“There’s a traitor among us.”
With a completely stoic expression, Varian duFey looked up from the desk where he was wasting time on a Sudoku puzzle to meet Merlin’s worried gaze. As always, she was dressed in a long white medieval styled gown that was trimmed in gold while her pale flaxen hair fell around her shoulders and down her back like a mantel of silk. Unlike the Merlin who’d served King Arthur, Aquila Merlin was lithe and young with a beauty that was only surpassed by her intelligence and magick.
Scratching his chin, Varian merely arched a single brow at her agitated demeanor. “No shit, Sherlock. There’s always a traitor among us.”
Closing the distance between them, she cradled his chin in her hand and forced him to look up at her. Those cold blue eyes bored into him and by the sharp turn of her perfectly shaped lips he could tell she didn’t find his words amusing. Before he could move, she waved her hand in a circle before his face, causing a mist to form a ball in the air. As the mist swirled, it began to reveal an image.
It showed a man in his mid-twenties lying face down in a pool of his own blood… only the blood wasn’t red, it was a dark sickly gray…as was everything in the picture. That told him that the body wasn’t in the world of man or in Avalon. It was on the “other” side- the one that was controlled by unrelenting evil.
Beautiful, just beautiful. He could see right where this was heading… straight down a shitty road that ended with him getting screwed over.
He must truly be a masochist, otherwise he’d get up right now, tell her to shove it and leave.
If only it were that easy.
Varian narrowed his gaze on the man’s body. Dressed in the chain mail armor and dark surcoat that was common for mid-twelfth century England, the dead man had one arm outstretched toward an old stone building as if he’d been reaching for help at the point he’d died. Not that anyone in that particular realm would ever stoop to help someone, at least not unless an obscene amount of money had changed hands.
But that wasn’t what disturbed Varian, nor did he care that it was obvious from the bruises and cuts that the man had been severely beaten and tortured before death had spared him. What made his heart stop beating was the sight of where the knight’s armor had been torn free of his left shoulder blade to reveal the tattoo of a dragon rising out of a goblet encircled by fire. There were only a handful of men who bore that mark and their names were a very carefully guarded secret. More than that, they were men who’d been imbued with extremely strong magick. That alone should have kept the deadman safe from whatever had killed him.
“A grail knight?”
Merlin nodded as she released him and stepped back. “Tarynce of Essex. Morgen’s mods seized him and before I could dispatch aid. They dragged him from his home in medieval England through the veil into Glastonbury where they killed him.”
Little wonder that. He personally knew several of Morgen’s minions of death and they were a hearty bunch who lived for the opportunity to kill anything. To be unleashed against an original knight of the Round Table was something they would sell their own mothers for. There was nothing they loved more than to bathe in the blood of their enemies… or their friends either for that matter.
“Did they learn anything from him?” he asked Merlin.
The worry returned to her brow. “I don’t know. No one does, except the mods or Morgen. That’s why I need you.”
How he hated those words. He’d long grown tired of being Merlin’s tool. She was forever asking him to ferret out traitors and information from the other side. And when the traitor needed execution, that too was his job. Honestly, he wanted to absolve himself from these distasteful tasks. He was tired of being caught between Merlin and Morgen. “You don’t need me for this.”
“Yes, I do. From the way his armor was torn from his shoulder, it appears they knew to look for the mark. Someone had to tell them of it and if Morgen has learned that, then she knows how to identify the remaining grail knights. We are all in danger, Varian. You are in danger.”
He had to stamp down an extremely sarcastic “duh” at her dire tone. He was always in danger from someone or some thing. So what? Even now, he lived among his enemies and they made no bones about the fact that none of them would mourn his death.
“You can’t scare me, Merlin,” he said quietly. “I’m too old for ghost stories and I really don’t give a rat’s ass about Morgen or her flock. If they want to come for me, notify the undertaker. He’ll need to stock up on body bags.”
“Then you don’t care that the rest of the grail knights are to be slaughtered like animals?”
He met her question with one of his own. “Should I?”
She shook her head at him. “As fellow members of the Round Table, they’re your brothers.”
Yeah, right. None of them had any more care for him than he had for them. If the tables were turned, they’d hand him over without a second thought. “Tell that to them.”
Merlin reached out a kind hand to touch his forearm. She alone knew that kindness was one of the few things that could render him weak. He’d had so little experience with it, that it baffled him and he never knew how to react to it.
“Please, Varian. For me. You’re the only one I trust to go inside Glastonbury and look around for information. I have a traitor who told Morgen about that tattoo and Tarynce. Only you can find out what the mods learned before they executed him. Not to mention someone needs to bring his body home for a proper burial. It’s the least we can do for one of our own.”
How easy she made it sound, but Glastonbury was no place for a man like him. Then again maybe it was. Back before Arthur had fallen under Mordred’s sword, Glastonbury and its Abbey had been a place of beauty. Now it existed in a nether realm between Avalon and Camelot.
Nothing with any kind of decency lived there. Nothing. It was hell and he’d rather have his nostrils slit than ever step foot in there again.
But before he could tell her that, the door to the lounge room opened to admit three men. Like him, they were remnants of King Arthur’s Round Table. Ademar, Garyth and the aptly named Bors who was in fact, extremely boring. Bors’ father had been a cousin to Varian’s. Side by side, their father’s had once fought. Unfortunately, that brotherhood was lost on their sons who couldn’t stand each other.
“I see you’ve found our traitor, Merlin,” Ademar sneered as he raked Varian with a lethal glare. At five six, the knight carried himself as if he were equal to a giant’s height. And had the skill to back that arrogance, which he didn’t. He had slicked back brown hair and sharp, pinched features that reminded Varian of a mouse.
Only three inches taller than Ademar, Garyth was stout with beady brown eyes and dark brown hair. He moved to stand closer to Varian so that he could make his disdain known- not that Varian hadn’t known the man hated him. He’d have to be completely stupid to miss that. “Like father like son.”
That stung, but not for the reasons Garyth thought. It wasn’t Lancelot’s treachery that bothered Varian. It’d been his father’s cruelty.
Varian leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest as he offered the men a blank stare. “If you wish to pick a fight with me, don your armor and meet me in the list. I don’t need words to goad me to kick your asses. Hell, I won’t even use my powers to beat you. Be good to get blood on my hands again.”
“Varian,” Merlin said sternly as she moved back a step. “We don’t need trouble while we have a critical situation brewing. There are only five grail knights left. If Morgen learns the location of the grail…”
She didn’t finish her sentence because there was no need. Without the bloodline, there would be no one to stand before Morgen and defeat her. The grail held secrets and a primordial power so great that it would render the person who commanded it indestructible. It was why it, unlike the other sacred objects Arthur had used to rule Britain, had more than one protector to hide it.
Each one of the grail knights held a direct tie to the power that had created the grail and each one of them was entrusted with one single clue that could lead to its hiding place. No one of this earth knew where the grail was hidden.
But if Morgen gained the single clue from each of the six knights, then she would have the grail’s location. And he’d seen enough of her magick to know exactly what that would mean to the world.
Why do I care?
He had no idea, but the pathetic truth was that he did. Glancing up at Merlin, he projected his next thought to her alone. I need to know who I protect.
Sadness darkened her eyes. You know I can’t tell you that. It’s not that I don’t trust you, Varian, but should you fall into Morgen’s hands, it is best that only I know the identities of the surviving grail knights.
She was right. If Morgen were to torture him, he couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t betray them to get her to stop. He’d made selling out friends and allies his life’s ambition.
Fine. Getting up, he closed his Sudoku book.
“That’s right,” Ademar said, twisting his lips. “Slink back into whatever hole you climbed out of.”
Merlin tensed. “Ademar, you should be grateful that I still hold sway over Varian. But if you continue this, I won’t rein him in. Woe to you should he ever be unleashed.”
Ademar scoffed. “I don’t fear demonspawn. I destroy them.”
Varian laughed at that as he paused beside the knight who barely reached his shoulder. He took a deep breath so that he could smell the man’s fear and sweat. “The prideful only boast to cover their cowardice. You may not fear demonspawn, Addy, but you do fear me.”
Ademar started for him, only to have Bors pull him back. Tall and lean, Bors held features very similar to Varian. “He’s not worth it, brother.”
The humor fled Varian as he met his cousin’s gaze. They were family. But more than that, they were enemies. And bitter ones at that.
“It’s true, Addy,” Varian said with a note of amusement, “attacking me isn’t worth your life and that is the price I’d demand for it.” He turned to look at Merlin. “I’ll go and do your bidding, Merlin. But my patience and willingness to be your lapdog is stretching perilously thin.”
“Understood, Varian. But know that you have my gratitude.”
Her gratitude and their scorn. That just made him feel all warm and toasty inside. But then he couldn’t blame them for hating him. He’d been born cursed. The son of Arthur’s most beloved knight and the son of Arthur’s most bitter enemy. Unlike the others, he had blood loyalty to both sides of this conflict. And it was a loyalty both sides didn’t hesitate to abuse.
He paused at the door to look back at Merlin. “You know there is one good thing in all this.”
Merlin gave him a puzzled stare. “And that is?”
Varian indicated Ademar with a jerk of his chin. “At least my mother didn’t give me a name that sounded like a bad candy bar.” He stepped through and shut the door an instant before a dagger embedded itself right where his head was.
He stared at the tip of the dagger that made pierced all the way through the wood and gave a sinister laugh. Honestly, he wasn’t his father’s son so much as he was his mother’s. There was nothing in life he enjoyed more than taunting others. Nothing he liked more than feeling the blood of his enemies coating his hands- but not before he’d had ample time to torture them.
Kindness, compassion- The Lords of Avalon could shove that up their collective asses.
Battle, mayhem, insults. That was his business and he thrived on it.
Varian waved his hand over his clothes, changing them from his black shirt and jeans to the medieval attire that was needed to venture to the Abbey. His dark brown leather jerkin was heavy, but not nearly as much as the mail shirt that whispered metallically against his skin.
He pulled the studded black leather vambrace that held a metal inset to protect his forearm from a sword strike into place and rested his hand against the hilt of his sword. To search this out, he’d have to go into Glastonbury Abbey itself.
On the human side of the veil, the Abbey was nothing but ruins. Behind the veil, it was still thriving, only there was no godliness in that place. It was unholy. It was also a neutral zone where no magick would work.
No one was really sure why. But Varian suspected that it had to do with the fact that when Camelot and Avalon had been pulled out of the mortal realm into the one of the fey, Glastonbury was supposed to have been left untouched- as ignorant of the defection of the two places as the rest of the world. Instead, the magick had accidentally seeped over into their village, sucking them out along with the positive and negative magick that made up Avalon and Camelot.
Now he was heading into a place where his magick was useless- which was probably why the mods had killed Tarynce there. It was one of the few places where the grail knight would have been without his magick to fight off his attackers.
In Glastonbury only the skill of Varian’s sword arm could help him. That and his willingness to ruthlessly kill anyone who annoyed him.
Oh yeah, it was good to be evil…