Each step Merlin took left a footprint burnt into the ground beneath him. He knew that he should be being more careful, knew that this was allowing people to literally follow the path he was taking, but he also found that he didn't particularly care. Magic was pouring from every fibre of his being, his eyes having a constant gold tinge to them as he steadily put one foot in front of another.

It had been three days since he had arrived back in Camelot. He had torn through the castle, heading straight towards Arthur's chambers. He had been hoping, desperately praying that just for once, something would have gone right and Arthur would simply be in his rooms, annoyed that Merlin had left but otherwise safe. Even better than that would be if the spell had held and he was still asleep and under the shield, but he knew that was a wish too far. The magic had just begun to come back to him, odd snatches here and there before it was pulled from his control again.

Before he could reach Arthur's chambers, he had bumped into Gwen. How the maid had been able to understand what he had garbled out, Merlin would never know. He was just glad that his old friend had been able to get the gist of what he had said and know that Merlin had been asking after Arthur. The smile that had lit up her face had made Merlin's hopes soar to a level that he didn't think was possible. Until she had asked how he hadn't heard the good news? One of Uther's friends was helping the prince get away from the castle for a bit, giving him some time and space to recover from his ordeal and wasn't it just wonderful? Merlin had known the answer before he had asked the question, but his voice had trembled dramatically as he asked the name of this friend.

As soon as Gwen had said it, his magic had snapped back into place. It was bubbling furiously, demanding to be let lose. Merlin had only just managed to hold it back, knowing that getting himself executed or having to flee from Camelot was not going to help get Arthur back. But even so, he had been unable to stop a strand of it escaping. He knew that Gwen hadn't seen it, but Merlin's eyes saw a golden thread shoot from his chest and swirling down the corridor. That thread would not stop moving until it found the other side of Merlin's coin and there it would anchor itself. It was just one of the things that Merlin had forced himself to learn about when they had got Arthur home and the prince had spent most of his time sleeping. He had vowed that he wasn't going to lose him again, and yet that was precisely what had just happened.

He had made to walk off when Gwen had gently touched his arm, a concerned frown on her face as she asked whether he had seen Elyan. Or Lancelot. Or for that matter, any of the Knights of the Round Table. The dread that had already taken up residence in Merlin's heart since he knew his magic had failed increased tenfold but he hitched a smile on his face and promised that he would find them. Another burst of magic escaped him as he began searching for his friends.

He should have known that Acrotus would have made sure that he had some sort of leverage over Arthur. The prince had been recovering, fighting back almost. There was no way that he was going to let himself be taken by the person who had been responsible for his living hell without kicking up some sort of fuss. But if Acrotus had truly been the one following them the whole way home, then he would know what sort of bond it was that Arthur had with his men. With them at his mercy, Arthur would have gone quietly. Merlin had always admired that trait about the man, but right now, he hated just how noble Arthur could be. It was going to get him killed, if it hadn't already done so.

It hadn't taken long for him to find the knights with the aid of his magic. They had been locked in an old store room, and Merlin hadn't even needed magic to get them out, he had simply pulled back the bolts on the top and bottom of the door. Judging by the mess inside, they had spent the whole time searching for ways to get out. Leon had immediately darted forward, concern in his face as he seemed to realise that something had happened to Arthur again. It was only thanks to Lancelot interfering that stopped the man from demanding answers off Merlin. He seemed to know that Merlin was in no mood to talk, especially not considering the golden tinge that was already beginning to infiltrate the warlock's eyes. The power was almost sparking off him, and it was a miracle that no one else could feel it.

Merlin had simply turned and walked away, despite part of his mind knowing that it was just going to lead to more questions when he got back. If he got back, that was. He couldn't be sure what Acrotus was going to tell Arthur, he had no idea if his secret had been revealed or not. Considering everything that magic had done to Arthur over the last year, Merlin wouldn't even blame him if he tried to kill his friend the second he laid eyes on him.

But first, Merlin knew that he had to find Arthur. Again. There was no way he was going to allow his friend to be put through the type of torture that he knew Acrotus was capable of, not again. He had failed Arthur once before by it taking him so long to find him, Merlin was not going to let that happen again.

As soon as he left the knights, Merlin didn't stop walking. He simply strode forward, out of the castle, out of the gates and then out of Camelot itself. His magic hadn't yet located the prince, but it had enough of a solid direction for Merlin to be confident that he was heading the same way. It was almost as if his magic was trying to make up for the fact that it had been tricked and contained and was now back stronger than ever to make sure that it didn't fail Arthur again.

Merlin had no sense of time passing as he had walked. He had no idea he had been going for three days now, not stopping to rest or eat. His magic was fuelling him, his mind focused only on finding Arthur and nothing else. He had no idea about the dark clouds that were rumbling overhead as nature reacted to the sheer power that was pouring from every fibre of his being. If Merlin brushed against a branch, it snapped with a hiss, the bark burnt. His footsteps were scorching the ground and the very air surrounding him seemed to almost hum and vibrate with the power.

It had only been in the last hour that Merlin had truly felt like he knew where he was going. He was just hoping that it meant his magic had found Arthur and latched onto him. Once that happened, it didn't matter where Arthur was taken, Merlin would be following. It had been a surprise when he had realised that he was travelling in the opposite direction of where he knew Acrotus' estate to be, but he had swiftly stopped dwelling on it. As if Acrotus was going to take Arthur to a place Uther knew, especially not if he knew there was a risk word would get back to the king that something hadn't been right about his offer to help Arthur.

But every step that Merlin was taking now was taking him closer to where he knew Arthur would be. Every step made the magic crackle with more intensity, every second passing made the thoughts in his head that little bit darker about what he was going to do when he caught up with Acrotus. There was no way that the man would be allowed to live this time, Merlin simply would not take the chance.

Even as the magic demanded retribution, a small part of Merlin's mind knew that he had to think rationally. If he acted out the way he was thinking now, he knew that he would lose Arthur even more efficiently than anything Acrotus might have done to him. If he destroyed Acrotus in the way he wanted, Arthur would have to kill him in return, there would be no other way to bring him back from the darkness beginning to caress his soul.

He had to save Arthur, there was no question about that. But somehow, Merlin knew that he had to be able to keep a hold of himself in the process, or the man would have effectively won.

MMM

Arthur just about held back a grunt as Acrotus finally pulled out of him, the man's shirt catching on the bloodied wounds across Arthur's back. He didn't flinch, he didn't so much as twist his head as he heard his tormentor catch his breath and begin to make himself decent again. Instead, he just opted for staring at the wall in front of him, eyes blazing with anger and frustration over the fact that he was once again helpless.

His hands were tied above his head, lashed on to the top corner of a frame that Acrotus had set up. It was an "A" shape, Arthur's hands lashed to the top and both ankles secured to an opposite corner. He was barely even touching the floor, most of his weight hanging from his wrists. There was a bar at chest level, and a long bruise across Arthur's chest from where he had been constantly pressed into it. The collar was still around his neck, the short chain clipped firmly around the bar and causing Arthur's head to be constantly craning forward. There was a gag resting around his neck, hiding the collar from view, but before Arthur could think of saying something, Acrotus had tugged it back into place.

Arthur attempted to twist his head away as Acrotus gagged him, but like every effort he had made before, it was futile. He wasn't sure how long it had been, only a couple of days at most but already feeling like a lifetime. He had been tied to the post when they had first got here, and all other escape attempts had been driven from him as Acrotus had him flogged. They had kept going until he had finally passed out, and Arthur had awoken to find himself shackled in a dungeon with his back burning and throbbing even as blood ran down. The beginnings of a fever had just begun to set in when a few guards had turned up and dragged him out again. His hands had been bound behind his back as he had been marched along before forced to his knees in front of Acrotus.

Arthur had managed to stare stonily ahead, not looking at the man as Acrotus had attempted to goad him. Arthur refused to be baited, he refused to break again. He knew that he might have to bend slightly in order to survive, but he was not going to break. He had been through months of hell, months of being abused, poisoned and tortured. Whatever Acrotus could throw at him in a few days would be nothing in comparison. Even when Acrotus had ordered his guards to have their way with him, Arthur hadn't resisted. Instead, he had let his mind drift and thought of his friends even as the guards took both his mouth and his arse at the same time, rocking him between them.

That had been the day before at the very least. He had spent the night back in the dungeons, absolutely shattered after spending most of the day being passed around the guards. Acrotus had over seen the whole thing, pausing them just long enough to administer both the antidote from the day before and the next batch of poison. They had come for him that morning – at least, Arthur assumed it was morning, he had no true way of telling the time – but rather than being forced to his knees again, he had instead been tied back to the frame.

Acrotus seemed to realise that whipping him again would kill him. So instead, he simply moved the lashings further down Arthur's body, and even now the prince could feel his legs trembling violently as blood ran down them. He knew it was only because they were tied that stopped him them from giving way completely. At least being tied like this, he couldn't accidentally drop to his knees. He refused to go down on his own accord, even if it was through collapsing. Acrotus was not going to break him this time, Arthur knew that he just had to bide his time.

The handle of the whip caressing his chin made Arthur start, dragging him back into reality and making him feel just how much he was hurting again. Rather than letting Acrotus see the pain in his eyes, Arthur opted for staring stonily at the wall ahead. With his neck chained, Arthur knew that he would have to look up to his captor, and it didn't matter what Acrotus did to him, the prince refused. Merlin and the knights would come for him. They had spent months searching for him and then helping him recover, there was no way that they were just going to let this happen. But it also meant that Arthur refused to be that helpless again. He might need their help, but he refused to need them in the way he had before. He was a prince, and it was about time Acrotus realised that he was messing with the wrong person.

"I'm so glad that I let you recover before I came to take you again, this defiance is really quite delicious, you know." Arthur shot Acrotus a withering glare, but didn't even attempt an answer around the gag. At least this way, he couldn't say anything that would give away how he was feeling, his mouth couldn't betray the sheer agony that his body was going through.

"But you'll be mine soon enough. I have plans for you, Arthur. Plans to invite your dear father to come and stay. By the time he arrives, you'll be a slave at my feet, your only thought being how to please me. You'll sit under the table, you'll service me even as I dine with your father. I'll ask him if he wants some pleasure, and of course he'll agree. You'll then suck him too, and he'll never know it is his own son until he has come down your throat, claiming how he has never had pleasure like it. You're addictive, you know."

The whip handle was forced under his chin, turning Arthur's head even from where he was doing everything he could to turn away, nausea rising through his stomach at Acrotus' words. He swallowed hard, trying to keep the bile at bay. He would not be seen as weak, no matter what Acrotus said. He just had to find a way to not listen, but it was hard when Acrotus exerted more pressure on the whip, causing the handle and the collar to battle for dominance over where Arthur's head should be. He could feel sweat beading on his forehead from the unnatural strain on his neck and he knew that he wouldn't be able to hold this position for long until something gave him away. Acrotus' eyes were glinting with an insanity that Arthur couldn't believe the people back in Camelot hadn't noticed.

"No wonder Dunran kept coming back for more." Arthur wasn't able to hide his shudder in time at the mention of the man who was responsible for him breaking the first time. It wasn't necessarily what he had done, but the way he had constantly done it. Acrotus chuckled, finally lowering the whip but taking Arthur's chin in his hand.

"There is something so pure and good about you. You know some think it is your destiny to be the greatest king that has ever lived? Imagine what they'll think when they find out you are nothing more than a common whore."

Arthur gritted his teeth, anger pulsing through him. Out of the corner of his eye – for he was still refusing to look directly at Acrotus – he could see the man smirking. Somehow he knew he was giving the twisted man what he wanted. Acrotus wanted his anger, he wanted him to be fighting for they both knew the rules – those who fought the hardest shatter the most.

"A delicious whore at that. Once your father has had you, we'll reveal who you are, watch the disgust and shame cross his face as he realises what a whore his son is if he can even pleasure his own father. Then I'll make an offer he'll be revolted at. But out of sight, he'll start to think about it. And before his visit is done, you'll be sent to his bed. You'll no longer be his son, just another nameless slave who is a good fuck. My whole household will be able to testify that."

Arthur knew that he was trembling in fury now. Acrotus chuckled, one hand stretching out. Arthur knew he was about to take the gag out so that he could hear Arthur's fury, but the prince knew he couldn't just do nothing. As Acrotus' finger slipped in his mouth, Arthur bit down as hard as he could.

He would not break.