The world has nearly ended twenty-four times since the day Arthur died. Merlin knows. He keeps count. He's lost count of so many other things (years that's passed, names he's used, acquaintances taken from him, times he's stood looking on Glastonbury Tor and carefully not hoped for the earth to split open and…) but the near-ending of the world seems like a thing that he should remember. After all, he was the one stopping it most of those times.
This time it's bigger. Maybe even big enough that… but Merlin can't allow himself to think like that. When Albion needs him the most, Kilgarrah had said. The ten first times the world fell apart or threatened to do so, Merlin had been sure that now, now Arthur would have to rise from his not-grave-just-resting-place and join him and save Albion again. He never did, and Merlin always managed on his own or with help from the magic users of whichever age he was in.
It's not that Albion (Britain, now, but Merlin keeps forgetting names) is the most important place in the world or anything like that. There are powerful nodes of magic all over Earth, at least a hundred of them powerful enough to be the place where the end of the world can be stopped. Merlin has visited them all, and he knows that the one at Glastonbury Tor is up among the strongest. Besides, he still feels at home there. So the last stand will be in Albion, like so many last stands before. Merlin has spent the last couple of decades building an army.
At that word, army, he can hear Arthur scoff at him. "Really, Merlin, I know you're practically a half-wit, but even you can't call a dozen magic workers - two of wich are above the age of seveny and one that haven't turned eight – an army."
"You'll see", Merlin tells him. "I've trained most of them since birth."
"That's nice, dear. Are you finished with your breakfast? I'll just take this, then."
Merlin looks up. "I'm sorry, I lost track of time again."
The woman smiles and shakes her head. With his half-empty bowl of porridge in one hand, she wanders off to the kitchen. She's the sort of woman who looks about eighty in photographs and around thirty when you see her talk. Merlin knows this because she has told him that's what people think. He himself has stopped noticing irrelevant things like age. Or names, for that matter. He thinks her name might be Joanne, but he usually calls her something else, or nothing at all. She reminds him of Gwen and her big heart, taking in an old stranger without question like that. Of course, the warding spells around her house wouldn't have let him pass if he had meant her any harm.
Joanne (yes, that's her name, he's sure of it now) is one of the most important members of Merlin's army. Merlin leads them, twists their magic together, but she's the one that keeps them all connected in the mundane world. What does she call it? Skype, that's it. Merlin has found all this new technology most useful. Joanne says he's cheating, with the way his devices never run out of power and never really have to be connected to anything to get on the internet. But magic flows around Merlin, out through his fingers and into everything he touches if he's not careful. Joanne just shrugs and sets him up with a Skype account that he forgets the password to within seconds.
So it's the end of the world. December 21st, early dawn, and Merlin is standing in a soggy field. He has stopped noticing the cold hours ago. Joanne is standing on his right side, another magic user on his left. There are only five of them here in the flesh, but Merlin can feel them all, his magic circle, spread out over the world. Why not, in the age of global technology? The magic, after all, knows no bounds.
Reality shifts and twists, shimmering and coiling, until Merlin can see nothing but the other members of the magic circle. Instead of wet grass, water is streaming up and flowing around Merlin's ankles. He's in the Other World now, but he can still feel the real world, feel how close it is to falling apart. There is a darkness rising in front of them. Joanne takes a step back. Instead of splashing water, the wet grass catches her foot and she almost stumbles.
"Can we defeat this?" somebody asks. "Magic doesn't bite on it."
"We're not prepared for this", another one answers. She's in India, the man that spoke before her is in Canada, but they're all here. "We can't attack this with magic."
"I see", Joanne says. "I should have seen it before. We need someone without magic."
"We need a sword."
"What will we do?"
"Can we stop this?"
The circle wavers. Merlin stretches his hands out, sends a burst of magic and courage out to them all. "We have to", he says. "We-"
The water around his feet ripples. Somebody has broken the circle and is striding towards the darkness in a last desperate attempt to stop it. Merlin searches for the break to seal it before someone gets hurt – it can be dangerous, breaking a circle in the wrong way. But they're all there, standing in their places.
The darkness isn't a man, isn't corporeal at all, but in this place things adapt to the way you view the world. When the newcomer reaches it, it's a knight in black armour and the newcomer… Merlin forces himself to stand still. The circle is still needed and he can't leave his place. But he knows that red cloak, that sword and the easy movement of the man that wields it. He knows him well enough to see that the black knight is very nearly winning and it's only centuries of practicing self-restraint that keeps him from rushing to his side.
Then the black knight is defeated and Merlin shapes the runes that will break the circle and let them back into their own world and he's back in the grey dawn and wet grass at Glastonbury Tor.
Arthur is standing in front of him with darkness dripping from his sword.