The stars were falling. Or maybe it was the whole of the sky, sliding into the sea. Gilgamesh couldn’t be sure. Either way, it wasn’t a good sign. He turned away from the opening in the roof of Tiamat’s temple-palace and looked at Neith. “Something has changed,” he said.
“No. This has been coming for some time. The world is a ‘What now?'” Merlin asked. His voice sounded small in the stultifying silence that followed the end of everything. He looked at Atlas. Freed of his burden, the titan had made himself comfortable. He met Merlin’s gaze with a lazy smile.
“Now? Nothing, save watch the cosmic sea roll in.” Atlas stretched and leaned back against a rock with his hands clasped behind his head. “I don’t know about you, but I’m interested to see what happens when it reaches us.”
“You will drown,” Tiamat rumbled, her gaze on the heavens. “Everything that is will drown. Except for me.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Atlas asked. “For the great sea to swallow all of creation, so that you might attempt to pull something new from the black waters?”
“Attempt?” Merlin asked. He’d never considered the possibility that Tiamat might fail. It had seemed a foregone conclusion. But if she failed – what then?
“I will do it,” Tiamat said. Merlin looked askance at her. Was that a note of doubt in her voice? Even a single moment of weakness could spell disaster.
“Perhaps.” Atlas stretched again – he seemed to take inordinate pleasure in so simple an action, Merlin thought – and continued, “Or perhaps you are beginning to think about what I said earlier. That what comes next might not be what you imagined, or to your liking.”
Tiamat turned and fixed the Titan with a glare. “No. I am merely impatient to see it done. I do not like this waiting. Where is the deluge I was promised?”
Atlas gestured airily. “Somewhere out there, racing inwards from the edges of existence. I told you – time was first, then the stars and finally, us. When the moment comes, only the strong will be able to avoid the undertow.”
Merlin frowned. “Are you certain of that?”
Atlas glanced at him. “A little late to be asking me that, don’t you think?”
Merlin turned away, searching for the familiar figure of Cliodhna. The Banshee Queen stood some distance away, watching. Waiting – but for what? But in truth, he knew the answer to that. Just as he’d known what he must do the moment he’d allied himself with Tiamat. He looked down at his hands. His fingers curled into fists, and he felt the corresponding pull of his magics.
He glanced at Tiamat and wondered whether he was strong enough to survive, and to do what must be done. He had defeated Jormungandr. He could defeat Tiamat.
He had to.
He closed his eyes and thought of Camelot. Of Arthur. Of Morgan and all the rest. All those he had known, and not just in one life. Magic sparked, dancing about his fists. He opened his eyes – and found Tiamat looking down at him.
Amusement glittered in her eyes. “I wondered if you would be brave enough to try,” she said in a soft growl. “Or perhaps foolish is a better word.”
“Courage and common sense are often at odds,” he said.
“You do not have the strength to resist the tide, Merlin. None do, save myself.”
“I have survived the ending of the world before. I can do so again.”
“But this is not about survival – it is about what comes after. Do you have the strength to rise above the waters and to wrest life from the abyss? To recreate that which will be destroyed?” She circled him, her crackling wings beating slowly against the still air. “Is your mind and body up to such a task?”
Merlin met her gaze. “We shall see, won’t we?” he said, though the words tasted like ashes on his lips. This was madness. And yet, he could not stop himself. He had forced himself to the edge, but he refused to jump – not without one last attempt to correct his greatest mistake.
Tiamat dropped heavily to the ground, her claws digging into the rock. “I knew, even as you made your offer of aid, that this is how it would end. Morgan is more like you than she admits, though she fears me too much to attempt such treachery. But you – you stand at the precipice of eternity and see only opportunity.” She reared up. “In another place, in another time, I think I would have liked you very much, Merlin.”
Merlin gestured and a mystic shield shimmered into being before him. “And I you, Tiamat. But here and now, we have come to the end of our alliance. For the good of all things, I must -“
His declaration was interrupted by the hiss of a displaced air as a shimmering portal opened nearby. He and Tiamat turned as a number of familiar figures stepped through. “See? I knew it,” Morgan Le Fay crowed, as she waved the portal closed. “I knew he was up to something. Probably planning to usurp Tiamat’s power or some nonsense.”
Merlin took a step back. “Morgan? What are you doing here?” His eyes widened as he recognized her companions. Gilgamesh, Bellona, Mulan, Persephone and “Arthur?” he whispered. His hands dropped and his shield faded to nothing. “Why have you come?”
“To do what you taught me to do.” Arthur stared at him coldly. “I will not let the world die for your pride, or hers.” He glanced at Tiamat. “Perhaps it is broken; but it can still be saved. We will save it.”
“My brother king speaks correctly,” Gilgamesh said, stepping past Arthur. “The world does not have to end this way. Not in ignominy and deceit.”
“You are too late,” Tiamat snarled. “The Titan has cast aside his burden. Existence crumbles. Soon, there will be only the sea – and me.” She rose to her full height, wings spread. “As it once was, so shall it be again. All mistakes washed away – a clean slate, its surface etched only by my claw and no other.” She held up a talon for emphasis.
“But it does not have to be that way,” Persephone said. “You do not have to do it alone. Let us help!” She extended a hand. “I too once thought that only I could save the world, but I was wrong. And the world paid the price for my hubris. But we have a chance now to set things right, not by starting over – but by starting fresh.”
Merlin shook his head and looked at Arthur. “Arthur, this is the only way. The gods cannot be trusted to set the world on its proper course. I have lived through the end of all things before, and I have seen them make the same mistakes over and over again. We must take a different path this time..”
“A path you have kindly chosen for us,” Morgan said. “Because you know best. Isn’t that right, Merlin?”
Merlin shot her a glare. “I thought we’d agreed on what must be done.”
Morgan smiled. “But not on who was to be the one to do it. That’s why you left without me, isn’t it?”
“I couldn’t trust you,” Merlin said. “Not with this. You can’t help yourself – you’d have tried to take advantage of the situation, and condemned us all.”
“And what about me?” Arthur asked. “Could you not trust me?”
Merlin looked away. “No. Because you would have tried to stop me.” He glanced at Atlas and saw that the Titan was watching them with a look of amusement on his face. “I know what must be done, Arthur. “You will thank me, in the end.”
Tiamat gave a low, savage laugh. “I think not.” She prowled around the group, her tail lashing like that of an enraged tiger. “You will all be swept away like the motes you are. It is coming. Can you feel it?”
Merlin could. The air had grown heavy – damp. But not the damp of a coming rain, but something more portentous. It was as if the air itself were weeping. The colors of the sky had grown muddy and muted, the sun resembled a blotch of dried blood. A persistent tremor ran through the stones beneath his feet; the world was shuddering in its death-throes. From somewhere at once far away all too close, he heard the keening wail of the banshee, singing creation to its grave.
“Too late,” Tiamat rumbled. She tore up a clump of stone and it ran through her talons like wet sand. “See? The cosmic waters rise, and creation crumbles back into its base components. You will be swallowed by the abyss, and will trouble me no more.”
Gilgamesh looked up at her. “Maybe. But I think after a while, you’ll long for companionship as you once did. And then what, oh might Tiamat? Will you raise up a new race of gods to replace the old ones?”
Tiamat’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe. What does it matter?”
Bellona pointed at her. “It matters, because soon enough you will have the same problem as before, if what Gilgamesh says is true. They will rebel against your tyranny and there will be war as in ages past. Maybe you will triumph this time – but maybe not. And what then? The cycle will begin anew and you will be right back where you started, imprisoned, or worse. Is that what you want?”
“I – no. Quiet. You are distracting me.” Tiamat shook her head. “I will not doubt myself. I know what I must do to fix things, and I will not be swayed from it. I created this world and I will save it, whatever the cost.”
The tremors were growing more pronounced. Merlin could hear a great roaring, echoing up from beneath the earth. As if the core of the world were collapsing in on itself. The sky dripped with molten light; the sun was a streak now, a red gash across the firmament. The air twisted in on itself, dying in his lungs.
The time to act was now – or never. Cliodhna’s wailing song rose and his determination rose with it. “Let it be now,” he murmured. He raised his hands. The dragon was distracted, her attentions fixed on Gilgamesh. He would have no better opportunity to –
A single word, accompanied by the soft hiss of a sword clearing its scabbard. Merlin froze. Excalibur’s edge rested against his throat. “Arthur..?” he began.
Arthur’s gaze was serene. Guileless. For the first time since Jormungandr had laid waste to Camelot, Arthur was the man Merlin remembered. The boy he had taught. The warrior he had guided. “Not this way, Merlin. Not like this.”
“The world.. Camelot..” Merlin said.
“If it must be done, let it be done. Not through treachery, or force of arms.” Arthur sheathed his sword and looked at Morgan, who stood nearby. Merlin almost smiled. She looked.. worried. But there was something of his old student there as well. There was worry, yes, but also hope. Arthur had always been good at getting people to hope. Merlin felt a swell of pride for the man before him.
Arthur raised his voice. “Only by standing together, by matching our courage against the dark, can we bring this world back into the light.”
“He is right,” Mulan said, joining Gilgamesh in looking up at Tiamat. “You cannot do it alone, Tiamat. The burden is too much. It is too heavy for any one god.”
“Let us help,” Persephone said, standing beside Mulan. “You wanted us to trust you. But trust goes both ways. The world cycle must be repaired. We are all of one mind in this. Let us be of one pantheon as well, if only for today.”
Tiamat looked down at them in silence. Merlin caught her eye and she stiffened. “Merlin said much the same, yet he intended treachery. And you, Persephone – Morgan. You allied yourselves with me, but here I find you in the company of my enemies. How can I trust any of you?” She reared up, wings flaring. “On pantheon, is it? Rather, let us say a pantheon of one – me.”
Atlas cleared his throat. The sound reminded Merlin of Thunder. Tiamat turned. The Titan spread his hands. “One back, to bear the burden of eternity,” he said. “Sounds somewhat familiar.”
“Do you wish to challenge me as well, Titan?” Tiamat snarled. Atlas shook his head.
“Me? No. But someone is coming who might.” He pointed up, into the roiling sky. Merlin looked up and his eyes widened. A rain of flower petals fell down from the heaving clouds. They swirled about, more and more of them, until Merlin could see nothing save the petals. Cliodhna’s song pounded in his ears – the rhythm of it had changed; it was no longer a warning of death. Rather, it was a song of annihilation.
The flower petals settled on the ground. Something – someone – stepped through them. No, not stepped. Danced.
A dance of destruction. Wild and furious.