Thirty-six hours ago, right before the lease on his tiny flat ran out dormitory move-out deadline, Merlin had taken stock of his situation.
First class graduate degree in his dual specialty in physics and metaphysics?
A good start on an envious library heavy on runic and ritualized magic, with a good chunk dedicated to chthonic mythology and incantations?
A scholastic debt large enough to choke an elephant?
Check, check, and check.
Merlin sat down heavily at the kerb, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. His head pounded.
Thirty-six hours ago, after the impulsive aftermath of purchasing a rare illuminated copy of Compendium of Ancient Bloodlines and Bloodrites before Muirden could get his dirty hands on it, Merlin had noticed that he didn't have all that much money left in his bank account.
Maybe he shouldn't have bought the book, but these kinds of opportunities only came once in a blue moon, and, anyway, he couldn't really fault himself for having taken advantage of his student discount while he still had it.
Maybe he should have held off on buying Thompson's Chemical Guide to Esoteric Compounds, Proto-Gaelic Linguistics and Syntax, and the Encyclopaedia Mythica Britannia (expanded edition), and saved up enough for a small flat.
Maybe he should have --
Merlin snorted, but both the noise and the action made metaphorical daggers stab through his skull.
Maybe he should have done a whole lot of different, more reasonable things, starting with not spending the last of his admittedly small post-graduate stipend on the alcoholic portion of the small graduation party with his closest friends.
Thirty-six hours ago, Merlin had been painfully sober and uncomfortably aware of the less-than-ideal situation that swooped down on every student once they graduated and were no longer protected by the expensive shelter of academia, but at least each one of his friends could sympathize because they were in the same situation as he was.
No money, no job prospects, crippling debt, and nowhere to go.
Getting pissed off their arses and spending the evening commiserating had seemed like a good idea at the time.
However, seven hours into the aftermath, Merlin wanted to die. He was still uncomfortably aware of the less-than-ideal situation that swooped down on every student once they graduated and were no longer protected by the expensive shelter of academia, but now, instead of being painfully sober, he was excruciatingly hungover and in the initial stages of I regret everything. He couldn't remember anything after Freya produced the absinthe and only had a vague recollection of trying Will's wolfsbane-spiked beer.
But before that...
Unfortunately, he remembered everything.
"Worst jobs ever. Go," Sefa said, in-between hiccups. She looked cute cuddled up next to Freya, though it was probably as much a survival tactic as anything. Both were on their way to being completely soused, neither was particularly stable, and one of them was keeping the other from face-planting on the sticky carpet. It wasn't clear to Merlin which one was which, nor which would fall first.
"That term as an intern for Bruce Caulder," Will said, cracking open a new can of beer, presumably to keep himself hydrated in-between shots of whatever bottle of vile two-pound grappa that they'd just opened. "He sent me to interview all those people who got affected by the drug spiking scandal, do you remember that? It was a couple of years back. Someone broke the seals on the boxes, used a needle to spike paracetamol with some sort of magic goop that made everyone break out in weeping pus?"
"I remember, it was all over the news," Gilli said. He was probably the most sober of them all, but that was because he'd joined late. He would catch up, though. He was dedicated like that. "What's so bad about that?"
"They were still weeping pus," Merlin said, unable to stop his snicker. Everyone grimaced.
Will pointed in Merlin's direction in confirmation, and at the same time, he made the face he always made when his stomach was about to become intimate with the loo. He sounded strangled when he waved dramatically (and desperately) at his throat and said, "I can still taste the smell of it in the back of my mouth."
Will made a good start on washing it out by half-emptying his beer.
"Clerk typist at the McTaggart Ward," Freya said sleepily, but she always sounded sleepy after the exam period. At least she would be able to get some rest, soon. "On a typewriter. In the basement office. About fifty feet from perverted sickos. Had to walk past them four times a day. More if I had to pee."
"Ugh," Sefa said, patting Freya's head.
"Wait, why four? I mean, once to get to the office, once to leave...?" Gilli's expression furrowed with confusion.
"Cafeteria was in the basement. Stairs were on the other side of the ward," Freya said. "Wouldn't let me eat in my office."
"Oh," Gilli said, then winced. "That's awful."
"Hmm-mm," Freya said, purring under Sefa's hand.
"I peed in a bottle, once," Freya murmured. "Totally forgot about it. It's probably still there, tucked next to the pile of used ribbons."
"Ugh. Gross," Gilli said.
"Mine's clearing out a Giant Hogweed infestation," Mordred said. His eyes were locked on some far-away point, like a soldier with the thousand yard stare.
Merlin hissed in sympathy, but only managed to inhale his beer down the wrong pipe, and nearly choked. He'd had to deal with Giant Hogweed, once, and he still had nightmares about it. The plant was one of the most dangerous in the world, capable of burning skin on contact alone. Mordred's druidic magic could protect him from most poisons, but the Giant Hogweed was a force unto its own. Whatever precautions he had taken at the time must not have been enough, not if he looked like a veteran remembering the war.
Fire wouldn't eliminate hogweed -- the roots went down too deep to completely destroy the plants, the poison became an airborne toxin at high temperatures, and the seeds spread more efficiently that way. It was horrible. Removing the Giant Hogweed required bomb gear, a self-enclosed rebreather, goggles, and gloves, all of which were preferably lined with Kevlar.
And there was the digging. A whole lot of digging. Then, hours on hands and knees and a microscope, looking for the stray roots that weren't uprooted in the first go, because the fucking things could regenerate.
"What the fuck even?" Gilli asked, sputtering. "Of your own free will? Why would you do that?"
Mordred shook himself out of it. "Professor Newton planted them around his herb garden because the undergrads kept stealing them for potion ingredients. Smart guy, but so fucking stupid. He didn't think it would get out of hand. Anyway, he promised me extra credit and access to his copy of Hesterfield's Herbology and Ancient Druidry."
"Not worth it," Merlin said, because he had a very expensive copy in his library. He would've loaned it to Mordred if he'd known Mordred had needed it.
"Could've stood to know how useless it was before I took the job to buy the bloody book, you wanker," Mordred said, kicking Merlin's foot.
"Christ," Gilli said, shaking his head. "Well, mine still has to be working for Madame Lacroix. The job wasn't bad, but I could've done without the groping. My arse was black and blue at one point."
"The horror," Will said, unsympathetic, but that was because he was an asshole. He was in-between girlfriends, and the in-between had lasted three years so far. Will was a charming guy, treated his dates like Queens, but once word got out that Will was a werewolf, well, word got, and the ladies would rather hug a Giant Hogweed plant than to give him a second look.
Gilli knew that, and he wasn't the sort of bloke to rub it in.
"You're just jealous," Gilli said, shrugging. "At least I got some."
Or maybe he was.
Merlin snorted. Will growled, and the girls yelled at them to simmer the fuck down, though coming from Freya, it was more of a cute, sleepy snarl. Will and Gilli settled without coming to blows, and after a few minutes of silent drinking, Sefa asked, "What about you, Merlin?"
"Ugh, don't ask Merlin, he's got the unfair advantage of not knowing which bad job to pick from his laundry list," Will said.
Merlin raised two fingers -- or at least, he tried to. His hand was a little numb. All he knew was the floor was awfully comfortable and he wasn't inclined to move. Will wasn't wrong, though. Pretty much every job Merlin had ever had ended up some sort of shiteshow in one way or another. His paper routes had been fraught with trigger-happy farmers, grumpy dogs and carnivorous cows. His job at the chippie had been all right until a half-giant got angry over what he thought was a substandard portion and tipped the stand over. Inventorying the stock at the local Tesco's had been hampered by an infestation of tsuchigumo, which shouldn't even have been a thing in Britain to begin with.
And that was during his formative years. It only got worse from there.
Merlin's personal favourite was having to round up the kelpies from a Scottish loch, but he could've done without the multiple attempts to drown him.
Sometimes, Merlin thought Fate had it in for him, and Fate's grudge meant he'd get thrown through the proverbial wringer until he'd made up for whatever he'd done wrong in a past life. But in all honesty, he had a good life, and it was no one's fault that he always seemed to find himself in the thick of a bad situation from something that had originally seemed so innocent.
"Dream job," Freya said sleepily. Her voice was stronger, now, as if she were sobering up, but it wouldn't last long. Someone would shove another shot into her hand the second she showed signs of full lucidity. Those were the rules. "What's everyone's... dream jobs?"
"That's a better question," Sefa said, brightening. She patted Freya's head. "What's yours, Frey?"
Freya took so long to answer that Merlin removed his arm from over his eyes to see if she was asleep. But she was sitting up straight and on her own, her mouth set in a thoughtful curl, and she said, "I want to train animals for the movies."
"Huh," Will said, voicing Merlin's agreement. Freya's dream job was perfect for someone with her affinity for and connection to animals. She did better with magical creatures, which was a skill few people had, and possessed a soft touch with the pricklier non-human races.
Merlin nudged Will's leg. "She could train you, mate."
"Only if she promises to give me treats," Will said, grinning.
Freya made a face. "Ugh. Pass. I can only work with intelligent animals."
Will sputtered, Sefa laughed, and Gilli gave Will a companionable shove. Merlin gave Will a wide-eyed look and promised, "It's okay, I'll never leave you at the dog shelter."
"Fuck you all," Will said, but he was smiling.
"Florist," Sefa said, which was a complete hundred-eighty from her field of study. She was studying French Literature, but instead of getting her doctorate to become a teacher, she went back for a certificate in accounting. Her mum had wanted her to get a degree in a field where she could impress people, but then changed her mind and insisted Sefa forget her doctorate for something that would become a sustainable career. Sefa had gone along with it only because her mum had threatened to cut her off from the family fortune otherwise.
It was a family fortune that originated from a great-grandmother who was a dryad, and who knew exactly where to find the mother lode of truffles in the forest, mainly because her magic nurtured them. But this was a little-known secret, and no one knew that Sefa's heritage was dryad-rich, not even her closest friends. If that piece of information ever got out, her job prospects were tanked, because she'd be fined for failing to Register as a Supernatural, and she'd have a black Registration mark on all of her records.
"Really?" Mordred didn't bother to mask his surprise. "But I've read your short stories, and you're aces at what you do. I thought you'd be writer, at least. But a florist? Wasn't even on my radar."
Sefa smiled at him, small and sweet like she was hiding a secret -- which, yes, she was, even if she was shoving a fresh shot of... something into Merlin's hand to keep him from pointing out that he'd known all along.
"Don't make it sound so common," Gilli groused.
And, right, Merlin was the only one in their group who knew. Merlin had the privilege only because he'd blurted it out the instant they'd met, much to Sefa's shock. She had never asked how he'd found out, and that had been a wash of cold water to remind him that people kept secrets a secret for a reason.
Kind of like him.
So he stayed where he lay on the floor, the new shot of alcohol balanced on his chest, and lifted his head in a resolute attempt to teach himself a new drinking trick. Merlin had managed to slurp a couple of millimetres before Will helpfully picked up the shot, and told him to "Open wide."
"I'm not judging. Have you seen my room?" Mordred asked. They'd all seen it, mostly to scout for special herbs for medicinal reasons, but Mordred was smart enough not to grow them where he slept, because his landlady kept an eagle-eye out for these sorts of things. "I'm a bloody tree-hugger on my worst day."
"That he is," Merlin said, coughing when the fire he'd just swallowed fizzed out of his nose. He was nearly too focused on rolling onto his side in the recovery position to notice Sefa's hard glare. He waved her off; it wasn't her fault that Mordred liked to hug her so much, even if he didn't know why.
Or maybe he did, and he was a better secret-keeper than Merlin, but whatever.
"What about you, Mordred?" Freya asked, clearly sensing the faint tension in the room.
"Well, I... Honestly? I've always wanted to be a healer."
"You could go to medical school," Freya said. "You're almost there, anyway."
"I wish," Mordred said wistfully. After a moment, he admitted, "They're going to close the program to magic users next year. If I got accepted in the first place, they'd do everything they could to squeeze me out, and I heard that the hospitals stopped hiring magic users this year. It's illegal, but no one's saying anything, so there's no real point if I can't get a job as a nurse or as a doctor. Imagine if I showed up and said, Hi, I'm a healer, I can take pain away with magic? I'd be bloody well lynched."
Mordred had started his druidic studies young and had passed his trials two years ago. He'd come to university with a focus in botany, because that would make his next few years easy, but he'd gotten so bored with the repetition of what he already knew that he'd moved on to biology. When even that got tenuous, he'd gone into nursing. With his advanced degree he could work as a nurse practitioner, but his prospects were already limited.
"You'd be a good healer," Freya consoled, though it really wasn't a consolation. Mordred's druidic magic gave him an advantage; his knowledge of botany meant he could brew natural remedies far more efficient than pharmaceutical companies; and, his education in nursing meant that he was already a step ahead of most Healer candidates. But to become a Healer, Mordred would have to apprentice to a Registered Healer, and they were few and far between these days.
"Did a bang-up job on my broken leg," Gilli said.
"What broken leg?" Sefa asked.
"Exactly," Gilli said, grinning. Mordred ducked his head, embarrassed or shy. Or both.
"The system sucks," Merlin said, a propos of nothing, because Mordred would be brilliant at Healing, even if he didn't always have the best bedside manner.
"Hear, hear," Will said. He didn't speak up again for a minute, during which Merlin endured someone (probably Will) poking him in the ribs with their foot. Finally, almost dejectedly, Will added, "I just wanted to be a cop like my dad."
The silence was full of politically-charged tension, and Merlin half-wished he could sink through the floor to get away from the blow-out that would inevitably occur. If he full-wished, it would happen, because he was drunk and his control over his magic tended to be spurious, taking his idle thoughts literally. Also, there was no telling if he were sober enough to sink through the floor, or if he'd get stuck partway like he had, back in his first year of university, completely by accident.
In any case, he'd done a good job so far in his life hiding exactly how powerful he was, and he didn't want to scare (or lose) his friends, so he'd resist the urge to cast magic, wilfully or not, as long as he could.
In self-defence for the argument that was no doubt brewing under everyone's skin, Merlin pulled the mouldy-smelling pillow he'd been stuck with from the bed. It flew over with a drunken wobble that made everyone laugh.
Merlin's friends thought he was a telekinetic. That's what it said on his registration card, anyway. It wasn't a magical ability, though most people didn't make that very fine legal distinction, but it also meant that he'd neatly avoided having to register as a magic user. Technically, the most strangling laws against magic users, creatures, and humanoids didn't apply to him, but they kind of did, not just because Merlin had been lying about his abilities his entire life, but because people were stupid.
"It's fucking unfair, is what it is," Sefa said. "If your dad could do the job, why can't you? It's not like you turn into a rabid dog at the full moon. Fucking normals --"
Merlin grabbed the pillow out of the air and tried to suffocate himself with it.
Ironically, in a world where perfectly normal, 100% homo sapiens sapiens were the minority, it was the supernatural community who were discriminated against.
Experts calculated the probabilities and estimated roughly sixty to seventy-five percent of the population on a global scale possessed some degree of non-human DNA. Some of the more open-minded theorists from the nineteen-sixties wrote papers correlating blood heritage to cultural mythical beliefs, genealogists had once had a booming business tracing back families to obscure connections of random deities, and statisticians determined that even a large influx of immigrating or emigrating people would keep the native magical population stable.
In Great Britain, the percentage skewed toward seventy. Ireland was more like ninety percent, but no one spoke about Ireland. Nice people, really, but they had some weird magic over there.
Regardless of the origins of a person, their supernatural status, was no reason for everyone else to be complete wankers about it.
The fear that non-magical people had for magical people and creatures had been growing year after year, and the restrictions on the magical community had been increasing since the early nineteen-eighties. It was as if centuries of peaceful coexistence had been completely forgotten about on the day someone flipped some sort of switch. Maybe the hatemongering started because someone had had a bad encounter and the anger spread from there, but it was stupid, because there were evil people in the world regardless of the source of their DNA.
The suppression of certain avenues of scientific study and the hasty redaction of published papers might have something to do with it, too. Oh, and let's not mention click-bait articles, misleading newspaper clippings, and pretty, bubble-headed reporters who didn't know their DNA from their... their... well, anything, really.
Somehow, seemingly without anyone noticing or anybody doing something useful about it, laws were passed requiring registration of certain magical creatures and magic users, forbidding anyone remotely magical from holding public positions, and restricting their movement and travel opportunities. Nothing was on the books about preventing magic or humanoid creatures from obtaining an education, not yet, but some schools had already instituted certain policies and had shut down the departments dedicated to supernatural studies.
It was why Merlin had nearly killed himself completing his graduate degree. He had wanted to get ahead of the wave that would've seen him pushed out of school without so much as a nod of acknowledgement for the work he'd already put in. Doubling (sometimes tripling) up on all of his courses had eaten all of Merlin's free time and hadn't given him many opportunities to find a job for when he graduated. He was lucky his friends were giving him a place to live, even if he couldn't afford his split of the room and board.
Unlike the others, he was the only one at a complete loose end.
Merlin blinked at the stark white light when someone -- Will -- yanked the pillow out from over his head. "We're done," Will said. He had a curious, wistful expression, as if he didn't see why the subject of magical politics infuriated Merlin so much. As far as they knew, Merlin had it easy. On the surface, Merlin had a perfectly normal, human gift that had nothing to do with the irrational order of amino acids in his DNA.
"Cheers," Merlin said weakly, feeling like a giant plonker. On the one hand, his friends had every right to hate him for not being as ostracized as they were. On the other hand, he was a fucking coward for not telling them that he understood, that he hated the situation as much as they did, because he was just like them. On the third hand, there was no use getting worked up about it when it was out of their control -- none of them had had the temerity to apply for a law degree or to be born into a political family. On the fourth hand --
On the fourth hand, he was really, really, fucking drunk. He blinked at all of the arms floating on front of him. But also, yes, he couldn't ever forget that if anyone knew what he was, he'd be killed on sight.
"What about you, Merlin? What's your dream job?" Sefa asked.
Merlin raised his arms over his head in a makeshift shrug. He didn't know. Physics was a reasonable enough field -- he could go in any direction he wanted, but his focus on energy forces and metaphysical interactions narrowed his options significantly. He should have gone into something more practical instead of studying something that could only help him understand his own power better, but what was done was done.
"Come on, Ems," Will said, a smile in his voice. "When we were kids and we were talking about what we were going to do when we grew up? What was that you wanted to be, again?"
"That was your dream, not mine." Merlin rolled his eyes, which didn't help the situation. He suddenly had more arms in the air. "And anyway, I'm pretty sure Evil Overlord isn't a valid occupation."
The resounding silence that greeted his announcement was either because he'd fallen unconscious, or because everyone was remembering the last time an Evil Overlord had nearly taken over London. It had taken three fighter jets, a platoon of infantry, and something secretly (but not so secretly) called a negavoid bomb to take him down.
Merlin grit his teeth and forced himself to look at his friends. Will was smirking, because it had always been a big joke to him. Sefa looked thoughtful, Freya might be asleep, Mordred's eyes were in narrow squints. Gilli was bent over, digging through the cooler of melting ice in search for something else to drink.
And then, his friends surprised him.
"That would be cool," Freya murmured.
"You'd make a great Evil Overlord," Sefa said, grinning.
"You do know that a prerequisite to being an Evil Overlord is being a little bit Evil, right?" Gilli asked, frowning at the bottle of absinthe in his hand. He held it up questioningly and Freya was suddenly wide awake and making grabby hands.
"Have you met Merlin?" Will said with a laugh. "He's a bloody nasty blighter when he's angry. Don't you remember what he did to Muirden when he sabotaged Merlin's experiments last year?"
"That wasn't me," Merlin said weakly. And, anyway, it wasn't his fault if he'd made the rotational balance of the measurement spheres a little more sensitive than normal, or that, for the sake of his theory, he'd used
very volatilely flammable liquid to fill them because they had a lower viscosity and density than water. Also, Muirden was part fire elemental. It's not like the burns weren't going to heal. Eventually.
The group made a thoughtful murmur.
"Just think about it," Will said. "Imagine how much shite would get done if Merlin was an Evil Overlord?"
Merlin pulled again, snatching his pillow from wherever it had ended up, and tried to smother himself again before he panicked.
Will, the bastard that he was, said, "At least he doesn't have to worry about having to be a sorcerer, yeah?"
"No, I don't, because I'm not," Merlin lied, but he was shite at lying even when sober, and fought in vain to ignore everyone's pitying looks. Except for Gilli, who looked confused. "Someone give me a drink."
"All right, mate, that's everything," Will said, sitting down on the kerb next to Merlin. He was too cheerful, too hyper, and too bloody sober. "Ready to go? The sooner we drop off your kit, we'll go and get Mordred's rubbish. We've only got the lorry for a few more hours, I'm not keen on paying the overcharge if we don't turn it in on time."
"Ugh," Merlin said.
"You should see this," Sefa shouted, skipping excitedly across the road from her flat. She'd finished loading her belongings into the lorry earlier and had been helping Freya pack valuables into her little car. Will and Gilli were already moved into the house the six of them would be renting, but Gilli was nowhere to be seen, and Mordred was still in his room, fussing over which plants could be packed together.
Merlin vaguely remembered something about Helga not liking to be in touching distance to Thomas, and the sprawling ivy getting fussy if the trellis was at the wrong angle. Mordred had been a little too frantic and coherent for Merlin's still-muddled head, and out of self-preservation, Merlin had hid in the nearest broom cupboard until Freya found him there, trying to sleep. "You could stand to be a little quieter. Please."
"You're such a grouch," Sefa said, sitting down on Merlin's other side. She shoved her phone under his nose. The screen was too bright; Merlin closed his eyes tightly until the screen dimmed and went black.
"It's not fair that you don't have a hangover," Merlin complained.
"Werewolf," Will said.
"I am immune to the blights that affect common men," Sefa said flippantly, but when Merlin looked, he saw her giving him the squinty side-eye, as if daring him to say anything about not being entirely human. She shoved her phone into his face again. "Look at it!"
"Yes, yeah, it's very nice. Lovely black screen --"
"Not that, you pillock." Sefa hit the button at the bottom. The screen lit up.
"Augh," Merlin said, covering his eyes.
There was a scramble around him. Will jostled him on one side. Sefa screeched at an uncomfortably high pitch that made Merlin want to slide under a rock and die.
"Are you having me on?" Will said, tone incredulous. He laughed, and clapped a hand on Merlin's back, and something in his spine popped. It did the pounding headache absolutely no favours, and it was lucky that Merlin's last few visits to the beloved loo had taken care of what little there had been in his stomach. "I can be the bigger man and admit when I was wrong. I didn't think it would work."
"Wrong?" Merlin asked weakly. He lifted his head, hoping his best friend would at least take pity on him and tell him what was going on.
"Yeah, mate. You know, about the whole thing -- oh, there's Freya, she wants me to bring her suitcases down, I guess they're too heavy or summat," Will said. Merlin followed his gaze blearily to the third floor of the building across a wide lawn, and cursed Will's enhanced werewolf hearing right along with his enhanced metabolism and apparent immunity to hangovers.
Merlin watched Will go, and, at a loss for anything to do, finally squinted at the screen Sefa was insistently shoving into his face.
Internet browser. Light grey header. Dark blue font. Covered in hyperlinks. Black text on white in the body. The simple interface registered a few seconds later as Craigslist.
Evil Overlord Incorporated Open for Business!
Newly established in the heart of London, EOI is seeking profit-bearing ventures to fuel the business' planned rapid expansion. Although not currently engaged in active world-dominating plans until fully staffed, Dr. M., the company head and Evil Overlord extraordinaire, is interested in assisting Londoners in resolving minor problems, settling disputes, and ensuring the continued health, happiness and liberty for all.
Please email Dr. M. at DrM.EvilOverlordInc@gmail.com. If your proposal meets our interest, you will be contacted shortly.
Principals only. Recruiters, please don't contact this job poster.
Do NOT contact us with unsolicited services or offers.
Merlin rubbed his eyes. He read the Craigslist posting again. When he didn't understand it on the third read-through, he blinked at Sefa, who was vibrating out of her skin, and said, "What."
"It was Gilli's idea, but I wrote it. Freya helped! Will was completely useless, though. Sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Super posh and professional."
"I don't --"
"And look, that's not the best part," Sefa said, snatching the phone out of his hand. Merlin stared at her while she flipped to an email app and dropped it into his hands like they were hot potatoes. He nearly dropped them, hoping it was.
It was the email address of Dr. M. over at Evil Overlord Incorporated. The inbox looked full. Sefa reached over and scrolled the screen with her finger -- there were dozens and dozens of emails already, and as Merlin watched, three more popped into the inbox.
"What," Merlin said again.
"Congratulations, Merlin," Sefa said, her eyes sparkling. "You're an Evil Overlord, and you're in high demand."
"But," Merlin said, watching as Sefa bounced up from the kerb to run across the green, taking a box out of Freya's overloaded arms as Will effortlessly hefted two overstuffed suitcases in each hand. "I'm not... I don't even... As far as you know..."
He gave up. I'm not actually a sorcerer, I don't even have magic, As far as you know I'm only a telekinetic and a terrible one at that -- none of those statements were true, and, anyway, no one was actually listening to him. He didn't know how, but it seemed that the proverbial cat was out of the proverbial fucking bag, and he was so, so fucked. He half-expected government agents to converge on his location any second now, ready to haul him to a maximum security execution centre by way of a dissecting operating room to see what made him tick in the first place.
Tentatively, he opened the oldest email.
Dear Evil Overlord,
I really hope this is legit.
My next door neighbour won't stop playing his music at full volume in the middle of the night. I don't normally care, it's decent music, but my mum's visiting this weekend. If she thinks I don't live in a nice, quiet area, she'll make me move home. I'll pay you 50 pounds to make him stop, just for this weekend. No murder, please, blood to a minimum, and if you make sure the coppers don't show up after, I'll give you a bonus.
Merlin snorted. Then, he considered. That was fifty pounds he didn't have in his bank account and it would go far in covering his share of the rent. All he really needed to do was to get some bloke to turn off his stereo for a while. If polite didn't work, well, he could try threatening, which meant he'd have to bring Will along and paying him half. But that still counted toward his rent, and in the current absence of job prospects, Merlin would take it.
Idly, he wondered what kind of salary a full-fledged Evil Overlord made, anyway, and immediately dismissed that thought.
Him. An Evil Overlord.
Ten miles away, in one of several sub-basements within MI5, junior analyst Arthur Pendragon was pondering exactly that same question.
How much does an Evil Overlord make, anyway?
He couldn't imagine that the position paid well. Little return on initial investments. No return on capital. No profit margin on products or merchandising unless the Evil Overlord was particularly successful in their ventures to take over the world and achieved some degree of fame. If that happened, the sky might be the limit -- action figures, video games, movies, tell-all autobiographies...
Still, the personal satisfaction of Ruling the World In An Iron Fist had to outweigh any monetary gains.
Once upon a time, a young (very young) Arthur daydreamed about being an Evil Overlord. He ran around the opulent grounds of the Pendragon mansion with a bright red blanket tied around his throat, smiting any creature (usually his older sister) who might attempt to thwart his plans to conquer the universe. His father, more amused than anything, indulged him as a father would indulge their child -- by making certain that Arthur had all the little toy soldiers his little heart could ever want, and replacing them when Arthur stomped them under his trainers, burying them deep in the manicured grass, or melting them using nothing but strategically-placed magnifying glasses and the rare-but-still-not-extinct English sunlight.
Precocious was hardly the term he'd use to describe himself as a child. He'd been more of a spoilt brat.
Arthur had never grown out of his secret love for Evil Overlords. He collected every autobiography and tell-all, clipped out newspaper articles, recorded their appearances on the telly or on the radio. He was well into his teens when he began researching Evil Overlord plots in earnest and got it into his head to create his own plans for accomplishing his childhood dream of ruling the world. The fact that he wasn't a magic user (as most Evil Overlords were wont to be), nor a magical creature powerful enough to crush his rivals in a bloody fist? That hadn't stopped him in the least from pursuing his dreams.
Then Cornelius Sigan had risen to power, and Arthur had held his breath, thinking, Yes, this is it. The corrupt government would be washed away, rude people would be brought under a firm yoke, and those who wanted a better world would be forced into positions where they could be put to work to achieve exactly that. Arthur had drafted his formal letter of introduction to Mr. Sigan, making sure to include a loose sketch of what he'd like to be in charge of in case Mr. Sigan wanted ideas, and had pulled together what had been an admittedly paltry resume for a teenager.
Arthur never got a chance to send his application package, because, two weeks after Cornelius Sigan's emergence and subsequent reign of terror, he learned just how far the current, unscrupulous government would go to maintain the status quo.
Although the loss of civilian life had been minimal, there remained enough residual signs of the effect of the negavoid bomb in the northern part of London to make him shudder to his core every time he had to take the outbound train to his grandparent's estate.
After the day Cornelius Sigan had been removed from existence, Arthur had carefully hidden his Evil Overlord Masterplan. He'd thrown out all of his fanboy posters, and had given away all but the most useful of his books.
However, that didn't mean he'd got over his obsession with taking over the world. It did mean he had come to the conclusion that he would need a new plan. If someone as powerful as Cornelius Sigan couldn't manage to hold fast against the government, what could a paltry human being like Arthur do?
He'd thought about it for a very long time.
He eventually formulated a new plan. He began by infiltrating MI5.
At any given time in the United Kingdom, there was an average of thirty potential Evil Overlords. Of those, a good half were nutters without any real power to speak of; they were summarily chalked up for monitoring (just in case), and left alone. Among the fifteen who remained after Her Majesty's Secret Service eliminated the non-threats, ten were minor players who could only heft their Evil Overlordliness on a small, inconsequent scale. These particular people warranted a little more surveillance, and junior field agents were usually sent out to keep an eye on them as part of their Welcome to Fieldwork initiation.
From what Arthur had heard, some of those junior field agents were never reassigned, mostly because they were stupid enough to get themselves caught, but that was neither here nor there.
Of the five remaining potential Evil Overlords, all five were possessing of moderate magical ability of some sort and of strength sufficient enough to make people sit up and take notice. As was the standard operating procedure for these sorts of things, if these individuals were flagged before they achieved a particular tipping point in the de Gelder equation, they were summarily captured, imprisoned, and...
As the saying went, they never saw the light of day again.
Arthur sighed. He adjusted his glasses, glanced around to see who else was keeping him company in the basement this fine morning, and promptly returned to his work when he didn't see anyone he particularly liked.
The de Gelder theorem had as many statistical variables to determine the Evil Overlordliness-level of an individual as the formula coined by the Drake equation, which evaluated the probability of viable alien life in the universe. In contrast, de Gelder used variables based on a different facet of the individual's life -- current position on the socioeconomic scale, type of upbringing, educational level, cultural influence, proximity to high levels of other-natural activity, etc., to determine the probability of supernaturality. There were cross-referenced tables with pre-calculated statistical determinants based on hundreds of thousands of hours of research. It was all very tidy.
The equation was also considered to be an archaic and useless system, particularly now that the Magical Entity Registration Act was in full effect. All those who were born after 1991 were documented by the system and tagged from that moment onward. There were the dissenters, of course, people who were born before 1991 and who refused to register voluntarily "For the good of the nation", and those who slipped through the cracks, somehow, because the Magical Entity Registration Act had become law before there actually had been a support system in place. Despite those exceptions, the Magical Entity Registry was particularly efficient in flagging the individuals who might become Evil Overlords.
Although the gap to cover the holes in the system was rapidly closing with each incarnation of the Magical Entity Registration Act and the continued bolstering of the policing body, there were still exceptions.
That was where Arthur came in.
Although his department was far smaller these days than he'd been told it had once been twenty years ago, it still played the very important part of tracking down anyone who had fallen outside the scope of the Magical Entity Registration Act and to identify anyone who might not have initially fallen within the Evil Overlordliness criteria, but who might erupt later, given the right conditions.
Evil Overlords was not the actual term used within the department. The higher-ups liked to call them the Magically-Inclined Malicious Entities. It was a terrible acronym, and didn't have quite the same terrifying ring, and Arthur refused to use it on general principle.
However, it didn't matter what they were called. Arthur didn't give a shit either way, because he wasn't supposed to be a fucking junior analyst stuck in the fucking basement of MI5 in the first fucking place.
According to his ten-year plan, Arthur Pendragon should have taken MI5 by storm and have become either one of their top secret agents or a senior member in charge of manipulating the status quo.
But then, too late, of course, he'd discovered that his father had done what he had believed to be sensible, at the time, when the registration act came into effect.
Uther Pendragon had gone and registered Arthur under MERA.
Arthur hadn't found out about it until he was in his early twenties, loudly complaining about his lack of career advancement at one of the family's usual Sunday dinners.
("Maybe it's because you're a loud, obnoxious prat," Morgana said, poking at the still-frozen chicken nuggets with her fork. The cook quit that morning, no explanation given, and heaven forbid anyone in the bloody household actually read the how-to instructions on the box.
"One day I'll have the license to shoot, you know," Arthur snapped, mulish.
Uther tapped his chicken nugget on the table with a concentrated effort that lent itself well to spontaneous combustion, if only one had that magical ability, to no avail. He looked up, chided Arthur to be nice to his sister, and said, "Come to think of it, it's possibly because of that new law preventing advancement of the supernatural in the public services."
"Sorry?" Arthur asked, struck too dumb to do anything other than stare at his father in consternation. His plans for world domination had been foiled by a bloody law-abiding parent, and fuck it all to hell.)
It should have come as some sort of consolation that he wasn't the only one -- Morgana had been registered for an awfully long time -- there had been no hiding her own particular status, unfortunately. It wasn't a consolation at all. Instead, it had really, really pissed him off.
It was yet another roadblock in his Masterplan.
Surely, by now, a larger percentage of Arthur's plans should have been successful.
He might have been registered as the product of a magical ritual, which didn't seem to have actually given him any kind of power to go along with it, but he was still Registered, with a capital "R", and looked upon with suspicion. The question mark over his actual capabilities and the absolute lack of actual abilities had done nothing to abate the suspicion in his superior's eyes each time they evaluated (and rejected) him for promotion.
Arthur flicked his pencil so hard that it went flying out of his cubicle. He pulled off his glasses, dropped them on his latest mathematical proof to improve the de Gelder equation, and scrubbed his face. Calming himself down was a measure of patience that he was slowly running out of, because he'd been stuck at this exact same desk doing the exact same job for the last four years. Everyone else had already moved in sideways slides to different departments to eventually propel themselves up the ranks, where they could transfer out in the field.
Or they'd quit outright.
(If there was such a thing as quitting MI5. Most people didn't think so, but on Arthur's off-days, like today, he amused himself by establishing even more contingency plans in place for the day when he would make his grand escape from this particular interminable government cog.)
With so much outward movement in the department and zero staff replenishment since Arthur had started working there, surely Arthur would have a senior analyst position, soon? Wrong. He'd thought so, too, until he realized that the people who remained were those nearing retirement age, and who planned to spend the last ten years coasting on their bloody shirttails doing the absolute bare minimum.
Arthur was not one like the rest. He was not a slacker. He worked hard, damn it all, and it rankled that, while the results were noticed, the rewards were not coming.
He had the proper educational background to transfer to a completely different division -- politics, military science, and public relations had littered his course schedule during university, and he'd cracked down after graduation to get an outstanding proficiency in computers just to be on the safe side. He was in the 99th percentile for physical fitness, had superior marksmanship skills than most of the active agents on the field, and he consistently made it through the obstacle course faster than the others, with a perfect score each and every time.
But. He. Could. Not. Get. Out. Of. The. Basement.
"Tut-tut," Monmouth would literally say, instead of just making placating noises like a normal human being. "You are an indispensable asset to our division, Mr. Pendragon. Surely you realise what a loss we would suffer if you left? Whatever would we do?"
Translating the government double-talking bollocks to plain English had taken a couple of years, during which Arthur became less of a shiny penny who eagerly took everything at face value and turned into a grumpy curmudgeon that his own friends could barely stand, but he knew what it meant now.
It meant: Sit down and shut up.
It meant: Stop bothering us.
It meant: You're going to stay where you are and you're going to damn well like it, or we'll imprison you because you're a magical creature none of us have ever seen before, and cannot identify.
(Arthur was never going to forgive his father for his betrayal. In modern times, who in their right minds turned to magic to give their wife a child when there were more effective practices? IVF was partially covered by the NHS! If not that, well, there were other recourses. Using egg donors might be a bit sketchy, but it was borderline legal. And what about adoption? There were so many kids nowadays who could use a good, loving home.
It wasn't as if the Pendragons had ever been poor and couldn't have afforded any of those options. Arthur could no more understand his father's decision to consult a practicing witch over a credentialed doctor than he could forgive the untenable situation his father had left him in.
Still, it was a mark of his genius that Arthur had figured out a way to become an Evil Overlord even without any kind of magical power at his disposal. However, he couldn't do it as long as his name was on the bloody registry.)
And finally, the usual government double-talking also meant: We're going to continue to make you push papers, because it's cheaper to maintain surveillance on you this way.
"Ugh," Arthur said, to no one in particular. Then, to himself, because he didn't know if there were any voice recorders nearby analysing his every move: Why did I ever think working for MI5 was a good idea?
A traitorous part of his brain supplied, It's a perfectly respectable job.
A less traitorous part of his brain said, Contingency plans for taking over the world.
"You look grumpy," Gwaine Greene said, schmoozing his way into Arthur's cubicle and making himself a clean spot on the desk.
Gwaine always sat there instead of on the seat in the corner that was intended for exactly these kinds of visits, looking properly roguish and debonair as befit an agent of his standing. His suit was Dior, tailored to his frame and to hide the armoury he insisted on wearing beneath his clothes even within the relative secure walls of MI5. His shoes were polished to a blinding mirror finish, and his tie was carelessly loose around a collar that had far too many buttons open.
There was a lot of chest hair, Arthur noticed. He tried not to notice every time Gwaine came by, but Arthur couldn't not look, not when Gwaine was practically oozing charm and shoving his chest into his face. Also, he wore a necklace with a shiny pendant that attracted attention. It was ugly as fuck, perpetually tangled in Gwaine's chest hair, and Gwaine had, somehow, managed to convince the whole administrative pool that it was a mysterious, and very illegal, artefact that had been charmed to keep him from getting a bullet in his arse.
He'd gotten shot everywhere else, it seemed, but his arse was still intact, so, possibly, there was merit in his claims.
"I'm working on a complex problem, and you're bothering me. Of course I look grumpy," Arthur said sternly, rather than to admit the truth about his own spiralling despair. Even if he was being overly-cautious and there were, in fact, no voice recorders in the vicinity of his cubicle, there was still the problem of Gwaine.
Gwaine wasn't a junior field agent, but he wasn't a senior field agent, either. Because of his rank, or lack thereof, Gwaine was rarely assigned to the truly complex and urgent cases while simultaneously continuing to successfully dodge being assigned to the low-key jobs. As a result, he had far too much time on his hands, which he spent wandering MI5 at his leisure, chatting up every person of every gender who deigned to give him two seconds of their time. He was a shameless gossip, and Arthur wasn't so stupid as to give Gwaine anything to talk about.
"Go away," Arthur said, snatching a file folder out of Gwaine's hand and putting it out of reach. He snatched another two, covered his work with a third, and promptly kicked Gwaine off his desk when Gwaine reached for his computer. "This might come as an absolute shock to you, but you don't actually have the security clearance to be here."
"Don't be rude, Princess. Of course I have clearance. I'm a --"
"Undercover agent of no particular standing," Arthur said. He snatched his glasses out of Gwaine's hand before Gwaine could try them on. "Whereas I am an analyst in a privileged field of intelligence, with sufficient security clearance to completely muck up your weekend. Stop leaving your fingerprints on my paperwork and do what you do best. Disappear."
Arthur made a firm gesture in the air.
Gwaine gave him a sunny smile, clearly not put off by Arthur's attitude. It seemed, no matter how many times Arthur spurned his advances, Gwaine only redoubled his efforts, making a point of visiting once every day whenever he was in town. Sometimes twice. Telling him, You're not my type, was only incentive to convince Arthur with the pathetically feeble argument of: Not yet.
"Anyway, I thought you'd be interested to know Galahad got promoted," Gwaine said, inspecting his fingernails.
"Galahad," Arthur said, unimpressed. He threw the file folder he'd been about to sort properly back onto his desk; several sheets slipped out, but they were upside-down, so it didn't matter if Gwaine saw them. Gwaine had long ago proven that mathematical formulae didn't make any more sense to him if it were upside down as it did right-side up.
"Galahad?" Arthur repeated.
Galahad was a nice enough bloke. Average scores coming into MI5, assigned to the administrative pool writing up reports. He'd made a lucky connection between two unrelated case files, brought it to the attention of his superior, and got seconded to one of the foreign threat oversight bureaus as a junior agent. But that was all that it was -- luck. Galahad hadn't shown himself to have much of the sort of conniving intelligence that was required for his position.
All he had going for him was his lack of registration as any kind of supernatural creature. Arthur knew, because he'd looked. He'd looked really hard. "What sort of promotion?"
"Field duty," Gwaine said, flashing the sort of sly grin that came with hoping to get a certain sort of reaction from Arthur.
Arthur wasn't going to give Gwaine the fucking satisfaction. "How nice for him," Arthur said blandly. He went back to sorting through his files. "Get off my desk."
Frustratingly, Gwaine didn't move. If anything, he squirmed more onto the desk, tearing papers, wrinkling folders, and making even more a nuisance of himself. A container of pens tipped over, dumping half of the contents onto his blotter, and Arthur gave up trying to clean up while Gwaine was still in the general vicinity.
Gwaine made a sound of disappointment when Arthur leaned back in his chair to regard Gwaine with his most serene expression, and Gwaine redoubled his efforts to annoy him. "He starts his training tomorrow."
"He has to be trained? Are you bloody kidding me?" Arthur blurted out, catching himself too late. Gwaine's grin was broad at getting a rise out of Arthur, but surely Arthur wasn't the only one who was offended. It was a statement of fact that anyone who intended to go into the field as an agent needed to complete the minimum requirements beforehand, so as to not waste anyone's time and the government's money. "Doesn't that bother you?"
"Oh, loads," Gwaine said, though he looked unconcerned. An instant later, his expression darkened and became borderline serious -- or at least, as serious as Gwaine ever got outside of an actual mission. He leaned in as much as he could without tipping over from his precarious perch on the desk. "Look, mate, I'm trying to help you out here."
"Ta," Arthur said, shoving his glasses up on top of his head. He rubbed his eyes -- his prescription was so mild that, normally, he didn't bother with them, but he'd had a headache for the last few days and it was getting worse. The glasses helped a little. "Because I couldn't make it through the day without hearing the latest gossip. Whatever would I do without you?"
"You're absolutely thick," Gwaine said, shaking his head. He slid off the desk, taking a few folders along with him, stood up straight as the whole mess fell around him, and brushed down his suit. "Galahad sets a precedent. If some bumpkin like him can become a field agent for making a tiny little connection that's going to amount to a big fat nothing once they get around to really looking at it, someone with your sparkling credentials should get that same privilege."
"You'd think," Arthur muttered, refusing to say what was on his mind. Galahad had an advantage that Arthur didn't. He wasn't Registered, plain and simple.
Gwaine exhaled slowly, then put on a forced smile and friendly gaze -- his mask when he didn't want people to know how angry he was -- and said, "Right, then. I see I have some work to do."
"Yes, please, go and do it," Arthur said absentmindedly, staring at the mess of papers on the floor with a feeling akin to grief. He'd had the files so neatly sorted, too. It would take him ages to put everything back in its proper place.
He barely acknowledged Gwaine's stern, "Drinks later, mate, and I'm not taking no for an answer," before crouching down to start cleaning up the disaster zone that had once been his nice, organised cubicle.
Arthur was under his desk, rooting out the last of the pens that had rolled off between the desk and the flimsy cubicle walls when he heard a familiar beeeep. He froze, not sure he'd heard right, and tried to dismiss it in his mind as the chime of someone's mobile phone. Except mobile phones weren't permitted in the high-security department, and even though no one really enforced that rule, everyone was smart enough to put their devices on vibrate.
Arthur stood up so fast, he nearly knocked himself out on the underside of the desk. He fell on his arse, scrambled to his feet with a hand on the back of his head, and stared at his computer screen. A pop-up notification, one of his own making, had appeared in the middle of the screen.
He dragged his chair over, sat down, and cancelled the audible alarm. With a sure click of several icons and multiple prompt-less keyboard commands, Arthur pulled up the passive alert program.
FLAG KEYWORDS: EVIL, OVERLORD
In a fit of boredom, Arthur had written a subroutine and tacked it onto the scanning software that searched every publically-accessible electronic forum for possible threat indicators. Technically, the scanning software didn't exist as far as the public was aware, so it wasn't really keeping an eye on things the way Big Brother did. Since the bloated software workhorse was already searching for keywords that were on Arthur's personal flag list, he figured he'd throw in a few more keywords of his own interest, adding a couple of lines of code to the programming to make sure he got an alert, too.
It wasn't as if the analysts in charge of queueing the flags to the proper department would send this notification his way.
Most of the keyword hits couldn't be categorised as potential threats. New websites dedicated to Evil Overlords made an appearance every day. People updated the Evil Overlord pages on Wikipedia all the time -- Arthur included, though he was careful to do so from a private terminal and a whole lot of masks and subnets and bouncing internet signals to keep anyone from tracking the updates back to him. Blog posts referenced Evil Overlords appeared every now and then. Idiots used different variations of Evil Overlord as their sign-in user names for video games or pop culture websites. The news media outlets were the worst culprits -- everyone, right down to the fashion reporters, overused the phrase, applying it to whatever fit their fancy at the moment.
Arthur didn't even have to look for the report he received last week with the keyword hit compilation to know that in one day, they'd logged 1,089 uses that combined Evil + Overlord in the same sentence. There had been 260,396 uses of Evil; 4,502 uses of Overlord, and, stupidly, 231 uses of Overlord Evil, for reasons Arthur had later tracked down to an autocorrect error associated with the most recent word processing software patch. That had been back at the beginning of April and had been someone's bright idea for a prank.
There were other keywords, too -- code names for the self-proclaimed Evil Overlords in question, which ended up, more often than not, sounding more like silly super villain code names from second-tier comic books. If Evil Overlord was combined with a code name, that ratcheted up the threat level and Arthur fobbed it off to someone with more seniority. But, generally, it really was rare that Arthur would be alarmed, even in those situations, because when he followed up the flags with a bit of judicious hacking, it nearly always turned out that someone was writing their autobiography (with amusing delusions of grandeur), a novel (with ridiculously overpowered main characters), or racy fanfiction.
(Arthur saved the best fanfic to his personal collection that no one would ever find, not even Morgana. However frowned upon the material, fanfiction was still better than some of the erotica sold on online stores.)
No matter how infrequently the flagged words actually became an actual threat, Arthur would industriously verify each and every incidence. He would mark them harmless the way he did nearly every time, but he couldn't help being annoyed that he received the physical reports one month after they were originally logged. What if, in the meantime, they could have stopped a fledging Evil Overlord? One month was more than enough during which an enterprising Evil Overlord could set out and wreak havoc to degrees only previously seen when Cornelius Sigan had emerged.
That was where the subroutine had come in -- to alert Arthur right away when it detected the phrase in accompaniment with certain other trigger words. It was a subroutine of his own design that was only marginally based on the de Gelder equation and that he'd named the Pendragon Theorem. He privately felt his theorem was more accurate at identifying emerging Evil Overlords than the so-called sophisticated screening program from the Magical Entity Registration Act.
Rubbing his fingers together, Arthur stared at the alert for a few more seconds before opening up MI5's Internal Alerts Bulletin.
In case his little program was a little too efficient, Arthur waited a few minutes, and refreshed the Bulletin.
"Okay, then," Arthur said, and opened up the privacy protocol that he definitely wasn't supposed to have on his terminal, because it contravened a very long list of electronic security regulations, but he was far too excited to give a fuck. If he found anything official, he'd have to wait a whole month before he could tell anyone about it. In the meantime, he didn't want to be caught snooping.
The trigger words brought Arthur to a Craigslist advert. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure his coworkers wouldn't make an appearance, Gwaine included, Arthur took a deep breath and opened the link in the browser.
Evil Overlord Incorporated Open for Business!
Arthur snorted. This wasn't quite the approach he'd seen Evil Overlords take in the past. Not that he'd seen many, he hadn't been a junior analyst that long, but he'd been reading up on what few files he had access to in the department. It was ridiculous enough that Arthur couldn't dismiss it out of hand, so he read on.
Newly established in the heart of London, EOI is seeking profit-bearing ventures to fuel the business' planned rapid expansion. Although not currently engaged in active world-dominating plans until fully staffed, Dr. M., the company head and Evil Overlord extraordinaire, is interested in assisting Londoners in resolving minor problems, settling disputes, and ensuring the continued health, happiness and liberty for all.
"Okay," Arthur said again, taking a screen grab and saving it in one of the hidden folders located on a removable hard drive he wasn't supposed to have on the premises. He read the text again, this time reading between the lines.
Newly established --
Whoever this Evil Overlord was, he was clearly new, and Arthur didn't need to read it on the screen to know that. Craigslist wouldn't have been Arthur's first choice. Most people -- the smarter ones, anyway -- could spot a scam a mile away and steered clear. Sometimes the adverts weren't hoaxes, but Arthur wasn't decided on this one, not yet.
Seeking profit-bearing ventures --
Emerging Evil Overlords usually had a nest egg to keep them solvent while they acquired other means to finance their plans for world domination. Clearly, this one was starting from rock bottom, and probably didn't have a couple of quid to rub together.
Rapid planned expansion... fully staffed --
It went without saying that Evil Overlords were nothing without their minions and subordinates; there was nothing new, there, either. However, Arthur's brow furrowed as he read that section again and again, not entirely certain if he was reading it correctly. Was the Evil Overlord actively looking for personnel to support their madcap venture? The typical practice was to have their support system already set up. There were fewer possibilities of being infiltrated by an enemy agent.
Dr. M., the company head and Evil Overlord extraordinaire was fairly mild when it came to the grandiosity that was normally attributed to these sorts of criminals. Assisting was a curious choice of words, as were resolving minor problems, settling disputes, and ensuring the continued health, happiness, and liberty for all.
Arthur leaned back in his chair, not sure what to make of it.
Finally, scowling, he leaned forward and dragged his keyboard closer, getting to work on tracking the source of the Craigslist advertisement. He snorted in amusement, shaking his head as his fingers danced on the keyboard.
"Does anyone even know how Evil Overlording is supposed to work anymore?" He shook his head in disappointment. "What the Hell is this generation coming to?"
That was the number of job-targeted CVs Merlin had sent out to the thirty-two temp agencies on his list. Coincidentally, that was also the number of applications he'd filled out for a few local jobs.
He hadn't heard from any of them, but it was early days. He felt rotten taking advantage of the benevolence of his friends, but they'd all flatly informed him that they'd chuck him out if he became too much of a drain on their resources. In exchange for the last month's rent, they all made him promise to remember them for key positions in his new administration once he established Evil Overlord, Inc. as a legitimate business. That was easy enough to agree with considering there was no chance in Hell that Merlin would ever stick his neck out like that.
Evil Overlord, Inc., my skinny arse. He snorted.
Merlin stuck his head in the refrigerator, tried not to look too much at the organisational disaster that was Sefa's attempt to make everyone eat healthier, Freya's latest addiction to fermented foodstuffs, and Will's recurrent meat lover's pizza take-away order. He pulled out the last of the coffee cake that had been the bonus payment from his first and only Evil Overlord job.
If anyone asked, he'd swear up and down that he'd been pressured into the role. Will's bored, What can it hurt, Sefa's pragmatic, It's dosh you don't have, Gilli's shrugging, I just want to watch you do magic, mate, and Freya's honest, That poor girl, she must be half mad from all the noise, had harried him all the way to the client's front door.
Getting the young woman's loud next door neighbour to turn down the music for one weekend had been easier than expected. The neighbour was a blue-collar worker who dealt with his daily frustrations by playing his favourite music at loud volumes -- just a regular bloke like everyone else.
When Merlin had explained the situation, he'd said, "Oh, her mum! Of course, not a problem. You know, she could've just asked herself. I'm not that bad of a guy."
Most people, including hardened battlefield soldiers, would have been hard-pressed to demur, because there was no arguing with an eighteen stone, heavily-tattooed man who might have given the most recent Mister Universe a run for the bodybuilding championship. The man might have been just a regular blue-collar worker, but he was also six feet, five inches tall, built like a Hermann tank, and etched with muscles, sinew, and a permanent angry scowl on his face. Maybe he really wasn't that bad, but he definitely scared the shite out of anyone who might think otherwise.
"I think she's a bit shy."
Shy had been putting it mildly. She'd opened the door to let Merlin in when he'd come by, didn't say a word for nearly thirty minutes, but had smiled brilliantly when Merlin had awkwardly suggested he get on with it, because by that point, he had been able to hear the problem pounding through the walls.
The incident had worked out so well that Merlin had walked away with one hundred pounds instead of fifty, and the coffee cake was because the earnest not-quite-the-usual-sort-of-boy-next-door had followed Merlin to chat with his pretty neighbour. Merlin had spent the next thirty minutes as a go-between, and by the time he left, he was fairly certain that the young woman's mum had met her daughter's new boyfriend when she visited.
Since then, Merlin hadn't touched the email account associated with the Craigslist ad. He refused.
The whole thing was sketchy enough without encouraging his friends to perpetuate the fantasy. Fantasy or not, he couldn't deny how good it had felt to be able to help someone out, even for something as frivolous as a noise complaint. He hadn't even needed to use his magic. Also, there were so many emails from people who needed some sort of help -- what could it hurt, really?
Magic didn't need to be part of the equation, Merlin told himself sternly. Plus, he needed money. He couldn't continue to freeload. Those were the only reasons he was loading the email client for that account now.
He wasn't the least bit intrigued by the whole Evil Overlord idea. Not at all.
There were far fewer emails in the Inbox than there had been when Merlin had last looked at it. Sefa had volunteered to monitor the account, putting a star on those she thought had promise, colour-coding them according to some complicated system that Merlin had only half-listened to, and to clear out the undesirables.
There were a lot of undesirables, ranging from outright hate mail to smarmy, unexplainable dick pics.
Will had volunteered to take care of those, offering up wolfish smile full of sharp canines. The effect he must have had been going for had been somewhat ruined by the spinach stuck between his teeth, but Merlin appreciated the sentiment all the same.
("I don't even know why we're still talking about this," Merlin told his flatmates wearily. "I'm not doing this."
"Hate to break it to you, mate," Mordred pointed out, "But you've already done it."
"There was zero risk of having my neck stretched by the rope," Merlin sighed heavily. "I didn't even need to use magic."
"Oh, so you didn't tweak the volume when you visited the big bloke so you could hear yourself think? Because I remember your neighbour at the firsties halls, always complaining about their stereo turning itself off when they put it on too loud, and never mind how many bits of new equipment they bought to replace the old ones," Will said.
"Shut it," Merlin said, grousing. "You can't prove it was me."
"Right-o, then," Will said, smirking as he clamped a hand on Merlin's shoulder. "You're doing this. And don't worry. I'll back you up. We all will.")
With a sigh, Merlin scrolled through the hundreds of emails while finishing off his coffee cake. He chewed thoughtfully on the candied nuts while trying to decide between three different jobs -- all starred, all flagged green, and all requiring urgent attention. He idly thought about creating a spreadsheet to organise the requests a bit better, but if his friends got a wind of that, they'd start thinking that he was treating this whole Evil Overlord business as something real.
He'd gone to university for physics and metaphysics, damn it. He had a doctorate degree. He was going to teach. He was going to consult. He was going to, eventually, do something of spectacular importance binding both mundane and magic together, even if he didn't quite know what, yet. He was absolutely not an Evil Overlord.
Except he really, really was.
(Deep, deep down, where no one could see, Merlin cackled gleefully whenever Gilli or Freya called him by that title. He'd been dreaming his whole life about finally releasing his magic in a spectacular blast of purple-white lightning and having all of his naysayers grovel at his feet. But that kind of thinking would be wrong, and his mum definitely wouldn't approve.
Also, he didn't want to go to jail. Merely being a sorcerer was an offence punishable by a life sentence.)
"You should do the shop one, first," Will said from where he suddenly appeared at Merlin's side on the sofa.
Merlin startled and stared at his best friend for a full minute before his brain re-engaged. "Where the fuck did you come from?"
"Work," Will said.
He was in his grease-stained overalls, and Goddess help him if Freya caught him anywhere near her grandmother's quilt, decoratively draped over the back of the ratty kerbside couch they'd appropriated. Will might not be able to get into the police college for training, never mind into the police force, full stop, but that didn't keep other, unscrupulous employers from taking advantage of Will's werewolf strength. He'd been lucky and had found work at Old Man Ferguson's garage, where he did the dirty grunt jobs and nothing else, but he got paid under the table, and wouldn't get fired for taking off a few days per month to deal with moon-related issues.
"And anyway, you're a shite Evil Overlord," Will continued. "Shouldn't you always be aware of your environment? Make sure you're surrounded only by your trusted people? You can't let your guard down, not for a second --"
"Ugh," Merlin said, because he heard enough about it from Gilli.
Gilli was a little obsessed with the entire idea of establishing a proper business base. As far as Merlin knew, Gilli was currently holed up in his room, surrounded by computers, and setting up a website for Evil Overlord Incorporated, complete with options to access company profiles, products and services, and the public blog. Possibly, he was also doing some remote work to justify the paycheck he received from his actual employer, too, but Merlin had long ago learned to stay out of Gilli's room.
"And anyway, you should do that one," Will said, quickly changing the subject.
Merlin gave Will a grateful look. If there was something he could count on, it was that Will would always know when to leave well enough alone.
"How was work?"
"Sucked," Will said, and didn't elaborate. He leaned in, heedless of personal boundaries, and tapped at the screen of Merlin's mobile. "No, this one, definitely. The shopkeeper can wait."
Merlin squinted at the screen.
Please if you could help would be appreciated greatly. My son failing at school, avoiding friends, not speaking to his mother, to me. We are thinking he is in drugs, or wrong company, or in trouble. Naveen collapsed yesterday morning, but doctors are telling us there is nothing wrong with him.
"They should talk to the police. Or send their kid to a shrink. I'm not qualified for this kind of thing." Merlin sighed. "This sounds outside of my pay grade."
"You're an Evil Overlord," Sefa said, marching into the room. She dropped her bag on the side table and plopped in the big armchair they'd scrounged from the corner of the street on rubbish day. Haughtily, she added, "Nothing is outside your pay grade. You are above pay grades."
She was dressed in a proper business suit, fresh off the rack at the charity shop and heavily altered to fit her willowy frame. Of them all, she was the only one whose part-time job during university had had the potential of turning into something more, and she was doing her utmost to make that a reality. Considering that an actual career meant that Sefa would be able to support them all until they got themselves sorted out, everyone very much encouraged her endeavours.
"Sorry, what?" Merlin asked, trying not to laugh.
Sefa said nothing for the longest time. Merlin exchanged a concerned glance with Will, who shook his head to show he didn't have the faintest idea, either. When Sefa finally spoke, it was with a hard, flinty look in her eyes and a pointed finger in his direction. "You. You are going to finance my flower shop."
"Um," Merlin said, freezing where he sat. Sefa wasn't physically intimidating, but she had the Angry Finger of Doom out, and looked as if she were about to wield it indiscriminately. Also, Merlin had exactly fourteen quid and thirty-two pence in his bank account. He couldn't finance her flower shop, but, sure, he'd go along with it and humour her anyway, because, see: Angry Finger of Doom. "Okay?"
Sefa relaxed, and thankfully, the finger dropped, too. "Yes, good. All right. In exchange, I'll take care of all the accounting."
Merlin risked a sidelong glance in Will's direction, but he seemed as frozen to the spot as Merlin was. A few of Mordred's plants, hastily stashed on the narrow windowsill until he could find proper shelves for them, reached out, latched onto the cheap, gauzy curtains, and dragged their pots out of direct line of fire. Merlin watched them move with amusement, then absolute horror, because if plants were afraid of someone who was only a little bit dryad, he had better be, too.
Merlin gulped, nodded and made a noise of agreement.
"Now that we've sorted it out, let me make this clear," Sefa said. "You are an Evil Overlord. You can handle anything. You can't afford to turn anything down because you need to get the company name out there. And, because you're shite at being an opportunist, at least one of us will be accompanying you at all times to make sure you're not taken advantage of."
"Um," Merlin said again, mostly to defend himself.
Sefa wasn't wrong; he really was pretty awful at that sort of thing. He just wanted to help people. Still, that wasn't the point of his original complaint. He shook his head, and held up his phone.
"All right. But this is literally out of my pay grade. I mean, I feel for the guy, but his kid is either a drug addict, an alcoholic, or he's really sick. I'm not a doctor --"
"Technically," Will began.
"A medical doctor, a psychiatrist, a social worker, anyone else more qualified than a metaphysicist," Merlin specified, giving Will a dark look. He waited to see if Will would have any additional interruptions, and didn't speak until Will's magnanimous gesture to continue. "I can't help him."
"You're a sorcerer," Sefa said, completely unimpressed. "Sorcerers can do anything --"
"No, I really can't. Like, really, fucking really can't," Merlin said, because if he could have, he might've saved his mum before she died on the operating table after a car wreck, or stopped his dad from being murdered on the doorstep of their house. Merlin rubbed his chest, ignoring the faint flash of sympathy in Will's eyes.
"Practically anything, then," Sefa said, hand-waving callously. But then again, it wasn't callous if she didn't know Merlin's family history, so he couldn't be mad at her. "You can find any hidden drugs and convince his parents to put him in a program. Same with alcohol. If he's sick, you can tell them he's sick and they'll take him to the hospital. But under no circumstances do you tell them that you can't help. You are an Evil Overlord. You can do anything, and you've got to make people believe it, or they won't buy into the company."
"Ugh," Merlin said, elbows on his knees, burying his face in his hands. He winced when he nearly took his own eye out with the corner of his phone.
And then something Sefa said finally registered, and he sat up straight, the ice cold of fear pouring down his spine.
"Wait, no, I'm not a sorcerer! I literally can't do any of those --"
Will snorted. Sefa's expression could only be interpreted as I'm done with your shite.
"I hate to say this, Ems," Will said, leaning in, "But we know. We've known for a really long time."
"I'm a werewolf, remember? I asked you outright when we were twelve, and you lied to me, but I figured you had a reason," Will said.
I can sense you, Sefa mouthed silently, and when Merlin searched her face for answers, there were none. Then it clicked: dryad. Dryads were attracted to magic.
"I'm not," Merlin said weakly, thinking he really should protest a bit more vehemently, but Gilli choose that moment to come into the sitting room.
"Oi, Gilli," Will said, twisting around to gesture their flatmate over. "You know about Ems?"
"What about Ems?" Gilli asked. He was rumpled, as if he'd fought a battle with his bed and lost spectacularly. His shirt was inside out, his hair stood up on end along one side of his head, and his pants had disturbingly happy Smiley Faces on them.
"Would you be so kind as to tell Merlin how it is that you are able to get drunk?" Sefa suggested.
"Booze?" Merlin suggested, because that was the standard approach, even if Will needed to spike his beer with concentrated wolfsbane extract to get buzzed.
"You," Gilli said, blinking sleepily. A moment of muzzy confusion passed quickly, because he said, "Oh, is this about him being a sorcerer and him thinking we don't know?"
"Um," Merlin said, because his heart wouldn't stop racing. "How?"
"It's a bloodline thing," Gilli said, shrugging. He came over, tipped himself over the back of the couch, and landed on Merlin's unoccupied side in an ungainly sprawl. "Not entirely sure what from, but my mum says my great-great-something grandmum dallied with probably some sort of incubus, and nobody knew. The whole family tree nearly died out until we realised we need different sources of energy to survive, or we'll starve to death. My little sister eats crayons, so I count myself lucky. At least, for me it's just magic. Not as messy, easier to find, and I don't have to pick the paper wrappers out of my teeth."
Merlin blinked repeatedly. As far as Merlin was concerned, Gilli wasn't registered as any sort of creature, but he did have a criminal record for allegedly breaking-and-entering a number of homes and museums to steal supposedly magical artefacts. He was never charged for possession of illegal magical objects because they were never magical when they were recovered. Suddenly, a whole lot of things about Gilli made a whole lot of sense.
"It gets you drunk?" Merlin asked, confused, still trying to parse how his friends seemed to have known what he'd been hiding his entire life with Gilli getting drunk on magic, not beer, whenever Merlin was around.
"Mate, you radiate like, loads of uncontrolled magic when you're pissed," Gilli said with a grin. "Really goes to my head."
Merlin stared at him in horror.
"We all know," Will said, patting Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin stared at Will in abject horror.
"Your secret's safe with us," Sefa said. She tilted her head to the side. "Well, not for much longer, I suppose."
Merlin stared at Sefa in abject, petrified horror.
Mordred choose that moment to arrive, announcing to all and sundry, "Honey, I'm home!" There was a loud clatter in the main entrance that was Mordred stumbling over all the shoes that they left in front of the door, and a very irritated Mordred emerged into the living room. He paused at everyone's unified silence, and when his gaze settled on Merlin, he said, "Oh. Did Merlin finally figure out he has magic?"
"I have magic?" Merlin squeaked, because he was a fucking idiot, that's why.
Mordred, being the wanker he was, took out his mobile, took a photograph, and tapped away on the screen before putting it away. "Freya's going to be mad she missed this."
"Oh, there's an idea," Sefa said. "Mordred knows all the medical mumbo jumbo. He should go with you on this one."
"Go where?" Mordred stopped in the act of shrugging out of his coat.
Will plucked Merlin's mobile out of his fingers and handed it to Mordred. The screen had gone blank, but apparently everyone knew the passcode, on top of all of Merlin's other secrets, damn it all, because Mordred woke the mobile out of sleep and breezed through all of Merlin's security protocols.
Merlin stared at his mobile for a few long seconds. If he was going to have any degree of privacy, he was going to have to use more than merely mundane security options, but since the cat was already out of the bag --
He snapped his fingers. The mobile disappeared out of Mordred's hands and plopped in Merlin's lap. "Hands off," he said.
"Neat," Sefa said, grinning and not at all intimidated by the show of magic.
"Woof," Gilli said, rubbing his head. "Some warning next time? I feel like someone just snatched a meal out of my hands."
Will snorted, but he gave Merlin a knowing wink. What, exactly, the shared joke was about, Merlin didn't know, but Will seemed absurdly pleased about something, so Merlin let it go this time.
Mordred stared at his empty hands in some disgust for a few seconds before saying, "Yeah, okay, let's go. Might as well get it over with."
"I'm not going," Merlin said.
"Not in flannels, you're not," Sefa said, getting up and heading down the hallway. She went up the stairs, and Merlin heard her stomping overhead, slamming doors open in the rough vicinity of his bedroom. Merlin stared at the ceiling, wondering how it was that such a slight person could make so much noise, and he idly remembered: dryad.
"You can pick up supper," Gilli said. His stomach growling.
"Yeah, sure, I can stretch fourteen pounds and thirty-two pence into a four-course meal," Merlin said flatly.
"Can you really?" Gilli asked, wide-eyed.
Merlin grunted. "No, of course not."
"But, magic," Gilli insisted. "Can't you conjure more money?"
"Didn't someone try that, once?" Will asked, glancing around the room. "Got arrested because the bills disintegrated after a few hours. Plus the serial numbers were all the same. It was all over the papers. Can you make the money different, Ems?"
"Ems will have cash and this month's rent after tonight," Sefa said, dropping a clean pair of dress trousers and a button-down shirt into Merlin's lap.
Mordred gave Sefa a small nod. Merlin had the uncomfortable feeling that his friends had all been plotting behind his back, and had been for years. He might be the figurehead Evil Overlord in the equation, but everyone else was running things far better than he was, and he was grasping to keep up.
"Will, go get your long leather jacket, it'll be proper posh on this one. He's got to look the part, you know," Sefa said. Will went, and Sefa took his place, crossing her arms over her chest and looking down at Merlin as if she could force him into doing whatever she wanted.
Merlin grabbed his clothes and stood up.
"I hate you all," Merlin announced, and went to the bathroom.
Nearly an hour later, on the other side of London, Mordred stood back on the pavement and took in the area where Naveen and his parents lived. There was enough greenery to account for a proper lawn, trees shadowed the buildings, the pavement had been recently swept, and every car parked on the street was either a Rolls Royce, a Mercedes, or a Porsche. Merlin spotted at least one Ferrari.
(The difference between a Rolls Royce and a Mini, as Merlin had learned from the foremost expert on the subject -- Will -- was that one of them was small enough that it could fit in the boot of the other. Merlin only recognized the Ferrari as a Ferrari because it was bright red and looked like the one on the poster covering the hole in the wall in Will's room.)
"Does everyone know?" Merlin asked, because he was still stuck on that. He'd thought he had been so clever, hiding himself all these years, but apparently, he couldn't have been more obvious if he'd tried.
"Yes," Mordred said, frowning at the house.
"Yes," Mordred said.
"I'm such an idiot," Merlin said. "How am I not in jail right now?"
Mordred looked at him for a long time, but instead of answering, he gestured at the house.
"Well, it looks like they can afford it. I'm tripling the fee," Mordred decided, and walked the brick path to the door.
"You're a real humanitarian," Merlin said.
"Rent. Food," Mordred said. He gestured rudely for Merlin to stand next to him on the front stoop before knocking on the door.
A small boy who couldn't be any older than eight or nine answered, his brown eyes wide, his mouth in an unhappy downturn. His pyjamas were pale blue, covered in Superman logos, and he wore oversized Batman slippers that had seen better days.
"Hullo," Mordred said. The boy ran inside, leaving the door open behind him.
Merlin raised a brow at Mordred. Mordred frowned in confusion. Before either of them could decide what to do, an older couple came to the door. "Yes, hello?" asked the man, the woman standing on tip-toes to peer over his shoulder.
"Good evening. I apologise for the lateness of the hour," Mordred said, and Merlin couldn't help but to side-eye him. He'd never heard Mordred so polite before. "I'm an associate of Dr. M from EOI. We received your email outlining an intriguing dilemma and would like to offer our assistance."
The man and the woman exchanged glances, speaking in that silent way that couples often did, and stepped out of the entrance, inviting them inside.
It took a cup of aromatic tea, two biscuits (each), and at least fifteen minutes of awkward small talk about the weather before Mrs and Mr Ramanathan explained any specifics about their wayward son, who just so happened to be wayward at the moment, having missed dinner for the fourth time that week. Was that unusual? Yes. Did he give any reason for being late? No. Do you know if he's eating at all? No. Is he off alone or with someone? They didn't know.
"Well," Mordred was saying, a dour frown on his brow, "I have to say that this is an unfortunate situation. Without actually speaking with Naveen himself, we are unable to give you any answers, provide options for a solution, or even resolve the problem."
Merlin was thoroughly entertained. Mordred wasn't one to mince words, but here he was, drawing out the conversation as much as possible. Merlin wondered if his so-called "staff" had decided to charge consultation fees by the hour.
"But you will return, yes?" Mr. Ramanathan asked, sliding forward until he was on the very edge of his seat. That wasn't eagerness in his eyes. It was desperation, pure and simple, and Merlin found himself taking the situation more seriously than he normally would have. "And Dr. M? You will be bringing him next time?"
"Dr. M is a very busy man," Mordred said, after a long, hesitating pause. He didn't get a chance to finish his thought before Mr. Ramanathan interrupted.
"We could be making an appointment, yes? If we promise Naveen will be here?"
Mordred smiled, kind and patient, and leaned forward. He gestured with his hand, inviting Mr. and Mrs. Ramanathan closer, as if he were about to share a secret.
Merlin saw movement in the doorway. It was the little boy from earlier, who, Mrs. And Mr. Ramanathan had assured them, was definitely not Naveen. Merlin waved at him. The little boy ducked around the corner and didn't return.
"Mr. Ramanathan. Mrs. Ramanathan. I hope you understand if I tell you that we are cannot make appointments. You see, of utmost importance is the continued safety of the company's staff. In particular, of Dr. M. He's irreplaceable, and if certain government officials become aware that Dr. M is returning to your house on a specific day at a specific time, they may attempt to apprehend him, even though all he wants to do is ensure that everyone is safe, healthy, and happy," Mordred said.
Merlin's head snapped around to stare at Mordred. The excuse had rolled off his tongue, almost as if it had been practiced. Once more, Merlin wondered just how many other contingencies that his friends had prepared for.
"Yes, yes," Mr. Ramanathan said, his head bobbing. Mrs. Ramanathan clutched her husband's arm and said something very quickly in their native Tamil. Mr. Ramanathan paused for a moment to reassure her, patting her hand, and turned to Mordred. "I understand. We understand. But we are not being people who would tell --"
He was cut off by a loud noise outside, which quickly became a loud noise inside. The front door banged open, and blended laughter rang through the house. A scuffle of footsteps stumbled through the main hallway, and it sounded nothing like one of Merlin's flatmates trying to get through all the shoes cluttering the entrance without falling flat on their faces, and more like a determined stumbling charge.
"Oh, no," Mordred said. His pale skin took on a greenish undertone.
Merlin had seen him like that once before, after he'd come back from a weekend out in the woods as part of a druidic pilgrimage with some of the younger acolytes that he'd been mentoring at the time. The pilgrimage through the woods to a sacred site in Wales had been anything but sacred when they'd found the site corrupted by a bunch of high school pillocks who had believed it would be a lot of fun to try some of the spells in a book of magic they'd found in the library.
(A book of dark magic had no business being in any sort of public library, as far as Merlin was concerned. When Mordred returned to cleanse the site, Merlin had tagged along under the pretext of offering moral support. The book was now part of Merlin's personal library, locked under three different types of binding spells.)
The house was hardly a sacred site. It took Merlin half a second to catch on -- his excuse was that he'd suppressed and hid his magic for so long, he was no longer accustomed to relying on it first -- but he reached out to see if he could sense something different in the ether. He found it just as it turned the corner and entered the living room.
The Naveen Ramanathan in the family photographs on the mantelpiece and hanging all over the walls in the main room was a clean-cut boy with curly brown hair, a too-wide nose, and a smile that could outshine the stars. The Naveen Ramanathan who stumbled drunkenly across the entrance to the large family room was strung out, sallow, and far too thin, his clothes hanging from his bony frame as if they belonged to someone larger than him.
His curly hair was greasy and straight, his smile less bright and twisted, and his skin nearly gray. "Hey, fam," he said, and laughed. He threw his arm across the shoulders of the
person creature who settled against Naveen like she belonged there.
Humanoid in appearance, the creature was shorter than Naveen, who barely came to Merlin's shoulder even in those ridiculous biker boots she wore. Curvy in all the right places, long brown hair that framed perfect, heavy breasts in a low-cut top --
Was it Merlin's imagination, or did her chest suddenly drop a size?
Her skirt was too short and her flimsy bolero jacket couldn't possibly do anything to protect her against the elements --
Something wasn't right. Merlin blinked again. The creature's smile broadened, and... Wait. Hadn't her blond hair been brown a second ago?
Her appearance flickered.
Blond hair and a square jaw and broad shoulders and brown eyes --
Blond hair and a square jaw and broad shoulders and blue eyes and curves --
Merlin tilted his head to the side, wondering what was wrong with the creature's physical seeming. At first, he thought their glamour wasn't working, but it wasn't until he felt Mordred's fingers digging into his elbow. Merlin glanced at Mordred, saw how Mordred's pupils were blown wide with lust, and, Oh.
Mrs. Ramanathan's confusion warred with apprehensive welcome. Mr. Ramanathan's mouth was open, his eyes were darker than they had been a second ago, and he was making no effort whatsoever to hide the erection tenting his trousers.
Merlin smiled stiffly at the creature. "Hello," he said.
She promptly frowned, which sent her physical seeming into a multitude of different incarnations, each and every one of them coming closer and closer to Merlin's type. The problem was that she couldn't quite get to Merlin's ideal partner, and whatever effect she was expecting to have on Merlin? It fell far short.
"Why aren't you on your knees?" she snarled, her face twisting into an inhuman expression. Her eyes flashed purple, her mouth was full of teeth, and Merlin felt, rather than saw, Mordred struggle to keep from obeying, but he eventually did crumple to the carpet. Mr. Ramanathan beat him to the punch, though he collapsed dead away in a faint under the creature's powerful command.
"I'm bent," Merlin said cheerfully.
The succubus tore away from Naveen's side, throwing Naveen into the living room as a distraction. Starved for energy and soul-weakened, Naveen stumbled like a marionette with cut strings. But Merlin didn't pay him any mind. As soon as the succubus moved to flee, he threw out an arm, flinging magic to stop her where she stood.
"Leaving so soon?" Merlin asked. "We were just getting acquainted."
"Let me go," she hissed, low and guttural. Merlin imagined that it was supposed to be a seductive voice, but it just grated on his ears, like fingernails on a chalkboard.
He could let her go, Merlin thought. But she would come back; it was clear that Naveen was completely ensnared, and it would take very little for the succubus to glut her appetite now that her prey could no longer resist her. The boy was an easy meal, and no demon would give that up, not after putting so much effort into it. Merlin couldn't allow the succubus to kill Naveen, then to move on to her next meal, but what could he do?
Merlin wondered if this was something the others had covered in the secret staff meetings that he hadn't known about. A quick glance at a dazed but recovering Mordred, who was slowly getting to his feet, gave Merlin his answer.
He was Dr. M, Evil Overlord.
Only he could make this choice. It was his responsibility.
(Jesus fucking Christ. He wasn't Dr. M, Evil Overlord. What the fuck was he doing?)
Merlin swallowed. He wavered. If the government got involved, the succubus would suffer far worse, and so would the Ramanathans. The government didn't really distinguish between supernatural perpetrators or their victims.
The succubus, sensitive to hesitation and doubt, slowly broke into a sly grin. "Let me go," she whispered. "I promise I won't do it again."
The succubus' smile faded at Merlin's disbelieving snort. He paused for a second, trying to remember the proper ritual words. They came to him in a flash.
"In accordance with the Tenebris Carta, under the seventy-seventh clause and the power vested in me by the nine celestial sovereign bodies of Albion, as a Guardian of the Realm, I find you guilty of breaking the laws against harming human beings. You've taken what doesn't belong to you, and I'll see it returned before I banish you."
The succubus' mouth dropped open. "It was freely given --"
"Oh, please," Merlin scoffed. "The kid's underage. Even if he did, he can't legally consent. Plus, FYI, consent under the influence -- any kind of influence -- isn't consent. There's no argument on the planet or any of the Underworlds that could make what you did okay."
Merlin's magic lashed out before he finished speaking, and he ripped the succubus apart.
("Guardian of the Realm? Do you know what that is?" Mordred asked, side-eyeing Merlin curiously. "That's fucking pretentious, that's what it is."
"Ugh," Merlin sighed. "I had to say it. Those are the rules. Plus, taking the vow was the only way I could even read the Tenebris for that essay for that elective we took in our third year. Being a Guardian is apparently a lifelong thing. Plus, it's kind of cool to say."
Mordred snorted in amusement. He paid the cashier and shoved the Thai take-away into Merlin's arms. "I'm gonna mock you about it forever, mate. You know that?"
"Yeah," Merlin said with a sigh. "I get the feeling I'm going to be hearing a fuckton of mocking from this point on.")
Seventy-two hours after the alert had first pinged through Arthur's secret monitoring subroutine, he felt he was close to accurately identifying Dr. M.
Arthur did all his work from home, of course. He didn't want anyone stealing his thunder. It wasn't as if he couldn't reproduce the search at his desk at MI5 once the official report of flagged words hit his desk -- whenever that would be. And, besides, if Galahad, of all people, could cash in a chance connection between unrelated report files for a promotion as field agent, then Arthur could, too, no matter what it said about his registration status in his file.
The original Craigslist posting had been uploaded from an university IP address, which meant it could have come from any of the students attending. That alone would have been cause for dismissal as a kid's prank, but Arthur was nothing if not thorough, and he hacked the email address that had been posted on the website.
The email address had been created almost simultaneously with the Craigslist post for Evil Overlord Incorporated, also through the same university server. That would have been a dead end until he noticed that the account was being accessed by multiple users, first through their mobile devices, then later from what looked to be different computer terminals through a private IP address hosted from one of the cheapest internet providers in London. One casual visit through the telephone company and internet provider's worthless firewalls later, Arthur had the telephone numbers, address, and names of all the people who had access to the local WIFI.
For an idle moment, Arthur wondered if an Evil Overlord could truly be made up from different individuals with different abilities, but he quickly dismissed the idea as ridiculous. From the reports of Evil Overlord deeds performed in London thus far, they only ever mentioned one or two people showing up to take care of things.
Also: There was only one spot on the Evil Overlord throne at any given time.
That was a rule in the official, unpublished Evil Overlord handbook, the one that the government had long assigned a task team to prevent from falling into the hands of the public. Arthur had acquired his own copy long before working for MI5, all through illegal channels and after ensuring that no one could track the purchase to him.
(A imprisonment in Wandsworth prison was the automatic sentence awarded to anyone found in possession of the book. Thankfully, Arthur could use his position and security clearance as a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card. As a 15-year-old with a copy, he would've been pretty much fucked.)
The odds were good that one of the people accessing the email account was the Evil Overlord in question, and the remainder were their underlings.
Sefa Wellborn was the person who checked the emails the most, and from what Arthur could tell, she was the one who organised the inbox to some semblance of order. It had taken a while for Arthur to work out the system she used, but troll emails were flagged as spam, irrational requests were answered with a form letter, and the rest organised according to importance (or difficulty -- Arthur hadn't decided yet). She seemed to flag the ones that appealed to her the most, probably at some sort of whimsy rather than practicality.
Freya Huntington was on the email account nearly as much as Sefa, though she had a less systematic approach to viewing and categorising emails, often undoing Sefa's hard work.
Gilli Dougherty accessed the emails at unpredictable intervals, sometimes frequently within the same hour, then not at all for days. It confused Arthur until he found the Gilli's computer on the network at the private IP address and realised that Gilli was doing market research on the emails while building a website for EOI.
William Grimm and Mordred Oldham were about even in access frequency, though neither of them did anything particular, and often read the same emails repeatedly. After looking into it, Arthur decided that particular emails were targeted for the laugh factor. Arthur couldn't blame them. Some of those marriage proposals were pretty funny. The dick pics varied in degree of amusement, though.
(One of them combined both in the same email, and Arthur would never forgive Sefa for not putting that email in the Bin as promptly as it had come in. The marriage proposal had been ghastly, fraught with grammar and spelling errors, and the attached photograph was of an erect penis that couldn't possibly have come from someone human.)
An anomaly was in the form of Merlin Emrys, who had never accessed the email account himself until, one day, he spent several hours systematically going through each email, one by one, though he avoided those in the spam folder and the gin. After that first access, Emrys checked the email account regularly, on the order of one or two a day, or sometimes once every two or three days.
Interestingly, the day after Merlin Emrys accessed these emails, he would access them again the day afterward, moving them into the Completed folder.
He was the only one to do that.
The connotations of that excited Arthur to no end. Completing the assignments set out in the emails implied that Merlin Emrys was the Evil Overlord, but Arthur didn't want to make assumptions without evidence. There was at least one other person in the group whose name began with the letter M, and it was far too easy for anyone to take up the mantle of a completely anonymous pseudonym.
At a bit of a conundrum, Arthur had moved onto the next level of his search -- checking to see if any of these people were registered under MERA.
According to Arthur's research, Evil Overlords had a tendency to surround themselves with other-powered individuals, whether they were human or not. In doing so, they opened themselves up to challenges to their positions from formerly-trusted lieutenants or minions, but it was still a far safer bet than having normal, non-magical human beings as part of their inner circle. Normal, non-magical human beings might harbour bigoted worldviews or simply be completely terrified, and were more likely to betray their Evil Overlord employer to outside parties or to the enemy.
It seemed strange that Dr. M would surround himself with so many on-the-surface normal people, so Arthur dug as deeply as he could without setting off any alarms.
A bit of research confirmed Sefa was not registered under MERA. Still, it was a matter of minutes to trace her genealogy back a few generations to a family of known dryads. Full-blooded dryads were dangerous, vicious creatures, particularly when their territory was threatened, but all of Sefa's other direct ancestors were human, which meant her power, if she had any, was sufficiently diluted for Arthur to confidently strike her out as the mysterious Dr. M.
Mordred was a registered druid, and while druids had a largely false reputation for being cagey, manipulative individuals, they were hardly candidates as Evil Overlords. While history was dotted with bloodthirsty, murderous druids, the bloodthirsty, murderous acts that they performed were usually a requirement of some sort of ritual in order to maintain magical balance and to appease their equally murderous and bloodthirsty Gods and Goddesses. Ever since the Druidic Exemption Act of 856, originally intended to absolve druids from doing what they needed to do to preserve the balance, was repealed in 1628, the frequency of bloodthirsty, murderous acts performed to fulfill the letter of the ritual had gone down to almost zero.
(Almost, because some druids were awfully old-fashioned.)
Still, Mordred remained a potential candidate for Dr. M. while an unconvinced Arthur continued his search.
Gilli's judicial record -- sealed for crimes perpetrated as a minor -- proved to be an interesting read, but there was nothing in his genealogy that triggered any alarm bells. He wasn't registered as anything in particular, but his adolescent affinity for magical objects couldn't possibly have gone away with adulthood, even if his arrests had tapered off since he went to university. Arthur could only think that Gilli had gotten smarter about it.
If Gilli had learned to cover his tracks, that meant he might be cunning enough to elevate himself to a higher position in life. As a non-magic user, all he needed to do was to get his hands on the right magical artefact to gain greater power. However, that was a physical impossibility. The government had very meticulously acquired all of the known artefacts that would pose that degree of danger to public safety.
That didn't meant that there were unknown artefacts capable of ending the world, but Arthur preferred not to think about that. Gilli wasn't struck from the list, and a question mark was drawn next to his name.
A recent post-doctorate graduate in physics and metaphysics, Merlin Emrys proved to be an attractive option. He had the academic credentials; he had the correct first initial. Although he technically fit the minimum requirements as being a legitimate Doctor M of some sort, Arthur wasn't entirely sold. His research had been rather straight-laced, and none of his published works were remotely inflammatory. Also, a comparison of his writing style with the post on Craigslist only showed an eleven percent correlation, so he clearly had not posted it himself.
However, Merlin was, in fact, registered in MERA, and Arthur's excitement had been short lived when he saw Merlin was only a low-level telekinetic. That designation, by itself, was somewhat problematic, because it wasn't inherently a magical gift, but one that had long been proven to occur by virtue of a definite genetic abnormality in humans.
(When the first DNA test against supernaturals became available, they were terribly expensive, and no one wanted to pay; the government decided that registration as a psionic only warranted genealogical proof going back several generations on both sides that everyone was quite thoroughly human.
Nowadays, DNA testing was relatively cheap, but the government had a policy of never looking back, which was why a great deal of ancient -- and ridiculous -- laws were still on the books even in modern times.
For example, if someone wanted to purchase an overpriced coffee these days, they could conceivably settle their bill by singing at the top of their lungs, hopping on one foot, and presenting the barista with a goose egg. It had to be a golden egg, though, which was probably enough these days to cover an overpriced Starbucks coffee.)
The point being, if it was human in origin, it wasn't magical, and therefore, the Magical Entity Registration Act didn't apply. Since most people preferred being safer than sorry, there were plenty of psionics in the database, so Merlin's registration as a low-level telekinetic wasn't suspicious in the least.
For werewolves, however, there was no getting around the MERA. Will was there, flagged under multiple alarming codes, including Dangerous to Humans, Restriction Quarantine Protocols During The Full Moon, and Broad Range Dispersion Probability of Mites.
(Dimly, Arthur remembered noise out of Parliament about introducing a bill requiring werewolves to wear flea collars, but that had been so outrageously speciesist that it never made it to the green paper. There was talk that one of the more loudmouthed, local MPs was lobbying to get that reintroduced after the summer.
That talk fizzled out when the newspaper broke the scandal that this particular MP was a werewolf, himself, which only confused the flea collar issue even more.)
Werewolves were charismatic arseholes, but none of them had ever possessed sufficient control to be an Evil Overlord, so Arthur immediately gave him a pass. He did the same to Freya, who was indeed registered under MERA, though her classification was evenly distributed under several categories -- most to do with animals and animal control. In other words, no one could actually pin down what she was, exactly, but at least they could put her in a rather nice box.
Unlike Arthur, who didn't fit any known reference, but that was a different problem.
It certainly was a motley crew, and no doubt there were others, but Arthur was certain that these six people were all part of the inner circle.
Dr. M, remained elusive. If pushed to guess, Arthur would place his bet on Dr. Merlin Emrys.
He considered going to his other office, where he'd installed a superior computer system. It had better processing power, a completely independent network, and impossible-to-penetrate firewalls. It was the hacker's dream he'd had as a young boy, and he turned it into a reality as soon as he could. There, he could write an algorithm to calculate the probabilities on each member of this little troupe of people and be better able to pinpoint Dr. M.
With a grumpy sigh, Arthur shook his head. It was a lazy man who blamed his tools. He should be able to figure this out on his own.
Arthur leaned back in his chair. He removed his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt, squinting at the two oversized computer screens to make out the tiny font on the Facebook page. He shoved the glasses onto the bridge of his nose, adjusting them as he leaned in, and --
"It's like you're ten years old all over again," Morgana said. "Ugly plaid sleeping trousers, a shirt covered in pizza pocket tomato sauce, rubbish from an empty bag of crisps, and a giant bottle of lime fizzy soda to keep you company while you obsess over your latest obsession."
Morgana LeFay-Pendragon was immaculate -- as always -- in a black pencil skirt, a tailored white shirt, and sensible pumps that wouldn't raise any eyebrows in the straight-laced work environment that was the Aglain, DeBois, and LeFay-Pendragon law offices. Few people had ever seen her in anything but the best, and few were those who knew that she preferred soft flannels, hideous plaids, and cheap plush pink bunny slippers, never mind actually having witnessed it.
"You're one to talk," Arthur muttered. Morgana had her own vices, though they tended toward the sweet, decadent, and expensive, preferably in the form of imported chocolate from Belgium, or those complicated constructs from Japan. He'd had to help her come up with creative ways to get her illicit goods smuggled through customs, and that was a favour he'd yet to have seen paid back.
Morgana raised an eyebrow at him, imperious, unimpressed, and, most of all, impudent, considering that she was an uninvited intruder in his home and he had every right to shoot her. Arthur huffed in annoyance.
"I'm pushing thirty, thank you very much," Arthur grunted. He quick-keyed and quickly minimized all of the open windows on his computer to hide them from Morgana's keen-eyed inspection. Only then did he peer down at his chest, plucking at the thin T-shirt to spot the stain Morgana was talking about. He picked at it, but it was too late: the sauce had sunk through the fibres, dried, and marked him a slob. "Also, it was a calzone, not a pizza pocket."
"Same thing," Morgana said breezily, invading Arthur's home office without invitation. Again. Or rather, as usual.
"You don't have clearance to come in. I have top secret things in here," Arthur complained. Inwardly, he was glad that he'd changed his mind about going to his other computer room. Morgana would have found out about it.
(If she didn't already knew. She was such a bloody snoop. On the bright side, there was a big difference between knowing about something and having been in there, which was something she had yet to achieve.)
"If you have top secret things in here, I sincerely don't want to know about them," Morgana said pityingly. "As your big sister, I feel I should tell you that your top secret things belong in your bedroom, preferably in the bedside drawer. If they're in your office, well, then, that's just sad."
Arthur glared at her and raised two rude fingers. "Why are you here? How did you get here? I changed the locks. I definitely didn't give you the key. Leon doesn't have the key. Father won't come to this part of town unless you have blackmail material, so I saved on the expense and didn't make extra copies."
"I've Seen where you hide your spares," Morgana said slowly, as if to someone extremely stupid. Arthur glowered at her, because he didn't deserve that. He hadn't forgotten that she was just as magic as her mother had been, using cantrips and crystals and mirror bowls to see the past, the present, and the future. It was just... He'd honestly believed he'd found a way to block her ability, this time. "Also, I Saw that you weren't going to answer your door, so I saved us both the time and aggravation."
"Which brings us back to the first question. Why are you here?" Arthur asked.
"To check up on you, because you were also not going to answer any of the texts I was going to send, and once again..."
"Saving us both time and aggravation," Arthur parroted, rolling his eyes. "Do you ever use your gift for something useful?"
Morgana smiled like a shark, all teeth and menace. Useful was a matter of definition. Short-term and inconsequential things, all of them immediately related to Morgana, came to her in brief flashes of insight or visions that were muddled the way lucid dreaming sometime was. For the more significant bits of information, like whether she would win a court case (and how), Morgana claimed that she required complicated, convoluted, and energy-draining rituals, and she preferred to only perform those when it really mattered.
(Arthur had asked her about lottery tickets, once. Only once. He still wasn't convinced she didn't have illegal winnings in an off-shore account, somewhere, even though she didn't need more dosh since she was an equal heir to what was an already ridiculous old money fortune.
Uther Pendragon's career in the media, which subsequently became a media empire, only added to the "ridiculous".)
"Did Father send you?" Arthur asked suspiciously.
Morgana sat down primly on a clean corner of the futon tucked in the corner. The futon was left-over from Arthur's university days, and he hadn't had the heart to get rid of it, but seeing Morgana doing her best to sit elegantly on the sloped edge, he thought it best if he burned the infernal thing as quickly as possible before her corrupt ways tainted the rest of his flat. "You are completely wasted at MI5. Your job title is meaningless, and your salary is barely a step above the postroom assistants."
"Excuse you," Arthur said. "Three steps."
Morgana's perfectly plucked eyebrow arched. Arthur gave her his best enigmatic I don't give a shite smile, which always made her suspicious. For all her magical talent, she tended to live in a state where she either could never figure out what he was planning, or she'd seen what he was planning and didn't know why he was doing it. There was never any middle ground, and Morgana didn't like not knowing. He'd learned long ago that pretending that he wasn't bothered was the fastest way to irritate her into going away.
"But, no," Morgana finally said. "It's just..."
"Oh, God," Arthur said flatly, drumming his fingers impatiently on his fingers. "It's a vision, isn't it? Don't keep me in suspense. What could you possibly be Seeing now? Is it my foot up your backside as I kick your annoying arse out of my flat?"
Morgana released a long, slow, completely exasperated Big Sister breath, mouthed something that was probably rude and unflattering, and rallied herself for a second attack. For all that he quailed internally in anticipation, the funny thing was, Arthur preferred it when he got her riled up, because Morgana would finally get to the point.
"You are twenty nine years old," Morgana said, slowly, her voice dropping into that cold, lecturing zone that Arthur always forgot about until the next time he was on the receiving end. "You are in a dead-end job with no hope of advancement. You've become a recluse, avoiding your family and your friends unless they make you come out with them. You haven't had a date in four years."
Arthur winced. He was perfectly well aware of all of those things on an individual basis, and they'd never bothered him before. Laid out like that, though, it really did make him sound pathetic. However, that didn't mean he had to like it, so he crossed his arms across his chest. Besides, sarcasm and deflection was always the best defence. "Well, come on, now, Morgana. We're family. You don't have to pull your punches."
Morgana's mouth pressed together in a thin line. "Why are you doing this to yourself?"
Arthur began to defend himself until he realised he absolutely no idea what he was defending against. Despite being right, Morgana was wrong, anyway. For a dead-end job, at least Junior Analyst at MI5 was an notable title -- though even if he were allowed to tell people, it wasn't as if he had anyone he wanted to impress, anyway. His friends believed he was a data entry clerk, his father thought he was a glorified paper-pusher for the government, and Morgana, despite not having the right security clearance, had found out the truth the way she always found out.
"I'm not sure what you expect me to say," Arthur finally said.
"I know what you're really up to," Morgana said. She shook her head with disappointment. "You hid away all your books, threw away all your posters, and you stuffed your favourite cloak in the charity box. But you never gave up any of it, did you? Not really."
(She didn't have to define "it", considering she made a point of buying him things Evil Overlord-related for Christmas and his birthdays, every year. Last year was a Cornelius Sigan plushy she'd found on Etsy and an Evil Overlord-themed brand of beer from Germany.
The plushy didn't look a thing like Sigan, and the beer wasn't bad. Arthur might or might not have invested heavily in the microbrewery.)
Arthur scratched his chin before realizing what a physiological giveaway that was, and tucked his hand back in the crook of his crossed arms again. "I have no idea what you're talking about," Arthur tried.
Morgana tilted her head. Arthur shrugged, he had needed to try. Morgana nodded in silent agreement. When she spoke again, some warmth had cracked the ice. "I'm going to tell you something."
"Okay," Arthur said.
"I need you to listen to me very, very carefully," Morgana said.
"Okay," Arthur said again, curious. Morgana usually kept her visions to herself, self-serving wench that she was, but since her visions were usually about her, Arthur had never feel slighted. That she was about to share something now, well, Arthur felt his sister deserved his full attention.
"You are in a rut."
Arthur raised a brow and leaned back with a grunt of disappointment. So much for being let in on a vision. This was a one-person intervention, not an offer to help him reach his own dastardly ends.
Of course he was in a rut. She'd already said as much, using many more words, and surely there would be more. He waited, but the more he waited, the less Morgana seemed willing to say. He gestured in invitation for her to continue, but she seemed more intent on trying to making him understand through sheer will alone.
Arthur spread his hands. "I don't see --"
"You're comfortable. You're not motivated. There's no challenge for you at your job. There's no risk to you as long as you toe the line. Without a close relationship, you don't have to worry that your partner will ever find out about your little..." Morgana's fingers trebled in the air mockingly, as if plucking an ominous chord on the strings of a harp. "Proclivities."
Arthur shifted in his seat. He glanced at the wall clock and wondered if Morgana had somewhere to be.
"Arthur. Arthur," Morgana said, leaning forward as if to reach for him. She aborted the attempt after a few seconds when Arthur rolled his chair away from her. "You have to get out of your rut."
"Morgana," Arthur said with a sigh. He rubbed his face, forgetting that he was wearing his glasses, and nearly knocked them off his face entirely. He scowled at the smears of grease and crisp seasonings on the lenses, and left his glasses on top of his keyboard to deal with, later. "I'm not --"
"Please," Morgana said. As usual, she knew exactly what to say to shut him up.
His entire life, Arthur had only ever heard her beg four times -- over getting her driver's license, attending a music concert, going on a trip to Thailand, and for their father to give Leon a chance, because no matter what, she was going to marry him. This was number five.
The plead shook him up enough that he finally noticed what he should have seen from the minute Morgana invaded his flat. Her perfectly-coiffed curls were less curly than usual, the shade dull rather than vibrant. Flawless makeup wasn't all that flawless, and if he really looked, he could see where she'd missed the dark bags under her eyes, and where she'd added too much blush to compensate for the sunken hollow of her cheeks. She'd lost weight, he saw, because however well-tailored her clothes, the skirt was far too loose around her waist, her blouse billowing out along the sides where it would normally hug her curves.
"You're having nightmares again," Arthur said, his voice a whisper he himself could barely hear. Morgana flinched as if he'd rung a bell with each word, and looked away.
Arthur's mind raced.
Seers were so rare that it had taken Arthur and their father a very long time to discover that Morgana's dreams and visions were insights into the future. Despite her gifts being a supernatural inheritance, Morgana's mother had never been forthcoming with information, and she'd fled with her divorce settlement to somewhere in Italy. Anyway, no one wanted to deal with the conniving bitch. It was Arthur who'd figured it out, and giving her abilities a name helped with control, and things got easier after that.
Easier, and worse, because that was the way of things.
It was only by registering Morgana and classifying her as poorly as he could that Uther had saved her from the fate that inevitably waited all Seers of moderate ability. For all its condemnation of the magical community and the supernatural, the government was greedy, and not above using the very same magical community and supernatural creatures to achieve their own corrupted gains.
Despite Morgana's low scores, government officials had visited the Pendragon household all through Morgana's teenage years -- the years during which most magical creatures would achieve their full strength, and tested her again and again.
Morgana became an old pro at fooling the tests very quickly, reaffirming her registration status with theatrical struggles in her "attempts" to complete the tests. The visits eased when she turned twenty, and stopped altogether when she hit her thirties, because no one came into their heritage or their magic at such a late age.
But the truth was, Morgana was the most powerful Seer of the century. Possibly the millennia, if that. She thought Arthur had no idea of her strength. And, anyway, if she did know that he was fully aware of the extent of her abilities, she pretended that she didn't, so that they could continue on as they always did. Morgana didn't need rituals to see the far future in great detail. She simply needed the will.
And will, she had, in incredible, disciplined measure. The shadow of the government and the threat they posed had taught their little family to be cautious in public, more so in private, and to never stray from the carefully-cultivated illusion they'd woven to ensure their safety.
(Not that those government officials ever looked twice at Arthur, not as far as he knew. Either they had been smart enough to understand that his magically-induced conception didn't make him some sort of magic creature or user, or they had been smart enough not to mess with things they didn't understand. It didn't mean that they hadn't kept an eye on Arthur from afar, and Arthur had learned to play his very human, non-threatening role from a very young age.
Discipline meant control, and absolute control meant suppression. Morgana's tiny flashes of random inspiration were nearly always useless -- her Louboutins would get soaked that morning, for example, so she would be better off wearing the Femme Fatale boots that day -- but that was not all that they were.
Random flashes tended to happen because her power broke through her ability to control it. Nightmares were visions so potent, so urgent, that they plagued her until she did something to resolve the situation.
She wouldn't be here if she thought Arthur couldn't do something to help.
The first time Morgana had had a nightmare, they'd all been struck dumb by her re-telling of the events. Uther, their father, had immediately upgraded their home security, hired additional bodyguards, and altered his regular routes. It had been enough to stop the nightmare from happening again. Maybe the attempted kidnapping had been stopped in its tracks. Maybe there had been no attempt at all. But there had been threats against Uther in the past, some of them escalating enough to require police attention, and there was no doubt that circumventing a vision also stopped Morgana's nightmares.
For a while.
It became the norm for the Pendragons to do what they could to alter events enough that the visions never came to fruition. Uther was desperate to protect his daughter and to keep her from pain. Arthur helped as much because it was something that he was good at, and because he was terrified he'd lose another member of his already-small family. Sometimes their plans worked. Other times, what they did wasn't enough. But at least, they tried.
There were so many other nightmares that Arthur remembered. He'd stood in the doorway, clutching the doorjamb, stricken with fear and worry as he watched his big sister thrashing in her bed, calling out names and screaming for help while their father tried to wake her up. She would have nightmares for weeks upon weeks, and, unfortunately, not even the all-powerful media mogul that was Uther Pendragon could do anything to change the tipping point that was the source of Morgana's visions.
But eventually, the nightmares tapered off. Of the few that slipped through, well. By then, Uther had learned how to best wield his power as the head of the most influential television and radio broadcasting company in the United Kingdom. Morgana used her education, her experience, and the substantially terrifying influence of her law firm to squash what Uther couldn't fix. There hadn't been much for Arthur to do to help in a very long time, but when he did pitch in, the problem went away.
(Arthur had learned that there was a trick to it. Sometimes Fate could be tricked by reproducing the exact same events in the vision and altering the outcome. Other times, it was best to let it happen, and to fix things later. Arthur had gotten rather good at making sure things turned out the way he wanted them to.)
Still, this time around, if Uther couldn't do anything, if Morgana couldn't, why would she come to Arthur?
He was a lowly paper pusher, for fuck's sake.
Arthur rolled his desk chair across the room and took Morgana's hand. Very gently, he asked, "Can you tell me?"
Morgana's eyes, when she finally looked at him again, were pale, washed out, lost, the way she very often was when she was shaking off the last vestiges of a stubborn nightmare. They watered up with tears that would mess up her mascara if they shed, but she valiantly rallied herself together, even if it took crushing Arthur's hand to do it. "You can't let it happen, Arthur."
"Okay," Arthur said, knowing better than to ask questions. Morgana liked asking for help nearly as much as she liked to beg, and he'd get his answers if he waited long enough.
"Something's happening," Morgana said, the words hushed, as if they were in an echo of magical privacy. "Something very, very bad. I can't..."
She trailed off, and Arthur nodded. He didn't press. Morgana's very, very bad was tantamount to people dying, and if she talked about it, she would relive it all in her head. She was already exhausted, and he didn't want to put her through that again. "Go on," he said, ignoring Morgana's fingernails digging into his palm.
"I see you there. You're trying to stop it. But it's so much. It's so much, Arthur. I can't bear to see it. I wake before I have to see how it ends."
Arthur felt ice dripping down his spine. He wondered if that was how people felt when they claimed someone had walked over their graves. Because that was what he was hearing in Morgana's voice -- a funerary dirge in a future he didn't know he had.
He found himself bracing for the inevitable. He'd always thought that the worst thing Morgana could ever See was someone dying.
He had a feeling that it was him, this time.
"I don't... I don't want to lose you," Morgana said, as hoarse as if she'd been screaming for hours. "But --"
"But the outcome is not worth the life of one man." Arthur heard the detachment in his own voice. It sounded strange. She'd seen him die, and in apparent spectacular fashion, after trying to do the Right Thing. Whatever that thing was, it needed doing.
So this was one of those, then. The sort of vision when Arthur would have to figure out how to trick fate in the hopes of the best outcome. He couldn't do that without knowing what he was in for.
So, he took her other hand and didn't so much as wince when she dug her nails into that one, too. "Now tell me everything, Morgana. Don't leave a single thing out."
It took hours, the rest of Arthur's stock of lime fizzy drink (liberally mixed with the vodka he'd had in the freezer), and a greasy breakfast of bacon and egg, but by the time he'd escorted Morgana to the taxi he'd called to take her home, Arthur already had something of a plan.
There were two things he absolutely needed to do, however.
First: he had to get out of his rut.
Second: he had to accept that, no matter how well prepared he thought he was for taking on the role Morgana herself had Seen him take, he couldn't do it alone.
"Seventeen positive Yelp! ratings," Gilli said, nose glued to his mobile as usual. "That's for this week, not total."
"You'll give him an inflated head," Will said, snatching the phone out of Gilli's hands. Gilli blinked several times, and his fingers grasped on empty air, as if not realizing that the object of his intense scrutiny had been removed. "How about this, eight negative reviews. Huh. Apparently we need to improve our customer service. It's taking too long to respond."
"Not my fault," Sefa said. "I'm tagging everything as they come in."
"Nor mine, I'm staying out of it," Freya said. At Sefa's withering glare, Freya shrugged sheepishly and said, "Now. Definitely from this point onward. I'll be staying out of it."
"It's not like anyone lets me respond or make appointments," Merlin groused.
"It's for your own safety, mate," Will said. "It's not like we want the government to know when and where you'll be. Imprisonment is not a company mandate."
"I sure hope not," Merlin said, sipping his beer. The beer was shockingly good today, and he was sure it had less to do with the fact that it was his usual brand, and more to do with the really nice payout he'd received from his last job. That old mum had been absolutely desperate to find her beloved pup that Merlin couldn't find it in him to charge her anything, but Freya, who'd been his minder that day, had used her special touch to calm the dog down once it was found, had seen the golden opportunity and had gone for it.
It still shocked Merlin how cutthroat Freya could be, given the circumstances. He'd expected her to be compassionate to someone who had just lost her dog, but then again, he was learning new things about his friends every day.
(Like just how much fur Will shed, even when he didn't change forms. Merlin had had to charm the shower drain to keep from clogging up. The laundry lint catcher was always stuffed full and had caught on fire once; that stopped when Merlin cast a perpetual cleaning charm on the dumb thing. No one had paid him for that bit of clever magic.)
"I should put something about high demand and unreliable response times on the website. That way they can't say we didn't warn them," Gilli said, his fingers twitching to make notes to himself. He snatched his phone back and started typing in a reminder app.
Will got up to get another celebratory round of beers at the bar. One of the waitresses came by and dropped off their order of chips. Merlin demolished half of his plate before noticing the odd looks he was getting from Sefa and Freya. "What? This job is hard work."
Some days, it felt as if he had used more magic in hours than he had in his entire life. It wasn't as if he had completely bottled up his magic before. He'd just hidden it beneath a proverbial rock, which was covered by a powerful glamour. He'd learned how to be more subtle in its use, and had done his best to disguise it as a minor telekinetic trick for when public demonstrations were unavoidable.
These days, though, Merlin felt the jobs required more aggressive use of magic, none of which could be explained away as mere telekinetic ability, and the sometimes-urgency of the situation meant he couldn't exactly mask the fact he was using sheer, undiluted magic to solve a problem.
He found he was falling back on his magic more and more, mostly because he could deal with a problem more quickly. It felt like something of a cop-out, but ultimately, the issue was solved and probably a whole lot neater than it would have been if he'd resorted to using "telekinetic" tricks and elbow grease.
"You know," Sefa drawled out thoughtfully, "We need to think bigger. The jobs you've been getting are small-time. If you're going to be an Evil Overlord, you need to be an actual Evil Overlord. We need to get you more exposure."
"I think I'm exposed enough," Merlin muttered, wiping his fingers on a napkin before accepting a fresh beer from Will with a grateful nod.
"Craigslist just isn't cutting it," Will said, shoving Merlin along the bench before sitting down.
Will didn't need the room; he just liked claiming as much territory as he could. Merlin was grateful he hadn't been there when he and Sefa had had a massive row about taking the biggest bedroom in their shared house. It had been settled only because Will couldn't afford to pay the extra rent on the meagre under-the-table salary he was earning at the time, but if he continued to volunteer as Merlin's back-up and continued to demand a cut of the job fees, there would be another big argument over the big bedroom, soon.
"We should hire someone to do the public relations," Freya suggested.
"Don't look at me," Gilli said, even though no one was looking at him. "I just do up the pretty pictures and cover the website with the clicky things."
"And we all appreciate it," Sefa assured him, reaching over to pat Gilli's arm. "But that's a fair point. This whole thing was a lark, but it's turning out pretty well. If you want to do this full time, it needs an actual business plan. I can take care of that, but I wouldn't know the first thing about public relations or marketing, and that's what you need. An actual public image, something that goes beyond Yelp!."
"Can't exactly afford to hire someone, though," Merlin said, smacking Will's hand away from his plate of chips. Will growled at him; Merlin growled back and dragged the plate closer, then pointedly drew a flashy golden line across the table. Will snorted, made another attempt to grab Merlin's food, but only hit the invisible barrier for his trouble.
"Ow," Will complained, shaking out his hand. Then, because sometimes he didn't have the sense to leave well enough alone, he tried again, harder. He scuffed his knuckles, then stared at them with a lower-lip pout as his werewolf healing kicked in and the broken skin healed up. Sefa choked on her beer. Gilly typed something with intense concentration on his phone. Freya shook her head slowly, unimpressed, and muttered, Some dogs can't learn new tricks.
Mordred picked that moment to arrive, still dressed in his nursing scrubs. His hair was a wilder bird's nest of curls than usual, his cheeks were ruddy against pale skin, and he looked as if he were ready to go on a bender, if only he didn't have an early shift the next morning. "What did I miss?"
"I hurt my hand," Will said, holding up his hand the way a dog would offer up his injured paw. For some reason, that sent Sefa into hysterics. Merlin moved her beer out of her hand. She probably had had enough.
"Poor baby," Mordred said, shoving Will out of the way to get onto the bench seat with them. "Anything important?"
"We need a public relations guru," Freya said.
"Still not me," Gilli said.
"We know," Freya said, rolling her eyes.
"Someone who can do marketing, too," Sefa said, blotting the tears from her eyes with a napkin.
"Preferably someone who'll work for free, like the lot of you," Merlin said. "Because, money."
"I'm getting a beer," Mordred said helpfully, and slid off the bench seat. Will immediately reclaimed the space.
"I need another one," Sefa said, frowning when she couldn't find her glass.
"Water for Sefa," Merlin said pointedly. He yelped when she kicked him under the table.
"And paracetamol for Merlin," Will said. Mordred waved a hand behind him to indicate he'd heard, but he was already halfway to the bar in a loud pub, so Merlin kind of doubted it.
"We're not working for free," Freya said with a frown. "We fully expect to be compensated for our time and support in some way. It's just going to be later, when you can afford it."
"So that's one take-away pizza for Freya," Merlin said. Freya beamed, satisfied with the offer. "Anyone else?"
"I want your bloody profile picture," Gilli grumbled.
"Some of your chips," Will said, knocking at the invisible barrier on the table.
Sefa snickered as Will scratched mournfully at the air. When she pulled herself together, she reminded Merlin, "Flower shop."
"Flower shop," Merlin confirmed, but gestured between Gilli and Will. "Find a photographer who doesn't make me look like a twat, and you? Get your bloody own, you bottomless pit."
"You know," Mordred said, returning to the table with a large pint of bitter for himself, a bottle of water for Sefa, and no paracetamol in sight for Merlin, "There's someone who could do the marketing thing."
"Who's that?" Sefa asked, scowling at the bottle.
"Local bloke. Came into the clinic today, covered up in bruises. Was really embarrassed when I asked him what happened, said he's being tormented by some sort of ghost that keeps dragging him into a black hole of nothing when he's trying to sleep. Swears up and down it's just a nightmare, tries to pass it off as his imagination, but he can't explain the bruises," Mordred said. "Seemed like a nice bloke. Has a little boutique advertising agency with a mate of his, but they've been having trouble getting a foothold in the industry."
"Got a name?" Gilli asked, already opening a browser on his phone.
"I'll do you one better," Mordred said, seeming almost resigned to not being able to relax for the rest of the evening. "I'll take Merlin over to his place tonight. He hasn't got much, but we could trade a bit of ghost hunting for a bit of marketing. How does that sound?"
Merlin leaned over the table to look at Mordred. Mordred didn't seem concerned, so it was probably exactly as he'd described -- some sort of poltergeist plaguing the poor man. Ghosts were easy enough to deal with.
"Sounds really good," Sefa said, excited. She pulled at Gilli's arm. "We could work out a whole bartering system for people who have skills we can use. Expand our resources, maybe even hire contractors for the bit jobs that aren't worth our Merlin's time. Just think of the franchise opportunities!"
Merlin ignored her. Franchises? She was fucking nuts. He didn't know much about franchising, but he knew enough to admit that they were nowhere near ready for that sort of thing.
"Ghost hunting, huh? Can I come?" Will asked.
"No," Mordred said. "You'll just pee on the front step like you did at the last one."
"Fuck you, I didn't piss myself. And it wasn't my fault, the bloody thing came out of nowhere --"
"As ghosts often do," Mordred allowed.
"-- and it scared the shite out of me, all right?" Will said. "If you'd been there, you'd have been needing a change of pants, too."
Merlin finished his beer and reached for Sefa's untouched bottle of water. No sense dealing with a ghost drunk -- he'd end up the one pissing himself.
It was after Mordred's pint, a fresh plate of chips all around, and a stop-over at the clinic so that Mordred could take a very illegal look at the patient's home address for a very personal and non-medical reason, before Merlin had any notion of what kind of situation it was.
"Well," Merlin said, scratching his eyebrow with his thumb, "It's not a ghost."
Mordred made a tooth-sucking sound. "I'm not nearly drunk enough to deal with this."
Merlin glanced at Mordred sidelong, ready to berate him for not being at his best, but then agreed Mordred had a point and said, "You and me, both."
The house was nice enough, for all that it was shrouded in an ephemeral veil with moving tentacles that no one without the ability to see auras could possibly see. The tentacles lashed out wildly at anything that moved, as if trying to grab its prey, and every once in a while, it solidified just enough to wrench a few leaves out of a neighbour's spindly tree. A dog barked its head off somewhere down the street, probably anxious at the weight of the darkness in the area, and Merlin had the feeling that no matter what the time of day, the house was always in a perpetual shadow.
The tentacle-entity wasn't an actual, sentient creature. It was an artefact of whatever dark rite had taken place on this site some time ago -- quite some time ago, actually, since it couldn't have grown so large in such a short period of time. If it was an actual, sentient creature, Merlin would be backing away slowly while making plans to reread his Lovecraft and study up on his Cthulhu mythos before tackling the situation. This? It was only marginally less awesome and terrible.
"You know, this is why I tried to get bookstores to stop selling occult books during my undergrad," Merlin said. "Even if the author includes a section on how to close incantation circles properly or how to safely dissipate black magic, nobody bothers using one. Or it's bad information all around. If the black magic lingers, the circles degrade, and this kind of bollocks happens. Every. Single. Fucking. Time. It's completely irresponsible --"
"Are you winding yourself into a strop?" Mordred asked, pained. "Because I've heard it a million times. And once more for the people in the back, who might not have heard, I'm still not drunk enough to deal with this, and definitely nowhere close to the numbness level required to survive one of your bloody rants."
Merlin pulled at his ear in clear sign of vexation, clamped his mouth shut, and gestured rudely toward the house. "Fine. Go knock on the door."
Mordred walked to the door in an impressive straight line, but couldn't quite suppress the urge to dodge out of the way of the tentacles sweeping through him. It would've brought a bubble of laughter out of Merlin to watch Mordred flail around and duck behind a shrub, except for the fact that dark voids like these? Eventually, they became solid enough to literally eat an entire city. He wondered how anyone could let it get so bad.
The answer to that was the very human, very mundane, completely non-magical person came to the door. It was nearing midnight, the next day was a workday, and they could've timed their visit with a bit more consideration, considering the bleary-eyed squint being shot their way. Anyone supernatural would have gotten the fuck out of there a long time ago, or would have done something about the situation.
Still, Merlin needed to double check. "Please tell me you're renting."
In an unbreakable six months lease, with four months to go, Merlin learned, as a very muzzled Lance Du Lac led the way inside. He leaned against the counter while the kettle warmed up the water to a boil and rubbed his face.
Mordred was right -- Lance was a nice bloke. He was gracious despite the late hour and after having been woken up from his sleep. He'd immediately invited two relatively complete strangers inside, and offered them tea. Even better, Lance was nice to look at.
Merlin, in an absentminded, completely unprofessional slip, admired the line of Lance's shoulders, the muscle stretching the thin shirt he wore, and the delicious strip of skin exposed by the low-slung nature of his sleeping trousers. But then, he saw the dark circles under his eyes, and looked too long at the blankets and pillows on the sofa in the living room, and remembered they were here on a job.
"You fancy getting your deposit back?" Mordred asked, glancing knowingly at Merlin. It wasn't that Merlin damaged things on purpose. It was that the things he was damaging tended to damage other things.
(As they do.)
"That ship's sailed," Lance said with a sigh. The kettle whistled, he poured hot water in the large mugs, and stared at them for a long, exhausted moment until seemingly realizing that he should put the tea bags in, too. He took care of that before bringing the mugs to the one-leg-too-short kitchen table and distributing them all around. "The main bedroom's a mess. The paint's peeling from the walls, the carpet's been bleached in the middle, and I've had to patch up the window a few times."
"Ah," Mordred said. He gave Merlin a significant look that either repeated the earlier mantra, Not drunk enough, or meant, Fix it, the poor bloke's had it rough.
"Do you live alone?" Merlin asked instead.
"Ugh," Lance said, sitting heavily in the chair across from Merlin and Mordred. He buried his face in his hands, said nothing for nearly a minute, and rubbed his temples. "I don't think I've never not lived alone in this cursed place."
"I sense a story," Mordred said. Merlin elbowed Mordred hard in the ribs, because clearly there was a story, but not necessarily a good one. Mordred, who clearly should have switched to drinking water halfway through their evening, and possibly also had some of the kebab from the take-away place they passed along the way, scowled, only to realise what he said. His mouth formed an embarrassed "O".
"I had a flatmate," Lance said. Either he was far nicer than Mordred had said and was ignoring the drunk arsehole in the room, or he was far nicer than Mordred had said, but too tired to have noticed Mordred's lack of tact. "He didn't last."
"Um," Merlin said, because that sounded dreadful. "He's alive, right?"
"Huh?" Lance asked, blinking owlishly. "Oh, yeah. Yeah, nothing like that. Just poked his head in my bedroom at the wrong time, saw the big black hole in the middle, and flipped his shite."
"Oh," Merlin said. "Well. I suppose that's understandable."
"I suppose," Lance agreed, sighing heavily. "It's not like it affects the other bedroom. Just mine. But that doesn't matter. None of the flatmates stay more than a week or two. I've been borrowing from the company funds to float the other half of the rent, at least for now. Once my lease is finished, I'm out of here, but in the meantime... It hasn't been easy."
A loud, blood-curdling, soul-tearing, reach-down-into-a-man's-guts-and-tear-them-out screech blared through the house. By Merlin's reckoning, it came from somewhere upstairs, closer to the back yard. He glanced at Mordred to find him staring up at the ceiling with much the same wide-eyed regard as Merlin had, a second ago. Lance, however, didn't move from where his chin was propped up in one hand, dipping the teabag into his cup with the other.
"That's... inconvenient," Mordred said, his voice a little wobbly. Merlin had a feeling he'd just been startled sober by the dragging footsteps in the distance and the wobble-rattle of chains.
"How did this even get past the local Council?" Merlin asked, crossing his arms. He hadn't been involved when Sefa and Gilli tracked down a place large enough to house them all. In the aftermath, he'd learned all the "Dos" and "Don'ts" that came with renting a flat and how lucky they were that the landlord was friendly to supernatural tenants. Since entire districts of the city were now zoned to keep the supernatural -- regardless of prior inhabitation -- out, it was pure chance that Sefa had found them a place at all. There was no way that a local council would allow renting a flat if it was even remotely contaminated by something supernatural.
And Lance's flat was tainted ten ways to Sunday.
Mordred glanced at him curiously. Lance woke up a bit and looked at him as if he'd never seen him before.
"They had to screen the place for magical residue before they put it on the market, right? It's like a Council rule. This is a restricted area, isn't it?" Merlin asked.
"It is," Lance said slowly.
Mordred's raised eyebrow irritated Merlin. Merlin scowled at him. "What? I pay attention when people talk to me."
"Doesn't always seem like it," Mordred said.
"Yeah, well, takes a while to sink in if I'm thinking about something else," Merlin said.
He leaned forward, absentmindedly pulling the teabag out of his mug, squeezing it of every delicious drop with a curl of glittering golden ribbon that attracted Lance's attention. Most mundanes freaked out when they saw magic performed in front of them, or if a magical creature crossed their path, but not Lance. If anything, he seemed absolutely delighted, which made Merlin want to help the bloke out even more.
"Look, the way I see it, whatever this is, it's old. It's been around for a while. Longer than a year, but not more than two, and you've only been here for a couple of months," Merlin said. "Was there a tenant before you?"
"Uh," Lance said, but he was awake and thinking. "Yeah. Someone on a year-long lease, but they broke it early at penalty. I don't know about any others."
Merlin glanced at Mordred, pointing at Lance meaningfully, but Mordred only blinked big wide eyes. Druids, Merlin muttered under his breath. They had a rather narrow worldview of magic as a whole, which was all good and dandy. Balance was nice, but actually understanding balance in the grand scheme of metaphysical cause and effect was even better. Merlin rolled his eyes.
"I haven't seen it yet, but I'm pretty sure I don't need to," Merlin said. The sometimes-physical ghostly dark tentacles outside of the house was a dead giveaway. Emphasis on dead. "If they got you or anyone else to rent this flat, it's only because they masked it. Whatever they used -- an illusion, a suppression charm, some sort of reliquary -- it only countered the dark magic that was cast here for a really short time, long enough to rent the place out, and that's... That's so bloody irresponsible --"
"Where does your landlord live?" Mordred asked, rudely shoving Merlin's mug into his face. Merlin's rant was cut off by a scramble to keep the hot tea from spilling all over his front.
"A couple of houses down, at the corner," Lance said, glancing between them.
Merlin sipped his tea in-between grumbling about idiots and greedy fucking bastards and bloody fucking stupid twats. He didn't immediately notice that Mordred was calling his name.
"What," Mordred mimicked. He spread his hands and thumbed over his shoulder. "Evil Overlord trumps arsehole landlords. Go get him. House on the corner."
He turned to Lance.
"What's his name?"
Merlin didn't hear the rest. He didn't need to. Mordred was right. As ridiculous as the title was, Evil Overlord did trump arsehole landlords. Whether or not Merlin actually was an Evil Overlord didn't matter. The situation was wrong, unethical, criminal and completely illegal. More than anything, it was going to be satisfying to place the blame for this whole fuck-up where it belonged and to shove those Lovecraftian-like tentacles up the landlord's arsehole. And not in the nice way.
He was down the road, banging on the front door to number one sixty-four, using his magic to make sure the knocks resounded loudly inside, waking up the inhabitants. It took three minutes for the lights to turn on, another two before someone looked out the window, and some very loud whispers on the other side of the door before it swung open.
"What in the good lord's name is going on? If this doesn't stop right now, I'm going to call the police --"
"Hello," Merlin interrupted, smiling thinly. "Norris Newt?"
"Newton," Norris Newt corrected, crossing his pudgy arms over his round belly. He wore a robe on top of his fancy pyjamas and leather slippers. Behind him was his matching wife, her hair in curlers.
"Excellent," Merlin said, his grin broadening. Norris Newt took a wary step back. "I'm Dr. M from Evil Overlord Incorporated. I'd give you my card, but I'm not interested in acquiring you as a client. In fact, I'm quite cross with you, and I'd like to show you why. Come with me."
He turned on his heel and walked back the way he came, not bothering to wait and see if Newt was following him. Anyway, he wasn't giving the man a choice. He twined his magic around Newt and dragged him along.
"I like to think I'm a fair man," Merlin said, in as conversational a tone as he could manage given how absolutely ticked off he was. "I understand that there are good tenants and bad tenants, just like there are decent landlords and absolute fucking twatwaffle landlords."
He gestured; his magic pulled a sputtering Newt up from where he was lagging behind, bringing him even with Merlin. Merlin looked him in the eye, long and hard, even after they passed the streetlight and it was dark for a few more strides, making certain that Newt understood in no uncertain terms that Merlin was talking about him.
"I don't know -- unhand me -- you're hurting me -- stop this immediately!" Newt protested. Merlin shook Newt a few times, maybe more violently than was warranted, but it shut him up.
"Pay attention, Mr. Newt," Merlin said, stopping in front of Lance's flat. Lance was at the door, wide-eyed and worried; Mordred was nowhere in sight. "I'll grant you that you had bad tenants not that long ago. Kids, probably. You were happy to see their backside, but not so happy when you saw what they left behind.
"You had a choice, Mr. Newt. You could've gone to the Council with your problem. I understand not everyone likes to deal with the Council, so, if you didn't want to go to them, that's fair. But you had a phone book worth of other solutions. For instance, you could've contacted the police, they've got a division that deals with this sort of thing. If it was outside their capability, there's a number of certified magical removal units that you could've hired." Merlin looked at Mr. Newt closely. "But you were too cheap for that, weren't you?"
Norris Newt squawked in outrage, spluttering wordlessly. Merlin waited until he was done before he continued.
"I bet you gave the master bedroom a new paint job, some fresh carpet, a set of colourful drapes, probably from the charity shop. Then, to cover up the worst of the damage, you hid a small charm inside the room."
Merlin tugged Mr. Newt after him as he walked up to the building, excusing himself as he walked past Lance and pulled a struggling Mr. Newt after him and up the stairs.
"Instant fix. I get why you did that. Cheap, easy, quick. But stupid. So fucking stupid."
Merlin didn't need direction to find the master bedroom. There were only three doors on the second landing and the middle one was open to the bathroom. The door on the right side was warped, sooty black all around the edges, and something dark and purple pulsed in the crack at the floor. Mr. Newt squealed as Merlin walked up to the door, but Merlin had a measure of mercy; he didn't open it quite yet.
"Here's the thing," Merlin said amiably, using his grad student tutor voice to its full, patronising glory. "Patches are fine for the short term. But they don't last, do they? I mean, think back to the last time you covered a hole in the wall with a picture. Eventually, someone's going to move the frame, aren't they? Well, it's the same thing here. The charm covered up the mess but it didn't do anything to contain it. While the magic in the charm degraded over time, the dark magic that had been cast inside the room continued to grow. Most likely the charm kick-started some sort of cascade effect, so this whole show is your fault, but that's neither here nor there."
Merlin didn't want to touch the doorknob, so he used magic to twist and open the doorway. It swung open fast, as if blown in by a firm breeze, and crashed on the far wall. It wasn't wind that caused the breeze, but the vacuum caused by the large, man-sized oval void in the middle of the room.
He felt a faint pull, but it wasn't magical in nature. His hair and clothes were sucked into the vacuum, but it was so mild that he barely budged from his position. It was a different story inside the bedroom. The furniture had been sucked into the middle; half of it was hanging out of the void-hole, the rest disappearing inside. Black tentacles, much like the ones he and Mordred had seen outside on the walk up to Lance's house, lashed viciously at everything physical, connecting more often than not. A drawer of neatly folded pants went whizzing across the doorway. A couple of them went flying -- floating -- out.
(A little, mortified sound squeaked behind Merlin, but he didn't look. If he did, he'd make eye contact with Mordred, and then burst out laughing. That just wouldn't do; he was currently in Full Evil Overlord mode. Still, someone had bought a pair of Hufflepuff pants, complete with badger face on the front, the snout extruded like an elephant's trunk, and that was more than Merlin had ever wanted to know about his new friend's Hogwart House sorting.)
He turned his Full Evil Overlord glare at Mr. Newt, who promptly pissed his pyjama trousers, the poor daft plonker.
(Idly, Merlin wondered if Sefa was going to hear about this, which might mean getting a lecture about being a scarier Evil Overlord. It wouldn't do to be bettered by floating black holes of nothing, but he left that problem for later.)
Mr. Newt sobbed. "No! No, don't, please, I'll do anything, I won't do it again, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!"
Merlin sighed and turned to face Mr. Newt. Lance stared at them, still wild-eyed, mouth open as if he were about to protest, but thinking better of it. Mordred was behind him, leaning against the stairwell, cup of tea in hand, a tiny, amused smirk pulling at his mouth.
"Anything?" Merlin asked, just for clarification's sake.
"Oh, God, please! Don't throw me in there! I'll do whatever you want --"
"Good, because we're going to start with a few things," Merlin said. He ticked off each item from his fingers. "Reduce Mr. Du Lac's rent by half. He's a nice bloke and doesn't deserve the bollocks you've put him through. Pay for the renovations to the master bedroom to make it liveable -- to Mr. Du Lac's standards. Allow Mr. Du Lac to extend his lease at the halved rent in perpetuity, if he decides to continue living here. Are you with me so far?"
"Yes, yes, I'll do that, I swear!"
"Excellent. Two more things," Merlin said. He snapped his fingers in front of Mr. Newt's face to make sure he was paying attention. He thumbed over his shoulder toward the open bedroom door. "You're paying my fee for cleaning this mess up. Once I'm done, my druid friend over there --"
Merlin helpfully turned Mr. Newt around, where Mordred was holding up his cup of tea in greeting, "-- he's going to cleanse the area and make sure that shite like this can't happen again. You're going to pay his fee, too."
"Yes, yes! Let me go! I promise!"
Merlin let him go. Mr. Newt promptly turned on his slippers, shoved past Lance, barrelled into Mordred (spilling his tea all over his nursing scrubs), and dashed down the stairs. He stumbled halfway, nearly fell on his arse, and collided with the corner.
"Oh, Mr. Newt?" Merlin put enough ice in his voice that it was like magic, because Mr. Newt froze where he stood in the front landing below. Merlin crossed his arms and leaned against the railing. "When you get the invoice from EOI, please pay promptly. Our bill collector is kind of an arse."
Mr. Newt squeaked and ran out of the flat.
Merlin bowed his head and gave in to the peals of laughter that had been building up since... well, since the Hufflepuff pants, actually, though he was nice enough not to mention them. Merlin was still angry about the carelessness that had started all this and that the idiot landlord had continued his money-making scheme until the perfectly-containable situation had gotten out of hand, but, fuck.
"You enjoyed that," Mordred remarked, plucking at his damp scrubs.
"Maybe a little," Merlin said. Way too much, he silently admitted, which sobered him up a lot. He wasn't an Evil Overlord. He wasn't!
Merlin wiped a tear from his cheek, brushed down his clothes, and hoped sincerely that he hadn't scared Lance. Lance, however, looked at Merlin as if he'd just seen the Second Coming.
"If you can fix that," Lance pointed at the void inside the master bedroom, "And get Newton to do all those things about the rent, I'm going to name my firstborn after you."
"Don't you dare, Merlin's a terrible name for a child. I should know," Merlin, said, making a face. "But there is something you can do for us. Why don't you have a chat with Mordred about that while I go in there and deal with the void?"