Title: The Road
Genre: Adventure, Death!Fic, Drama
Warnings: Character death
Summary: When Arthur is killed, Merlin is offered the chance to bring him back. Except, getting into the After life isn't quite so easy when you're still alive.
"I tried!" Merlin screams into the darkness, clutching at Arthur's limp and lifeless body. Tears stream down his face and he's struggling for breath, but still he shouts at the night as if the night is to blame. "Why?" he shouts, "why?"
He's not sure why, but he thinks of the Dragon when he'd first come to Camelot and remembers all it said about him and Arthur and their destinies and he figures he's yelling at the damn Dragon as much as he's yelling at the night because while both activities are equally useless, the Dragon is clearly more to blame.
And, anyway, it's all rather therapeutic. And it beats letting himself think because he's pretty sure if he does much thinking at this point he'll wind up doing something remarkably stupid – like hunting down the men responsible and tormenting every last one of them. With magic, of course. And he'd probably get himself killed in the process because rash acts of revenge don't generally lend themselves to caution.
So he shouts and sobs until his voice goes hoarse and he's too exhausted to keep crying and then he lies down, his arms wrapped tight around Arthur's body, and falls asleep.
Arthur is alive in his dream, but he doesn't say anything. He takes Merlin's hand and leads him down a path to a cliff. There are stone steps carved into it and Arthur stops at the top and points and Merlin obligingly descends. At the bottom is a river full of boiling water and a tall, thin finger in a ratty grey robe. The figure is holding a scythe in his bony hands with a queer light shining from the metal blade.
"Will you continue?" the figure says in a deep, scratchy voice that sounds like a whisper but echoes off the canyon's walls.
Merlin stares. "Excuse me?" he asks. "Continue to where?"
The figure shifts as though impatient. "To what comes after," he says. "Will you retrieve the Prince's soul?"
"Wait, I can do that?" Merlin asks incredulously.
"I would not offer something that could not be done."
Merlin shrugs. "I just thought this was a dream," he says. And he's not sure, but he thinks the canyon gets colder – but the river boils on.
"It is so much more," the man says, then he disappears and Merlin figures that means the dream will end soon. Except it doesn't, and he's thinking of going back up the steps to see Arthur again when the ground begins to shake and a rumble fills the air as a stone bridge rises from the river. Merlin doesn't cross it right away, but when he finds that the steps have disappeared, he shrugs and takes the only way available.
And all the while he is waiting to wake up.
Dying is a very slow, anti-climactic experience. That's what Arthur's learning, and he doesn't much like it. He's been floating in darkness since he died – which he figures must have only been a few hours ago, but it feels like days to him – and he's decided he ought to have a chat with whoever's in charge about this whole waiting around thing.
Of course, when bright, blazing white light replaces the darkness, Arthur silently withdraws the request – not that he thinks his requests, silent or otherwise, have anything to do with anything. A conclusion that is confirmed when a hooded figure appears before him, scythe in hand and darkness where his face ought to be.
"You are not meant to be here," he says in a voice that fills the space – which Arthur thinks is pretty impressive since the space seems pretty much infinite.
"I got stabbed," Arthur says. "I figured winding up here was the expected conclusion."
"The death should not have happened," the figure says, shaking his head. "The Warlock should not have had to hide. If he had not been forced to, all would be as it was meant to be."
"Wait, what Warlock?" Arthur asks.
The man does not answer, he just disappears. The light dims and an image begins to play before Arthur. It's Merlin crossing a stone bridge over a river of boiling water. And as he watches, Arthur knows that Merlin is the Warlock.
The dog is this tiny brown ball of fluff and it watches Merlin with its little black eyes as Merlin steps off the bridge. "Hello," Merlin says, wondering what comes next. Though, he's not sure he wants to know, so he figures dawdling with a dog is as good a way to get his courage up as any.
The dog bares its teeth and Merlin takes a step back. "You are still of blood and bone," the dog says. "You do not belong."
"Um, yeah, well, I'm just visiting," Merlin says.
The dog barks, which is kind of a relief. But then it talks again and it's creepy again. "Your way will not be easy," it says.
Merlin sighs. "It never is," he says.
"Will you continue?" the dog asks. "Will you retrieve the Prince's soul?"
"I will," Merlin says.
The dog barks and curls up into a ball that turns into a rock with an arrow pointing back the way Merlin came. Merlin turns. The river is gone, replaced by a forest with a dirt track leading into it. Merlin sighs and starts forward. This, he thinks, is going to be a long night.
He figures it's a good thing he's asleep.
Watching Merlin talk to a dog isn't as entertaining as Arthur thought it would be. Of course, that probably has something to do with the fact that the dog is talking, too. Or maybe it's because it turns into a rock. Either way, there's a sinking feeling in Arthur's stomach as he watches Merlin enter the forest. He has a terrible feeling Merlin is going to fail.
And as natural and expected as dying is, Arthur likes the fact that it could be reversed at this point, so he's really hoping Merlin doesn'tfail.
(He considers cheering, but he's pretty sure it counts as undignified whether anyone sees or not. Besides, he's not sure if Merlin can hear him or not and he can't risk Merlin hearing him cheering. So he doesn't. At least, not out loud.)
There's a fork in the road. Of course there is. It can't just be a straight shot to Arthur's soul, preferably with an express route out after. There just has to be a fork in the road. With knights. There's one knight per path and a coin in between, right by Merlin's toe.
He eyes the knights. He's pretty sure he can oust whichever is in his way with magic – assuming magic works here – the problem is he has no idea which knight is in his way. So he picks up the coin, intending to flip it to choose, but once it's in his hands, the knights speak in one booming, terrifying voice.
"Pay the guardian, Warlock," they say, "but choose your path with care. One takes you nearer to the Prince, the other brings despair."
They fall silent and Merlin stares at them for a moment, then he shakes his head and looks down at the coin. His face looks up at him. He turns it over and finds Arthur's face carved into the other side. He smiles, closes his fist around the coin and brings it to his lips, whispering the incantation as quietly as possible, then he lets the coin go. It hovers in front of him for a moment before slowly floating to the left- hand path. The knight there plucks it from the air and steps aside.
Arthur lets out a whoop. He can't help it.
After, though, he clears his throat and tries to extra stern.
At the edge of a lake, Merlin comes to a halt. It's a very big lake – Merlin can't see the other side from here – and he has a horrible feeling he's going to have to swim.
A small dot of light appears in the water and it looks like it's beckoning him on. With a sigh, he slips into the water and follows it. Down. Deeper and deeper under water he goes, his lungs burning. The light leads him through a cavern and past sunken knights that don't fill Merlin with much confidence.
Just when he thinks he's going to die, going down begins to be going up and Merlin quickens his pace because he needsair.
When he breaks the surface, he takes a few minutes to enjoy the fresh air.
"Hurry up!" Arthur growls. And that's how he confirms Merlin can't hear him – there is no snarky retort.
When Merlin gets out of the water, he's completely dry. It doesn't occur to him to wonder why he almost drowned if he wasn't even wet because it makes a weird kind of sense in his head without making any sense at all.
Besides, he has to focus on rescuing Arthur.
He walks through a hedgerow and into what he's pretty certain is a maze. Without thinking, he turns left. Beneath his feet is a bit of string and he finds that he's following it, taking all the turns it takes – even a few wrong ones – and after a while of wandering he finds himself at the center of the maze.
There's a hole in the ground with steps leading down. Merlin takes them, descending into darkness. At the bottom, he stops.
A light comes up and he finds he is standing face to face with himself.
"You could have crushed them," this other him says. "Why play complacent when you're more powerful than they could ever hope to be?"
"It would have proven Uther right," Merlin replies.
"So prove him right! Who cares? He'd be dead or imprisoned. He deserves worse, blaming us for what he knowingly did."
Morgana steps from the shadows. And Nimueh and Morgause and Edwin and Mordred and Aglain and so many more. "It was his fault Igraine died," they all say together. "And yet he punished us."
Merlin looks himself in the eye. "So you would punish all of them for what Uther did?"
The figures disappear and more steps take their place, these ones leading up.
Arthur finds that he is crying. He can't help it and he doesn't try to stop it. He thinks his mother comes to him and comforts him but he isn't sure. He could have imagined it.
Except, he's pretty sure he didn't imagine her saying, "Don't hate him."
At the top of the stairs, the hooded figure is seated at a table, a ledge open before him. "No mortal ever made it this far alive," he says. "You are powerful, Warlock."
"Do you wish to continue?"
Merlin nods again.
The man points to the ledge and Merlin steps forward and looks down at it. It is completely blank. The man hands Merlin a quill and Merlin signs his name. A door appears in the wall and the man gestures towards it and says, "Welcome to what comes after.
The door opens and Merlin steps into the darkness beyond.
When Merlin wakes, it's because Arthur is moving. At first, he thinks some animal is trying to drag the body away, so he holds tighter, but then Arthur says, "Merlin, what are you doing?" and Merlin remembers.
He remembers the dark room where Arthur sat lifeless in a chair. He remembers reaching out and taking Arthur's arm and he remembers leading Arthur back along the road to the canyon and up the steps to reunite soul with body.
So he loosens his grip.
"What was that all about?" Arthur asks, not pulling away just yet.
"You died," Merlin says. "I had to get you back."
"Oh," Arthur says and the way he says it makes Merlin think he remembers, too, but he isn't sure until Arthur says, "Merlin, don't let go."
Merlin tightens his arms around Arthur once again, smiling at the warmth and the rise and fall of Arthur's chest as he breaths and, each comforted by the presence of the other, they drift back to sleep.