“Morgan tells me that you cannot be trusted,” Tiamat rumbled. She glanced down at the figure who stood beside her on the snow-capped peak of a mountain. Below them, the icy panorama of the northern forests spread out as far as the eye could see.
“She is a funny one to speak of such things,” Merlin said. He looked up and met her gaze without flinching. “But you can rely on me, in this matter at least.”
Tiamat gave a raspy laugh. “Let us hope so. For your sake.” She leaned down, fixing him with glittering eyes. “You both agree that the answers I seek are here, in this uncivilized place.” She swept out a claw, indicating the forested valley below. A few stray plumes of smoke rose from among the trees, indicating mortal habitation. “But until now, you have sided with my enemies – with Gilgamesh. Why should I trust you now?”
Merlin paused, considering his next words carefully. Morgan had warned him that Tiamat was unpredictable. She was searching for a reason to lash out, to give in to her worse nature. “You seek the same thing that Olorun does – a reason for all that has occurred. If you discover it, it may well convince him to put aside his hesitation and join you, against Gilgamesh and Zeus and all the others who seek your undoing.”
“And why would he do that?”
“Because Olorun is no fool. He desires the safety of the world as much as you do. As much as you claim to do.” He knew he risked provoking her with such words, but she had to be made to see. Else all he had done was for nothing. Tiamat was the key – he was certain of it now. Cliodhna had as good as told him that.
She growled low in her throat as she studied him. Then, she jabbed him in the sternum with a claw; not hard enough to harm him, but enough to make him stumble back a few steps. “Careful, Merlin. Thus far you have given me no reason to show you any kindness. Not like gentle Poseidon, who brought my wayward wards back to me after their foolish rampage.”
Merlin rubbed his chest. “Yes, well, one should know better than to trust the wisdom of monsters.” He hesitated. “Present company excluded, obviously.”
“Obviously,” Tiamat said, in an amused growl. She turned back towards the valley. “Where is he then, this fearsome guardian of the world cycle?”
“I am here, listening to you,” an awful, familiar voice snarled. The sound of it made Merlin’s blood curdle in his veins. Instinctively, he fell into a defensive stance and began to weave a spell, though he could not tell where Jormungandr’s voice had come from. But a gesture from Tiamat prevented him from completing it.
She extended her crackling wings and reared to her full, impressive height. “Come out, little one. Let me see you.”
Big as Tiamat was, Jormungandr was bigger. The peak shook as he rose from beneath the snows, shedding it from his dark scales. Merlin realized that the creature had been coiled about the peak, likely sleeping when they’d arrived. He stretched himself up over them, his great head bent so that he could study them.
“Merlin,” Jormungandr said. “Have you come to try and finish me off? It is not enough that you humbled me? Give me one good reason that I should not swallow you whole, here and now…”
Tiamat interposed herself between them. “I am the reason, little one.”
Jormungandr paused. “Little?”
Tiamat flapped her wings and rose into the air. “You are a child. Children are little, even when they are grown. You know me – or if not me, then what I am. You might have made the sea your home, but I am the sea. And everything in it belongs to me.”
Jormungandr faced her. “I belong to no one, ancient one.” Merlin thought he detected something in the creature’s voice – respect, perhaps.
Merlin stepped out from behind her. “We did not come to fight, Jormungandr.”
“Then why did you come, Merlin?” Jormungandr asked, swinging his head towards Merlin. “Why do you disturb me in my exile?”
“We need your help,” Merlin said.
Jormungandr stared at them both for long moments, and then loosed a thunderous guffaw. “My help?” He shook his wide head and turned as if to depart. “It is too late for me to help you, Merlin. Or any of the gods.”
“You need do nothing save tell me how to fix what is broken,” Tiamat growled. She rose into the air and circled Jormungandr, preventing his departure. He bristled with anger, and his growl caused avalanches of snow to roll down the cliff.
“Watch your tone, old one. While you slept, I saw to the balance.”
“A balance that would not have been necessary had the gods not condemned me to a dreamless slumber,” Tiamat snarled. Jormungandr reared up to face her.
“But they did. You were humbled as was I. And now things are as they are.”
The two faced one another, and the air rippled with their anger. Tiamat had been spoiling for a fight, and Jormungandr had never shied away from one. Merlin took a step back, wondering if he ought to leave them to it. The problem of Tiamat might solve itself. Something flickered out of the corner of his eye and he turned.
She stood some distance away, watching them. He did not know when she had arrived, or how, but she was here now, watching them. Waiting. Merlin felt his urge to depart drain away as he met her cool gaze. If Cliodhna was here, then this was a moment heralding great bloodshed – great doom. If he left Tiamat to face Jormungandr, the world might well crack beneath the ferocity of their conflict.
He could not allow that to happen. Not here. Not now. It was up to him. He steeled himself. “I am the one who broke the balance,” he said. “The fault is mine. I saw only the destruction you brought, Jormungandr – not the creation that followed. I thought I was doing what was right. But I only made things worse. Even as I did with Camelot.”
Jormungandr studied him. Then he gave a long, rumbling sigh and the tension eased from his serpentine frame. “You are not the first.”
Merlin looked up sharply. “What?”
“You are not the first. It is in the nature of the gods to struggle against fate. Mostly they don’t succeed. Sometimes they do. But when they do, things get worse. The world frays beneath the weight of their conflict. Cracks form, and things from outside creep in.”
“Cthulhu,” Merlin said.
“Cthulhu is one of them, yes. I bound him long ago, during a previous turn of the wheel. He thought to make the newborn world his own, and I stopped him.” Jormungandr leaned towards Merlin. “But there are worse things than the Great Dreamer waiting in the darkness…and more powerful by far. Unless the world cycle is repaired.
“And you know how to do this?” Merlin asked.
Jormungandr gave a rumbling laugh. “Oh yes, Merlin. But I do not think you have the stomach for it. Either of you.”
Merlin felt a chill at his words, and glanced towards where he’d last seen Cliodhna. She was gone now, as if she had never been. The crisis had been averted, if only for the moment. But the point had been made. Something had to happen. Something had to change – or else what came next might make Cthulhu’s rampage seem as the gentlest of spring rains. What was wrong had to be put right.
Merlin looked at his ally. She nodded slowly and looked at Jormungandr.
“Tell us,” Tiamat said, simply.
Gilgamesh pushed the doors of Tiamat’s temple-palace wide, and strode inside boldly, but without the aggression of his first visit. Zeus, Bellona and the others followed him. Besides his original allies, only three other gods accompanied him – Mulan, Arthur and Chaac. Olorun had insisted on keeping the group small. Too many might be seen as an attack; something they all wished to avoid at the moment.
In the wake of Charybdis’ attack, Gilgamesh had had time to think about what he had learned, and, perhaps more importantly, what he had observed. He had expected Tiamat to make war on Olympus, on any pantheon she deemed a rival to her ambitions. Marduk and the other gods of Babylon had warned him that her rage would not be contained – that she would sweep over the world like a floodtide and drown it in darkness.
But she had not. Instead, she had restrained herself. She had made allies and fought only when attacked. Charybdis’ rampage had been uncoordinated, designed to draw out Zeus. But once it failed, no more attacks had come in the days that followed. Only…silence. As if Tiamat were chagrined by the actions of the beings she had taken under her wing.
Gilgamesh glanced at Zeus. The former king of Olympus was subdued. Shaken, perhaps, by Poseidon’s betrayal. From what he knew of his ally, Zeus had been humbled repeatedly since his release from the underworld, but he refused to change his ways. Gilgamesh wondered if that was how Enkidu had seen him – bull-headed, egotistical and unwilling to back down, even when in the wrong. But in the end, he had learned better. So too might Zeus, if given the chance.
“Where are you, traitor?” Zeus roared suddenly, his voice echoing like thunder. “Face me, brother! Or I will bring this temple down around your ears.”
“Calm yourself, Thunderer,” Chaac said. “We are not here to soothe your ego.”
“Then why are you here?” a voice called out. Gilgamesh paused.
“Neith,” Zeus grunted. He seemed taken aback by the speaker.
“To talk,” Gilgamesh said, loudly. “To speak to the mistress of this place.” He held up his sword, spun it around and sheathed it. Then he stepped forward, hands empty.
Others emerged as well. Some Gilgamesh recognized from his brief time in Olympus, others he knew only by reputation. Cunning Persephone, aged Sylvanus, mountainous Geb…even the earth-mother, Terra. Poseidon stood among them, beside his daughter Charybdis. She glared at the newcomers with obvious malice, but when she made to step forward, Poseidon restrained her with a gentle touch.
“And what could you have to say to her?” Neith replied, stepping into the open. The question was not hostile, but simply inquisitive.
“That is between she and I, my lady,” Gilgamesh said. He paused. “There are more of you than I thought.”
“Not enough,” Zeus said. Lightning sparked off of him. Neith looked at him briefly and then turned her gaze back to Gilgamesh.
“Yes. There are many who desire an end to this ceaseless cycle of conflict. An end to the choosing of sides. An end to the destruction.” Neith looked around. “The weave of fate has become frayed. It must be repaired, and Tiamat will be instrumental.”
“And how do you know this?” Chaac demanded.
“Because I have seen it,” Neith said, serenely.
“And what else have you seen?” Gilgamesh asked, softly.
She smiled sadly. “Not that.”
Gilgamesh grunted and shook his head. “I should have guessed it would not be so easy. Nothing worth having is ever easily attained, I suppose. Or so Enkidu used to say.” He sighed. “Fine. She is instrumental. How?”
Neith did not reply. From behind him, he heard Zeus laugh. “She does not know.”
“Is that true?” Gilgamesh asked.
Neith frowned, looking suddenly uncertain. “As I said, the weave of fate is frayed – the future is unwritten, and the past comes unravelled. What was once immutable is now fluid. Ragnarok was the spark. All that has occurred since is because of it.”
Zeus took a step towards Neith, and brandished a crackling fist. “Then where is Hades? Should he not be here as well, given that his is the hand that kindled that spark?”
“My husband is seeing to his duties,” Persephone said, as she stepped to join Neith. “As he should have done from the first. I speak for him, in this.”
“Perhaps I should send you back to him as a pile of ashes,” Zeus said. He lifted his hand, as if to summon a bolt of lightning. Persephone tensed – but before anyone could react, Mulan had her sword drawn and pressed to Zeus’ throat. A moment later, Bellona had her own blade drawn, but she stepped back at Gilgamesh’s gesture.
“And then we will be right back where we started – at each other’s throats, warring while the world burns,” Mulan said firmly. She looked at Gilgamesh as she slowly pulled her sword away from Zeus’ throat. “That is why we are here, remember? To talk – to find some common ground, before we succumb to the same pointless conflict that has consumed the pantheons since Hades tried to claim the power of Ragnarok for himself.”
“Mulan is right,” Persephone said, hurriedly, and something in her tone made Gilgamesh wonder whether she had been waiting for this moment. She turned to Neith and the others who’d allied with Tiamat. “Tiamat was right to restrain herself. War has only ever brought us more war. We are creatures of conflict, but never like this – never to such a scale as has become common of late. That is the flaw that Tiamat has seen, that we have all seen. And now we must do something about it.”
“You are both right.” Gilgamesh took a deep breath – and sat down, arranging himself cross-legged on the floor. He peered up at Neith, taking some small pleasure in the look of surprise on her face. “There has been too much war of late, I think. Too many battles for too little gain.” He smiled.
“I think it is time to try something different.”