I don’t consider it wise or healthy for you to be cooped up inside for so long by his sickbed. You need a rest from tending him, a few minutes of fresh air. I will look after him for you, in your absence.”
Mary looked up at him in silence for a moment, then sighed. “Very well,” she said. “Just a few minutes.”
She rose from the stool, and headed out onto the balcony. There, she walked over to the parapet, and rested her arms upon it, gazing out over the sleeping city, while the night-wind ruffled her hair. The distant sounds of traffic drifted up from below, reaching her wolf-keen ears, but she barely paid them any heed. She merely stared down at the street, in silence, her eyes beginning to moisten.
She had been standing there for a couple of minutes when her nose began to pick something up. There was an aroma coming from the shadows to her left, an aroma that she had only smelled twice in her life, but was already anything but fond of. She turned her head in its direction at once, to see Morgana la Fay standing there.
“You!” she cried, stepping back from the legendary enchantress and glowering at her. “What are you doing here?”
“Please, Mary,” said Morgana, lifting one hand gently. “I’m not here to attack anybody. I only want to have a few words with you.”
“Oh?” the girl asked sharply. “And what would those be?”
“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry,” said Morgana. “Sorry for any trouble that I may have caused you or your father.”
“Well, you should be,” said Mary. “You go through an act of pretending to be in love with him, just so that you could use him for some mad revenge scheme that you’ve got against Arthur and Merlin. You almost get him killed by your nephew, and you impersonated me so that you could trap and kill my boyfriend. I’d say that you have a lot to apologize for.”
“Mary, I want you to understand,” said Morgana in a soft voice. “I didn’t want to harm you or your father. I - I admit that my involvement with your family started out as just part of my plan, but I came to love Nigel - and you, as well. I’ve been alone for so long, after all. If you could only know how it felt to actually have a family again. To have a husband, and a child.”
“You certainly took your time apologizing,” said Mary stiffly.
“Mary, I understand the grief that you must be feeling just now,” Morgana continued. “Merlin’s dying, and there’s nothing that you can do to save him. I know myself what that’s like. I saw my lover Accolon, laid out stiff and cold in Camelot after Arthur slew him, and knew that he was gone forever, that I could not bring him back. But you must understand that it was for your own good. He’d have brought you nothing but misery and sorrow.”
“How do you know about Merlin being poisoned?” Mary asked Morgana, staring her stepmother-to-be straight in the face. Then, seeing the guilty look in Morgana’s eyes, she understood. “You were behind it!” she cried. “This was your work!”
“Yes, it was,” stammered Morgana, clearly taken aback now. “But you have to understand, Mary. Yes, I had Merlin poisoned, but I had to do it, to protect you from him if nothing else. You mustn’t let yourself be deceived by all the lies that have gathered around him and Arthur for hundreds of years! They’re evil, both of them! They were responsible for the murder of my father, for the destruction of my family! Merlin destroyed my childhood, separated me from my parents and my sisters, all for the sake of his little king to put upon the throne! I had to do it! I had to punish them for all the wrongs that they’d committed!” She halted suddenly, as though she had suddenly become aware of how the tone of her voice had changed from soothing to furious, and regained control of herself after a brief pause. “I know that you’re mourning him now, Mary, but he was false and disloyal, and would have brought you to grief in the end. I needed to save you from that.”
“You just wanted to kill him so that you could carry out your stupid revenge!” retorted Mary, her voice filled with anger and her eyes with tears. “I don’t care what he’s done to you! You had him poisoned, just because of some fifteen-hundred-year-old feud that you just can’t move away from! You say that you care about me and father, but you don’t! You’re just another wicked stepmother, like all the ones in the fairy tales!” She growled savagely at her, in an astonishingly lupine fashion, then broke off as she realized suddenly what had happened. For a moment longer, she glowered at the enchantress, then turned and ran back indoors, amid sobs of sorrow and anger combined.
“Mary -” began Morgana, staring after her, then stopped. She bowed her head in silence, then turned and walked back into the shadows. Just before she disappeared from view, tears had begun to trickle down from her own eyes.
* * * * *
“There he is,” said Griff, alighting next to Arthur and pointing towards a deserted car park. “He’s going in there.”
“Then that is where we will go as well,” said Arthur grimly. He ran towards the great concrete structure, looming before them in the darkness. Leba, Rory, and Dulcinea were still close behind him, while Griff climbed up the side of the nearest wall to launch himself into the air again.
The king and his three human knights climbed over the barricade that had been put in place after the car park had closed for the night, and made their way through the empty lot. Shadows crowded all about them; the only light came from the unearthly gleam of Excalibur’s blade, and a few flickering street lamps outside, producing a murky twilight effect.
“No sign of him so far,” said Leba. “I wonder what he’s doing. Is he hiding here somewhere, or did he run out the other side while we were coming in?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur replied. “We will have to split up and search in order to find out. Leba, Rory, you go in that direction.” He pointed to his left. “Dulcinea and I will go the opposite way. Between us, we should be able to uncover his place of concealment, if it is here at all.”
He and Dulcinea turned and proceeded into the darkness to their right, while Rory and Leba set out in the other direction. All four of them looked about them on all sides, piercing the shadows intently to find some trace of their enemy amidst the gloom.
* * *
Selden peered out from behind a concrete pillar. The blonde woman and the red-haired young Irishman were drawing closer to him. In another minute, they would be almost upon him. He cautiously looked at the ground just before them, then nodded. He reached into the pouch at his belt, and pulled out a handful of powder in his gloved hand. This he threw straight at the puddle of water that the woman was wading through even now.
* * *
The powder landed in the puddle with a soft hiss. Leba prepared to raise her right foot, and discovered that she could not do so. She looked down. Both of her feet were now held fast in what had only a couple of minutes ago been a puddle of water, and had now solidified into some sort of gunk.
Rory, who had been just ahead of her when it happened (and fortunately for him, safely out of the puddle) turned around and stared at her struggling to free her feet from the goo. “What happened?”
“It looks as though our man has a number of tricks up his sleeve,” Leba replied. “Help me get loose, Rory. We’d better warn Arthur and Dulci as quickly as possible.”
“While no doubt our man gets the head start over us,” said Rory grimly. He took Leba by both hands, and pulled with all his might. The puddle of goo began to yield, but only slightly.
* * *
He had them both in his sights now. Selden peered around the corner at the man with the sword and the dark-haired young woman, who were walking only a few yards away, still searching. He reached for the left-hand holster at his belt, and pulled a second electromagnetic gun, twin to the one that he had lost earlier in the fight, out from it. “Always carry a spare,” he muttered approvingly to himself, as he prepared to aim.
* * *
“There's no sign of him here,” said Arthur, looking about. “Maybe he did simply exit this structure from the other side.”
“Perhaps,” said Dulcinea, looking at one of the upper levels with a scrutinizing eye. “But we can’t be certain until we’ve searched every square inch of this place.”
“True enough,” agreed Arthur, nodding. “Perhaps-”.
He broke off, as he heard what sounded like a crackle of energy off to his right. “Dulcinea, duck!” he shouted.
The Spanish equestrienne threw herself to the ground just in time as a blast of electricity shot over her. Arthur rushed at the pillar behind which the attack had come from. The black-clad man turned and ran, heading now towards the lift. Arthur followed him, gaining on him. The lift doors were just beginning to close when the Once and Future King darted between them, to confront his adversary inside. He struck at the man’s electromagnetic gun with Excalibur, cleaving it neatly in half, then held his sword only an inch away from his foe’s throat. “Do you yield?” he asked sternly.
“Hardly,” the man answered. He pulled a small spray can from his belt, and emptied its contents into Arthur’s face. Arthur stepped back, closing his eyes and coughing from the pepper gas, and staggered out into the car park. The lift door slammed shut.
But only for a moment. Leba came dashing up just then, in sock-clothed feet, and struck the lift button with her quarterstaff. The door slid open again, and remained that way.
Muttering something indistinguishable under his breath, the black-clad man ran out from the lift, elbowing Arthur and Leba aside, and rushing for the exit. But before he could reach it, Griff glided in through the opening and alit before him, his eyes glowing white. “There is no way out,” the griffon-like gargoyle said, in a grim voice.
Arthur, Leba, Rory, and Dulcinea moved in about their adversary, surrounding him. Leba and Rory each grabbed hold of him by one arm and pinned them to his sides, while Arthur turned to stand before him. The former king reached out with his free hand, and seized the man’s ninja-like mask, pulling it free from his head, and exposing his features. The next moment, he and Dulcinea were both staring at their quarry in surprise.
“You again!” Arthur cried. “Hunting gargoyle beasts was not good enough for you, then? Now you’ve descended to attacking striplings!”
“You know this man?” Rory asked, turning to Arthur in astonishment.
Arthur nodded. “Dulcinea and I had a clash with him, just before you came to London,” he said. “It was when we came upon the pack of savage gargoyle beasts upon the Yorkshire Moors, the one that Ranger and Treacle come from. He was hunting the beasts, attempting to capture them.”
“Well, he’s clearly not after gargoyle beasts this time,” said Leba. “All right, sir, tell us. Why did you attack our friend?”
“I will tell you nothing,” said the huntsman grimly. “Nothing at all.”
“I wouldn’t be too certain of that,” said Dulcinea, staring him straight in the eye. “You remember what happened last time we met, I take it. If you don’t want to undergo a repeat of that, you’ll tell us who employed you and why.”
“Even if I knew the answers to that, I wouldn’t tell you,” said the huntsman. “But I don’t. I’ve never met my employer. We’ve only communicated by telephone, and the voice was electronically altered. So you won’t learn the answers to your questions from me.”
Arthur and his companions looked at each other. “Well, what do you think?” Rory asked. “Is he tellin’ the truth, or lyin’?”
“I very much suspect the former,” said Arthur. “His voice did not sound like that of a liar to me. But if he indeed speaks the truth, then his mission is as much a mystery to him as it is to us.”
“Well, that doesn’t matter,” said Griff. “What does matter is that we’ve got him. All that we have to do now is call the police, and it’ll be over.”
“Oh, it is over, all right,” the huntsman replied. “But not in the way that you think!”
He suddenly jerked himself free from his captors, and then threw something to the ground. There was a flash of brilliant white light, which caused Arthur and his knights to close their eyes for a moment. In that moment, the huntsman pushed his way out through their ring, and ran for the exit. By the time that Arthur and his companions had stopped blinking, he had fled into the night again, and was lost to sight.
“Well, what do we do now?” asked Leba. “Do we go after him?”
Arthur shook his head. “No, there’s no further reason for that,” he said. “It’s clear enough that he doesn’t know anything; we won’t learn who was behind this attack from him. Besides, what would we do with him, once we had him? We can’t turn him over to the police without drawing more attention to ourselves, after all, and we cannot keep him locked up on our own.”
“So if we don’t take up the chase again,” asked Dulcinea, “then what are we going to do?”
“We return to the Mystic shop,” answered Arthur. “I want to find out how Merlin is doing. Hopefully he will be feeling better now.”
“Let’s hope that he is,” said Leba, as they turned about and left the car park.
“I don’t think that we’ve too much to worry about,” said Griff. “I mean, this is Merlin that we’re talking about here. I mean, granted, he’s a lot younger than he used to be, but he’s still quite tough. He should be able to overcome that poison.”
“I hope that you are correct, my friend,” said Arthur. But there was a troubled look in his eyes as he spoke.
* * * * *
“So,” said Regina, “could King Arthur, a figure whose very historical existence remains under debate to this day, still be alive? It seems impossible, but other seemingly impossible things have taken place in the past few years, such as the discovery of living gargoyles in New York City in 1996.” A still image of a group of gargoyles flying away from the ruins of a clock tower appeared briefly to one side of her as she spoke, then disappeared. “What we do know is that the legends concerning this mysterious monarch have agreed upon this: he is supposedly sleeping somewhere, on the isle of Avalon, or in a hidden cave, and someday, when Britain needs him most, he will return. Could there be a grain of truth behind this myth of Arthur’s survival? Only time and further investigation will give us the answer. We leave you for now with these words from Alfred Lord Tennyson: ‘To me, methought, who waited with a crowd,/ There came a bark that, blowing forward, bore/ King Arthur, like a modern gentleman/ Of stateliest port; and all the people cried,/ “Arthur is come again; he cannot die.”’ I’m Regina Fitzwalter, and good night.”
* * * * *
Merlin let out one final moan, and then sat up. His eyes opened and he looked straight ahead at Mary and Leo.
“Are you feeling better, Merlin?” Mary asked, staring at him hopefully.
“I think so,” said Merlin. “The fever’s passed, for the moment.” He climbed out of bed, if a trifle unsteadily, grasping hold of the headboard to support himself. “I’m a bit wobbly, but I’ll live. I’m sure of it.”
“Then perhaps you overcame the poison,” said Mary.
“Perhaps,” said Leo. “But I say that we should find out what Una has discovered about it first, before we start rejoicing. Let’s go downstairs and ask her.”
They descended the stairs into the shop. Una was closing one of her books and putting it back upon the shelf; she turned and looked concernedly at them as they entered.
“Well?” asked Leo of her. “What did you discover?”
“I’d better wait until Arthur and the others get back,” she replied. “We’ll want everyone here for this.”
“Is - is it bad?” Mary asked.
“I’m afraid so,” said Una. “Very bad.”
They were about to ask her what she meant, when the door opened with a jingle, and Arthur and his knights came in. Merlin turned to face Arthur at once, walking over to him slowly, occasionally near-stumbling. “Well?” he asked. “How did it go?”
“We found out that the person who shot you was that hunter from the Yorkshire Moors,” said Arthur. “He seems to have turned his attention to two-legged game now. But that’s all that we were able to learn. We couldn’t find out who had hired him, or why. And he got away.”
“I’ve a pretty good idea as to who he was working for,” said Mary darkly.
“What do you mean?” asked Leba, looking at her. “How would you know, Mary?”
“Morgana appeared briefly while I was out on the balcony,” said the girl, keeping her voice steady with an effort. “She wanted to talk to me, and one or two of the things that she said about Merlin - Arthur, this was her doing! Whoever shot Merlin was working for her!”
“Morgana was here?” asked Arthur, in alarm.
“She told us that when she got back inside,” said Leo. “Fortunately your sister didn’t seem inclined to stay, Arthur, because when I went back out to check with Mary, she’d gone.”
“Well, it would make some sense,” said Una. “Morgana la Fay has long had a reputation in the magical community for knowing a great deal about both the curative arts and deadly poisons. She would certainly be capable of brewing a venom as potent as the one that Merlin was subjected to.”
“I knew that she was going to be trouble again,” said Leba to Arthur. “We’re definitely going to have to do something about her.”
“Yes, but not just yet,” said Arthur. “Una, what have you discovered about that poison?”
“It is either extremely rare or newly concocted,” said Una. “Certainly there is no mention of it in any of my books. But from what I have been able to discover by analyzing it, it is extremely lethal. The only reason why Merlin is still alive is because of his magical defenses. Otherwise, he would have succumbed to its effects by now.”
“But there is a cure, is there not?” Arthur persisted.
“If there is one, I cannot find it,” said Una. “The poison was clearly magically strengthened, to give it its full power. It has been rendered proof against any antidote that I could produce. Truth to tell, I doubt that any wizard would be able to counter it.”
“Then shouldn’t we get Merlin to a hospital?” asked Mary. “Perhaps they could find a cure for him there.”
“This is a magical poison, Mary,” said Una. “Human medical science cannot cure such a thing.”
“But Merlin’s back on his feet again,” said Dulcinea. “Couldn’t that mean that he managed to overcome it?”
Merlin shook his head. “I’m afraid not,” he said, in a grave tone of voice. “I’m still infected; I can feel it. All that’s happened is that my defenses have gotten the upper hand for the moment, and halted its spread, allowing me a temporary recovery. But this is only temporary. Even now, the poison is recovering its strength, preparing for a fresh assault. It’ll chip away at my defenses gradually, eroding them, until finally - .” He said nothing more; he did not need to.
Silence fell in the room. After a couple of minutes, Griff spoke. “How long would you say that you have?” he asked.
“About a year, I suppose,” said Merlin, turning to Una. He tried to sound calm, but the others could detect a strong undertone of fear in his voice. “You’ve been studying the poison; what would you say?”
“Based on my analysis so far, I would agree that you only have a year left,” said Una, nodding sadly.
A sorrowful silence followed. Mary walked over to Merlin and clasped his hands, then suddenly threw her arms around him and buried her face on his shoulder with a muffled sob. Arthur looked at his former advisor, his own face heavy now. At last, after another uncomfortable silence, he spoke.
“You will not die, Merlin,” he said, in a voice firm and resolute. He drew Excalibur from its scabbard again, and rested it upright upon the floor, tip touching the floorboards and hilt uppermost, clasping the hilt with both hands. “Upon Excalibur itself I make this vow. I will find a cure for this poison, and save your life, even if I must journey to the ends of the earth to find it.”