Merlin found her at the edge of Arviragus pond, half hidden in the mist swirling over the hot water and cool earth. Seated on one of the larger moss-covered stones, Morgan unplaited her black hair as she listened to the pond ripple and splash. The old god had long since left, but its magic lingered and troubled the water.
"So the serpent slithers out from under her rock," he started, watching her from the far side of the pond. "Your ploy with the apples failed. Guinevere remains queen."
Morgan didn't stop unraveling her braids, didn't turn to face him, but her gaze slid over the water into the trees so that she stared not at Merlin but at the shadows beside him. The frogs resumed their croaking before she replied, and their occasional splashing punctuated her response.
"For now," she murmured. "The harlot will die one way or another."
Merlin gave a low scoff. "Your cloak of flame only consumed your own witch. Did you honestly think we would accept any messenger bearing a gift of yours? One by one, your plots fail to do us any harm."
She paused, then gave a small smile and finished loosening her hair.
"If you say so."
Her hair spilled over her shoulders to her waist, the ends touching the edge of the mist as she looked up not at Merlin but at the yellow moon between the heavy branches.
Merlin knew better than to expect her to say anything else. He narrowed his eyes and kept a constant watch of her hands. Morgan could strike as fast as a viper; she merely refrained from doing so often for her own reasons. Those reasons, however, he did not yet know.
"Your kind will not survive," he said. "Why do you continue to fight, to stave off the inevitable?"
Now she looked at him, and her eyes glittered like a hunter's. He wondered if she was also one of the many perversions of nature that her kind produced, a miscegenation between human and animal. A snake would fit her cold-blooded nature, he thought. But wherever she went, ravens followed, not as pets but as carrion eaters over a battlefield. Merciless, covered in gore, and she was the Queen of Gorre, a fitting title for the queen of self-sacrificing dark wizards. Appropriate then, that her dress looked as if freshly dyed in blood.
"They fight because they love me," she said. Tiring of the warm air, she pushed up the heavy fabric of her sleeves. Her white skin looked more like white stone. "Mordred gives them hope and their anger gives them the will to fight."
"I know why they fight, cowards though they are," he snapped. "Even cowards will fight with their back to a wall. I asked why you fight? You don't care for them. You're more than they are. Why would you bother with them?"
She took a breath, not as if she needed it but to taste the wind and the sounds carried through the night. He'd seen her during the day, rarely up close of course, but in the sunlight she merely looked like a beautiful human. Now she behaved like one of those cursed creatures that spent half its time hidden away from the world, masking its perverted nature with mortal trappings.
"You are feared," she said softly. "Admired by your knights. They are in awe of your power. They have watched you do great and terrible things."
Not bothering to keep an eye on him, she bent and scooped up a handful of water, letting it spill through her fingers. "But you are not loved. You are not worshipped. Your kind does not understand the loyalty due from a believer, our duty owed in return."
He grimaced. "The old, powerful creatures have left. There will be no more worshipping of false gods."
"I don't think the world will become what you intend to fashion it into," she said with an indulgent smile that did not reach her eyes. "Our dark rulers are gone, but so are your spirits and tenders of the trees. You are not as powerful as you imagine."
"Powerful enough to crush your followers," Merlin said.
"If you say so."
She sat down at the water's edge, and the mist nearly swallowed her up. Her clothing audibly rustled until the heavy dress fell to the earth. Had she really disrobed? In front of her enemy? He was reminded that this was not his own place of power.
"Give my regards to the harlot."
The insult did not bother him. Petty mortal morals struck him as vain and useless trifles, yet another reason why the dark habit of interbreeding disgusted him. Magic existed best as a force of nature without morals. Best to keep it separate, unadulterated, strictly controlled and away from the magicless rabble. Splicing to mortal beliefs and thoughts only tainted magic, rendered it murky instead of clean.
As murky as her intentions. He glared at the mist and the pond and the dense trees, a place consecrated to the darkness and false beliefs.
"Your kind shouldn't exist," he said, more to himself than to her. "You will not survive the coming war."
The last rays of the sun followed her into the pond as she sank.
"That which dies merely sleeps." The water nearly swallowed her reply, and the last syllables mingled with the ripples on the surface. "The sisters taught me well."
Annoying creature. What was that supposed to mean? He was tempted to lean closer and peer into the green water, but the hoot of an owl reminded him that the sun was nearly beneath the horizon. Twilight's separation of day from night had ended. He quickly turned himself back towards Camelot before the moon could rise any higher.