[personal profile] new_kate
Men for all Seasons, Part 5


They went down to the sewers again, and the tunnels took them under the outer perimeter of the guarded facility, right into the factory basement.

"It's here," Merlin said, shivering. "Right on top of us. This way."

They crept through the dark corridors, encountering small patrols here and there. Merlin and Benesh kept the soldiers silent while Arthur cut them down. They managed to ascend several levels of the building without raising an alarm, Merlin unlocking every door on the way with whispered spells. Arthur could sense it too now – a strange hum under his skin that grew stronger with every step and made his sword arm itch.

"There," Benesh said. "Can you feel it? Right behind this door."

Merlin put his hand on the lock, ready to cast a spell to open it, but the heavy door readily swayed inwards under his touch.

They stepped into the dark room; from the way their quiet footsteps echoed, Arthur could tell it was huge. In the middle of it, hovering soundlessly above the concrete floor, was a sphere several yards in diameter. Its sides glinted dully, cast of some dark metal, and it glowed with a blue-white light which hurt their eyes. A band of light stretched across the sphere, and more lights shone from the regular circular openings that covered the entire surface of the thing.

"Okay," said Merlin. "This looks nothing like a small plate."

There was a loud metallic bang, and harsh electric light flooded the room. The doors behind them slammed shut, and the locks clicked home inside the metal.

The room they were in was even bigger than Arthur had thought, and there were narrow metal walkways running along the walls high above them. They were packed with soldiers, dozens of them, all armed with machine guns and taking careful aim at the three of them.

"It really doesn't, does it?" an unpleasantly familiar voice rang through the room from one of the galleries. "Quite a misnomer. Still, I'm sure it won't disappoint."

"The Witchfinder!" Merlin cried.

The man laughed. It was the same sickly amused laugh that used to scare Arthur as a child, long before he knew who and what Aredian really was.

"I like that," the man said. He wore an army uniform, an officer's hat and black coat, but he had the same bearing, the same intimidating presence. "But I can't claim that title, I'm afraid. You didn't take much finding, my little witches. You came right to me."

"Don't worry," Benesh whispered to them. "I can raise a golem in here, it'll protect us from bullets."

Arthur looked at the guns pointing at them from all directions, and said nothing.

"We've been expecting you," the man with Aredian's face continued. "We've already moved the production of the new weapons to a safer location. This one is just the bait to bring you in. Though I really don't understand why we bothered to take such precautions,"
he smiled. "Look what the enemy sent to foil our plans. A boy, a Jew, and a man with a sword."

Some of the soldiers laughed. Arthur changed his grip on the sword, refusing to be affected by Aredian's ridicule. He wasn't just armed with a sword against the machine guns; he also had Gwaine's handgun on him. It wouldn't make much of a difference to the outcome of the battle, but would be enough to put a bullet through Aredian's head.

"Arthur Pendragon, I presume," the man said. "I guess the sorcerer has found you after all. We know that Gilli of the Golden Dawn is still in England, so who might your companions be? Is one of you Merlin? My superiors very much hoped you would bring Merlin here."

"Who are they, exactly?" Arthur asked. If they survived this they needed to have learnt all they could.

Aredian ignored him, thoughtfully studying their faces.

"I think you're Merlin," he said, pointing a long bony finger at Merlin's face. Merlin winced and paled, as if he was still a hapless servant in Camelot about to get in a world of trouble. "Stay right there. I'd love to have a long chat with all of you, but my orders are to perform a field test against the powerful sorcerer. You will be a moving target for our weapon. You two surrender and come up here, if you want to live. It will get very messy down there in a few moments."

"We're fine here," Benesh called out loudly. He looked unafraid, angry and confident. "You might want to run while we're busy with this thing, because once we're done with it, we're coming for you."

"I think you might be the one who's been making those mud monsters all over town," said Aredian with a thin smile. "I'm glad we're going to get rid of that little annoyance as well. I'd love to find out who's been sheltering you all that time, but I'll catch them anyway. Having two sorcerers for our test will be... quite useful."

He waved a hand in a black leather glove, and the saucer-thing whirred in motion. It quickly spun around itself, trailing light and sparks, and rose softly, rotating above their heads, aiming at them with one gun port and then another, as if reflecting on which was the right weapon to choose.

Arthur scanned the room, trying to figure out who was controlling the device, but he couldn't see anyone. He thought the operators might be behind the wall, in another room, hunching over the vast array of controls, watching them through spy-holes and periscopes. Or, more likely, the thing was being controlled by sorcerers, and they could be right here, on the gallery above, hidden among the soldiers, whispering spells behind their gun sights.

Or the thing could be moving and aiming at them by itself, guided by some sort of demented mechanical brain inside its casing, or sniffing them out with the magic that blazed from its seams. The very thought was chilling, more terrifying than all the machine guns aimed squarely at his chest.

When Arthur had faced a column of tanks rolling towards his unit's position, he knew there were men inside those machines, men just like him, fragile and mortal. When he watched bombs fall on London, he knew there were bombers in the sky, vulnerable targets piloted by men who made mistakes, miscalculated, died before their planes hit the ground. This thing was a new kind of abomination: something half-alive and cunning, a killing instinct in a metal shell, incapable of fear or mercy, unstoppable. It would change the nature of wars forever, if they let it.

"The moment we defeat it, the soldiers will start shooting at us," Benesh said. "We need to be ready."

"Merlin, divert it till I give a signal," Arthur ordered. "Me and Benesh will go after the soldiers; make it look good so they'll be distracted - "

The saucer spun again, so fast that it blurred in a ball of awful humming light, and then a wide ray shot out from it, straight at their faces, blinding, bright enough to stun.

Merlin darted forward and threw a shield in the way of the light. Arthur had seen him do that hundreds of times; remembered how the translucent film used to glimmer and ripple softly when arrows and crossbolts hit it. He'd never seen it like this. It pulsed dark red, and it kept caving in under the pressure of the ray boring into it, breaking into sparks and swirls closer and closer to their faces.

The men on the galleries were silent, watching them intently. Merlin grunted and planted his feet wider, and tried to push the shield out. The film turned blotchy, veined in green and purple, and started to wrinkle at the edges, painfully curling inwards. Merlin's fingers were white, but his hand was steady, and the shield held.

The saucer stopped spitting fire and floated backwards, playfully twirling on its axis. Then it suddenly zigzagged through the room, changing direction rapidly, swirling fast; it reminded Arthur of a story from a tattered Bible he used to leaf through during Napoleonic war, something involving unearthly chariots of fire, with wheels full of eyes. It curved around them and lashed another ray at their feet, as though trying to catch Merlin off-balance. Benesh ducked down and made a ripple in the floor, raising it like a barrier; the ray of light slid off Merlin's shield and blazed through the concrete, which burned, charred and bubbled in a way stone had no right to do.

"Good, keep it up!" said Arthur. He finally spotted the ladder leading up to the gallery, but they had to get past the saucer to reach it. "Let's push toward the east wall."

He made a move, cautiously, hoping that the soldiers wouldn't start shooting too early, not until they were among them and could use them as shields. The saucer dived at him and spat out two rays at once, and then a third, spinning, showering the room with fire.

"Merlin!" Arthur yelled, ducking back behind the shield. "When I told you to divert it, I didn't mean let it actually kill us!"

"I'm not," Merlin panted. "It's playing with me – Arthur, I can't hold it."

"Let's see how sturdy that casing is," Benesh muttered. He crouched and slammed his palms on the floor. The concrete slabs crumbled; two golems rose up swiftly, pushing their way through, then heading for the saucer, fearlessly walking right into the blazing rays.

"Should take it a while to burn through them," said Benesh; but he suddenly cried out in surprise. A single brush of the saucer's fire had made the golems crumble, then they were scattered across the floor, losing limbs, breaking into pieces.

"No!" Benesh yelled. "This can't be! This thing's magic isn't even magic, it's – what the hell is it?"

"I don't know!" Merlin cried back, gathering the shield back up, shaking with effort. "It's like some kind of... Vril!"

They couldn't keep this up for long. Arthur made another lunge toward the ladder, and the saucer spat a single short burst of fire at him, catching his left hand. Benesh yanked him back behind cover; above them Aredian was chuckling with pleasure, like a man amused by the antics of kittens.

The saucer looped above them and let out a showy, wide fan of fire. Merlin hissed through clenched teeth and, instead of raising a shield in front of them, pushed at the thing with his magic. It turned in a graceless, stuttering arc, and the ray of white light whipped the wall and the gallery, and the men on it. There were no screams. The light hurt worse than fire, Arthur had had to fight against screaming from the pain in his burned hand, but the men must have died before they felt anything.

"Hold! Spread out!" Aredian yelled, and the soldiers quickly shuffled around on the walkway, taking positions between the bodies of their comrades. Under different circumstances he'd have admired their bravery. The saucer righted itself and floated higher, cautiously, searching for a better firing position.

"In theory, to turn it on them is a great idea," said Benesh quietly. "But if we manage it again, they'll kill us. I'm surprised they are still holding fire. So next time we have to get them all."

"Yeah, I don't know. It's slippery. Maybe if we both grab at it..."

Arthur could barely think through the pain; the burn was severe, and already badly blistering. But there was something familiar just on the edge of agony, something almost comforting, a warm song under his skin, a quiet, sure call.

"I want to try something," he said, gripping the sword tighter. "Force it down."

"Do you want to stab it?" Benesh asked. "It's metal!"

"Do it!"

The sorcerers exchanged a glance and threw their hands up, stretching out their fingers in unison. The saucer wobbled, fighting against their joined will, fired a ray that went hopelessly wide, and then dropped a good few yards, shuddering and buzzing, glowing brighter, as if it was getting angry now, about to stop toying with them and to fight them in earnest. Before it could take better aim Arthur lunged forward and thrust Excalibur into the glowing band.

He had no idea what would happen; he was hoping the sword might pierce the magic and get to the saucer's inner mechanism , or that he might be able to lever the blade and crack the thing open like a walnut and let his warlocks at its soft innards. He didn't even see what actually happened, because the moment the tip of the blade touched the light Benesh grabbed the back of his neck and threw both him and Merlin down with a force Arthur hadn't thought possible from his skinny arms.

There was a strange sound and a lot of light, and then sudden darkness, and then there were screams.

Benesh held them down till the screaming stopped. It didn't take long, and then there was just quiet, punctuated by soft, almost melodic sound.

"Okay," whispered Benesh. "Merlin, it's okay, it's over. You can let your shield down."

"Ugh," said Merlin. "F-fuck."

They sat up slowly, awkwardly climbing off each other in the darkness. Merlin made a light and let it float to the ceiling, to illuminate the whole room.

The electrical lamps hanging from the ceiling were broken; the floor around them was covered in shards of glass. The walls were charred black, and the men up on the galleries weren't moving, slumped where they'd stood. The quiet sound they'd heard was blood dripping to the floor from the walkways. It was still flowing, plinking softly into the deepening dark puddles.

The flying saucer was now several pieces of steaming, twisted metal scattered all over the room, each piece no bigger than a man's head. The white-blue glow had gone, without leaving even a lingering spark.

"I've... no idea what happened," said Merlin. "Benesh, did you know this would happen?"

"No, but," Benesh shrugged. "If I've learnt anything in the last two years, it's knowing when it's time to duck for cover. You can't stay on the run without that kind of instinct. That thing – that was the source of the twist in the magic, wasn't it? That Vril inside of it was what we felt. And now..."

"Now it's gone," Merlin said. "It's a dead end."


They walked back in silence, grimly watching the sunlight turn from grey to pink over the stone buildings. Gwaine was waiting for them in the basement, sat stiffly on the pallet by the wall. At the sight of them he smiled and languidly reclined on the pillows.

"So I guess I missed all the fun," he said. "Really, you couldn't have waited a few hours? One little scratch, and you ditch me like that?"

"Sorry," said Merlin and crouched to inspect bandages in Gwaine's naked thigh. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine. Better than fine, actually, the good doctor gave me some lovely morphine. Speaking of fine things, have you seen that little nurse? Anyway, I assume you won, so why the long faces?"

"We survived," Merlin crawled on the pallet and curled up on the edge, his back pressed to Gwaine's side. "I'm really tired, I think I need to sleep."

"We've not lost yet," said Benesh and ran up the stairs into the house, and Arthur sank into the chair, exhausted. Merlin was quietly staring into space, ignoring Gwaine's questions, so Arthur told Gwaine about their expedition to the factory and the messy fight with the saucer.

"So we're back to square one for the moment," he finished, cradling his burned hand in his lap.

"Are you sure there are more saucers? Maybe there was just that one prototype," Gwaine said.

"That's a nice thought, but I doubt it," Arthur said. "And we can't take that chance. Not after what we've seen. If there are more, we need to destroy them."

"They're not here," said Merlin, not stirring.

"They could have relocated that factory almost anywhere in Europe," said Gwaine. "They own half the world right now. France – Christ, they could even be in my family's factory right now. Belgium, Denmark, Italy – maybe they're even in Africa. But we'll find them."

"I don't know how to destroy them when we do," Merlin mumbled. He wasn't even blinking, just staring intently at the bare grey wall. "I don't understand what happened to that one."

"Maybe it just exploded. If it was a prototype, anything could have happened. Machinery malfunctions all the time. When I was rich, I used to test race aeroplanes for fun. There was this one, a gorgeous little thing..."

He launched into a rambling story about a faulty engine and making a death-defying crash-landing in a field next to three lovely picnicking ladies. He was probably making it all up as he went along, but bit by bit Merlin's shoulders relaxed a little, and a shadow of smile lit up his face. Gwaine had always been good at making him forget his worries.

Merlin fell asleep, still curled up on himself, his long fingers clutching the edge of the mattress. Gwaine stopped talking and lightly stroked the back of his hand through Merlin's tangled hair. That simple gesture of affection was too familiar from their other life, a millennium ago, and it made Arthur's chest ache.

"Sometimes I wonder if he'd be better off with you," Arthur confessed. "I mean – someone like you. I'm not easy to be with."

"That's not up to either of us," Gwaine shrugged.

"I just don't understand why this happened to him and not me. I've seen a lot of wars and horrors. By now – a lot more than he did. And I don't feel like this. You, too – you said it happened to some of your men, but you seem just fine. The nightmares, the sadness, the regrets, the hopelessness – we should have that, too. Why aren't we affected?"

"Does it matter? We should just count our blessings and enjoy life while we can."

"He used to say I was a bit thick," Arthur said. "Maybe that's it."

Gwaine laughed.

"Maybe you are a bit thick," he said. "Because it sounds like you're not happy that you're fine."

"I'm just... guilty, I suppose. He's suffering, he's obviously in pain most of the time, and I don't even understand what's happening to him. And it's my fault, after all. Every battle he's fought, every choice he's made, it's because he follows me. And this is where it's got him."

"He'll be fine. It won't always be like this. The war will end eventually."

"There will be another war," Arthur said. "There's always another war."

Gwaine rolled his eyes.

"You're just tired. Go and get your hand seen to. If the doctor doesn't give you morphine, I'll try to charm some out of that nurse. I think she likes me."

"Yes," said Arthur, suddenly hopeful again. "Yes, I should talk to a doctor."

He found doctor Kai in a tidy reception room, talking to someone over the telephone. He waited politely for the end of the call, making an effort not to eavesdrop.

"Where's Benesh?" he asked afterwards.

"In the bathroom upstairs," Kai said. "He likes to use my bathtub for scrying; he claims he can talk to several people at once that way. He and his English friend – Gilli, is it? - they're trying to contact sorcerers all around the globe, everyone they know. They're hoping that someone would have felt the presence of Vril energy somewhere."

"Sounds like a plan."

"I'm not so sure," Kai said, twitching an eyebrow. "If the Vril-masters are sorcerers, they know that others of their kind would be able to sense the flying saucers. Their location place must be too well hidden, or too well protected, for it to be found by sorcerers. Or both. But I might be able to help there."

"Why are you helping us?" Arthur asked. "I understand why you'd shelter Benesh and treat the wounded, that's the actions of a kind man, but why side with the enemy? You're German, aren't you?"

"Yes," the man said. "But I understand very well what's at stake. Come on, I'll treat your injury."

Arthur let him inspect his burns but refused the offer of a painkilling injection. The old doctor had a familiar light touch, and at this point his hand was already numb from too much pain. He always preferred to keep a clear head, if he could.

"I need to ask you something," he said as the doctor cleaned and disinfected the raw burned skin.

"Talk away, it will help you bear it," Kai muttered.

It wasn't what Arthur came to ask, but this too seemed important to know, to understand.

"How did this happen? No, I know this has happened before. There have been wars of conquest, and there have been purges. But this, the cruelty, the anger – and this isn't just a whim of a monarch, is it? I read about it, there were elections, voting. This was the will of the people."

"In a way, at one point," the doctor half-agreed.

"How can a whole nation be taken by such madness?"

"Well," the doctor finished dabbing Arthur's hand with a viciously stinging solution and reached for a different jar on a shelf. "Like with most such things, this one had started with a seductive vision. Have you any idea what this country was like twenty years ago? We'd just lost the war, and we'd been forced into a humiliating, ruinous surrender. It was utter chaos, despair. A different kind of poverty where hard-earned money would turn to dust before you could buy food for your family. And then came a promise that our nation had hope, a divine fate and a great future, and a unique role to play in history."

"To conquer the whole of Europe? That's not a unique dream."

"To change the world. The idea was that we wouldn't embrace the menace of communism, or the soulless rot of capitalism. We'd pave our own way. If we came together, as brothers in blood, as sons of the ancient kings and heroes, we'd unite the world and lead humankind to achieve its full potential. We'd transform the race of men into what it was meant to be: strong, beautiful, glorious."

"That sounds completely insane."

"Oh, please," said the doctor, slapping a dollop of some disgusting grey goop on the burns. "I know you must understand it on some level. You're a patriot, and you're proud of your heritage, it's obvious from the codenames you chose. If your partner is Merlin, then you must have named yourself Arthur after the legendary king of the Britons. Wasn't that his dream as well - to unite the land by conquest and lead his nation to glory? Didn't he believe in the superiority of his people, didn't he think the world would be better under their rule?"

"It was nothing like this!"

"How was it different, young man?" asked the old men quietly. "Explain this to me, if you can."

"Albion, and the rule of Camelot – that wasn't about national superiority, or purity of blood. It didn't matter what people and what life you were born into, what colour your skin was, what gods you worshipped. Everyone was equal at the Round Table, everyone was welcome under Camelot's banner. The nation of Albion was a brotherhood of people who believed in a just and fair world," Arthur said, remembering how Merlin's eyes used to shine when he'd say those words. "Whoever they were, that was the only thing that mattered: that they believed in equality, honour and justice, that they wanted to make the world a better place, and would fight for it. That was what united us. That was our goal and our dream."

"Yes, I'm sure people of all colours, all around the world start their day with a prayer of gratitude that they belong to the British Empire," said the doctor poisonously. "Welcomed as equals, no less."

"Okay, no, I'm sure they're not," Arthur conceded. "The colonies - that's not right, that will have to change, and soon. I'm not saying everything went as was planned. Even in King Arthur's time a lot of things went wrong. But that dream – I still believe in it. I still think it's worth fighting for."

"Ah, what I wouldn't give to be young and self-righteous again," the doctor sighed. "It's a wonderful feeling, isn't it? Here, take this, it will help prevent infection. Was there anything else you wanted? I'm not in the mood to argue about politics right now."

Arthur swallowed the pills and nodded.

"I actually came to ask for medical advice," he said. "Would you be able to diagnose a patient if I describe all the symptoms to you?"

He'd seen the strides medical science had made over the centuries. The plagues that used to decimate whole kingdoms were easily prevented these days, nearly extinct. Many of the diseases and infections that were fatal in his time could be cured now with a few pills and potions. Even though Camelot's physicians could find nothing wrong with Merlin back then, maybe now there was an answer.

He told the doctor about Merlin's mysterious malady, everything he'd seen himself, everything Merlin had said. The old man listened, nodding thoughtfully.

"So?" Arthur asked when he could think of nothing else to add. "What do you think?"

"My first diagnosis would be depression," the doctor said. "Perhaps occurring as a part of traumatic neurosis. Not uncommon in soldiers at a time like this. Nervous disorders aren't my speciality, so this is just a guess, you understand."

"So it's a nervous thing after all? Is it really all in his head?"

"Many things are. Love, for one."

"Love is in the heart," said Arthur and blushed when the old man chuckled at him.

"Well, you're right, of course. Love starts with a thought, an emotion, and then, if allowed to grow, it spreads into your heart and your blood. It changes you, makes you happy, healthy, strong. You can't fall out of love at will. It's an addiction, in a way. Similarly, if despair takes a hold of your mind, it can poison your whole body. It won't let go, it will feed on itself, and the weaker its victim becomes the harder it gets to fight back. It's a vicious circle, and it's quite dangerous. You must have heard of people who died from a broken heart."

"Is it fatal?" Arthur asked, chilled by the thought. Somehow he'd never considered this possibility.

"Not necessarily by itself. But it does make a patient more susceptible to a host of other diseases, and prevents them from taking care of themselves properly. And, of course, there's a danger that life itself might become too much of a struggle..."

"So, what's the cure?"

"It's not that simple, my dear boy."

"I don't care," Arthur said. "Whatever it is, I'll get it for him. Just tell me what I need to find."

"If you're hoping for a magic pill that will make it all go away..."

"Doesn't have to be magical," Arthur muttered, feeling stupid. "Is there not..."

"Nothing like that, I'm afraid. Not yet, anyway. I suppose in the past vaccinations would seem like miracles; perhaps, some day there will be a pill that can cure troubled mind and soul. Till then – well, there are some herbal remedies that might soothe the symptoms. There are treatments based on psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, though I'm not certain which of them deliver results and which are utter quackery. But this will only manage the disease, it probably won't go away completely. The danger of relapse will always be there."

"But he can be happy again? There's hope, right?"

"Of course. It will be a struggle sometimes, but recovery is possible."

"Okay," Arthur nodded, dizzy with relief. "Okay, so what do I do?"

"I think you're doing it already. You obviously care for him, so keep it up. It will often be frustrating for you, but you have to remember it's harder for him. Simply care for him, and keep him going. And – I loathe to say this, but – it might be best that he's still fighting, despite his illness. He has a reason to carry on, human lives depend on him. He's needed. It's a powerful feeling. It's the very antithesis of despair."

A sudden, loud trill of the doorbell made the doctor jump in his seat. Arthur slipped his hand under his coat, feeling for Gwaine's gun.

"Are you expecting someone?" he asked.

"Yes, yes, I am," the old man said. "It's just that... I always expected them to come for me one day. But they'll come at night, most likely. This is probably a friend of mine – Arthur, go and find Benesh and make sure you both stay out of sight."

Arthur waited by the staircase, his finger on the gun's trigger, till the doctor unlocked the door and welcomed his visitor in.

"Well, Kai, what's so important that you couldn't tell me over the telephone?" said a gruff voice that reminded Arthur of Camelot's perpetually annoyed old librarian.

"Gottfried, old friend, thank you for coming," said the doctor, and Arthur took it as a sign that all was well and headed upstairs.

Benesh sat on the floor in the tiled bathroom, grimly swirling his fingers over the surface of a filled bathtub.

"Anything?" Arthur asked.

"Nothing. Nowhere. We spoke to people all over Europe and the Americas, even in Africa, Tibet, Siberia... Nobody can sense any change in magic. It's like they took those things to the Moon."

"It's only been a few hours," Arthur said. "We'll keep looking."

"You don't understand. We felt it, the Vril-force that powers the weapon, and Merlin will tell you the same thing. Magic runs through every bit of land, through the blood of every living creature, it's a natural part of the world. The only way to change magic into something like that, something with that much inert will and raw power, would be to pull magic from the land and compress and twist it till it can't flow back in, till it becomes something new entirely. If you pull at it forcibly and bend it like that to your will, it will be felt by sorcerers for miles around. Merlin told me he could sense that one saucer all the way from France. According to Gilli's sources, there's an army of those things being built somewhere. To power something like that you'd have to pull magic from such a vast stretch of land – a whole continent, maybe. I just don't understand how is it possible that no one can sense it. I guess the only explanation is that someone is lying to us. I don't want to think they're traitors, they could just be too scared to help us. But it means we can't trust anyone, and we're back where we started."

They fell silent, thinking. Arthur could just about hear of doctor Kai and his visitor talking downstairs.

"Who's that?" Benesh asked. "Is that a patient? I thought the surgery was closed today."

"It's the doctor's friend. I think his name is Gottfried."

"I didn't know they were still friends," Benesh said through clenched teeth. "Do you know where he works? He used to be friends with my father, and now - why would Kai talk to him?"

He quietly edged out of the bathroom and crept down the stairs.

"The Doctor asked us to stay out of sight," Arthur told him.

"I want to know what's going on," Benesh hissed.

They shifted closer; the voices were clearer now, and they could hear every word.

"Do you understand what you're asking? Kai, are you out of your mind?" said Gottfried.

"I know you can get this information. You have access to every piece of paper that makes it to the archive."

"That's not what I'm talking about – Kai, this is treason!"

"I know very well what it could cost us both. But I need you to do this."

"Why? Why are you doing this, have you been recruited by – God, Kai, who are you working for? What happened to you?"

"I don't believe the Party should have these kinds of weapons at their disposal. Not right now. I think it will lead to disaster," said the doctor calmly.

"Kai, listen to yourself!"

"No, you listen to me. You must understand they were counting on those new weapons. It was an integral part of their battle plan. It's obvious now that the Battle of Britain wasn't supposed to start before the new weapons were ready. The bombing of Berlin forced our hand, he had to retaliate, and we attacked ahead of schedule. That's why the Blitz is taking so long, and the losses are so great, and we've all but given up on the naval invasion."

"And now you want those weapons destroyed? Do you want Germany to lose another war? Kai, you used to love this country!"

"I still do. And I don't want another defeat. I hope that the loss of the flying weapons will force the Party to reconsider the expansion plans. Right now we can negotiate peace treaties from a position of strength. I want the war to stop now, before it's too late for us. If Americans get involved, if we attack the Soviets... Gottfried, if we lose against them, the fallout will be horrific. They'll tear our country to pieces. They'll destroy it."

"The Americans will never get involved," said Gottfried dismissively. "And we won't attack the Soviets, we have a pact..."

"Don't be naïve."

They were both quiet for a while. Benesh was listening, biting his lips till they were white.

"But with those weapons we could win," Gottfried said.

"Maybe we could. Or maybe the Americans or the Soviets will build weapons of equal power, and when we clash the world will be left a blackened husk."

"Or maybe we'll succeed. Maybe we'll win the war and we'll unite the world, and we'll reclaim the glory of our nation! Kai, that was our dream, you used to believe! What happened?"

"I realised what the price was," the doctor said. "Haven't you by now?"

Benesh shifted closer, nearly pressing his ear to the closed door. Gottfried hadn't replied for a few moments.

"There had to be sacrifices," he said in the end.

"Right," the doctor said, and suddenly yanked the door open and grabbed Benesh by the sleeve. He threw a warning glance at Arthur, hauled Benesh into the room and closed the door again.

"Do you remember Benesh?" he asked. "He's grown up a lot, but I'm sure you recognise him."

"Oh god, no. No. Why is he still in the country? Kai, why is he here? If someone sees him in your house..."

"You can't even talk to him, can you? All you see when you look at him is the danger he's putting me in. When I see him look at Hilda, I don't see two beautiful children in love. All I see is a race crime about to happen, and the danger he's putting her in."

"No, Kai, not Hilda! She's an orphan, you were supposed to look after her!"

"I'm trying. I'm doing my best to break her heart and keep her away from the boy she loves. He's an orphan now too, have you forgotten? He's lost everything, all he has is clothes on his back. I'm trying to convince him to run away from everything he's ever known, and try his luck in another country, penniless and alone..."

"Let me go," Benesh huffed. "I won't stand here and... just..."

He pushed through the door and stormed out, and Arthur stayed and kept listening.

"That boy's a part of a problem," the doctor said. "I think you understand how it will be solved. You know what's happening in Poland right now. I only hear rumours, but you read the reports, you know the details. This is the plan, that's what going to happen in every country we'll conquer. This is the price of our dream. Do you really think we should win this war?"

"You've lost your mind," Gottfried whispered.

"Maybe you're right. This is my last stand, you know. The young ones are fearless, they feel immortal. I'm getting old, Gottfried, my body is failing me, and I'm more and more afraid of pain and death. Soon I won't have the courage to take any risks. And I'll turn a blind eye to everything around me, and want nothing but to live out the rest of my days in peace. I'll watch millions die, and I'll feel nothing. Soon we'll forget what was done, what we allowed to happen, and we'll think ourselves innocent, good, honourable men. If you don't care what the Party is doing to its enemies, think of what it's doing to us. What it's turning us into."

"I should report you for sedition," said Gottfried. His voice was shaking.

"If you feel that's your duty. But for the sake of old friendship, could you give me a short warning so I can send Hilda away?"

The man hadn't answered, and walked to the door. Arthur ducked out of sight and waited for him to leave the house.

The doctor was meticulously straightening jars on the shelves, checking the labels, as if nothing had happened.

"You should run before it's too late," Arthur told him. "You can't take this chance – he'll tell on you."

"He won't," said the old man. "Are you hungry? Hilda should be taking dinner to your friends right now. Why don't you go and join them?"


Hilda was in a corridor leading to the basement, crouching on the floor next to a tray of food and a medical kit – she must have been going to change Gwaine's bandages. Merlin was kneeling at her feet, clenching his hands in her skirts, hiding his face against her shoulder, and he was talking, babbling helplessly as if the words were tearing their way up his throat.

"...we fought for so long, and lost so much. We sacrificed our friends, our loved ones, we did terrible things, because we thought we were going to make a difference. That we'd make the world better. And it was all for nothing. All of it. Nothing changed. There's still wars, and tyranny, and hatred, and purges. All that's different is that now there are more powerful weapons. It's not better at all, it's so much worse. Now even more people will die even uglier deaths. Evil has won, and all our lives, everything we did was for nothing. I can't - I can't take this anymore, I just want everything to stop. I need it to stop. This is so pointless, there's no - "

Arthur stepped closer, and Merlin winced, swallowing sobs and words.

"I don't mean that," he said quickly. "Arthur, I don't really mean it."

"Please leave," Hilda mouthed at him, and he obediently shuffled back behind a corner.

He didn't know where else to go – they were blocking the way to the basement, and he didn't want to go back to the house to impose on the doctor's hospitality, and he didn't want to leave Merlin in this state. So he stayed just out of sight, listening, getting tired of all the eavesdropping.

"I didn't want him to hear that," Merlin muttered. "I don't want him to feel like this."

"Merlin, listen," Hilda said. "Listen to me. Evil hasn't won anything. The world isn't actually a battle between good and evil. The world is good. It's made of good. You know this, right?"

Merlin had quieted down, and Arthur hoped he was listening to her and considering her words.

"Evil comes and goes, and wars start and end. And every minute, even now, even among the worst of horrors, there's good. People live, make friends, fall in love, babies are born, beautiful things are created, songs are written that will be sung for years. People live, smile, hope and laugh. As long as there's life, there's good in the world. If you helped one person, if you gave someone one more year to live, then you brought something wonderful into the world, because life is what matters, because life – life is a joy."

"I just can't feel it," said Merlin weakly. "I can't even remember what it felt like."

"Sometimes we can't. But then we just have to... know it, I guess. We just have to believe it, keep that faith. When your mother isn't here to put her arms around you, you still know she loves you, don't you?"

"Yeah," said Merlin with a short tearful laugh. "I do."

"You can still feel it, I think, deep down. Otherwise it wouldn't you hurt so much to think of people dying and suffering. Even though you can't feel right now how precious your life is, you know theirs are. It's all in your heart, all that joy is still there, and it will come back. We'll all feel that again. I promise you, we all will. Just – wait for it, look for it, and it will come."

Merlin sighed deeply and shifted on the floor.

"Okay," he said, and sniffed noisily. "Yeah, okay, I'll try."

Arthur let him cling to her for a while longer, and then walked up to them again.

"Let her go, stop clutching at her skirts like a baby," he said. "She's not your mother."

Merlin nodded and rubbed at his face, and let Arthur pull him to his feet and up the stairs to the bathroom.

Arthur filled the sink, bent Merlin over it and washed his face, scrubbing traces of tears off his cheeks.

"Stop, don't," Merlin muttered, listlessly trying to push his hands away. "You shouldn't be doing this."

"Why not? You're the one who always harped on about equality, and you used to do this for me," said Arthur and dunked Merlin's face into cold water just to make him splutter in outrage. "Remember, after my father's funeral you pulled me out of bed, washed my face, dressed me and dragged me to the coronation. I could barely walk."

"You were fine after you got there."

"I had to be, it was my coronation."

Merlin dried his face with a towel and then slid down to sit on the floor, as if the short walk and the effort of washing up exhausted him completely.

"Arthur," he said. "I don't think I can do this. You should get Gilli here. He'll help you, he's probably a better sorcerer than I am by now, he's had all that time to learn."

"All right," Arthur nodded. "I'll get Benesh to contact him, he'll pick up where we left off. We'll step down from this quest and go back to England, or maybe somewhere safe, away from the war. That would probably be better for you."

"What? Why?"

"Because when you aren't fit to fight, you have to get off the battlefield. Haven't I taught you that?"

"Yes, but you..."

"I'll go where you go," said Arthur.

"I don't want you to," Merlin said with a frown.

"So? Since when do you expect me to listen to you?"

"I mean it. I hate being like this, and I don't want you to see it. It's disgusting, and I'm useless, I'll only be a burden."

"I'd been without you for a long time," Arthur said. "I've had enough of being without you. If you're fit to fight, we'll fight. If not, we'll go away till you heal, and if you don't, then we'll just stay there and rest. I go where you go, and that's final."

"Arthur, come on, why are you - "

"Because I love you," Arthur said abruptly, forcefully cutting him off, and Merlin hiccuped in surprise and blinked his swollen, blood-shot eyes.

"I love you," Arthur said again. The words felt strange on his lips, as if he'd never said them to Merlin before. Perhaps he really hadn't. There had never seemed to be a need.

"I always loved you," he said. Saying it made him feel dizzy, like looking down over the edge of a cliff. "Even when I thought you were the worst servant in history who was probably drunk half of the time and had more guts than brains. And when I found out about your magic, when I thought you were a traitor and a monster – I hated myself for it, but I still loved you, I couldn't stop. And when I was married, I loved you, and I think everyone knew that. And when it was just us, I loved you more than ever, and when I was without you, I still did, and now - "

He stopped, breathless and shivering. Merlin was watching him with a soft smile, and his eyes were warm, shining. Happy.

"You're a half of me," Arthur told him. "I'm not whole without you. Whatever happens to you, happens to me. So you're ill, well, we'll fight it together, and we'll win."

"Why are you crying?" Merlin asked. Arthur swiped a hand over his face and stared at his wet fingers in surprise.

"I don't know," he said. "I didn't even notice. Why were you crying before?"

"I've forgotten," said Merlin and laughed, and pulled him closer. They kissed, laughing senselessly against each other's lips.

"We're a mess," Merlin sighed, smiling. "But... I think maybe we'll be okay."

"Of course we will be."

They went to back to the basement; it was getting dark, and they stepped quietly, trying not to disturb the household. The glass door of the operating room was lit from the inside, and they could see two silhouettes moving there – one was Hilda, and the other, long and thin, was Benesh, who seemed to be arguing with her about something.

Merlin lingered, worriedly trying to catch their conversation.

"Come on, this is rude," Arthur whispered and tried to tug him along.

"He's probably going to leave the country," Merlin said. "He must be telling her this."

The silhouettes pushed apart, then suddenly moved closer and pressed against the door, kissing with desperate urgency. Arthur could just about see their faces though the uneven glass surface, but then Merlin grabbed his shoulder and pulled him away.

"Don't look, that's almost my parents," he muttered, red to the tips of his ears.

"So Merlin, do you want a brother or a sister?" Arthur teased, and Merlin grinned and blushed even more.

They crept back to the basement, where Gwaine was soundly asleep on the pallet, his bandages changed and clean. Two plates of some sort of cabbage stew were waiting for them on the floor; next to Gwaine's pillow there was a cleaned plate and three empty bottles of beer.

"What a bastard," Arthur laughed. "He drank our share."

"Well, you know, it's Gwaine," Merlin shrugged and pulled Arthur into the armchair.

They kissed till they were both shaking with need, and then made love right there in the tattered armchair, slowly, quietly, biting back every sound that might wake Gwaine.

"I love you too," Merlin whispered, riding Arthur in a stuttering, tortuously sweet rhythm.

"Shut up, I know," Arthur muttered against his lips, palming his hips, clutching him closer, determined never to let him go.

Afterwards they ate the cold cabbage stew, sitting on the floor side by side, pressing together just to feel each other's warmth.

"This is awful," Merlin complained, making a face. "I can't believe you're just gobbling it up. Ugh."

"All the rat you fed me toughened me up, I reckon," Arthur said and Merlin laughed at that, making Gwaine stir and grumble in his sleep. Arthur couldn't guess what would happen tomorrow, but they had this, now, and it was enough.


Arthur woke up in the armchair, his clothes buttoned up again, his legs wrapped in the blanket. He remembered dozing off on the floor, leaning on Merlin's shoulder; Merlin must have settled him here.

Merlin was sitting on the pallet, staring down at the sheets, and he was holding Excalibur, slowly stroking his palms along the naked blade.

Arthur tensed, trying to judge the distance between them. The blade was sharp; he'd been looking after it himself since he got the sword back. Merlin only had to turn his hand and it would slice him to the bone.

"Hey," Arthur said softly, trying not to startle.

"Oh, good morning, lazy daisy," said Merlin brightly, and Arthur laughed out loud from relief, just from seeing the smile on Merlin's face.

Merlin picked the newspapers he had laid out on the bed and showed Arthur a page.

"Look, this is the German king. Bit of a relief, right?"

"He's not actually a king – what do you mean, a bit of a relief?"

"Well, since we're fighting him, it's just good to know he doesn't look like – anyone."

"Who did you think he'd look like?" Arthur asked sternly, even though the thought had occurred to him as soon as he'd heard about the new purge. He'd been terrified of opening a newspaper and seeing his father's face there.

"Nobody," said Merlin innocently. "Still, good to know!"

"Just to be sure, Merlin, I thought I'd check – you're not thinking of assassinating him, are you?"

"Oh, no. Well, I've considered it. Who wouldn't have? He's childless; I was hoping there would be confusion over the succession, at least – but Gwaine explained to me that's not how it works now. This king is more like a warchief, really. He's already named his friends to be his successors."

"Yes, and they'd all be chosen for their dedication to his cause," Arthur nodded. "Nothing would change if we kill one man. Maybe even killing a hundred won't do it."

"Besides, after what Benesh told us about that assassination two years ago, I can't risk it. Whatever we do will only be blamed on innocents and used as an excuse to brutalise them. No, we'll do this right."

Merlin cradled Excalibur in his hands and lifted it up, caressing the runes on the blade.

"I've figured out what happened with that saucer," he said. "Do you know what dragonfire is?"

"Yes, it's a fire that comes out of a dragon," said Arthur as patronisingly as he could.

"It's really a kind of magic. We all have some magic in us, a little in you, more in me, but dragons are made of magic. It boils in their blood, and churns in their stomachs, they breathe it in and out and they can bend it to their will. That's what the Vril-masters are doing, they're bending and twisting magic till it only obeys them, the ones who forced it into submission. They're not doing it the way dragons did; maybe they found some kind of artefact to use as a centre, but it's essentially the same thing. Vril is almost impossible to control, even for me. And dragon magic is almost impossible to break."

"But you're a Dragonlord. Doesn't that mean you can..."

"I can compel a dragon, if I choose to. I can't actually overpower his magic. But... this can. Arthur, this sword has been burnished in dragon's breath. I didn't really understand what it meant till now. The Great Dragon made this for you. He's given you power over magic. Even magic like his. Even magic like Vril."

Arthur took the sword from him; the blade seemed warmer and heavier, as if the magic that infused it had been woken up by Merlin's touch, was stirring into something even greater.

"But how," he breathed. "When – did you force the dragon to do it before it died? After I'd wounded it? You were already a Dragonlord then, weren't you?"

"No, Kilgarrah did it long before, when he was still in the dungeon. He called me, and I came to talk to him, and he charged me with the task to keep you safe and guide you. And then I asked him for this, to make a weapon that would protect you against any foe, and he gave it to us, willingly. He believed in you, even when you were just a prattish boy."

Arthur stared at the blade, and then at Merlin. Merlin was smiling at him, glowing with pride, just as he used to when he watched Arthur train with the knights, or fight in tournaments, or address his people before a battle.

"I kind of forgot what it was all about, but I remember now," he said. "So it seems we still have our destiny, and we still have our quest. We should get on with it. Everyone is upstairs, just waiting for you to wake up. They think they've discovered where the flying saucers are. Gaius's friend – I mean, Kai's friend Gottfried brought him some papers from secret archives, just this morning. Apparently it's all in there."

"I didn't think he would," Arthur said.

"Well, he did. Didn't you hear what a very wise woman said? The world is made of good."


Benesh and Gwaine were in the doctor's small study upstairs, looking at a map of the world.

"How's the leg?" Arthur asked.

"The bleeding's stopped, I'll walk it off," said Gwaine. He'd raided some cigarettes from Kai's bureau, with the doctor's permission Arthur hoped, and was now smoking in obvious delight, puffing long streams of smoke through his nostrils.

"Doesn't that hurt?" Merlin asked him.

"A bit," Gwaine said, suggestively flicking his tongue. "In a good way."

Arthur refused an offered cigarette – he'd never quite developed the habit – and leafed through the papers on the table.

"We've read them already," said Benesh. "And there's just one place that makes sense. This says Germany sent a secret expedition to Antarctica last year, to establish a base there. That's where they must be. That's why no sorcerers we know could sense it."

"Antarctica? Is that somewhere in America?" Merlin asked. "I've not really memorised any places on that side of the maps."

"No, it's this," Gwaine pointed at the white bit at the bottom of the map, and then, for good measure, grabbed a small decorative globe off Kai's desk. He turned it over and jabbed his finger next to the point where the axis pierced the sphere. "This."

"Huh," Merlin said. "That's kind of like the arse of the world!"

"It really, really is," sighed Benesh. "It's a frozen desert, ice miles thick over the bare rock. Nothing grows there, nothing lives there. And it's really cold."

"We'll wrap up," said Arthur. "We'll buy mittens, and scarves. Besides, if I understand this correctly, isn't it summer there right now?"

"It's still not going to be pleasant," said Gwaine. "But first we need to get there. I think we should head to Portugal, and from there get on the boat to the Americas. Then we'll travel south to Argentina, and from there take a freight ship to the shores of Antarctica. We should be able to get an aircraft carrier there, and buy a plane. The base must be somewhere here, south of Africa, near the Prime Meridian. We should probably make landfall a few hundred miles away from there. Maybe here, around the peninsular, but we'll have to hire sailors anyway, they should advise us where's best. Then we will fly inland..."

"That will take too long," said Merlin. "The Vril-masters know we're looking for them; I don't think we have much time. Can't we just take your plane and fly like this?"

He trailed his finger straight down the map, across Europe and Mediterranean and the majestic expanse of Africa, and the Southern Ocean, painted flat, cheerful blue, all the way down to the white jagged shores of the frozen continent.

"No, we can't. Merlin, my Stuka can fly about a thousand miles without landing, at best. That's this far," Gwaine put two fingers against the map, marking the distance. "Maybe in Europe we could find airfields to land and refuel. I even know a place in Morocco where we'd be welcome, but further than that – I don't know if we'll be able to find a human dwelling every thousand miles. Huge parts of Africa are desert, and we can only carry so much fuel. And once we reach the ocean – well, obviously, it's simply impossible."

"If it's about fuel, then we don't need any," Merlin shrugged. "There's just this one thing that has to rotate to keep the plane in the air, right? I can do that, for as long as it takes. I can do that in my sleep, literally."

"Are we all going to fit in a Stuka?" Benesh asked.

"You're not going," Merlin said with steel in his voice. "You have to stay here and look after Kai and Hilda. They're in great danger now because they've helped us; you have to make sure they're safe."

Benesh blinked at him, looking betrayed. Gwaine blew a plume of smoke toward the ceiling and smiled widely.

"You can't leave now, kid," he said. "Even though I firmly believe that the flame of passion shouldn't be constrained, it's still bad form to run as soon as you've plucked the fruit. I saw Freulein Hilda this morning. She's positively glowing. You've obviously done a great job, but if you need any advice on the finer points, I'm here for you."

"Don't you dare talk about her like that!"

"You have to stay, Benesh," Merlin said. "You have to, you've no idea how important it is."

Benesh gave him a suspicious, hard stare.

"Do you know something?" he asked. "Gilli told me you've been to the cave of the prophecies. Have you seen my future? I know I shouldn't ask, but..."

"If you leave her, you'll both always regret it," Merlin said. "That's all the prophecy I have for you."

"But we'd come back," Benesh said. "Wouldn't we? We defeated that one saucer, we can defeat them all and come back, right? I wouldn't be away long. I have to fight. It's my fight as much as yours; more so!"

"You're not going," said Merlin, softly, in a tone that brooked no argument. Benesh shook his head in exasperation and stomped off.

"We are coming back, though, aren't we?" Arthur asked later, when Gwaine wasn't listening. "You're not thinking..."

"No, of course we're coming back," said Merlin confidently. "It's just, you know."

Arthur nodded and nudged him with an elbow.

"Yeah, I know. I didn't want to be hard on him, he's a good lad, but once we're in Artarctica, ice golems would be ridiculously useless."

"Yes," Merlin agreed. "There is that."


They flew from Calais to Morocco in one stretch, in seven hours. Powered by Merlin's magic, the plane was quiet, sliding through the sky smoothly, birdlike. Gwaine started the engine during the last part of the descent and landed on a small private airfield, as he'd arranged beforehand with a friend of his, and tumbled out of the cockpit, groaning like an old man.

"Never done anything like that before," he said. "I'm all stiff, and not in a good way."

Arthur hadn't fared much better; somewhere over Spain he was sure he was going to vomit into his fedora, and he'd had to clutch Merlin's hands to fight that off. His legs, cramped for most of the flight against the crates of supplies, were weak, full of pins and needles.

"We need to keep limber, or we'll be useless when we get there," he said. "We should train together."

"You could wrestle," Merlin suggested eagerly. "I'll watch and judge who wins!"

"Next time we land I'll teach you how to fence," Arthur suggested and Gwaine laughed, still rubbing the small of his back.

"Oh, that's priceless, Arthur, that really is. Yes, I'll fence against you, I'd love to see you cry like a girl. Let's go into town, a friend of mine has a gin joint there. Rick will know where we can get a pair of foils."

They spent an evening in a bar, listening to mellow, soulful songs, sipping expensive alcohol. Gwaine spoke to the proprietor, a short, surly American, and came back to their table, smiling sadly.

"He's really changed," he said. "He fought in Italy and Spain – Lancelot met him there, by the way, small world, huh? Now he's a different man from the one I used to know in Paris. I think it might be about the woman. He wouldn't talk about it, but I think she broke his heart."

"They'll meet again," said Merlin, tapping his foot to the tune of the piano. "It will all work out."

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