This is the second volume of Paul Cornell's run on The New 52 series, Demon Knights. In the previous book the seven "knights" were thrown together by circumstance to defend a village from attack and prevent the attackers marching on to conquer the city of Alba Sarum. Well, they defeated the attackers, unfortunately they ended up destroying the village in the process. This book picks up in the immediate aftermath as the seven travel to Alba Sarum to receive thanks and possibly a reward. The seven knights are: the transgender Shining Knight (Sir Ystin), Jason Blood/Etrigan the Demon, Madame Xanadu, middle eastern scientist Al Jabr, the exiled Amazon Exoristos (Ex), Vandal Savage and the mysterious paraplegic, Horsewoman. So far only Shining Knight's background has been elaborated on, while the others so far don't have much to discern one from another. This volume will fill in the background of Madame Xanadu and her relationship with the body swapping Etrigan and Jason Blood. It also features Avalon, the magical heart of Great Britain, which is something Cornell has explored a few times in his writing career and, like the values of tolerance, decency and fair play which Cornell seems to think are the defining characteristics of the Britsh, it's a complete fantasy. The first arc of Captain Britain and MI-13 featured the Marvelverse Avalon and his sole contribution to the Eighth Doctor Expanded Universe novel series was also set in the pocket dimension of Avalon. We've got Merlin, Morgaine, King Arthur and all that mystical folderol before us, so let us begin.
The story begins with the Seven on their way to the city of Alba Sarum. Vandal Savage is telling them again how he purposely infiltrated their enemy to disrupt them and he didn't betray the others who are somewhat dubious still. Jason is fast asleep. Xanadu says after swapping with Etrigan for a long period he sleeps for ages. The others wonder how the heck she got into this relationship and she responds "It's complicated and like so many things, it started in Camelot."
She recounts her first meeting with Jason while training in magic under Merlin. Shining Knight says he was at Camelot and he doesn't remember them. Vandal Savage muses that he raided Camelot several times over the centuries and it was often quite different each time. Shining Knight realise:
Shining Knight: "All my Gods! There were many Camelots.. I could have gone home."
Exoristos says it wouldn't have been the same Camelot though. They get back to the Xanadu/Jason/Etrigan triangle. She and Jason became friends and started a tentative romance. Then Camelot was attacked. Xanadu was supposed to take the body of Arthur back to Avalon but she dived off the boat. Jason was bonded to Etrigan by Merlin and each thought the other gone.
She made a life for herself as a fortune teller and general village doctor and so on. She realised after several decades she wasn't aging. She then made the mistake of staying in one place too long and the villagers decided to burn her as a witch. But before they can set her alight, Jason appears. When he realises who she is he summons Etrigan who kills everyone in the crowd then flies her away.
|Etrigan, meet Xanadu.|
Xanadu: "I will work to help you. But understand this... I love Jason... And you will never touch me!"
Unfortunately when Jason and Xanadu find a priest to marry them, Etrigan kills the priest and burns down the church. Xanadu makes the difficult decision to accept Etrigan's romantic overtures, saying to him that sex with him would kill her, but she will be his love, "that was the sacrifice I made then and continue to make to this day."
Jason awakes and says it's time for Etrigan to appear and swaps places with him. He has a slightly different take on his and Xanadu's relationship:
Etrigan: "Whenever someone tells you a true story, you should ask yourself, who is fooling who?"
Meanwhile in Alba Sarum, Merlin is in his lab and talking to person's unknown about how the city has been called the "new Camelot" and there are those who would destroy a city with that name. Suddenly he is stabbed in the back by a hooded assassin and killed.
|Backstab crits for 1000hp, Merlin is dead.|
Etrigan: "I've heard that the Princesses are betrothed having written the laws themselves to allow that. But won't marry until their city is declared 'The New Camelot'"
Xanadu: "Power allows anything. I hope common girls get the same."
The princesses then bring in Merlin's body, much to Sir Ystin's distress and Etrigan's anger. Xanadu calms Etrigan and stops him ripping up the body. The princesses say that his wounds have disappeared, he is still warm and smells of roses. Xanadu says she has seen this before, have they heard of Avalon?
She says bringing Merlin's body to Avalon, they can reunite his body and soul or something. Anyway, they all make plans to go to Avalon. Xanadu says she knows a way there from the ruins of her Camelot. Etrigan says for the journey they'll need a ship, many barrels of mead and many, many magical weapons.
|Etrigan knows how to pack.|
Al Jabr: "I'm hoping the fact the living can go to Avalon means it is not actually the afterlife. I don't think God would appreciate me marching in."
He thanks Gadfrey for the new devices and goes to board the ship. They set off on their joruney to the "savage wasteland" of Britain with Vandal Savage steering the ship. Suddenly a huge sea serpent appears in front of them. In hell, Etrigan, having swapped back with Jason, is talking to Lucifer and promises him Avalon.
Etrigan: "Sire. It is my aim to give you Avalon, Merlin and the souls of all my comrades."
Back with the Seven, the giant sea serpent has pirates on its head steering it. They try to hijack the Seven's boat, but Xanadu and Vandal Savage knock the beast out. They pick up the pirates out of the water and says they can stay aboard if they steer the sea serpent in front of their boat to keep the other monsters of the sea at bay.
Gwyn: "Something bad had taken root in what had once been the best place of worldly honour... this darkness is comin' from Camelot."
The Seven set off with Etrigan to help them fight monsters. And they are indeed attacked by a huge fanged beast, but Sir Ystin kills it by leaping from his flying horse Vangaurd and stabbing it through the head. It transforms back into a normal wolf as it dies.
|Shining Knight lives up to his name.|
Al Jabr: "It's as though they've been transformed to be more like their essential natures."
They reach Camelot and it is in ruins bar a tower with a sickly green light shining out of the top of it. Suddenly a zombie knight appears who Xanadu recognises as King Arthur, he doesn't attack he tries to communicate with them but can't speak properly.
|Zombie King Arthur|
Xanadu: "I can feel this is dark magic. Exoristos, how can you want this?!"
Sir Ystin: "She's hurting herself. I'm proud of who I am... a true Shining Knight. I think Ex wants you to see the opposite."
Etrigan uses his amped up power to deal with the creatures attacking them. Arthur gestures that they should all follow him and he leads them to a fountain of pure energy. Despite the protestations of the changed Six, he uses the fountain to change them back to normal. Etrigan is pissed about losing his extra power and attacks Arthur who has now been returned to normal. Arthur fends him off for now.
|A rejuvanated Arthur.|
Xanadu asks why he is here and not in Avalon. He said he felt the call to go home and found "a way that would only be used to leave, not return" He realised something was seriously wrong with Camelot, it was centuries later and someone had erected the tower projecting the evil light. The light tried to change him and when it could not, it started to show the years that "Avalon stores unseen".
|The corruption of Camelot.|
The Seven plus Arthur arrive inside the tower, which is bigger on the inside than the outside. Xanadu says it's like "all of Camelot has been shoved in this smaller space." They figure the evil light will be coming from Merlin's chambers and set off there.
|Morgaine Le Fey|
Morgaine watches their progress via crystal ball. They come across the Round Table which has a pentagram in blood scrawled on it and corpses sat around it one of which Xanadu recognises as a "sister". The Horsewoman says she is having trouble with the force that connects her to the horses. Like she is being drained.
Exoristos: "By all the Gods! It feels like death!"
The realise they have walked into a trap and more creatures attack. They fight back but one of the animals explodes into green poisonous dust which renders them all unconcious. When they awake they have been magically manacled to the floor around an occult looking symbol.
|A somewhat sticky situation.|
Now their energies will be drawn into Merlin's body to give him even more life before she takes up residence in him. She promises to be be a "good person" when she has his body at her command. Then she leaves saying soon everyone in the room will die.
Vandal Savage: "Unacceptable! I will not die so a woman with no face can gain different genitals!"
Etrigan has a plan though and he and Jason keep swapping back and forth until they overload the manacles. Xanadu tells him to destroy the altar and this frees the rest of them.
They find Morgaine and confront her, she makes a last ditch effort to take over Xanadu's body by turning into energy and firing herself at her. Arthur however blocks her and takes Morgaine into himself. He says that he needs to stop her taking him over fully. He knights Sir Ystin again as "the once and future knight" then attacks the stream of evil energy which somehow makes it explode, killing him.
|King Arthur's sacrifice.|
The Zero issue begins with a young Etrigan being mocked for his poor rhyming. Lucifer appears and laguidly dismisses his efforts. He tells his major-domo to remove Etrigan's spine as punishment. Etrigan throws a pity party:
Etrigan: "I have never been shown a moments kindness nor known a moments comfort".
That'll be the whole "being in Hell" thing dude, just sayin'. Anyway he quits Lucifer's service and decides to foment revolution.
|Etrigan starts to draw his plans together..|
Arthur tells Merlin to go easy on the kid then Jason accidentally blows up Merlin's lab in the background. They go and take a look and an angry Jason grabs Arthur saying why won't Merlin's magic work for him? Merlin zaps Jason into unconciousness. Etrigan meanwhile starts his hostile takeover by challenging and killing the various faction leaders in Hell.
|Stop being a little bitch Jason.|
Jason Blood: "There is something in my nature that needs balancing Nim. You know I dream of doing... terrible things. If I let my anger out."
Merlin goes to the oracle, Morgaine le Fey who says she is only helping because Nimue is her sister. She predicts Jason will kill Nimue if not "granted some great quest to heal himself." Merlin sighs, he now has to "do something awful". In Hell Etrigan has managed to get several Hell legions on his side.
|Bernard Chang's artwork really is good.|
We then get a rerun of events shown to us in book one in case we are goldfish and forgot. Camelot is attacked, Jason is summoned to Merlin's lab and bounds to Etrigan, Camelot falls.
|2 become 1.|
Etrigan: "It seems I have been rash. Give me time, get to know me. Perhaps we can make a deal".
The story ends with Jason walking away from the ruins of Camelot. We are told that over the centuries Etrigan climbed back up Hell's hierarchy and as for Jason "perhaps he started to accept his situation. Etrigan never did." The end.
|And all he really needed was a good therapist...|
Also the zero issue had the great potential storywise, the origins of Etrigan? Should have been gold. But whereas Alan Moore portrayed The Demon as an essentially noble being who nonethless served hell while helping Swamp Thing for his own inscrutable reasons, and Garth Ennis gave us an Etrigan who had a wicked sense of humour and buckets of amoral cunning. Cornell gives us an Etrigan who is a fucking idiot. Well it's a new take I agree, but not an especially welcome one. I simply cannot believe that Etrigan no matter how young and headstrong would have the desire or means to believe he had a chance to take down Lucifer. And Jason Blood got bonded to Etrigan due to anger management issues?! Fuck. Off. Etrigan linked to the mortal world has been responsible for more death than Jason alone ever would have. I have to wonder if Cornell was suffering editorial interference as he left the title after his resolution of the storyline in the next volume. I know he has the chops for comic book writing but something went seriously awry on this series. So check back in a couple of months for the resolution of the cliffhanger and how a new writer approached the material.