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 castle of sand and it can resist the tide but for so long. What you see is the crest of the final wave that will wash all of this away.”
“And us with it,” Gilgamesh said. “Unless you help me stop her.”
Neith shook her head. “That I will not do. We have striven against the order of things for so long that it has come apart in our hands. In defying the world cycle, the gods have condemned the world to an oblivion from which there is no rebirth. All must be as it was, else it will not be again.”
“And you think Tiamat is the one to put it right?”
“She was there at the beginning. She knows what must be done.”
“Are you certain of that?” Gilgamesh looked up at the stars again, watching them run like raindrops across the roof of the sky. “Because from all that I know of her, wisdom is not preeminent among her virtues.”
“The same might be said of you,” Neith said.
Gilgamesh frowned. “Yes. I am no sage. But I am wise enough to know that I do not have the answers. Else I would not have come here with empty hands and an open mind. I would have come with sword and fire, as my gods demanded.”
“Gods can be wrong.”
“So I have come to understand. Which is why I ask you again – are you certain?” Neith did not reply immediately. Gilgamesh looked past her, to where Zeus and the others stood in an uneasy standoff with Morgan Le Fay and the rest of Tiamat’s allies.
In terms of raw power, Gilgamesh’s Side was somewhat outmatched. Tiamat had attracted some of the oldest and strongest of the primordial deities to her side. That alone told him that there was something to what Neith was saying.
From what he’d learned by talking to Bellona and the others, the older gods rarely took part in the squabbles of their younger kin. But of late they’d been seen more often. Some had shaken off their torpor to match themselves against Cthulhu’s madness. Others had been disturbed by the destruction of the World Tree, or Hades’ attempt to bind the fury of Ragnarok. Regardless, they all seemed to be of one mind in this matter.
Even Olorun hesitated to stand against Tiamat – as of some inner voice was telling him it was the wrong thing to do. It was only the younger gods who saw her as a threat…or else those who had fought her before. But of the latter, none had dared reveal themselves. Instead, they had sent Gilgamesh to wage war on their behalf.
War. Always war.
He had fought his share of wars, against man, monster, and god; always striving, always yearning for the ultimate victory. The one that would see him elevated to his rightful place in the heavens. But now, standing among the gods, he wondered whether he was not better off as he was. If he was to become a god, he would be a different sort. One less prime to the mistakes of this predecessors.
He caught Mulan’s eye, and the goddess gave him an encouraging nod. Her returned it, and straightened as Neith at last found her voice. “Something must change. She is the one with the power to do so. She is the oldest, from before the cycle. But it was her actions which set it into motion. Therefore, it must be she who repairs it.”
“The question is whether we will survive the experience,” Morgan Le Fay interjected, as she joined them uninvited. Persephone trailed in her wake, along with Mulan. Gilgamesh glanced at them, and Persephone touched his arm, silencing him before he could speak.
“We always have, in one form or another,” Neith said.
Morgan’s smile was as sharp as a knife. “Yes, but that was before it was broken. Tiamat is not kindly disposed to other gods. If she discovers how to repair the cycle, she might well do so in a way that erases all of us from existence.”
“She may even do so without meaning to,” Persephone said, softly. “The truth is, we do not know the state of her mind, or what she has decided. We can only hope, and gamble on her mercy.” She watched Morgan as she spoke, and Gilgamesh wondered if she’d chosen her words specifically to provoke the sorceress.
“I never gamble, unless I’m certain to win,” Morgan said, sharply. “I joined Tiamat because I thought she might be the path to that which I desire.” She gestured to Terra and the others. “We all did. But that path is no longer clear.” She turned, raising her voice so that the rest of the gods could hear her. “Tiamat goes to repair the world, and her only companion is the one who shattered it in the first place. Doesn’t anyone else find that odd?”
“Merlin,” Gilgamesh said.
“Merlin,” Morgan agreed. “He cannot be trusted. You fear that Tiamat will undo us – well, I know that Merlin will do so, if he has half the opportunity. He’d like nothing better than to rewrite history to his liking. I, for one, do not intend to stand for it.”
Gilgamesh spied Arthur, standing nearby. The former king of Camelot looked troubled by Morgan’s words, though whether because he agreed with them or not, Gilgamesh could not say.
Neith turned to face Morgan, and Gilgamesh felt the air tighten with a sudden tension. This was a confrontation that had been brewing for a while, he thought. “What will you do then, Morgan Le Fay? Will you match yourself against Tiamat?” A thin smile curled across Neith’s face. “That I would like to see.”
“No,” Arthur said, suddenly. All eyes turned to him. “No,” he repeated. “The time for fighting is done. Fighting is what got us into this mess. That is why we have come here. We must choose a different way.”
“Yes,” Gilgamesh spoke up, seizing on the moment. “And I think I know how.” He looked at Morgan. “You, sorceress – I would guess that you know where Tiamat is.”
Morgan hesitated. “And if I do?”
“Then you will take me there.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I wish to speak to her, face-to-face. King to queen.”
Morgan frowned. “And what will you say to her, oh king?”
Gilgamesh smiled in reply. “I’d say that will depend largely on what sort of mood she is in, won’t it?”
Far to the west, past the edge of all mortal perception, Tiamat landed atop a rocky slope. Loose stones clattered away as she folded her crackling wings and rose to her full height. “There,” she growled.
“Yes,” Merlin replied. He dropped lightly from her back, his magics carrying him safely to the ground. “There he is…Atlas.” He said the name with awe, and not a little disbelief. Despite all that he had seen and experience, he had never once imagined that the being before them was real.
The titan stood atop a flattened, lifeless peak. He was a tower of muscle, bearing upon his back a strange mechanism that turned and rotated soundlessly. The stars above flickered in time to its movements, as if the one was connected to the other. In a sense, it was, for Atlas bore the clockwork of existence upon his back – and if he were to set it down, all things would come to an end. Even time itself would cease.
Or so Jormungandr had said. Tiamat had tried to convince the World Serpent to accompany them, but he had refused. Merlin understood. Jormungandr had lost his purpose, and without that, he had no interest in the doings of others.
The air here was full of motes of light – stardust, drifting down from the firmament overhead. Merlin held out a hand to catch some, and shivered. “What now?” he asked.
Tiamat did not reply immediately. “Who did this to him?” she asked, her voice a low rumble. “Why has he been bound so?”
“For the crime of resisting the gods in their myriad tyrannies,” Atlas boomed. His bowed head rose, and he fixed them with a gaze that was as dark and as cold as the black between the stars. “Something you know a bit about, I think.”
Tiamat spread her wings and swooped closer, streamers of starlight stretching in her wake. She landed before Atlas and said, “I do. Who did this to you?”
“Zeus, king of Olympus.”
“He is no longer king.”
Atlas smiled. “That eases my burden somewhat.” The smile faded. “But only somewhat. Who deposed him? Did Poseidon finally find a spine? Or maybe Hades…?” He lowered his head, as if exhausted by the effort of speaking. “It does not matter, I suppose. One king is much the same as another.”
“And what of queens?” Tiamat asked.
Atlas peered at her. “What do you mean?”
Tiamat circled him. “The one who condemned you is my foe. I, who once ruled, would rule again. But first I must repair that which my enemies have broken.”
“And what has been broken?” Atlas asked.
“The World Cycle,” Merlin said, as he joined them. “Surely you have felt it, even here, in your isolation.”
Atlas looked at him, and Merlin felt something in him shrink at the weight of that ancient gaze. “I have felt…something,” the titan admitted. “A hitch. A hesitation. Something off-kilter with the celestial axis. But I have felt such before, and thought nothing of it.”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed. “I expect those were the times the world ended.”
Atlas gave a low chuckle. “Yes. My burden would lighten, if only for an instant. Then it would grow heavy again.” He hung his head and took a shuddering breath that shook the very rock beneath Merlin’s feet. “So heavy…” Atlas groaned.
“Then lay it aside,” Tiamat said, hovering above them. Atlas grimaced.
“You would not want that, oh queen. To set aside the weight I bear would mean the end of all things. The very stars would crumble into the hungry black of night’s ocean, and time itself would shiver apart.”
Tiamat laughed and spread her wings. “That is exactly what I want, titan. An ending, a true ending. Let the cosmic sea swallow it all, so that I might raise it up again from the waters, as I once did.”
Atlas looked up at her. “If the cycle is broken as you say, what comes after may not be as it was.”
“No, it will not be the same,” Tiamat said. “It will be better.”
Atlas looked again at Merlin. “And what do you say? Are you in agreement with this one? Is my punishment at an end?”
Merlin looked up at the stars, and thought of Camelot. Of all that had been and would be. Of fire and death, and all the mistakes that had led him here. He heard a soft trill from behind him, and knew that Cliodna was here with them – watching. Waiting.
For so long, he’d thought that the end was a foe to be fought. Yet here he was now, ready to welcome it. Was this the only way? To undo all that he had striven for, so that it might live again? He thought of Arthur and bowed his head. “Yes, mighty Atlas. Lay aside your burden. Bring an end to this world.”
Atlas was silent for what seemed an eternity. Then, with a deep sigh, he did as Tiamat had bidden him. When the great mechanism touched the ground, Merlin felt a moment of vertigo – a soul-deep nausea – as if existence itself had suddenly shuddered.
Atlas stretched and smiled. “Well. This will be interesting.”
Tiamat looked around. “I thought – everything is still here,” she growled accusingly. “Why is it still here?”
“It won’t be, not for long,” Atlas said, looking up at here. “Time has already ceased. The stars will follow. Then the world will crack asunder, and the great primordial sea will swallow all that is.” He smiled.
“I, for one, intend to enjoy my freedom for so long as the world endures.”
A great shudder ran through the halls of Olympus. Olorun convulsed and fell, upending the great council table and startling the gods with whom he’d been in conversation. Hera was at his side a moment later. “Olorun – what is it?”
“The stars…” he gasped. “I cannot feel them.” He reached up, as if to grab her hand, but there was no substance to him. Only a smattering of motes that faded as soon as she touched them. Hera stared down at him in horror. Another shudder gripped the chamber. A pillar toppled, smashing into the floor and shattering into pieces. Gods were shouting, demanding answers, but there were no answers to be had. Hera said something, but he could not hear her, for the roaring in his ears, as of a great sea, crashing down on them all.
The stars were dying and with them, him. All of existence was beginning to crumble. A floodtide of destruction, racing towards the world from all sides. There was no escape, no way to fight, for one could not fight the sea. Especially this sea.
Another convulsion ran through him and he felt as if he were falling away into a lightless place – a place from which there would be no escape, no return. But even as the stars winked out, one by one, he could see a light. It was far away, and out of reach.
In desperation, he stretched out his hand. He did not know what it was. If it was a star, if he could but grasp it, perhaps it might lend him some small portion of strength, enough to protect the world from what was coming. The light seemed to understand his need and it raced towards him, enveloping him even as the darkness sought to consume him.
Olorun gasped and sat up. He lay in what appeared to be a field of flowers. His form shimmered and bled away, in trickles of starlight. There was little of him left now. Barely an outline, a dwindling memory of who he had been. A shadow fell across him, and he looked up. Somehow, he found that he was not surprised. The fear bled out of him all at once, leaving only calm in its wake.
“This is not the end,” the newcomer said, gently. “For there is no end.”
Olorun closed his eyes, and the darkness took him.