April. Somewhere in London.
It was Friday night, it was late, and Ian McLuaghlan was sure he might cry. He was drunk. All he did on his nights off was get drunk. Alone.
Ian hunched over on the narrow bench as the rain tapped out an erratic rhythm on the roof of the bus shelter. Wet and cold, drunk and lonely. Life as a stereotype. But it could be worse.
It was two years since he had volunteered himself to the government, had given himself up to its monolithic judgment. For Queen and country, as any good highland lad would never do. But it was also two years since he had killed an innocent, and his honour could take the that hit. When Ian had first joined up, he figured that was the end of his life, that he would put his head down and do the work. For a while, that had been true. It didn’t last, though. There were down times, opportunities for the real world would creep back toward him like a hungry predator. He had asked to see a therapist, and after some discussion it was decided that, weather permitting, they would let him out now and then. After all, he wasn’t like the others, the degenerates and foreigners, the criminals and freaks he worked with. He had given himself up willingly, even if he was technically as guilty as the rest of them.
The instructions from the therapist were clear. He had to cultivate some sort of personal life during that free time. But sitting in a pub by himself, watching everyone else have their conversations and their jokes, listening to them as they murmured and threw furtive glances in his direction, that didn’t help.
He retreated to his computer, and for a while that was enough. Then his therapist suggested online dating as a way to meet people on his own terms. Ian had liked that. He had set up a profile, emphasizing that he wanted to take things slow, and waited for the matches to come in.
After a few false starts, he hit it off with a man named Evan, another self-professed nerd who could hold his own in a long text conversations about Blake’s 7. They eventually moved on to Skype calls, and then Ian had bought a webcam so they could see each other. Ian fell hard for Evan at that point. The way he wrinkled his nose to adjust his glasses so he could keep both hands on the keyboard. The way he smiled, showing only a hint of white teeth. Ian saw a kindness in Evan’s eyes, and it made him want to take the next step.
With advice from Old Maggie, Ian had done his best to clean up. He’d shaved his scraggly beard, combed and styled his curly red hair, and ordered some new shirts online. He had gone to Papa Douen, a witchdoctor, and learned of the cloudiest, most rain-soaked nights for the next 6 months. He planned carefully, and after delaying for a week longer, he asked if Evan would like to meet for some drinks, maybe dinner. Evan said yes, and the next day the Swede, Thorensson, wondered, quite loudly, if Ian’s face hurt yet from all the smiling. Merryweather, the undead Doctor, even offered to lend Ian a proper jacket for the night, but he declined when Maggie pointed out that something tailored in the 1800s wouldn’t go with anything he owned.
Ian still wore that smile when he’d left the Merryweather Estate earlier that night. He wore it on the bus ride to the pub he was meeting Evan at, and he wore it for the first half hour that he waited alone at the bar. After that, the smile began to slip, and an hour after the arranged time had come and gone, Ian slunk off to a corner where he could sit alone and drink. He had still been drinking alone when he felt the compulsion to go back to the Estate. Somewhere in his mind, fathoms below the haze, he recalled that the new handler arrived tonight. But it was his night off. He’d cleared it with everyone. He didn’t want to face the rest of them, but he also didn’t have a choice, not when the shard of metal fused to his spine started tingling.
The bus stopped outside the shelter, shining blurry lights through the rain. Ian pushed himself to his feet and stumbled toward it.
Ian hated being followed. It reminded him of his childhood, watching from the corner of his eyes as the brown van cruised up and down the street, of the hairy arm hanging out the van’s window, lit smoke tapping ash onto the street. Burning his skin. The soft, private fear that always had him looking for the safety in public spaces, but finding only the slow, quiet voice of his step-father calling his name. Sometimes they would drive home together, Ian riding high in the van’s passenger seat, clutching his books protectively while the big man told one of his stories. Home for tea, with his mum fussing over him not coming home straight after school.
Sometimes they would drive over to the run-down factory his step-father had worked in before it closed. A place where nobody would see them. Or hear them. His step-father didn’t talk much when they did that.
All the way to the pub, and now on his way back, he sensed the minute shifting of shadows in the darker alleys as he passed. She was there, watching him. He shifted in his seat. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, lulled by the drink and the steady rocking motion of the bus, Ian felt the shard’s pull like a dull pressure at the back of his neck, like someone prodding him with a stick. He could smell her, iron and cold oil, could feel the bus’s thin roof like a second skin. She was up there, had been on his tail since he left the pub. Always snooping.
The pressure increased, and Ian stood, holding onto the handrail to keep steady as the bus screeched and swerved. He lurched forward as it braked, heard the scrapping on the roof like knives on sheet metal.
“Crazy bastard,” shouted the driver.
Looking around, Ian saw he was the only passenger. “What’s that?” he asked, trying to put some bass into his voice.
“Some half-naked lady prancing about in the street,” said the bus driver, peering out the windows. “Where’d she go?” Everything outside the cones of the bus’s headlights was black.
Ian looked out the side window, saw the familiar wrought-iron fence of the cemetery. His stop. He exited the bus, and it pulled away.
The rain was subsiding from fat droplets that felt like getting pelted with small coins, to a more reasonable heavy drizzle. Ian pulled his collar up, hunched his shoulders, and started splashing toward the cemetery gate. He felt his pursuer lurking in the deeper night between the flickering streetlamps.
It wasn’t until he tripped over the gate, stubbing his toe and going down to one knee in the wet grass, that he realized something was wrong. He felt the smooth iron under his fingers and swore while hiis mind started to claw back into the present. He’d closed the gate when he left, put the lock on. Break-ins weren’t that unusual. Kids and their dares. But they usually climbed a tree to get over the wall, or might smash the lock. Who knocks down three metres of old iron for a spooky midnight snog? In the rain?
Groaning, Ian got to his feet. His wet trousers clung to his legs, cold and clammy. “I’m never going outside again,” he muttered.
“Your loss, lad.”
Ian turned on the voice--a man’s voice, heavy and commanding--stepped back, and nearly tripping over the gate again. A shape in the night, standing between gravestone crosses. He squinted. A man to go with that voice, tall, broad shoulders. “Who’s there? Thorensson?”
“It is I,” said the man, as he stepped forward. Ian held up his phone, a splash of light showing silvery raindrops and stark features. A thick beard, gaunt cheeks, a series of pale scars, the most prominent cutting across the man’s classically Roman nose.
“Who?” asked Ian. He didn’t recognize that face, but he still had the impression that he’d seen it before. After looking him over again, he added: “Are you wearing a suit of armour, mate?”
The face scowled. “I am not your ‘mate.’ I am Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Future King. I have come for what is rightfully mine.”
A tug from the invisible leash. Ian’s hand reached up to his shoulder, moving toward the piece of metal they’d implanted in his body. A shard of the most intrinsically British artifact there was. “Excalibur,” he said.
The soft scrape of metal on leather, and Ian could see the blue sheen of the blade Arthur drew, as if it had its own inner light. Sword in hand, the big man took a long, purposeful step toward him.
Ian backed away. How did things always get worse? All he wanted was a change of clothes, something warm to drink, and a nice, long cry in the shower before bed. “It’s honestly been a shit day. Can’t we do this tomorrow?”
“Are you scared, boy?” asked Arthur as he took another long step into the light, looming over Ian by a good half metre. “I will make it quick.”
Ian sighed, shrugged his slight shoulders. A part of him, maybe that deep part that still thought it lived in the hills under the open sky, wanted a fight. A brawl outside the pub, or one with an armoured maniac, it was all the same as long as he got to let out some of his frustration. “This is for every one of my ancestors who would have sold their own mothers for a shot at someone like you,” said Ian, and he turned the light on himself.
Violence was swift when it came. That was the nature of the predator’s attack.. And Ian was a predator. He would always be a predator, because the alternative was to be prey, and he’d had enough of that a long time ago.
When the light hit him, Ian howled. It started as a human wail, his voice cracking as it rose, and ended in a long, steady note, the type that kept men up at night, tending their fires and hoping for the safety of sunrise. He dropped his phone, letting the light spill away.
“What is this?” said Arthur, who had gone from looking down at a scrawny boy, to craning his neck to meet the eyes of what he’d become.
Ian growled, a rumble from the back of his throat. The reason he had to carefully plan his trips into the outside world was because he avoided full moons. He avoided full moons because of a deal he made in a moment of anger and weakness. But the same people who put the shard of Excalibur inside him, had provided him with a nifty custom phone that included a unique moon light. Any time he needed to, he could call the beast. He could become the apex predator.
When he pounced, he was no longer the short, skinny ginger boy, all pale skin and freckles. What hit King Arthur was three metres of enraged werewolf. The sword rose, turning into a defensive stance as the man’s feet shifted, bracing. The wolf hit him with a punch hard enough to crack stone. Arthur stumbled back, but did not fall.
Inside Ian’s head, there was nothing but the cold, white rage. He surrendered himself to the wolf spirit completely when he transformed. When the claws came out, the beast, Growl, took control, and Ian was only along for the ride.
Still moving, Growl had a shoulder up to tackle Arthur to the ground. Get him in the mud, tear his throat out. Hot blood and sticky fur. These were what it wanted, what mattered.
Pain, a searing hot sting. Arthur was not on the ground. The man was moving around dancing out of reach, his sword sweeping, cutting through the muscle at Growl’s shoulder. Somewhere in his little locked room, Ian felt the bite of the blade, and cursed. Growl brushed off point-blank shotgun blasts, had a razor-sharp kurki bend like paper against its skin. What was that sword?
“Do you think shape shifting will best Arthur Pendragon?” Arthur shouted. “I’ve killed dragons.”
Growl roared and charged again, arms wide to catch its prey if he tried to run. Arthur stabbed at Growl’s chest, but the wolf twisted, letting the blade carve a shallow slice through a meaty pectoral. A clawed hand the size of a manhole cover closed around the former King’s head. Lifting his entire weight without any apparent effort, Growl lunged forward and smashed Arthur into a nearby tombstone.
The stone shattered, and Arthur rolled away. He pushed himself to his knees, leaning heavily on the sword. His armour was cracked and bent, blood flowed freely from a gash in his head, and his left arm hung limp, the shoulder at a distorted angle.
“You put up a fight,” Arthur said, and spat blood. “You will be the first opponent in my new legend. They will sing of the great wolf for years to come. Take that to the grave with you, lad. There are worse fates.”
Growl smelled the kill, and took a step forward. Then stopped. Something was wrong. It sniffed the air, smelling the delicious copper of the blood, but not the deeper scent of the wound. They were out of the phone’s meagre light, but Growl had night vision stronger than any normal beast’s. As it and Ian watched, Arthur rose to his feet. The blood no longer flowed, and his left arm twisted and snapped back into place.
Arthur smiled. “I may have lost Excalibur for the time being, but I still have the scabbard. With its power, you cannot hurt me.”
With a snarl, Growl leapt at Arthur. This man was tougher than most, but there was nothing the wolf could not kill. It tackled Arthur to the ground, jaws snapping, claws shredding armour like foil. The throat. Everything died when when it tore the throat out.
The pain again, but deeper. A sudden weakness. Growl had the taste of blood in its mouth. Not the man’s blood. Its own blood, thick and bitter. The sword in its stomach, hot fire where it entered and exited. The wolf snapped again, a weak reflex, and slumped.
Arthur pushed free, turning Growl onto its back. Ian felt the breathing, the slow, deliberate expansion and retraction of the chest. Arthur stood over them, sword dripping blood as the rain continued to fall.
“Still alive?” he asked. “Cut the beast’s head off, that was always the rule. And the shard is in there, somewhere. I am no butcher, and this blade never fails to cut through. One swing and it will be over. You won’t suffer long.”
Arthur raised the blade, ready to bring it down on Growl’s neck. Time seemed to slow as Ian struggled to exert some sort of control. If he could move enough to dodge the blade--but the wound was too deep. The sword began its descent, a red-tinged blur.
The next movement was even faster, so fast that Ian couldn’t track it at all. Something hit Arthur from the side, knocking him to the ground. The sword arced away, lodging in the cross of an old burial stone.
As the black edge of unconsciousness drew in on Ian’s vision, he saw what it was that attacked Arthur. A familiar sharp silhouette, like a young woman formed from a knife blade. The Scissor Sister, the silent clockwork assassin that followed him everywhere he went outside the Merryweather Estate. It was on the bus, and he’d been too drunk to care. He’d planned to yell at it in the morning, hangover permitting, to leave him alone for once. If he was mad enough, he might have blamed it for his date not showing up.
The Scissor Sister took short, lithe steps toward the fallen King. Its arms spread, and light glinted from the hundreds of blades that fused together to form its limbs.
Growl’s last thought was to will the Scissor Sister to go for the throat, to cut deep until it scraped the bones. Ian agreed.