He didn't know when it happened, how long it took for the darkness to get to him, but eventually Merlin stopped counting how many days he'd been stuck down here. For all he knew it had only been a small time that had passed since the island, but who was he kidding, knowing his luck he had become an old man by now.
His voice had been one of the first things to go, the screaming and yells of anger quickly destroying his vocal cords after doing it for so long. Then the strength in keeping himself stood upright went and he mostly just lay on the ground, his eyes closed so he could at least pretend the darkness was his own choice.
The magic running through his veins however, that never left. It was a constant reminder why he was stuck down here.
"You're very quiet today," came a low voice from nearby when what Merlin could only presume at least a year had passed. Usually he would have reacted, jumped to his feet and demand that he be released, but the will to go on was fading. Why choose to fight against something you can't even see?
Besides … he was tired. Tired of losing and trying to be with someone who destiny had decided to keep from him and most of all, tired of trying to be a part of the world above when clearly he belonged alone.
"Have you finally stopped screaming out for him?"
Merlin turned his head and saw something run across the small glimmer of light coming from the grates. He had never bothered to go close to the light, I mean why bother when you'd just have to turn around and face the darkness all over again?
"Is the immortal sorcerer finally admitting defeat?"
Rolling his eyes at the obvious attempt to irritate him, Merlin rolled over onto his side with his back to the 'thing', letting it know that he didn't care what it said. "I presume you are the reason I can't get out?" His voice was rough as he spoke and a small laugh told him he was being mocked.
"Afraid so," a teasing voice replied and Merlin heard the shuffling sounds of something moving closer. "Normally I'd let you get on with … whatever you do down here by yourself, but something's about to happen and I don't want to miss it."
This sparked a little bit of curiosity in him and without resisting he turned to face the outline he could just about see. "Miss what?"
"You'll find out soon enough. Just enjoy the moment whilst you can okay? I promise everything you're seeing is real."
Merlin smirked at his own thoughts, knowing Arthur would have said the exact same thing and then he felt his entire body begin to burn. His voice must not be completely gone because he let out an almighty scream as his body began to feel like it was being torn in two and when he opened his eyes he was no longer lying in a dark room.
He was back on the island.
Somehow he was suddenly up in a tree, staring down at a group of campers where Arthur sat at the front, his golden hair shining brightly because of the fire roaring in front of them. Merlin's heart leapt in his chest as he saw Arthur laughing at something someone said and he felt the bark beneath his fingertips buzz with magic.
He came for me.
That thought ran through his mind as he leapt from the tree, Arthur in his sights and as his feet touched the ground, he couldn't help but feel that everything back in that dark room had been a lie.
Except just like that, everything was being ripped away from him and he let out a gasp as the darkness sucked him in. He didn't even bother opening his eyes when he felt the cold, damp floor beneath him. Merlin knew where he was.
"I don't understand."
"I think the magic on the island is trying to bring you back, it wants to help you get away from here and return to a place where you know you'll be safe."
"Why couldn't I stay?"
"Because it was trying to put your soul into a body that wasn't yours. That Merlin isn't you. That Merlin is purely an enchantment I used to make sure everyone didn't come looking for you down here. So many things have happened to you that having a Merlin that doesn't remember anyone is hardly a stretch."
"What do you want?"
Merlin flinched as a hard breath brushed against his face and he tried to hide his discomfort at having someone so close to him that wasn't Arthur. "What I want is for everyone to play their part like they should do. You see, I figured out everyone's problem. Patience. None of you have it. You jump straight into things without thinking them through, but I have. I've figured out a way to get exactly what I want and every single thing that has to happen in order to get it."
"And what part do I play in this?"
"Well I need something from the Prince, or soon to be King, and you are how I'm going to get it. You see, Aulfric won't be able to resist one last show down; he'll want to finish you off. So when Arthur believes you're dead, has had years to mourn your loss, I will jump in with just the thing he wants."
Turning his head ever so slightly, Merlin stared at the person crouched next to him and smiled. "If you think that he'll fall for that then you don't know him very well."
"Put a man through hell and he'll do anything to get back the one thing who could drag him out of it. He's been through so much, battled against everything out there to get you back and I'll offer him the simplest solution there is. All he'll have to do is drink a small vial and he'll get you back."
"But it'll be a trick."
"Obviously, as if I'd let you leave here. Prepare to be down here a long time Emrys, you'll be here for the rest of your life."
He was left in the silence in the blink of an eye and Merlin felt his heart ache at the thought of Arthur thinking him dead. Arthur had no idea that the Merlin's out there weren't him, hadn't been for a long time now. They were more tricks to keep them apart.
It wasn't his fault if he sometimes found himself asking for things that couldn't happen, after all … he'd have to actually have luck on his side if Arthur were to find him.
When he was ripped from his dreams Merlin knew something was happening again. Every now and then he would see glimpses of Arthur, running on that island with another version of him, a smile on his lips that Merlin would give anything to see with his own two eyes again.
As memories of being on an island were shoved into his mind, he tried not to cry out as the loneliness followed at the thought of being stuck in here for as long as the other Merlin had been on that island, but that was soon replaced with confusion as he once again found himself in another's body.
Then there was a moment. A single moment when he stood in that water and remembered every life he could have lived, when every Merlin that had ever been around was suddenly him and the memories confused even his own thoughts. What if he wasn't in that dark space? What if that was the fake Merlin and the one stood in the water, staring at Arthur, was the real one?
What if all Arthur had to do to rescue him was find him on this island? Then they could find the fake Merlin and let him rest in peace.
"Arthur?" His voice croaked like he was still sore from screaming and the Prince stepped forward. Then two strong arms came around his waist and Merlin felt his entire soul begging for this to be real. "Please tell me this is real. You finally came for me?"
He so wanted this to be real.
"No matter where you are, what oceans I have to cross, I will always find you."
"You need to tell me what the hell is going on. I finally found you and you couldn't even remember me, let alone you'd aged by like twenty years. What did Aulfric do to you?"
Flashes of memories that weren't his own made him shudder and he gripped Arthur tighter as he closed his eyes, "You came for me." If he said it enough times, maybe he could convince himself, maybe this could all be real.
"Of course I did. I haven't stopped looking. What happened to you Merlin?"
He muttered something about getting used to being called Merlin and then a thought crossed his mind, maybe he could start getting a timeline together on how long things had been going on. "How long has it been since Aulfric took me?"
The next 3 words were all he heard.
A few months.
No, that can't be right, he had been on the island decades … or had he been down in the dark room for that long, or had it been a few months? What if both these versions of him were fakes? What if he was actually somewhere else?
The scene played out like he was on the island, another consciousness taking over as Merlin tried to get a grip on reality. "You can keep me here but it's my own choice what I do with my time."
Determination took over him and he battled with himself to return to his real self, to leave this body to live out its life on the island. If Arthur were to lose him here, then he'd need Merlin alive back in Camelot afterwards, before his captor could carry out his plan.
"..you are not welcome here!"
This time when he returned to his body he did not lie there silently. Nor did he scream. Instead he rolled onto his front and with shaking limbs pushed himself to his hands and knees. "You can do this," he muttered as he mustered the strength to sit up, his entire body shaking in exhaustion even though he had done such a simple task.
"Finding the will to live?" The voice asked.
"Finding … the will … to fight," he said through deep breaths and told himself that no matter how long it took; he would get out of here. Nothing would keep him from Arthur anymore.
"So what, you meditate now?"
Merlin sat crossed legged like he had done for the past few hours and tried to concentrate. You see even though he was trapped here because of his magic, it didn't mean he couldn't use it. If he could find a way to use it to contact Arthur, help him get back to Camelot, the Prince could find him. It hadn't taken him long to figure out he was beneath the castle after he had begun to move around again, just a small glance through the grates in the wall let him see the streets of the Kingdom, and if he was in Camelot that meant he needed to get Arthur here.
Let me help him.
His fingers slipped from his knees and into the ground beneath him, his fingertips digging into the soil as he sought a way to contact Arthur and when he felt a tiny spark inside his heart, he latched onto it with all his might.
Where magic was born and loyalty challenged, lives a boy who is fuelled by rage. His past is now forgotten, identity gone astray, there is but one who will call his name. However this man will be too late, with blood and water spilt. His chase is over, the island silent and Excalibur shall lay in wait.
It wasn't until Arthur had gone that Merlin realized the other version of himself was looking at him and after glancing down, he saw that he had his own body. Not another version, not an enchantment, he was standing there like he was really on the island. "You do this?"
"Yes, like always Merlin, I am here to protect you even when you're not here."
"I never knew an island could have an opinion. Then again, you never were just an island, were you?" A small laugh left his lips and he hissed as a small tug went through him, "Arthur?"
"He needs your help just one last time."
"And then it'll be over?"
"It'll never be over, but to be honest, would you want it to be?"
He never thought his first words to Arthur after so long would be, "Hello stranger." However that was what fate had intended and Merlin felt a glimmer of amusement as Arthur stood up slowly from the ground when he spotted Merlin in the water.
"Are you real?"
"In a way, yes. This is certainly strange, wouldn't you say?"
More than strange, here they were talking like nothing had happened, like they weren't oceans apart, and yet Merlin hadn't felt this content in a long time. "Why are you … are you dead?" The sound of sadness filling the Prince's voice made Merlin wish he could really be here for the man and he tried to stop himself from telling Arthur everything.
After all, Arthur had an enemy to defeat here on the island before he returned home.
Before long Merlin had his hand gently pressed against Arthur's cheek and tried to offer comfort to him, "You're so close to getting me back." It was true, had to be true, it wouldn't be long until Arthur was back and finding him in the depths of the castles foundation.
Which is where he found himself moments later when his magic struggled to keep him on the island with Arthur. He had done what he could and now he had to prepare himself, he had an enemy down here to get rid of and a barrier that kept magic users trapped down here. Not an easy task but it was worth it.
Arthur never came.
Merlin had stood there and waited for days.
However one night all those years ago, he had felt like the world was being ripped in two beneath his feet and his captor had giggled in delight as the entire room had shone. Merlin's skin going so bright that it was like he was radiating light and then a force so powerful had hit him in the chest that it had knocked him unconscious for days.
When he had awoken his eyes had met two golden eyes belonging to a dragon, a creature that for a long time he believed he'd been responsible for killing, and he couldn't help but turn his face into the ground so he could pretend the dragon couldn't see the sadness and fear in him.
He could remember when he first fell into this dark cavern under the castle after telling Arthur his real name and the dragon had been there to greet him, give him enough of a memory that other versions of himself would have something to look back on to fill in the gaps when his captor started his plan.
Next thing he remembered was screaming his heart out when he realized his magic was keeping him down here and there was no dragon in sight. Yet somehow here it was, looking down at him like it had never left and wasn't the very reason Merlin had lost his home and family all in one day.
"Why are you sad?"
Such a simple question but Merlin couldn't even begin to tell the dragon what was making him feel that way. So he went with the simplest answer he could think of, "I can no longer tell what's real or not. I fear my captor is messing with my mind."
"Why do you think so?"
"I cannot remember what conspired after you told me you'd been down here for so many years. Did we talk? Did you tell me of a way to escape and he's just blocked it from my mind to keep me down here?"
"Your mind remains unaltered young warlock. You fell unconscious again after we talked and I was taken further into the cavern so we couldn't communicate. Clearly things have changed."
"What's changed?" Merlin asked as he rolled over onto his back.
Of course Merlin hadn't actually died, just the enchantment on the island and when he heard the sounds of the Prince's arrival home through the grates, he'd used what little strength he had left to get to his feet and look into the sunlight. Arthur had walked on by with Morgana at his side, a small boy too, and hadn't looked back.
Ever since his skin had shone brighter than the sun he hadn't been able to use his magic, well not like he usually could anyway, and he didn't want his captor to know what little he did have left. He had been told that if he ever left, his memories would be taken from him, the threat every one seemed to use on him these days. Except this time it had been different.
"There will be no come backs if you lose them again. There is no island to keep you safe, no more enchantments that create Merlin's that will bring those memories back. Once they're gone this time then that's it. Game over. You'll be the mess Arthur has tried his very best to mend."
So here he had stayed. Waiting for Arthur to find him, however when years passed and the King mourned his loss, he realized the King had no reason to come down here. Why go to the foundation of the castle when you belonged at the top?
It was the smell of burning that woke him.
That and the walls around him shaking was another clue that something was happening in Camelot.
Lifting his chin from his chest, Merlin ignored the ache in his back from sitting up against the wall for so long and tried to use his magic to find out what was wrong. He willed for it to work, just this once, just to give him some clue what was happening to the people he loved.
"Careful warlock, he could be watching."
Even though he heard the dragon's warning, he couldn't help but be curious when he heard screams outside and the magic he rarely used came to his aid to show him an image of a young boy standing in Arthur's chambers. At first he thought that Arthur had taken a new lover, a young one at that, but then his opponent mentioned something about Father's and all Merlin could see was himself in the boy.
Yes there were many features of Arthur's in the boy, he held himself up like royalty and had an aura that was made to rule a Kingdom. Yet there was the dark lock's of hair, the strong cheekbones and scrawny hands that clued Merlin into who this boy was. His suspicions were confirmed when the man talked about Merlin like he was a Father to the boy he had never seen before. "He also has the same weakness as you," were the last words he heard before everything changed.
Suddenly he was watching as the enemy took down the boy without much effort and Merlin felt anger beginning to boil through his blood when he realized what spell had been used. His fingers dug into the soil beneath him as he tried to will his magic to help the boy, to protect the Son he had never even met, but all he could do was watch as the man teased him.
"Right now I have a King to dispose of."
That apparently was enough. His anger and magic combined threw the man from the room without hesitation and if it hadn't been for how tired he'd felt; he would have finished him off. Except now he was panting like he'd run for miles and his body slipped sideways so he was lying on the floor, his vision blurring and hands shaking as he shuddered.
Apparently not using your magic for so long had some side effects.
As he began to slip into his own darkness, his body demanding to shut down as it replenished, he heard one word that he couldn't be sure was meant for him but he prayed was.
Hours later he woke up to the sound of someone entering the room in an odd fashion and he braced himself for his captor to retaliate from earlier. It didn't take a genius to work out that the man who had attacked the boy was also the one who kept him down here.
Except the last person he expected was now lying there and saying, "Way to make an entrance Pendragon."
He sounded old. Was that possible? Could someone sound old? It was like the years apart had aged the King more than it should and Merlin dreaded to think what he sounded like. However Arthur looked the same as ever, yes he looked tired and wrecked from the fighting, but he was still the same man who had taken him off that island all that time ago.
Figures the first word he used in years would be the name of the King.
They were both getting to their feet without much thought and Merlin used his body more than he had in years, but there was no pain or aching bones, only adrenaline that kept him going.
Two hands grabbed his shirt and Merlin watched Arthur try and make out his features, after all the King hadn't had time to adjust to the darkness yet. Merlin on the other hand could make Arthur out perfectly, every annoyingly handsome feature that people like Merlin could only dream of having. "Tell me it's you," Arthur begged and Merlin raised his hands to cup the man's face.
The touch of soft skin made Merlin inch forward and whisper, "You found me."
"I always do," Arthur replied and then they were clutching each other like nothing in the world would tear them apart, and it wouldn't. Merlin gripped onto Arthur and stared over his shoulder into the darkness, daring anything to come between them, because if there's one thing you didn't mess with, it was a sorcerer who had the man he loved in his arms.
"If this is a dream, if this is another spell or potion, then I don't want to wake up." Arthur whispered quietly in his ear as he gripped the back of Merlin's neck and he felt the returning desperation in Merlin's hold. "I'm so tired of not getting you back. So many times I've been within reach, only to learn that it's all a lie and then you're another ocean away."
"I'm right here Arthur, I promise. This time … it's the real me."
"I don't know whether that's worse or not," he murmured and pulled away slightly so he was looking directly into Merlin's eyes that he was still struggling to see. "To know that you've been right here, under the castle, that I could have found you sooner … I think I'd rather you have been on that island so it meant I had an excuse not to find you."
"You did find me."
Bringing up one hand to gently cup the side of Merlin's face, Arthur tried to ignore that Merlin's voice was shaky, low, damaged. He didn't want to think about what the sorcerer had been through down here to get his voice in such a state … and if that was his voice, how damaged was the rest of him?
"I'm sorry it wasn't sooner," he apologised and fell to his knees in front of Merlin, his hand grasping Merlin's and he tried to not let his emotions get the better of him. "I will spend the rest of my life making it up to you."
"Arthur," his name being said so softly made him crumble and he put his forehead to Merlin's chest as the man came to kneel in front of him. "You never have to seek-" he took a small breath "-forgiveness from me."
"You don't understand Merlin, everything that's happened to you is because of me. I took you off that island, made you help me find a cure for a man who hates your kind, and you have suffered so much because of it. You have been tortured, killed, torn from people who consider you family. All for what? So one man could have his Father in his life for a few more years?"
"Now listen here," Merlin's voice was now firm as he pulled Arthur's head to face him and the tears were brushed away with determined hands. "There is only one reason … why I would go through that for anybody." He leant forward and chapped lips brushed against Arthur's, "I love that one man who wanted his Father in his life for a few more years."
Arthur felt like he was closing the distance of oceans when he closed the gap between them, but his hands grabbed Merlin by the shirt to pull him forward so their lips could do nothing else but meet. It was by no means their greatest kiss, nor their finest, but it would always be the one Arthur remembered.
It didn't last long, merely seconds, since Merlin pulled away from him breathing heavily and leant their foreheads together. "Sorry, I-"
"Gave up on you? Stared into the darkness cursing your name? Decided that life wasn't worth living anymore? Take your pick Arthur," a mocking voice came from behind the King and he was on his feet in seconds, his body blocking Merlin from their foe.
"Didn't mean to cut the reunion short but I've always heard that letting the heroes form a plan is always the wrong move to make," Julian commented and suddenly the room began to get brighter. At first it was small balls of light, only creating enough light to make out silhouettes, but the light soon grew so he could see everything very clearly.
What he saw gave him a smidgen of hope.
Julian looked like a wreck. His clothes were torn in so many places it looked like one of the dragons had clawed at him, his skin was patterned with blood and scars that he must be in so much agony that standing would be a hard task in itself. "You look like hell."
The man looked down at himself and made a noise to himself like his appearance was a chore he hadn't gotten round to. "Apologies your majesty, you're completely right, I shouldn't appear before royalty looking like a commoner." Just like that, with a clap of his hands, the man transformed into the man who had presented himself in the throne room. "Is this more to your liking?"
Merlin ignored the conversation going on between Arthur and the man a small distance away as he tired to stay quiet. His eyes felt like they were being burnt out of their sockets even with the lids closed. Turns out when you've been stuck in a dark room for years, you slowly become accustomed to the darkness and find normal light blinding.
Count to ten
He flinched as the woman's voice entered his mind and he instinctively moved away from the voices currently filling up the empty space.
When everything is overwhelming and you need a moment to catch your breath, count to ten and start again
This is idiotic
This is a small problem and you've overcome worse. Now do as I ask so Arthur isn't facing the enemy alone. He needs you
Who are you?
Merlin, count to ten
He didn't react as he heard Arthur yell out and by the sounds of it he was thrown through the air with a spell, the sound of rocks being hit with his body echoing in the room.
"See that? He didn't even react."
Merlin tilted his head as he listened to the sounds of the castle falling apart around him, the pain of the Kingdom sounding out through the air itself if you listened close enough and his body reacted to that noise. It told him that they weren't going to just sit there and take yet another person bashing him down, he could stand tall and show everybody that he wasn't weak.
He wasn't that boy begging his parents to forgive him.
He wasn't that teenager who feared the beasts on an island.
He wasn't that man who wanted things he could never have.
He was the boy who had overcome the odds and survived.
He was the teenager who had created a safe place to live and didn't lose this mind.
He was the man who would fight with everything he had left.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't have my dragon burn him alive this very second?"
Merlin looked over at Arthur who had his back up against the cave wall, the dragon that had been keeping him company for years now breathing down Arthur's neck and Merlin couldn't help but smile a little. Their captor may believe he was in control but he was greatly mistaken.
"Why are you smiling? I am threatening to kill the man you supposedly love, even though it has been a while so he could have moved on by now, and all you do is smile?! Did the darkness drive you crazy?"
"No it did not," he replied and then looked up. "I have been trapped on an island for over a decade, being trapped in this darkness for half of that was nothing. You are nothing." Merlin finds the strength within him to get to his feet and pulls himself to his full height for the first time in years.
"You want to kill him? You'll have to go through me first."
Arthur screaming his name across the cavern filled the once silent space and was drowned out when the enemy shot a powerful spell towards Merlin. He didn't even hesitate in closing his eyes, attempting to find the power within him that he knew he once had to protect himself, and when he didn't find himself lying on the floor moments later he opened his eyes to see a part of the ground had shot up in front of him to protect him.
"And you'll have to go through me too," a softer voice said beside him and he glanced sideways to see another version of himself standing there.
"Me too," another person joined the mix. Merlin looked to his other side to see an eleven-year-old Merlin stood there looking determined.
"Count me in."
It wasn't long until a little under a dozen versions of him were standing in a line facing the other three in the cavern and Merlin didn't even question it. Stranger things had happened after all.
"What is this?" Arthur asked from where he stayed perfectly still.
"You mess with an immortal sorcerer enough times."
"Make him forget lives he had."
"Force him into a life which was never meant to be."
"Timelines get tangled."
"Dimensions cross over."
"Windows open up for us to step through."
"To tell you exactly why you don't want to mess with us."
"Because we have fought you in all planes of existence."
"And found a way to defeat you every single time."
"This time will be no different."
The Merlin from this dimension stepped forward as the ground settled back down into a smooth surface and he waved his hand to send an enchantment through him to heal old wounds, make him the man he had once been before the darkness had swallowed him whole.
When he lowered his hand, he smiled and brushed off his new clothing that were made to be worn in a castle like the one above. "So let me give you a piece of advice before you make your next move as your patience will be running thin." He moved even closer until he was mere inches from the man and he leant forward so he could whisper a single word.