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.
Strike of the Deal; Flit of the Match
Hands cuffed, the shuffling of chains audible, attached to a stretcher, the Inflicted Man was rolled down a beige hallway, guards on either side of him, and behind, and in front. He was wearing a blindfold they’d wrapped around his face in the car. The procession halted.
He heard three short taps, and then “Come in.” A woman’s voice, succulent and languid.
He was moving again, then again stopped. The blindfold came off.
The light was harsh, blinding. Things resolved themselves.
He grinned. “Mrs. Morgose? Of all the people I expected to nab me up, you weren’t even on the list!” He spoke as if they had just bumped into each other on the street. “How are you? How’ve you been? Good? I’ve been good.”
“Be quiet,” said Morgose. Her hair was long, black, and straight. Her eyes were brown, but harsh red flecks that caught the light spiraled toward their pupils. She was young, beautiful, rich, powerful, and frightening. “I see my reputation has once again outrun me.”
She looked back down at some papers. “Aren’t you going to invite me to sit?”
Without looking up, she said, “Of course not.”
“Then why am I here if not to sit?” he grinned.
“You’re here because I need you for something.” She put the papers down, picking up a pen and marking something on one of the corners; and then down went the the pen. She folded her hands on the desk and looked straight into the Inflicted Man’s eyes.
“I think I’ll sit.”
“I think you’ll stay.”
“I think,” the Inflicted Man began, but whirled into action. He kicked out as hard as he could. If the straps had held his legs in place, he might have bruised them. The thick leather tore effortlessly.
His feet pushed hard off the ground, toppling the stretcher backward into the guard behind him, crushing the man beneath.
The Inflicted Man might have had his head damaged by the fall, if all the other restraints, defying probability, had not also given way, allowing him to backwards summersault to his feet; he used the fallen guard’s larynx to support his entire weight as he righted himself.
There was a crack and gurgle.
The men on either side pointed their guns at him, flicking the safeties off, aiming, and pulled their respective triggers. Instead of an automatic burst of fire, there was a clicking. Both weapons had jammed.
While this went on the Inflicted Man leaned over, picked up the dying guard’s pistol, and pointed it at his first target: the man on the left.
He pulled the trigger.
When nothing happened, he tried flicking the safety. The next time, he put the man on the left down, permanently; the man on the right rushed toward him, heaving his gun to the side, but his foot caught on the fallen stretcher. Bang, bang. Two rounds in his head, and now this guard, like his compatriot, was also dead.
The final guard who had taken point looked to Morgose, who hadn’t even batted an eye. She waved him away.
He went, leaving the powerful woman and the homicidal, cannibalistic lunatic staring at one another.
“Now why won’t I kill you, exactly?” asked the Inflicted Man, waving his gun.
“Because it’s hard to shoot someone with a tree branch,” she replied. And as she said the words, his gun became a gun shaped tree branch.
“I see,” said the Inflicted Man, tossing the useless piece of wood onto one of the corpses. “May I sit?”
“If you must.” He sat.
“So, Morg, what’s the deal-ee-o?” Morgose shuddered at the name, but tolerated it.
“I want you to use your unique gifts to kill someone for me.” The Inflicted Man giggled.
“Okay, why would I do that for you?”
“Because I can give you what you want,” Morgose answered. Her lip curled invitingly.
The Inflicted Man thought for a moment. “But I don’t want anything.”
“What if I told you I could kill you,” said Morgose, “would you want that?” The Inflicted Man laughed.
“Can’t be done, Morg.”
Morgose threw a letter opener at his leg, it nicked the side of his pants and landed in the carpet.
“Jeez, what was that for?” said the Inflicted Man. Then he saw his knee. Where the pants were ripped was red. Blood was welling up.
His blood. He was bleeding. He was bleeding.
He put two fingers in and tasted it, just to be sure. He looked up at Morgose, the humor gone. His face was a dark cloud. “How?” he demanded.
“Because I am the only one who can kill you,” she said. “That’s all you need to know.” The Inflicted Man got up, angry, and smashed his hand down as hard as he could on the desk.
It felt like he had barely touched it. A feather landing. “Fine, I’ll do it,” he said, but there was something icy in his throat.
“Good, you’re on the next flight to London. Company jet, very nice.” The Inflicted Man didn’t respond.
“But let’s get one thing clear,” he said. “If I do my half, and you screw me, if you screw me, if you think about backing out, I am going to hunt you down; I am going to hunt you down and eat your brain out with a spoon through your eye sockets.” Morgose rolled her eyes.
“Yes, no need for the dramatics.” He glared. “Anyway,” she continued, “that goes without saying.”
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.