“Qui noster mollis accusata,” Merlin shouted. Damn it, if only he could just wave a staff like in the old days.
A shimmering ice enveloped his hand. He threw it at the twenty-foot dragon in his pond.
The dragon reared and roared, flashing its mighty talons.
The spell exploded on contact, doing no damage to the dragon. . . but that had not been its purpose. As shards of ice drifted toward the water, the dragon laughed.
“That’s the best you can do?” it asked. “And I’d heard so much about the mighty Merlin, wizard from the time before time.”
“Wait for it,” Merlin muttered. He hated these new dragons. They were runty—for dragons, anyway—and they roamed the broken lands rather than holing up in mountains as they should.The wisps of ice hit the water, and the entire pond froze instantly.
“What the—?” The beast heaved this way and that, but its hind quarters remained immobilized.
Merlin sighed. Now all he had to do was—
The beast roared. It sucked in a tremendous breath, closed its mouth, and puffed up its face as if horribly constipated. Every inch of skin glowed bright orange. . . then white.
“Oh hells.” Merlin ducked just in time.
The pond exploded into water and vapor.
That was a new trick, too.
The dragon flapped its wings and leapt directly at Merlin, who dove to the ground and rolled. A decade studying with ninjas in the sixteenth century had helped him overcome a somewhat fragile constitution.
He rose to one knee and raised his hands. “Facete propriae maiestati!”
A forceful concussion pushed forward, driving the dragon to one side.
“Duo brute posse.” Merlin made a grabbing motion with one hand, then he twisted the fist.
A sharp crack resounded as the dragon’s wing torqued and snapped. The beast screamed and landed on a boulder, hunkering down like a cat preparing for a mighty leap.
It sucked in a huge breath.
Well, that could only mean one thing.
Dragon fire wouldn’t kill Merlin. Nothing could bloody well kill him since he’d been cursed to live until Arthur awoke from Avalon and returned to England, but it would hurt like hell, and he might spend a few decades laying in a crispy shell while his body healed. Why couldn’t the damn dragon just leave him alone?
Fine. Gods damned fine!
“STOP!” Merlin thrust his hand forward, fingers splayed.
The dragon stopped mid-air.
Merlin sucked in a breath.
He shot it out.
Fucking dragon ruining his routine.
He sucked in another breath.
The dragon hung in the air above him, a hideous fireball caught in its glowing throat.
Merlin exhaled more slowly.
He’d already survived millennia. And who knew how long he’d wait for Arthur’s return?
If the once and future king ever returned.
Something Very Bad had happened.
An unknown cataclysm had shattered the Moon and brought magic back into a world that now more closely resembled Tolkien’s Middle Earth than it had in the author’s lifetime, with new mountain ranges and volcanoes galore. Merlin didn’t care what, exactly, had happened. He walked away from all that, built a cabin in the woods as far from humanity as possible, and developed a routine that had kept him sane for the past few centuries.
He woke with the dawn.
He bathed in the pond the beavers had built for him.
He spent the rest of the morning experimenting with the bizarre new magic the shattered moon had brought. The fall of Camelot had coincided with the loss of magic; centuries later the Apocalypse had returned it, but it was different, which meant Merlin blew up trees and turned frogs into men while he adjusted. So at least generations of beavers had a constant supply of wood, and Merlin made the occasional servant to help with the gardening and fishing.
In the evening, he’d smoke a pipe of tobacco from the pre-Apocalypse stash locked under a mountain he could access magically. That’s also how he avoided parading around in rabbit skins and deer pelts. He kept a vault of stuff under that mountain.
It was the little things that kept him sane.
Unless his routine was interrupted.
The dragon hung in the air as if frozen in time.
Merlin closed his hands, palms together.
The forest had fallen completely silent.
“Shit. I stopped time,” Merlin muttered. “Again.”
That hadn’t been the point.
His skin grew taught. It shriveled across his body.
In all likelihood, his hair had bleached to white.
Stopping time took a ridiculous amount of energy. More even than Merlin could handle easily. His appearance, so carefully maintained with magic, always waned with the effort. He might not be able to die until Arthur’s return, but he still aged. Only a constantly vigilant enchantment kept him from wasting into the Crypt Keeper.
Heh. Crypt Keeper. Merlin missed television.
Anyway. Dragon. Must kill it.
Merlin had learned the ways of physics at university on and off from the seventeenth to the twenty-second centuries. The bond between atoms was nothing more than energy binding energy. If he could find this bond, he should be able to release it and turn the dragon into dust.
He focused. Pressed his hands together ever tighter. “Animal elaboraret in vix!”
He yanked his hands apart, symbolizing the separation of atoms.
A vast squelching hit his ears, followed almost immediately by about a hundred gallons of dragon blood and other ick slamming into his chest.
And his face.
And. . . pretty much everything else.
Well, the dragon had died, anyway.
Of course, Merlin hadn’t planned on wearing it.
“It wasn’t supposed to do that.”
The beast should have fallen into dust.
And now blood and offal covered Merlin.
He missed dry cleaners and free delivery.
Merlin wiped most of the gunk from his face and beard. He wrung it out of his hair, which had indeed gone white, highlighting the blood and ichor. It darkened to its usual brown as the background magic reasserted itself. If Merlin had had to focus consciously to work the glamour, any bed partner would have been in for a big middle-of-the-night surprise.
Not that he’d had a bed partner in a millennium.
But it also meant he could piss in the middle of the night without crippling knee pain.
He approached the pond and pushed a dragon leg out of the way. At least he wouldn’t need to hunt for a few days. Could dragon meat be cured into jerky?
Stripping out of his sodden clothes took some time, but filling the pond with dragon blood would make it impossible to clean himself. The clothes could wait.
The water, as always, warmed and refreshed him. The broken fissure up the hill, opened like so many during the Apocalypse, was exactly far enough away to create steaming bath water without scalding. The minerals soothed his tired muscles. The pond drained quickly enough to prevent bacterial growth. Water management had been one of a plethora of skills Merlin had acquired over the centuries between the fall of Camelot and the breaking of the Moon.
Merlin missed the internet.
He sank into the water and chose the coarse washcloth from its place by the towels.
He stared into the dragon’s clouding eye.
“What the hell went wrong?”
Using the new magic was like focusing a lens half blind. Sometimes the focus was too far and nothing happened and other times it was too close and something blew up. And he never knew which it would be until the photo developed.
He used a spell to preserve his clothes, similar to the spell that held his years at bay, but it couldn’t keep them clean. There was always the possibility of doing to his clothes what he’d done to the dragon. While he did have his ancient stash, weaving was likely centuries away, and Merlin couldn’t build a loom, let alone operate one.
“What I’d give for a needle and a few yards of cloth.”
He scrubbed at an arm. “And soap.” The blood washed off with water, but the ichor at the heart of a dragon’s fire stuck to his skin like tar. “I miss soap.”
He scrubbed harder.
“I’ll spot you a bar if you let me camp at your pond for the night.”
“If only—” Wait.
Merlin hadn’t said that.
He looked up.
There at the edge of the pond, one foot up on the dragon’s snout. He held his hands slightly away from his body in the manner of a traveler who knew the benefit of appearing harmless when approaching strangers.
What the hell?
Merlin rose. “Ipsum lorem sit amet!” Even half-stunned, Merlin could form a fireball. It spun into his up-flung hand.
The man’s eyes widened. But not by much. He didn’t move. Thin but solid, he stood with the graceful ease of a man who knew how to move. His skin was dark, as were his eyes and hair.
They maintained that tableau for a few seconds. The man had to have balls of steel, to hold such poise in the face of a fireball.
“I heard you say you’d like some soap,” the man said at last. “I have some I’d be glad to share.”
Soap? Where’d he find soap? And his clothes. Woven and sewn with details like trim and embroidery.
A horse nickered in the distance.
A horse? With a saddle? A saddle with no pommel.
Was it some kind of glamour meant to trick Merlin? Something plucked from his memories?
Too many questions.
“Soap?” Merlin stuck with the easiest. “Where’d you get soap?”
“I passed a village about a week ago.” The man gestured with his chin. “This is the first water I’ve seen since then. If it’s all right with you, I’d like a bath and a night beside the pond.” His eyes shifted to the fireball, then shifted back to Merlin’s face. “I spotted your home up the path. I promise not to disturb you.”
The man stood so quietly. Was he even real? Or had Merlin finally gone insane?
Merlin left the pool. The fireball seemed perhaps a trifle excessive, but Merlin hadn’t seen another human in so long his reflexes were all mixed up. He shook out the fire. “Your clothes. Where did you get those?”
“Here and there,” the man said. “I travel a lot.”
Merlin closed the space and ran a hand across the man’s chest. “But this. . .” The fabric was something like a coarse silk. Silk? “This isn’t possible.” He pulled the man’s scarf free so he could see the shirt. “And these dyes.” He hadn’t seen the like since the Apocalypse.
Merlin’s beard dripped onto the man’s chest. Oh. He probably shouldn’t grope the stranger that way. He considered the man’s eyes. They seemed a bit bemused but otherwise unfazed.
“Just how long have you been here on your own?” The man wiped a hand over the water spot on his chest.
Merlin stepped back. That’s right. One only stood so close to close friends.
The man raised an eyebrow.
Hm. How long had it been?
“Who was magistrate when you left the world of people?” the man asked.
“Magistrate?” The idea startled Merlin. “There are magistrates again?”
Laughter. “You must be older than you look.” He nodded toward his horse. “May I? I have soap.”
The man walked over to his horse. Too casual. He was far too casual for Merlin’s liking.
Wait. Magistrates? Had civilization returned then?
The man rummaged in his sack.
A mosquito bit Merlin’s hip and he slapped it. Oh, yes. He was naked. That was also something he’d forgotten to notice. Well, hardly mattered now, did it? Merlin dropped the man’s scarf over a boulder, grabbed his own towel, and wrapped it around his waist, anyway.
Something sailed his way! The fireball returned, but the projectile was only the promised bar of soap, so Merlin shook out the magic and caught the gift rather than torching it.
Lavender. It smelled of lavender and had been rendered smooth. How the hell?
“Here.” The man returned to his foot-on-dragon-head pose. “And if you’re prone to stepping so close to me, it’s in both of our best interests that you permit me to bathe.”
Merlin stepped farther away. “Apologies for that.”
“Not necessary.” He shook his head. “Over the years, I’ve known enough hermits to understand it takes some effort to remember your social skills.”
Hermit? Well, it was as good a term as any.
Merlin waved an arm over the pond. “It’s not really my pond that you need to ask my leave. The beavers made it.”
The man approached the pond. “I travel a lot.” He undid his shirt and stripped it off. “I find folks are much friendlier if I ask permission before picking apples or bathing in ponds near someone’s home.” He unlaced intricate leather sandals and slipped out of his pants. “Others are far more territorial than you, it seems.” Even his underclothes had been finely made.
“Are you a wealthy merchant of some kind?”
“Wealthy?” The man paused before draping the last of his garments over the rock. Apparently, Merlin’s lack of inhibition had granted certain permissions.
“Your clothes.” Merlin gestured. “The horse is a fine beast.” Which was true. “These things were the mark of great wealth once upon a time.”
The man nodded. He slid into the water with the smoothness of an otter. He had to be a dancer or a gymnast. His utter calm bespoke training as a fighter of some kind. “Not wealth.” He sank into the water. “Everything I own was a gift. . . of gratitude.”
Oh? A courtesan perhaps? That would explain the lithe movement and lack of inhibition.
The man laughed. “I train animals,” the man said. Had he read Merlin’s thought? “I have. . . a way with them. An understanding. Wealthy people treat me well to train their pets.”
In another day and another age, Merlin would have thought the man something of a gypsy.
“Do you mind if I soap in your pond?”
Merlin was staring. Damn. “Go ahead. It drains steadily. A gift from the beavers, who will likely be glad of your gift to me.”
The man ran the soap between his hands, apparently unabashed at Merlin’s frank perusal. “Judging by your garden,” he said, “there might be another item or two I could trade you for permission to camp here overnight. Check the saddlebag nearest us.”
Judging by his garden? What did that even mean?
“Some things are hard to find,” the man added.
The horse whinnied, but didn’t shy. Good training, indeed.
Merlin dug into the bag. Herbs: bloodwort, acacia, lavender. Crystals: quartz, amber.
“There’s bound to be a few things,” the man said, “that a magician can use.”
“You know magic?” Merlin turned to the pond and opened his third eye.
Bloody hells and limbo! The man shone like a star, completely infused with magic. Some sort of magical creature, then. Why hadn’t Merlin checked immediately?
“What are you?” Merlin dropped into a crouch, arms up, fireballs leaping to life in both hands.
The light in the man’s eyes, glittering there since he’d first surprised Merlin, the light died. So he was one of those, a magically made creature who fancied himself a real boy even though he was not. His sorrow colored his energy to purple.
Sorrow? He could feel that?
“Morrison,” he said quietly. “My name is Morrison. Morri.” He set the bar of soap on a branch and stared at the water. “I will leave.” He moved toward the edge of the pond.
“Wait.” Merlin searched deeper.
The thing named Morrison stopped.
Dead. The thing could walk around and talk, but it was dead.
There in its center, where a heart would be in a human. A gris gris.
A zombie, killed by an evil witch and kept intact by intense magic.
“You’re a zombie.”
Which was why he wanted to give things to Merlin, wanted to do things for him. Zombies were servants created by powerful wizards. Like Pinocchio without the fun Disney spin. They required a master to keep them moving. If their master died without appointing a successor, they either found a new one or ran down and died like a clock in need of winding.
This creature couldn’t harm Merlin. The fires died in his hands. “No. We traded for a bath and a camp. I am a man of my word. But. . . and I know you cannot lie to me, not if you are seeking me for a master. How did you find me?”
“You stopped time.” His eyes met Merlin’s, twerked in confusion. “Did you think that would go unnoticed?”
Actually, Merlin had rather hoped it had.
“I see.” Morrison smirked, then the smile drained from his face. His eyes grew sad. “Well, I felt it. I knew the depth of your power. I. . . I thought to serve you. I should have said so outright, but I. . .” He cocked his head to one side. “You aren’t exactly what you seem to be, either.”
“No. I’m not.” Merlin stepped closer. “And I’m not sure I buy your story. You’d have needed to be awfully close to appear so soon after I cast that spell.”
The creature laughed.
The laughter died. “So soon?” The zombie’s brow furrowed. “I traveled for six months to get here.”
Gods! Six months? So much time had passed while he’d frozen the dragon?
Merlin dropped onto a log.
Morrison rose from the pond and used his cloak as a towel.
He remained in perfect condition, with no decay whatsoever. Why would his creator, whoever he was, need a servant in such pristine condition?
Oh. He? She? Well, who knew why the the thing had been created in the first place, but it’d been by a first-rate mage.
“I’ve never seen a zombie so well-preserved,” Merlin said.
Morrison paused, pants in one hand, eyes downcast.
“I will not apologize for calling you what you are,” Merlin insisted.
“And I would not ask you to do so.” He pulled on his pants.
“Who is your master?” Merlin asked. “Or mistress.”
Morrison gave Merlin a sharp look. “I have no master. Why do you think I traversed those fucking mountains to reach you?”
Merlin didn’t buy it. “A golem doesn’t survive six months without a master.”
Morrison held his gaze a moment then proceeded with dressing.
Merlin allowed the silence to extend while the zombie finished.
So. . . it was like that.
“I promised you a bath and a camp,” the wizard said at last. “I thank you for the soap, as do my friends the beavers, but I expect you to be gone when I awaken and head this way for my morning ablutions.”
Morrison held his eyes for several seconds, an unusual behavior for a creature manufactured as a servant. “Sir?”
“May I at least know your name?”
His name? Giving over a name to a zombie who sought him for some kind of evil witch could mean that witch using his name against him. On the other hand. . . what did it matter?
“Merlin.” He inclined his head. “My name is Merlin.”
“A great name.” The zombie smiled.
“You know it?” Had more survived the Apocalypse than Merlin suspected?
“You were named for the greatest wizard who ever lived.” Morrison rummaged in his saddle bags. “Of course, I know it.”
So many questions.
But Merlin had given up asking questions. He just wanted to be left alone to his damnable routine that had been completely disrupted by that damnable dragon.
“Be gone in the morning.” Merlin turned his back to the zombie. “And tell your master to mind their own business. I am no one to be trifled with.”
Merlin’s morning routine had been shot to Hell, but he could salvage the afternoon.
He pulled weeds in the garden, occasionally mistaking actual herbs for weeds and yanking them prematurely. Damn it!
And the valerian needed water, as usual. Merlin grabbed his bucket. . .
Wait. No. The valerian could make due until tomorrow.
But what was that?
From the pond.
In Spanish? Spain was still a thing? Or Mexico? Or fucking South America for that matter?
Wait. They’d conversed in English, hadn’t they? English was still a thing, too?
The zombie’s voice touched Merlin. Love and longing and loneliness. . .
Merlin’s heart ached.
Fuck that. He shook his head.
The damn thing could be programmed like a walking jukebox. It wasn’t as if Morrison could feel any of those things. He was dead. He had no heart.
But there’d been a night. . . a night a thousand years before. Arthur had drunk far more than anyone should and Merlin had genuinely wondered if he might die from it. He’d held the young man by the shoulders while he wept for the loss of a beautiful girl whose name Merlin couldn’t remember.
“I’ll never love anyone like her, Merlin,” Arthur had slurred. “I’ll live the rest of my life alone.”
Merlin himself had been young enough at the time to believe the young prince’s words.
And Arthur had sung. Some song he’d learned about women and love and loss and sorrow.
And Merlin had been so drunk that he’d had to fight back his own tears while Arthur sang.
And all of that before Guinevere.
Morrison’s song reverberated with the same pathos as Arthur’s lament.
Merlin sucked in a deep breath.
He had no idea when, if ever, Arthur would awaken.
He released his air.
He wanted to believe that he was fine on his own, that he didn’t need anyone.
But that song. . . that pathos. How could a manufactured creature feel that pain?
Never mind. Merlin dug into the hard, hard earth with his hoe.
“I once knew a lass from Southlaxit,” Merlin sang as loudly and badly as he might, drowning out the golem’s voice. “With her tongue on your cock she would flax it. . .”
Merlin awoke with the dawn.
Why was he wearing—?
Oh, yes. The zombie.
Normally, Merlin slept naked, but he’d been afraid the zombie might visit.
Or. . . something.
So he’d worn his short clothes.
He rose and stepped outside.
Normally, he would go to the pond and bathe.
That was his routine.
He stood with one hand on the door jamb.
Wearing his short clothes.
Needing a bath.
And now he had soap.
“Fucking zombie.” Merlin pushed away from the door and headed to the pond. He was damned if he’d let some short-order ventriloquist’s dummy disrupt his routine.
His routine had helped him survive eons on his own.
He tromped down the path, listening for sounds from the pond.
Well, maybe the zombie was just breaking camp in silence.
Maybe. . .
Merlin sent his sight a mile in every direction.
He was alone.
The zombie had left, just as promised.
Well, good. . .
Good! That’s exactly what they’d agreed.
Merlin was alone. He liked it that way.
It was best.
He reached the pond, stripped then slid into its warm water.
Lots of quiet.
Too much quiet?
Merlin opened his eyes and swam over to his washcloths.
Merlin breathed again.
He liked his solitude.
Wait. What was that? On the boulder that kept the water in the pond.
A. . . figurine?
Merlin stroked closer. He picked it up.
A female figure with pronounced hips and breasts.
The Venus of Willendorf?
Why would the zombie leave this?
How did he have one?
How had the very concept survived the Apocalypse?
Damn it, why did it matter?
Merlin had been fine on his own for centuries.
Who cared what might be happening in the outside world?
Merlin replaced the statue and paddled to the opposite side of the pond.
The beavers. Three of them. They stared at Merlin.
What? He stared back.
They seemed to shrug and turn away. They had each other. They didn’t need Merlin.
Who did Merlin need?
He didn’t need anyone.
He’d survived centuries on his own.
But somewhere out there, people wove remarkable fabric and crafted figurines from the time before time.
Screw it. Merlin settled himself. He liked his routine.
But the zombie had worn cloth spun by sophisticated looms.
Expensive cloth granted him as a gift.
Cloth that could only exist in a renaissance.
A land where humans had risen above barbarism.
A land that might finally awaken the once and future king.
Merlin rose from the pool and reached for a towel.
What was that? A new towel? Another gift?
It was the softest cloth he’d felt in centuries.
He sighed again.
Maybe it was time to see what had happened to the human race.
Credits for Episode 1:
Edited by Lauran Strait
Chris De Matteo
Jennifer Wenninger Niedfeldt
The valley extended for miles in both directions. Heavy pine forests covered its slopes to the tree line and craggy granite above that proved just how young were these mountains that’d been vomited up in the Apocalypse, angular, vicious beasts.
Merlin stood at a sharp peak, gazing up at the mid-day moon. It had been partly responsible for the formation of the mountains. It hung low in the sky, three large, broken pieces, surrounded by slowing turning flotsam and a bright haze of dust and rubble that spread out in both directions. One day, the Earth would have a complete ring.
That had been the apogee of it all: the broken moon.
Or whatever had shattered it.
A meteor? Possibly. Merlin had been on the wrong side of the planet at the time, and had been too busy helping the Norse Gods survive Ragnorak, their version of the Apocalypse. The water boiled into the air. Chunks of rock blown off the moon punched mile-deep craters into the ground around the world. Someone nuked the Middle East. . .
And ripples in reality flitted across the planet like a stone skipped across a pond.
Time itself had torqued. . .
And then fixed itself.
Billions had died.
And, somehow, magic had returned.
Merlin raised a hand and snapped his fingers.
A fireball flashed into existence. As easy as that.
Different. As if the source had changed.
But stronger than ever.
Maybe, now that Merlin had chosen to seek out civilization, he’d try to find other mages hunting answers. He had so many questions.
Where did magic come from, anyway? And where had it gone?
Why had it gone?
Ah, well. Enough of the past. He shook out the flame.
Merlin traced the line of a road that followed a river at the base of the mountain. A road. Huh. So they had things like roads again.
A vulture flew lazy circles over the river. That was handy.
Merlin sent himself into the bird.
It squawked once.
Down there, Merlin sent. That clear place. Maybe there’s a nice rotting rabbit down there.
The vulture dropped like a stone, the whirl of wind and draw of gravity as much of a thrill to Merlin as it had been the first time he’d learned to ride animals as a boy.
The road swooped up, but the bird adjusted course in plenty of time.
Riding the animals is easier than trying to control them, his mother had taught him when he was four. She’d spoken to his mind as he whirled and dove, whirled and dove.
But, Mama, this is easy! And then Merlin had slammed the bird into a tree.
When he’d regained consciousness, he lay in his own body and had to nurse a concussed owl back to health.
“They’ve had a lifetime to figure out how flapping works, Little Emrys,” his mother had explained, using her pet name, brushing his hair with her fingers, “and it’s far easier to convince them to go where you want.”
Hm. The possibility of rejoining humanity apparently had Merlin dwelling in the past.
The vulture searched for the promised carcass, providing a perfect examination of the road.
Dirt, but hard-packed and therefore well-traveled. And someone had cleared the brush a few feet on either side. This was a recent thing, not a cracked and broken relic of concrete and rebar left by the Apocalypse.
This must be the road to the village Merlin had seen, smoke from multiple fires by day and a faint glow through the night. During the first Dark Age, sunset had meant the end of the day. Things that went bump in the night had kept people indoors. This time, life seemed different. Humans seemed to recall a time when powerful electric lights had held back the monsters of the darkness. Somehow, they had the resources to light their community long after night fell.
Just how far had civilization progressed? Could it truly be called a second Dark Age?
Merlin hopped out of the vulture when it found a long-dead deer, better even than Merlin had promised. No need to accompany it to its gruesome buffet. He’d end up with the taste of carcass in his mouth for days.
He blinked a few times to adjust to his human vision.
But wait. . . while shifting his sight, had he seen a flicker. . .?
He opened his third eye.
Magic. A mage of some kind on the road below.
He slipped back into the vulture. Blech. . . the deer had been dead awhile, but there, in the middle of the road, hunkered down with tail flicking, was the largest panther Merlin had ever seen. But it wasn’t a panther, not really.
And the way it moved. Lithe, sinuous, so like a real beast that the mage disguised as a cat must have played the part for years.
Foosh! The cat raced at the vulture like a shot, but Merlin’s meddling had alerted the bird in time. It leapt into the air, leaving the panther-shaped mage snapping bright white teeth onto air.
The cat landed lightly. . . and shifted. It sat on its haunches, then rose onto its hind feet and by the time it stood upright, he was a man. He was average height, dark beard shot through with grey, well-muscled, and he held himself with almost as much grace as the panther. He examined the sky, staring after the escaping bird.
“I thought I had you,” he muttered.
Merlin encouraged the vulture to circle in case it might have another chance at the carcass, which the man turned to regard.
“Yech.” The man retreated a few steps. “You’ve been dead a while.” He looked up and down the road. “Well, an inn is only a day away. I’ll get a roasted bird then.” He placed a hand on his stomach. “I can stand to lose a pound or two, anyway.”
He left the road and stopped at the largest travel pack Merlin had ever seen, hidden behind the scrub. He retrieved his shirt and slipped into it.
Merlin blinked the vulture away.
So, a travelling mage who shifted into predators to fill his belly.
Why not just blast the thing with a fireball? Dead and cooked in one blow.
To each his own.
But the man had worn the panther like a finely-tailored suit. He had considerable practice and skill as a shapeshifter. Impressive. Intriguing.
Hmmm. Could such a mage have any of the answers to Merlin’s questions? He tucked his magic away to prevent the mage from detecting him, but tracked the man so he could “accidentally” intercept him.
The trail intersected the road half a mile beyond the shapeshifting mage. Merlin headed in his direction. The initial meeting with the zombie had been awkward because Merlin had forgotten his manners. He had to remember to comport himself properly, a five-hundred-year exile notwithstanding.
“Good day,” Merlin said, practicing. The man had spoken English with a strangely American accent, which was odd enough, but they’d be able to communicate. Maybe Americans had swarmed across the globe after their foolish government had destroyed most of their continent. “Could you tell me where the nearest village might lie? I’ve come down from the mountains. . .”
Ugh. It would sound rehearsed and vapid.
Fine. Merlin would trust his instincts. He’d been around for, what, more than a thousand years before the broken moon? It’d all come back, certainly.
Singing. A male voice. The mage, obviously, with his odd American accent.
“I’ve got you under my skin,” he sang. “I’ve got you deep in the heart of me.
So deep in my heart, you’re really a part of me.”
What? Cole Porter? How had Cole Porter survived the Apocalypse? Just how old was this mage? Merlin was the last person to judge a book by its cover in that respect, but still. . . Cole Porter?
The man appeared around the corner. “Ho-ho!” He now wore the grey shirt, a black vest, blue jeans and a black Stetson. Before Merlin could speak, he dropped his pack, whipped out a sword and slid into a fighter’s stance. One eye flashed yellow, ostensibly to show he meant business.
Wait a moment. Stetson? And blue jeans? Where’d the man get a bloody cowboy hat? There couldn’t have been cowboys for hundreds of years, let alone cowboy hats!
The man flipped the sword directly at Merlin.
Fwoosh. . .
“Sit amet!” Merlin lifted his hands shoulder-width apart at eye level and caught the blade in a shield about half a second before it would have impaled him directly above his nose.
It hung in the air so close that if Merlin focused on it he’d end up cross-eyed.
“Good reflexes,” the strange man called, settling into one hip with a grin on only one side of his mouth. “You’re a mage?”
“And if I’d been slower?” Merlin asked.
“I’d have stopped it.” The man shrugged. “Surely, you’ve already realized that.”
Merlin released the sword, and it sailed to its owner, who nabbed it from the air.
“The hat,” Merin demanded. “Where did you get a cowboy hat?”
“I took it off a man I killed.” The stranger glanced down. “I can say the same about everything I’m wearing.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, very threatening I’m sure.” Merlin tromped closer. “The sword I get. It’s a sword and sorcery kind of dark ages. . . again. But blue jeans? And a cowboy hat? There hasn’t been a cowboy in, what, a few hundred years? And Cole Porter?”
The man dropped the point of the sword to the ground. “I’m older than I look.”
Merlin studied him. “That’s a recurring theme these days.” Fine. He wanted to play it mystical? “So are you a time traveler or an immortal?”
The man raised an eyebrow. “Actually. . . both.”
Oh, hells. Zombie’s could be essentially immortal, as well. Two immortals in as many days? Merlin glanced around. There had to be a third lurking around somewhere. Things like this always happened in threes.
The man shifted the sword to his left hand and extended the right. “Name’s Alan.”
Merlin shook the offered hand. “Merlin.”
The grip on his hand tightened. “Good to meet you.” Alan looked at him with just one eye, then the other.
Merlin studied the stranger, as well. He had power, but hard to say how much. And, from the fractures in his aura, now that Merlin saw them up close, his claims of time travel might well be true.
They released hands simultaneously, and Alan smiled. “Which way you headed?”
“To the village up the road,” Merlin answered.
“Which one?” Alan asked.
“There’s more than one?” Merlin glanced up and down. A horse and wagon approached at speed from the north.
The stranger chuckled and hefted the sword over a shoulder, pointing it in the direction of the approaching wagon. “Well, up this way is Nowy Warsaw.” He jabbed his sword in the other direction. “And Neu Gdansk is about three days that way.”
What perplexing names. Polish? Sort of. “This is. . . Poland?” Merlin asked. And. . . Poland was still a thing? He sent his eyesight closer to the approaching wagon. It was cleaner and more solid than the wagons from the time before time; it reminded Merlin more of movies about the first Dark Age than of the actual period.
“Nearly everything is Poland.” Alan’s brow furrowed. He had very expressive eyebrows. “How do you know nothing about the land?” He looked around. “You have some kind of. . .” He shook his head. “After the Apocalypse, the Polish government managed to. . . not fall completely apart. They. . .” He kept his eyes on Merlin as he settled into one hip and silence then stepped off the road as the wagon passed.
Merlin followed suit.
Two horses in decent shape passed between them. The driver, an old man in bright blue, doffed his purple hat and smiled with more teeth in his mouth than someone his age would’ve had in Merlin’s day.
The wizard nodded.
The driver’s colorful clothes were also not something a peasant would have owned back in the day.
Hang on a moment. The wagon was more like a cage. The back was barred. Inside it a single, perfect unicorn stood chained by all four hooves with iron shackles, its ankles bloody and torn.
Merlin stepped onto the road.
The unicorn looked at him, her eyes watery and full of pain.
What kind of inhuman—
“Merlin,” Alan whispered. “It’s not wise to draw attention.”
“Where is he taking her?” Merlin demanded.
“There’s a dragon up the road aways,” Alan explained. “Kind of a king, actually. He likes the taste of unicorn and pays handsomely.”
More bloody dragons? Bugger that.
Merlin held up a warning finger to keep Alan from interfering.
He held his other hand out to the wagon. “Noster animal no nec.”
To the casual observer, nothing happened. Nothing changed. But a discerning eye might notice that the sheen of the metals composing both cage and shackles had shifted ever so slightly as it shrank in the distance.
“I’ve been something of a hermit,” Merlin admitted, returning to their former conversation and turning abruptly to face the unusual mage. Knowing nothing about recent history was bound to cause questions. “All this. . .” He waved at the road and the stranger. “When last I ventured over the mountain, there were no villages, and Poland was far away.”
Alan frowned. He glanced from the wizard to the retreating wagon. One hand vaguely gestured.
Oh really, was that his greatest concern? Merlin dismissed the man’s concern with a shake of his head and one hand. “Don’t worry about it.”
Alan performed a complicated gesture that involved hands, arms, shoulders and eyebrows in a very “whatever” manner. “And you just happened to climb down the mountain today, and right here where I just happened to be travelling?”
Merlin shrugged innocently. “I could ask the same sort of question of you.”
Alan glanced around. “I hate coincidences.”
Boom! An explosion in the distance.
Ah, good, so his spell had worked.
Most likely, the hunter’s cart, now made of silver rather than iron, had fallen victim to its prisoner.
Iron imprisoned magic.
Silver enhanced it.
Merlin circled his hand. “Ad nunc.” Which reverted the metal to its original composition.
Alan raised an eyebrow.
“The unicorn is free,” Merlin said, “and no one will ever connect a freak accident with two wayward travelers on the side of the road.”
Alan gazed at the plume of smoke rising above the covering trees. He chuckled. “Wow.” He pointed. “You can do stuff like that? Are you some kind of rock star?”
And the simple fact that this unusual man could use the term “rock star” correctly made Merlin want to like him, even if he didn’t trust him.
“Look,” Alan said, “if you’ve been a hermit as long as it seems, you could use a guide to help you adjust.” He extended a hand. “No promises, no commitments, but you teach me to do what you did to that wagon, and I’ll catch you up.”
Well, if nothing else, it would be nice to chat with another immortal.
Merlin took the hand and shook it.
Alan retrieved his enormous travelling pack, the largest Merlin had ever seen. Goodness. It was like college students trekking across Europe before the Apocalypse. After the stranger struggled into the monstrosity, it stood a full two feet above his head.
Alan glanced around. “Where’s your stuff?”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “In a vault under a mountain a thousand miles away.”
Alan’s face fell flat.
Merlin smiled. “I might could teach you how to do that, too.”
But shapeshifting was high magic, as well. Was the man pretending to be weaker than he was to throw Merlin off? He could ask, but then the mage would know Merlin had set the entire scene.