The darkness swamps around me like waves of an ocean of turgid blackness. It engulfs me, soaks through me... it is me. It is what I believe they call the Sleep of Time. It is the sleep that I sleep. The sleep that I will sleep for the rest of eternity. It is a rest that I have long awaited, and one that I dare say is well earned.
Never again will I have to feel on my weary shoulders the burdens I have had to bear since the dawn of mankind. Never again will I have to answer to the many countless summons and demands made upon my thoughts. Never again will I have to hear the helpless little people with their ignorant little minds squealing my name in their hopeless little voices. Never again will I have to hear them in their moments of petty need calling out to me, to deal with things that, if they were worth the bother of helping, they would be able to handle for themselves.
Never again will I have to hear them calling out, "Merlin!"
Never again will I have to look up and come running whenever I hear someone crying, "Merlin!"
No more, "Merlin!"
I have almost grown to detest that name. My name. Merlin.
"Merlin, help me with this!"
"Merlin, how do I do that?"
Merlin. Merlin. Merlin.
A tired old sorcerer's eyes slowly rolled open and blinked rapidly, as though outraged by the sudden intrusion of light. They narrowed and widened for a few seconds, then slowly focused on the face ahead of them. It was a youthful face, framed by hair fair in colour, flame in shape. By contrast, the narrow, haunted eyes suggested an age as countless as that of the sorcerer himself.
"I was beginning to think you'd started without us," sighed Pickle with gallows humour.
"I'm not in that much of a hurry," promised Merlin.
He looked about himself, and saw that he was lolling in the chair in front of the hearth of the Dungeon antechamber of Knightmare Castle. In the hearth the small flames skipped and danced before his tired old eyes, as though full of the naive, boundless energy of children. He turned away unhappily.
"Where is Treguard?" asked Merlin voicelessly.
"Up on the battlements," answered Pickle. "He said he needed to clear his head. He'll be back soon."
Merlin swallowed a snort of derision. "Treguard needs to clear his head?" was what he wanted to scoff. "How do you think I feel?" But of course he didn't say it. After all, he fully realised that this was hardly going to be any easier for Treguard or Pickle than it was for Merlin himself. In some ways it was going to be worse, as they were going to have to live with the memory for the rest of their lives. Merlin's life, on the other hand, would soon be done. He would return to the nether realm where feelings like regret and guilt had no meaning.
Not that the thought of eternal peace was that much of a comfort here and now. Peace was a gift, but what value did that have compared to the gift of life? The gift that he was about to surrender.
Treguard gazed at the haunting, pale orange glow of the horizon as the winter sun set into the distance. He had come up here for a taste of the cold, fresh air, to see the view of the northern hills that he knew so well and loved so much. Their delicate climb and sweep, the rolling green slopes. From up here he could see for miles around, all the glorious wooded forest, the winding blue river along the snaking valleys. Truth-be-told, in all of his many travels across Europe and beyond, he had never known any place more beautiful than this. And here he was, he marvelled, as its Lord and Baron.
He had hoped that by coming up here he could stiffen his resolve, that the breathtaking landscape would revive him as it had on many occasions in the past. Perhaps it would grant him just enough vigour to see through the next few terrible hours.
In truth he felt sick to the core. He couldn't believe what it was all coming to, and no amount of pretty scenery was ever going to make a jot of difference to that.
As he gazed at the horizon, he suddenly felt, well, much too young, and in the worst possible way. It was the helpless, scared, confused, haven't-a-clue kind of young. What was he going to do without Merlin's quiet, stern guidance? This land he loved had bled so much, known so much pain. Could he be sure of protecting it from any more without Merlin's help?
He breathed out a sigh that he had held for so long that it was making his lungs ache, then turned and headed back inside.
The antechamber was warm at least, that offered a little comfort. Treguard stood in front of the fire and warmed his hands, trying to ignore the expectant look Merlin was aiming in his direction from the chair.
"Not long now," said Merlin unnecessarily.
"Do you have to sound so cheerful?" complained Treguard, refusing to look up.
Merlin gave him a reproachful look. "Do not confuse resignation with cheer, Dungeon Master," Merlin admonished him, "I am simply trying to do the right thing. Even if I am acceptant of it, that doesn't necessarily mean I'm enjoying it." Merlin got to his feet. "Tell me when Hordriss arrives," he said, very quietly, "there is a small matter I must attend to before we begin."
Treguard nodded absently, not watching the old sorcerer walk to the door.
Mogdred sat on his throne, his whole manner composed of his own silence. He was calm, complacent with his anticipation, settled in his certainty, well fed on his power. Quiet in his own undeniable genius.
He was magnificent. Even though just gazing on him caused her to tremble, Malice could never deny that her awe was as much admiration as fear. And she felt a lot of fear. Even now, with the necromancer sat back in his mighty throne, his eyes tightly closed, his thoughts buried in meditations so dark that they made the blackness of his ebony cloak seem like the light of dawn, he virtually pulsed with inhuman power that made Malice herself seem insignificant.
Now he was months, perhaps just weeks, away from being the King of all he surveyed, from being the mightiest monarch in existence.
And as long as Malice was careful, she would be the one who would serve at his side. She would remain loyal, and he would surely reward her with the bounties of the world. She remained silent as she watched the necromancer thinking his unknowable, unimaginable thoughts. She would serve him, she would stand by him, she would let nothing in this mortal world stand in his way.
Merlin climbed the stairs into the Castle-proper, eyeing the unforgiving grey walls around him undaunted. The magic of the Past still hung in the air here - cloying, foetid magic. It made him shiver when he remembered how that magic had once infected him from within, and had nearly conquered him, before finally giving life to Mogdred.
And now, it was this magic that Merlin was going to make the ultimate sacrifice to destroy.
He stopped outside the old rectory, the small chapel-room in which the old Baron of Dunshelm used to assemble his family to worship the obscure "God" of their faith.
Merlin was a Pagan, a worshipper of the spirits of the forest and the rivers, not to mention a direct descendant of the druids who had survived the purge by the Romans, but he nonetheless understood Christianity very well. Indeed he probably understood it better than many of its own followers. He had always been baffled by the conflicts between Christianity and Paganism, as though the men who fought and died over it genuinely believed that there was any great difference between the faiths.
For his part, Merlin had always believed that the many religions of the human world were all mostly the same and all included essential nuggets of the truth, they were just seeing different parts of the elephant, so to speak.
Therefore Merlin felt no compunction about now entering the rectory, no hesitation from kneeling in front of the narrow stone altar, with its ornate wooden cross perched elegantly upon it, no awkwardness about clasping his hands together and meditating.
"I am Leilocen," he half-murmured, his voice shaking with quiet emotion, "Arthur. I never let you know... never told you how proud I was of you. How much I loved you as the son I never had. I'm so sorry." There was a moment of pause. Then; - "Uther. I should have seen the disaster you were heading towards. I should have seen it, helped you to prevent it. Perhaps then you could have been the King you were meant to be." Again there was silence. Then; - "Morgana, you were my most able student. If only I had been a better teacher, you might have resisted the allure of the dark magic that eventually destroyed you." Next; - "Igrayne, I have never stopped cursing myself for what I did to you. If you can forgive me for helping Uther to deceive you, then you are purer in heart than ever I was." Then: - "Cwendalou, my King, for deserting you in that terrible battle with the Picts, I deserve your hatred. Nimue... Nimue, I am so bitterly sorry for it all..."
"Don't be," said Treguard. Merlin was snapped out of his trance, and looked up to see the Dungeon Master standing in the doorway behind him. "Any trespasses you have committed," Treguard told him firmly, "you have atoned for a thousand times with your good works."
"I will not die unconfessed, Treguard," answered Merlin.
"If you are to confess, it must be to the living," Treguard corrected him, "there is very little that ghosts can do for your soul."
"They are the ones I have trespassed against," said Merlin, a little stubbornly, "they are the ones to whom I must confess."
Treguard shrugged indulgingly and nodded. If that was what Merlin wanted, then so be it. Treguard was not going to deprive Merlin of anything, not today. "As you wish," he said kindly. "As soon as you're ready though, Hordriss is here."
The Confuser looked regal, even majestic, as he stood, arms folded, in the middle of the Dungeon antechamber, his flowing scarlet robes giving him the intimidating air of a demon of fire.
Pickle had never had much time for Hordriss, but that was fine as the feeling was clearly mutual. It was not very clear who Hordriss was exactly. All that Treguard had ever been able to reveal about him was that, like Merlin, he had something to do with the Druid rulers of the ancient Britons, though goodness only knew what.
All that Pickle could say for sure was that Hordriss needed taking down a peg or two hundred. His self-worshipping haughtiness made Pickle want to punch his teeth in, while his utter disdain for anything unhuman made Pickle want to kick his rib-cage in and use it as a xylophone.
Unfortunately, what with that little detail about Hordriss being far more powerful than Pickle and whatnot, it wasn't very likely that either would happen.
"One is waiting, elfling," grumbled Hordriss impatiently. "Where is the sorcerer?"
"He is right behind you," answered Merlin huffily, entering the chamber, followed by Treguard.
Hordriss turned to look at Merlin and bowed slightly. "My respects to you, Merlin."
"Oh stuff it," growled Merlin nastily. Hordriss' face coloured slightly. "You wish me dead," continued Merlin, "and you offer me your respects?"
"This is not easy for one, Merlin," Hordriss objected. "One has the deepest admiration for all your great deeds, and one mourns that these deeds will not be continued in this world..."
Merlin scoffed. "You mean Mogdred is an obstacle to your purposes and this is the only way that you can remove it." Merlin gave Hordriss a pointed look. "Don't pretend with me, Hordriss," he warned, "that your motivations are anything but selfish. In the end it's the right thing to do, I acknowledge that. But that means nothing to you. You wouldn't be involved at all if you didn't have something personal to gain from it."
Hordriss looked at Merlin sadly. "The hostility between us can never be ended, it seems, even now."
"You are what you have always been, Hordriss," sniffed Merlin. "Your great ancestor's most shameful offspring." He shook his head. "Toldriss was a man of great wisdom. He foresaw the terrible evils that would imperil England - the Norsemen, the Danes, the Normans. All of it." He pointed a bony finger at Hordriss, and painfully prodded his red-sleeved arm with it. "You were the beneficiary of that legacy, Hordriss, of his power and vision and you waste it, letting it fuel only your own pomposity and pride. From the nether realm I watched so many generations of your druid ancestry. You will be the last of that tradition, for you have allowed it to make you aloof. No one will approach you, no one will stand with you, for any who try to you immediately dismiss and intimidate. You have driven a permanent wedge between druidism and the peoples it was supposed to serve and guide. So when your own time comes, there will be no one for you to pass it to."
Hordriss looked away. Treguard and Pickle were both astonished. They had never seen proud Hordriss shamed into looking away, never seen him unable to look an admonisher in the eye.
Merlin suddenly looked tired again. "Oh why do I bother? We've had this discussion so many times. You never listened before, why would you listen now?"
"Perhaps one has listened more than you think, Merlin," suggested Hordriss, "but one has to..."
"No," said Merlin. "We both know that you are the only one who can replace me now, but that you will not." Hordriss looked like he was about to respond again, but Merlin raised a silencing hand. "No more. We might carry on this row for ten years but we will never agree, so what would be the purpose? Let us proceed with the real matter at hand."
Hordriss looked at the floor sadly, then nodded. "Very well."
Only now did Pickle finally dare to speak up. "How are we... I-I mean, what happens next? I mean how do...?" He suddenly wished he hadn't spoken up, because he was struggling to find the right words that could form the question without sounding hurtful to Merlin, even impatient to be rid of the ancient sorcerer.
Nonetheless, Merlin understood. "My physical form must be dispersed," he explained, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on Hordriss. "When that is done I and my other half will be returned to the spirit world. Mogdred's physical form will remain in this world, although it will be a lifeless husk, and no more than that."
Treguard was shocked into realising the enormity of what he was hearing. This was it. It was about to be ended, his dear old friend would soon be no more. And Treguard was still not sure he was ready for it.
Still, Mogdred remained in his meditative trance. He was still sat on his throne, contemplating the infinite. He had to really, it was the only mental exercise that he never found boring. To have two minds melded into one, to have such a broad perspective meant that there was little that was beyond his power of calculation. After all these years, it meant there was little that he hadn't calculated already. He hadn't calculated the future with complete accuracy of course, no one could do that, but then he always put the future in the "contemplating-the-infinite" bracket anyway.
He was content that all was progressing well. He could comfortably leave his hands off the engine of his designs, it was functioning smoothly by itself. He was still concerned to calculate exactly when the King would make his mistake and leave the wide-open goal Mogdred awaited, but there was not enough information as yet. But he continued to contemplate, to calculate, to consider. What dangers might there still be? Could anything or anyone intervene?
No, there was only one who might have the power to do such a thing, the other side of himself, Merlin, and Mogdred had made many efforts to keep Merlin and his cohorts from learning of his insidious plans. He would not know, why, no one would know until it was too late. Nothing could stop him, nothing, not even that pain in the white beard and rainbow robes. Nor that other pain in a black beard and cape. Certainly not that elfin pain in green. Not even that irritating pain in his back.
Mogdred's eyes suddenly shot open and he sat forward sharply, as the realisation of his own thoughts hit him. He felt around his own shoulders towards his back, where he felt an incredibly sharp, nagging pain. His hands reached and scrabbled, trying desperately to find the point of the sharpness, the unholy agony that seemed to be growing up his spine. He grunted and hissed as the pain seemed to grow and grow and grow, like a long powerful blade were being driven between vertebrae and slowly forcing them apart, and that no matter where he reached or how carefully he tended it, it just wouldn't stop. Indeed it wouldn't even slow down.
His grunts turned gradually to howls of anguish that rattled vibrantly along the walls of the chamber as the pain became more intense and spread further and further across his body. He fell from his seat and slumped to his knees, writhing back and forth. He finally fell onto his back and tried to press it against the solid stone floor, hoping beyond hope that it might stem the pain. It did not.
Malice arrived to investigate the commotion, and was astonished to find her Master where he was, to hear his helpless wails of distress.
"My lord!" she cried, kneeling next to him. "What's happened?"
She put a hand on Mogdred's shoulder. He immediately responded with a reflexive swing of his arm, violently casting Malice away from him. Malice landed heavily on the flagstones, and looked up at her Master through eyes full of confusion.
"Do not dare to approach me!" thundered Mogdred, his eyes tightly closed, trying to fill his voice with its usual awesome menace, but which the pain just would not allow. He slowly forced his eyes open as he began to recognise the agony, to sense its source.
"Merlin..." he growled, "Merlin, wh-what... what are you doing?"
The process of dispersal was captivating. The spell that Hordriss cast, a strange and remote incantation, was almost hypnotic. Its words had a strange beauty, a softness of intonation that belied their meaning.
And the bright light, a pale orange aura that now engulfed Merlin, was rich in its colour yet soft in its composition. It was calming, almost soothing to behold. Except that there was no possibility of forgetting what it was
Merlin was stood in the dungeon portal, shrouded in this strange, strange light. His eyes were closed, his head held very high, his arms outstretched in front of him. To Pickle's slight leeriness, Merlin seemed to be turning transparent. He was beginning to fade away, literally.
Merlin looked peaceful. A little poignant perhaps, not exactly relishing the process of his own disintegration, but he was clearly not suffering, felt no pain. He would soon be gone.
It was a word that had never sounded quite so abrupt or violent to Pickle as it did now. The enormity was beginning to sink in. The terrible yawning emptiness of Merlin's place in the world seemed to be speaking to him from the immediate future, and it was saying only one word - oblivion.
Hordriss looked impassive as he gently conducted the magic through word of mouth and quiet movement of hand. In all other respects he remained unmovable. Treguard was sat in his seat, watching like a statue staring into a rainy night. His eyes were only half-open, his breathing imperceptible. There was no movement from the Dungeon Master at all, no sound, and yet still he managed to convey, without allowing the slightest possibility of confusion, the weary heaviness of heart he felt, the desolation.
For Pickle himself, he was surprised to find that he shared that feeling quite so acutely. He didn't know Merlin half as well as Treguard did, and besides, being an elf meant that he was seldom subject to feelings like remorse. Regret certainly, anger perhaps, but outright remorse was a sentiment, and it took a lot to provoke that sort of thing in an elf.
Merlin suddenly dragged Pickle out of his reverie. "It is nearly done," he wheezed voicelessly, "Treguard, Sickle..."
Pickle cleared his throat slightly, but he felt that under the circumstances it would not do to correct the old Sorcerer. It wasn't the first time that Merlin had got his name wrong anyway, why worry about it now?
"...Never give up, my friends," Merlin continued, lost in the sightless turmoil, "do not grieve. Remember that our greatest enemy shall die with me. Hold onto that, hold onto the future. For without Mogdred, the King shall fall. England will be free..."
And suddenly it was over. Hordriss' incantations stopped, the beautiful fiery aura was gone. Merlin was no longer there.
Hordriss' old shoulders slumped slightly. He suddenly looked very tired, and somehow melancholy.
"It is finished." His gravelly voice sounded regretful somehow. "Merlin is gone to the next world. This one is done with him."
It was over. Pickle looked around himself, eyes narrowed, feeling a sudden distraught tightness in his chest. No, it couldn't be over, not just like that. Merlin couldn't just be gone. It couldn't be so quick, so quiet. It seemed wrong somehow, as though it were not heroic enough a death for Merlin.
As was always the case in these situations, when he needed answers to questions he couldn't ask, he looked to Treguard. But the old Dungeon Master did not return his gaze. He still hadn't moved a muscle, still hadn't said a word. All that had changed was a slight watering of his eyes. He was holding back tears of uncertainty, and tears of grief. Uncertainty of the future, grief for the loss of an old friend.
Merlin was dead.
Some way below, and many miles south, in Mogdred's throne room, there was another great passing. The necromancer was still stricken on the floor, now engulfed in a potent aura of white fury.
Malice, hand over mouth, could do nothing but stand on the other side of the room, recoiling in fear at the maelstrom of mystical power that was consuming her Master. His screams had stopped but it was all too clear that his anguish hadn't. He still writhed, still struggled, and tears of pain were forming at the sides of his eyes. But Malice could not try to interfere now that she'd been ordered not to.
The whiteness of the maelstrom became thicker, more opaque. And the more it intensified, the less Mogdred moved. Or more precisely, the less he was able to move.
One of his eyes, slowly, awkwardly, rolled open, and aimed in the direction of Malice. There was something in the gleam of his eye, perhaps a mute appeal, perhaps a dereliction of his own sense of authority, but whatever it was, Malice suddenly sensed that his pride and defiance were no longer there, as though Mogdred were finally acknowledging that he needed her help. Whatever the case, Malice felt she could remain silent no longer.
"My Lord," she insisted, "you must let me help you. Whatever's happening, you can't stop it. Maybe I can."
The maelstrom was now so dense that Mogdred was scarcely visible within it. He couldn't move at all, he couldn't speak, he even seemed to be having trouble breathing.
Malice reasoned that he couldn't stop her from interfering either way, and anyway she had to help. She immediately strode over to her Master, stood above him and raised her arms, letting a pulse of fire dance from the tips of her fingers and propelled them toward his face. This energy soaked its way into the engulfing power, trying to examine it, to inform Malice of its nature.
The power of the maelstrom turned black and distorted. It reached out a tendril, a strand of ebony fire, toward Malice. The tendril swung and struck the sorceress across the cheek. She was thrown aside with sickening force. The tendril sunk back into the maelstrom.
An instant later there was a bright flash of light. Malice was just trying to sit up, but the light was so powerful she had to cover her eyes with the arm that she was propping herself up with, and slumped back onto the ground.
Malice let out a cry, more of apprehension than pain, then shook her head repeatedly and violently. She opened her eyes, and blinked rapidly, trying to disperse the dark blinding cloud from her retinas.
After a moment her vision cleared and she looked over to Mogdred. She let out another gasp of concern. Something had changed again, something even more disconcerting.
Where Mogdred had been lying, absorbed in agonising, unknowable power, there was now visible only one thing. It was human shaped, at least vaguely. But it was evidently not human, even in the very broad sense that would apply to a necromancer. It instead looked stony and warped, solid but formless, like once-molten lava after it has cooled for days.
Malice got to her feet and took several cautious steps toward this bizarre mass. Even more carefully, she reached out a nervous hand toward the object. To her touch it felt both colder and far smoother than it looked. Even somewhat light and brittle.
In fact, it felt vaguely like some kind of a honeycomb. But that was as far as it went to resembling anything sweet.
Some situations crop up so many times over in most people's lives that the experience teaches them to develop special rules to handle each one. Unwritten rules perhaps, but still woe betide anyone who might stray from them.
For instance, over the years experience had taught Motley that on the first three dates the lady should always have everything her own way, that one should never drink mead unless it's the only drink of the evening, that one should never, ever, under any circumstances, make jokes with Norman soldiers, and most important of all, one should never take a shortcut at night. These guidelines were the products of experience and common sense. Motley never once thought to doubt or dispute them.
Sadly, this did not mean he would actually follow any of them, especially not that last one. In truth he was quite capable of taking shortcuts at night just because it had started raining, or if he was feeling a bit cold.
Such it was this night. He was feeling a wee bit sozzled as he left the Crazed Heifer this windy evening, having managed to scavenge the usual few drinks off of Brother Mace - he was always so easy to manipulate with ale pot in hand - and he was heading back to the Castle through the dank unlit paths of the Dunwood, unsteadily carrying his lamp and humming his favourite song, "Zen and the Art of Formation Hippo Dancing." (NOTE: This wasn't the real title of his favourite song, it was just that it always became that after he'd had a couple too many.)
The rain had started while he'd been drinking his blues away, and the ground was muddy and cutting up beneath his feet. So he decided to step off the path and take a shortcut through the relative shelter of the trees.
He was to get away with it of course, indeed he wasn't even to get into danger from it, but that was entirely down to luck, and in no way down to judgement. And more to the point, something scary still happened.
He started by stepping round two trees, taking a quick left, ducking round another tree and finding himself... back on the path again.
Motley stared at the ground in front of him, as though it were a thing of alien powers. "Damn these three point turns," he muttered to himself. "Who'da thought they'd always go straight back the way you came?"
He then tried stepping off the path and through the trees again. He stepped around one, then found another, a precarious birch, right ahead. He stumbled towards it resolutely, trying to stare it down, but mysteriously it showed no inclination to let him pass. Even so he carried on walking toward it.
Motley let out a hiccup. "I'm bettin' you'll swerve first," he told the tree defiantly. He was to experience disappointment, not to mention pain, when it manifestly failed to be intimidated, and instead bumped into his nose, rather hard.
Motley rubbed his nose. "Ow," he mentioned. The tree ignored him, so admitting defeat, Motley made the tricky but necessary thermodynamic calculations that would allow him to walk around the obstruction, and then hurt his nose again when his legs failed to follow the instructions correctly and carried him straight forward into the side of the tree once more.
"Ow," Motley repeated. Again the tree didn't seem to be listening. "Bloody trees," scowled the jester. "I hope Treguard comes down here and makes you into firewood!"
As an afterthought, he gave the tree an unfriendly punch.
The following morning, Motley would of course dismiss it as just delusions of liquor, but the tree then appeared to open two previously unnoticed large eyes about half way up its trunk, and look down at him sadly. A mouth formed a little way below them, and in a hauntingly familiar voice, it said, "Do not strike us. We've died once already this day."
Motley stood rooted to the spot, just staring at the tree, for he didn't know how long. He finally shook his head, said "Naaah," to himself, and stumbled on through the trees back to Dunshelm.
Dawn the following morning was grey and dark, as though the soul had been taken out of the sun before it rose. If so, Treguard could identify with it all too easily. He was feeling shattered, as the sheer bleak enormity of what had happened the previous evening had sunk in all too quickly and all too easily.
The worst thing was that he felt completely calm about it. It was a terrible, cold calm, the sort of calm that people feel when they have absolutely nothing left, when they are too drained to feel what they think. He didn't like feeling like this. He wanted to be angry, or to cry, or just to smile at happier memories. But he could do none of these things, for he felt nothing. His mind wanted to acknowledge nothing.
No, now that he thought about it, there was something. Not much, certainly nothing positive, but there was still something, and he needed it, he needed to feel something. No matter how little it was, no matter how bad it was, he needed to feel something, as he couldn't cope with the aching emotional vacuum any longer. So he reached for this small spark, grasped it, clung to it determinedly, and tried to open it up, like a child eagerly opening a present.
And having grasped it, having identified it, here was what he discovered it to be - anger. Anger at Hordriss for conceiving the terrible plan to destroy Merlin. Anger at Mogdred for making the plan necessary. Anger at Merlin for allowing Mogdred to exist in the first place. Anger at himself for... well, for being there at all in fact - it was human nature at these times to blame oneself, even if there's no reason to. Anger made him feel less powerless, and it might be a strong enough emotion to awaken his other, more dormant feelings.
Treguard raised himself from his hammock, pulled himself to his feet, and hauled on his tunic and cloak. Today was the first day of the real struggle, the struggle to defend England, without Merlin's aid, from King John. At least the loss of Merlin meant that John would no longer have aid from Mogdred. That gave real hope, and if Hordriss could bring himself to follow Merlin's last wishes, and finally side with the Northguard, perhaps the balance might even be tipped in Treguard's favour.
This train of thought started to lighten Treguard's mood a little, letting through a few rays of sunlight to melt the previous icy restraints on his heart.
Yes, there was much to fight for, much to build for. The future most of all, and it was Treguard's duty to make sure that Merlin's sacrifice would be an avenue to the greater good.
Pickle entered the scullery, and just as he expected, it was here that he found the jester curled up at the foot of the steps, sleeping noisily - didn't he always? Motley's outfit, never the cleanest item of clothing in Christendom, had a dried-on staleness, the telltale indicator that its wearer had been walking in the rain the previous evening.
Pickle carefully stepped down to the slumbering fool and gently, delicately, ever so mildly, kicked him in the ribs.
"Ow!" yelped Motley, certainly not for the first time that week, as he sprang to his feet. Affronted, he gave the elf an angry shove. As it turned out, as Motley was still half-asleep he didn't aim the push quite right, with the result that it hurt his own arm more than any part of Pickle's anatomy. "Ow!" Motley yelped again, cradling the wounded appendage just as a fresh, sharper stab of pain kicked in across his temples, as his hangover loudly announced itself to his brain. "Ow!" he yelped yet again, putting his hand to his forehead. "What'd you do that for?"
"Oh, so you can say things other than 'Ow!' then?" noted Pickle, intrigued.
Motley was about to reply with a witty retort, but his headache wouldn't allow it, so he just sat down heavily on the steps. "What time is it?" he demanded weakly.
Pickle shrugged. "Dawn was about half an hour ago."
"Ooh," groaned Motley, "what'd you wake me up so early for?"
Pickle grabbed Motley's arm and tried to haul him to his feet. "A lot's happened in the last couple of days," he explained, "and the Master needs to speak to everyone urgently. Including you."
"Why?" asked Motley, hauling himself up again with exaggerated slowness. "What's 'appened?"
Pickle shook his head. "Just follow me, Motley," he said impatiently. "The Master will explain. Come on, everyone's waiting for us."
Pickle started to climb back up the steps. Motley frowned. Pickle always sounded exactly as serious as the situation demanded. For him to sound as serious as this meant that something big was up. With the ache clumsily working its way around his head, Motley didn't feel like he was up to hearing it, whatever it was. But, Treguard was the Dungeon Master, if he said he had something for everyone to hear, everyone was going to hear it, simple as that.
Motley breathed out a loud, exhausted sigh, and followed Pickle up the steps.
Most of the castle's regular occupants, the men-at-arms, the serving staff, were in the antechamber when Pickle and Motley arrived, not to mention a number of people from the neighbouring area.
The elf, Lady Velda of Anwin Wood was stood near the door, dagger drawn, eyeing everyone about her with her usual nervous suspicion. Mellisandre smiled at Motley from where she was sat on one of the benches by the table. Glad to recognise someone here whom he could say with some confidence was actually a friend, Motley quickly tiptoed over and sat next to her.
Elsewhere in the room stood Brother Mace (who was giving Motley a disapproving look, no doubt a carryover from the drinks that he, Motley, had coaxed out of him the previous evening), and a tall, lithe looking woman in a green jerkin, which Motley recognised as the traditional livery of the Forest Green Wardens.
Treguard, looking grave, was sat in his seat, clearly impatient to begin. Hordriss the Confuser was stood next to him, arms folded, his expression full of all of his usual proud regality.
"Thank you, Pickle," the Dungeon Master nodded stiffly while the elf seated himself, cross-legged, in the middle of the table. "There's no easy way to tell you this, so I'm just going to say it. Merlin is gone."
There were a few nervous looks between the occupants of the room as he said this, not outright consternation perhaps, but equally not welcoming what they were hearing either.
"What exactly do you mean by 'gone,' Dungeon Master?" asked Mace, carefully. "Do you mean he has gone on pilgrimage, or something more extreme, perhaps?"
"I think you already know what I mean, Mace," answered Treguard. "Let's just say we won't be seeing him in the dungeon of this particular castle again. Or in any castle in this world."
Now the nervous mutterings did turn to general consternation. Treguard politely raised a hand to ask for silence. "It was his own decision to move on to the next world," he explained, skating over the details somewhat, "and he has given us a bonus."
"What is that?" demanded Velda, in the sort of overly expressive crouch she typically adopted at any time of anticipation.
"Mogdred is gone as well."
The consternation among the gathering changed to curiosity.
"Why do you say that?" asked the Green Warden. "What makes you so sure?"
Treguard shrugged. "Mogdred was the yang to Merlin's yin, Gwendoline. There could not be one without the other. Merlin's departure from this world will have precipitated Mogdred's."
There was now a general hum of excitement and approval from the gathering. All those present were clearly most encouraged by these tidings. Not one of them seemed to question or doubt the certainty of what Treguard was saying.
Motley was embarrassed. He was very much one of the minor leaguers present. He knew a lot less about sorcery than the heavyweights about him, and their certainty made him reluctant to speak up. But he did so anyway.
"Just a sec," he coughed slightly.
The hum of delight around the chamber died away as everybody turned their attention to the scruffy, hungover jester sat hunched on the bench, his arm raised in meek appeal.
"Er, 'scuse me," he said a little more loudly, hoping it would add a touch more authority into his voice. It didn't.
"Yes, Motley?" asked Treguard gently.
"Um..." he stammered. "Look I don't wanna spoil the atmosphere," he started a little weakly, "it's just..."
"Well, are you actually sure that Mogdred's gone as well?"
Treguard looked at him indulgingly. "The whole point of his passing was to take Mogdred with him to the next world, Motley."
"I see," said Motley.
Treguard nodded, assuming that he had settled that. "Now..." he continued, only to be interrupted by another polite cough from Motley. Treguard gave the jester a surprised look. "What is it now?"
Motley could feel his cheeks absorbing the boiling heat of the stares from the other, more powerful occupants of the room. "Um, well, no disrespect, guv'nor," he said, "but... um, you don't seem to have answered my question. Are you sure that Mogdred's gone?"
Treguard began to look annoyed. "What do you mean?"
Motley realised that he had already got everyone angry, so no harm in carrying on now. "I mean has anyone actually checked?"
"Well yeah," nodded Motley. " The whole idea was to get rid of 'im, I understand that. But have you made sure it worked?"
Hordriss looked at the jester, appalled at his impertinence. "What are you implying now, fool?" he rasped. "That one's powers are inadequate to..."
"No," protested Motley. This was all he needed, Hordriss choosing to take everything personally again. "I'm not saying they're inadequate. I'm saying that they're magical. In my experience that means they're not very reliable."
"Your experience?" snorted Hordriss. "You presume to advise one such as I on the art of high magic?! That would be like consulting a new-born baby about the art of parenting."
"I'm just asking," said Motley, all too conscious of the aggravation he was causing those all around him. "Has anyone checked?"
"Well," admitted Treguard reluctantly, "no."
All at once, everybody stopped glowering at Motley and stared pointedly at Treguard and Hordriss.
"What did you say?" demanded Velda. "You mean the harlequin is correct? You have not investigated yet?"
Motley had never been referred to as a harlequin before, and he found it to be a rather uplifting description, certainly a step up in class from the downbeat "jester", and a meteoric rise from the appallingly condescending "fool." He didn't have time to bask in this small glory however.
"Treguard," sniffed Mace, "we cannot afford to be so casual. We have to make sure you've succeeded. Fighting Mogdred was difficult enough when we were ready for him. If we just assume success, then if he has survived he'll destroy us..."
"Aye," chimed in one of the men-at-arms, "especially if Merlin can't help us anymore!"
Everyone else in the room clearly had something to add to this, and within seconds the whole discussion had descended into a chaotic clamour of shouts, complaints, protests and counter protests, all uttered over each other.
Any satisfaction Motley felt at having successfully made his point, and even won people over with it, was fleeting. The sudden tangle of shouted voices was making his hangover worse and worse, and he was beginning to wish he'd kept his mouth shut.
Mellisandre nudged him and gestured toward the door. Motley nodded, so they got to their feet and, keeping their heads down, walked out. Once they were on the steps and beyond the worst of the clamour, they stopped to talk.
Motley pinched the bridge of his nose tenderly. He really needed to do something about this hangover. "Any chance of some water?" he asked hopefully.
"Of course there is," said Mellisandre. "You know where the horse trough is by now don't you?" Motley scowled at her, but she didn't seem to notice. "You sounded pretty worried in there."
"Mogdred's Mogdred," answered Motley.
"Only if he's still alive," Mellisandre pointed out with her usual pedantic precision, "otherwise, he was Mogdred."
"Whatever," said Motley. "The point is, Mace is right. We can't take any chances with Mogdred, we 'ave to be sure."
Mellisandre gave him one of her most winning grins. "All right," she stated, arms folded, the classic hallmark of Mellisandre when she meant business, "then sure we will be. We'll go and find out. Last one outside's second to the door."
She immediately turned and galloped up the steps. Motley watched her go and shook his head. Now he really wished he'd kept his mouth shut. He sighed once more then hurried after her. He didn't notice Pickle, suspicion in his elfin eyes, furtively bounding up the steps behind him.
Malice was still at a loss. She had studied the strange mass in closest detail for hours, and was unable to gain any clear insights. She could find no seams or weak points in its surface, no lines of sight, be it for her eyes or her magic, to study the interior. It was also a lot harder to break than she'd originally believed. What she was now certain of was that this was not what was left of Mogdred. It was the same energy that had been engulfing him at the outset. Somehow it had frozen into a solid form.
In other words, Mogdred was almost certainly inside it.
Malice realised that she wasn't going to get anywhere like this. And all of a sudden she wasn't sure she wanted to. Only now did it occur to her that this might not be a disaster for her. No, it might even be an opportunity. She had been so in awe of Mogdred ever since he had taken her under his wing that she had started to forget the reason why she had sided with him in the first place - her own ambitions. And how better to serve them than by succeeding the mighty necromancer? In any case, she told herself, Mogdred was surely dead now anyway.
She smiled and nodded to herself, ignoring that lingering doubt that said this was more wishful thinking than belief. She snapped her fingers.
"Fatilla!" she called out.
Through the door blundered the familiar figure of the ungainly, heavyweight barbarian with red bandana and droopy moustache. "Yus?" he asked in a tone of such slurred incoherence that it indicated with astonishing precision the exact degree of mental agility he had to offer.
"Get rid of that," Malice instructed, pointing in the vague direction of the... whatever-it-was. So far it hadn't occurred to her to figure out a name for the object. Hardly a big priority, but it would be convenient. Well, a "whatever-it-was" would do for now.
Fatilla looked in the indicated direction blankly, then walked over, picked up the table and threw it through the door. He looked at Malice and smiled, expecting praise for a fast job well done. Instead she just looked annoyed.
"No, idiot!" she growled, wondering why Mogdred had ever recruited this Neanderthal man. "I meant that thing. There!"
She pointed at the whatever-it-was.
"Yus," slurped the barbarian, and hobbled over to the whatever-it-was, picking it up with impressively little effort. It looked like he was about to throw it through the door as well.
"No!" snapped Malice hurriedly. Fatilla remained motionless where he was, still holding the whatever-it-was above his head. "Carry it out. And get that table back in here."
Fatilla nodded obediently and lumbered to the door, occasionally tottering under the weight of the whatever-it-was. As soon as he was one step beyond the door, he threw the whatever-it-was. It landed with a loud crash in the passageway outside, on top of a pile of old weapons - rusty swords and pieces of damaged armour mainly. The clatter of the frozen maelstrom meeting metal echoed along the passage and back again for long moments, during which Malice rolled her eyes.
Then Fatilla picked up the table, lumbered over to the door, and hurled it back into the throne room. Malice closed her eyes ruefully as the table split into two on impact with the merciless flagstones of the floor. Malice turned toward Fatilla, and smiled sweetly at him.
"Thank you, Fatilla," she said kindly, and then shot a miniature bolt of lightning at him. The lightning hit Fatilla square on the bottom, and he howled with pain, running from the room in a mad panic.
Malice sighed. Now that she was in charge, there were going to be big changes around here. There had to be. Starting with some more useful hired muscles.
Still, that she could sort out a bit later. For now, it was time to make herself properly at home. She smiled to herself as she walked over to the throne that she had secretly coveted for all the time she had served Mogdred, and which was now hers. She seated herself and sat back, making herself almost obscenely comfortable. The throne was a little on the large side for her, but she could deal with that with the application of a few cushions. Other than that she found it most comfortable. It was very... her. She felt she was going to rather enjoy this.
She clicked her fingers again, this time to summon all of the goons in Mogdred's former employ. Now in her employ.
Outside the room, completely beyond her attention of course, lay the frozen maelstrom on the pile of discarded weapons. Also beyond her attention was the fact that the force of the impact had caused a small crack to develop in the object's surface, a chink in its pattern. And from it there now leaked the tiniest, palest shimmer of light, which slowly spread across the metallic fragments upon which it rested.
Mellisandre was already outside Dunshelm's walls before Motley caught up with her. He didn't know where she was going or what she was planning to do, and that should have made Motley reluctant to follow her. Instead of course, his curiosity, and the natural worry that Melly was going to get into trouble and need help - always a possibility - were too strong for him to resist.
"Where are you going?" he panted as he finally managed to get into pace next to her, as she ran down the slope toward the outskirts of the Dunwood.
"Do you remember Ross?" said Mellisandre, not breaking her stride.
"Ross?" boggled Motley. "Er, 'ang on wasn't he a dungeoneer?"
"He tried to free you when Morghanna kidnapped you didn't he?"
"So you do remember," nodded Mellisandre, satisfied. "I managed to escape on my own in the end," she continued, "but I did more than that besides."
"I stole something from her," explained Mellisandre as they reached the foot of the slope and entered the canopy of foliage of the wood. "Mogdred was so furious with her when he found out it was gone that he banished her for it."
"Ah," said Motley, "that explains a few things. What was it?"
"Something very dangerous," answered Melly. "It was a kind of strange magical viewing device that Mogdred was developing. He hadn't completed it, but it uses a similar magic to that Eye-Shield thing that the dungeoneers are so fond of."
She suddenly came to a halt by a large elm tree. She walked around it until she found what she was looking for, a small marking in chalk on the bark halfway up the trunk.
"I buried it here," she continued, "because I knew it'd be easier for Mogdred to sense it if I hung on to it, or if, heaven forbid, I tried to use it."
She stood with her back to the tree, right in front of the mark, and took three long paces forward. On the third pace she dug her heel into the ground, then pulled at the loose soil of the ground with her hands until she unearthed something wrapped in a large cloth.
"Here it is," she stated proudly, lifting the concealed object. She unwrapped it to reveal something that looked like nothing more remarkable than a rather large magnifying glass with an ornate metal frame.
"That's it?" said Motley, unimpressed. "You dragged us all this way for a magnifying glass?"
"It's not a magnifying glass," retorted Mellisandre.
"No? Well what is it then?"
"Morghanna called it a spyglass."
"Spyglass?" Motley looked doubtful. "What does it do?"
Mellisandre gave him an impatient look. "It deep-fries blue haddock," she answered witheringly. "It spies on people, what do you think it does?!"
"Oh," nodded Motley dumbly. "Yeah, of course." Motley rubbed his jaw as a thought struck him. "Melly, why didn't you tell anyone about this thing before?"
Mellisandre shrugged. "Didn't want to."
"Didn't want to?" scoffed Motley. "But can you imagine how useful one of these things could be? If Treguard could make a few more of them, they could give us a real edge."
"And in the meantime," said Mellisandre, holding up the spyglass, "Mogdred would be able to blow up anyone holding onto it." She shook her head. "No, I hid this thing because it's dangerous as long as Mogdred is still alive. Now that he may not be, it may be safe to use it, at least to check."
Motley considered this. "Okay, I guess that makes sense."
"We should be able to use this to spy on its original home and see if Mogdred's still there," continued Mellisandre, offering him the spyglass. "Care to do the honours?"
Motley put his palms forward in polite refusal."Oh no, no I couldn't possibly. You were the one who stole it, the glory's yours, so the honour of being the first to use it should be yours too."
But Mellisandre still proffered the spyglass. "Oh, no need to be gallant, Motley, take it, and have fun. I insist."
Motley crossed his arms stubbornly. "No, ladies first."
"Don't be so old-fashioned," argued Mellisandre, trying to sound kindly but unable to hide her nerves. "Go on, after you..."
"I'll take it," said an elfin voice. Once their hearts had resumed beating a moment later, they turned to see Pickle standing off to one side, shaking his head and giving them disdainful looks for their cowardice.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Mellisandre.
Pickle stepped forward and snatched the spyglass from her grasp. "I followed you. I was wondering what you two ran off in such a hurry for." He looked the glass up and down. "Now I know. We should let the Master see this."
Mellisandre was about to object when Motley cut in. "He's right, Mel," he said. "If anyone'll know what to do Treguard will."
Malice had been kept waiting a full ten minutes and more before all her underlings had arrived, and for some reason that made her furious. She wasn't pleased with herself for over-reacting, it wasn't good to let her new authority go to her head so quickly.
The assembled arrow fodder was mainly made up of goblins. Malice couldn't help feeling it was time she got a full time trainer to keep some of these revolting scavengers in line, especially those two at the front. What did they call themselves again? Oh yes, Grippa and Rhark. Right pair of savages.
Also Fatilla had returned, giving Malice a lot of confused and wary looks.
Malice stood and raised her arms. "All of you shall now kneel," she commanded.
No response from anyone.
"I said kneel," she repeated.
The gathered minions looked at her blankly, and exchanged doubtful glances.
"Don't you understand?" she seethed, lowering her arms. "I am your new leader."
More blank looks, even a few sceptical ones. Once again, Malice could see how much she needed to change things, get some new personnel in to replace the mindless dolts that Mogdred, in his insecurity, had always preferred.
In fact, the more Malice was getting to see the machinery of Mogdred's command from the inside, the more she was starting to wonder why she had been so in awe of him. Every logistical decision, every organisational move, every strategic selection he had made now seemed to smack entirely of paranoia. The only agents with any noticeable intelligence or initiative he'd had on his side were Malice herself and Morghanna, as though he were scared that he was recruiting potential conspirators, and that he'd have less difficulty keeping an eye on just the one.
On the whole, Malice was beginning to suspect that Mogdred had been every bit as dishevelled and insecure as the King he'd spoken of with such contempt.
Well, that was all over now. Things were going to change, and she, Malice, was the one who was going to change them. And in order to get some co-operation from this bunch of useless wastrels, it was time, ironically enough, to use one of the finest tools Mogdred had ever taught her to use. Not the pain of reprisals, but the fear of reprisals.
"Mogdred is dead!" she proclaimed loudly, her portentous voice full of authoritative menace. She thought for a moment that she'd heard a cheer from somewhere, but looking around she saw no one celebrating, so she continued. "You, all of you, now belong solely and expressly to me. Your very lives, your future existence, are held entirely in tribute to me. Your destinies and dreams can be forfeit at my slightest whim. You should all consider that most thoughtfully. Observe..."
Malice raised her hand and a small ball of liquid fire shot from her palm and struck one of the goblins. In the few seconds remaining to it, it gave an agonised squeal as it was engulfed from tip to toe in flames. It took just seconds for the fire to burn itself out, at the end of which the blackened and ravaged corpse fell to the floor, crumbling to dust.
The others all stared in silent, numb horror at the ashes on the floor. They were clearly terrified. Good.
"I hope I've left none of you in any doubt," said Malice coolly. "Now kneel."
One by one, every one of her followers sank to their knees. Malice smiled an evil smile. Yes, they all understood now. The application of fear could provide such remarkable clarity. Furthermore, she realised that she rather enjoyed applying it too.
Treguard was watching, as was Hordriss and a number of others.
The initial reaction when Pickle had presented them with the spyglass was puzzlement. The next was anger that Mellisandre had chosen to conceal this precious artifact for all this time, no matter how honest her intention had been.
The reaction, as they gazed through the spyglass upon the peculiar gathering of Malice's mob of thieves, had changed to elation when they heard the confirmation that they'd wanted - Mogdred was dead. A cheer had gone up from several of the men-at-arms in the chamber, only to be silenced quickly under prompting from Hordriss, who quietly indicated that Malice would be able to hear them through the spyglass just as easily as they could hear her. For a moment her expression suggested that she had heard them, but then she continued lecturing her followers.
The reaction then turned to quiet disgust as Malice cooked one of her goblins alive with a fireball.
Treguard then handed the spyglass over to Hordriss, who quickly severed the connection to Malice's throne room.
"Most intriguing," commented Hordriss. "Malice will hardly be so great an obstacle to any of our interests as Mogdred was."
Treguard hesitated just briefly before answering. "Perhaps not." He pushed past a couple of people and resumed his seat. "For now, I must consider other matters."
"Namely?" asked Velda, her voice again full of bizarre, unfounded suspicions.
"My stance against Mogdred was as much a battle against the Normans," Treguard admitted. "Now that his most powerful ally is gone, I have an opportunity to turn my attention to King John himself, and his forthcoming Magna Carta. But if I don't do that soon, all this may mean little."
There was also the ongoing matter of Mildread's warning, but before he could mention that, Velda sniffed dismissively, clearly no longer interested. "These are mortal matters you speak of. They are of no concern to my people. I will take my leave now, and report your success against the necromancer to my liege." She turned to leave.
Treguard looked up at her, amused by her polite rudeness. "So be it. Oh, and please give my regards to Arawn. Tell him I'd be delighted to come round and discuss old times with him... next time I have need for someone with a life debt."
Velda glanced over her shoulder at the Dungeon Master and smiled as though she actually recognised the joke. She still had little time for her King, even though there had recently been some kind of reconciliation between them. "Farewell," she grunted, and disappeared through the door.
With that, Treguard clearly decided that matters had been settled for the time being. He got to his feet. "Well everybody, I believe that's all for now. It's a sad day, but also a time of opportunity. Thank you for attending at such short notice."
The rest of the assembled people nodded and began slowly to file out. Soon only Treguard, Pickle, Motley and Mellisandre were left. They all sat in a strange, deafening silence for a while. Eventually, Pickle broke the silence.
"We're all waiting for Merlin to tell us what we should do next, aren't we?"
"Yes, sprite," nodded Treguard gently. "I think we are."
They wouldn't realise it, any of them, but their next course of action wasn't what would have concerned Merlin nearly as much as one of their previous ones. For although they could never have known it, they would have done well to watch Malice's gathering a little longer.
Malice was sat on the throne - her throne. It felt good to be able to say that. She was now alone, which, considering the level of conversation that goblins were generally capable of, was a considerable improvement.
She was content. Well not content, as such, but she felt the pride of achievement and the tingle of anticipation of what that achievement now made possible for her. She had not only learned from Mogdred, she had outlived him, and soon she would outdo him.
She had learned the art of patience, she had learned the art of fear, she had learned the art of power, all from Mogdred. But she would do far more than him, for she had none of his weaknesses. She would not be afraid to take the chances that he had spurned. She would not undervalue the qualities of others, she would not make the arrogant mistake of depending on herself alone, she would exploit what she could from her underlings, she would...
Her mental rant suddenly came grinding to a halt as she heard something. No, no not heard something. Felt something. That was it. She felt a presence, not in this room, but close. Something powerful, but confused, something with great knowledge, but that showed no understanding of it.
Something that might be useful perhaps? Well, either it was an opportunity or it was something to worry about. But one way or the other, Malice was not going to do well by sitting still, so she quickly got to her feet and hurried to the door.
As soon as she got there it grabbed her, held her by the throat and lifted her bodily from her feet. She was so taken by surprise, so totally unprepared for it, that initially she could only manage the barest glimpse at it.
That glimpse was all she needed to know that she didn't want to see it. It was hideous.
It was a humanoid skeleton. Vast in frame, imposing in stature, powerful in presence. It was immense, and it was horrifying, and yet to her evil side it was also, in some perverse way, beautiful. Its eyes glowed the darkest repugnant red. Its face was empty of flesh but full of hate.
And yet, remarkable as these details were, they were not what she noticed most about this creature. What astounded her, horrified her, appalled her, was what it was not, namely flesh or bone. It was neither.
This apparition of skeletal devilry was made of metal. Every bone in its hideous biological jigsaw was not a bone at all, it was a lace of metal.
And then it spoke, and Malice wanted to die, just so as to be sure that she would never have to hear it again. For its voice was composed of violence, of every way of inflicting pain known to mankind and beyond, and Malice was feeling every nuance of that pain with every syllable.
"Fear..." the creature gurgled hideously. "I taste... fear. You... you are... fear. Your life force... laced with fear... I will drink your life force... will live again... will taste your fear... will live it..."
And the creature slowly pulled Malice toward the ghastly rictus of its bony mouth. Malice found she could not fight, could not resist. She was so enveloped in her own terror, as though the creature knew how to increase it, that she could not try to respond, she could only stare straight ahead.
Malice would never find out for sure what her killer was of course, but before she died, she did get a clue in the shape of the strange object that Mogdred had been cocooned in. It was now broken up into large pieces, like the shell of a hatched egg. The pile of old weapons that the object had landed on had disappeared.
All that there was now was this horror, this metallic apparition of fear that now had her totally in its power, and whose mouth even now was closing toward her own.
She felt the most terrible retch of disgust as the fleshless mouth touched upon her lips, then she felt a coldness that rapidly spread from them across her face, then along her neck, then all over her, as the creature drank her life force.
Then she died.
To be concluded...