Arthur was standing in a grand cave of some sort: grand because it was filled with elegant carvings of men and beasts which, when he looked away, seemed to have shifted into a different position, a thumb up — here — where it had been down before, or an eyelid shut — there — where once had clearly been an eye; cave because that is what the place was, a great chasm of a thing, the carvings engraved into uniform-brown, dusty rock walls which rose high into the darkness.
That was another odd thing about the cave; there were no sources to cast the light. In fact, all the visible things were simply that, visible, and this seemed to be because they were. There were also things that were not. Everything a dozen meters beyond the crest of Arthur’s head was shrouded in black: in fact the black seemed to be what was cast, as if luminescing out of a strange reverse-sun.
“Hello?” he called out, tossing his head quickly around as echoes, clear as crystal, returned to him. “Hello, is anyone here?” he asked. And no one answered.
Not for a long time.
But in this time, he began to walk against the breadth of the cave, studying its odd carvings and designs, which seemed, to Arthur, to tell a story; he couldn’t make out which story, but it had a connected feel to it. He studied a pair of demonic things, which looked like snakes with arms and had wispy manes that wrapped around their necks. There heads were awful to look at, bug-eyed, with sharp, grinning teeth and a placidness that reminded Arthur of temple monks lost in meditation. He didn’t like them, and so began to walk away.
As he moved on he began to study less ghastly carvings, of dragons and of men with swords, and one that looked like a funeral pyre but the fires burned too high, into the darkness above. He heard a sound behind him, like soap rubbing against shower tiles, and turned.
The pair of demonic things were now occupying the wall directly behind him, and it took him a moment to realize he’d come too far for them to be so uncomfortably close.
He walked faster, the sound followed; so did the pair of carvings. He ran, and the pair came on and on. Each time he looked behind him they were there. Sometimes they went behind the relief of the other carvings, and other times they slithered right over them, interrupting the scene with their small hands and serpentine crawl.
The soap-on-tile sound took on a weird rhythm of its own: first with louder grinds, later with hissing whispers. Soon, as he pushed himself to go faster, he made out what they were saying:
So came the boy to cave of lost
in Avalos his slumber tossed.
The wayward prince is moving fast,
oh, where shall he end up at last?
We know the stories, that is true!
But now we’re coming after you.
And it is good you run, my lad,
‘tis sometimes best to run.
And then they were out of the walls, chasing him on their bellies, their little, predatory hands grabbing and snatching. He was running out of breath. They would catch him soon.
The Journey Begins
For hours they travelled the London streets in silence, not really having much to say to each other: Mrs. Vole had said ‘drive,’ and that is what mattered, and that is what Boris Gant did. As the day sank away and ushered in the night, the old woman still said nothing. Eventually they needed gas, stopped, refilled their tank and got a bag of chips (which was shared by all), and continued driving as the quiet became expansive and the background hum of city chitchat faded — moving behind the doors of homes and of pubs and of nighttime haunts — until Boris felt speech the skill was story-stuff, a practice from long ago, and its occasional practitioners charlatans, no more credible than a whistler misrepresenting the notes of a popular song. Soon, the odd company ran out of chips, and nothing to say.
“What are we doing?” Vivian asked; it had an effect like shattering glass, Boris nearly hitting a post box.
Mrs. Vole sat with her fingers folded in her lap, seeming grandmotherly in way that suggested an oven full of pies, embodying the needed patience and time to bake. “Deciding what to do next, my dear” she said unhelpfully.
“You don’t have anything, do you.”
Mrs. Vole sighed. “No, I’m afraid not.”
It was then that Boris entered the conversation. “Well, let’s have a start, like this: What’s our best chance of not dying?”
He turned down an embankment and the car rocked slightly as he passed over a bump. “We’re being hunted by magical people and people alike. I’m afraid that I don’t see how there’s much we can do.” She didn’t add, but wait and die.
“Then why,” said Boris, “aren’t we already dead?”
Mrs. Vole considered the question. It was a good question — one which had lurked around the back of her mind for some time now. “I don’t know, mister Gant.”
“There is no profit in keeping us alive, is there?” asked Vivian. Mrs. Vole’s face became placid.
“I suppose there is one, small profitable reason.” The old woman hesitated. “They still haven’t discovered what they sent you to find out.”
In the fray and threat, Boris had forgotten the small dossier, which now seemed remarkably uninformed, and the purpose it had assigned. “Is it that important?” he asked.
“Then we could trade it for our lives, maybe?” said Vivian.
“Doubtful,” Boris said, “I think that option really never works out.” Then he thought of something else. “Mrs. Vole, hold on. You can do magic.” The bluntness of the statement took everyone by surprise.
“I had thought that apparent,” she said. “But, indeed, I am a sorceress.”
“Can’t you just hide us from their magic with your magic?”
“Not for particularly long,” she answered.
“Is there someone who can do it for particularly long?” asked Boris.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Vole, thoughtful. “My master can hide us.”
“Then hide us until we reach your master, whatever the hell that’s about,” Boris said, “and then he can help us the rest of the way.”
“She won’t do it,” Vivian said.
“Viv, shut it! Come on, what do you say?”
“Miss Bracht is right,” agreed the old woman, causing Boris’s new wellspring of confidence to dry up. “The risk of failure and them getting to him is too high.”
“The risk,” spat Boris, “is everything, if we don’t.” For several minutes, they all fumed, each for his or her own reasons.
“Actually,” said Mrs. Vole, once more breaking the quiet, “I think we have to go to him.” She studied the back of the drivers seat. “Or we must get Mrs. Bracht to him.”
Boris was lost, once again. “Why?”
“Because she defied the monster with a single touch.”
Vivian hid her injured hand. “I’m not doing that again.”
“No one’s asking you to, dear. We merely need to know why that worked, or at least some clue as to what that man was.”
Boris and Vivian both knew better than to ask questions, especially when things had finally started to go in their favor. The plan was settled upon, and all agreed:
They would go to find the master of Mrs. Vole.
Cloak; Dagger; Wizard
Hector listened, and the house whispered in bendy creaks and occasional scampers: they kept him awake, though the doorway’s dusty, plank-wood floor — his pillow and mattress —might have accomplished this unaided.
A noise like curtains swishing came, and he tracked it with his mind, not wanting to move and ruin the stillness he’d preserved while attempting sleep. The distance between him and the sound lessened with time and with each swish, until it passed him by.
He peeked, and discovered the silhouette of a man marked out by the street’s light, which came in from a broken old window. It must have been Holmes; the figure was too tall to be Arthur and too young to be Merlin. With Hector on the ground only one candidate remained, and he moved like a cat, noiselessly opening the door and slipping down the walk.
A few heartbeats later, Hector pursued him. He felt secure — after all, tucked about him were all those hidden, loaded guns.
Holmes was a lone figure, looking like the only person in all the world; but he wasn’t: there was Hector.
It was still dark outside, save the streetlights, and a weekday. Hector cursed himself; it was hard enough to blend in, be unnoticed, but it was only him and Holmes, who gave off a creepy vibe as it was, among the shadows and the roads.
Hector believed Holmes would turn around any second, catch him there, not so far away, dogging his steps. What would happen then was an unknown, and depended on why Holmes had gone out, whether he had wanted to be seen.
Given the circumstances, this stroll didn’t make sense. As he walked, Hector wondered over it all, his tired mind unable to twist or fabricate meaning from what was going on. Not a glimmer.
A few blocks later Holmes finally stopped walking, his entire body drooping sullenly, like an abandoned marionette. He stretched and sat on a nearby bench, which Hector made out in the dark.
“Come on then, Hector,” Holmes called out, cupping a hand to his mouth. Hector froze, his heartbeat racing. Instinctively, he reached for one of his guns, but held himself, letting his arm fall to his side. He made for the bench and sat down, hunching his broad shoulders forward and folding his hands in his lap.
“How’d you know?” he asked.
“The shadows ahead of me; your back against the lamps.”
“Could have been someone else,” said Hector, feeling foolish. The exhaustion was getting to him; his lids drooped.
“Not with leather soles,” came the reply.
“True enough. So, what are you doing?”
“Sitting on a park bench.” The answer was curt.
“You know what I mean.”
“I wanted to look outside, again,” Holmes said. “Actually, perhaps for the first time.” Hector rolled his eyes.
“Come on, you’ve been outside before.”
“Part of me has,” said Holmes, correcting him.
Hector yawned, getting a mouthful of humid air. “I’ve decided not to try and understand all… all this,” he gestured expansively, “yet.”
Holmes raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Me being here is an accident.” Hector blinked a few times, trying to placate his ever heavier eyelids. “One second, I’m doing my job, the next I just snap.” He looked up into the sky, barely making out a handful of stars. “I just couldn’t take it, you know? Low satisfaction, high mortality. Not for me.” The other man nodded appreciatively.
“So you thought joining up with your targets might gain you some margin of safety from your old employers.” It wasn’t a question.
“Exactly,” Hector said. “That’s exactly it.”
“Well, in your defense, you could not have known what you were getting into.”
Hector laughed. “No, I couldn’t. But I don’t care anymore.”
“Why?” asked Holmes.
“I think I stopped caring when they told me I couldn’t change jobs. They kill you, if you try to quit. I mean, where the hell was I supposed to go from there?”
Hector let just one of his eyes close — a compromise of sorts. “See. No family, no prospects, nothing. Just, nothing.”
Holmes patted the muscle man on the back. “Chin up. You’ve won a fresh start. We’ve got a fresh start.”
“You’re right,” Hector said, rising. “I’m going to head back, you coming?” Holmes shook his head.
“No, I think I’ll stay out here and consider things for a while.”
“Okay, see you in a few,” said Hector, and, sleepily, he made his way back to the house, where he finally managed to rest.
But it wasn’t until both his eyes were shut and his groggy mind forgone that he finally managed to shake a strange sensation: Holmes’s eyes, drilling into his spine.
Moriarty Holmes watched Hector leave. When he became sure he was alone, he dropped his head into his hands and wept without tears - an intellectual’s weep, one of the mind.
Observing the night indeed. That idiot.
Parts of his mind rumbled with a maddening speed: deducing and calculating and feeling with shivering clarity; he wished it would slow. It almost hurt, and would, he knew, eventually.
Everything was so familiar, so real, but wrong. But where was Watson? Where was Moran? Each name stirred deep hatred within him, and deep love, the product of his two adversarial parts. Three parts, actually: Gregory’s memories linked with his own, which weren’t really memories — Conan Doyle’s fabrications. Magic was what he was. He didn’t feel particularly magical.
“That is because not even the wonders of magic can bring happiness,” whispered a voice. Moriarty leapt from the bench, twisting around, hands raised to defend himself. Standing behind him was Merlin.
“How did you sneak up on me?” He felt the irony, almost a full reversal of his and Hector’s positions just moments before.
In the streetlights, Merlin awarded the question a condescending smirk. “Magic. I am, if you’ll recall, a wizard.” He looked down, not meeting Moriarty’s eyes, suddenly grave. “I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. I’m so sorry this happened to you.” It appeared to be the truth.
“Me too,” said Moriarty Holmes. He thought about lashing out, striking the old fool to the ground. But he didn’t. “Your not sorry about what’s happened to me.” The bitterness seeped off him like smoke. “You’re sorry for Gregory.”
The silence was long and thick. “I don’t know any more, really.” This also seemed true.
Then, Moriarty said “Let me see your wrists.” The wizard pulled his sleeves down uncomfortably. “So, it’s true.”
“Truth is relative.”
“Who do you serve, Merlin?” The wizards lips frowned. “Is it the enemy? Someone else? It isn’t, Arthur, that is for certain.” More silence.
“I serve my order,” he answered, finally.
So, there was another player, as he’d suspected. “And what order is that?”
“One in which less than ten remain.”
“That’s still more than the confused three left to mine.”
“I’m here, fool. That’s worth a great deal!” Moriarty Holmes gave a laughing cough.
“Until someone tells you to otherwise. Isn’t that so?”
“I will serve Arthur with all my resource, power, and strength.”
“Is. That. So?” repeated Moriarty Holmes.
Merlin hesitated. “I suppose,” he admitted, “that I could, in theory, be recalled.”
“Fair weather friend.”
“You know nothing,” rasped Merlin, raising his voice.
“Oh, I see. You think I’m just going to follow along, like a good, stupid, organ grinder’s simian.”
“I said no such thing,” said Merlin.
“I said such a thing. I, who knows far more than nothing.”
“I’m sorry, I spoke in anger.”
“Can you give up your order?” Merlin looked horrified.
“What? No, that wouldn’t help anybody.”
“Because my order is what grants me the arcane arts. What use am I without them?” The man’s point was compelling.
“Then how can you be trusted?”
“Enough of this,” sighed Merlin; they weren’t getting anywhere. “Good evening, Mr. Holmes,” and he was gone as suddenly as he’d appeared.
Blaise flew on enchanted wings; the head of the wizard order sped through clouds, holding the magical sword, Caledfwlch, in front of him. He had twenty minutes to reach a small warehouse downtown in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. Fifteen hundred kilometers left.
“Fenri’ri’anae’ona’tamcha!” A hole opened in front of him, a strange entity hanging in the sky. He passed through it, taking him from over coastal India to New Zealand’s eastern tip. Five kilometers left.
He pushed for more speed. He had gotten the distress sign twenty minutes before from his apprentice, Vilamur. A sonic boom erupted behind him, tracking water droplets from the feet of his cloak. Two kilometers.
He sensed the screams. Then, he was slowing, crashing through a roof window. His wings dissipated into the air. He landed, his sandaled feet touching the ground. It was dark.
He raised an arm and tiny orbs entered existence near the roof, casting their light into the warehouse.
There was Vilamur, crucified. Blood dripped from his right lip, and he caught his master’s eye. Blaise was a wrinkled, tiny man adorned in rags with hair that fell to his feet. ‘Old’ would not account from this man, a spindly stick. “Vilamur, what has happened?” he said quickly, not waiting for nonsense. His voice was the billowing of thunder.
The small, brown man looked up at his master. “I’m sorry, master Blaise. They made me call you,” and before he could say anything else a bullet erupted from the back of Vilamur’s head, its path almost striking the old man.
Blaise whirled, facing the dark around him. “You kill my order,” he shouted. “You try and trap my might?” The bellows echoed around the warehouse. “Well, come and die!”
And they did come.
Fifteen men, dressed in body armor and fatigues. Instead of guns they carried swords: rapiers, scimitars, longswords, broadswords, claymores, and some of a make Blaise didn’t recognize.
“Master Blaise, how nice of you to come,” said one of them. Blaise didn’t care.
“Caledfwlch, burn and prepare for battle,” Blaise said, and the sword gripped in his bony hands caught aflame. Tension and heat brought sweat to his brow.
This was the fourth apprentice he’d found in such a state in three weeks.
These, clearly the men responsible. “Who are you?”
“We’re the order of the Grail, master Blaise, and our lady demands the blood of wizards.”
“Morgose,” he hissed. “Very well, I challenge all of you to combat.” Some of the men laughed. They were knights, real knights, each and every one. “State your names, blaggards!”
“You insult us, wizard?” spat a man holding a claymore. “I am sir Delany!”
They announced themselves one by one, Blaise barely listening. Finally it came to Blaise.
“I am the Wizard Blaise, first among Mages, carrier of Avalos’s keys, keeper of the Fates, master of the orders. Let us combat, cowards.” His mind saw only Vilamur’s head exploding outward.
Blaise charged before they even had a chance to move. One moment he was standing in the glow of werelight, the next everything was pitch black save for the burning sword.
It lit horrified faces, protruded from jaws and chests, leveled heads from their shoulders. One moment it was so clearly in front of the Knights of the Grail, then it was behind and someone was screaming.
Swords struck the ground as they’re owners arms were separated from their bodies. You could hear the swish of raggedy robes passing by you, brushing your clothes, and would check to see if you were still breathing.
Blood begot blood, and death begot death. None survived, save for a single, tired old man. He looked like a beggar except that he carried a sword. It looked like a normal day, except for the warehouse burning behind him and the bloody footprints his sandals left as he walked.
For a second he thought he heard something, but decided he hadn’t.
Arthur slept in an unfamiliar cot, or tried to sleep. The rest of the round table meeting had been uneventful. All had agreed that too much had been done for a single night, yet as the young man laid awake, realizations slipping across him — magic-real, gunman-after-him, wizard-rickshaw — one thought, a particular image, kept recurring.
The eyes of Moriarty Holmes: one green and glimmering, the other a dead black, like pitch. His fingers darted among themselves, head oscillating back and forth, sometimes rapid, other times slow, as he thought in silence, never speaking a word.
Had Arthur really created him?
It had felt like all that the man was had funneled out of him, into the white-aproned lifeless vessel; yet Arthur knew nothing of Moriarty Holmes, only able to hold in his mind the vague imprint of a person, a brief overview of the whole, a snake and a falcon smashing against each other.
Arthur knew he had heard something then. He forced his eyes open. In the dark was a single, lively gleam leaning over him. “Hello, Arthur,” said a voice. He recognized it.
“Moriarty,” replied the tired young man, overcoming his initial surprise. “What are you doing?”
The single glittering iota studied him. “I need to speak with you.” The iota backed away - the man straightening, Arthur realized. “Would you mind if I sat?”
“Go ahead, I guess.” Arthur felt something settle down at the end of the cot, squeaking the old springs and dipping the surface inward. “What’s up?”
“Besides you, about forty or so things,” he answered. “But I won’t trouble you with most of them.” Arthur’s brow creased.
“Alright, what’s up that you are going to trouble me with?” Arthur began to wonder why Moriarty had come to speak only with him, alone.
“First, I wanted to ease your mind on a simple matter, then unease it on a more complex few.” The one glimmering eye oscillated in the night. Moriarty waited for Arthur to respond, he didn’t. “I’ve finished reading Sir Thomas Malory’s book,” he continued, “Le Morte D’Arthur.” Arthur hadn’t even though of reading the book. He reddened, feeling ashamed that an activity that important had been put off because of the tome’s size.
“Wait, you read it all,” Arthur said, “tonight?”
“In the last few hours.”
“How do you draw breath, Arthur? How do you walk? I learn. I plan. I study. I conclude,” said the oscillating head, moving faster as he spoke. “It is the way of things.”
“Alright, and what did you find?”
“Do you speak French?” Arthur was startled by the randomness of the question.
“I studied Spanish.”
“Really? No Latin or Portuguese?”
“Hey, I work hard in my classes,” retorted Arthur, growing hot.
“I never said otherwise. In any case, have you considered the title of the book?” Arthur hadn’t, and Moriarty didn’t wait for a reply. “It means ‘The Death of Arthur.’”
The words hung in the air. “King Arthur didn’t die though. I mean, not until after a long reign,” Arthur managed to stutter the words out; Chill rode up his spine.
“Yes, but he dies at the hands of his enemies in the end.”
Arthur shook his head. “Why did you come in here to tell me this?”
“Because, boy, he dies as the result of grave betrayals.” Arthur thought quickly: Hector, Moriarty, Merlin. Who was there to betray him? He didn’t trust any of them, except Merlin, maybe, but…
“So you’re going to betray me? Now?” Arthur braced himself.
Moriarty laughed, a raspy chuckling sound. “Heavens no. I couldn’t if I wanted to.” Couldn’t?
“Why? Is that what you’ve come to reassure me about?”
“Astute of you,” he said. “Yes, these marks on my wrist are more than titles. They are shackles.”
“I didn’t ask you or anyone to do any of this!” Arthur shouted.
“Keep your voice down,” Moriarty hissed. “And I never said you did. I wouldn’t exist if not for you.” Arthur blinked hard, tears had started to come again.
“What do you mean then?”
The head’s oscillations slowed. “I mean that they are preventatives, Arthur. I could not hurt or betray you even if it were my fondest wish.” Arthur wondered if it was.
“How do you know this?” Arthur asked.
“I spoke with Merlin.” Again, Arthur was confused.
“Why didn’t Merlin tell me?” It would, after all, be something he’d like to know.
“You didn’t ask; in any case,” continued Moriarty, “I don’t trust him.”
“Ah,” said Moriarty. His head stopped moving, the gleam focused on Arthur’s position in the dark. “Now that is quite the question.” Arthur waited for an answer.
“Okay, again, why?”
“Because before Merlin served Arthur, he served someone else,” said Moriarty. “And if he has the marks on his wrists, like myself, he will be hard pressed to betray this other person.” Arthur’s mouth was dry. He wondered how long it had been since he’d had anything to drink.
“So what?” said Arthur; but it was a futile gesture.
“So, he isn’t necessarily serving you.” With that Moriarty rose and the sound of steps came as he walked toward the door. Arthur was stunned. “Food for thought, Arthur,” he said, and went out the door, shutting it softly behind him.