Chapter Summary: The Court Sorcerer gathers some information about his apprentices. Merlin meets with someone he rather not meets.

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Chapter X: Take the First Step

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The sun fans down near the horizon, and the skies display tints of warm orange. Peace-filled silence envelopes the forests near the western border of Camelot, the breeze lazily ruffling leaves, and the birds sleepily chirping sleepy tunes.

The Court Sorcerer, arms crossed over his chest, taps an impatient index finger upon his forearm. Finally, the foliage rustles as a distinguishable emerges from it, strides hurried.

Balinor surrounds them both with an anti-eavesdropping spell. "Late."

"I'm so sorry that I can't do efficient teleportation spells like you do, oh Great Court Sorcerer of Camelot," the Spymaster replies wryly.

He huffs and dusts off his clothes, red wisps of hair peeking out of the hood of his brown cloak. With a swift movement, he fetches a metal flask from the pockets of his cloak and raises it to the Court Sorcerer as if in a toast.

Balinor snatches the said flask away before a drop can touch the Spymaster's lips, exasperation hinting at his countenance. "Can you stop drinking while you're on duty?"

"Nah," the Spymaster says, stealing his flask back with quick nimble fingers. "Helps me think."

The Court Sorcerer releases a sound that may have been a sigh. He continues deeper into the forest, the anticipation thrumming in his veins making him halt the chastisement. Behind him, the Spymaster follows and matches his pace, walking side-by-side.

The Spymaster lifts his flask again and takes a long drink. Then, he splutters as water hits his tongue instead of mead. "The hell?"

Balinor stifles an amused sound. The Spymaster reads the emotion on his face anyway.

"I hate you," the Spymaster groans out. He caps his flask and stashes it in the hidden folds of his cloak. "You know, they have this man in the New Religion who can do the opposite — turn water into mead. Or wine. I don't remember. Now that's a mate I can be the best of friends with."

The Court Sorcerer says nothing. The information he desires to hear is far more critical and important to their current situation.

"All right, all right," the Spymaster grumbles, aware of exactly what Balinor is dying to know. "Camelot's Spymaster here to inform you how much I bloody hate the week after the Apprentice Exam. Goddess, it's so exhausting."

"Just get to it," Balinor prompts, impatience coloring his tone.

"Well, well, patience, Lord Balinor." The Spymaster smirks. Then, he clears his throat and begins. "First off, the apprentice Lord Ivaír picked is a spy from Tir Mor. The spy's going to quietly disappear in the next few days, if you get what I mean, so no need to worry about them. The heirs of Mercia, Prince Clarence, and Princess Clarisse, have no plans to spy for their father. King Bayard knew his daughter was going to break off the engagement with Prince Arthur, so he sent both his heirs to Camelot to mollify any ruffled feathers in Camelot's court. And it's working, it seems like. Don't know why; those two are spawns of the devil himself. And Merlin seems to be the son of Lord Agravaine and second heir to the throne so there's excitement over that."

"He's not. Agravaine's son, that is," Balinor interjects calmly.

He has heard the ridiculous rumor spreading like wildfire all over the castle. He's not too sure how it started but knowing Agravaine, the man likely set the whole thing aflame. Agravaine is not even attempting to douse the flames of the gossip.

Balinor, though he may know the truth, can't exactly proclaim it public without revealing Merlin's dragonlord status.

The Spymaster hums, pondering, "Is he yours then?"

Balinor nearly trips over a tree root at the accusation. "What?"

"You gave him your old clothes. Don't think I didn't notice." The Spymaster sends the Court Sorcerer a dubious look. "And from what I remember, all your clothes, even the old ones, are enchanted with discrete protective spells. It's a gift you will not give lightly. Unless you're growing soft in your old age."

Balinor ignores the jab. "He's my apprentice. It's only proper." To himself, Balinor can admit that his reasons span more than that. "All his belongings got stolen by bandits."

The Spymaster's eyes narrow. "Uh-huh. Look, far be it for me to judge but if you've proof that he's not Lord Agravaine's son, you need to show it to me now. Because I haven't actually found one yet."

Befuddlement furrows Balinor's brows. If the Spymaster found Merlin's family, they should be able to confirm his roots. Even if Merlin truly has been possessed by Lily's soul, the body must have come from somewhere at the very least. Unless, of course, Merlin has no family left.

"I have no concrete proof to offer you," Balinor finally replies. "But a quick blood test by the mages will surely prove that Agravaine is not Merlin's father."

The Spymaster sighs, irritation marring his whole demeanor. "Yeah, Lord Agravaine happily provided a strand of his and Merlin's hair. They matched closely and confirmed them to be close relatives at the very least."

"What?" Balinor's eyes widen. "Impossible." He's quite sure Agravaine is no dragonlord.

"I'm just telling you what happened," is the Spymaster's simple reply. "But I'm still investigating it. Merlin himself denied the rumors so I'm thinking this is a case of Lord Agravaine being his jester self again."

Balinor nods solemnly. He would like to get to the truth of that matter too.

"Let's get to your apprentices then. Mordred of the Forest of Engred. A citizen of Mercia. Nineteen summers. A proper druid, lived in that forest his entire life. Parents are druids too. He seems to be ostracized a bit, growing up. Something about an obsolete prophecy."

"A prophecy?" Balinor interjects, surprise tinting his voice. Two of his apprentices are involved in prophecies? It's either an incredible coincidence or the hand of destiny lying heavy upon them. The Court Sorcerer prefers the former; it'll be less trouble.

The Spymaster blows out another annoyed sound. "The druids won't tell me or my people any details, saying that the prophecy matters not anymore. Seems to matter when the other children were throwing stones at the boy but who are we to judge, eh?" The Spymaster scratches his cheek, thinking. "A couple of years back, there was an incident involving him and a druid girl that got the latter kicked out of the clan. Don't know anything more about it for now so I'll continue digging."

The Spymaster fetches the flask from inside his cloak. Then, recalling its changed contents, places it back with a scowl. Balinor waves away a stray branch from their path and walks in silence, waiting for the Spymaster to continue.

Fortunately, the Spymaster doesn't make him wait for long. "Lady Morgana Le Fay. Twenty-seven springs. Second daughter of Lord Gorlois and Lady Vivian. A citizen of Camelot. A seer that became known throughout Albion when she foresaw several betrayals in the courts of Gawant, Nemeth, and Dyfed at the age of ten springs. She packed up three days before the Apprentice Exam and applied without anyone knowing. Or approving. Before that, she gave no indication that she even wanted to apprentice under any court. Her life is just as normal as any noble lady in Camelot, save from a few visits from nosy foreign dignitaries."

The Court Sorcerer is already aware of Morgana's aims. He thinks it prudent not to mention his knowledge to the Spymaster; Morgana has shared her vision in confidence, and Balinor is not in the habit of breaking confidences.

He has worried about his other two apprentices, not forgetting that Merlin may not be the main target of Wracu's plans (With the information they kept unravelling, however, Merlin being the real target is becoming more and more likely). But he figured, based on Mordred's and Morgana's behaviors, that he need not worry much about the two. It's Merlin who seems to easily find trouble on his own.

"And now, we get to the main course." The Spymaster pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs the sigh of a man defeated. "Bloody Merlin of Ealdor. Twenty-four winters."

Balinor cannot deny that his intrigue increases at the next set of information.

The Spymaster groans. "Do you know how long it took me to find that village? Or where to even start looking? Ages—and by ages, I meant four days. And do you bloody know why? Because Ealdor doesn't exist. At least, not anymore."

Balinor's head whips to the Spymaster, strides ceasing completely. "What do you mean?" He demands.

The Spymaster stops beside Balinor before crossing his arms over his chest. "It was a village in Essetir. Near the border between Essetir and Camelot, in fact. But, believe me, no one's lived there for a good fifteen to seventeen years. Because it's been burned down to the ground. I went there myself to confirm."

Shock cannot even begin to describe what's building in Balinor's chest. "Burned to the ground? By whom? Bandits?"

The Spymaster shakes his head. "According to Essetir's records, the village is one of the victims of Priestess Nimueh's earlier raids. You know, back when she was still an unhinged madwoman. Although, there's no indication that she's still not unhinged now." A wry smile peppers the Spymaster's lips.

Balinor bristles. It's possible, then, that Wracu was able to get the body in Ealdor. And the body has long been in the warlock's possession, if the Spymaster's estimates are correct. But for fifteen to seventeen years? The difference between Sigan's resurrection enchantment and other necromancy spells is that the former needs a living body to resurrect into.

Merlin's connection with Wracu and the Army can no longer be denied, although Balinor is still uncertain as to what that connection is. Is Merlin one of Wracu's experiments that escaped from his grasp, and he needed to disrupt the Apprentice Exam to get it back? The possibility of Merlin being a spy — perhaps unconsciously or perhaps not — is also becoming more and more likely.

Balinor suddenly realizes that he can no longer give Merlin the benefit of doubt. He must be careful about what sort of information he gives out to his apprentice in the future.

Oblivious to the Court Sorcerer's thoughts, the Spymaster rambles on. "Now, unless Merlin's been living in the husk of the houses there— which, quite creepy and sad, if true—, then I don't think he is of Ealdor. Not since he was a child, at least. Which lends credence to the fact that he may indeed be Agravaine's son and has lied about where he came from."

The Court Sorcerer lets out a non-committal hum. He resumes his treads deeper into the forest, and the Spymaster follows once more.

"Then, of course, there are those curious scars of his that I can find nothing about," the Spymaster grumbles before blowing away a strand of red hair tickling his forehead.

Balinor's brows rise. "Scars? Merlin has?" Abruptly, Balinor recalls Merlin's mindless defensive reactions to Morgana's magic during the Apprentice Exam. It's not so far-fetched that trauma of that caliber comes with some physical remnants.

"Haven't seen them myself but there is gossip circulating in the castle that he must have gained them in some dangerous battle. Or many dangerous battles." The Spymaster pulls the hood of his cloak further forward. "Merlin's a White Level sorcerer; whatever battle that marked him with memorable scars will surely have some witnesses or at least some type of written record. I thought, you know, he met that legendary Questing Beast. That must be it, right?" An annoyed sound escapes the Spymaster's unhappy lips. "No, because I found no proof of any battle nor a single hair of that damned Questing Beast. Nothing in the eastern caves. No one has even glimpsed anything similar to it in the area." The Spymaster huffs, movements growing rather agitated. "You know, aside from Agravaine's claims, I've so far found no tangible proof that Merlin existed past last week!"

The Spymaster does so loathe anything that escapes his knowledge. Balinor knows that, had he not had a job of secrecy, then the Spymaster would have been infamous in several kingdoms for digging out truths that many would rather remain buried.

"I hate being the Spymaster," the Spymaster claims with a growl. "I can't wait to retire and leave all this mess with the younglings."

The Court Sorcerer cocks a brow, amused. "You've only been Spymaster for three years." And the Spymaster himself is not someone anyone would describe as 'old'.

"And I hate every single moment of it."

"No, you don't."

"No, I don't," the Spymaster admits begrudgingly. "But I do hate that Merlin for being so bloody impossible. I can tell that the queen wanted to cuff me when I told her all that I have. That I found nothing to disprove Agravaine's claims."

It's good that the queen's suspicions have veered off elsewhere, Balinor thinks. Perhaps he and Arthur can get away with investigating on their own for a while without telling the queen.

"And what about the prophecy involving a man named Emrys?" Balinor prods, countenance casual.

The Spymaster's lips purse into a thin line. "Normal druids appear to have no knowledge regarding it. Their elders, however, . . . Well, they clearly know something but are extremely tight-lipped about it. Still negotiating with them so I have nothing concrete to offer you. I will say that whatever prophecy it is, it isn't some trivial matter." The Spymaster shoots the Court Sorcerer a pointed look.

Balinor has already guessed as much. Still, he doesn't know how the whole Emrys issue fits into Wracu's plans and Merlin's identity.

The Spymaster sighs, releasing all his pent-up frustrations in one exhale. They walk in relative silence for several minutes afterward, each lost in their own thoughts.

Then, the Spymaster breaks the quiet. "Did you know that the böggel-mann sat beside me almost all throughout the Exam?"

Terror and disbelief spike within Balinor's chest. "He found out your identity?"

"No, no, no! I was the perfect carefree brothel owner." The Spymaster scowls at the implication that he can be so careless in his act. Then, his jaw clenches, and his hands curl into fists. "I am, however, rather irritated that I, of all people, didn't manage to see through him."

"Wracu's disguises are flawless," Balinor replies in consolation. "You couldn't have known."

"No disguise is flawless," the Spymaster retorts. "I was caught off-guard. But it won't happen again."

They've arrived at the appointed place of the meeting before Balinor can think of a response.

Immediately, the Spymaster swiftly hides in the shadows of a large tree. He leans his back against it and activates the camouflaging capabilities of his cloak with a small gesture.

Balinor deactivates the anti-eavesdropping spell. He steps further forward until he stands in the middle of a small circle of trees. The weak sunlight of pre-twilight peeks out from between the tree leaves, painting the foliage with a tint of orange.

Before long, the bushes and grass ahead rustle with hurried footsteps and heavy cloths. A mousy boy, almost a young man, reveals itself from between the copse of trees, his face flushed, and his breathing ragged from exertion.

"Bey -" The boy pants and swallows. Balinor patiently waits for him to catch his breath. The boy straightens, scratching behind one ear with his left hand before rubbing the back of his neck. "Beyond the ancient fog where the dawn of day reaches out with a fairy kiss."

The Court Sorcerer purposefully adjusts his right sleeve, pulling and smoothing out the nonexistent creases. "The Land of Youth - Tír na nÓg."

The boy's shoulders slump in relief as Balinor finishes his own signal. When the Court Sorcerer witnesses nothing amiss in the boy's demeanor and confirms no disguise present, he casts another anti-eavesdropping enchantment upon them. Unbeknownst to the boy, a third individual lies within its radius.

"You're alone, right?" the boy asks without fail every time, wringing his hands and looking for enemies in the shadows.

"Yes," Balinor lies without fail every time, smoothing out his coat and emitting an air of nonchalance.

The boy shifts his weight from one foot to the other, waiting. With deft hands, Balinor fetches the pouch from the inner pockets of his robe and throws it to the boy without delay. The boy clumsily catches it with sweaty palms. The coins inside the pouch noisily clink against one another. The boy weighs the pouch in one hand, nods in approval, and stashes it inside his trouser pocket without complaint.

"Lord Wracu was looking for information about something called an Emrys," the boy says without further prompting. "He was hit with a vision of some sort more than a week ago. He went to Camelot just a few days later to look for the Emrys." Then, he hurriedly stutters out, "I-I would have warned you about it but-but he told no one beforehand of his plans."

The Court Sorcerer nods grimly. A warning will have been welcomed indeed.

The boy shifts again, eyes darting around nervously. "When he came back empty-handed, he tasked the Army to search for recent circumstances of—" A thoughtful frown pinches his brows as he tries to recall. "—of dead people coming back to life. Or to find mimics who have the ability to make changes to the appearance they're emulating."

Every remark the boy made rearranges the pieces of the puzzle Balinor has been solving. So Wracu may be scrambling for answers too. That means Wracu may know nothing of Sigan's enchantment — of the resurrection spell that can explain Merlin's unusual circumstance. On the other hand, if Wracu is uninvolved regarding Merlin's strange magical signature then who on earth is responsible for it then?

The mystery deepens. Wryly, Balinor thinks that, unless he actually forced a truth potion down Merlin's throat, there will be no end to it. No matter. Balinor still has a few tricks left to get the complicated truth. If nothing else, it seems they have the upper hand on relevant knowledge this time around.

The boy continues rambling, oblivious to Balinor's thoughts. "Lord Wracu chased one of the leads to a village, but it led to a false trail. After that, it seems like he just gave up. He called off the other searches and never even mentioned the Emrys again."

Astonishment blooms in Balinor's chest. "He gave up?"

Nodding multiple times, the boy remarks, "Quite unusual of him. Priestess Nimueh didn't ask him more about it, so I suppose they decided the Emrys was more trouble than it was worth."

Balinor's eyes narrow. He doesn't think it would be that simple. More likely, Wracu did find something and stopped further investigations because of it. "Do you know what village he went to?"

The boy shakes his head vigorously. "No. I-I'll try to find out, but I cannot promise anything."

The Court Sorcerer nods, knowing he cannot push for more.

"Well, that's it, I suppose," the boy finishes awkwardly, scratching the back of his head.

The boy scrambles to go without waiting for a reply, nerves evident throughout their interaction. Balinor is used to it by now. Ever since the boy approached the Court Sorcerer personally three years ago and claimed to be the servant of the böggel-mann himself, the boy has always been a bundle of nervous energy during their encounters. Balinor cannot blame him; one careless mistake may land the boy on a fate worse than death. That's why the boy only agreed to deal with the Court Sorcerer and the Court Sorcerer alone; the fewer people who know of his involvement, the safer he is.

With his help, however, the knights and magic-users of court have prevented the destruction of more than one village and thwarted some of the Army's heinous plans.

"Daegal," Balinor calls out.

The boy, Daegal, pauses and half-turns to him, face speaking an inquiry. For a moment, Balinor gauges his expression, contemplating. In the pockets of the Court Sorcerer's coat lies a vial of deep blue aconite, a potent poison capable of killing instantly.

It is a dastardly plan indeed. But it is also a practical one, one the queen has approved of. Balinor has turned it over so many times in his mind; he knows he cannot come out of it with a clean conscience.

Balinor had suggested it to Daegal, once. Just one drop on Wracu's and Nimueh's meals, and Camelot would have had two fewer foes. The Court Sorcerer even offered an escape plan after the deed, assuring that the boy will come out of it safe and unscathed. But back then, Daegal had blanched so badly at the request that he nearly fainted. He refused to meet with Balinor for four moons because of it.

For someone playing spy and working under one of the frightening men of the decade, Daegal is quite weak-hearted. Balinor supposes Daegal may be a traitor but he is no murderer. With that diffident demeanor, Daegal would have been caught and killed long before the poison can touch anyone's food. Not only will they lose a valuable informant, but they also risk invoking unpredictable backlash from their enemies.

Still, at their every meeting, Balinor brings the aconite, just in case. Just in case today will be the day Daegal gathered the courage and competency to put an end to the warlock who killed -

Judging by Daegal's hesitant and jittery behavior, however, Balinor deduces that today will not be that day. The Court Sorcerer lets out an almost inaudible sigh.

"Be careful on your way back," the Court Sorcerer says instead.

Daegal nods and even smiles a bit before dashing between the trees and disappearing from sight. After dispelling the anti-eavesdropping enchantment, Balinor strides back from whence he came.

"I couldn't detect any lies from him as usual." Uncloaking himself from the shadows, the Spymaster joins the Court Sorcerer once more and confidently confirms the validity of the information they received.

Balinor, assured by the confirmation, begins mentally planning his next steps. The Spymaster will surely relay the information from Daegal to the queen soon, and Balinor will have to —

Unbidden, every hair in the Court Sorcerer's body prickles.

He inhales sharply. "I have to get back to the citadel."

Immediately, the Spymaster snaps to attention. "Why? What happened?"

"I know not. Yet." Balinor begins preparing a teleportation spell. "But a protection spell of mine has been set off."

"You can detect it even from this distance?" The Spymaster whistles, impressed. "You truly deserve your position, Lord Balinor."

Balinor frowns and says nothing, too focused on finishing his enchantment. Moments later, whipping winds surround him, and takes him away in a blink.

"Could've taken me with you," the Spymaster grumbles, now alone in the dense forest. "Ah, forgot to ask him about places that forbid magic."

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A shield, shimmering bright gold, envelops Merlin completely within two breaths.

The warlock finds himself caged and trapped with naught but a few feet to move in. Drat, I was too carefree. Balinor and Kilgharrah are going to skin me if I die here.

From outside the barrier, Wracu tilts his head. "Pea —"

Merlin raises both arms and slaps his palms flat on the barrier, irises flaring gold. However, before he can even utter a spell, something remarkable occurs. The sleeves of his borrowed tunic touch upon his glittering cage, and sizzle and crackle.

"Ack!" Merlin feels the clothes heating up for a brief second before thankfully cooling down.

The golden shield shatters like glass without further prompting, the remains dissolving in the air. What the hell just happened? Merlin glances upon the moss green tunic beneath his cloak with incredulity.

"Hm. How unexpected." With a gesture, Wracu recreates the same shield around Merlin.

The warlock instantly dives to the side before the shield can fully manifest and trap him once more. Still on his knees on the ground, he throws out a "Forbaerne! Ácwele!". A fireball heads toward the dark-cloaked figure of his enemy with incredible speed.

Wracu plucks the flames in mid-air with a gloved hand and crushes the flames between his fingers. The fireball dissipates without a trace.

"Peace, Emrys," Wracu says in the interim with his inhuman voice. "I came to talk."

Merlin lifts an arm, another spell forming between his fingertips. "Well, you should have done that before trying to kill me. Astryce!"

"Scildan." Wracu shields against the explosive attack that can destroy stone. The spell hits his barrier and shatters it completely, forcing him to stumble back. "I wasn't trying to kill you."

"I'm certain attempting to plunge a dagger into my chest is the very definition of 'trying to kill me'. Forbærne firgenholt!"

The largest branch of the tree atop Wracu tears itself off and falls speedily. Wracu turns one of his palms skywards to halt its descent with an "Ic þe healte."

With his enemy occupied, Merlin begins another enchantment, "Ic her aciege ænne —"

"I know how to get you home."

The spell dies on Merlin's lips.

A split second later, the same glimmering shield envelops. Merlin snaps back to attention but it's too late; he has been caged once more. He inwardly groans, rather irritated with himself; he can't believe he fell for Wracu's trick.

Merlin shoots to his feet and starts working on dismantling the barrier. His clothes, this time, appear to offer no help. He supposes the clothes' abilities are a one-time thing.

"It isn't meant to hold you." With a graceful gesture, Wracu silently puts down the branch that nearly spelled his demise. He strides closer, cloak billowing behind him. "A tracking spell is placed upon every castle talisman. I assumed you wouldn't be willing to part with it, so I created this shield to momentarily nullify it."

Merlin glares at him and chooses not to heed any of his words. Upon quick observation, Merlin realizes that the barrier is indeed flimsy. He can easily dispel it. He taps it, hesitating.

Wracu stands a few feet away, making no move to attack. In fact, as Merlin looks back on it, Wracu has only dodged Merlin's assaults and has not counterattacked once.

Judging by Wracu's previous statements, he has clearly overheard Merlin's conversation with Kilgharrah. He knows of Merlin's origins, of the warlock's goals and plans. Merlin can't let him get away with such knowledge; the risk is too great to comprehend. Can I defeat him? Merlin has defeated far more powerful —

"Your mentor is on his way," Wracu informs him, with no hint of emotion in his voice. "I had activated the protection spell on your clothes. We have mere minutes left before he notices your talisman is blocked. Decide quickly whether you'll hear me out."

Oh, drat. If Balinor finds Merlin outside of the citadel, in Wracu's grasp, mere days after he has warned Merlin of this very situation, any good graces Merlin may have earned will disappear. Merlin doesn't have time to battle with Wracu if he wants to get back inside the citadel without Balinor knowing of his stupidity. Besides, Balinor might misunderstand and think him in league with Camelot's enemies if he is found with Wracu.

On the other hand, with Balinor here, they could both subdue Wracu. Merlin may raise suspicions once more but at the very least, they have a chance of capturing one of Camelot's greatest foes.

Merlin grits his teeth. He still doesn't know what the proper course of action is. But he does know he has to stall for time before he can decide. "Tell me what you want."

"To send you home," Wracu replies simply. "To send you back to your original realm."

Merlin blinks, the words stealing away every emotion except bewilderment. "After trying to kill me, you suddenly want to help me? How am I meant to believe that?"

"I didn't try to kill you," Wracu repeats. "Because you and I both know a simple dagger won't kill you."

Despite the situation, Merlin can't help but gape at the other man. "A blade to my heart will most certainly kill me! What do you take me for, a Dorocha?"

Wracu stills. "You do not know."

Merlin narrows his eyes. "Know what?"

"A matter for another time," Wracu smoothly evades. "But know that I never aimed to kill you. I don't expect you to believe me just yet, Emrys. Meet me here in a week's time once more, and we shall speak longer."

"Meet you here again so I can walk right into a trap? No thanks," Merlin responds tersely. Merlin may have been careless this time, but he will never be careless again.

"And how am I to know you will not bring the might of Camelot's court upon me?" Wracu counters calmly. "You are capable of setting a trap for me as well. I am risking as much by asking you to meet with me again, in Camelot's lands no less."

Merlin glowers. "Then why exactly are you offering to help me? What do you get out of it?"

"You are an obstruction to my plans," Wracu admits without hesitation. "Getting you out of the way will be most beneficial for me."

Merlin is rather taken aback by the abrupt frankness. If Wracu is doing it to gain Merlin's attention, he's succeeding.

"How exactly am I an obstruction to your plans?" Merlin prods.

"Do you really expect me to tell you?" Wracu deadpans.

Well, it was worth a try, Merlin thinks. "Why not just kill me then? Why go through all this trouble?"

"Personally, I have no qualms in killing you."

Merlin bristles at the statement, his magic crackling in defense.

"But I am no fool. As that dragon said, you cannot die here in our realm. Therefore, returning you to yours is my next best option." Wracu turns his head to one side and pauses, as if listening for something.

"Even a great dragon doesn't know how to send me home," Merlin retorts, unable to completely remove the annoyance in his tone. "How can I believe that you even know how to do it?"

"I have an interest in the forbidden arts of magic," Wracu replies monotonously. "And I have plenty of resources I can tap."

"I have access to Camelot's Great Library. Do you think I need your help?" Merlin shoots back, although it's a bit of a bluff. He's not exactly sure whether the library can provide him anything useful but he's not about to let his enemy know that.

Wracu seems to know anyway. "Yes, the Great Library whose accessible information adheres to strict Old Religion laws. I'm certain you'll find what you're looking for there."

Because of the mostly toneless and still inhuman voice Wracu uses, it takes Merlin a while to determine the sarcasm in his last remarks.

No matter how much Merlin scrutinizes, he can barely read Wracu at all. The man's face is hidden in the shadows of his dark cloak, covering whatever expression he may be making. Wracu offers no excess body movements, each and every gesture purposeful and necessary. Even now, Wracu stands straight and unmoving, gloved hands loose by his side and no visible tension in his form. His voice, camouflaged by an eerie quality, barely has any inflection in it when he speaks.

I have no idea if he's telling the truth or if he's toying with me. And isn't that a familiar situation? In the past, Merlin has trusted cunning magic-users who only sought to take advantage of him. The only difference this time is Wracu has made his goal quite clear and has made no flowery promises to win Merlin over to his side.

Speaking of changing sides, Merlin abruptly remembers why he can't even pretend to do so. A chill runs down his spine. "My Apprentice Contract." The contract states that apprentices should not knowingly associate with known enemies of Camelot. And what is Merlin doing? Gods, Balinor will know, and suspicion will lay heavy on Merlin again. Has the contract been breached already? Will Merlin feel something if it has? He hopes Balinor will believe that he did it unintentionally.

"The Shallow Contract—" Wracu begins, piercing through Merlin's panic. "— has one little-known flaw. It is merely attached to the name and nothing else. Have you two names, you can easily work around it. Right now, I speak not to Merlin of Ealdor but to Emrys. Hence, no breach of contract will occur."

Merlin boggles. "That's — That's a major flaw."

Wracu shrugs — the first hint of expression he has ever made during the whole interaction. "Not entirely. The names must be something that several people know you as—names that you truly identify with, names that you know to be yours. A fake name will shatter the contract without fail. People rarely have more than one true name." Wracu pauses for a beat. "I suppose you have no such magic in your realm."

There are a lot of enchantments in this world that Merlin doesn't think existed prior to his unwelcomed travel. Now, Wracu is aware of Merlin's significant ignorance and will most likely take advantage of it in the future. Merlin really can't catch a break, can he?

"Our time is running out," Wracu reminds Merlin when the silence has gone on for too long. "Learn the enchantment of swīġan unsóþ, and I will allow you to perform it on me. I will wait for you here in a week's time. I am your greatest chance at getting home, Emrys. Let me help you."

And I urge you to welcome any help offered to you. Kilgharrah's words come ringing between Merlin's ears. That damn dragon knew this was going to happen! He knew Wracu was nearby. Are they in league with each other?

With a small gesture of Wracu's finger, the golden shield around Merlin dissipates.

Almost immediately, Merlin raises his arms and shoots off an emphatic, "Flíe fǽgð!" Merlin rarely heeds Kilgharrah's advice when it comes to identifying foes and friends.

The thick fallen branch raises itself in the air and darts its rough pointy end towards the enemy.

In a blink, Wracu disappears from its path, and the branch boisterously collides with the trunk of another tree.

Wracu reappears mere inches away from Merlin, filling Merlin's vision with the darkness of his shrouded face. Merlin's heart tries to climb to his throat, and his eyes widen in alarm.

Wracu's arm shoots forward. Cool leather wraps around Merlin's throat before he can react. Wracu's grip is firm — not choking but tight enough to serve as a warning.

"Do not test me, Emrys." Cold fury laces Wracu's tone, making chills run down Merlin's whole body. His breath fans over Merlin's face because of their proximity. "I won't kill you but that doesn't mean I'm incapable of hurting you."

Merlin, not one easily intimidated by petty threats, bares his teeth, his irises liquid gold. "You—"

Nearby, the foliage rustles violently and heavy footfalls crunch grass. Merlin's attention snaps to it.

Abruptly, the pressure around his neck disappears. When Merlin turns his gaze in front of him, he finds no one and nothing. He glances around some more but finds no trace of the man who threatened him in the area. Drat. Now there's an enemy out there who knows too much of his circumstance. While Merlin doesn't think Wracu can do much with the information he gained, it still gives him the upper hand on Merlin.

Perhaps Wracu will indeed get that meeting he asked for. At least then Merlin will get a chance to subdue the man and further force answers out of him.

Unfortunately, someone troublesome pops out from between the trees, breaking Merlin out of his impromptu planning.

A familiar knight, face as dark as thunderclouds, marches towards Merlin.

"Sir Lancelot!" Merlin plasters on a bright 'nothing suspicious here, no sire' grin. "How fares our gallant knight?"

Sir Lancelot didn't witness anything, right? Merlin needs to hide his involvement with Wracu this time; having come unscathed from the encounter, he doubts anyone will believe him if he claims that the interaction wasn't a friendly chat.

Sir Lancelot grabs Merlin's arm in an iron-clad grip. "You're coming with me, boy."

❤•°o.O`•.¸¸.•´´¯`••.¸¸.•´´¯`•´ ◇ⓛⓞⓥⓔ◇ `•.¸¸.•´´¯`••.¸¸.•´´¯`•´O.o°•❤

A/N:

"Listen, if we don't stop and learn to trust one another again, it's only a matter of time before we tear each other apart. This isn't the world I want you to live in. I believe that we can be Kumandra again. But someone has to take the first step." – Benja, Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

I actually finished the first half of this chapter a month ago. The Merlin-Wracu interaction screwed me over lol. Fun fact: all the verbal spells used in this chapter were actually used in canon.

Virtual cookies to those who can guess why the blood test shows Agravaine and Merlin as related 😉.

Hey, remember when I said that this will be less 200K words? And that Merthur might happen at 175K? Yeah, I dunno what I was thinking either.

Thank you for those still tuning in! I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and I'll see you guys in the next chapter.

Next up: Some father-son scolding, and some more BAMF!Merlin moments.

Don't forget to keep checking out the other works inspired by this story. They're all so awesome!

~ Vividpast