Horrendous noise broke into Merlin's consciousness from all directions—people yelling, fighting, the creature roaring.
He could take in very little at first. A cold numbness had invaded his body and slowed his senses. Finally, he managed to force his eyes open. They were still beneath the earth, in a cavern with some sort of glowing green moss on its walls. In the strange light, Merlin could see Arthur on his feet now, freed from the rockslide. He and the other knights were following the creature and hacking at the swaying tentacles guarding its prize: Merlin.
The thing looked nothing like Freya now. How easily it had penetrated his mind and used his memories against him! Merlin shook with fury. He lifted his right hand, trying to force his eyes to focus on the large, blurry creature dragging him. As his hand moved into his line of sight, Merlin was shocked to see that his fingers were bloodied, his nails torn. Thick blood had congealed in rivulets down his forearm, leading from puncture wounds torn wide in his frenzy to escape. Yet the pain was dull.
"Merlin, fight! Use your magic. NOW!"
Arthur hadn't paused his slicing at tentacles, even as one flicked two knights and sent them spinning into the wall with a sickening crunch of chain mail. Merlin opened his mouth to say that he was trying, but again, the pressure tightened on his chest and he only made a gasping, breathless sound. He forced himself to focus. His magic had to strike quick, like a snake, or the creature would simply absorb it again.
But first things first.
With a jerk of his free hand and a golden glow of his eyes, Merlin sent Arthur floating back to what his magical senses told him was a solid outcropping of rock high in the air. Arthur yelled at him the entire way.
Yes, you prat, I know that's not what you wanted—
His magic sent the thing into a frenzy. Before Merlin's eyes could flash gold again, it heaved him up and smashed him back down on the ground. There was a horrible crrrrack and Merlin arched in agony, drowning in the dark and the screaming…
Merlin jolted, giving a gasp that had everyone staring at him.
They were in the Castle of Fyrien, in the throne room. Arthur, Gwen, Morgana and Merlin were on their knees, awaiting Cenred's mercy. Not that Morgana was really in any danger.
Merlin fought to calm himself. He was hurting badly from when they had been taken in the caves; the pain was becoming a real distraction. Although…for some reason, he couldn't remember how he'd gotten hurt. And these bonds they'd wrapped around his body were so tight that he could barely breathe. Merlin glanced down to see that what held him was a long, winding silver chain.
What? That's not right.
He glanced around in confusion and saw that Arthur was mouthing something to him—no, yelling something at him. Merlin shook his head. What?
Something rubbed across his chest and Merlin looked down to see that the silver chain was gone, replaced by a long, undulating, snake-like form. It began to squeeze him mercilessly and a frisson of pain bubbled up from Merlin's chest.
Suddenly Morgause was there, laughing and unsheathing a dagger that glinted in the light. "Did you really think you could hide your magic from me, Merlin? I know exactly where it is." She walked closer and jabbed the dagger forward, sending a spike of pain deep into Merlin's right arm. "Is that where you've hidden it? Or is it here?" Another stab, this time to his shoulder and more hot blood spilled downwards. Merlin bowed, groaning at the bone-deep pain.
Cenred was laughing.
"Taking all the fun for yourself, sister?" Morgana asked. Suddenly she was behind Merlin, curling her fingers into his hair and jerking him upright. She was strong enough to hold him in place as his body trembled with weakness. "Try here, sister," she said, caressing his neck with one hand. "Cut him right….there."
Morgause leaned closer, a wild light in her nearly black eyes.
Merlin tried to follow the gleam of the blade but weakness and darkness dragged him down…down into the place where Arthur was screaming again.
The sensation of being dragged returned. Merlin's eyes shot open as water spread across his back and thighs and seeped into his hair. Something scraped at his mind, and he fought it off with a grimace.
"MERLIN!" Arthur screamed hoarsely. "FIGHT! Use your MAGIC! PLEASE!" Arthur's voice choked out with a half-sob.
That sound shocked Merlin to the core.
He shook off the haze of pain and looked down to see thick, slimy tentacles wound around his body, in and out and around and around in a bewildering pattern. They were dark green, heavily toothed and slick with his blood, each barb digging into Merlin's flesh as it gripped and pulled.
"MERLIN!" Arthur roared.
Merlin lifted his head in a desperate effort, trying to see past the tentacles that jerked and spasmed all around him. Up, he looked, farther, his head falling back against something slimy and rubbery behind his neck. Then he could see it, and knew it for what it was—the Ciarcrôin, a horrible thing of legend he'd never believed in until now. The creature was half as big as the castle itself, mottled green, its head split by a blind, gaping maw and serviced by hundreds of tentacles that stretched out in all directions. Some bound Merlin, some dragged the creature and its prize toward the murky water ahead while still more were climbing the walls, stretching toward Arthur's safe perch.
"No," Merlin gasped in a long, tortured breath, filling his lungs as much as he could.
It wasn't enough. Dark specks invaded his sight; he was already fading. Gritting his teeth, Merlin raised a hand. He would do this even with his final breath. He focused his magic on the thing scraping against his mind…there.
Merlin seized the connection between them and found the grasping mind of the Ciarcrôin. For a moment, he felt its seething and craving and will to dominate.
The creature keened, its shock and surprise shivering down to Merlin. He had only a moment to brace himself, then the tentacles convulsed and the barbs ripped themselves away from his body, sending him sprawling and splashing into shallow water, mud and rock. But he stayed focused, one hand outstretched, eyes blazing gold. This thing would not have his magic, not destroy Arthur and Camelot in its frenzy.
With strength born of pure fury, Merlin took the horror of Ciarcrôin's mind and smashed it like a rotten plum.
The bellow of pain cut off in an instant and the body of the creature began to collapse, islands of flesh convulsing in the water, tentacles dancing madly. Slowly, they stilled and Merlin let his hand drop. He sucked in several breaths, but the pain in his chest was still too strong. With a sigh, he toppled over into the water, completely spent.
Consciousness rolled in and out like a tide—all soft darkness and peace one second, then coughing and sputtering and pain and cold and voices the next. More dragging. He was shivering too hard to open his eyes, even when he heard Arthur's voice.
A rough hand pushed back the sodden hair on his forehead before moving over to grasp his shoulder more gently. From the uneven breathing, Merlin could tell it was Arthur and that he was too emotional to speak. Which upset Merlin. He reached up with trembling fingers and found Arthur's hand, squeezing as hard as he could to communicate I'm all right.
Arthur let out a miserable sound, somehow knowing exactly what Merlin was trying to say. "No, you're not all right, you idiot," he whispered, squeezing Merlin's hand back. "But we'll get you patched up. We will." Arthur should have been throwing accusations, bellowing about betrayal and damage to the castle and magic, but instead he was by Merlin's side, comforting him. Merlin turned his head away, letting the tears leak out and his mind drift off for a while.
Later, when Merlin finally opened his eyes, Arthur was still there, absently trying to pull Merlin's shredded nightshirt into place, cursing quietly. His hand returned to Merlin's head in a gentle touch.
"There you are. Good to see you awake." Arthur looked battle-weary and frustrated, but relief was evident in his voice.
"Sire?" came a voice from somewhere behind them.
"Report," Arthur said, not moving from Merlin's side.
"Twenty-one men lost. Fifteen injured." Merlin recognized Leon's voice. "The East Tower is gone, with it the stables and the wine cellar. There were many injuries in town, six dead so far."
Arthur's grip tightened on Merlin's shoulder until it hurt. "Thank you, Leon. We need to…" Arthur loosened his hold on Merlin and stood. "We need to build temporary quarters for Gaius to work in and find a way to transport all the injured men up to the surface."
"Gaius?" Merlin whispered, flopping out one arm to grasp Arthur's boot. "'s okay?"
"Take it easy, Merlin." Then Arhtur's weight shifted. "Finally. Gwaine, over here! We needed those blankets ten minutes ago. Spread one out there, on the flat rock."
"Gaius?" Merlin repeated, just a hiss of breath between his teeth.
Arthur bent back down, taking Merlin's hand in his own. His worried eyes caught at Merlin's. "Gaius is fine. He's more concerned about you. We're trying to find a way to get him down here right now." Merlin closed his eyes in relief, but large tremors began to shake his body.
"Merlin? Hold on. Don't go anywhere, all right?" Merlin smiled, but lacked the energy to make a sarcastic comment. Close by, someone was jogging through the shallow water, puffing with exertion.
"Steep climb, eh, mate?" called a gruff voice from a distance. "Did it twice already meself."
"Any day now, Gwaine!" Arthur snapped.
"It's ready." Gwaine knelt by Merlin, and the warlock felt a warm hand on his back. His eyes were too heavy to open again. "How's he doing?" Arthur didn't answer. Merlin figured that there was some unspoken communication going on, but couldn't feel bothered to open his eyes again. By now, he was shaking so hard that his teeth were clattering. Gwaine cursed. "He's freezing."
"Thus, the blankets. Help me get him up—carefully," admonished Arthur in a low voice. "That collar bone is damaged; don't make it worse." Merlin felt hands take hold underneath and lift him bodily out of the muck. He cried out as his injuries jostled. "Careful!" Arthur barked. "Watch that arm! Don't…move steady, Gwaine. Out of the way!"
The world spun in a dance of darkness and light and then he was sitting. Merlin' eyes blinked open and shut slowly. He thought there might be something warm and soft under him.
"There, that's got to feel better, mate," Gwaine muttered, supporting him. "Let's get that rag of a shirt off." Merlin struggled to breathe through the pain as the cold, wet shreds of his nightshirt were pulled away, revealing the bloody mess of his chest. Arthur helped wrap another blanket around him without speaking, but Gwaine kept talking brightly, as though he hadn't realized how much blood was on his hands. "Too bad there's no girls around so you can show off a bit, mate. Girls love a wounded hero, you know."
"Good. That's better," Arthur murmured, helping to lay Merlin back carefully. "All right, there, Merlin?" He patted Merlin's arm before turning away to address his knights. "Right. We need pallets for all the fallen knights..."
Merlin lost interest then, barely awake enough to feel Gwaine tucking the blanket around him securely. "So," his friend mused quietly, "you have magic, then? Guess I know now what you and Lancelot were always whispering about." Merlin began struggling feebly with the blanket.
"No, no," Gwaine said, fumbling to stop him. "Sorry I brought it up, mate. Settle down. Merlin," he growled in frustration, "it's fine."
But the warlock had gotten one arm free and he would be damned if he would die with this on his conscience. He reached for Gwaine's hand stubbornly, drilling him with a glance. "All right, we'll hold hands," Gwaine said, taking hold.
Instantly, Merlin's magic forged a link between their minds. Merlin showed Gwaine his memories of the night Lancelot found out about his magic—Merlin's fear and frustration when it took far too long to master the spell, his elation at finally killing the beast and his relief when Lancelot kept his secret despite his discomfort at the deceit.
Gasping, Gwaine pulled away. "Whoa. Okay. Okay. I get it. I see how it happened. I'll…I understand, Merlin." He knelt beside Merlin. "My god…I really understand. How did you do it? How did you hide it for so long?"
Merlin squeezed his arm briefly and lay back on the rock, exhausted. The world was changing far too fast for him to keep up. Sleep stole over him then, blessedly dream-free. At some point, Gaius was by his side. Then he was being carried through darkness softened by torchlight, on a soft sling of some kind. They were climbing up. Whispers caught his ears, words he couldn't understand. Then bright light accosted his eyes and he heard Gaius's voice saying, "You know the sunlight always makes you feel better."
Merlin agreed. He needed to get to the sun—
A sudden jolt of fear cleared Merlin's thoughts. He had no mystical link to sunshine; that idea had been implanted by the Ciarcrôin over and over again in those bloody dreams.
Was even his mind broken? As they carried his body aloft, Merlin wept silently.
For days, he drifted, unsure of his mind and body, hovering closer and closer to the great white beyond that had appeared above him. Even with his eyes open, that light was there, just behind whoever was speaking to him, casting shadows on their face and blurring their words. It was usually Gaius, but sometimes Arthur was there, or Gwaine. Merlin couldn't respond to them. In that way, it was like a dream. The gravity of the great light pulled at him constantly whether he was awake or asleep, growing stronger until Merlin felt like he was only resisting by use of his magic.
Sometimes, he would come back to himself and realize that he'd been gone, but couldn't remember where. It was like that now. Something had woken him. Distantly, he became aware that Gaius was trying to get him to drink something. Merlin didn't want it, but his body swallowed when Gaius dripped it into his mouth. The acrid taste sent a jolt through his system, followed by a heat that spread slowly from his stomach to his limbs. Magic? Awareness crept back into him. Merlin cried out as he felt the pain of his wounds again.
"Merlin," Gaius was asking in a tone Merlin had never heard before, "you're fading, my boy. You have to fight. I've done all I can do."
"Come on, mate," Gwaine pleaded, "it's not that hard, is it? You killed that foul thing, and the other thing, too. All you have to do now is hold on."
"Sir Leon," Gaius was saying as Merlin faded out, "get Arthur…now."
Despite Gaius's efforts, Merlin was floating again. Down there, somewhere below, lay his body, but he could no longer feel it. Arthur stormed in and bent over Merlin, joining in the voices around him, begging him to stay. Didn't they understand that he couldn't? There was nothing tying him to his body now, nothing but magic and he was growing tired…so tired.
"Merlin, open your eyes, dammit!"
Merlin, who had never failed to respond to that tone in Arthur's voice, found that he just…couldn't. He could no longer feel Gaius's hand on his forehead, or Arthur's hands clutching at his shirt. He was floating, moving higher and higher, until there was no sound but gentle wind, and no sight but the brightest of lights.
When the soft glow finally faded, everything was quiet. It took Merlin a few moments to realize that there was no more pain wracking his body. His breath slid in and out easily, smooth as silk. Even better, he felt clean, dry and comfortable. It was bliss.
He wasn't dead. Merlin opened his eyes and blinked a few times at the ceiling. He was in the castle, but in a room far too fancy to be his own. Or Gaius's. But then, their rooms had both been destroyed, hadn't they? Merlin frowned.
"Why isn't he answering?" Arthur snapped. He was climbing to his feet, looking slightly off-balance and pale, blinking and wiping at his eyes. "Merlin!" As he stumbled toward the bed, hands stretched out in front, Merlin saw that his eyes looked vacant and odd. In fact, it looked as though he couldn't see at all. Arthur clutched at Merlin's shoulder, then moved his hands up to his face, which tickled.
"I'm here," Merlin laughed, batting away Arthur's hands. "No need to keep poking me in the eye."
Arthur's face went through so many expressions that it made Merlin dizzy to keep up. The king's hands trembled.
"Did you do that, mate?" came a gruff voice from the floor.
"Did I do what?" Merlin turned his attention to the other side and found Gwaine helping Gaius up from the floor.
"That bloody, blinding light," Gwaine said shakily. "I can't see a thing. Not even your ugly mug," he said with a smile. "You sound better, though. Was that some kind of magic thing?"
"Actually, I don't know," Merlin said as he sat up, knocking heads with Arthur. "Ow. Sorry."
"I can't see a thing, you idiot." Arthur pressed at his forehead. "Why don't you warn someone when you're about to turn into a burning ball of light?"
"I'll try to remember that," Merlin said softly. Gwaine was helping Gaius to find his way to the bed, in a literal case of the blind leading the blind. The old healer looked exhausted. Merlin reached out and took Gaius's hand in his before pulling him into a firm embrace. "Thank you, Gaius," he whispered.
"I had very little to do with this one, my boy." Gaius patted his back gently. "But I am overjoyed that the gods sent you back. They must have known this foolish old man needed you for a while longer."
Arthur snorted. "They didn't want him bumbling his way through the afterlife, that's all. Can you imagine the damage he'd do to the souls there?" The king made his way over to Merlin's side and blindly put a hand on his shoulder. "I'd much rather have you here, where I can keep an eye on you." He ruffled a hand through Merlin's hair and smiled. "Not that I can do that at the moment. Any idea when we'll be able to see again?"
Merlin felt himself blushing as he pulled away from Gaius and helped him find a chair to sit in. "I have no idea, since I've never done that before. Sorry."
"You mean you've never come back from the dead before? Well, there's a first time for everything," Gwaine said as he made himself comfortable on the floor.
"First time?" Merlin and Gaius said almost in tandem.
"First and last time, if I have anything to say about it," Gaius continued. "I don't think my heart can take another round."
Merlin hummed noncommitedly. He actually wasn't sure that it was the first time, really.
"Nor the castle," Arthur said with a grim look. "How are you at magically fixing stonework, Merlin?"
"How bad is it?" Merlin whispered.
"Well…I won't know until I try. I'm so sorry, Arthur."
Arthur gave him a pointed look. "Did you actually do something to invite that…thing here or is this your usual guilt complex rearing its ugly head?"
Merlin leaned back against the wall. "I in no way, shape or form invited it, but…it came here for me, because it could feel my magic. So, you could say I'm to blame."
Arthur looked in his general direction. "I have a lot to learn about magic. It would have been preferable to know that my manservant is capable of becoming a target because of his…abilities. But blaming you for this attack would be a bit like blaming the ale when Gwaine gets drunk."
"Hey! I think I resent that," Gwaine said from the floor. "But he has a point, Merlin. You're not to blame if magic-eating monsters find you deliciously tasty. Some people attract girls; some people attract nasty, tentacled monsters. It's just something you're born with."
"So…Arthur, you're all right about me having magic?" Merlin said uncomfortably.
"'All right' does not exactly describe how I feel about you having magic, no. We have quite a few conversations ahead of us before I'll feel all right, Merlin. How long have you been practicing it?"
"I was born with it."
Everyone grew still. Arthur blinked a few times.
"It's the truth, sire," Gaius spoke up.
"Well, then, we have quite a few more conversations ahead of us. As I said, I have a lot to learn about magic. But in this case, it proved the difference between life and death." Arthur rubbed at his eyes. "I still can't see anything but white. This had better be temporary, Merlin," Arthur growled, turning away, "or I might have to test out those magic-proof cells we have in the dungeon."
Gwaine barked out a laugh. "D'you really think those could hold him?"
Arthur froze and turned back around. "That's a good question. Could they, Merlin?"
"Actually…I think I might break them."
Gwaine laughed. "God, I'm glad I picked the most powerful man in Camelot to be my best friend. "
"Most powerful man in Camelot?" Arthur repeated with an incredulous look. "Aren't you forgetting somebody?"
"You mean you, Princess?" Gwaine scoffed. "I'd like to see you take on Merlin now, magic against sword. Do you really think you would win?" Gaius chuckled and Merlin felt a grin stealing over his face.
"Gwaine, that's not fair," Merlin said. "Arthur needs to recover and maybe practice a bit."
Arthur stiffened. "I do not need practice. I'm fighting fit!"
"I don't know, Arthur. Even with all that sword-swinging, it still seemed like you needed my help to defeat the Ciarcrôin."
Merlin had just meant to tease, but Arthur's expression went dead serious. "I know. I think I'm beginning to see the true picture of how I survived all these years." His eyes searched for Merlin and he squinted as if he'd finally found him. "You've been protecting me, haven't you?"
"I told you I was," Merlin said with a shrug. "You just wouldn't listen."
Arthur straightened and the mood of the room grew solemn. "I'm listening now, Merlin. Believe me, I'm listening."
A/N: Thank you so much to my reviewers! Thank you for taking a chance on such a dark fic. I hope there was enough h/c to make up for it! :D