Steve had always dreamt of finding lost pirate treasure. There was something enticing about the notion of discovering something lost and forgotten in the ocean. Romantic in a way that few things were.
It was why he’d taken up scuba diving in the first place. He knew that salvage was serious business, and you didn’t just stumble into lost artifacts by going for a swim. He didn’t dive in hopes of getting rich and famous. He dove for his love of it. If he should happen to get rich and famous while he was at it, he wasn’t going to complain.
He was already rich, but like most people, he wouldn’t have minded being richer. He blamed his lower class upbringing for that, but he also knew that was a just-so-story for perfectly normal behavior. It was human nature to want more.
Steve had already done most everything he wanted to do, and he’d semi-retired to the islands when he’d hit thirty, where he spent most his days enjoying the sun, teleconferencing with managers, and diving.
He swam the same stretch of ocean four or five times a week. Nothing ever came up, but he liked to imagine one day the tide would move the sand to reveal something magical.
He never imagined it would actually be something magical.
The half-buried sword gleamed under the water. How long it’d been down there, he couldn’t say, but it looked brand new. His first thought was that it must have been a replica, fallen off a tour boat, but there was something about it.
It might have been the mermaid standing next to it. Not standing exactly, but swimming in place. She was beautiful with long blue hair that billowed in the current and a great pair of breasts. Her golden fish tail shimmered. She smiled at him and without saying a word pointed to the sword sticking out of the sand. And then she was gone, disappearing like a shot, leaving only a trail of bubbles in her wake.
It wasn’t difficult to unearth the sword. Despite the ornate nature of its jewel-encrusted hilt, it seemed light as a feather, lending more credence to the replica theory. But it was probably as close to real treasure as he’d ever get, so he carried it back to shore.
He came up on the same spot of his private beach he always used. It was technically all his, but he didn’t mind sharing with the locals. The only guy who was always there was a beach bum named Marlin who always carried a surfboard but Steve had never once seen Marlin in the water. Not even swimming.
Marlin was a tall, lanky fellow with the crisp brown tan of someone who spent most of his time lounging around on the beach. His eyes were his most striking feature. He had heterochromia. His left eye was bright blue while his right was so dark, it was almost black. His long brown hair was a tangled mess. And he smelled like old fish and marijuana smoke.
Steve called Marlin over. He was eager to show someone his new find.
“Hey, check this out.”
Marlin loped over, his hands in his pockets, his posture slouched.
“Oh, shit. Not this again.”
Thunder boomed from the clear blue sky.
“Get bent,” shouted Marlin to the heavens. “I bow to no man. I think that’s well-established.”
The cloudless sky rumbled like a muttering old man.
“Congratulations, Steve,” said Marlin. “You are now King of England.”
Steve chuckled. He swung the sword a few times. It felt so natural in his hands. It almost seemed made for him. “Take that, Mordred!”
Marlin took a joint from his pocket and lit it. “It’s too early in the morning for this.”
It was three o’clock in the afternoon, but Marlin had his own sense of time.
“Do yourself a favor, Steve. Throw it back. That things nothing but trouble.”
“It’s just an old sword,” said Steve.
“You have no idea how old.” Marlin puffed on his joint before offering it to Steve who refused.
“Just one hit,” said Marlin. “You’ll need it.”
“Never touch the stuff,” replied Steve.
“Of course you don’t. Real straight arrow, aren’t you, Steve?”
“I prefer not dulling my senses. No offense.”
“Senses are overrated,” said Marlin. “Had humble origins, I’m betting. Grew up poor?”
“We didn’t have a lot of money,” said Steve. “But we weren’t super poor.”
“Humility.” Marlin shook his head. “Aren’t you the total package? Shit. I should’ve seen this coming. Only way you can fit the profile more is if you were an orphan.”
“How’d you know I was an orphan.”
Marlin laughed that wheezing stoner laugh of his.
“Throw it back, Steve. Throw it back before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?”
Thunder cracked and a towering figure in emerald armor with skin to match pushed his way through the palm trees. He literally pushed every tree over that got in his way, and several that hadn’t gotten in his way but were still within reach.
“For that,” said Marlin.
The green giant (the thought put a smile on Steve’s face despite the giant’s obviously enraged nature) stomped toward them. His every step shook the earth as if he were a hundred feet tall, though in fact, he was only nine feet at the most.
“I ISSUE THIS CHALLENGE!” bellowed the green knight. “STRIKE ME, AND IN RETURN, I SHALL STRIKE YOU AN EQUAL BLOW THAT—”
Marlin held up his hand. “Could I have one second here with Steve?”
“THIS IS HIGHLY UNORTHODOX!”
“Use your inside voice, big guy.”
“BUT WE ARE OUTSIDE!” roared the green knight.
Marlin put an arm around Steve and led him away. “I’m going to need you to throw that sword back into the ocean, buddy. I’ve got a pretty sweet thing going here, and trust me, this guy is just the beginning.”
“This is like that story,” said Steve. “Is that the Green Knight? Like from Gawain and the Green Knight?”
“Not like. He’s the guy. Glad you’re read up on the subject. Makes this easier.”
Steve examined his sword skeptically. “Is this Excalibur?”
Marlin put his finger on his nose. “Got it in one, buddy.”
“Holy shit. That must’ve been the Lady of the Lake.”
“Yes, glad we’re all up to speed here.” Marlin took a long drag on his joint, sputtered and coughed. “Throw it away.”
“But this is—”
“It’s trouble, is what it is.” Marlin poked Steve in the chest. “It’s more trouble than it’s worth. It ruins lives. It brings glory first, tragedy last, and while it’s a hell of a ride while it lasts, you’re just going to end up betrayed and dead with everything you hold dear crumbling around you.”
“You like that hot wife of yours? You’ve got a best friend? They’re going to end up screwing behind your back if you hold onto that sword.”
“I’ve seen your son. Good kid. He’ll stab you in the back some day.”
“Listen to me, Steve. I’ve seen it a hundred times before. Some schmuck gets chosen, and he thinks he’s going to be master of the world. But all he is some poor bastard who is stuck enacting out the same old story. You can’t change it. You can only choose not to participate. That’s what I did. I’m a conscientious objector to legend. Join me. We’ll hang out. Get a burger.”
The shadow of a soaring dragon passed over them. The great, fire-breathing reptile roared as it flew into the horizon.
“Damnit,” Marlin said. “Every minute you hold that sword the harder it is for things to change. Get rid of it before . . . . ”
But it was too late. Marlin had seen that look before. Few mortals could resist Excalibur’s promises, and those few were never called in the first place.
Marlin scruffy face sprouted a long gray beard that reached to his navel.
Marlin could no longer fight his role in this. Magic coursed through his veins like electricity, and he had in him the ability to move worlds, to see into the infinite patterns beyond, and to know everything without any power to change it. It was all so pointless, so endless.
That was what bothered him most. Legends made mockeries of them all. Legends made people into puppets, and even the most powerful wizard in this world and at least seven others was still dancing on those strings.
“EXCUSE ME!” said the Green Knight, “BUT ARE WE DOING THIS OR NOT?”
“Have it your way, Steve.” Marlin stepped aside.
Steve walked up to the knight.
“STRIKE ME DOWN, BRAVE KNIGHT! STRIKE ME DOWN AND—”
“I don’t think I’m going to do that,” said Steve.
The Green Knight was struck speechless for a moment.
“I mean, why would I do that?” asked Steve.
“BECAUSE . . . BECAUSE . . . .” The Green Knight scratched his mossy-colored beard. “WELL, BECAUSE. THAT’S WHY.”
“That’s a pretty stupid reason.”
The Knight clapped his gauntlets together. “I KNOW! IT’S A TEST OF HONOR! THAT’S WHY! HAVE YOU NO HONOR, SIR?”
“How does that prove my honor?”
“I COULD INSULT YOUR WIFE IF THAT WOULD HELP!” suggested the Green Knight.
“Feel free,” said Steve. “I love my wife. Doesn’t really matter what you say, does it?”
“NO, I SUPPOSE NOT. ESPECIALLY SINCE I’VE NEVER MET THE WOMAN.”
“She’s smokin’ hot,” offered Marlin.
“Yes, she is,” said Steve with a smile.
Whistling a merry tune, carrying the sword over his shoulder, he walked away from the knight and the wizard.
“WELL THAT WAS MOST PECULIAR!”
“Yes,” said Marlin. “It was, wasn’t it?”
And in the patterns within the patterns, Merlin saw, for the first time, something he hadn’t seen before, and while the path might very well lead back to the tried and true formula in the end, for the moment, there was the tiniest possibility it might not. For the first time in a long, long time, Merlin was intrigued.
“CAN I GET A HIT OF THAT?” asked the knight.
“Help yourself, brother.” The giant’s hands were far too big, so Merlin held it while the Green Knight bent down and took a puff.
A sea serpent raised its head from the ocean and sang its long, beautiful song.
And Merlin and the Green Knight spent the rest of the afternoon reminiscing about the good ol’ days until the sun set.