*wipes brow* Sorry everyone, that I had to make you wait once again. Exams were...not nice...
BUT! Exams are now over, so I'm free to pursue fun things once again, away from the enthusiasm-draining hell that is revision. And so, I give you chapter 26! Wherein things get just that little bit more complicated. He he.
I apologise for any mistakes- I've only just finished writing this chapter, and haven't checked it over, but I didn't want to leave you all waiting any longer. Please feel free to point out any muck-ups, and I shall endeavour to fix them!
Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin (If I did, 4.3 would never have happened, and there would probably be a ridiculous plot twist like Gaius being the immortal Emrys all along. That, or is would dissolve into complete crack. Or I might add more angst. Or already had a reveal. I dunno what exactly- it would probably just be very different... I'll stop now...)
Michael seemed to collapse in on himself the instant Merlin withdrew his hands, and Gwen found herself having to leap forward onto her knees, tugging Aveline into her solid grip as the young girl struggled to rush and pull the dark-haired man away from her father. The only sound to break the heavy silence was Michael's gasping breaths- the two Knights of their party simply staring in shock between the man on the floor and the Warlock standing before them all.
After several seconds, and before Aveline could manage to wrestle her way from Gwen's grasp, the chestnut-skinned woman finally found the strength to speak. Her eyes flickered between Michael and Merlin once more, before settling on her friend.
"What did you do to him?"
Merlin seemed to come out of some kind of stupor, casting his eyes around the group and taking in the stunned expressions on his companions' faces.
"I just showed him some of my memories." His glance landed on the young girl in Gwen's arms, and he smiled reassuringly. "It's fine Pai- um... Aveline- he's not harmed at all. Just a bit unsettled, I'm guessing. See?" He gestured towards the ginger-haired man, and Aveline stilled as she realised that her father's breathing was finally starting to settle, and that he was now staring up at Merlin with a strange mix of shock and near reverential awe.
"You really are Emrys," the older man breathed out. At Merlin's confirmatory nod, a faint sheen engulfed the Brown of his eyes, and a strangely exultant laugh echoed around where the six of them were gathered. "So you were alive all this time!"
A disapproving frown Gwen had never seen before settled itself on Merlin's brow, and she found herself starting at the authority in his voice when the Warlock spoke once more. Gone was the gangly youth she had spent over two years getting to know, and in his place, right at that instant, was a being of untold dignity and wisdom.
"And what exactly have you been doing in my absence? You will tell me everything I need to know, now. And you will say it quickly- we are, I believe, running out of time."
The other side of Merlin, Arthur's eyebrows rose almost imperceptibly as the sorcerer's elated grin was wiped from his face, leaving no trace of its presence behind. A glimmer of something akin to pride surfaced momentarily in Arthur's eyes as the Blond surveyed Merlin, before he turned to the man on the floor.
"First things first," Arthur stated briskly, "how did you find us?"
"When," Michael gulped, staring up at Merlin, "when we... encountered... each other in the magic's web, I managed to attach a speck of my magic on to your's, my Lord." He didn't seem to notice Merlin's uncomfortable shuffle at the given title, but instead continued on. "It was this which allowed me to stay in the maze- given the nature of Morgause's spell, I am usually unable to connect myself to the enchantment in such a manner. When I lost you, I withdrew into my own body, and simply trusted my senses to guide me to the tiny measure of my magic which is now stored in you. It is the only method I had of finding you."
Merlin frowned at the reply, and seemed to look inside himself for a moment. Gwen could barely hold back a gasp as her friend suddenly held out his hand, a minuscule speck of light shimmering on the very tip of his index finger.
"You can have this back, then," the Warlock stated, blowing lightly on the speck, and sending it floating through the air to sink through the clothes above were Michael's heart was positioned. He looked over to the Prince. "I'm sorry I didn't notice it, Arthur. This wouldn't have happened if I had."
Gwen couldn't stop herself from saying something in an effort to wipe away the tiny measure or guilt which had settled itself into her friend's expression. "It can't be helped, Merlin. It was only a tiny speck of power, and, well..." Her words escaped her, only for Michael to step in and finish for her.
"And you, my Lord, as Emrys, have enough power that my tiny sliver ended up being even more indistinguishable."
Unsurprisingly, at least to those of the group who knew him well enough, Merlin shuffled uncomfortably once more.
"Will you stop that? I'm not a Lord, and I don't want to be called one. Just Merlin is fine."
Michael nodded from where he sat, then rose slowly to his feet. As Aveline tugged herself out of Gwen's grip, she too rose, smiling at the joy on the child's face as she moved once more to stand by her father, and place her tiny hand in his.
"Of course," the ginger-haired man smiled, "it would be my honour. As it would be if you allowed me to accompany you on your mission. I believe I may be able to provide some measure of assistance."
Gwen took in the scene before her carefully. And, before Arthur and Merlin had even finished exchanging a decisive look, she nodded to herself.
"I don't believe there would be any harm in it. We should let him, Arthur."
The Blond sent her a look which spoke volumes- of pride, and of love- before answering. "Indeed." He glanced towards Michael. "But let there be no doubt- you have not yet proven yourself to me, and I will be watching you. Make one move against us, and I will be forced to take action."
"I would expect nothing less, sire." The sorcerer glanced around the group, his gaze settling on Merlin. "Before we leave, though, would you be willing to tell me how you intend to solve the situation? I fear any aid I can provide will be lacking if I do not know the plan."
Merlin cast a look towards Arthur, waiting for his affirmative nod before he answered the older man.
"There's not much we really know about the spell right now, apart from it's main effects. I was hoping that I would be able to discover more about it by having the vessels- and now you, the source- close to me. I think, judging by what I've seen of it so far, I may be able to withdraw the strands of magic leaving each of them, and guide it back through the web. That should, if I'm correct, nullify the effects and break the enchantment." He stared for a moment into Michael's eyes, blue depths searching brown for any indication that his hypothesis was correct. "What do you think?"
Michael nodded, and to Gwen appeared to look inwards for a few moments.
"What you have described seems similar to the feeling the spell has whenever Morgause manipulates it through me." He continued on, and whether or not he had noticed Arthur's minuscule twitch of his brow at the mention of Morgause's name Gwen had no idea. "But there is one problem."
"What's that?" Questioned Merlin.
"For several months now, the sisters have been sending people to enter Camelot's life- I myself am one of them. Many of the women were instructed to enter the laundry services."
"Morgause wanted a back-up, in case anything went wrong. The women wove spells into the clothes they washed, as well as the soaps used by other laundrywomen. If the original spells over Camelot are ever removed without taking away the back-up, the spell will merely rebound, linking on to the strongest source of magical power within the kingdom. In effect, forming a new vessel. And even if this new vessel dies, the spell will simply move on once again. In effect, the back-up is a trick. And if it isn't removed first, the original enchantment will never be broken."
Shock filtered it's way through Gwen's mind like poison through blood. She glanced down at herself, panic rising. Merlin had removed her from the spell. Did this mean that she would soon succumb once again? That she would now be doomed to be a mindless puppet for the rest of her life? No. No. There was no way, right?
Thoughts racing through her mind at the speed of light, she looked up once again, meaning to voice some of her worries. Her voice failed her, though, as she met Merlin's eyes. The dark-haired man was gazing over at her with an expression of relief. A brief sigh escaped his lips.
"So that was what the haze of magic around Gwen was? Thank goodness I removed that too." His gaze sharpened, and he seemed to realise something, his eyes snapping back to meet Michael's.
"But I can't just go around removing spells from every set of clothes. And I can't just send out a wave of magic to blanket the entire kingdom- it's impossible!"
Kennard stepped into the conversation, brow creased and silver eyes filling with even more worry, but still sharp. "Does this spell not have vessels too? Maybe the laundrywomen? If we track them down, surely we can break this back-up spell."
Merlin just shook his head. "With a spell like this, my guess is that the clothes themselves have become the vessel." He paused, the truth of what he was saying sinking heavily into the hearts of most of the group's members. "I don't know what to do."
A small cough caught everyone's attention, forcing their heads towards Michael. The older man gave a tiny smile.
"I believe I may be able to help."
Again, please let me know if there are any mistakes. And constructive criticism is always more than welcome. I love to hear your thoughts.