Last chapter. I can't believe it's here. Just for those who didn't realize, the previous chapter was entitled "True Friend", which is also the name of a chapter in the first story. In that chapter Merlin talked about how he didn't feel like he had a true friend to count on and to always be there for him. In the chapter before this I proved that Arthur is that friend. So giving it the same name was my way of having things come full circle. Well, enjoy this last chapter. I really wanted to get everything just right and I think that I did for the most part.
Life is hard and full of pain
when misery falls from the sky like rain.
Darkness approaches swift and sure.
My faith in destiny is no longer pure.
How can I continue on in such doubt?
When hate seems to be all this world is about?
All nature waited with baited breath. There was powerful magic here and if the owner of it died then the magic would be released in a violent burst and everything throughout this land and the next would die in the fire of its power. But if the only one capable of harnessing and controlling this unfathomable magic survived then peace would be restored. The havoc that the magical storm was reeking on all living things was slowly draining the life out of the trees, the grass, the leaves and other plants. Nature itself was begging for peace and natural order to be returned to them. And this boy, the boy that lay dying and had magic so powerful that he was not yet aware of it, was the only one who could make things right. And so nature waited and hoped that he would be saved. The only sound in the forest for miles was the pattering of rain.
"Is he still alive?" Arthur asked breathlessly as he reached Gwaine, Merlin and the stranger, who were all exactly as he had left them.
Gwaine glanced up at him in confusion. "Arthur..you were barely gone a minute."
Arthur took a double take. He gazed up at the lightly drizzling sky. It was still just before dawn. How? he wondered. Not only had the running there and back taken probably a total of twenty minutes, but he had been in that dream world those specters had created for hours. There was no way that all of that, all that he had learned and saw, could have happened in only a minute. And yet it seemed it had.
"Do you have what is needed to heal him?" the stranger asked, pulling Arthur out of his thoughts about impossible things.
Arthur jerked as if he had been slapped. Of course, right now was not the time to be pondering what had happened. Assuming that time was moving normally now then Merlin's last remaining moments really were quickly fading away. Dropping next to Merlin and grabbing the boy from the stranger's arms, Arthur stuffed one of the silver leaves into his mouth and then gently pulled aside the fabric of his clothes away from the sticky and bleeding wound. The leaf in his mouth instantly seemed to suck all the moister and Arthur found himself suddenly incapable of swallowing or chewing. Trying to keep himself from choking from the complete and utter dryness in his mouth, Arthur carefully placed the other leaf on what he thought was the wound. He couldn't be really sure that the magical leaf was in fact touching the area that needed to be healed at all, due to all the blood it was almost impossible to tell. All he could do was hope that it was the correct spot.
Without any warning Arthur's mouth suddenly got flooded with a cool and refreshing sensation as the leaf seemed to dissolve completely into nothing. But what was even more startling was when he saw the leaf on Merlin's wound turn into a silvery liquid and seep into the blood and disappear. Then a loud crack of thunder pealed, causing Arthur to jump in surprise and glance upwards. The heavy clouds that had been marring the sky for days now began rolling away unnaturally quickly. The light pouring of rain that had been coating everything suddenly stopped. Arthur's eyes were hit with a stabbing pain and he was forced to squint as warm rays of sun appeared as if they had been there all along.
Arthur stared up at the clear blue sky. It felt like it had been so long since he had seen that layered blue that he had almost forgotten what it looked like. The storm clouds had gone back to being just a thin stream that led to their source.
Arthur heard Gwaine gasp and followed his gaze. The wound...All traces of blood had vanished from Merlin's body and the wound had...it no longer existed. Merlin's pale skin was without blemish. The only hint that Merlin had ever been injured was his torn clothes.
Arthur felt as if he couldn't breathe. "Merlin?" he asked, his voice breaking.
For a moment it seemed as if Merlin was never going to move again, but then bright sunlight landed on his face. Merlin's face scrunched a bit and his eyes flitted open."Arthur?" His voice was faint but it was enough.
Relief flooded through Arthur and the prince could swear that nothing had ever felt as good. His knees gave out and he had to lean against a tree or he'd fall right over. Tears budded in his eyes and Arthur found himself smiling uncontrollably. Arthur exhaled heavily. He felt light-headed and he glanced up towards the sky in an attempt to blink away his tears.
He's alive. Joy coursed through Arthur and overwhelmed him. Merlin's alive. I won't let anything ever happen to him again. He's my friend and he always will be.
Kai watched from a distance. He had lived for so long and had seen so many things, but seeing the prince and Emrys together topped all the wondrous things he had beheld in the past. When he looked at them he saw more than most would ever see. He saw the hope and the strength and the resilience and love and the boundless friendship that they carried with them. But his happiness at seeing them together, finally both safe and on good terms, was marred by what he knew was to come. Kai would give anything to escape the duty, the task that he had to preform. It wasn't right and it wasn't fair. It would almost be better if he hadn't helped Arthur save Merlin at all.
Because in the end this wasn't saving him. It was just keeping him alive to make him suffer further. The help that Kai had provided hadn't been help at all, but rather a despicable act of cruelty. If Kai hadn't known what was coming he would have given Arthur the push he needed anyway, but because he did know he found himself wishing that the prince had been too late.
But even Kai, for all his knowledge, had rules he had to follow. The magic pumping through his veins was old and its only purpose left was to make way for a new era of magic. Kai had been dreading this day for such a long time and he knew he could not disobey the rules. This would be his last task before he followed the rest of his kind into shadow, but not before he watched everything play out. The next years for Merlin would be the worst. The end of an age was coming to a close and only Emrys and the Once and Future King doing what they did best would open the door to the new age. The golden age.
He has no idea of the incredible power within him. The magic he possess has only ever been used once before. It is the original magic. The first magic. Kai could not believe that it had come to this after all this time. The fate of the world in the hands of such a young and pure boy.
So Kai watched as Merlin and Arthur reunited, hoping that they were enjoying the moment while they could. Such pain was in their futures. They might never realize how precious these few moments truly were.
Merlin wasn't sure whether to be wary, to laugh, or to just be insulted. Something was wrong with Arthur. The prince of Camelot, who had a temper rivaled only by his own father, who always seemed to be annoyed at his servant, and had a love of tossing goblets and making insults, was happy and cheerful and content and it was starting to make Merlin think he really had died and this was some twisted version of hell. Arthur was smiling and there was a light in his eyes that Merlin rarely ever saw. And to make things even more confusing, when Merlin had first sat up, still really out of it, Arthur had hugged him. He looked as if some great weight was no longer on his shoulders.
Maybe, much like this magical object that they were still searching for, the healing of his wound had required a price and perhaps that price had been Arthur's sanity or ability to feel pride?
Gwaine had explained to him that he had passed out and a stranger had come along to help them. But, apparently, the stranger had left sometime while he was healing because no one had even seen him leave. But even though Gwaine had told him everything Merlin still felt like he was missing out on something. No one, especially Arthur turned from regularly grumpy to chipper just like that.
Merlin leaned over and whispered to Gwaine, "What's going on with Arthur? He hasn't insulted me once since I got healed. There's definitely something wrong."
Gwaine gave a small chuckle. "Maybe he really is just glad that you're not dying for once on this trip."
Merlin considered it for a moment and then shook his head. "Even if that was true he'd never show it." Despite the fact that his tone was joking, Merlin really was questioning whether or not that statement was true.
Even with his trepidation concerning Arthur the warm glow of happiness and kindness felt good. Arthur looked utterly content and that was something Merlin had never seen before. He had always wanted this for his friend but had never really believed that Arthur would relax long enough to feel this way. Arthur had too much responsibility weighing him down. Arthur was always putting his people first, was always focusing on what was best for them. But it seemed that something had changed.
"Merlin! You're alright!" Arthur's overjoyed words still rang in Merlin's ears. Merlin knew by now that Arthur cared to some degree, but he had long since given up on the hope that he'd let it be seen. Maybe he was wrong and one day they would have the relationship that they were destined to have.
Merlin would do anything for Arthur, anything, and what if some day the prince felt the same way? In fact, now that he thought about it, he still had no idea how exactly Arthur had saved him. And if Arthur was in such a good maybe just asking would get his question answered. After all, they still had no way of knowing how long they would be walking while following the thin line of dark grey clouds overhead. They might have all day.
Merlin caught up to his master. "Arthur, can I ask you something?"
Arthur sent him a good-natured and curious glance. "Of course, Merlin. Not that I could really stop you, anyway. It seems you always do exactly what I tell you not to."
Merlin smiled a little at that. "I guess I don't like being ordered around. It's possible I have the wrong job." Arthur laughed. Naturally, that wasn't true. There was nothing Merlin would rather do than be the prince's servant. "Anyway, Arthur, I was wondering how I got healed. Don't get me wrong, I'm very glad to be alive and injury-free, but," Merlin gestured to the expansive forest around them, "we're in the middle of nowhere and yet somehow you managed to find magic to save me?"
Arthur thought for a moment as if seriously contemplating his answer. Arthur usually said the first thing that came to mind when he was talking to his servant. "Well, as Gwaine said, a strange man came along and pointed me in the direction of magic that he said could heal you. And I met these...people." Arthur sighed slightly. "Well, they weren't really people. I'm not entirely sure what they were. They looked like...ghosts."
"Ghosts?" Merlin asked. That one's new. He'd never come across ghost-like people before.
Arthur nodded. "That's what they looked like, but they seemed to come out of the trees." He dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "But their appearance doesn't matter. They gave me these silver leaves that would heal you."
"Just like that?" Merlin had no idea who these magical beings were and in his experience many of them had only evil intentions. He didn't want to assume the worst of not only creatures of magic just like him, but also of the people responsible for saving him, but when it came to Arthur he couldn't afford to believe without suspicions. "No price?"
Arthur hesitated and looked a bit uncomfortable. "Not exactly. They told me that the magic wouldn't work unless...unless I truly cared about you as a friend."
Merlin tripped over his feet and ran into a tree. Next thing he knew he was lying on his back with an exasperated Arthur looking down at him. "Are you alright?" His tone was vaguely annoyed, but at least he had asked.
Merlin nodded and took the prince's offered hand. "I've had worse."
Arthur's face turned grim at that, but he didn't say anything and they continued walking. Merlin cleared his throat loudly and pointedly. Arthur gave him a glance that said to say whatever it was he planned on saying.
"Does that mean I owe you my life twice now?" Merlin asked. He wasn't used to having anyone there to save him. Most of the time he was on his own.
Arthur gave him an incredulous look. "Merlin...you've saved my life just as many times on this trip, not to mention the fact that if you hadn't taken that knife for me I might have been the one to die. That makes three saves." He scoffed in disbelief. "Merlin...you don't owe me anything. You never have." Arthur glanced at the sky above whose blue reminded him of Merlin's eyes. "When we first met you pulled me out of the way of a knife." He chuckled in wonderment. "It seems we have come full circle." Arthur sighed. "I know I have never even begun to repay you for that first save let alone everything else you've done for me."
Merlin looked at him warily. "Who are you and what have you done with Arthur? Did those ghosts do something to your head?"
"No, Merlin," Arthur laughed and shook his head. "It's just that for the first time in my life I'm no longer oblivious to everything around me. I finally know what I believe." His face turned serious. "I can't promise you that when we return to Camelot that everything will change. My father is unbending in his beliefs. But I want you to know that to me the fact that you're a servant and I'm a prince doesn't matter." Arthur put a hand on his shoulder and smiled. "You are my best friend and no rules about social standing are ever going to change that. And one day, when I'm king, everyone will know that."
Emotion swelled up inside Merlin, but he tried to quell it in an effort to keep it from overwhelming him. "You mean it?" he asked in a small voice. Arthur may not be promising that the ban on magic would be lifted, but what he was saying was enough. Arthur had just called him his friend in complete seriousness. And Arthur caring openly was...was more important than any goal concerning magic. And if some of his father's rules no longer mattered to him then maybe...
"I've never meant anything more," Arthur answered sincerely. "I guess that means I'm stuck with you."
Merlin turned his face away to hide his emotions. It was all worth it. All the pain of this trip and indeed the last three years and all the near-death experiences and fear were worth it. Joy was overcoming everything. He didn't have magic un-banned and he still had to hide who he was, but right now he felt complete. Merlin felt a bit dizzy and his mouth began to hurt from restraining the huge smile that was threatening to break forth. Arthur was, for the first time ever, treating him like a person. More than that; he was treating him like a friend. The whole world felt bright and full.
Merlin finally spoke, unable to keep the grin off his face any longer. "I can't tell you how much that means to me."
"Oh, I think I do," Arthur replied. "Those creatures showed me something, something I had never admitted to myself. And finally realizing...it was one of the best feelings I've ever had. I can't believe that all this time I had a true friend like you right by my side and I didn't even realize it."
Merlin felt warmth spread through his heart. No one ever spoke to him this way. For some reason everyone felt the need to hide their emotions these days. And Merlin had never properly cared about his own life because no one had ever seemed to care enough to express it. Sure, he knew how much his mother and even Gaius loved him, but since leaving Ealdor things had been different. Now any compliments or hints of affection that got sent his way were disguised with insults or rants about how he should stop risking his life. But he could deal with that from everyone else, except Arthur. He'd give his life for the prat without a second thought, but he had no way of knowing for sure if he felt even a fraction of the brotherly friendship that he did.
But now he did. Arthur had completely disregarded his pride and had freely admitted that he cared about his bumbling servant.
Arthur smiled and leaned in towards him. "But you're still an idiot."
Merlin let out a laugh at that. It was still Arthur, but an Arthur that had stopped hiding. Suddenly his breath hitched. Arthur was so relaxed and happy and completely weightless. If he had let go of his greatest burdens and revealed his secret then...why couldn't he? Merlin had been planning on telling him before Prince Eric had barged into their lives. If Arthur was ever going to understand and accept him it was now.
Merlin started breathing heavily and his hands felt shaky. He could tell Arthur. He would. Arthur was so happy now and Merlin wanted to feel that. And even more importantly, now more than ever Merlin wanted to stop hiding from his best friend. He wanted all the secrets to disappear.
"Arthur?" Merlin asked hesitantly. He had to get this right. If he messed up now, said the wrong thing or failed to express the most important parts of his magic, then everything that they had now, the happiness, would wash away and he would lose everything. He had say this just right. "I want to tell you something. Please don't interrupt me before I'm done."
Gwaine had been so afraid that Merlin was going to die. Merlin truly did change people. Before encountering the miraculous manservant Gwaine had never cared enough to be devastated over someone's death. Sure, he would be sad if anyone had died, he wasn't heartless, but he wouldn't get broken up about it. And despite the fact that Merlin and Arthur clearly had a friendship closer than anything he could have with the boy, it still had scared him more than he had ever felt before to think that he was dying. Again.
But to see him alive and well again had made him feel like he was flying. But what was almost better than Merlin opening his eyes was watching as he and the prince conversed, not the way that a master and a servant would, but rather how two friends would. The look of pure joy on Merlin's face at Arthur's words had been priceless.
Merlin was right about Arthur, there was some great goodness in him, though Gwaine had been utterly surprised when the prince had put aside his pride. All it took was one glance at Merlin to realize that this was exactly what he had needed and wanted for years. It was true, Arthur was a better man than Gwaine had ever given him credit for.
Merlin looked happier than Gwaine could ever remember seeing him. Any and all feelings of hostility or just general dislike that he had ever felt towards Arthur vanished. He had no idea how hard it had been or what had caused the prince to drop all the pretenses he had been hanging onto, but Gwaine had never been more grateful to anyone.
Merlin was practically glowing and Gwaine had his assurance that when the two of them returned to Camelot Merlin would have a friend with him.
So Gwaine let himself fall behind in order to give Merlin and Arthur some time to enjoy their new found friendship and talk alone. Gwaine was so happy for Merlin. Someone so full of hope love deserved some for himself.
It had felt easy. Easy to tell Merlin that he cared and that that fact would never change. All this time Arthur had thought that it would be hard to say what he truly felt, but it wasn't. In fact, nothing had ever felt more right. And the look of relief and joy on Merlin's face had been the greatest gift he could have been given.
"Arthur? I want to tell you something. Please don't interrupt me before I'm done."
Arthur gave Merlin his full attention. He could tell by the serious and almost nervous tone in his voice that he was going to say something very important. Arthur felt a chill go down his spine. "I'm listening," Arthur encouraged.
A small look of gratitude flashed across Merlin's face. "This isn't easy for me. This goes against almost every instinct I have, but...I guess if you went against your instincts long enough to save me with magic, twice, then I can ignore mine."
Merlin was stopping and starting. Arthur recognized the signs of when Merlin was about to ramble. Whatever it was he had to say must be big. Arthur felt honored that Merlin would tell him something that was obviously very difficult to say. "It's okay, Merlin. Take your time. You can tell me anything you want."
Merlin nodded and seemed to calm down some. "Before I say anymore, I just want you to know, Arthur, that everything I've done...I've done for you. And I'd never hurt you."
Arthur felt confused. Merlin was acting like he was preparing to confess to some horrible crime. "What do you mean, Merlin? Of course you'd never hurt me. I know that." Merlin didn't seem reassured by his words this time. "No matter what you think you've done, you're my friend. I know that and you should, too. Nothing you can tell me would change that."
Merlin let out a shaky and relieved laugh. "It means more than you can know to hear you say that," Merlin said. He opened his mouth to say something, but then he doubled over clutching at his head.
"Merlin!" Arthur cried out and grabbed his shoulders. "What's wrong?"
The boy's eyes were screwed shut in pain. "I can feel it!" He was desperately trying to cover his ears and his legs seemed to be losing their ability to hold him up. Thankfully both Arthur and Gwaine, who had rushed forward upon seeing Merlin collapse, managed to keep the servant semi-upright. "It's here. I can hear it in my head." Merlin cried out in pain. "Arthur...it's so loud."
"What is? Merlin?" Arthur asked frantically. His head whipped around, trying to look for anything that might be causing his friend this pain. Couldn't Merlin ever get a break? It didn't matter to Arthur, though, he wasn't going to let whatever this was continue hurting his friend.
Suddenly Merlin let go of his head and almost went limp. Merlin opened his eyes and panted, trying to regain his breath. "It's okay. It's gone now," he said and it looked to be true. The lines of pain were gone from his face and he seemed to be recovering from whatever had attacked him.
"Are you alright?" both Arthur and Gwaine asked at the same time.
The smallest of smiles appeared on Merlin's face. "Yeah, I think."
"What did you mean 'it's here'?" Gwaine inquired. Arthur didn't care about that. He wasn't completely convinced that Merlin was totally fine. After everything that had been happening to the boy lately he didn't want to take any chances. Merlin should rest.
However, apparently Merlin didn't feel the same way. At Gwaine's reminder Merlin's head snapped up and looked at something behind Arthur. The prince glanced behind him and noticed a big, grassy hill. "It's over there," the boy said.
Merlin rushed forward, running up the steep hill. Arthur groaned and followed his servant calling, "Merlin! Wait!" But Arthur's words trailed off as he came to the top of the hill and saw what it had been hiding from his sight.
What looked like a large fountain sat in the middle of a huge clearing. Great amounts of grayish water was shooting out of the top of it and straight up into the sky, causing the ordinary blue to be discolored and creating dark clouds. And spreading out in four different directions from the base of the golden fountain were thin streams of sparkling water. It seemed as if the water was making the grass around it extra green and healthy. In truth, the surprising and almost terrifying sight was also quite beautiful.
Arthur's eyes drifted from the pillar of water flowing upwards and toward the sight of a strange figure standing in front of the fountain. Recognition flashed in Arthur's mind. Wasn't that the man who...Arthur's eyes rolled up into his head and everything turned black.
Merlin's eyes widened. He had felt the powerful and intense magic invade his mind and bombard his own magic, but it hadn't prepared him for this. This was the strongest magic he had ever felt, hence the piercing pain that had lanced through his head. It had taken a lot of his concentration to build up a wall with his magic to protect himself. If he hadn't he would probably be passed out by now.
This magic felt so confusing. Normally magic was tainted by the emotions and beliefs of the person it belonged to. But this magic felt like it had been pulled every which way at the whim of hundreds of different people's emotions and desires.
Merlin heard an odd sound and spun around only to see that both Arthur and Gwaine had collapsed. Scared, Merlin rushed forward and tried to find Arthur's pulse.
"The prince is unharmed," A deep voice said from somewhere behind Merlin, "as is the knight."
Merlin slowly turned his head to look at the owner of the voice. It was not at all what he had expected. It wasn't a man, but rather some sort of creature. From the waist up he looked like a man, but from the waist down he looked like a horse. Merlin had heard myths about centaurs, but out of all the monsters he had seen and fought he had never once believed in the magical half man half horse.
The man had fiery red hair and was wearing a leather vest, other than that his chest was bare. Though he looked to be in his thirties, Merlin got the distinct impression that he was much older than that. Of course, the faint scars that were visible mottling his arms and his torso didn't help.
"Gwaine isn't a knight," Merlin replied warily as he slowly got to his feet.
The man took a step forward and it seemed like the weirdest sight Merlin had ever seen. "He will be," he answered simply. "There's no need to worry. As soon as you decide to leave this place they will wake up without so much as a lump on their heads. But all this," he gestured to everything around him, "is meant for you and you alone. This is your time, your decision. You should be able to make it without anyone else interfering."
"Why should I trust you?" Merlin asked cautiously. Already he was sending out thin wisps of his magic as probes to determine the situation.
"My name is Kai and I have no reason to hurt you. I am the keeper of this place and I live for nothing beyond fulfilling my duties."
Well, Merlin had discovered that Kai was at least telling the truth about Arthur and Gwaine. They were just asleep. The warlock gave the centaur a better look that confirmed his initial suspicions. "I've seen you before, haven't I? You've been following us."
Kai nodded. "I've been watching you from a distance. I was also the one who pointed Arthur in the direction of the people who could save you."
"Why?" Merlin asked. He couldn't afford the benefit of the doubt in this case. Almost subconsciously Merlin began moving in front of Arthur's prone body in a protective stance.
Kai saw his movements and smiled slightly. "Because if anything did happen to you, like getting stabbed, I needed to make sure that you'd survive. I'm the keeper of all things concerning this fountain, including you." Merlin gave a small scoff. Kai's eyes suddenly turned pained. "And also to let you know every time that you glimpsed me that...that you were always destined to come here. That this, along with your future, was not ever anything you could escape."
Merlin felt anger rise in his chest. Everyone kept telling what his destiny was and he was tired of it. This was his life, his friendships, his goals and dreams and no one had the right to control it. "I believe that destiny is made by our choices, not the other way around." His tone was cold and unfriendly.
Kai seemed to ponder that for a moment. "Perhaps that's true. But see it how I do. You were always going to make the choices that led you here because that's who you are, your personality, your beliefs. You would never have let Arthur go alone. In becoming so dead-set in your convictions and choices you made only one path that you could ever follow. Destiny."
"Arthur needed me. Camelot needs me. I can't just go against my nature," Merlin defended. He didn't particularly like being told that every bad that had happened was because he had played right into the hands of destiny.
Kai gave a sad nod. "And it's that nature that's brought you here to make the decision that only you can make."
Merlin's eyes strayed to the golden fountain behind him. He could feel the pulsing magic shooting the formula for a deadly storm into the sky. The ill will behind this particular magic made him feel sick. Camelot was still in danger; that fountain had to be made dormant. "I have to pay the price." It wasn't a question. Merlin could feel that the magic was asking for something. He had known this was coming ever since Gaius had told him. It's not like it was a surprise. He was ready to do whatever he had to in order to deliver Camelot.
Kai looked sad. "Powerful magic like this always comes with a price. The greater the deed asked the greater the cost and I can assure you that the person that wished for Camelot to be destroyed had to give up something very, very precious."
Merlin glanced up at the distorted sky. This wasn't the first time he had made a deal, except that last time he had been betrayed and instead of his life it was his mother's and then Gaius' that had been taken. This time Merlin was going to make sure nothing like that happened. "Whatever the price I will gladly pay it, but it has to be me. The cost can't be someone else's life. Let the consequences touch me and me alone," Merlin demanded. He didn't know it, but his tone was colored with the powerful authority of Emrys. He wasn't asking or hoping; he was commanding. It would take Merlin a long time to realize exactly how effective that tone really was. In future days when he used his authority with such conviction people would almost always obey him out of both fear and respect.
Kai walked over to one of the thin streams and bent down to run his fingers through the water. Merlin literally heard it tinkle. "I've always called this place the Fountain of Wishes, but that doesn't really describe it. It has had so many names and throughout the ages it has been used so many times. People at one point even naively worshiped this device." He turned to look back at the fountain. "But it's just an object imbued with powerful magic. Its magic is old and it's said that it has been here since the very beginning. But that's not true. The First Magic is so much more powerful and pure and there hasn't been more than a echo of it since it first appeared. Until now." Kai gave him a steady look. "Your magic literally creates itself. Everyone else's magic is taken from the air around them, but you...your magic comes from within. A never-ending well of magic." Kai sighed. "But you are not ready yet. You have not yet learned how to unlock its full potential."
Merlin felt confused. What did this have to do with anything? And...what did he mean that his magic was the first magic? Merlin shook his head. "Why are you telling me all this?"
"Because I want you to know that I am so sorry. That this is the last thing I want to do and I would give anything to keep you from this," Kai answered with pain clear in his voice. "But you have to make this choice and the consequences of either will fall on you no matter what I do. If I could pay the price for you I would, but as the keeper I can't touch the magic that I guard." He truly looked like he hated the position he was in. "But here are your choices."
Merlin sucked in a breath, preparing himself. His magic felt thready and nervous and somehow the warlock got the impression that he wouldn't be getting any help from it. He was on his own just like always. He never really counted on his magic because too many times he had been unable to use it due to having to hide. His magic was helpful, but it wasn't him.
"You can choose to make the wish and pay the price," Kai said and it sounded like he had rehearsed this or had said it many times. "Camelot will be saved and you and your friends can be on your way. You, however, will be changed. What is going to be asked of you is terrible and will haunt you for years yet to come. After paying the price all peace of mind will abandon you and sleep will be fleeting. You will live in paralyzing fear and yet be forced to act as if nothing is wrong. All good things and happiness will fail you in light of what you know. It will torment and destroy you."
Merlin swallowed convulsively. He pushed down his fear. "And what is the other choice?"
Kai's shoulders seemed to deflate. "You can do nothing, but then Camelot will fall. You and Arthur and Gwaine can live out the remainder of your lives here in relative comfort and you will be spared terrible pain."
Merlin felt horrified. "At the cost of thousands of lives?!" The very idea made him nauseous. How could anyone even suggest that? Never in a million years would Merlin put his own well-being over the happiness and lives of so many innocents. "That's not a choice," Merlin said angrily, "that's a sick joke."
Kai's face turned dark. "Not for some. There are people out there who would choose their own happiness at the expense of others."
Merlin shook his head emphatically. "Not me, not ever." Even if he didn't care about a single person back home he still wouldn't be able to because it would kill Arthur and watching the prince suffer like that would kill him.
Kai gave a small smile. "Then you choose to save Camelot?" he asked.
Merlin glanced back at the prone bodies of his friends. He was not looking forward to the kind of pain that Kai was talking about, in fact, he was so tired of being miserable. He had just found some happiness. Arthur was his friend now in ways that he had never been before and Merlin finally felt ready to tell him the truth. And if he chose to save Camelot he might lose all the joy he had just gained. But none of that mattered. He truly was a servant. His life didn't matter but to serve others. Not just Arthur, but everyone. His duty was to them because, when it came down to it, he was there to help and protect them with his life. Gaius, Gwen, Morgana, and everyone else back in Camelot. They were all his reasons for living.
His happiness didn't matter. Kai was right; there had never really been a choice. "Yes...I choose to pay the price."
A tear rolled down Kai's cheek. "Very well then."
There was a flash of lightening and a booming clap of thunder and Merlin found himself stumbling backwards. Suddenly he realized he was face to face with Kai and the centaur was reaching out his hand. "I'm sorry, Merlin...Emrys. This is going to hurt." His hand touched Merlin's head and pain exploded in his mind. Image upon image flashed though Merlin's mind as he heard Kai's voice echoing and saying, "This is what's to come. This is your future and it will come to pass."
Merlin's head burned as he saw things that filled him with dread. A blood-red sky. The water of Freya's lake boiling. Kilgharrah roaring in pain at the heavens. A cave made out of dark, black crystals. Vicious creatures with red eyes and poison dripping from their claws. Merlin heard screams of people he knew and people he didn't. He felt sadness, despair, and emptiness. He heard an inhuman roar that couldn't have been made by neither creature nor man. He saw himself hanging, helpless, and screaming in agony. He saw Arthur sitting alone on a balcony and looking as if he had lost something very dear to him. Merlin saw hordes of men and creatures with one goal in mind. He saw a knight of Camelot, someone he cared about, get run clean through with a sword and fall lifelessly. Lightening flashed, the Great Dragon roared, and death descended.
The images grew faster and more painful and distantly he realized he was screaming. Abruptly Kai pulled his hand away and the flashes stopped. Merlin stumbled and fell to the ground, cradling his head. It took him a moment to comprehend that he was gasping. Merlin's vision cleared and his eyes found Kai. "What...what was that?" he asked, pain, shock, fear and an urge to pass out coloring his tone and making it higher than usual.
"That was your future, a future that you cannot avoid," Kai answered as he held out a hand and pulled Merlin to his feet.
Merlin shook his head, trying to clear the confusion cluttering his thoughts. "No. Everything was...was so dark and full of pain. That can't be the future."
"There's more," the centaur said with terrible regret in his voice, "but this part I can't show you. I have to tell it to you. And it's a lot worse than those pictures." He looked as if the words he was saying were causing him indescribable pain.
Merlin clutched at his throbbing head. "What could possibly be worse than the hopeless future I just saw?" he asked.
"One thing," Kai replied simply and sadly. "Merlin...one day Arthur is going to discover your secret and your friendship will grow stronger than ever...and because of that Arthur will die...saving you."
Merlin felt everything stop. It was as if the world had paused, had stopped moving. "No..." Merlin breathed. "H-he can't."
Kai nodded grimly. "He will. Nothing you can do will stop it."
"NO!" Merlin shouted and backed away from the keeper. "You're wrong. Arthur won't die. I won't let him!"
Kai sighed. "You'll try. But no matter what you do, regardless of how greatly you protect him, even if you run away to the farthest corners of the earth, he will die and you won't be able to change that. He's going to die protecting you. Only if you had chosen to let Camelot fall would Arthur have a chance of escaping this fate." He looked over to his shoulder to where the pillar of water had disappeared and the sky above had turned blue and beautiful once more.
Merlin rushed forward and grabbed his vest. "Then take it back!" he yelled, desperate, tears quickly forming in his eyes. "Take it all back!"
"You'd really do that?" Kai asked, "You'd let thousands of people die just to save your friend?" Merlin didn't respond but the answer was more than clear in his eyes. For a moment awe flickered across the centaur's face. "A legendary friendship." Then his face turned serious and unhappy once more. "But that won't change anything."
Merlin's arms went limp and he let go of Kai. He felt dizzy and his hands were shaking. In his mind an ongoing mantra that said this was all just a bad dream played. "But..." Merlin's voice was weak and thready. "He can't die...not for me. Not because of my magic." Merlin laughed, but it sounded more like a sob. "He's supposed grow old and die happy after he had lived a full life. He isn't supposed to..." Suddenly anger rippled through Merlin. "I've been told all my life, first by my mother and then by Gaius and even by the Great Dragon himself, that I have a great purpose. That I'm supposed to help people." Merlin's voice got louder until he was practically shouting. "That I have a destiny!" The ground shook beneath his feet but he didn't notice. "But what's the point? If Arthur dies, if I can't protect and save him, my best friend, then what is the point of this stupid, crummy destiny?! Everything that I've done, all the stories about Albion, what do they matter?"
Merlin's blazing eyes dimmed as he glanced back at his friend and he felt tears well up again. The anger vanished only to be replaced with despair. "When is this going to happen?" he asked, not sure if he wanted to know but needing to all the same.
Kai shook his head. "I don't know," he answered, "but even if I did I wouldn't be able to tell you. You already know too much about your future."
Merlin thought about all he had done for Arthur in the past. "I'll save him...I'll find a way. I have to." Merlin had to convince himself of this. He didn't think he could go on knowing that at any moment Arthur could die saving him and he would be unable to do anything about it.
"I am so sorry," Kai said and it seemed like he meant it. "I wish more than anything that I didn't have to be the one to do this to you. You will suffer. This knowledge will haunt you until the day you die. It will always be there, causing you pain...but for right now you're going to have to forget." Merlin was hardly even listening to him. The dread, the fear, the agony coursing through him was too much to take. "I'm going to make you forget what you have seen and what I have told you for now. I don't doubt that you would do something drastic that would only end in Arthur getting killed sooner. So I'm going to take away these memories until the right time, but just because they're hidden won't mean they're gone."
It took Merlin a moment to understand what Kai was saying, but it was too late. The centaur's hand touched his forehead and suddenly a burning cold entered his mind. Merlin felt like he was a footprint being washed away. He tried to latch onto something, but there was nothing worth grabbing onto.
Then force pulling at him disappeared. Merlin gasped and glanced around. He was on his hands and knees on the soft, grassy ground. His head ached and his mind felt...itchy. He couldn't see Kai anywhere. Last thing he remembered he had just told the magical creature that he was prepared to pay the price regardless of how awful it was. However, Merlin got the distinct feeling that that was no longer true.
He put his hands to his face and, to his surprise, it felt wet. A groan came from behind him and Merlin's head whipped around to see Arthur opening his eyes. Merlin rushed over to him. "Arthur, are you alright?"
For a second the prince's eyes seemed to have trouble focusing on him, but then Arthur became aware of everything. "Of course, Merlin. I'm fine." Arthur stumbled to his feet and swayed a little. Sighing and steadying his master with a hand, Merlin held out his other hand to help Gwaine up.
Arthur's eyes went slightly wide. "Merlin, what did I miss?"
Confused, Merlin followed his master's line of sight and realized that the prince had discovered the lack of magical anything coming from the fountain. "Oh," Merlin said, understanding and trying to think of a reasonable explanation. "I met someone, a man, and I told him what that thing was doing to everyone back home. As soon as he understood that it was going to kill people he decided to...turn it...off. I don't think he knew what it was doing."
Arthur took a second to ponder that. "Okay," he said, dismissing it as he seemed to find it acceptable. "But why were we knocked out and not you?" he asked and Merlin could swear he heard concern. "He didn't hurt you or anything, right?"
Instead of the warmth that Arthur's care should have caused Merlin to feel, the warlock had a pit of fear and sadness sink in his gut. Somehow, Arthur being his friend had turned into a bad and worrisome thing. "No, he didn't touch me," Merlin answered as he tried to shake off the feeling of dread. "Maybe he just liked me better."
Arthur scoffed. "Yeah, right." He glanced around. "Well, it seems like our quest is complete." The prince made some sort of odd gesture with his hands. He obviously hadn't been expecting it to be this easy. He'd probably been ready for a fight or confrontation.
"I guess," Merlin said hesitantly, also a little thrown off by, well, everything, "we should...go home."
"Yeah," Arthur said, smiling, "that sounds like a good idea. I've got to say that I miss my own bed."
Gwaine and Arthur turned around and started heading back the way they came. For some reason Merlin didn't share Arthur's enthusiasm. Sure, he missed Camelot and the people there, but somehow he just felt like...like it didn't mean anything anymore. If he went back to Camelot then he would just be faced with more dread.
Merlin glanced around at the expansive clearing. When he had first arrived everything had seemed so beautiful and powerful. Now this place felt empty and ugly. Something was missing, he could feel it, and he knew that it was something precious. A figure appeared within his vision and Merlin stared at the far off and distant shape of a centaur that was watching him as if to remind him of some fact.
"Merlin! Come on! Don't you want to see Gaius again sometime in your life?" Arthur yelled from behind him.
Merlin gave one last look at the clearing and then turned around and followed Arthur, feeling like he was leaving the place where a vital part of him had died.
Merlin and Arthur made their way back home. The whole trip Merlin hardly said a word to anyone. He felt hollow, as if all his hope and dreams had been stolen from him, leaving him empty. Whenever Arthur asked him if he was okay or tried to engage him in a joking conversation Merlin would just shrug off his attempts and say that he was tired and homesick.
Upon reaching the edge of the Border they parted ways with Gwaine, but not before the rogue had promised to drop by sometime, despite the fact that they all knew he couldn't due to his banishment. Almost as soon as they stepped through the magical barrier once more and into the world more familiar to them they were bombarded with knights, who had apparently been ordered to keep trying to get through the Border nonstop by Uther. Of course, their attempts had been in vain.
No one had died. Though the damage from the storm to Camelot had been extensive no one had died. Many had been injured or had gotten sick from the never-ending wet and cold and lack of sun, but Merlin had stopped the storm in time. But Camelot rebuilt itself as it had gotten good at doing.
A great deal of the crops had nearly drowned from the high amounts of water, but after Merlin had snuck out at night and performed a restoring spell he hadn't previously been aware he was capable of doing, the soggy plants had returned to full health.
Months passed. Arthur made good on his promise to treat Merlin better. Of course, in the presence of his father or those who held his beliefs Arthur tried to maintain an air of indifference towards his servant, but the rest of the time he was quite a good friend. There was no more yelling and he rarely ever got mad at him for being late. The insults were far less frequent and when they did make an appearance they were always side by side with a great deal of humor. Arthur would ask Merlin's opinions on things and often openly admitted that he respected them. The reformed prince even began sharing his food, especially when he noticed his friend looking particularly haggard and hungry one day.
But for all of Arthur's kindness Merlin's spirits had not changed. Day after day the disguised warlock would keep his head down, do his duties respectively, and not respond at all to his master's clear attempts at having a closer friendship. Merlin felt afraid all the time for reasons that he didn't understand. More than anything he wanted to tell Arthur his secret, just as he had been planning, and enjoy the change in the prince's attitude, but every time he got close a feeling of intense fear, pain, and despair would come over him. There always seemed to be a voice in his head telling him not to become closer to Arthur and to, above all, never tell him his secret.
Night after night Merlin had nightmares. They were all vivid and terrifying, but despite that they always vanished as soon as his eyes cracked open in the morning. That itching feeling in his mind like he was missing something continued and worsened and slowly all of Merlin's usual hope and life drained from him. Every moment was filled with fear and...self-hate.
Merlin wasn't the only one to feel the effects of what he had learned and then promptly forgotten. All of his friends saw how differently he acted and grew ever more worried about him. Perhaps Arthur suffered the most. The prince tried day in and day out to cheer Merlin up, and yet nothing worked. Arthur felt confused. Hadn't Merlin wanted to be treated better? Didn't the boy want his friendship? And the fact that Merlin was, essentially, rejecting him hurt. Arthur had finally realized the kind of friend he had just when that friend seemed to vanish. Arthur wanted to have the closeness that he knew was possible, but Merlin kept acting depressed and submissive around him, much like the rest of the servants, which Merlin definitely was not.
Arthur had no idea what to do or what was wrong with his friend. Eventually, one day, Arthur got particularly frustrated with Merlin's attitude that in a burst of anger he threw a goblet at him. That was the first time Arthur had chucked anything at his servant since before the quest. The prince had instantly regretted his loss of temper and had been about to apologize when he saw the blank face that Merlin had been wearing for such a long time twist ever-so-slightly into a smile. The first smile that had been seen on the manservant's face in over a month.
Later Arthur had tested out his theory again by insulting Merlin the way he used to. It seemed to relax Merlin, oddly enough, and so the prince had done it again at the end of the day. It wasn't long before the two of them had fallen back into their old habits. Goblets were flying again and insults were being hurled and beatings on the training field were being given. At first Arthur had hated going back to the way he used to do things, but after a while the happiness that came from getting to glimpse the old Merlin overshadowed that. Three months after the quest had ended everything had gone back to the way it once was, the only exception being that Merlin still hadn't regained some of his old spark and his nights were stilled disturbed.
The reason Merlin felt more comfortable with the old Arthur was because the old Arthur wasn't someone he could tell his secret to. It wasn't someone who seemed in danger of becoming best friends with a servant and it was someone that Merlin was familiar with. With Arthur treating him the way he always did that ever-present dread in his gut lessened slightly and Merlin could pretend that everything was alright.
But it wasn't.
I would give up all for him, but it seems I cannot win.
In the end I will fail, no matter what I do.
All hope is lost as I rue
the day that I came into this life
and pulled him away from the knife.
For all my power I am so weak,
I must never have the acceptance I seek.
For If I do he will surely die,
and if he dies so shall I.
End of Chapter 3: The Calm Before The Storm
To be continued...
For anyone who is wondering, I did not cite the two sections of poems because I didn't take them from anywhere. Copyright me. I've been writing poems before I knew how to write properly. Now, whether or not that means they're good...
That's it. That's the end of Gathering Clouds. Of course, I have another story in the works. Naturally, I'm going to take some time off before I jump right back into another fic, but I can promise you that it will happen, preferably before the next series of this show airs. I am giving you fair warning now that the next story, which will be the third in a series of four, is going to get dark. I have no idea of your tolerance levels concerning overall darkness, but I don't plan on there being anything too much more explicit than I've already had. Mostly it's going to be the atmosphere. There is going to be a general feeling of despair and sadness covering the whole thing. I can also tell you, like I have said before, that the next one will have the reveal that I have been keeping from you all for so long.
I apologize to all the huge Gwaine-lovers out there who wanted to see more of him, but I originally had planned to only have Merlin and Arthur on this quest. I eventually realized that I needed one other person, but very few scenes were designed with him specifically in mind back when I was still in my planning stage. And, unfortunately, I don't plan on having him as anything other than a minor character like Gaius anytime in the future of this saga. Yes, I am going to call it that.
So now I want to thank you all. Everyone who has reviewed, read, favorited, alerted, and just generally liked this story; I give you all my thanks. This story has to be one of the greatest experiences of my life and it truly has been amazing to write. Thank you all for your support and for not putting me down. You guys are awesome. And thank you God for making this possible and giving me the inspiration, motivation, and any and all of the talent I possess. I owe it all to you, Lord.
Once again I hope you all enjoyed it and will keep an eye out for the next story. Please review. Goodbye and good health to you.
"For I have overcome the world."