Before the King Returned


Episode 1

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?

It leapt.

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.

Unnaturally 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.

A man.

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.”

Merlin nodded.

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.”

Morrison nodded.

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.

Beautiful singing.

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 attack.

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.

Lavender 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.

For singing.


Well, maybe the zombie was just breaking camp in silence.

Maybe. . .


No one.

Merlin sent his sight a mile in every direction.

No one.

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.

Soap. Lavender.

Deep breath.

Merlin breathed again.

He liked his solitude.

Didn’t he?

Wait. What was that? On the boulder that kept the water in the pond.

A. . . figurine?

Merlin stroked closer. He picked it up.

Heavy. Solid.

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.

Damn it.

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.

Damn it.

Merlin sighed.

He sighed again.

Maybe it was time to see what had happened to the human race.

Credits for Episode 1:

Edited by Lauran Strait


Michael Kamakowski

Cait Woods

Chris De Matteo

Jennifer Wenninger Niedfeldt

Episode Two

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.

Alan jumped.

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.



An hour later, Merlin walked beside Alan in a seeming companionable silence heading south. The river babbled and splashed merrily. The heat of the sun had dropped as it lowered towards the towering mountains.

Birds called. Bees buzzed.

Merlin trusted none of it, least of all the mysterious man who had, now that Merlin thought about it, shown up far too conveniently to join Merlin’s trek into civilization. A single moment’s bonding had faded with the cool head of time under the onslaught of the man’s questions.

He’d offered to tell Merlin what had happened since the Apocalypse, but his tour guide persona often slipped into nonchalant probing.

Three riders on horseback had passed them. Two from the North, and one, the former unicorn seller at top speed on a single horse, from the south.

Merlin had asked how the horses all had metal tackle.  According to Alan, enough information had survived the Apocalypse that rebuilding had been far easier than the original invention process, so things like smelting and forging had already reappeared.

Metals had been rare and mostly in the hands of the rich back in the day. Apparently, melting things like ancient cars and tanks was far easier than the original mining.

“You haven’t seen any horses since you went over the mountain?” Alan had asked. An innocent enough question. . . but it niggled. Was he connected to the zombie? He’d had a horse, after all. Was this a subtle way of asking about that other encounter? At first, Merlin had thought maybe this was the zombie’s master, but that couldn’t be true. Their magic didn’t feel the same. Something seemed familiar, but not the way a master and servant would be connected.

So maybe Alan’s questions were just honest inquiries of a curious man.

Nevertheless, Merlin had chosen to simply ignore the interrogation, and they’d walked the last few miles wordlessly.

So, perhaps the silence wasn’t companionable at all. Perhaps, it was awkward.

They turned a corner and the road lay straight ahead for a good mile or more. A hunchbacked woman sat on a fallen log, a spinning wheel on the grass beside her. Her feet were spread wide under many layers, and her head hung down, her face obscured by hanks of long, black and gray hair.

Was she injured? Well, she was gesturing with her hands, apparently talking to herself, so she couldn’t be too badly off.

As they drew closer, her words became clearer.

“Unicorns in cages?” she muttered. “What are they thinking, putting unicorns in cages? For dragons?” She scoffed and spat. “That’s for dragons who eat unicorns.”

Alan smiled and raised an eyebrow. He slowed to a halt. “Are you all right, good woman?”

Merlin stopped beside his companion.

The woman seemed to ignore them. “And wizards. . . wizards who shouldn’t even be here, meddling with things better left alone.”

Merlin’s blood ran cold. “Ah, hells.” He retreated a step. Old woman with a spinning wheel muttering crazy talk about wizards. Never a good sign.

“What’s wrong?” Alan asked.

Merlin tugged at his sleeve. If they just crept away very quietly, maybe—

Alan scowled and ignored the tug. “Do you need help, good woman?”

Was he feeble? Merlin grabbed Alan’s arm in earnest. He’d have to teleport them all the way back to his house, since it was pretty much the only place he knew, but it would be—

Stǫðva!” The woman’s voice boomed so loudly the birds leapt into the sky with a squawk. In the distance, thunder rumbled. The word meant stop, or hold!

In old Norse.

Oh, bugger. There it was. A vice clamped down on Merlin’s mind, preventing escape.

“Both of you shall stand where you are,” she continued. Yep: old woman, spinning wheel. Speaking old Norse.


“She’s one of the Fates,” Merlin muttered, releasing Alan’s arm.

“Which one?” the stranger asked.

“Which one?” Hopefully, Merlin’s eyes conveyed his disdain. “The one you wouldn’t leave alone, most likely Norse from the language she’s speaking.”

“Ah, so that’s Norse, then, is it?”

“What?” Merlin hoped his eye roll continued the theme of overall disdain. “You can understand what she says but don’t know the language?”

Alan shrugged. “It’s complicated. What can I say?”

“Say nothing, witch,” the old woman screamed in English, now. She raised her head for the first time. Deep empty eye sockets shifted from one man to the other.

“Wait, wasn’t empty eye sockets a Greek thing?” Alan asked.

“When Ragnarök didn’t go as predicted,” Merlin whispered, “their eyes blew out, too, as punishment for getting it so wrong.”

Alan’s expressive eyebrows knitted. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Merlin shrugged. Ever since magic had returned, gods popped up everywhere and defied all logic.

“You should not be here together,” the Fate said, pushing to her feet. “You should stay far away from one another.”

She stepped closer to Alan. “You who should have died in a faraway place.” She gave her attention to Merlin. “And you who should have died in a faraway time.”

“Are you still cranky because Ragnarök didn’t go as planned?” Merlin had dealt with gods and goddesses before. “Sorry about that.”

Alan raised an eyebrow.

The old woman puffed herself up, and threw her arms wide open. “Silence!”

And, suddenly, the forest fell still.

No. Not the forest.

The forest had vanished.

A vast white expanse. With no apparent end in any direction.

What in all the planes of hell and Hades?

“Where are we?” Merlin asked.

“Nowhere,” the old woman crooned. “Everywhere. A place where neither of you can harm our world.” She sniffed at them. “I should leave you here to rot!”

“Yeah,” Alan said far too calmly. “Except that in the White Room we won’t rot, will we?”

“Figure of speech!” She stomped a few paces closer. “Figure of speech!”

Alan raised his hands and back-peddled. “Point taken.”

“Enough riddles. What is this place?” Merlin demanded.

“This is the crossroads,” she said, gesturing widely. “Every star lives here. Dies here. Every moment. Every possibility.”

Alan scoffed. “You know anything about quantum mechanics? This is much easier with science.”

“Enough.” Merlin had doctorates of physics and philosophy from Yale.

And Oxford.

“If every point in every known universe is indeed connected,” Alan explained, “then every point can be reached by the juncture of those points. This place is like a giant train station to the multiverse.”

“And it’s a big white room?” Merlin tried not to look down. While his feet felt something down there, his eyes rather disagreed with them.

“You mind is too small.” The Fate chuckled. “Teeny tiny mind too small to conceive it as it really is. To you and your teensy mind, it just looks like a vast white room.”

“And you?” Merlin tossed over his shoulder to Alan.

“Big white room.”

“And you?” Merlin asked the Fate.

“Silence!” she shouted.

Merlin and Alan slid apart. “Big white room,” they chorused.


“Look.” Merlin tried his gentle voice. “I understand you really hate when people win against Fate, but I’m still alive because I was cursed to live until Arthur fulfills his destiny.” Whenever the hell that might be. “So it’s not like I have a lot of say in the matter. You want to end me? Talk to Hecate.”

Alan faced him squarely. “You’re that Merlin? King Arthur’s Merlin? In the flesh?”

“Seriously? You’re going to go all fanboy? Now?”

“Silence!” The Fate thrust her arms apart, and Merlin slid further away from Alan who skated in the opposite direction. “You,” she said to Merlin, “I should send back to Camelot, back to Hecate’s cave to see if she makes the same mistake playing with Fate.”

“And you!” She jabbed very aggressively at Alan. “You, I should just disperse into dust amongst the stars where you belong!”

“No.” The man shrugged dismissively. “You can’t.”

“You dare tempt Fate?” She stepped closer.

Alan stood his ground. “You’re not some cut-rate demon or goddess who might blast us with fireballs. You’re Fate. You can’t actually hurt anyone.”

Ballsy. Sure, Merlin had defeated the Fates once or twice in his lifetime, but by being sneaky and smart. Never by staring directly into the abyss and trying not to blink.

Her empty chasms bore down on Alan, almost as if sucking at him. She smiled. “But I can do this.” One hand swirled overhead.

The white light somehow bled out of the expanse and formed a nimbus around her arm. The light sparkled and glinted with color. The Fate locked her hand in a fist and, faster than Merlin could respond, flung the magic.

It hit him in the forehead.

“Blast!” Alan shouted.

And then Merlin stood in a field of wildflowers, about a hundred yards from a familiar stone tower. It was the corner of a larger keep, surrounded by a shallow pond, much shallower than in the time before time, but Merlin would recognize it with no pond at all.

“Avalon.” Merlin felt his back relax. Arthur slept peacefully there in that—


A white-hot light!

A deafening explosion shook the earth.

The rocks caught fire, then blew apart into magma and dust.

Avalon vaporized and the blast raged through Merlin.

“Arthur!” he screamed. “Arthur!”


Quiet, white light.

The White Room.

Alan’s hands on him, supporting him. “Are you all right?”

It had been so real. Merlin had forgotten where he really stood.

“I’m fine.” He shook the hands off. He met the Fate’s eyes.

She smiled, then flicked her fingers at him, as simply as if scattering water.

“Oh, there you are Merlin.” Arthur said it so simply, as if he’d just seen Merlin at dinner.

Wait. He had. They’d just eaten a short time ago.

“I’m sorry we argued again,” Arthur said contritely, his head bowed in that schoolboy-caught-doing-something-naughty way.

Why did it feel as if Merin hadn’t seen Arthur in ages? He hurried to his king and wrapped his arms around him.

“Oh, well then.” Arthur patted Merlin solidly on the back a few times. “Glad there’s no hard—”

He choked, then coughed. Merlin shifted to see his friend’s face, his wide staring eyes.

Blood sprayed Merlin from Arthur’s mouth.

His throat.

A knife pointed at Merlin through Arthur’s throat. A wide knife.

And blood poured down Arthur’s chest.

“Arthur!” Merlin screamed.

Wait. In Merlin’s hand. . . a knife handle. . .

Arthur’s lifeless body fell to the floor when Merlin released his grip.

No one else stood in the room.

He himself. Merlin. He’d killed Arthur.

“Stop it.” Alan said it calmly. He knelt beside Merlin, who had dropped to his knees.

Arthur. Dead. And Merlin would kill him?

“Why?” He needed to understand, searched the Fate’s eyes, but they were impenetrable blackness. “Why would I do that?”

“Because of him!” the Fate screamed pointing at Alan.

Merlin fell onto his backside pushing away from the stranger.

Avalon destroyed? Arthur killed by Merlin’s own hand?

No. Those things could not happen.

Whatever it took, Merlin had to prevent them.

And Alan. . .

He just stayed on one knee, his face a mask of contempt aimed at the Fate. “Okay, okay now.” He patted the air with both hands toward her in a conciliatory fashion. “You’ve had your fun. No need to get melodramatic.”

“You didn’t see it, Alan.” Merlin shivered. “I can’t let that happen.” He felt the explosion wash over him again. He’d been fortunate enough to miss the actual Armageddon part of the Apocalypse, but that had felt very much the way people had described the nuclear blast.

Alan dropped to sit cross-legged. He met Merlin’s gaze kindly. “We have no way of knowing it will. For every horror she shows you, I could show you this. . .” He grabbed a handful of splintering light from nowhere and tossed it at Merlin, who was too stunned to duck.

“Oh, there you are, Merlin.” Arthur said it so simply, as if he’d just seen Merlin at dinner.

Wait. He had. They’d just eaten a brief time ago.

“I’m sorry we argued again,” Arthur said contritely, his head bowed in that schoolboy-caught-doing-something-naughty way that always made it hard for Merlin to stay angry.

Why did it feel like Merin hadn’t seen Arthur in ages? He did look older, with lots of grey in his beard. Merlin hurried to his king and wrapped his arms around him.

“Oh, well then.” Arthur patted Merlin solidly on the back a few times. “Glad there’s no hard—”

“Daddy, daddy, daddy!” Two teenage girls hurried into the room, dashed past the round table that predominated the space, but stopped when they noticed the two men embracing.

“Oh, thank goodness.” The caramel-skinned girl pulled a strand of tight curls into a long string. “You’re done fighting.” Merry. Her name was Merry.

The other girl, Linn, held up a bow. “Does that mean the hunt is on again?” Her dark skin and brown eyes favored her mother more than her father, even though she and her sister were twins. “That manticore won’t kill itself.”

Daughters. Arthur’s daughters.

Merlin’s goddaughters.

Tears wormed warm paths down Merlin’s face.

Alan startled, glanced at his hand. “I’m sorry. . . that was meant to be happy.”

Merlin smiled. “It was. It was.”

The Fate crossed her arms, but somehow, she didn’t seem nearly as threatening.

And the vast emptiness of her eyes didn’t feel quite so empty.

After a thousand years of waiting, maybe, just maybe, it would all be worth it in the end. Maybe Arthur would awaken, would marry and have children, and while the two of them would argue, hell, they’d always argued. . .

Merlin patted Alan’s arm. “It was a happy moment.”

The stranger smiled. And he could do this. Could pluck a moment out of infinity and give it to Merlin, the same way as Fate. Well, no wonder the Fates didn’t want any sort of alliance between them. Alan may not know how to change steel to silver, but he’d stared into the very eyes of Fate. . . and he hadn’t blinked.

Well, if it could be done. Merlin would do it, too.

He rose and faced her. “My friend is correct. You can’t hurt us. You can warn, you can manipulate, and you can frighten, but you can’t hurt us and you can’t leave us here.”

Fate couldn’t interfere.

Alan rose and faced her. “So thanks for the warning and all, but please drop us back in the forest.”

The empty eyes flashed from one face to the other, but they no longer seemed vast. Just dark. And empty.

The old woman rushed closer to Alan. “I could send you back, you know. Return you to your home. To your time. Lost you are, and lost you will stay without my help.”

The smile bled from Alan’s face. She’d obviously struck a chord. “You could do that?” The man glanced at Merlin, seemed to fight to hide his feelings.

She grinned and nodded. The smile did not help her appearance any.

Alan held her gaze. “What about my friend?”

From the tone of his voice, he did not mean Merlin.

“The Fates do not care about friends.” Her voice crooked low and gravelly. “We do not care about family. We only care about what will be and what should be. And you. . . should not be then.”

Then? Then when? When he’d met Merlin?

“Then I can’t go.” Alan stared directly ahead.

She shrugged, which treated her pendulous breasts badly. “You have gone alone before. You will again.” She looked around. “You do so, now.”

The man’s jaw set hard like granite.

But he blinked. Twice, as if forcing the emotion away.

Was he ready to give in?

Bollux that, if only to piss off the Fates.

“Alan.” Merlin forced his face into what Arthur would call his “schoolteacher persona.”

But Alan stared straight ahead.

“Your friend,” Merlin said. “I’ve met him, I think. Looking for someone who stopped time.”

Alan nodded once.

So did Merlin. “She’s not your only resource.”

Alan turned to Merlin. One side of his mouth curled up. “Fuck her, then.”

The Fate shrieked. She would’ve shattered glass. Her scream echoed and rebounded on nothing; it shattered infinity. The white room burst into color, an infinite kaleidoscope fracturing and falling into fractal light.

But the Fate’s scream ended abruptly.

A bird squawked and beat its wings, flying away.

Merlin stood on the road in the forest again.

Alan stood beside him on the road, his pack at his feet.

And no old woman. Success!

The sky warmed to pink, and the broken moon crested the mountain range.

How much time had passed?

“Ask me what you need to ask me,” Alan said.

The road lay empty as darkness fell.

Merlin considered. “How old are you?”

Alan faced him. “I’m honestly not sure, anymore. The time travel makes it hard to keep track. Over two thousand years, though.”

“And you’re trapped here?” Merlin asked.

Alan nodded. “I was creating a dimensional portal when the blowback from Ragnorak, the Apocalypse, whatever you want to call it. . .” He shook his head. “When the shit hit the fan. And my friend and I got tossed here by accident.” He looked back the way they had come. “It’s my fault we’re here,” Alan said. “So I couldn’t leave him behind. Not like that.” He looked at Merlin.

Curiouser and curiouser.

“My turn?” the man asked.

Merlin nodded.

“Are you really the Merlin from Camelot?”

And there was the fanboy again, but now, Merlin would indulge him. “I suffered a curse,” the wizard said. “I cannot die until Arthur awakens.” He shrugged. “And I have no idea when that might happen.”

Alan nodded. “You realize, that when any magic user anywhere ever starts to feel competent, he compares himself to you.”

Merlin opened his mouth. Then closed it. Let the man speak.

“I can do a few things,” Alan said. “A few nice things. But you? You’re fucking Merlin.”

And Merlin’s greatest power was his ability to listen.

“Do you have any idea why the Fates would keep us apart?” Alan asked.

“I would guess,” Merlin said a bit facetiously, “that you have prodigious power of your own. Time travel alone is quite an accomplishment. And the way you handled things there, in the. . . White Room?” He shrugged. “Fate seems to hate when power figures meet.”

Alan shrugged as well. And this unusual man seemed more powerful than most. “Could you really send us back?”

Merlin stared at him a moment. How close to his chest should he play his cards?

“So you know a zombie named Morrison?” Merlin asked. Might as well go all in. “He came to me because he felt me stop time. Is that your friend?”

Alan took a deep breath. “Yes.”

“So meeting two immortals in one week was not the coincidence it had seemed.”

“No.” The stranger looked down.

As impressed as he was with this man’s ability, Merlin wasn’t easily suckered. “I’d like an explanation.”

“We felt you stop time.” Alan crossed his arms. “We had very different ideas on how to approach you, how to approach someone who could do that. And when the effect persisted, our approaches diverged further.” One hand played with his massive travel pack. “Morrison wanted to run right up and say hello.” He rubbed his face. “I thought that was insane. Running up to someone powerful enough to maintain a temporal stasis for weeks? Not smart.” He met Merlin’s gaze. “I told him he was stupid.” He shook his head. “Not my best moment.” Another breath. “I awoke the next morning to find him gone. I reached your home likely a few days after you’d left. What I found there. . .” And he met Merlin’s gaze again. “The remains of a dragon that seemed to have exploded. . . and a talisman Morrison had carried. So I knew he’d been there and gone.” He pulled the Venus of Willendorf from his pack.

Ah. So that was why the zombie had left it.

Well, what would Alan have made of all that?

“So I tracked you,” he said, tucking the statue away. “When I realized your destination, I skipped ahead and contrived to meet you and see what I could discern. Were you evil? Were you good? Had you destroyed Morri?” He shrugged. “I wanted to learn a bit about you before tipping my hand.” The edges of his mouth lifted. “That’s what had differed in our plans, Morri’s and mine. I’m the cautious one. He was seventeen when he died. He’ll always be a teenager.”

Merlin considered. “The zombie left my home quite alive and unharmed. The dragon was an unrelated situation.”

Alan nodded, but also visibly relaxed, which told Merlin how much the zombie meant to him, considering it couldn’t be his servant.

“So why lay it out for me, now?” Merlin asked.

“You’re. . . Merlin.” The man said it as if it should explain everything. So was he nothing more than a fanboy, after all? He raised a hand. “You know how old I am. You and I never met, but I knew a few of the knights. A lad named Galahad? And a Bedivere?”

Dear God, he’d known the knights? Had been there? Inconceivable.

Merlin’s knees went a bit week. No. He wouldn’t show his reaction.

“Anyone who knew you, Merlin,” the strange man said, “everyone spoke of your honor. Of your ability, yes, but mostly your honor and your love of Arthur.” He laughed. “Jesus Christ, man, you’ve waited thousands of years to aid your king.” He lifted his hands. “If I can’t trust you with my own insane plight, who can I trust?”

And there it was. Merlin had waited eons to serve Arthur again.

And this mad witch had saved him, had shown him that maybe the interminable wait wasn’t all for naught. That alone. . . maybe that glimpse of the future was enough for Merlin to do what he could to help.

He stepped aside and gestured dramatically for Alan to precede him.

With a nod, the mysterious witch, for that’s how his magic felt, headed off down the road.

Merlin fell in beside him, whatever the Fates might have in store.

“And you really keep all your stuff under a mountain somewhere?” Alan asked.

Merlin nodded.

“Okay, seriously. . . ” His friend struggled to settle his enormous pack on his shoulders. “You need to show me that.”

Find out what happens to Merlin when Arthur finally returns!

Click on the cover to go to my author’s page on Amazon

where all my novels are available.

Credits for Episode 2:

Edited by Lauran Strait

Merlin: Stephan Gaeth

Alan: Travis Greene


Michael Kamakowski

Cait Woods

Jennifer Niedfeldt

About the Author

John Robert Mack lives and breathes in San Antonio, Texas. At least, this year. He sort of pays the bills by teaching dance but continues to build a business writing stuff, taking pictures of stuff, and designing stuff. Although unmarried and with no children of his own, he has nephews he loves and hopes one day to spoil. He also has friends he loves as much as Merlin loves Arthur. I hope they know who they are.

Stalk him via social media.

The cute, little zombie on the end is my website.

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