No one should live a thousand years. “And more,” Lance muttered, gazing unseeingly at the familiar lights spread before him. Thousands of flickering beacons like the candles on the huge banquet tables prepared for Uther and Igraine; the feasting and dancing. He could almost hear the clash of swords, lick the sweet taste of venison from his lips, and inhale the smell of smoke and spices as the meat roasted.
A car horn broke his thoughts and Lance lifted his face to the ugly world and inhaled only traffic fumes. He shook off his memories and rose, his long, leather black coat billowing behind him, the weapons hid beneath its folds. Four nights he had sat here and waited for them. Waiting for death. Sat in the dark. Wrestling between being what was expected and simply staying sane. He had held onto the first for so long he knew the tightrope he walked towards the second got thinner every day.
Kay would take his place and be the champion he was born to be. Lance had been born a commoner. He had been fighting all his life to throw off that mantle, but it was true what people said.
Be careful what you wish for.
Muscles bunched and fell as he strode to the edge of the roof, filling his lungs with air before the smell hit him. Decaying, rotting flesh. The stench immediately so vile and putrid, he shook his head to clear it even though fifteen hundred years should be long enough for it to no longer give him pause. His heart picked up its steady rhythm. It was time. They were here. Within seconds, he had jumped down from the rooftop and was running a block over to the alley behind Third Ave. He heard a scream, angry, defiant. Someone was going to die unless Lance could get there fast enough.
He rounded the dumpsters and leaped over the trash strewn ground. A young man was trapped by the hulking mass of an Ursus. Before Lance could even question why the monster was there, the Ursus smelled his presence and turned to face him. drawing it’s sword, his Agrek—the only weapon ever made that could kill a Guardian, forged from the same Cornish silver mines that had given up their last vein of the precious metal before tin was discovered and so sought after. The Ursus screamed its anger, a shrill, deafening noise that echoed off the high buildings surrounding the alley.
Lance raised his own sword a fraction too slow, all the enticement the creature would need. For the first time since he had tried to lift the hefty blade Lance didn’t put all his weight behind it and just waited for the blow.
The Ursus raised its head and Lance took another enticing step waiting for the second the creature dropped the human to claim a bigger prize. The Ursus raised its Agrek then turned to look at the man and in that second Lance knew he had made a colossal mistake.
But not why.
The Ursus brought down the blade to the figure curled up on the ground and Lance reacted with barely a breath to spare. Blade met blade in a scream of metal so loud Lance doubted the very city itself was big enough to contain it. He danced the steps his body had memorized what seemed a hundred lifetimes ago. Soon his actions were not reactive but decisive, and with a flick of Lance’s wrist the blade slashed the creature’s side. Distraction won, the beast screamed its rage and left the man it had guarded intent on a new victim. Lance sidestepped and the hulking mass charged at him. All seven feet of slavering, mindless evil, made for one purpose, created by insane jealousy and an unquenchable thirst for revenge. Lance swerved at the last second, and his blade connected with the creature’s arm. More screams echoed down the alley as the Ursus spat and grunted filth and vitriol at him. But no intelligible words. Their creator, long since dead, had needed merely a mindless weapon. Swords clashed as they both thrust and danced. The Ursus, stupidly cumbersome, was taking slash upon slash from Lance’s faster, truer aim. Lance bit back his frustration. The first cuts were already healing, and the creature wasn’t slowing or stopping. Their machine-like strength was impervious to most blows. The only possible fatal one straight to their heart, and only from a sword wielded by one of their knights.
Morgan le Fay had not been able to make them totally invincible.
In one move, Lance feigned a stumble. The Ursus screamed his victory and bent over him, stupidly believing it had brought him down. Lance rolled, whipping to one side and thrust his sword straight at the creature’s heart. The immediate silence more deafening than the preceding bedlam. A cloud of gray dust fluttered to the ground where the Ursus had once stood, and the evening breeze carried it softly away. Lance stood and sheathed his blade.
“What the… What the fuck was that?”
Lance turned immediately, drawing his coat to conceal his armory. “You’re safe, the thief’s run off.” He bent to the figure sprawled on the ground knowing he would have been unable to see what attacked him, and hoping his shocked state, and the shadows behind the dumpsters, would further aid Lance’s lies.
“No,” the man said clasping Lance’s offered hand. “I mean—that thing, that thing what was it?” Lance stilled in shock as the stranger scrambled to his feet stepping towards a security light over a doorway, and every ridiculous explanation about muggers died in Lance’s throat. Black riotous curls swung and were hurriedly pushed aside by a slim hand. Every cell in Lance’s body tightened as anger, determination, and something else flashed in brilliant blue eyes. Lance wrenched his own eyes from them and let his gaze slowly slide over flushed cheeks and beautiful plump pouty lips.
The taut silky black shirt was open enough Lance caught a flash of a silver piercing as the man bent and brushed his ass. Lance was helpless not to let his gaze follow the slim fingers as they seemed to dance over the tight fitting black torn jeans. “Fucking new,” he groused and then straightened, a dimple flashing as he put out a hand. “Well, new to me.”
Lance blinked, staring at the hand like it was going to bite. Just as the man’s expression changed to resignation and he went to drop his hand, Lance managed to get his body to cooperate and clutched the offered fingers. “Are you injured?”
“No, thanks to you.” The man smiled then tried to withdraw his hand. One plucked eyebrow shot up when Lance couldn’t seem to let it go. He sighed. “I guess I owe you. Come behind the dumpsters.”
Lance blinked. The dumpsters?
“I’m not blowing you out here. If someone heard they may have called the cops, and don’t give me no mugger bullshit. Filthy, disgusting—”
The man took a step and gazed down at his hand that Lance was still clutching. He frowned. “Look I ought’a call the cops anyway. Those steroids have gotta be illegal, and it sure as shit is too early for Halloween.”
He barely had time to process what the man was saying when his mind skidded to an abrupt halt. He saw it? Could he see the Ursus? No humans ever saw them. It was impossible. Unless… The man shook Lance’s hand free and took a step away, Lance’s continued silence obviously causing alarm. “I’m gonna call the cops.” He took a determined step back, and Lance panicked.
“What’s your name?” Lance rushed out and watched in fascination as the dimple flashed again in the man’s cheek, and he stuck out his hand again.
“Mel. But you can call me anything you like.” Lance looked at his hand and then clasped it firmly. “And you are? I at least ought to know the name of my gallant rescuer.” The shy smile went straight to Lance’s knees.
Gallant? Mel had no idea how accurate his teasing was. “It’s Lance, err … short for Lancelot. Lancelot Buchanan.” He waited for the derision that usually followed when people heard his full first name.
A peal of laughter rang out and Mel’s eyes danced. “You’re serious?” Lance drew himself up—it wasn’t that funny. “I’m sorry.” But he didn’t look sorry. Mirth flickered in his eyes. “My dad had a weird hang up about history. Old English stuff.” Mel’s flush deepened. “I didn’t mean it was funny, it’s just such a coincidence.”
Lance’s heart immediately beat a tattoo in his chest. “Coincidence?” His voice rose and he cleared his throat.
“I shortened my real name.”
Lance’s heart stopped. He practically heard its last furious beat. “What’s your name?”
Mel groaned. “You’re never gonna believe me.”
“Try me,” Lance croaked the words out past lips that dread seemed to be rendering numb.
“Although my mom was probably high or something when they named me. It’s Merlin. Go figure.”
Merlin? Lance’s eyes roved up and down Mel but this time in complete disbelief.
“But what can you do?” Mel groused. “Some fucking people shouldn’t be allowed to have kids.”
Lance blinked in shock one more time and shook his head. He really had no idea.
“I’m going to call the cops right now.” Mel took a determined step back and fished in his pocket for a cell phone. Lance had a second to marvel at how he would fit anything in a space that looked too tight for even oxygen when he realized he couldn’t let him. The police? He shot out a hand to stop him without thinking, and Mel whirled.
Five seconds later Lance lay flat on his back staring at the sky.
For a breathless second neither of them uttered a word then Lance groaned as Mel’s face appeared and his wide, now worried gaze fell on him.
“Are you okay? I’m sorry, it was automatic. Did I hurt you?” His concerned eyes raked him up and down. “Did you hit your head? Perhaps we should get you to the emergency room? Old man Jericho will lend me his car.” Mel was obviously taking his shocked silence as an indication of injury.
Oh My God. Lance sat up. He fought monsters, supernatural beings that couldn’t be killed. He was over fifteen hundred years old, and some man, boy had just laid him flat out. He put his hand to the back of his head. Thank God Gawain wasn’t there to witness his humiliation. Lance would never hear the end of it.
“I’m gonna call 911. You stay still.” Mel peered at him again, new worry clouding his eyes. “Did that thing attack you as well?” He turned and glanced down the now deserted alley.
Lance forced his brain to kick in. The doubt he had heard was obvious. For all his bluster there was no way he would voluntarily be near any law enforcement. “I’m sorry Merlin, Mel,” and he got to his feet more confidently. Mel took a step back and Lance forced himself not to take one forward. Mel shot a glance behind him obviously wondering if he could get away before he what—attacked him?
Lance held his hands up and took two steps backwards. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Uh, huh. Isn’t that what the villain says on every scary movie I’ve ever seen before he jumps them?”
Lance’s lips twitched. “No jumping, promise and if anything, you just jumped me.”
The soft inhalation seemed very loud as they both caught a different meaning in the throwaway words. He chewed his cheek. “I should be running in the opposite direction.”
“And I’m not stopping you.” He took a chance. “Your curiosity is. It’s the same reason you’re not screaming in hysterics.”
“Pfft,” Mel tutted. “I don’t do hysterics.” He paused. “Although you come at me with any sort of rodent and I’m making no promises.”
Lance grinned and waggled the cuffs on his coat to show they were empty. “No mice lurking in there.”
Mel heaved a dramatic sigh. “Don’t make me regret this, but I think you owe me a coffee and an explanation.” He licked his lips. “Or I could just give you the blow job and we call it quits?”
Lance felt the action in his groin. “Why the name Merlin?” Because despite inner conviction telling him this was a weird coincidence, he had to be sure.
“My dad was a teacher back in the day. English, history. But he died when I was ten.” The comment was made quietly but Lance could hear the hurt and imagine the rest. There had to be a story behind why he was here.
Footsteps clattered into the alley. Lance immediately put his back to Mel and completely without thinking drew his sword at the newcomer.
“My Liege?” Kay had dropped automatically to his knee facing Lance’s sword. The reaction was inbred, automatic, and totally inappropriate. Lance cursed. He had not shown one of them the tip of his sword in error for many, many years.
He sheathed it quickly and opened his mouth to say something, anything.
“Are you crazy?” Mel was staring at him in astonishment, but not, he was astounded, in fear. “You can’t go waving swords around in New York.”
Kay looked helplessly at Lance. They were not used to having to think of explanations.
“Guns are dangerous,” Lance said immediately realizing how ridiculous that was. And utterly useless against the Ursus.
“Oh, and of course a huge sword is totally safe to carry around?” Mel’s sarcasm was not lost on Lance, neither was the decibels he was using.
Kay stood, and immediately bowed to Mel. “Greetings.”
Mel’s lips parted soundlessly, and he glanced around. “Someone’s filming this, aren’t they? I don’t know what stunt or dare this is, but cut it out, huh? You’re not funny anymore.”
Lance struggled for a reply, as Mel’s eyes swept up and down them both in assessment. Kay held his hand out, quickly trying to cover his embarrassment. Mel huffed at Kay but didn’t take his hand. “I’m Kay.” At his sudden look of surprise, Kay grinned. “Yes, I know it’s a girl’s name. Disappointed parents, what can I say?”
Mel chuckled and held out his hand. “Oh, that’s perfect,” he said. “We’ve just been complaining at the injustices our parents rained down on us. I’m actually called Merlin,” and his fingers grazed Kay’s.
Kay inhaled sharply and threw Lance a stunned look. Mel paused, but missed the small shake of the head that Lance threw back.
As if he suddenly realized what he was doing Mel took a step away. “Well if this really isn’t some joke, I need to call the cops and report the mugger.” Mel chewed his lip, looking at Lance. “It will sound better if you explain, I think.”
Lance shook his head. “You and I both know you aren’t calling the police.”
“Then you have some fucking explaining to do.”
Lance took a step forward. Mel had gone from incredulous to angry in a second, and he didn’t blame him. “Maybe I can buy you a cup of coffee, and we can talk.” Lance nodded to the corner diner that stayed open all night.
Eyes narrowing, Mel took a step back. “Or maybe I should call the cops.”
Lance planted his feet; the last thing he wanted to do was scare him. “And say what?” he asked softly.
Blue eyes stared at him cautiously then he drew a deep breath and seemed to come to a decision. “Okay. Thank you I think,” he said cheekily, and with a slight head tip he had stepped between the dumpsters again and was running down the alley.
Lance blew out a long breath and glanced at Kay. Kay was staring after him even though he was out of sight.
“You’re going to let him go?” Kay asked the disbelief touching the edge of his question.
“No,” Lance bit out and Kay’s eyebrows shot up. But Lance didn’t move.
“Is that,” Kay said.
“I don’t know,” Lance admitted.
“Then he needs to be safe while we figure it out.”
Lance agreed with Kay’s unnecessary words. He knew that now he had been found, if he had been found, he would be the focus of the Ursus. But I was done, finished. He’d thought the Ursus had sensed his presence and used the attack on a human to draw him out, even though that would have been a first for them. But Lance had made a mistake. The Ursus hadn’t immediately turned to Lance as a new target. That would have been easy. He would just have let the beast come, but instead it had refocused on the human.
And if he was a Tresor his death would kill his knight and they would lose.
The whole world would lose. He had been so utterly selfish and now guilt leadened his heart even more.
“He looks so young.”
Lance nodded at the unspoken question in Kay’s tone. Merlin—if it was truly him—not having any awareness of who he was raised more questions than it answered. But if Merlin had been found maybe the final battle was at least over the horizon. Destiny—fickle as it may be—might finally be in their grasp. “I will go after him, stay out of sight.”
Lance followed quickly and sent Kay back to get the truck. Thanks to the amulet they all wore Kay would find him easily but within fifteen minutes he had followed Mel to an apartment block just over the other side of Crotona Park and down a small side street off East Tremont. Lance looked in resignation at the battered building Mel walked up to and the shuttered off store; the trash-lined sidewalk, and the group of youths that were all hanging around the steps leading to it. Lance drew his small dagger silently but stopped short as they moved to one side to let Mel pass. Mel said something he couldn’t quite catch but he heard the answering chuckles from the group of boys. He watched as Mel ruffled the hair of the smaller one and told him he should be in bed. Catching something in Mel’s and the boy’s exchange about “Nana Jackson,” he quickly retreated back and out of sight. He waited another five minutes until he saw Kay’s SUV pull up a few feet away and he turned and walked over, climbing in.
Without being asked, Kay touched a button on his phone. Lance barely listened as Kay gave instructions for a full background check on any residents at this address that may be called Mel or Merlin. He could hear Gawain muttering in disbelief on the other end and could practically see the man’s fingers flying over the keyboard.
Kay turned to Lance. “He’ll call back when it’s done. Ali and Lucan are patrolling over near the college so I’ll go back and do one last sweep.”
“Everything clear?” Lance was briefly diverted.
Kay nodded, pausing with a hand on the door. “I assume you’re staying here so I’ll leave the truck.” And without waiting for the unnecessary reply, got out and closed the door. Within seconds, Kay had melted back into the night.
Lance looked at the apartment building. The youths had disappeared. Rap music was blaring from the ground floor apartment, seemingly unheard by the rest of the building’s tenants. He glanced at his watch—nearly two a.m. Wouldn’t hurt to just check the perimeter. He also needed to know which apartment Mel was in.
Lance was just going to open the door when his phone vibrated. Gawain. He eagerly answered it. “Yes?”
“Is it true?” Gawain’s voice was a mixture of incredulity and hopefulness.
Lance huffed and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know,” he replied honestly. “I certainly wasn’t expecting…” Mel looked far too young. “What did you come up with?”
“Well, he’s definitely mortal,” Gawain replied bluntly and Lance nodded even though Gawain couldn’t see him.
“It’s a coincidence then?” He wasn’t sure whether his heart was full of relief…or regret. Surely Merlin would be immortal?
There was a silence on the other end for a beat. “But Kay says he could see the Ursus.”
“I thought so, but maybe he just kept it together more than any other victim we’ve ever seen.” But that made no sense either. He had joked about Halloween costumes.
“Lance you know no mortal can ever see the Ursus unless he is a Tresor.”
“Then maybe he is.”
“But… Who for?”
Not him certainly. He was expecting something else, someone else. “What did you find?”
Merlin Rhys, twenty-three. No living family. Interestingly enough, father was—”
“A history teacher,” Lance interrupted.
Gawain cleared his throat. “Actually no. His father was a college professor and at one time a respected Arthurian historian—which may account for the name if it is a coincidence—and also wrote a few historical essays and the like. He was well thought of for years and then something happened and he got fired. I would have to do a little more research to find out what. A few more teaching jobs after that each one less secure and not as financially beneficial. Died when Mel was ten in a house fire. Mother remarried another two times in the past thirteen years each time less successfully than the last. The first one is doing life for two counts of murder in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the second—her dealer—paid for her to enter rehab twice before his final stop was the morgue.”
“What about the mother?”
“Did booze and drugs as I said with husband number two and more of the same with husband number three. Finally O.D.’d two years ago. Numerous incidences of family services being involved and then a missing person report on Mel was filed by his school when he was thirteen. There are no mentions after that until he’s eighteen when employment records—agency escorting, and a little modelling show up. He has a driving license and a rental agreement on the apartment you are at. No taxes filed,” Gawain added.
“Did the cops even try to find him?” Lance didn’t know why he’d made it a question. There shouldn’t be much after all these years that still caused incredulity.
“Lance, you know these cases are impossible.” He knew. Lance could hear the bitterness in the words. Of them all Gawain never spoke about his childhood.
“See if you can do some more digging.”
Lance looked up at the sound of a door and to his astonishment saw Mel striding towards his truck carrying a steaming mug. He was so surprised he didn’t even reply to Gawain as he hung up.
He immediately scrambled out of the SUV and met him before he could leave the sidewalk. The dimples were back, and Lance groaned inaudibly when Mel smiled. He thrust the mug into his hand. “If you’re going to sit out here all night, you might as well have a warm drink. Sorry, it’s not coffee. Just regular breakfast tea.” He waived a couple of little white packets at him. “Sugar?”
Lance frowned. Mel shouldn’t be standing out here. “It isn’t safe—”
Mel lifted an eyebrow in derision. “No, the neighborhood’s shit. So, wanna tell me what you’re doing here?” He eyed the clearly expensive Lexus. “No one can afford protection.”
Lance huffed at the implication. “How about you invite me up so I can drink my tea and explain.” He took a cautious sip. He actually wished it was Brandy. What the hell was he going to say?
Mel stared at him, clearly undecided.
Lance sighed and drew himself up tall. “Look, we can’t talk out here. I saved your life.” He took another sip. “And you brought me tea. How scary is that?”
“You clearly never met my gran.” Mel answered drily, shook his head as if he knew he was going to regret his decision. “Come on then. I have some cookies that go well with tea. Mrs. Jackson from downstairs gets them.” He followed his glance towards the rap music still blaring out from the basement apartment. “That’s Mrs. Jackson’s grandson, Emile.” Mel sighed. “She’s deaf. Unfortunately, no one else is.”
Lance smiled at Mel’s muttered words and followed him inside. He spent the four flights of stairs leading to his apartment trying to compose an opening to his explanation. Something told him that anything involving the words immortal, or fifteen hundred-year-old witch’s curse might not get him another cup of tea, probably not any cookies, and definitely not the answers he needed.