PRESERVATION

Outline by Todd Jensen.

Written by Todd Jensen.

Previously on Pendragon....

GRIFF: We still have that connection you mentioned in Asia.

ARTHUR: Yes, but, Griff - we would have to navigate the Himalayas. Even normally, that would be a challenging task but with Merlin as he is? It would kill him.

GRIFF: But he's dying anyway, Arthur. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We can't turn back now.

* * *

ARTHUR: We cannot afford to waste any more time. Merlin, the Himalayas may be our last hope.

MERLIN: I understand, Arthur. And I'm feeling a little better today. I'll hang on for a while yet.

~~~Someone to Watch Over Me~~~

* * * * *

THE HIMALAYAS

The wind swept down from the peaks above, howling in savage fury, as the four travellers made their way cautiously up the mountain path. Arthur led the way, one hand resting upon Excaliburís hilt, although so far he had found no need to draw it from its scabbard. Mary walked beside him, sniffing the air for any sign of trouble. Griff brought up the rear, leading a yak. Merlin half-sat, half-lay upon the yak, his head drooping low and his eyes closed, barely conscious. Occasionally he murmured something inaudible as he shifted his head about; Griff had tied him to the saddle so that he would not fall off.

Mary glanced back at the yak and its burden, and then spoke to Arthur. "Iím really getting worried about him," she said in a low voice. "Heís been worsening ever since we left New Zealand, and this place certainly hasnít been helping any. And even if he was in perfect health, Iím still not sure that Iíd be in favor of bringing him here."

"I know, Mary," said Arthur. "But if the Holy Grail is indeed somewhere in this mountain range, then it will be worth it."

"And do you really think that it could be here?" she asked.

"I do not know," said Arthur. "But some of the legends that Leba forwarded to us about this part of the world offer us hope that it may well be. There is the story of Prester John, for example, who ruled over a land of wonders somewhere in Asia, and the Tibetans have a tradition about a hidden city called Shamballah. Maybe the Grail lies behind one of those tales."

"Letís hope so," said Mary. "Because weíre running out of places to look. If this doesnít work out, then I donít know where to search for the Grail next. Assuming that it even still exists," she added, an uneasy look upon her face. "Iím no longer sure that it does."

"It does exist," said Arthur grimly. "And we will find it, no matter what."

They continued on up the mountain path. The wind beat down harder upon them, causing the humans to shiver. Only Griff still appeared to take the cold well, thanks to the tough and enduring nature of gargoyles, and even he had pulled his wings close about himself for additional warmth.

"Itís a pity that Griff and I are so out of the ordinary," said Mary after a while. "Otherwise we could have hired a sherpa or two to guide us about."

"Letís just be grateful that we donít have to actually scale the mountains," said Griff. "I could manage it well enough, but I doubt that the rest of us could. Especially not Merlin," he added, glancing back at the shivering youth.

"Yes, letís hope that the Grail's not at the top of Mount Everest," agreed the girl. "I certainly donít feel up to retracing Sir Edmund Hillaryís footsteps."

Arthur suddenly halted. "I see something, up ahead," he said.

"What is it?" Griff asked.

"It looks like smoke," the former High King of Britain replied. "Wood smoke, most likely. There must be a fire close by. And a fire most likely means people and shelter, which we all need just now."

"Not to mention that we can ask them about the Grail," said Mary, as they pressed forward. "Maybe theyíll have heard something about it."

They continued on along the mountain path until it widened out in front of them. Before them they saw a large wooden house with a pointed roof. The smoke that Arthur had seen curled upwards from its chimney.

"Who on earth would be living up here?" Mary asked.

"I do not know," Arthur replied. "But let us accept the gift that we have been presented with." He started towards the house, then paused. "It might be just as well were you to hide yourself, Griff," he said, "until we know more about who lives here. We have no idea as yet as to how they feel about gargoyles."

"Or werewolves," Mary put in. "But the sunís not due to rise for a while yet, so I suppose that we donít have to worry about that just now."

Griff nodded. "Iíll lie low until itís safe," he said. "You just see about getting inside."

Arthur walked up to the house, leading the yak, Mary by his side. Merlin continued to shift upon the beastís back, mumbling in his sleep. Griff crouched behind them, taking care not to be seen as Arthur knocked upon the door.

Footsteps approached and then the door swung open. An old white-haired woman, wearing a patched shirt and trousers, stood in the doorway.

"Ah, travellers," she said, looking over Arthur and Mary. "Come inside, please, and make yourselves warm."

"We thank you, madam," said Arthur, helping Merlin down from the yak and carrying him inside. Mary followed behind him and was just about to close the door when the old woman spoke.

"Thereís one more among you, isnít there?" she said. "Why not bring him in as well?"

"You know about him?" Arthur asked, staring at her in astonishment.

"Of course," she said. "Donít worry. The Sanctuary is for all who come in peace, humans and gargoyles alike. And certainly itís not very hospitable to keep him outside."

"Very well," said Arthur. He briefly considered asking the old woman how it was that she even knew that they had a gargoyle with them, but instead called out to Griff. "Itís safe," he said.

"Glad to hear that," said Griff, stepping inside and shaking the snow off himself. He closed the door behind him.

The travellers looked about them at the room that they were now in. It was a small one, with a fireplace, bark mats upon the floor, and a bed in the corner with a brightly-colored blanket, almost like a patchwork quilt, placed over it. The old woman looked closely at Merlin and then spoke.

"Your young friend needs rest," she said. "Letís put him to bed at once, shall we? Iíll mix up some stew for him when heís awake enough to eat."

"We thank you, my lady," said Arthur, as he carried Merlin over to the bed and placed him in it, pulling the blanket up to the boyís chin. Merlin stopped shivering and lay gently in place.

"So you know about gargoyles, do you?" asked Griff to the old woman.

"Of course," she said. "Iíve had a few as guests over the years, in fact. There are none here at present other than yourself, unfortunately, but only five years ago, there were three who came here. There was that couple first - a red male gargoyle with a beak and a female green gargoyle, who were mates - although they didnít stay long. And then there was a third, later on. He was a particularly unusual one. He appeared to be made half out of stone and half out of metal. He stayed here for a while, saying that he was looking for peace, and mentioned something about an evil brother inside of him who was his enemy; I must admit that I never did understand what he meant by that. But he was good company - until he disappeared as well. I never did find out what happened to him."

"So who are you?" Arthur asked her. "And what is this place?"

"My name is Rani," said the old woman, "and this is the Sanctuary. It was founded long ago, as a place of refuge towards those who were fleeing persecution, whether they were human or gargoyle - or other races altogether."

"Such as werewolves?" Mary asked, glancing up. She had been seated by Merlin's bedside, tending to him. "Iím one," she added quickly.

"Even werewolves," said Rani, with a gentle smile. "According to our records, one of the Sanctuaryís founders was a were herself - although a werecheetah, rather than a werewolf."

"So do you live here all by yourself?" Arthur asked.

"Mostly," she said. "Sometimes there are visitors, such as yourself, who come here and remain for a while. But they do not remain here for long - except for Li."

"Whoís Li?" Griff asked.

"Li is a dragon," said Rani. "A friendly dragon," she added with a smile. "You need not fear her. She is the only survivor of the original founders of the Sanctuary, in fact. Unfortunately she is away at the moment. But she may return before long. She sometimes visits me to see how I fare.

"But Iíve spoken long enough," she added. "Let me see about fixing you all a hot meal. Your young friend certainly needs it, I would think. And then after youíve eaten, you can tell me more about yourselves."

* * *

"Thank you for the hospitality, my lady," said Arthur. He and Griff were seated around the table with Rani in the next room, having finished the stew that she had served them. Mary was in the entrance room, feeding Merlin.

"Thereís no need to thank me, Arthur Pennington," she replied. "It is the custom here to offer such service to all who come here."

"Well, as long as weíre here," said Griff, "maybe you could help us out with something, maíam. Weíre looking for the Holy Grail. You wouldnít happen to have heard anything about it, have you?"

She shook his head. "Iím sorry," she said. "In truth, I have never even heard of such a thing as you mention. Just what is this ĎGrailí that you seek?"

"A very ancient and holy relic," explained Arthur. "It has great power, and can even heal the dying. Our friend Emrys is very ill, and only it can save his life."

"Thatís why we came to these mountains," added Griff. "We thought that the Grail might be here."

"I wish that I could help you on this quest of yours," said Rani, shaking her head. "But unfortunately, I have never heard of any such object in these parts. Although that does not mean that it does not exist here," she added. "This part of the world is filled with many wonders, and for all that I know, perhaps this ĎGrailí of yours might be one of them."

"Well, thank you, my lady," said Arthur. "Then perhaps we might seek out your friend Li and ask her as well. She may know something that could help us."

"Itís possible," Rani admitted. "Sheís better travelled than I am, so she may indeed know more."

They finished eating and went out into the small entrance room. "How is he doing?" the old woman asked Mary, still seated by Merlinís bedside.

"Somewhat better," she said. "He finished his meal, but then went back to sleep again."

Rani bent over by Merlinís side and looked over him closely, before speaking. "Your friend looks very ill indeed," she said. "Iím afraid that all this traversing the mountains has not been very good for his health. If I were you, I would not move him from his bed for the next few days. He needs all the rest and warmth that he can."

"So what would you advise us to do?" Arthur asked her.

"I suggest that you leave him here while you continue your search for the Grail," said Rani. "You can use the Sanctuary as a home base; certainly you will need some secure place to rest in the day while Griff is in his stone sleep. I can tend to him while you are away."

"I do not know," said Arthur. "We will need Merlin with us when we find the Grail; after all, what I know about it indicates that it is not something that one can simply bring back as though it was just another treasure. If we find the Grail, and Merlin is not at hand to make use of it, then we might as well have failed to discover it, for all the good that it will do him."

"True," said Rani, nodding. "But if you take him out there in the cold, he may not survive long enough for you to reach the Grail in the first place. However, the choice is yours to make."

Arthur thought it over for a moment, then sighed. "I will do as you advise, my lady," he said. "Merlin needs warmth and rest, which he has better hopes of finding here than outside. And time is running out for him. I fear that we have no choice but to let him stay here and regain what strength he can, while we continue the search."

"And what if we do find the Grail and we canít bring it back here?" Mary asked worriedly.

"We will just have to cross that bridge when we come to it," said Arthur. He walked over to his former teacherís bed and bent down over it. "Rest well, my friend," he said softly. "We will do all that we can to locate the Grail, and bring it to you."

Merlin murmured something inaudible and turned over in his sleep. Arthur rose up and stood over him, Mary by his side. Both gazed down at their friend, neither one saying a word. Griff and Rani watched from the side, equally silent.

* * * * *

"So where do we go from here, Arthur?" Mary asked, as they left the Sanctuary the following evening. They had slept in the house during the day, and now Arthur, Griff, and Mary had departed, after giving their farewells to Rani, to continue their search.

"We must search for this dragon Li," said Arthur. "From what Rani told us of her, she may be able to tell us enough about these parts for us to know if the Holy Grail can be found there."

"Of course, finding herís going to be the tricky part," said Griff. "We donít even know where she is. And Raniís been pretty close-mouthed about her."

"True," said Arthur. "We will have to search for signs of a dragonís passing."

"What signs would those be?" Mary asked. "I mean, donít dragons generally get around by flying?"

"Yes," said Arthur, "but they do have to walk on occasion. And there may be other indications of oneís presence. We will probably recognize them when we see them. Let us go."

The three of them walked down the mountain trail away from the Sanctuary, without any further words. As they departed it began to snow.

* * * * *

An hour later, the snow was coming down thicker and harder. At times it was almost impossible for them to see the path before them. Arthur finally had to call a halt.

"It appears that we have an actual storm on our hands," he said. "We will need to find some place to wait it out. At this rate, if we keep on going forward in this whiteness, we are in serious danger of stepping off the side of the mountain and falling for several thousand feet into the chasm below."

"Well, thatís incentive enough to find shelter," said Griff. "Anybody got any ideas?"

"There looks like thereís a cave up ahead," said Mary, straining her eyes. "Letís see if we can stay there until this blows over."

They made their way into the cave and sat down in it, shaking the snow off their clothes. The wind whistled as the world outside was blotted out in utter whitenness. The three companions watched, waiting for the snowstorm to let up.

After a few minutes Mary began sniffing the air, frowning slightly. "Is anything wrong?" Arthur asked her.

"Well, no," said the girl, looking thoughtful. "But I thought that I smelt something."

"Any particular something?" Arthur asked her.

"I donít know," she said. "Itís something that I canít identify. I certainly never smelled something like that before. But itís coming from the back of the cave."

"Yes," said Griff, nodding. "I can smell it also. Rather odd, isnít it?"

"Then let us investigate it," said Arthur, drawing Excalibur.

Mary led the way to the rear of the cave, sniffing the air from time to time. "I hope that this isnít one of those cases of bad air," she said, "the sort that they used to use canaries to test. But, no, it doesnít smell poisonous. Just - new."

"Can you tell what part of the cave it is coming from?" Arthur asked her.

"Itís stronger here," she said, walking up to the left wall. "But I canít figure out whatís causing it. Thereís nothing here other than rock." She ran her hands over the stone wall, frowning thoughtfully. "I donít suppose that itís the rock making this smell?"

Griff tapped it. "It sounds hollow," he said. "I wonder...." He suddenly began pushing on it. Arthur sheathed Excalibur and joined him.

With a grinding noise the wall pushed inward, revealing a tunnel behind it that led downwards. Mary stepped forward and sniffed at it. "The smellís stronger down there," she said.

"Well, shall we?" asked Arthur, turning to Griff.

"Why not?" said the gargoyle with a shrug. "Letís go."

The three of them made their way down the tunnel. Arthur came first, holding Excalibur in his hand; light shone from the sword's blade to dispel the darkness before them. Mary was behind him and Griff took up the rear. Mary continued to sniff the air periodically and nodded. "Weíre definitely getting close," she said.

They turned a corner in the tunnel up ahead and then halted, staring at the sight before them.

They were standing on a rocky ledge at the top of a path leading down into the vast cavern before them. But it was a cavern the likes of which none of them had ever seen. Phosphorescent mosses grew upon the vaulted ceiling, providing a gentle glow equal to that of a mildly cloudy day in spring. Great shafts yawned in various places, admitting fresh air from outside. And at the bottom of the cave a grassy meadow stretched out of sight, with occasional clumps of trees here and there to provide variety.

"What on earth is this place?" asked Mary, recovering her voice at last.

"I do not know," Arthur replied. "But I would not be at all surprised if this is one of those hidden lands of wonder whose reports had brought us here in the first place."

"You mean," asked Mary eagerly, "that this is where the Holy Grail could be?"

"Perhaps," said Arthur. "Although I would not get our hopes up just yet. We believed the same thing regarding the valley near Quetzalcoatlís cave in the Pyrenees, remember."

"It still looks worth investigating," said Griff. He was about to say more when a shadow fell over them. They looked up to see an enormous bird, larger than a condor, flying above them, its wings outspread.

Arthur raised Excalibur defensively, and Griff and Mary both took up fighting positions at once. But the bird paid them no heed. It merely circled over them and flew off into the distance. Watching it as it went, the three friends saw that there were other birds like it, soaring about in the upper reaches of the cavern.

"What on earth are those?" Mary asked, staring at them.

"I do not know," said Arthur. "Let us be grateful, though, that they are not hostile."

"There seem to be other things down there," said Griff, indicating the meadow far below them. They could see moving shapes below in various parts of the grassy field, although they were too high up to tell what these were. "Iíd say that this place is definitely inhabited."

"Then let us descend and see what we can find," said Arthur. "Mary, come with me. Griff, take to the air and see what you can observe from up there. Weíll meet by that pool down there -" - he indicated the one that he meant with an extended index finger - "-in an hour, and report to each other about our discoveries."

Griff nodded. "Very well," he said. "Iíll see you both later." And with that, he spread his wings and leaped off the ledge, gliding off into the distance. Arthur and Mary watched him go, then climbed down the path towards the floor of the cave.

* * * * *

The meadow was indeed inhabited, as they saw when they reached it. Various herds of animals grazed or roamed about upon it, but animals of a most unusual nature. Even after the numerous wonders that Arthur and Mary had already witnessed on their travels, they still found themselves staring in awe and amazement at the wildlife here.

Closest to them was what appeared, at first sight, to be a flock of sheep with golden-colored wool. But as Arthur and Mary drew closer to them, they saw that these sheep were actually growing out of the ground at the end of long green stalks, four or five beneath each one. They bent their heads over the grass, nibbling on it, with an occasional bleat. None of them appeared to notice the two travellers as they walked past them.

"What on earth are those creatures, Arthur?" Mary asked.

"I donít know," he replied. "Iíve never heard of such animals before." He studied their golden wool closely, then added, "Although fleece of that nature would certainly have been prized by Jason and his Argonauts."

"I donít even know whether theyíre animals or plants," agreed the girl. "Maybe they are plants that just happen to look like sheep. And act like them," she added, as one of the sheep cropped the grass a few feet to her left. "Now thatíd be unusual. Although itíd also mean mutton that vegetarians could eat." She smiled slightly, then halted, staring in alarm.

"Is anything wrong?" Arthur asked.

"Iíll say," said Mary, taking a step closer to him. She pointed to her left. Arthur turned to see what she was staring at.

Some yards away, the grass ended and was replaced with a long stretch of sand. At its center was an enormous mound that looked almost like an overgrown anthill. And swarming all about it, digging in the sand, were ants the size of foxes, feelers waving and mandibles clicking.

"Giant insects," said Mary, shuddering. "Iím not so sure that I like this place now."

"They donít appear to have noticed us," said Arthur. "As long as we do not disturb them, I doubt that we have anything to fear. Let us continue, shall we?"

She nodded and walked alongside him much more quickly, only occasionally glancing back at the giant ants and immediately looking away whenever she did so.

They soon left the sheep-like plants or the plant-like sheep behind them, as they headed for the stream that ran through the meadow. On the other side of it were what appeared to be a herd of white horses, grazing peacefully. But as they drew closer, they saw the spiral horns issuing from the animals' foreheads.

"Unicorns!" Mary gasped, her eyes widening still further. "Real unicorns!" She eagerly splashed across the stream to reach them.

"This place is filled with more marvels than I had expected," commented Arthur as he joined the girl. Mary was seating herself down neatly upon a large flat rock near the unicorn herd, so that she could watch it all the better. "The more that I think upon it, the more I indeed suspect that this could indeed be the present residing place for the Holy Grail. Such sights would certainly attend upon it."

"Well, if it was responsible for the giant ants, Iím feeling a lot less keen about it," said Mary. "But these, on the other hand, I donít mind." She continued to gaze upon the unicorns, a rapt expression upon her face.

After a few minutes, the unicorn cropping the grass closer to them raised its head and saw Mary. It immediately trotted over towards her and began to nudge her playfully. Mary giggled, then smiled as it lay down beside her, placing its head in her lap. She began to stroke its golden mane, while Arthur stood looking down at them both, himself moved by the sight.

"All right, thatís enough!" shouted a womanís voice. "Hands up in the air, both of you!"

Arthur and Mary both started, Mary springing to her feet. They turned around to see three people standing there, all dressed much like Rani, if with neater and less patched garments. One was a fair-haired woman, apparently in her mid-thirties, one a dark-haired and dark-bearded man who appeared to be in his forties, and the last a boy a little older than Mary, with a wild mop of curly brown hair. Both the man and the woman were bearing long wooden rods with odd carvings upon them in their hands. And all three of them were staring straight at the travellers - and the man and the woman, at the least, did not appear at all pleased to see them.

"Good day to you both, my friends," said Arthur. "I was wondering -"

"Silence, poacher!" said the woman. "For such you clearly are!"

"I knew that this day would come," said the man grimly. "Hunters intruding upon the Preserve."

"We are not poachers, my lady," said Arthur. "We-"

"Do you think that we are fools?" said the woman. "You and the girl were clearly attempting to capture that unicorn." She pointed to the unicorn itself, which was now standing beside Mary, looking more than a little bewildered. "What were you planning to do with it? Murder it for its horn, so that you could sell it on the black market? Or take it back to the outside world, to put on exhibit in someoneís menagerie?"

"Neither," Mary protested. "We were just making friends with it, thatís all."

"Ha!" said the woman. "Donít try to deceive me, young lady. I know the stratagem; I learned all about it during my days as an apprentice Warden. A young maid such as yourself lures the unicorn to her, so that the huntsman with her can take it by surprise and kill it. The only question left is whether you were his willing accomplice or if he coerced you. But we can sort that all out back in the village."

"The village?" asked Arthur.

"It is where we are taking both of you," said the man. "Come with us, now. And you will surrender your sword."

"Very well, then," said Arthur. He handed Excalibur over to the man. "We will come quietly."

"Arthur, you canít be serious!" Mary began.

"Mary, these people, whoever they are, must be charged with enforcing the laws in this place," said Arthur. "They are merely fulfilling their duties. If we resist them, we will only make matters worse for ourselves. I am certain, in any case, that we can explain our case to whoever the magistrate is in the village."

The girl sighed but made no further protest. The three newcomers led them away. The man came in front, now bearing Excalibur, while the woman came behind Arthur and Mary. The boy walked beside the two prisoners, looking closely at Mary but saying nothing.

"So who are you people?" Mary finally asked.

"My name is Dictynna," said the woman. "That is Togrul, -" - she indicated the man with her rod - "-and that is his apprentice, Nyctimus." She pointed to the youth. "We are Wardens, charged with protecting the animals in this Preserve, tending to their needs, and keeping them safe from those who would do them harm. Such as the two of you."

"But we never -" Mary began.

"Silence, girl!" said Dictynna. "You and your friend can plead your case before the Council when we reach the village. Until then you will remain silent."

"Arenít you being a little harsh on her, maíam?" asked Nyctimus, speaking in a diffident tone of voice. "I mean - maybe she didnít want to do it, but heíd forced her into it."

"Perhaps," said Dictynna, her voice remaining hard. "But it is the Councilís business to determine that, not yours. Donít let her pretty face lead you astray, boy."

"Sorry, maíam," said Nyctimus. He said nothing further, although he looked back at Mary again and smiled at her. She made no reply, being too busy looking concernedly up at Arthur. Arthur looked down at her; he said nothing, but he had a reassuring look in his eyes.

* * * * *

"Well, the birds are friendly, at least," said Griff, gliding past another one of the colossal avians. It glanced briefly at him, appearing more curious than hungry, and then flew on its way. "Or at least, they donít feel like getting into a fight with anyone. Thatís something of a comfort."

He looked down to see below him a small village, a collection of simple wooden huts that resembled the Sanctuary, if smaller. They were clustered around a high stone tower.

"Now thatís interesting," he said to himself. "I wonder who lives here. Well, only one way to find out." He glided down, to get a closer look at it.

As he drew closer to the ground, he saw a small crowd gathered, staring up at him. Most of them were humans, clad in shirts and trousers like Raniís and carrying rods, but there were a few other beings among them. There was a shaggy white humanoid creature much like the one that he had seen in the display case at the sanctuary - a yeti, Rani had called it - and a couple of stocky little men with long beards, wearing hooded cloaks, tunics and breeches with an almost Viking cut to them. All of them appeared utterly amazed at the sight of him.

"Uh-oh," muttered Griff to himself. "Looks like Iíve scared them. Iíd better land and explain things to them."

He alit in the center of the crowd and folded up his wings. "Hullo there," he said, to the people crowding about him. "Iím terribly sorry to turn up unannounced like this. I hope that I havenít startled any of you that much."

One of the humans, a dark-haired woman with a Chinese cast to her features, spoke. "Youíre a gargoyle," she said.

"Yes, maíam," said Griff, with a courtly bow to her. "So youíve heard of us, then, have you?"

"We have all heard of gargoyles," she replied. "But most of us have never seen any of your kind before now. You are the first one to enter the Preserve."

"The Preserve," said Griff. "Is this place anything like the Sanctuary?"

"You have been to the Sanctuary?" the dark-haired woman asked.

Griff nodded. "My friends and I stopped by on the way here," he said. "So youíve been there as well?"

"Yes, I have," she replied. "But how did you find us? I trust that Rani did not betray our secret to you." She looked at him concernedly.

"Donít worry," said Griff. "She didnít mention this place at all; in fact, I didnít even know that it existed until just now. My friends and I were going through the mountains, when we got caught in a snowstorm and had to wait it out in a cave. And while we were there we discovered a hidden tunnel and followed it to here."

"I see," said the woman. "So you found us inadvertently. But where are your friends?"

"Exploring some other part of the place," said Griff. "Theyíre humans, so they canít glide like me. But theyíll probably show up soon. My nameís Griff, by the way."

"And my name is Li," said the woman.

Griff stared at her in astonishment. "Youíre Li?" he asked. "Terribly sorry, maíam, I donít mean to be rude, but - I must admit, youíre not quite what Iíd expected from what Rani told us of you."

Li smiled. "You were expecting a dragon, then?" she said. "Rani did not mislead you, Griff; I am indeed one - a member of the Lung breed, in fact. Our kind, however, can take on human form at will. And I find it more convenient here for carrying out many of the day-to-day tasks in administering the Preserve. But I can still return to my true shape whenever it is necessary."

Before she could say anything more, however, there was suddenly the sound of footsteps approaching. The crowd turned around and so did Griff. His eyes widened as he saw Arthur and Mary being led along by three humans, a man, a woman, and a teenaged boy, all dressed like the villagers.

"Arthur?" he cried in astonishment.

"Griff!" Arthur cried, looking at the gargoyle eagerly. "Youíre not a prisoner here as well, are you?"

"From what I can tell so far, I doubt it," Griff replied, shaking his head. "But what happened to you and Mary?"

"Do you know this gargoyle?" asked the woman escorting Arthur and Mary.

"Griff is a friend of ours," said Arthur, "who came here with us. He can vouch for us."

"Just what is all this about, Dictynna?" Li asked. "Who are these strangers?"

"Unicorn-poachers," said the blonde woman. "Togrul and I apprehended them and brought them here, to be presented before the Council." She looked closely at Griff. "Do you actually know these two?"

"Of course," said Griff. "And if you think that Arthurís a unicorn-poacher, then Iím afraid that youíre quite mistaken, maíam. He and Mary would never harm a unicorn, or any other animal here, for that matter."

"But we found them with one of the herd," said Togrul. "The girl had lured the unicorn to her, with the man standing by, no doubt ready to slay it on the spot."

"We didnít lure it to us," said Mary at once. "It came to us on its own."

"My squire speaks the truth," said Arthur. "We certainly intended no evil towards it at all."

There was a great deal of murmuring among the onlookers. Li finally had to raise one hand and signal for silence. Then she spoke. "I should like to hear this story myself," she said. "If you would tell your tale before the Council, please."

"Thank you, my lady," said Arthur. "As we have already stated, we did not come here hunting unicorns. Rather...."

* * *

"....and that is when they found us," said Arthur.

Li listened thoughtfully. "Your tale agrees with Griffís account, insomuch as the two interlace. Clearly you spoke the truth when you described each other as friends, and when you mentioned meeting Rani at the Sanctuary."

"Yes, my lady," said Arthur.

"And that is what transpired with the unicorn?" Li asked. "It sought you out on its own?"

Arthur and Mary both nodded. "That is how it was," said Arthur.

Li turned to Dictynna and Togrul. "Did either of you see definite evidence," she asked, "that they were going to offer violence to the unicorn?"

"No," said Dictynna. "But the man named Arthur did bear a sword."

"And was it raised to strike a blow at the animal?" Li inquired.

"No, it was not," Dictynna admitted. "He had it lowered. But still, it was drawn and in his hand. And we had certainly never seen either of them before; for all that we knew he intended to make use of it."

"But you have no clear proof that he did," said Li. "From what I have heard so far, it seems that you may have merely jumped to conclusions concerning his intent. And one thought had occurred to me in particular. I know how unicorn hunts are conducted, just as you do, and whenever the hunters employ a maiden to trap a unicorn, they always wait in hiding, rather than standing close by her. This man was standing by the girl throughout, according to your own testimony, not lurking behind anything. That supports his claim that he came in peace. And for that matter, I doubt that the unicorn would have come to the girl with him about, had his intent been hostile.

"So my conclusion is this. It would seem that this matter was nothing more than a misunderstanding and that these travellers are innocent. I would propose that you release them accordingly, and give the man back his sword."

"Very well," said Togrul with a sigh. He handed Excalibur back to Arthur. "I will be watching you, all the same," he added.

"Thank you for defending us, my lady," said Arthur, bowing to Li. Turning to Griff, he said, "At least you enjoyed a much more favorable reception than did we."

Griff nodded. "They've heard a lot about gargoyles, but they've never actually seen one," he said. "So they naturally wanted to know all that they could about me and my kind."

"I have seen gargoyles on a few occasions," said Li. "When I helped found the Sanctuary long ago, there were two gargoyles who helped us. Although they were of quite a different breed from Griff here," she added.

"Youíre that old?" Mary asked, astonishedly.

"As I told Griff, my true nature is of dragonkind, and we are a very long-lived race," said Li. "Of course, I was only a child at that time; I was even younger for my people than you are for yours then. I was closer to your age, or the equivalent thereof, when I first came to the Preserve."

"So what is this Preserve, anyway?" Arthur asked.

"You might call it a twin to the Sanctuary," said Li, "although it is older. My friends and I, Haroun, Melchior, and Darice, built the Sanctuary as a place of refuge for sentient beings who were persecuted in the human world beyond. But the Preserve serves a different purpose. It is a haven for certain breeds of animal that you would call Ďmythicalí, such as the unicorns which you have already seen. Or the rocs above you," she added, indicating the great birds that the travellers had observed, still flying about far over their heads. "Here their kinds may be preserved, safe from all those who might hunt them. Without this place, I fear that there would be none left anywhere in the world at all."

"But itís actually older than the Sanctuary?" asked Griff.

Li nodded. "This cavern was first formed by Lady Tethys and her people of the Elder Court," she said. "Long ago, they became concerned and even distressed over the number of unusual and particularly intriguing animals that were being driven to extinction through various factors, particularly human activity. So, to find a way of ensuring that their species would not entirely disappear, they created this place as a home for them; thus, even if they were to die out in the rest of the world, some of them would live on here."

"Weíve got places like that in the outside world, too," said Mary. "Although the animals there arenít quite this remarkable."

"True," said Li. "In the outside world, the animals of the Preserve have faded into legend; most humans no longer believe that they ever even existed, or so I have gathered."

"So how did you and the others come here to look after these animals?" Arthur asked.

"Some years after the Sanctuary was founded," said Li, "I and a few others stumbled upon this place, in much the same manner that you did. There we met with the members of the Elder Court who were watching over the Preserve, and learned of their mission. They passed the responsibility of protecting it on to us, making us the first Wardens. Over time, more people came here, one way or another, and chose to remain here, as well. We - except for myself, since I was here from the beginning - are their descendants, and remain faithful to the trust that was placed upon us still.

"Each of the Wardens looks after a different variety of animal here, tending to its needs. For example, Togrul tends to the barometz or vegetable lambs."

"Yes, we saw them when we arrived," said Arthur. "The sheep that grow like plants."

Li nodded. "Dictynna is Warden to the unicorns. I am Warden to the rocs. In my dragon-shape, I can easily fly up to their aeries and tend to their needs whenever they require it. And Vorones here," she continued, turning to a stern-looking, lean man with greying hair and bristling eyebrows, who was standing by himself, "is Warden to the catoblepas."

"Whatís a catoblepas?" Mary asked.

"Theyíre marsh-grazers, much like buffalo, only uglier," said Dictynna, a note of revulsion in her voice.

"Very ugly, indeed," said Togrul. "Iíve sometimes wondered what the Elder Court were thinking when they gave them a place here. Especially when you consider their death-gaze."

"Death-gaze?" Mary asked.

"Any living thing that stares a catoblepas straight in the eye will perish instantly," said Dictynna. "Fortunately, we have precautions against such an event - but I still have little fondness for the creatures - though I suppose that we cannot pick and choose."

Vorones looked sharply at both her and Togrul, but said nothing.

"So what are these precautions that you use against the catoblepas?" Arthur asked.

"Yes," said Mary. "And for that matter, how about the rocs? I mean, Iíve read The Arabian Nights, and it said that rocs were really fierce birds that went about eating elephants and rhinoceroses. How do you stop them from eating all the other animals here?"

"We have preserved harmony in this place through a gift that the Elder Court gave us when they passed the duties of watching over the Preserve to us," Li explained. "It is the Chalice of Kuan Yin. We keep it in the tower." She indicated the tower as she spoke. "The Chalice produces a magical liquid which all the animals in the Preserve drink at regular intervals. It causes them to dwell together peacefully, neither attacking each other nor us. Thus the rocs do not seek to devour the other animals. Also it renders the death-gaze of the catoblepas null and void, so that they pose no danger to anyone else - although it has still not helped their popularity," she added, glancing at the other Wardens.

"And it can do more than that," she continued, leading the travellers from the village out into the meadow, as the other Wardens followed. "See for yourselves."

Before them, Arthur, Griff, and Mary now saw a few unusual animals grazing in the field. They had the heads and forequarters of lions, but their hindquarters were shaped like those of ants. Mary shuddered slightly. "More giant bugs," she murmured under her breath, but took care not to let the Wardens overhear her.

"These are the mermecolions or ant-lions," said Li. "They were one of the most unfortunate of all the animals to be found in the Preserve, barely able to survive. The lion-portion of the mermecolion desires to eat flesh, but the ant-portion can only digest grains and other materials that ants prefer to eat. So the poor beasts generally starve to death. But the Chalice has solved that problem; after drinking from it, the mermecolions can happily eat grass, and so they live and breed."

"That is truly a marvel," said Arthur, sounding very much impressed. Then an idea struck him. He looked at Griff and Mary, and they looked back at him, nodding, as though they had thought the same thing that he had. "This Chalice of yours -" he began.

"It is not ours," said Li. "It belongs to the Preserve."

"Ah, yes," said Arthur. "My mistake. But can it really do all that you say it can?"

"That is the truth," said Li.

"It sounds very much like the object of our quest," said Arthur. "We seek the Holy Grail, and that ancient relic has also taken on the form of a cup or chalice. And it is famed for its powers of nourishment. Perhaps they could be one and the same."

"Because itíd be wonderful if it was," said Mary. "You see, a friend of ours is very ill, and we need to find the Grail in order to cure him. You couldnít lend it to us, so that we could take it back to him?"

"I am sorry, child," said Li, "but I fear that that is out of the question. The Chalice is vital to the Preserve and our charges. The animals here must drink from it regularly, or else the effects will wear off - and then it will be the end. For this reason we cannot permit it to leave the Preserve, not even to save your friendís life."

"But-" Mary began.

"We understand," said Arthur. Griff nodded in agreement.

They returned to the village. "So what are you going to do to us?" asked the girl. "Keep us here as prisoners, on the grounds that we know too much now and that you canít afford to let the rest of the world know about this place?"

Li laughed. "Child, no," she said. "Whatever gave you that idea?"

"It was a reasonable concern on her part," said Arthur. "After all, itís clear enough that you would not want the rest of the world knowing about the Preserve."

"That is true," said Li, "and it is true that we must keep this place secret. But we are not savages. The protection of the Preserve is vital, but if we were to carry it out by stripping all who stumbled upon this place of their freedom or even their lives, then we would have corrupted our mission. We have a saying in these parts, ĎFoul means will taint even the noblest of goals.í Instead, all that we ask is that you keep this place a secret, and speak of it to nobody in the outside world without our permission."

"Well, thatís certainly much better treatment than Iíd expected," said Griff. "Thank you, maíam. And donít worry; we wonít tell anyone. We promise."

"But what about all the people here?" Mary asked, still looking uncertain.

"They and their ancestors chose to remain here," said Li, "because they believed in what we were doing. You are free to join us and serve as Wardens, if you choose. We have no vacancies at the moment, but those who remain can serve as apprentices to an existing Warden. Nyctimus came here a year ago, for example, and serves as Togrulís apprentice."

Nyctimus, who was still standing beside Mary (as he had been ever since they had met), looking at her with a smile, nodded eagerly. "Please stay," he said to her. "Youíd be good company."

"I already have a boy-friend," said Mary sharply, holding out her locket in front of him.

"We thank you for your offer, Li," said Arthur. "But we have our own concerns in the outside world to attend to, which means that we cannot remain here. In particular, there is our friend to concern ourselves with."

"It's quite a pity that youíre choosing to leave, actually," said Dictynna to Mary, her voice softening a little. "I had my doubts about you, but the unicorn did respond to you favorably. You could always remain here as an apprentice, if you decide; I could use the additional help. My current apprentice, Cynthia, is still recovering from a broken leg, and so is unable to accompany me on my visits to the herd at present."

"Iím sorry to hear that, maíam," said Mary. "And itís very nice of you, but I really canít stay here. You see-"

Togrul had been looking troubledly at her all the while, even sniffing the air slightly, and now spoke. "Thereís something different about you, girl," he said. "You have a certain air about you, something that almost smells - predatory. Just what are you?"

"Well," said Mary. She hesitated, then spoke. "Actually, Iím a werewolf."

Nearly all of the Wardens gasped in shock, staring at her. Nyctimus immediately moved away from her, a look of horror upon his face. Li was the only one who appeared calm.

"Iím not that sort of werewolf," Mary protested at once.

"She speaks the truth," said Arthur. "Mary turns into a wolf in the daytime, but she remains the gentle and loyal person then that she is in her human form at night. She means no harm to any of you."

"That I can believe," said Li. "But you must understand that werewolves are not popular in the Preserve. They have a reputation for being savage marauders. We do not fear all weres, I assure you - Darice herself was a werecheetah - but werewolves are an exception."

"From what Iíve seen of werecheetahs," said Mary, "theyíre not that much gentler."

"I knew that something was wrong with her," cried Togrul. "And I say now that thereís no question about letting her remain here, whether as an apprentice or otherwise! We canít have her about, Li! Think of what she could do to the barometz! You know how much wolves like to eat them, and werewolves are certainly no different. And the vegetable lambs cannot even flee, as ordinary sheep can, because they are rooted to the ground. She could devour the entire flock in less than a week!"

"Here we go again," said Mary with a sigh. In a lower voice she commented to Arthur and Griff, "There are obviously limits to this placeís spirit of racial tolerance."

"Calm down, Togrul," said Li at once. "The girl is a werewolf, yes, but she does not seem to be hostile. We have no evidence that she intends evil against your charges."

"And I suppose that the unicorn would not have approached her if she had intended us harm," said Dictynna, after a momentís thought. "They can sense such things on the parts of humans. All the same, though, we probably will need to keep a close eye on her while she remains here."

"Yes," said one of the little bearded men. "And I, for one, will sleep all the safer when she takes her leave of us."

An uneasy silence followed. At last the yeti broke it.

"You are actually a gargoyle?" he asked Griff. "Weíve never had any here before, although we have heard of them. My several-times-great-uncle Melchior knew gargoyles and even befriended them, although none of them were like you."

"Well, I come from London," said Griff. "Weíre a bit different there from the other clans. But Iíve met three other gargoyle clans already during my travels."

"You should come with us to the Hall of Archives and tell us more about them," said the yeti. "We know so very little about gargoyles here, and any information that you can give us would be most welcome."

Many of the other Wardens nodded eagerly. "Well, thatís very decent of you," said Griff. "Very well, then."

"Follow me, if you please," said Li.

She led the travellers to one of the larger houses at the edge of the village. Inside, the walls were lined with bookshelves, containing an assortment of leather-bound books and scrolls. Chairs and benches were scattered about, and the Wardens seated themselves upon them, except for the yeti, who stood. One of the Wardens, a red-haired and red-bearded man, took a book down from the shelf and seated himself at a table in the center, upon which sat an inkstand with a few quill pens thrust in it. Opening the book to a blank page, he said, "Now, begin your account, gargoyle, if you please."

As Griff began explaining about the London clan, Arthur and Mary sat down near the back of the room behind the two gnomes. They found themselves alone here; the Wardens appeared to be taking considerable pains to avoid them - or Mary, at least. After a couple of minutes, the girl turned to Arthur and spoke.

"Well, I suppose that it wasnít all in vain," she said, in a low voice. "I mean, we did get to see some really amazing things while we were here - although I could use more unicorns and less giant ants. But it looks as though we came here for nothing."

"Perhaps," said Arthur. "But there is always the possibility that this chalice of theirs might indeed be the Grail."

"Maybe," said the girl doubtfully. "But even if it is, whatís the use? The only way that we can get it to Merlin would be to bring him here - and what if we canít do that? It looks as though weíre at a dead end. I wish that we could do something."

"So do I, Mary," said Arthur, nodding.

"Do you two mind?" asked one of the gnomes, turning around and glowering at them sharply. "Some of us are trying to listen here!"

"Weíre very sorry," said Arthur. He and Mary said nothing further, but listened as Griff continued his account.

* * * * *

"Iím sorry that I canít say more," said Griff. "But it feels as though itís getting close to daytime, and Iíll have to turn to stone soon."

Li nodded. "We understand," she said. "We can hear more from you tomorrow night, in that case."

The meeting broke up as Griff made his way over to Arthur and Mary through the crowd of Wardens. "It looks as if weíre going to be spending the day here," he said to them. "Iíll just find some place to perch, and see you this evening."

"Very well," said Arthur. "Until then."

Griff went on his way while Arthur and Mary exited the Hall of Archives. They looked at the tower quietly, neither one saying a word.

* * * * *

AN HOUR LATER

Aurvang the gnome stretched and yawned as he walked past the tower. "I should really go home," he muttered to himself. "I could use some proper sleep, and -"

He halted suddenly as he heard a noise coming from the other side of the tower, where the door was. Astonished, he ran about to see what was going on. He halted on the other side,and then stared in alarm.

The door was broken down, forced open as if something had been ramming at it repeatedly. The gnome stared at the ruins of it, then stepped inside the tower, pulling his axe from his belt.

Inside the tower a spiral staircase climbed up to the chamber at the top where the Chalice of Kuan Yin had been kept for untold centuries. Aurvang stood at the bottom and listened intently. From upstairs, he could hear a snarling sound.

"Whoís there?" he called out, raising his axe. "Declare yourself, now!"

Something dashed down the stairs towards him. It was a young grey wolf carrying something in its mouth. As it drew nearer Aurvang saw, to his horror, that it was the Chalice.

"Stop!" he cried, barring its path. "Stop, or Iíll -"

The wolf bowled him over before he had the opportunity to even threaten it with his axe. Aurvang pulled himself to his feet, and rushed out of the tower after the wolf, which was already rushing eastwards out of the village.

"The Chalice has been stolen!" Aurvang shouted in a loud voice. "Stolen! That creature - "

Something struck him hard over the head. Aurvang fell forward, blacking out as he hit the ground.

* * *

"This is dreadful," said Dictynna, standing with some of the other Wardens over the unconscious form of the gnome. "The Chalice has been stolen, and one of our own people attacked."

"Aurvang will live, fortunately," said Togrul, bending over the gnome and feeling him. "He suffered a nasty blow to the head, but nothing lethal."

"But who attacked my brother?" cried Jari, the other gnome, in an angry voice. "Who was responsible for this act of treachery?"

"We do not know as yet," said Dictynna. "But be certain, Jari, that we will find out."

"Is anything wrong here?" Arthur asked, walking up to the group. Mary was following behind him now in wolf-shape.

"Yes," said Li. "Someone broke into the tower, and stole the Chalice of Kuan Yin. Aurvang was knocked unconscious; he must have seen whoever the thief was, and tried to stop him."

"This is very serious," said Arthur. "Obviously we must find the Chalice at once and bring this robber to justice."

"And just where were you while this act was taking place?" asked Dictynna, facing Arthur.

"Mary and I were exploring the Preserve a little more," said Arthur.

"Was anyone with you?" Dictynna asked. "A guide who can vouch for your story?"

"I fear not," said Arthur, shaking his head. "The two of us were alone at the time."

"Well, that certainly sounds more than a little suspicious to me," said Jari sharply. He would have said more but the yeti raised one hand.

"That will do, Jari," he said. "For now, our immediate concern is tending to your brotherís injury."

"I agree," said Li. "Let us take him to the infirmary at once."

* * *

"Heís coming to," said the Warden standing by Aurvangís bed. Jari, Dictynna, Li, Togrul, and a few other Wardens were standing about it, as were Arthur and Mary.

Aurvang moaned as he sat up, his head bandaged. "Stolen," he said. "The Chalice was stolen. I tried to stop the thief, but -"

His gaze suddenly fell upon Mary and he stared at her in alarm and suspicion, before speaking. "You!" he cried.

"I beg your pardon?" the girl asked.

"You were the thief!" Aurvang cried, swaying back and forth. "I saw a wolf run out of the tower with the Chalice of Kuan Yin in its mouth! And there are no other wolves in the Preserve. You stole it!"

"I did nothing of the sort!" Mary protested.

"Oh, really?" asked the gnome. "Then if it was not you, who was it? Answer me this!"

"I agree with my brother," said Jari grimly. "Especially since you showed a great deal of interest in the Chalice. It was certainly to your benefit to take it."

"My squire is no thief," said Arthur firmly. "I will vouch for her myself."

"Youíre under suspicion as well," said Dictynna. "Somebody struck Aurvang over the head, meaning that the wolf was not acting alone. It was in partnership with somebody. And that partner, most likely, was you, Arthur Pendragon."

"I believe that you're right," said Togrul grimly. "I had a bad feeling about both of you from the start." Many of the other Wardens nodded in agreement.

Arthur looked at Li. "Surely you do not believe that we stole the Chalice, my lady, do you?" he asked.

"I want to believe that you did not," she replied. "But I fear that the circumstances do not look well for you." She sighed. "Arthur Pendragon, I regret to say that we have no choice but to place you and your companion under arrest. If you will surrender your sword to us -"

"Very well," said Arthur. He quietly yielded Excalibur up to her, before a few of the Wardens led him and a still-protesting Mary away.

* * * * *

Griff awakened from his stone sleep with a roar and leaped down from his perch. Some of the Wardens, who were speaking to each other in a small cluster, turned to look at him.

"We have bad news for you, gargoyle," said Dictynna. "Your friends have been arrested."

"Arrested?" asked Griff, staring at her in disbelief. "Whatever for?"

"They stole the Chalice of Kuan Yin," said Togrul.

"You mean they were accused of stealing it," said the yeti.

"Very well, Caspar, accused," said Togrul. "But you have to admit that the evidence does not look good for them."

"Yes, that is true," said the yeti uncomfortably.

"Thatís absurd!" cried Griff. "Arthur would never steal anything from anybody! There has to be some mistake here!"

"We understand your loyalty to your friends," said Togrul, in a sympathetic voice. "In truth, youíre not the first honest person to be deceived by cunning thieves. But the facts are uncontestable."

"Then I would like to hear these facts, if you please," said Griff.

* * *

"So there you have it," Dictynna said to him a few minutes later. "Arthur and his young werewolf squire had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to commit the theft. The girl Mary is the only wolf to be found in the Preserve. She and Arthur both expressed interest in the Chalice of Kuan Yin, believing it to be the Holy Grail that they sought. And they were roaming about freely at the time of the theft, with no witnesses to ascertain that they were indeed elsewhere in the Preserve at the time."

"What about the Chalice?" asked Griff. "Have you found it yet?"

"I fear not," said Dictynna. "We searched Arthur but did not find it on his person. He must have hidden it somewhere before we found him."

"Weíve questioned both of them," said Jari. "But they wonít admit to their crime, arguing their innocence throughout."

"Which could mean that they are innocent," Griff pointed out.

"Perhaps," said Li. "But as Dictynna pointed out, there are no other wolves or werewolves in the Preserve. So if it was not the girl who stole the Chalice, then who was it?" She shook her head sadly. "The facts do not look good for them, Iím afraid."

"And am I under suspicion as well?" Griff asked, looking at them sharply.

Dictynna shook her head. "We believe you to be innocent," she said. "After all, you are a gargoyle, and none of your kind would ever stoop to such an act of theft. Besides, the fact that they committed their crime in the daytime, while you were in your stone sleep, would indicate that they did not wish you to be aware of their act."

"Thank you," said Griff. "All the same, though, I should like to visit my friends and speak with them, if you please."

The Wardens conferred among themselves for a few minutes. At last Li spoke. "Very well," she said. "We grant you permission. Iíll conduct you to them myself."

* * * * *

Griff peered in through the narrow window of the granary; since the village had no prisons or jails, the storehouse had been pressed into service for holding Arthur Pendragon and Mary. His two friends were inside, surrounded by sacks of various foodstuffs. Both turned and rushed to the window when they saw his face at it.

"Griff!" cried Arthur. "So youíve come to visit us, have you?"

"I heard about it all from the Wardens when I woke up," said Griff. "I tried to convince them that you two didnít do it, but they wouldnít listen."

"With all due fairness, I must admit that the facts do not look especially good for us," Arthur admitted. "Particularly in light of the theft having been committed by a wolf."

"I know," said Griff. "Personally, I think that someoneís setting you both up. Although I canít figure out who or how." In a lower voice, he added, "I donít suppose that I could break you both out of there, could I?"

Arthur shook his head. "No, that is the one thing that you cannot do, my friend," he said. "After all, we were arrested by the authorities here, under the full procedure of the law. We cannot disregard them, not even if we are innocent. When I was crowned King of Britain, I swore to uphold the law, not to break it. No, we must find some way to prove our innocence."

"Then thatís what Iíll do," said Griff. "Iím going to find out who really stole the Chalice, somehow. Then when I uncover the real thief, theyíll have to let you go."

"Are you certain about this, Griff?" Mary asked. "I mean - I never really thought of you as the detective sort before."

"Well, Iíll admit that I donít have that much experience in the area," Griff admitted. "Apart from reading a few Sherlock Holmes stories in old copies of The Strand at the estate when I was a hatchling, that is. But itís the best option that we have."

"Take care, then," said Arthur gravely.

"Donít worry, Arthur," said Griff. "Iíll do just that."

* * * * *

"I honestly donít know what good searching this place will do you, gargoyle," said Dictynna, as she led Griff up the spiraling stairs to the upper story of the tower. "All the evidence that weíve seen so far points to a wolf being the culprit."

"I know," said Griff. "But I wished to examine the scene of the crime myself, maíam. Perhaps I could find something that the others missed."

"Very well," said Dictynna. "But I still think that youíre wasting your time. If there was anything here that could exonerate your friends, weíd have found it by now."

"Listen," said Griff, "I know Arthur very well. Heís not a thief."

"Iím not so certain," Dictynna replied. "In your account the night before of how the two of you met, you said that when you first saw him he was breaking into a building."

"True," Griff admitted. "And I did think then that he was planning to burglarize it. But it turned out that he wasnít."

"And he was extremely stubborn," Dictynna went on, "about that sword of his - Excalibur - being his and his only. For all that you know, he might have felt the same way about the Chalice. Enough so to be willing to steal it."

They reached the top of the stairs, emerging into the upper chamber. A badly cracked stone pedestal lay upon its side on the floor. "The Chalice was kept atop that pedestal," Dictynna explained, "before it was stolen."

"Were there any guards?" Griff asked. "Besides Aurvang, I mean? Any security precautions?"

Dictynna shook her head. "Weíve never had to before," she said. "None of us Wardens would have reason to steal the Chalice, after all. The entire Preserve requires it. So guarding it did not seem a necessity to us - although when we do recover it, that will have to change. Your friend Arthur has cost this land its innocence."

Griff looked over the room, bending down over the pedestal in particular. It looked as though it had been bowled over through something striking it hard. Other than that, there was nothing in particular to indicate the nature of the thief.

"Now, are you certain," he said, standing up again, "that there arenít any wolves in the Preserve?"

"Other than your friend?" said Dictynna. "No. No werewolves, either. They are not actually forbidden - but we prefer not having them about. Fortunately, the girl Mary was the first of her kind to ever dare come here."

"Then is there anything in the Preserve," Griff persisted, "that looks like a wolf? Enough for Aurvang to mistake it for one?"

"I very much doubt it," said Dictynna. "None of our animals resemble wild canines at all."

Griff frowned thoughtfully. "Well, thank you anyway, maíam," he said.

They re-emerged from the tower into the center of the village, to see a few Wardens standing in a small group, talking concernedly. Vorones was among them, looking not at all pleased.

"Hullo!" said Griff. "I wonder what all this is about." He walked towards them quietly, so as not to disturb their conversation.

"Iím telling you, I do hope that we find the Chalice soon." The speaker was a young girl about Maryís age, her long red hair bound back in a ponytail, standing on crutches; her right leg was in a cast. "Itís only a week before we have to administer its potion to the animals, and if they donít receive it by then, thereíll be absolute chaos. Especially with the catoblepas," she added. "I donít want to even think about what happens when they get their death-gaze back."

"It wonít happen, Cynthia," said Caspar the yeti. "Weíll find it before that happens."

"But what if we donít?" the girl argued. "Once the catoblepas recover their death-gaze, they could go on a rampage. Weíd all be killed, and so would our charges. We really need to do something to make sure that they wonít do that."

"Such as fencing in their marsh, perhaps?" suggested Jari.

"Maybe," said Cynthia. "Or maybe - well, do we really need to have them in the Preserve? Couldnít we - do without them?"

"Itís not our part to judge which animals stay here and which ones donít," said Caspar to her sternly. "We may not like the catoblepas, but theyíre still part of the Preserve. We canít banish them or kill them."

"Even if they do pose a danger to us with the Chalice stolen," added Jari uneasily. "Truth to tell, I canít help but think that the girlís made a good point."

"Thatís enough, all of you!" cried Vorones, stamping his rod upon the ground. "There you go, expressing your disgust and revulsion at my charges again, just because theyíre not Ďprettyí like the unicorns." He looked angrily at the others. "Maybe I shouldnít be too surprised at you, Cynthia, for youíre young yet, and I should leave your chastising to Dictynna, anyway. But as for the rest of you!" He turned to the other Wardens. "You make no secret of your dislike of the catoblepas! You never have! Because they canít pose pleasantly for tapestries, you view them as monstrosities, abominations that the world would be better off without! Well, I can tell you this! Maybe it wouldnít be quite so bad if the catoblepas did go on the rampage and wiped out every other animal on the Preserve! Consider that, if you will!"

With those words he stomped off, heading out of the village. The others watched him go in silence.

"Cheerful fellow," commented Griff to Dictynna. "Is he always like this?"

"Iím afraid so," he replied. "He does have something of a repuation for being sour-natured. But tending to the catoblepas is hardly something to sweeten anyoneís disposition. Now, if youíll excuse me, I have a few things to say to Cynthia."

"Then I won't detain you," said Griff. As Dictynna walked over to her apprentice, he turned his head in the direction that Vorones had gone in. "I wonder," he said to himself.

* * * * *

Vorones made his way carefully along the trail leading through the marsh. The path was thin and winding, running between stagnant, foul-smelling pools of water, slime, and mud. Cacophonous grunts arose amid the marsh-grass that grew everywhere about.

Vorones halted at last, underneath a twisted tree whose roots dipped into the muck about it, and lifted the cover of the basket that he had been carrying under his arm. He pulled out what looked like cuttings from various herbs and lay them down on the ground about him. Then, raising both hands to his mouth, he let out a hideous screeching cry.

The grunts and snortings drew closer, and then huge, bulky shapes began to emerge from the mud all about. While their forms were coated with the swamp-ooze, they clearly looked not too different from a particularly obese buffalo. Shaggy hair grew upon their foreheads, covering their eyes. They shambled up to the island where Vorones stood.

"Here you go," he said to them, the corners of his mouth curving upwards in a thin smile. "Eat, eat. Youíll be wanting this, now that the Chalice is gone."

Griff stared down from his concealment in the foliage of the sickly trees that grew in the marsh, managing with a supreme effort to check his revulsion at the pungent odors of the swamp and the hideousness of the catoblepas, as they eagerly devoured the food before them. Vorones continued to smile down at them. Griff frowned thoughtfully.

* * * * *

"So thatís what you saw in the marsh," said Arthur, peering out through the window at his gargoyle knight.

Griff nodded. "Yes, and I didnít like the looks of it," he said. "It certainly does seem rather suspicious."

"Iíll say that it does," agreed Mary. "This Vorones doesnít get along well with the other Wardens or their animals, and says himself that he wouldnít be that upset if the catoblepas were to wipe them all out. And what about those herbs that he was feeding them? And what you heard him say?"

"Yes," Griff agreed. "It makes you wonder - just what could he be up to? After all, with the Chalice gone, the catoblepas will soon be able to kill with their gaze again. Maybe Vorones wants that. He could then set them on everyone else."

"And those herbs that he was giving them could be something that would make them tougher," said Mary. "I think that you could be right, Griff."

"Before we go too far with this," said Arthur, "I should remind you both that this is no more than circumstantial evidence. We have no definite proof that Vorones is the real thief. Just because he is fond of a particularly unpleasant form of animal does not make him guilty. And it does not explain the wolf, either."

"Yes, thatís the hard part," said Griff. "All the same, though, Iíd like to keep an eye on him. I think that he could be our man."

"Perhaps," said Arthur doubtfully. "But we will need more evidence. Hard evidence that will prove his guilt beyond a doubt."

"Then Iíll keep watching him until I know for certain," said Griff. "And donít worry, either of you."

He turned and walked away from the storehouse. He had not gone far when he almost bumped into Nyctimus.

"Sorry about that," he said, greeting the youth. "I hadnít expected to find you here all by yourself, actually. Wouldnít you be out looking after the vegetable lambs, or something like that?"

Nyctimus shook his head. "Togrul is busy with other matters at the moment," he said. "And he never lets me tend to the barometz on my own."

"Really?" asked Griff in astonishment. "Why not?"

"He says that I donít have enough experience to do so," said Nyctimus, after a momentís hesitation. "He says that he only trusts me around them when heís there, to make certain that I donít make any mistakes."

"Iím sorry to hear that," said Griff. "I hope that you can convince him that you can handle such matters on your own some day."

"Perhaps," said Nyctimus with an unhappy sigh. He was silent for a moment, then added, "You were visiting your friends, werenít you? Still hoping to prove them innocent?"

"Of course," said Griff.

"Well, your quest is a fruitless one," said Nyctimus, anger sounding in his voice. "Because theyíre guilty, both of them! Thatís obvious! What can you expect from a werewolf?"

"You seemed to like her not too long ago," said Griff.

"That was before I found out what she was!" Nyctimus cried. "Sheís a monster, a freak of nature! She should be locked up in there and never released! And the same thing goes for that Arthur, as well!" And with that he turned around and stormed off.

"Itís a good thing for him that Mary didnít hear that," Griff commented to himself. "Otherwise the poor chap would never hear the last of it."

* * * * *

THE FOLLOWING NIGHT

Griff hopped down from his perch in front of Li, who was standing before him with Caspar the yeti. "So how are things?" he asked her. "Did you find the Chalice yet?"

Li shook her head. "Weíve searched the village, but there's still no sign of it anywhere. Whoever the thief was, he had time to hide it, and hide it well."

"And my friends?" Griff asked.

"Weíre still deliberating over what to do about them," said Li. "But with no other suspects, it does not look well for them. We may have to pass sentence upon them very soon."

"What sort of sentence?" inquired Griff, looking at her closely.

Li sighed. "I know that they are your friends and that you feel concerned for their safety," she said. "So naturally youíd wish no harm to come to them. But if they are indeed guilty - and all the evidence points to that - then we will have to pronounce a severe judgement upon them. Execution for both."

"Execution?" Griff cried.

"Well, I could persuade the others to spare the girl," said Li. "Sheís little more than a child; she might have been coerced. But I am not certain that I can obtain mercy for her. Werewolves are simply too unpopular in these parts. And the fact remains, if they are guilty, then what they did endangered the entire Preserve - and still endangers it. Our first duty is to the protection of this land and its inhabitants, and we must take stern measures against those who place them in peril. I am truly sorry," she added, looking at Griff.

"Donít start sharpening the axe just yet, maíam," said Griff. "Iím still certain that theyíre innocent, and Iím going to prove it - and find the real thief, too."

* * * * *

Just as he had done the night before, Griff tailed Vorones again, following him in secret as the Warden left the village.

This time Vorones had entered the woods to the east of the village, lying to the north of the catoblepasí marsh. He was making his way down the path, his herb-basket once more tucked under his arm, when he halted and looked down. Griff watched, concealed in the foliage above him, as the Warden bent down over something in the dirt, examining it closely. At last Vorones straightened up and continued on down the path, walking at a quicker pace.

For a moment Griff stared down at just what Vorones had been examining, squinting carefully. It looked like - yes, it was. Wolf-tracks, in the soft earth. Griff nodded thoughtfully and continued after Vorones, making as little sound as possible.

Vorones continued on until he stopped again some ways down the path. Once more he stooped down low, looking over the ground. Gazing down from above, Griff could see that the earth had been disturbed recently, as if someone had been digging at the spot. He watched intently as Vorones pulled a small spade out of his basket and began to dig into the ground.

For several minutes, the man kept at it, and then suddenly paused. Reaching into the hole, he pulled out something wrapped in a cloth and held it up, then began to unwrap it. Griff watched intently, as Vorones took from out of the muddy cloth a magnificent golden cup and held it up. Then he made his move.

With a whooshing sound, he leaped down from the tree branch that had served as his vantage point, straight in front of Vorones. The Warden stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "Good evening, gargoyle," he said.

"Thatís the Chalice of Kuan Yin, isnít it?" Griff asked, his eyes glowing white. "Because if it is, Iíd say that youíve a great deal of explaining to do."

Vorones looked at him in astonishment. "This is the Chalice," he said. "But Iím not quite certain that I understand your words."

"Itís all making sense now," said Griff. "You had the motive to steal it; with the Chalice gone, the catoblepas would soon recover their death-gaze,once the effects of the last time theyíd drunk from it wore off. You were angry at the other Wardens for how they treated them, and could use the catoblepas to wipe them and the other animals out. You knew where to find the Chalice, although I donít know whether you were digging it up to destroy it or to find a better hiding place for it. The one thing that I canít figure out yet is where the wolf fits into this, though. Perhaps you could explain." He took a step forward, his eyes glowing even more white-hot than before.

"Oh, I see," said Vorones. He looked at Griff, his eyebrows lifting in astonishment.

"Thatís all that youíre going to say?" asked Griff in surprise. "I was expecting a bit more of a response from you, actually, than that."

He stared at the Warden, examining him closer. And indeed, the expression on the manís face was something that he had certainly not expected. There was no anger, no fury at being discovered, no fear - just utter bemusement. It didnít match the way a guilty man caught in the act would behave.

"Iím afraid that youíre quite mistaken, gargoyle," said Vorones. "I didnít steal the Chalice at all. And Iím afraid that youíre mistaken about my intentions regarding the catoblepas also."

"Indeed?" asked Griff, taking a step backwards and letting the glow fade from his eyes.

"It is true," said Vorones, "I have little delight in being ostracized by my fellow Wardens for tending to the least popular beasts in the entire Preserve, and even less in their dislike for the catoblepas. It has been - more than a little painful. And I regret to say that more than once I have lost my temper and retorted with a sharper tongue than the occasion merited. You must have overheard me behaving thus since you came here, judging from your words. But I would certainly never seek to endanger the Preserve and turn the catoblepas against everyone else here. That would certainly be unjust, not to mention a definite overreaction. Dealing out death in exchange for a few harsh words is certainly unacceptable."

"But I saw you feeding them the herbs in the swamp," Griff continued. "And you said as you fed the catoblepas that theyíd be needing it now that the Chalice had been taken. I thought that you might be preparing them for some sort of rampage."

"Dear me, no," said Vorones, shaking his head. "You have been spying upon me, gargoyle, have you not?"

"Yes," said Griff. "But for a good cause. I thought that you might have framed Arthur somehow. But if you werenít planning any sort of offensive with the catoblepas, then what were you feeding them those herbs for?"

"Theyíre an experiment that Iíve been planning for a while now," Vorones explained calmly. "Iíve feared more than once over the years that we might some day lose the Chalice - which, of course, we have now - and that some other means would be necessary to render the catoblepasí death-gaze dormant. So I began experimenting with certain mixtures of herbs which would carry out that function, when added to the animalsí diet. So far I have not achieved complete success, I regret to say, but I am making progress in that direction. When you followed me out into the marsh you saw me giving them the latest dose that I had developed."

"And the Chalice?" Griff asked. "What about it?"

"Truth to tell," said Vorones, "I did not actually know where the Chalice was. I found it by a fortunate piece of serendipity. I had earlier decided that I needed a particularly rare plant for my concoction in treating the catoblepas, one that only grew in this part of the woods. Togrul comes here regularly, seeking other plants in these parts to feed the vegetable lambs whenever they run short of grass, and told me where to find it. Along the way I discovered a set of wolf-tracks, leading down the path. Naturally, because of the nature of the recent theft, I was curious, and followed them to this place, where the ground had recently been disturbed. I decided to dig here, under the suspicion that something may have been buried at this spot. Which, indeed, it was."

Griff looked at the man closely, saying nothing for a moment. It was possible, he considered, that Vorones was lying and had prepared a story such as this one for the occasion to fool him into believing him innocent. But the more that he thought over it, the less likely it seemed to him. Vorones had not behaved at all like a guilty man, but had given his explanation in an utterly calm and rational fashion, never sounding panicked for even a moment. Either the man was an unbelievably skilled actor, or else - .

"Iím sorry, then," he said. "Iím afraid that Iíve misjudged you. Please forgive me for my jumping to conclusions."

Vorones nodded. "Well, I suppose that my actions did appear more than a little suspicious," he said. "I do have something of a dour exterior, and that, combined with the nature of my charges, probably makes it all too easy for people to believe the worst concerning me. And you were concerned about your friends, and desirous to do whatever you could to prove them innocent. Mind you, you were more than a little reckless in jumping to the conclusions that you did, but your wish to uncover the true thief and thereby save your companions would be enough to drive you to an act of desperation. So, particularly in light of your contrite nature, Iíll say nothing more of this if you wonít. Agreed?"

Griff nodded. "Very well," he said. "Weíll take the Chalice back to the village, then, and tell Li and the others about your finding it - and leave out this little misunderstanding."

"Of course," said Vorones. He suddenly began to laugh.

"Whatís so funny?" Griff asked him.

"You clearly do not know much about catoblepas, gargoyle, if you believe that they would ever undertake any sort of rampage," Vorones explained, when he had finished laughing. "The truth of the matter is that you probably couldn't find a species of animal more unsuited for such activity anywhere in the world, let alone in the Preserve. Theyíre notorious for their laziness and sloth; theyíd rather wallow all day long in the marshes, sleeping, and awakening only long enough to feed, than attack anyone. Furthermore, their anatomy hinders their death-gaze so much as to prevent them from carrying out a very effective campaign of destruction, even if they had the inclination to do so. Their heads are so hopelessly top-heavy that they must keep them low to the ground at all times, and to top it off - as you may have noticed when you watched me feeding them - their mops of hair fall over their eyes, obscuring them. This hardly makes them any great danger to anyone. A Gorgon or a basilisk would be better suited to such a mission, in fact. Although so far my compatriots do not appear to have recognized that."

"Maybe you could point it out to them," suggested Griff as they walked back to the village together. "Once they knew more about what the catoblepas are really like, they might be less afraid of them."

"Perhaps," said Vorones thoughtfully. "Indeed, thatís not a bad idea. A few educational lectures to my fellow Wardens about the habits and physiology of the catoblepas would not be particularly amiss. Thank you very much for suggesting it to me."

"Youíre quite welcome," said Griff. "And at least weíve got the Chalice back. So the Preserveís safe - although Iím not so sure about Arthur and Mary. Since youíre innocent, Iím back to where I started on this investigation."

"Yes," said Vorones. "And much of the trouble is the fact that those wolf-tracks donít bode well for them. The young lady is the only wolf or werewolf that I know of whoís ever entered the Preserve, at least, during my lifetime. If she was not the one who stole the Chalice, brought it here, and buried it, then I am at a complete loss as to who the guilty party is."

"I know," said Griff. "Thatís what bothers me."

"Well, I will assist you on your investigation," said Vorones. "After all, youíll most likely need a restraining influence, so that you wonít be likely to repeat the mistake that you made just now. And I know the Preserve much better than you do. Perhaps an alliance would be in order?"

"Yes, that does sound like a good idea," said Griff. "I could use the help."

"Although Iím afraid that I canít promise you the results that you desire," Vorones continued. "Not unless we can find a more convincing suspect who would explain the wolf in this case."

Griff nodded with a sigh. "Yes," he said. "Thatís definitely going to be a problem."

* * * * *

"All is well again," said Li, setting the Chalice of Kuan Yin upon the top of the re-erected pedestal in the upper chamber of the tower, and smiling in relief. "The Chalice is restored, and the Preserve is safe." Turning back to Griff and Vorones, she added, "We must thank you both for recovering it, and in time."

"Youíre quite welcome, maíam," said Griff. "So, since itís back again, perhaps you wouldnít mind dropping the charges against Arthur and Mary?"

"Certainly not," said Dictynna, speaking up at once before Li could do so. "The fact that the Chalice is back in its rightful place does not change the fact that your friends are guilty of theft."

"Are accused of theft, Dictynna," said Vorones. "Itís not quite the same thing."

"Youíre defending them?" asked Togrul, looking astonished.

"I believe in keeping an open mind in this matter," said Vorones calmly. "As I recall, the saying is, ĎA person is innocent until proven guilty.í"

"Perhaps," said Dictynna. "But there are still no other suspects. We know that a wolf committed the theft, and your account of how you discovered it, Vorones, ties in with that. And the thieves must face the full rigor of our law."

Li nodded sadly. "I am sorry, Griff," she said. "But there is nothing that we can do for your friends now."

Griff sighed. Then a sudden thought struck him.

"Well, even if I cannot save Arthur and Mary," he said, "I can still save Merlin. With your leave, perhaps I could return to the Sanctuary, bring him here, and have him drink from the Chalice. Then he could be cured."

"Iím afraid that the Chalice wonít do your friend any good," said Li. "Its powers only work on animals, not on sentient beings such as humans. It can do nothing for him, therefore."

"So itís not the Holy Grail, then," said Griff, his face falling.

"Certainly not," said Dictynna. "Which means that you and your friends came all this way for nothing and Arthurís theft of it was all in vain."

"Itís a pity that you didnít mention this to us much sooner," said Griff sadly. "It could certainly have saved us a lot of trouble. I suppose that Iíd better visit Arthur and tell him the bad news."

* * * * *

"So it was not the Holy Grail," said Arthur. "I should have known," he added, shaking his head. "From everything that Li told us, the Chalice must have been here long before my day - or the time of the Last Supper, for that matter. We should have seen the significance of that from the beginning."

"So it canít save Merlinís life," said Mary. "And on top of everything else, they still think that Arthur and I are guilty. Donít you have any more ideas, Griff?"

"Iím still searching for fresh clues," said Griff. "At least Vorones will be able to help me out a little now, and make certain that I donít go around accusing the wrong person. Iím just glad that I confronted him privately, instead of denouncing him in front of everyone in the Preserve. That would really have created problems."

"But just how long do you have?" asked Mary. "I mean, theyíre going to pronounce sentence on us pretty soon, after all. Of course," she added hopefully, "maybe theyíll just banish us. We were going to leave anyway, so that wonít be a problem."

"Iím afraid that theyíre leaning more towards the direction of execution," said Griff. "And anyway, we have to find out who the real thief is."

"I agree," said Arthur. "Justice can demand nothing less. We must discover the true culprit, and see to it that he is brought before the law."

"But we still have to find him," said Griff. "And Iím afraid that my investigation didnít turn out so well." He sighed. "I should have known. Iím not quite cut out for this detective business. Dogfighting German bombers, yes, but looking for clues - that's a different story."

"Donít be so hard upon yourself, Griff," said Arthur. "I believe that youíre better qualified for such an investigation than you think. You have a good head for riddles - far better than mine, certainly. And what is being a detective, other than solving riddles?"

Griff nodded. "You may have a point there," he said. He paused thoughtfully. "And I still have one idea left. Iíll just tell Vorones about it and see what he thinks. Until later."

He turned and walked away from the window.

* * * * *

"Do you really think that this will work?" Vorones asked, as they made their way back down the forest path.

Griff nodded. "It occurred to me," he said, "that we should examine the area where the Chalice was buried a little further. Perhaps we might find some clues to help us out."

"Such as?" Vorones asked.

"I think that weíd better just wait and see what we can find before we start speculating," said Griff. "But I was hoping to look over the wolf-tracks again a little. Maybe I can find something about them which could prove that Mary didnít make them."

"And have you so far?" Vorones inquired.

"Iím afraid not," Griff admitted. "They look like regular wolf-tracks to me. But perhaps we can find something else at the place where you found the Chalice."

Vorones nodded. They continued on in silence until they reached the hole where the Chalice had been uncovered. Both of them stooped down next to it, looking closely at it.

"The wolf-tracks come here and stop," said Griff. "Maybe if we could pick up the trail from there."

"I see no tracks from this point onwards, Iím afraid," said Vorones. "There are none any further down the path. See for yourself."

Griff looked down at the path beyond the hole. It was smooth and unmarked, except for a few fallen leaves that had alighted upon it. "Yes, I see what you mean," he said. "But they wouldnít just stop, unless this wolf can develop wings. And I know that Mary canít - though thatís probably a good sign. So if it stayed on foot, itíd have to have gone off in another direction. Off the path to one side."

"It wonít be easy to track, though," said Vorones. "The ground here is littered with leaves. The wolf could have simply trodden upon them, and left no trace of its passing."

"Maybe," said Griff. He looked down at the fallen leaves just off the path, then bent down closer. "Just a moment," he said, and brushed them away.

"What on earth are you doing?" Vorones asked him.

"There was something about the way that they fell that did not look right to me," the gargoyle explained. "My mate Brianna lived in a forest for all her life, and she taught me quite a bit about woodcraft. Enough, certainly, to know when leaves didnít fall naturally off the trees, but were deliberately placed there so as to conceal something. Something like this."

He pointed down to the newly-revealed patch of ground and the prints there. Both Griff and Vorones gazed down intently at it.

"Iím going back to the village to find the Wardens," said Griff. "Stay right here and make certain that nothing happens to these tracks."

"Iíll guard them with my life," said Vorones.

* * * * *

"Well, Griff?" asked Li. She, Dictynna, Togrul, and the rest of the Wardens were making their way down the path, following his lead. Even the apprentice Wardens, such as Nyctimus and Cynthia (the latter hobbling along on her crutches), were in the company. "I assume that there is some good reason as to why you insisted that every last one of us come out here to this part of the forest?"

"Oh, there is," said Griff. "Iíll show you when we get there."

Vorones rose as the company came into sight. "I suppose that youíre all wondering why Griff summoned you here," he said.

"Indeed we are," said Dictynna. "Now can we please get to the point?"

"By all means," said Griff, nodding. "Letís look down at this piece of ground, shall we?"

They bent over the patch of earth that he had pointed at. "Look closely at what you see," said the gargoyle. "Just what is it?"

"Wolf-prints," said Li, "leading to the hole where the Chalice was buried, and then away from it." She looked much more closely. "But - theyíre changing after they leave the hole."

"Exactly," said Griff. "Into human feet, and bare ones at that. Which should tell you something."

"Explain yourself, gargoyle," said Togrul. "What should it tell us?"

"The wolf shifted back to human form after burying the Chalice," said Griff. "Which Mary could not have done. She doesnít control her transformations from human to wolf and back again - they automatically happen at dawn and dusk. She could only have turned back at sunset, and at the time of the first sunset after the Chalice was stolen, sheíd already been imprisoned with Arthur. And sheís been there locked up ever since. So the wolf-tracks couldnít be hers."

"That means nothing," said Togrul. "She might have been lying about her condition. Or the tracks could have been forged. Youíll need more proof to convince us, gargoyle."

"No, the tracks are certainly genuine," said Li, examining them closely. Dictynna and Caspar, bending down beside her, nodded their heads in agreement.

"And the human footprints are bare," said Griff. "Maryís clothes always change with her; when she shifts back to human her boots re-form. But the human that the wolf became was barefoot. That means, most likely, that his clothing did not change with him. The werewolf who stole the Chalice - and, yes, Iíd say that this most definitely proves that the thief was a werewolf - was not her."

"But who was it, then?" Li asked. "There are no werewolves in the Preserve -" - she paused suddenly, a troubled expression creeping over her face - "- unless one of us is a werewolf."

Almost everybody began speaking at once in considerable consternation. Griff finally had to cough loudly to restore silence.

"Iíd considered the possibility, after I discovered these tracks, that one of the Wardens might be a werewolf," he said. "Of course, itís only a possibility - for all that we know, the werewolf might have crept into the Preserve without revealing itself and be hiding somewhere else. But still - does anybody here have a small object made of silver?"

Dictynna undid a bracelet upon her wrist and handed it to him. "This is made from silver," she said. "Will it do?"

Griff nodded. "If each of you will touch it," he said, "for just a few moments, then we will know whether one of us is a werewolf. After all, we know from Maryís own case that werewolves are vulnerable to this metal."

"An excellent idea," said Li. She touched the silver bracelet without incident. "The rest of you, do the same."

Each Warden came up in turn and touched the bracelet in the palm of Griffís hand. For a long while nothing happened. Griff was just beginning to wonder if maybe the werewolf might indeed be lurking elsewhere in the Preserve when he saw Nyctimus approaching him at the end of the line.

The boy looked distinctly apprehensive as he walked up to Griff. He hesitated, then, after noticing how everyone was watching him, touched it gingerly. He only lay the tip of his middle finger upon the bracelet for a moment, but immediately recoiled his hand as though it had been stung.

"Iím sorry," he said, hurriedly, placing his finger in his mouth. "I just - well, the bracelet was a bit on the warm side. Why donít we see if we can cool it down a little, and -" He swallowed hard and looked about him nervously, as the rest of the Warders stared sternly at him.

"Would you care to explain yourself?" Li asked, her voice level and hard.

Nyctimus began to sob nervously. "Yes, itís true," he said. "I - I am a werewolf."

"Go on," said Li, when he said nothing more. There was not even a hint of gentleness in her voice.

"I- Iím from the Neuri tribe," said Nyctimus. "I lied, when I told you where I came from when I first arrived. I knew that you wouldnít let me stay, if you knew that I was one of the Neuri."

"What are the Neuri?" asked Griff puzzledly.

"A tribe of werewolves, somewhere in central Asia," said Vorones. "Iíve heard of them before, although I donít know much about them. What I do know is that theyíre all born werewolves, every last one of them."

"Instead of laboring under a curse like Mary," said Griff. "So your clothes donít change with you, then?" he asked Nyctimus.

Nyctimus shook his head.

"How on earth were you able to conceal your true nature from us?" Dictynna asked. "We should have smelled the stench of wolf about you long ago, as we did with Mary."

"My people have a certain lotion that hides our wolf-smell if we use it regularly," said Nyctimus. "I brought some with me, and learned how to make more while I was here here. Thanks to it, not even a dragon could tell what I really was."

"But what about Mary?" Caspar asked. "You acted so repulsed by her when you learned what she was. Why would you be horrified by her nature, when you possessed the same nature yourself?"

"What do you think?" Nyctimus cried. "Once she revealed to the rest of you that she was a werewolf, I couldnít possibly stand by her in public! If I remained friendly to her thereafter, some of you might have begun to suspect me! I couldnít take any chances!"

"So you cold-shouldered her to keep anybody else from thinking that you might be a werewolf," said Griff, both sounding and feeling nauseated. "I must say, that was very bad form on your part. I should have suspected something, though, by the way that you seemed so especially hostile towards her. ĎThe lady doth protest too much, methinksí, I believe?"

"Well, weíve no choice but to punish him as the thief," said Togrul. "And that completes proceedings here."

"Not quite, Iím afraid," said Griff. "Nyctimus couldnít have been working alone. Somebody struck Aurvang from behind, remember, when he saw Nyctimus running off with the Chalice in his mouth in wolf-form."

"I certainly havenít forgotten that," said Jari sharply.

"So Nyctimus must have had an accomplice," said Griff. "Or a partner. For all that we know, he might have been the accomplice, and the other person the mastermind behind the crime."

"But who was he working with?" Dictynna asked. "Do you know, Griff?"

Griff shook his head. "Not for certain," he said. "But it clearly had to be somebody who knew that Nyctimus was actually a werewolf. So who could have known that?"

Several pairs of eyes began turning towards Togrul. The Warden stared back at them. "This is absolute rubbish!" he cried indignantly. "I wonít listen to it any further!"

"But Nyctimus is your apprentice," said Dictynna, in a voice like ice. "You know him better than anyone else in the Preserve. It would be amazing if somebody else were to have learned his secret before you."

"And just where were you when the Chalice was stolen?" asked Caspar. "Does anybody here remember seeing either of them at the time that Aurvang was attacked?"

There was a great deal of murmuring among the other Wardens, but all of them shook their heads. At last Griff spoke.

"I hadnít specifically had Togrul in mind," he said. "But there are a few things about this case, now that I think over them. Nyctimus told me earlier how he only went out to tend the vegetable lambs in your charge when you were with him; if you knew that he was a werewolf, you certainly wouldnít want him unattended with them. And you did send Vorones down this very path, almost as though you wanted him to find the Chalice buried here, with wolf pawprints leading to it. Iíll admit that itís only circumstantial evidence, but all the same...."

"Speak, Togrul," said Li. "Is this the truth?"

Togrul stared up at her in silence for a moment. At last he nodded. "Itís true," he said, in a sullen voice. "Yes, I ordered Nyctimus to steal the Chalice in wolf-shape, and made certain that Aurvang would see him doing so before I knocked him unconscious from behind. And, yes, I persuaded Vorones to come down here - but not for the reason that you believe. I wanted the Chalice to be safely recovered, and this seemed to me like the best way to do so without casting suspicion upon myself."

"But why did you do it?" Li asked.

"It was necessary," he replied. "I had to do something to get rid of those two intruders. The girl was a werewolf, who would have eaten every last one of the barometz in my care unless she was stopped - and as for Arthur, he has a reputation as a legendary hero, and itís such men as he with their magic swords that slew so many rare beasts that the Preserve had to be founded by the Elder Court in the first place. If they remained here, they would have destroyed this place. I had to act against them quickly, so that they could be stopped."

"It wasnít even necessary," said Griff. "We didnít have any plans to stay here; we were planning to leave as soon as we could to rejoin Merlin at the Sanctuary." But Togrul was continuing his rant, without listening to the gargoyle.

"History will vindicate me!" he cried. "Someday, youíll all understand that I did what I had to, to protect this place from harm!"

"You endangered the Preserve by stealing the Chalice," said Li to him sternly, "and framed two innocent people for your crime. And for that, you must face the judgement of the Council, which will be most severe. Take him away."

Caspar picked Togrul up as though he was a rag doll, and carried him back towards the village, ignoring the manís protests. The rest of the Wardens and Griff followed him back in silence.

* * * * *

ONE EVENING LATER

"Here is the Councilís verdict," said Li, standing in the village square outside the Tower. Togrul and Nyctimus stood before her under heavy guard; Togrulís rod of office had already been taken from him. The rest of the Wardens crowded about, in a semi-circle surrounding them. Arthur Pendragon, Griff, and Mary Sefton stood to one side, watching as well.

"Togrul and Nyctimus, you have been found guilty of theft and perjury," Li continued. "Such crimes would normally merit immediate execution. However, since you performed them on behalf of the Preserve, if in a twisted way, we banish you from this land for all time. Should either of you set foot here again, your lives shall be forfeit at once. You are also stripped of your Warden status forevermore."

She turned to Arthur, Griff, and Mary. "Now we come to the more pleasant part of this judgement," she said to them. "Arthur Pendragon and Mary Sefton, we hereby drop all charges against you, and grant you permission to depart, with your friend Sir Griff, who so diligently defended you and uncovered the real perpetrators. We also apologize to you for our earlier suspicions towards you. Clearly we must come to terms with the fact that many of us have become ourselves tainted with the very prejudices of the outside world that we had built the Sanctuary as a haven from, in light of how we regard werewolves. This is a bias that we must learn to overcome. And also we return to you your sword."

Vorones picked up Excalibur, which lay on the ground before them, and presented it to Arthur. The Once and Future King accepted it with a bow and spoke to Li. "We thank you for your gracious act, my lady," he said. "I fear that we must take our leave of you now, however. Since we know now that the Chalice is not the Grail that we are seeking, we must return to our friend at the Sanctuary."

"I shall accompany you there," said Li. "Itís been a while since I last spoke with Rani, and I really ought to see her again. And you could use a guide on the way out. Not to mention that these two will need an escort to ensure that they leave," she added, looking at Togrul and Nyctimus.

"We will be grateful for your company, my lady," said Arthur.

* * * * *

The journey back was a quiet one. Li took the lead as they made their way back through the tunnel and the cave to the world above, and from there retraced their steps to the Sanctuary; she had assumed her true form as a Chinese dragon, with a long slender body and elegant whiskers adorning her scaly head. Mary walked beside her, and the two of them soon became deep in conversation. Togrul and Nyctimus came next, with Arthur and Griff taking up the rear, to make certain that neither of them, particularly Togrul, would make an attempt to escape.

Nyctimus still appeared nervous and shocked all the way back to the Sanctuary, but Togrul remained silent, and sullenly so; he periodically cast venomous glances back at Griff. Arthur and Griff could not help but feel relieved when the wooden house that served as an asylum for so many outcasts came into view again.

"Go now," said Li, staring down at the two ex-Wardens. "Find a new home for yourselves in the world outside, and conduct yourselves with more honor there than you have shone in the Preserve." She then reverted to her human shape and entered the Sanctuary.

Nyctimus moved forward to speak to Mary just as she was at the Sanctuary door, about to follow Li inside. "Listen, Mary," he said to her, as she turned towards him for a moment, looking anything but happy to see him. "I - Iím really sorry about everything that happened. I didnít want to do this, but Togrul made me do it. He threatened me -"

"If you donít mind," said Mary, glancing at him sharply, "Iíve got a sick friend to visit. Good day!" She opened the door, went inside, and closed it behind her. Nyctimus stared at the door in silence.

"But -" he began.

"A word of advice," said Griff, walking up to him. "Not standing by someone when they need help, because youíre afraid of exposing your own secret to the world, isnít a good way of winning that someoneís heart."

Nyctimus sighed and turned away, following Togrul down the path that led to the world beyond the Himalayas. Arthur came up to join Griff.

"I want to thank you, my friend," he said. "You helped me and Mary most greatly, and stood by us even when everyone else thought us guilty, even when the facts looked unfavorable for us."

"Well, I knew that you certainly wouldnít steal the Grail, or whatever you thought was the Grail," said Griff. "Youíre certainly not a thief, Arthur, and besides, after what weíve learned throughout the Grail Quest, itíd be obvious that youíd never even consider that an option. The hard part was convincing those who didnít know you as well as I did. Had they been more familiar with you, I doubt that theyíd have ever truly suspected you."

The two of them shook hands in the traditional warriorís handgrasp. At that point however, the door opened and Li stood in the doorway. "Arthur, Griff," she said in a grave voice. "Youíd better come inside."

* * *

"His condition has stabilized," said Rani as she stood by the bed, in which a semi-conscious Merlin lay, looking frailer than ever. Mary was seated beside the bed, gazing down at the boy sadly. "My treatment has helped him some. But it will not last for long. The poison is weakening him still further and he has little time left. Maybe less than a month."

"And we're out of possible locations to search for the Grail," said Griff. "And it doesn't look as if we have enough time to search for some fresh ones."

"Then the Quest has failed," said Arthur, speaking with pain in his eyes and his voice. "It was all for nothing."

"So what do we do now?" Griff asked.

"There is only one thing," said Arthur sadly, as he watched Mary bow her head in silent grief over the dying boy. "We must take him back home and be with him in his final days. That is all that we can do now."

THE END