Humanity is, to all intents and purposes, a rather unspectacular strain of life. They do not think so quickly as the salarians, nor do they acquire the long-lived wisdom of the asari. They have none of the durability of turians, the krogan or the vorcha. Any batarian or elcor can crush a human's skull with a blow. Their memory is astoundingly inferior to that of the drell, and they cannot match the beautiful bioluminescence of the hanar. Frankly, humans aren't good for much. Middle of the road in almost every way, never visibly excelling.
A scientist, if called upon to show some enthusiasm for the humans, will likely babble on about their extraordinary genetic diversity. And it's true that humans come in a rather incredible array of colours, palest white to midnight black, that their eyes have dozens of shades to them, even that they are extraordinarily varied in their sexualities compared to other species. But this (though it skims the truth for an instant as a stone skips over water) is a detail, a curiosity. Humanity's variety would not make up for its weakness, and we must plunge further on.
If you ask some average person, wandering the Wards, they are actually more likely to pick up on their hair. Uncovered hair on an intelligent species is rather a novelty to the longer-established civilisations, and the wonder has still not worn off. Partners to aliens are known to have been trapped for hours with a lover who simply strokes and strokes their hair, learning colour, texture, length. (Amongst other things, this means hair is beginning to become symbol of romantic interest, inside and outside human space. Show yours off and fling it about to show that you're available; brush theirs with a hand to show you'd like to take up the offer).
A historian might perhaps get closer to the truth. Humanity, it will be noted, have expanded far more rapidly than any other recorded civilisation. They were pressed into war on their very first contact with an alien species (and for all that the Hierarchy records it as an 'Incident', the idea of the 'First Contact War' is far more pervasive in historical and popular discussion). They went up against the turian military machine – even a small part of it – and came out of it with a creditable draw. They made outstanding contributions to tactics, to new ship designs. They have won themselves a seat on the Council more quickly than anyone thought possible.
But the facts of history will not tell you the truth. At least, not all of it. Humanity has been vastly more successful than it has any right to be, but that does not get at the why of it, not the root. There is an extraordinary drive there. Krogans are bloody-minded to be sure (and can afford to be, even as more and more are born without full redundant systems), but they lack purpose in their stubborn nature. For that reason, they die the genophage's slow and lingering death, not only as their numbers dwindle with each warrior dead and each stillborn clutch, but also as they degrade themselves into feuding brutes. Brutes who forget the glory of their ancestors and will not stoop to curing their species' quiet death even as they rage about it to all who would hear.
And so the utter determination of humanity, gives them something no other species has. Something no species has ever had, according to the thousand cycle-long data banks of the Eldest, ancient Harbinger. It gives them Alaya. The great unconscious embodiment of human will. Alaya processes the belief and conviction of humanity. It shapes the gods. It elevates legends to be recorded in the Root, the Spiral of Origin, Void, 「」, siari, the fabric of the universe itself, whatever word or symbol or phrase you try to dedicate to that enormous, inexpressible concept.
But the gods left two thousand years ago, with all the other beasts of fantasy and legend, leaving humans to their Age of Man, the age of Technology. Scraps of their presence remain – an old sword, handed down through the clan's generations; the religions who were too stubborn to die when their heads were cut off and their feet shattered; a few families in which the bloodline was preserved and who are stronger or quicker than humans really should be (this, O learned scientist, even if you will get no proof, is where humanity's genetic diversity comes from – the inhuman constructs of human faith). Yet, they are only scraps. The gods have no place in the normal life of humanity any more, and humanity dwindles, invention after invention compensating as godsblood thins and the old, testing wilds are tamed.
Alaya's role, then, is more subtle in this day and age. The gods are gone and humanity relies too much on technology over personal strength for people to ever become true legends again. Occasionally, it will draw the attention of ancient heroes, the great unconscious calling the past to defend the present. But mostly it is nudges in the mind and manipulations and shadows, not the blowing horns of battle.
The time for that subtlety is past now. Humanity is under threat as never before. Alaya is under threat. For all that humans have made a hundred other planets homes, Earth is still the homeworld, the centre of its self-identity. If it were to fall … Alaya might not survive. Insofar as an extension of unconsciousness can be afraid, it is terrified. It is not a screaming panic – that is the realm of the conscious – but all those uncontrolled signs of fear. A trembling in the hands, a shivering, a pacing to-and-fro. All multiplied eight billion times over as the Reaper horns shake the land and their crimson streams of metal carelessly gut humanity's ships.
It might be stopped. A faint hope, but there, a single shooting star upon which all Earth's children can wish. As the Reapers' initial attack brings panic and terror, people falls back on the old superstitions and traditions. They grasp at straws, but that is enough. The King Under The Mountain. The Captain In His Hammock, A Thousand Mile Away. The Once And Future King. A hundred million despairing prayers soar, filled with belief. And the desperate sincerity is itself what means those prayers can be answered.
Their contracts are answered. Their vows fulfilled. Their legends reborn.
Charlemagne walks out of his mountain cave. He is in his prime, golden hair flowing down his shoulders, and the golden sword, Joyeuse, at his side.
Barbarossa stands tall again, brushing burial-earth away from massive shoulders and bright red beard. The Holy Roman Empire is no more, but its Emperors rise once again.
As a distant drumbeat sounds, by Plymouth a massive fleet of galleons rises out of the water, and the Golden Hind is at their head.
At the third cry of their horn, the cave entrance cracks open at last. First to march out is Fionn, old Ireland's saviour. And behind him are assembled the Fianna - Diarmuid and Oisin and Oengus and all the others - ready to protect the Emerald Isle once more.
Deep within the corridors of Kronborg Castle, the old statue shudders and then seems to fill with colour and texture and life until King Holger the Dane stands tall once more. And in his hand is Curtana, sister to Joyeuse and Durandal.
Near Athens, Theseus strides from the sea, his father's ancient kingdom. Just as at Marathon he came forth to sweep the Persians before him and the army of his countrymen, so he has returned again for his city's sake.
And though he never died, the call sounds loudly to another too. From the faery realms steps the healed Arthur, ageless ever since he took the scabbard of Excalibur, and so young that he seems a maiden girl at first sight.
But it is not only these legends who are realised now. Alaya's plea has no hold on them save the common bond of humanity, but few indeed are the heroes who would abandon their species, their planet, or a damned good fight. The path to the Throne of Heroes has been forced wide open, and the best that Earth has ever had to offer comes pouring out.
So it is that Cú Chulainn and his old comrade meet once again on Ulster's green plains, a little way outside Belfast's sprawl. Fergus mac Roích offers his nephew a fierce smile, and has it returned with added bloodlust. Then, in sync with each other as only family or warriors who have depended on each other in battle's crush can be – and these two fit both categories – they turn to watch the four monstrous machines stalking over the city.
“Big buggers,” is Fergus' deliberately unimpressed observation.
“That they are.” Culann's Hound is less practised at feigning diffidence, and his eagerness to see how well the metal constructs will die seeps through. Fergus's smile broadens for a second, amused at the constancy of his relative's willingness for battle. “And I'm taking first shot at them.”
“Your spear's good, kid. It's not that good.” Fergus would back his foster-son against thousands of men – has seen him live up to those expectations, but these invaders require more than skill and strength. “Not reckoning they've got hearts for you to destroy. Your witch's tricks aren't so helpful against these bloody things.”
“Maybe so, maybe so.” Prideful little bastard. The boy obviously has something up his sleeve, and he's enjoying defying Fergus' expectations. “But my spear and the old runes I learnt from the witch? That'll do it.”
Fergus frowns. He's had his own army held back by those runes before, and the spear's not to be underestimated but still …
Cú Chulainn is entirely unbothered by his uncle's silence and is already scratching runes into the ground. He has speed born of practice, learned under the harsh tutelage as a boy in the Land of Shadows and refined in Ireland's constant raids. Two circles of runestones now surround them. The tight inner one is complete, eighteen markings already drawing in power to feed his spear. The outer one is missing its last, held in his hand for the necessary moment.
“This is going to take some power, Fergus. Watch 'em for me.”
Fergus nods and turns his gaze towards the colossi wreaking havoc in Belfast. Even if his nephew's likely over-reaching himself, he's not going to insult him by interfering. Family and warriors together – the code is clear. Neither of them would so pain the other's pride.
Cú Chulainn eyes the inner circle with an unusually considered glance, waits a few seconds longer, and leaps. Thirty feet he jumps into the air, spear held ready to throw. And as he rises, the runes begin to shine. From the first, directly facing the sun, and then around the circle as the sun would travel. Dipping down into the west, circling through south and rising again in the east until it reaches the first stone in the north. When each lights, it sends a streamer of white into the air, spiralling upwards and curling around Cú Chulainn's red spear until it seems that he has not leapt, but merely stands on a tree made from light. And in his hand he holds not a lance, but a ray of the sun itself.
And then Ireland's Son of Light lets his missile fly.
Like light it seems, and like light it travels. In half an instant, it has torn through the air and slammed into a Reaper. Magic and ancient power contend with high-density steel compounds and metals never known to humanity. The gods' spears could not break it: not Lugh's Brionac, called the Five Thundering Stars, nor Odin's Gungnir, called the Declaration Of The Elder God.
But the immortal gods have run to the hidden places of the world. Men, dying but always changing and adapting and bettering themselves, remain. And Cú Chulainn has bettered the gods with his spear.
It tears through the Reaper, leaving a gaping hole in it as if a giant fist had smashed through the Old Machine. The metal corpse remains upright for a few seconds, until power to its legs gives out and it falls like a landslide. So dies the first Reaper on Earth, to a spear and to a system of writing that had made do with stone because its civilisation had not yet created paper.
For a split second, all is still, in recognition of this insanity (though it is a powerful madness, which all men create and which possesses all men). For a mortal army, the shattering of invulnerability would have caused a much longer pause, perhaps even a rout. But the Old Machines have no use for morale. It is a weakness of the Unascended, to be used and broken mercilessly, but it is not theirs. So a shift, a slight glow from one of the remaining monsters is all the warning Fergus gets.
“ 'Ware!” he barks and his nephew, even as he falls back to earth, flicks the final runestone into its place. The Reaper's crimson blast is held back by an invisible barrier, wasting itself on thin air. But even Cú Chulainn's mastery of runes is challenged by the alien power. His carved stones glowed at first, but now they blaze like white fire.
And then one cracks, its light flickering.
“Shit!” Fergus grabs his panting foster-son and dives to the side, just before scarlet metal carves through the bounded field, through the space where they had stood, and through the landscape behind them, painting the fields with a white scar of slag, quickly cooling to black.
The Reapers turn away again, having to give their attention to the renewed series of attacks within Belfast, perhaps inspired by the first giant's fall. All those who Ascended into processes of each machine Nation concur that even in the vastly improbable event that the two survived, they must have been unable to carry away a weapon of the necessary mass to reproduce that anomaly. Even conceding the absurd possibility that millions upon millions of years of science can be surpassed by primates who have discovered writing barely five thousand years ago, priority must be given to the city's attacks. They are certain to cause damage – the two unknown figures should not even be alive.
The Irishmen untangle themselves from each other quickly. Lives of war ensure that – even when battle knocks you down hard, you stand back up. For pride's sake, and for the sake of not getting stabbed in the throat whilst you're helpless. A quick glance confirms that the Reapers' threat to them is gone … for a time.
“Well then, Hound,” Fergus says. “You had your turn – mine now.” He is slower to rouse than his son, but his warlust is no less fierce for that. He reaches down to his side and draws his sword from its scabbard. It seems large, even for Fergus, and clumsily proportioned. Worse yet, it is made of wood, soft and pale. No-one could believe that this was a hero's blade.
“My core is twisted into madness!” So proclaims Fergus, and the wood falls away to show the true sword. It is his father's – Léte's Sword. It is his goddess' – the Badb's Swift Messenger. It is the Harshblade. It is Caladbolg. A spiral of sharp-edged steel, still oddly shaped but now seeming to fit with Fergus.
Cú Chulainn frowns for a second. “I've seen that. Not just when I was alive, with you, but since I came to the Throne. But … I haven't seen you.” His questioning tone (made more hesitant as he struggles to match up the half-memories one acquires in the Throne's space, kept outside of time's reach) is well warranted. No hero could make proper use of another's treasure – it is only by taking and making it your own that you become worthy of immortality in the Throne of Heroes – and only one such could have met and battled Cú Chulainn.
Fergus snorts and dismisses the riddle. “It's time to remind you of the real bloody thing then! Last time you saw me with this blade, I gave the Máela Midi their names – the three Scalped Hills of Meath.” The bared-teeth grin is back, full of blood-lust. “And I'm reckoning these bastards are smaller than they were.”
Fergus crosses his right hand over his body, so that Caladbolg points out to his left. Then he snaps it around in a half-circle until his arm is straightened out to the right. The sword's tip traces a line in the air which distorts all the light that passes through it, breaking it into prismatic shards of colour – a rainbow in miniature.
Then, “Caladbolg!” The line rushes outward, racing towards the skyline of Belfast, racing towards the Reapers that stand over it. And it hits.
Before, it was a war of power: kinetic energy matched against the toughness of armour. The Spiral Sword is not so straight-forward. It twists space without regard for what it holds within it – in the past, it tore apart men and shields and weapons and land all the same. Now it rends the Reapers, warping their armour, crushing their shells, tearing their insides. The Reapers can face power – have seen desperate Unascended build futile weapons which harnessed immense and absurd amounts of energy, beyond even what the Reapers employed. And the nations who Ascended from those children recall creating such things in fear and ignorance before enlightenment came to them. But this is concept, imposition of the abstract onto reality. It is something against which the Old Machines have no defence.
Two sounds ring out over Belfast, jarring painfully against one another. The first is the deep horns of the Reapers, far louder than before, as if they at last remember panic. Or death. The second is much higher – the wrenching sound of metal twisted beyond its limits and torn apart. A Reaper falls; the distortion has cut straight through its core and nothing remains of the old nation who inhabited the great mechanical war-shell. A second collapses; its core had been missed, but its power was gone, and so an accord of millions fell silent. The third stays – it too has been shorn in two, but its core is whole, and enough systems remain intact. Not to survive – it too will be lost within the minute – but to relay a desperate message to its kin. Humanity brings an unknown power against the Ascended. Beware, beware! The signal cycles out once, and has to let a painful lapse of seconds pass: that is the limit without instantly annihilating the cooling systems or overwhelming the transmitters. The second cycle at last goes. Then the third nation slumps, falls into the dust of its unconquered city and dies.
But the Reapers elsewhere are already finding out that humanity has surprises for them.
Always in Avalon it is high summer – the time of Vivian, Lady of the Lake. Unripe, yellow wheat stands high between the hedgerows of apple trees and the sun shines down from an unclouded sky, making the water glare white with its reflection. And here the young queen Artoria rests, healing away her wounds and waiting for Britain's time of need.
It is that time.
In Avalon, a way opens. It has no frame, nor hinges, nor a door to cover it but it is a opening to Old Britain. When it forms, Artoria is by one of Avalon's many lakes, sitting with her toes dipped in the water. This is where her final wound is – a spear that stabbed through her foot, pinning her to the earth for vital moments at Camlann. But as the way appears and a colder wind blows through Summer's country, the bleeding ends and the flesh seals.
It is that time.
Artoria smiles – her duty is joyously taken now – and picks herself up. She strides out onto the water's surface, to the centre. Just as it did once before, an arm extends from the lake, and the Last Phantasm is held in it. Excalibur: the wishes of humanity crystallised into truth in the core of the planet; the golden sword given to the fairies' safekeeping until humanity needs its dreams made reality once more.
It is that time.
“I thank you, Vivian,” she says, bowing slightly towards the arm. “I swear once again that your treasure will be returned.”
“This is why Excalibur exists, beautiful Artoria,” whispers the summer breeze over the lake. “It was made to be wielded in such times when all your people were threatened. And though we no longer live there, we have not forgotten our land. We made it as the fortress of Nature, set apart from infection and the hand of war, and wrapped it in mist to hide it. Though Man came, and we left, we love our creation still. And these damned things which assault it, who have neither land nor life, they are anathema in the World's eyes. You and all that go with you will have the blessing of the Lake so long as our power lasts. Destroy the Unworlded, and I will never hold a debt against you, until life's end.”
So she bows again, more deeply. She takes the sword. She wraps magic around her, and forms it into armour. She brushes aside the wheat, and she walks through the doorway.
It is that time.
When she emerges into the human plane, it is in a tunnel of rock, echoing with the sound of waves and lit by streams of light coming from a cracked and dripping roof. Dimly, she can make out a widening before her, where the tunnel must open out into a cave proper. As she moves towards that cave, her armoured foot nudges something on the ground. It chimes, and she just catches the sound of dull groans from ahead of her.
“Ahhh ...” She knows this place, and she knows its purpose. Taking care not to sound the small bell her foot knocked, she picks it up and walks forward into the cavern. Though the gaps in the roof here are no bigger or more numerous than in the tunnel, it seems somehow better lit, and she can see what she had hoped would be there.
An enormous table, perfectly circular in shape, directly in the middle of the cave. Seated around it sleep her knights, whose wounds have slowly healed just as hers did. Their rest is vigilant, each dressed in his armour and each with his right hand on his sword. Their armaments are what illuminate the cave – polished steel reflecting light all around. But, unlike her, they slept the dead sleep of ages, and the call did not rouse them. They are hers alone to wake.
So she takes her place in the lone empty chair and strikes the bell. Lowly, tiredly, they groan the question it demands of them once again.
“Is it time?”
They have been bothered by unwary thieves, unsuspecting travellers, curious myth-seekers for fifteen hundred years. Not daring to wake the mysterious warriors, each has said, “It is not time. Sleep again.” But at last the bell rings truly.
“It is that time, knights! It is that time! Time to wake, time to march, time to war! Britain begs you and your king demands of you – get up and fight!”
It is the voice which led them to ten victorious battles and drove away the Saxons. It is the voice of their king. Not one disobeys. To her left, Lancelot's eyes flutter open – to her right, Gawain. Then Bedivere, Percival, Bors, Ector, Kay, Llenlleawg, Agravain, Sagramor, Tristain, Culhwch and all the rest, the thousand knights of the Round Table.
Lancelot speaks first, “My king …” He falls to his knees, and then flings his whole body down at her feet. “I ...” A sob wrenches itself from his throat, but he's still trying to mouth his apology even as his words are swallowed up by the tears.
“No, Lancelot.” She wonders if she should make that a rejection of the false 'king' as much as of his apology. Make herself anew, without the cold barrier of deceit she brought between herself and her knights. No, they know Arthur the warrior-king, not Artoria (does she know who Queen Artoria might be, herself?). There's no room for doubt or questions, not at this time. “I have seen your grief, and the madness you drove yourself to. I could not punish you for doubting me, and if I had hated you, I could demand no worse punishment than what you gave yourself.” Gently, she raises him back to his feet, and holds him there until she thinks he won't throw himself down again.
Her champion steadied, she raises her voice, so all the knights can hear its high sound once again, the tone of the immortal youth who once ruled them. “This is a new time. But it is our time, just as much as the one we left. Britain still stands; Britain still remembers us. And, as it was when we all first came together and won our highest glory, she needs us. We all love our country, and we all know war in the marrow of our bones. That will be enough, whatever happened in times which are now long gone. Let us march, Knights! For Britain!”
They cheer, cheer that they have so clear a purpose once again. Cheer that they no longer have to worry about an inhuman king and who is for or against him. They cheer Arthur. And when their resolve is united, the cave has fulfilled the purpose humanity gave it. The walls split, rocks tumble, and the evening sunlight pours in.
“We go south first.” She's giving orders again – an old feeling, but still comfortable. Perhaps more comfortable now than it was before, somehow. “Over the waves, to Ynys Enlli. One more to wake before we go.”
“One more, my king?” Boyish Percival pipes up, his voice nearly as high as hers. They were the two golden-haired younglings of Camelot, though if their similarities had ended there. Where her youth spoke of divine favour and power, he had been mocked for being a stripling lad, not old enough to squire, let alone be a knight. Where hers was eternal, he had grown into broad shoulders and strong arms, even if he kept his child's innocence. And where hers had made her alien, a symbol instead of a person, he had worn down the older warriors with sheer cheerfulness (and a couple of well-timed duels, granted) until he had been one of her court's most popular knights.
“Yes, Percival. A man was confined all the time you slept and it is time to release him from his prison.”
“Oh! … Do we have to, lord Arthur? I mean, well -” he says with an impish smile.
Her lips twitch, and he blinks in surprise – that his stone-cold king understood his humour, or that she could actually find it amusing? “He's an irredeemable fool? Indeed. But a wise man too, one whom we need. And he was there at the beginning of this all, when I first took the sword from its stone. He should be here now as well, to see Camelot's second birth.”
“I didn't really mean we should -”
“I know, Percival, I know. No need to explain yourself.” But she's getting caught up in everything, all the old comrades, and all the new emotions she can express – and yet she must be slow and careful about them. She doesn't have to be the cold king any more, but war still demands that she keep ice's clarity, if not its chill. Perhaps when the fight is done, she and her friends can … she cuts her thoughts and the conversation short. “Enough waiting! Come, let's be off!”
So the thousand knights of Camelot march on the waves with fairy-blessed steps to Ynys Enlli, the Tidebound Isle.
There they find an apple tree, the single one of its type in all the world, taken from Avalon's Isle of Apples to be planted in the mortal realm. It clings to the hillside above a cave, and that cave is where Merlin has lain imprisoned by glass for the last fifteen hundred years.
Approaching his transparent coffin, she can see Merlin's lips moving, as if he's holding a conversation in the isolation of his prison. A spell perhaps, one meant to shatter the glass and free himself? Has he somehow heard of these new invaders, already begun preparing himself for battle?
But when she tosses aside the lid, she is not treated to gathering magical forces and words of power. Instead, Merlin is holding a rapid-fire debate with himself on the nature of passion. As he chatters on, apparently oblivious to his freedom, a smile crosses her lips for a second. Hadn't she said but knowing that old man, I am sure he is still casually talking about love? Then she raps firmly on the side of the coffin with her gauntlets. He looks up.
“Oh. Hello, Arthur. Took your time, didn't you?”
She gives him a level stare.
“Right, right, fine. Youngsters haven't got any patience these days. Sad, very sad.” He picks himself up out of the coffin and stares at it in distaste. “You know how boring it got in there, Arthur? No, no you don't. You got to sit in fairyland with all the pretty girls. Bet you had fun there. All the while your poor, ancient teacher gets shut in a glass box he can't even see out of. How is that fair? Bloody witches ...”
Ignoring his implications of fairy … debauchery, she patiently waits for his muttered monologue (seemingly directed more at the coffin than her) to end. The day when Merlin would weary of his own voice has still not dawned, apparently. And if fifteen hundred years just listening to himself ramble hadn't tired him of it, that time probably wasn't ever going to come.
Merlin does stop eventually, though his eyes keep themselves fixed on his glass container. She's about to remind him that she is still there and bring him up to speed when his gaze hardens into a furious glare and he starts a rapid chant.
“Belí's fire take you,
Belí's fire twist you,
Belí's fire melt you,
Belí's fire unshape you!”
From the floor of the cave, hands of flame rise to claw through Merlin's prison. As he repeats his spell, more and more appear, until the coffin is no longer visible for the inferno which grasps at it.
When the fire at last dies back, the coffin lies melted in a pool. Merlin leans over it and touches a finger to the centre. Artoria winces: she felt the heat from where she stood and the glass pool still glows hot. But he seems unconcerned, and straightens back up. As he does so, a stream of red glass is drawn upwards with his finger until he has a thin trail of it reaching his eye level. Merlin mutters another verse and a second streamer is drawn up, curling around the first. Then a third, fourth and fifth. Eventually, the whole coffin has woven itself into a thick glass staff for the mage. He stamps it on the floor and all the colour, all the heat, seems just to fall out of it, shed like an old cloak.
“There. This bound me and now I bind it. A fitting little revenge.” His voice has lost its normal amused edge. A rare occasion; she remembers this tone from only a few times in her life. The first time she'd heard it … when he'd seen a girl throw away all her feelings, all her love, and resign herself to being hated so that her country could stumble on a few more gasping decades.
“Well, enough of that. Come on, you got me up for a reason, Arthur. Old man needs his sleep, you know. What's this all about?”
“The time we knew of has come: Britain's hour of greatest need. Vivian told me of invaders, anathema. She called them the Unworlded.”
“Ohhh, did she?” Merlin almost looks serious for a second. It passes. “Well, you know fairies. Flighty, very flighty. They'll give a fancy name to anything they feel like.” He sighs theatrically. “Come on then, I'm sick of this damn cave. Let's go - I assume the rest are with you?”
“All of them, yes. Come and see.”
They both duck to exit the cave, Merlin following Artoria. She looks back, and notes that the mage is being uncharacteristically unsentimental. By which she means he is only kissing the earth to celebrate his release into fresh air, instead of actually trying to eat it. Eventually he recovers and bothers to acknowledge that she still exists, and that hundreds of knights behind her are watching with amusement.
“All together again, eh? The best of Camelot, to make a new kingdom for Arthur -”
“No! No, Merlin. Perhaps Britain's dux bellorum, as the Romans would have had it, but not rex. That time has passed and we saw what came of it.” Artoria speaks lowly, but with a certainty she didn't know she had about her position up until that very second.
Merlin fixes his gaze on her and a smile slowly creeps onto his face. “A mere warlord instead of a king, hm? Well. You have changed, Arthur. Changed indeed, in the eternal land ...”
Shaking his musing off, he turns back to her assembled knights, and his secretive little smile broadens into a full grin. “All right then, boys! Time to walk the worlds!”
“Walk the worlds, Lord Merlin?” Sir Derfel asks. He was Merlin's guardian knight, who had made this island his home when his beloved old teacher had been imprisoned. She heard before Camlann that even Mordred's soldiers hadn't been able to drive him away, were slaughtered in their boats by his might. It had given them all hope: one of the Round Table who would survive no matter how their desperate battle turned out, a good and loyal knight.
“Yes, yes, keep up! I can't jump us around here, but I can drop into any other world anywhere I like. So we take a stroll over there, and then I open the way back just outside old London. Simple enough, even your little brain should get it.”
“Yes, lord,” replies Derfel, with all the love and patience that long association with the mad, old trickster has bred into him.
“Right, just a second.” Merlin makes a gesture and thumps his staff on the ground. The wind suddenly picks up, ready to carry his words to the whole British host. “There. Now I don't need to shout at you lot any more. Poor old man, don't want to wear out my voice, you know how it is.” He waits for the ensuing murmur of laughter to pass before continuing. “So, everyone, the door'll appear in front of us. All you need to do is walk through. Couldn't be simpler! On three. One. Two. Three!”
Then, of course, he opens it beneath their feet.
They fall. They fall through sky, an alien sky of gold mist and red clouds. An alien sky for an alien world which turns below, streams of obsidian rock flowing over white fields. A world which is quickly coming up to meet them: fast, too fast, going to hit it -
They fall through another portal.
For how quickly they had been dropping, they land strangely softly. Even so, the knights are jarred, some winded and some just panting for air. But none of them are so hurt that they cannot glare furiously at Merlin. He smiles blithely.
“There we go. Ought to have your blood up now, boys.” Artoria returns for a second to the old question of whether Merlin uses that address so often to tease her for her secret or just because he likes to belittle everyone else. “Go on, have fun swinging your little swords around. I'll just watch.”
Artoria sighs as he wanders off, leaning on his staff heavily enough that she can believe he needs it for once. And, in all fairness, moving a thousand knights through the walls of the universe and back could hardly not tax him, however powerful he is.
Time to plan, then. Britain's modern capital was hit early and hard, she judges. The square which all her knights have suddenly been crammed into is as much rubble as pavement: a tall column in the centre has snapped and fallen, though the lions at its feet still keep their watchful guard. She walks over to them, stands on one of their platforms. All around, towering buildings have been brought low and the huge invaders, their weaponry still carving apart the city, are the highest things in sight. On the horizon beyond them is the same evening sun which had greeted everyone so warmly when her knights left their Anglesey cave. But it now paints enormous metal shells in a dull, menacing red, echoing the glare of the fires they have sparked all through London.
For a moment, her teeth clench and her eyes narrow. But anger is one of those emotions she's never thought well of, as king or before. It clouds her judgement and when facing down these monstrosities, Vivian's Unworlded, she cannot afford that. She briefly strokes the lion at her side, running her fingers over its smooth, metal surface in soothing motions. Britain still holds these beasts dear; from Camelot then to London now, some things were remembered. Enough. To work.
She calls the knights together around her impromptu speaking platform and scans the crowd. Picking one out, she beckons for him to join her. “Gawain, is there still enough light?”
“Galatine and I will make it be enough, sire.” He's smiling like so many of the others have been since their awakening and their lord's return, but it's edged with a hard determination. Whatever the strain it might put on him, he'd no more fail his king than he'd stand by while Britain fell.
“Well said, friend,” she replies and gives him a nod. She looks down to another of her warriors. “Llenlleawg, if you'd come up here?”
The little Irishman, ever-loyal, climbs up to stand by her and her lion. When he's on a level with Artoria, she holds out Excalibur to him and lets him run his fingers over it gently, tracing the steel.
“Its wonder has not faded a bit. Thank you, sir, from the bottom of my heart,” the mage-knight says, and nostalgia rushes through her. His admiration for her sword was never dulled in all the time he was at her court, and the same applies even now, centuries later. He pauses for a second, a frown of concentration setting itself firmly on his face. He takes a deep breath. “Be thou born!”
A flash, and he holds another Excalibur in his hands. Not a sister to hers, as Gawain's Galatine is, but a full twin in gold and blue and spiralling fairy letters. As there always was, there's a little intake of breath from the gathered warriors, only the sheer number of them making the sound audible at all.
“It's beautiful, my knight – good work indeed. Use it well. Now, you both should stand ready,” she says. They give short bows in reply. “Kay ...”
And so she directs each of the knights whose power she thinks might be sufficient to their targets; a dozen stalking horrors are picked out for destruction. Those whose speciality lies elsewhere have other assignments: Bedivere takes command of a detachment to gather and protect civilians; Derfel takes another to strike at their enemies' ground troops; the royal general Pellinore is the best to liaise with the modern fighters who are still keeping up a resistance; and Lancelot has left to appropriate some enormous modern weapon he spotted amidst wreckage in the river. (A remark from the back of her army that Lancelot's infamous 'subtlety' survived the ages well was met with grins all round). Artoria's war machine swings smoothly into action without waste or argument. Everyone understands the others, knows strengths and weaknesses, who they should cover for and who can cover them. As good as it had ever been before. Better.
Satisfied, she leaves her knights to their tasks and concentrates on the moment. Gawain is the first of the six standing to her right, and Llenlleawg the first of the six to her left, as she begins the count to London's first strike against the Unworlded. Three blazing Excaliburs are raised. Galatine's light is darker, having to gather up the evening sun. Llenlleawg's imitation glows a little paler than hers, unable to live up to the glory of its original. And between the two, Excalibur itself is radiant. Summer's blade shines like the sun at solstice.
The swords are swung, their power unleashed. Day brighter than day dawns over London, and the Reapers die.
Tearing out of the desert where his city had been, on a flying adamant disc comes Gilgamesh, strongest of all the spirits Alaya has called. And the King of Heroes is furious.
The prana making up his golden armour has gone wild, leaving his chest bare and his magical power flowing free. It stirs up the air around him into a shimmering heat-haze, as if the burning of his anger is so strong it warrants a physical presence. His revealed tattoos flare brightly, the same enraged crimson as his narrowed eyes.
He sweeps through the cities of Mesopotamia, Noble Phantasms precisely chosen and targeted to exterminate the vermin that dare intrude on his property. One Reaper comes apart, dissolving into a landslide of rust, a billion specks of scrap falling onto Samawah as a spear plunges through the trespasser's centre. Another tears itself to pieces at the touch of a flint arrow – 'rejection of the alien' imposed onto its alien existence. This is the old, high magic, seen at civilisation's dawn and never since.
He doesn't care to acknowledge the crawling, mewling, weak children who inhabit his lands now, and the swiftness of his journey would not admit the possibility even if he wanted to. But they acknowledge him, whether they see only a spear in the wreckage of a destroyed Reaper and cry out in praise to God, whose weapon it surely is, cast from heaven. Whether they spot the sand around ancient Uruk suddenly stirred up to mark the horizon and whisper to each other of the old kingdoms and heroes who lived long ago. Whether they catch a glimpse of their saviour himself – a flash of golden hair, a glance of red eyes as he speeds on past – and fall to worship his divine presence. But their awe, just like them, has no worth and Gilgamesh pays no mind.
Eventually he is confronted, after a frantic conference among the Old Machines who had been terrorising Earth. They cannot have such a threat live, but nor can they afford to fight more like him without understanding what he does. How does he kill them, how do such minuscule weapons have such absurd effects, why did none of their information on humanity tell of a threat like this?
A potential solution is found, a way to both pose their questions and be ready to make the kill. All around the world, dozens of Reapers lift off to gather in orbit. A fraction of the invading force, but the ignorant children of Earth cheer and clamour when they see its departure.
And at their meeting point every Reaper does something wholly individual. They recreate their old selves, representatives of a hundred species who each dominated the galaxy in their turn. For the first time in millions of years, their genetic material is put to its proper use again. Cybernetic implants are activated and links opened to the subordinate avatars. A lone destroyer docks with each of the conclave, boarding a unique, new-birthed creature each time.
When they are all stowed in its hull, the Reapers' ark updates its tracking data, plots its course and shoots through the sky. Its cargo disembarks, and soon an army of the possessed flies and walks and crawls and burrows toward Gilgamesh, demanding answers.
He kills them all.
It was not the one or two weapons their opponent summoned before, but a storm of blades, each given a target and hunting it down unerringly. Instant, simultaneous destruction.
More data has been acquired.
The danger increases but the value of extracting information does so with it.
The Reapers are many, yet they would not throw away their selves needlessly.
The harvest is reaped for the sake of preserving organic life: the loss of fifty thousand years of evolution and innovation is not to be treated lightly, even in the case that only a single Reaper would die to him.
He has already destroyed several Reapers.
This being represents an enormous level of potential; can he be thrown away?
The cycle must be preserved, no matter what - life itself outweighs the consideration of one specimen from one species which has grown in one tiny span of years.
The cycle must be preserved because it preserves life, but it is possible that life could be preserved in other ways; when such an extraordinary and unknown power is found, it should be investigated for the possibility of a new method.
A new method is not certain.
The cycle is known.
In seconds, all Earth's Reapers have shared their data points and uploaded them to the conclave. Consensus has been achieved: destroy him. Destroy his chaos; uphold our order.
But the King of Heroes – the first champion who transcended reincarnation itself to reach the Akashic Throne – is not a green soldier, to stand about idly in the middle of battle. A lens is summoned from his treasury and hovers over his eye as he peers into the sky. He sees them.
“You! You yourselves are the ones who come to conquer my kingdom? It has shattered, and my people have fallen and they have forgotten those golden times, but all this world is mine! And you think you will take it? Machines, tools? You think you can destroy even the pathetic fragments which are left of my realm?”
Gilgamesh is spitting with fury, uncaring of any dignity lost in his outrage. The golden Gate which has been open at his back gapes wider and then contracts suddenly, leaving room for only a single weapon with a golden handle. The hero-king draws it; its revealed drill-like blade is deep red with brighter crimson trails crossing it. And it begins to spin.
“Let me show you what tools I have. Let me show you what submits to me!”
The sword spins and wind rushes, whipping up dust and sand. Gilgamesh's nameless weapon sucks in the wind, compresses it into something other, foreign to the very nature of the world as man has known it. But that is the least of what it can do and Gilgamesh has no interest in leashing his weapon for this battle. It would not be enough – not powerful enough, not punishment enough.
So he pours more magic in, the sword's glyphs and his tattoos flaring yet a brighter red together. Huge gouts of sand and dirt are caught up to whirl higher and father, darkening the sky. In the spinning clouds, charge gathers and lightning sparks, bright against the blackness. A desert storm has risen to watch the Star of Genesis reborn. But, in the eye, Gilgamesh thinks nothing of the side-effects to his fury. Over the howl of the wind and the flurrying sand, he bellows his curse at the Reapers.
“You come for my kingdom's destruction? Then learn of creation! Learn of how Heaven and Earth were divided and Hell was sealed below! Learn it from the tool of the gods which was Creation itself! Learn this and die!”
The wind screams hell. The stone-cutter of the Elder Gods is unsealed once more, though its masters have long since passed, and it now enacts its purpose. From the eye of the tempest comes a new storm, birthed within Ea's sword of severing. Unbound, it tears through the atmosphere and engulfs the whole Reaper conclave. And in the heart of that storm, the machines meet with truth.
It is a stark one. It is a dead planet. Or, perhaps, beyond dead. Never has it had being on itself, nor does it wish such to host such an abhorrence. If anything can be said to inhabit this place, it is a pitiless loathing for that with life, thought, motive force, Origin. Once, this was Earth, beyond and before time: nothing lived, nothing died. Nothing was.
But then comes a dawn, bright in the distance - a racing storm-tide of air and water, lightning and sulphur. It screams across the face of the world, pouring down all the seeds of mortality. Below, there will soon be oceans. In them will grow tiny sparks, single living cells. And from those ancestors will eventually come an uncountable variety of plants and creatures and life. Covering the planet, this storm of Origin becomes a firmament to stand between Earth and Heaven, and a seal to bury barren Hell deep.
They confront the land of the dead and the power that conquered it. And so the killers of trillions are undone by rawest Creation.
And so did the great heroes make war, smashing apart tens of metres of armour which had weathered eternities in space, whose construction was hundreds of millennia away for the most advanced species in the galaxy. Cores shredded or vaporised, the Old Machines died in numbers never seen before.
But no less did those without such weapons fight, the ones of lesser fame or fortune. If they did not kill the Reapers themselves, they could still drive back armies of lesser creatures. Waves of husks had been meant to overrun missile batteries which had even the smallest chance of striking down a Reaper. But they found themselves met and matched by those for whom close combat had been the only way of fighting, and who had proven themselves in times when men had been far mightier than some careless enhancement could make the Reapers' empty slaves. Blade and spear and bow-string sang through the air, and all over the Earth armies of cybernetic abominations died to that song.
Victory was not won that day. The Reapers were too numerous, too powerful to be so easily wiped out. The crushing pressure of history bore down on those out of their time, those whose legends had never said that they could return to life, and they were soon returned to the Throne. The bodies of the remaining champions ached with the strain of channelling the tidal waves of magic needed to break apart a single Reaper's shell, or to turn aside the sheer power of their great cannons. And even heroes must bleed. Must die.
But this was at last a true battle. Inexorable conquest was halted, and the massacre on Earth was over. Humanity and its heroes now went to war.