Zeus fell from the heavens like a thunderbolt. Scylla rose to meet the former king of Olympus, a wild grin on her cherubic features. The sea shook at the violence of their meeting, as if the very waters were in pain. Perhaps they were. Merlin watched the struggle from a safe distance away, hidden by his strongest magics. He wanted none of the gods present to sense him – especially Arthur. They would not understand why he’d come, and he had no wish to waste his time attempting to explain. He would tell them when the deed was done, and not before.
Nearby, a crew of terrified fisherman were herded onto shore by Zeus’ allies, including King Gilgamesh. As ever in the conflicts of the gods, it was the mortals who suffered the worst. When great powers strove against one another, the weak were often caught in the middle. Merlin considered intervening – his magics might bring the battle to a swift conclusion. But that would not serve his greater purpose…so he did nothing.
In any event, the newcomer was making a good showing – he played the role of the protector well, if not gladly. Arthur, on the other hand, had been born for it. His eyes strayed to the man he’d made king, and he felt a flush of pride as Arthur shattered the hull of a hurled boat before it could strike the knot of cowering fishermen. As was inevitable in such moments, his thoughts turned to Camelot – to all that could have been.
But Camelot was gone. The Camelot they knew, at least. In this time and place it was just some nameless village in the wilds of Britannia, and its people were woad-painted savages who worshiped their own gods. In a few centuries it might well resemble the land they had left. Or maybe not. Maybe it would be something new.
Merlin knew that he could make it be as it was. He could transform it – by guile and force and luck. There was strength in him enough for that. He had considered it, in the wake of Cthulhu’s defeat. Some of the gods might frown in displeasure, but none would gainsay him. After all, had he and Arthur not defended those lands as if they were their own?
All that had stopped him was the sure knowledge of Arthur’s disapproval. In the end, it had been enough. He could endure anything save that.
“He is in his element,” a familiar voice murmured, close beside him. He stiffened, ready to unleash a sorcerous blast, but forced himself to relax. He turned to see Morgan Le Fay standing nearby, a serene look on her face.
“Yes,” he said. “Come to help your monstrous allies, Morgan?”
“Not my allies. Say rather, the allies of my ally.” She gestured to the roiling sea and the combatants. “Perhaps not even that. Tiamat freed Charybdis, but she did not intend for her to go on a rampage. She thought the sisters would head straight for Olympus.”
“She should have known better. Monsters cannot be trusted.”
Morgan shrugged. “I said much the same. I was ignored.”
“She treats you poorly, then. Perhaps you chose the wrong side.”
The only side I am on is mine, Merlin. The same as you.”
Merlin frowned. “I serve Arthur.”
She gestured towards Arthur. “Then why are you not at his side? Why are you lurking here, hidden behind a veil of magic?”
Anger washed through him, but again he restrained himself. “Did you come for a fight, Morgan? If so, we can have at it.” He held up a hand and fire kindled about his fingers. For a moment, he thought she might take him up on his offer. The sword that hovered behind her quivered. Then she gestured and the blade dipped.
“I did not come to fight. I did not know you would be here.” She looked at him. “In fact, why are you here?”
“For the same reason you are, no doubt.” Merlin’s eyes never left Arthur as he spoke. “Look at him.”
“What am I supposed to see? A king? A god?”
“A good man,” Merlin said. “He is not here for glory or revenge; he came to help. Because it was the right thing to do.”
“You sound surprised.”
“Well, perhaps I am. I didn’t teach him that.”
Morgan laughed. “No, nor I!”
Merlin glanced at her. “No. We taught him many things between us, but never how to be kind. He needed no help from us on that score.”
Morgan’s expression softened, but only for a moment. “Do you ever regret it, Merlin? Taking that innocent youth and twisting him into your ideal king?”
“Every day,” Merlin said, without hesitation. “But I would do it all again.” He paused. Talking with Morgan was always dangerous – more dangerous than facing her in battle. She was clever and cunning, and could twist any crumb of information – no matter how incidental – to her own ends, if she so desired. But in this instance, it did not matter. She would know his purpose soon enough, if she didn’t already. “I came here for the same reason you did,” he repeated. “To speak to her.”
Morgan was silent for several moments. Then, softly, “I forgot that you could hear her song as well.” She looked at him. “You know what her presence means, I trust?”
“I do.” Again, his gaze strayed to the man he had taught to be king. Arthur was shepherding mortals to shore, keeping them calm, allaying their fears, as he had done innumerable times before, even in the direst of circumstances. It was, quite simply, who he was. And it was why he would never truly side with Gilgamesh in his war. Arthur’s gift was that he always chose the right side, if not necessarily the winning side. And there was no right side here. He looked at her. “Do you know what it means, Morgan? Truly?”
“It means the end,” Morgan said. “An end,” Merlin corrected.
Morgan snorted. “Semantics.” She paused. “I heard her in the Celtic lands, you know – during the war against Cthulhu. I often wondered if that was what you were doing while Arthur met the creature’s servants on the battlefield.”
“No. I was looking for a different sort of ally.”
Morgan frowned, perplexed. “Who?”
Merlin hesitated. “Jormungandr.”
Morgan stared at him for a moment, and then laughed. Merlin tried to speak, and she waved him to silence, still laughing. “No, no – give me a moment,” she wheezed. She eyed him and then fell to laughing again. Merlin waited for her to regain control, his temper fraying. Finally, Morgan wiped a tear from her eye and said, “You hoped to – what? Convince the dragon to fight Cthulhu? On the gods’ behalf?”
“No,” Merlin said, stiffly. “On behalf of the mortals.”
Morgan shook her head. “He would not have listened to you, Merlin.”
“It does not matter in any event. I could not find him.”
Morgan laughed again. “Then you must not have been trying very hard.” She gestured airily. “Jormungandr went north, after his defeat. The lands most familiar to him, I expect. He encountered that loathsome worm, Fafnir, and drove him out, taking the dragon’s fiefdom for himself. The mortals who inhabited those lands regard him as a saviour. They sacrifice a fatted calf to him at every turning of the moon, and he in turn protected them from Cthulhu’s madness.”
Merlin stared at her. “How do you know all of this?”
Morgan shrugged. “I made it a point to learn the creature’s fate, given all the trouble he caused. I thought the knowledge of his whereabouts might prove valuable.”Merlin peered at her. “You have not told Tiamat yet.” It was not a question.
“Why? Surely Jormungandr would make a fine ally for her.”
Another shrug. “A secret told too soon is worthless.”
Before Merlin could reply, their conversation was interrupted by the faint sound of someone singing. Faint, but growing louder. A woman’s voice, but there was a hollowness to it that put Merlin in mind of newly dug graves. It sent a chill through him, and from the look on Morgan’s face she felt similarly. “She’s here,” he said, and she nodded.
“Cliodhna,” she murmured. “Queen of the Banshees.” In their world, Cliodhna had been but a legend; dimly recalled and little spoken of, save as a warning to the unwary. But here, she was as mighty and as terrible as those tales promised. And, as the old stories had promised, she was drawn to places of great suffering and fear. This place was certainly that, at least for the moment.
She was clad in ragged robes the color of night, and her flesh was all but translucent. Her bones glowed faintly, giving her a ghostly appearance. She approached across the water, moving lightly atop the waves. The sea surged and fell about her, as if eager to deliver her to land, or perhaps to simply be rid of her presence.
Her song rose and fell like the waves, and Merlin winced as she drew nearer. She paused, standing unseen and unheard among the gathered mortals on the shore – as if taking a tally of them. Merlin glanced at Morgan, and then cleared his throat.
Cliodhna ceased singing and turned her chill gaze upon them. She betrayed no surprise at their presence. Instead, she smiled and Merlin felt another chill run through him. “My lady,” he called out. “I would speak with you.”
“We would speak with you,” Morgan interjected, glaring at him.
Cliodhna drifted towards them, in no great hurry. “I know you both,” she said. “You are familiar to me and yet not. You belong to another age, another turn of the wheel. And yet here you are – lost.” The air grew cold around them as she approached. The queen of the banshees radiated a fell power that Merlin knew was as old as his own – older even. The sort of power that had weathered the world’s ending more than once, and would again. “Yes, I know you both and I know what you wish to ask me.”
Merlin glanced at Morgan. “And your answer?”
Cliodhna studied them both in silence, her spectral features showing nothing of her thoughts. “We of the Tuatha De Danannan take no sides in the wars of the gods,” she said at last. “To do so would be to unbalance the great cycle.”
“It is already worse than unbalanced,” Morgan said, sharply. She pointed an accusing finger at Merlin. “It is broken! Thanks to him and those like him!” She took a step towards Cliodhna. “But with your power, we might yet fix things…”
Cliodhna shook her head. “You cannot fix what is not broken.”
Merlin frowned. “What do you mean? Jormungandr was defeated. The cycle was averted…wasn’t it?”
Cliodhna stroked his cheek with something like tenderness, and he could not help but shudder in revulsion at her cold touch. “So arrogant. To think that you could halt what must be. You have only delayed the inevitable. And one dragon will do as well as another.”
Morgan hesitated, looking back and forth between them. “What do you mean? Tiamat has no intention of ending the world.”
Cliodhna’s smile was as cold as the grave. “What is intended and what is accomplished are often two different things. Something you both well know.”
Merlin paused. “If defeating Jormungandr did not break the cycle – what would?” He asked the question without thinking, mind still awhirl with the realization of how futile his sacrifices – and Arthur’s – had been. Morgan seemed equally stunned.
Cliodhna turned, her bleak gaze fixing upon the mortals. “The gods are a fire, growing in strength until they consume themselves and the world. The fire rages and new growth occurs when it finally snuffs itself out. That has always been the way of it. But fire can be managed – controlled. It does not have to rage unchecked.”
“Controlled – how?”
Cliodhna glanced at him. “You know how. The question is whether you can bring yourselves to do it.”
Merlin stared at her, trying to understand. What did it mean? The answer came to him then, and he felt a queasy sensation in his stomach as he realized what must be done.
He stepped back and looked at Morgan. “There is no right side,” he said.
Morgan frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“Gilgamesh – Tiamat. There is no right side. There is no war to be won.” He gestured, indicating the flooded town, the frightened fisherman, the battle raging between the gods and those they’d wronged. “There will always be another dragon. Another Jormungandr or Cthulhu or Tiamat. In the end, the fire will not be denied. So, it must be controlled.”
Morgan stared at him in bewilderment. “I don’t understand…what are you saying?”
“A secret told too soon is worthless,” he said, repeating her earlier words back to her. “But a secret told too late is equally so.” Forgetting himself, he caught her by the shoulders. It was as if they were master and student once more, all enmity forgotten.
“You mean…?” she began, eyes wide.
“Yes,” he said. “I think it is time to introduce one dragon to another…”