I wanted to get this up sooner but my new apartment doesn't have internet yet and it's been a bit difficult to find a connection, anyway, it's here now and I'm quite pleased with it.

Let me remind you, this is NOT a deathfic, don't worry, I know what I'm doing ;)

Guest: Thank you so much for your kind words, they really mean a lot to me (although I don't think I deserve all the praise), also keep an eye out this chapter, you just might find what you wished for!

Ellie: Your support means a ton, thanks for taking the time to review and for the compliments!

The rest of the journey proved relatively uneventful and the group made good time, spurred on as they were by Merlin's rapidly deteriorating condition. The boy had begun to worsen shortly after Leon and the king appeared, his breaths coming in short, shallow gasps that rasped painfully in and out of his throat even as his pulse fluttered weakly beneath Gwaine's fingers where they had rested on the servant's wrist for the past hour.

The heat coming off Merlin's body in waves was almost unbearable but Gwaine forced himself to ignore it, choosing to focus instead on the fact that the boy was still alive, still breathing, which meant that they still had time to make it to the tower and, judging by his calculations, they shouldn't have much further to go.

The trees were thinning out, becoming more and more sparse, and with every break in the foliage, Gwaine scanned the horizon for the giant pillar that he'd been assured was impossible to miss. It was just past midday and the sun was still high in the sky when he spotted it, an ivory spire that seemed to go on for miles, dwarfing everything but the mountains behind it as it shone with the pristine brilliance of new-fallen snow against the sapphire sky.

"Leon." Gwaine called, nodding towards the turret, careful not to disturb Merlin, who was resting against his chest, head lolling lifelessly to the side.

The older knight nodded, turning to follow Gwaine through a break in the trees, then stopped, his heart sinking in his chest as he took in the scene before him. They had reached the tower all right but any sense of victory he'd felt at that accomplishment was soon drowned out by apprehension as he tried to work out how exactly they were supposed to get through the snarled mass of thorns and branches that surrounded the tower as far as the eye could see.

Gwaine was similarly speechless with defeat as he realized just how far they still had to go before Merlin would be healed and, considering the boy's pallid complexion, the way his skin seemed almost translucent in comparison to the dark, sweaty locks of hair that were plastered to his forehead, he wasn't at all certain that they would be able to make it in time. Banishing the traitorous thoughts from his mind with a small shake of his head, Gwaine's eyes narrowed in determination, it might prove a fruitless effort but he wasn't going to give up now, he wasn't just going to sit here and wait for Merlin to die.

He would fight to save the boy until his last breath, he owed at least that much to the man who had welcomed him into Camelot all those years ago, the man that had, somewhere along the way, become the brother that Gwaine had never known he craved and the one friend that he could trust above all others. Even if it meant fighting his way through an enchanted forest of the most evil-looking thorns he'd ever seen, he would do it because this was Merlin, and for Merlin, for his brother in all but blood, he would do almost anything.

With that he dismounted his horse, laying Merlin forward against the animal's neck, being careful to jostle the boy as little as possible, and made his way towards the wall that stood between him and Merlin's salvation. He drew his sword, shoulders set in determination and approached the thicket that seemed to go on forever, both to the left and to the right, ignoring the way it towered forebodingly over his head, casting twisted shadows on the ground below.

He swung his blade with all his might, hacking doggedly at the branches before him as he worked to cut a path through the thorns, never wavering in his conviction, the sweat pouring down his back only serving to strengthen his resolve. After a few minutes, Leon appeared next to him and they worked together wordlessly, tireless as they fought their way through the mess, united in their desire to save their friend.

Unbeknownst to either knight, Merlin's declining health and the reappearance of the king after his wild flight through the woods coincided not purely by coincidence, as they had supposed, but the events were in fact connected. Merlin's magic, sensing Arthur's distress had abandoned it's task of keeping Merlin alive as long as possible in favor of bolstering the king's strength. It seemed that not even imminent death or unconsciousness could stop Merlin from saving his king, no matter the price.

It was a slow process, much slower than it would normally have been, because Merlin's body wasn't the only thing that was exhausted, his magic was weak as well, which was no surprise given the way it had been used so forcefully during his captivity and the almost constant struggle it had faced since then to keep its host alive. Slowly, one cautious tendril after another, he funneled the power from his body to Arthur's, drawing out the infection and knitting together first the gash in the king's thigh, then the wound in his shoulder until Arthur was resting peacefully, completely healed of his wounds and quickly recovering his strength.

After such a huge task, what little power Merlin had left retreated deep inside him, protecting the last vestiges of his consciousness that had not fully surrendered to the encroaching blackness. The boy knew the end was coming, he could feel it with every shaky breath, feel his life draining away, his power, immense as it was, unable to sustain any longer the broken, battered mess that his physical form had become but he was content.

Arthur was safe, he could feel his friend's mind resting gently against his, lingering around the edges of his consciousness, safe and healthy and whole, and that was all he wanted, all he'd ever wanted, all he needed to be satisfied. As long as Arthur was safe he could die in peace, he could let go knowing that Morgana and Mordred, the biggest threats that Camelot had ever faced, were gone and they would never bother the king again.

He was sure Arthur would mourn his passing, at least he hoped he would, but eventually the king would move on, he would unite Albion as the prophesies had foretold and Gwen would give birth to an heir; then Arthur would live to a ripe old age before peacefully passing away in his sleep, content with the full life he had led. Merlin wished he could be there to see it, wished he could remain at the king's side forever but it was not to be, protecting Arthur had always been his job, ensuring the king's survival no matter the cost, and he'd always known, somewhere deep inside, that it would not end well for him. That someday, one of the many scenarios he'd imagined would come to pass and he would slip away from this world, destined to wait in the next until he was joined once again by his king.

He had done his job, completed his task, and now it was time for him to go. He could feel the darkness pulling at him, softly enticing him to give in, to release his hold on Arthur and finally get the rest craved. Finally get the break he deserved after so many years of single-handedly foiling every plot, every attack that both Arthur and Camelot had faced. In the end it had turned out far better than he could ever have imagined, Arthur had accepted his magic, accepted him, all of him and that was more than Merlin had ever dared hope for.

He could almost hear Freya calling his name now, feel his father's reassuring hand on his back, and see Will's lopsided grin. He knew it was time for him to go but he allowed his consciousness to flood back to the present one last time, wrapping Arthur's mind in his own as he conveyed everything he'd ever wished to share with the king in a single thought then, with a final caress, he let go, surrendering wholly to the darkness, a slight smile lifting his lips as he fell, weightlessly tumbling into the abyss, and then there was nothing.

Gwaine and Leon, despite their best efforts had barely managed to make a dent in the thick patch of thorns before them when a rough voice startled them, breaking their single-minded concentration. "He doesn't have much time."

Whirling at the sound of the gravelly growl, Gwaine brought his sword up threateningly, the blade hovering dangerously close to the stranger's jugular.

"Get away from him." The knight commanded, heart leaping into his throat as the slightly disheveled man laid a hand on Merlin's forehead, his piercing green eyes seeming to stare straight into Gwaine's soul.

"I mean you no harm." The man answered calmly, pushing the knight's sword away from him with one gnarled finger, then stepping towards the broken branches that had started repairing themselves as soon as Gwaine and Leon turned their backs.

Without sparing another glance at the baffled knights, the Keeper laid his hands on the thorns and muttered a string of indecipherable words before lifting his arms suddenly skyward. With that motion, the branches began to move, twisting and climbing, spiraling upward until they formed an intricate archway that opened into a beautiful sunlit meadow.

"Welcome to my home," the Keeper said, extending his long arm towards the valley that was visible through the thorns, "inside you will find a lake, lay your friend on its shores and he will be healed, but you must hurry, he strays further from the land of the living every second and even I do not have the power to raise the dead."

At the admonishment, Gwaine cast his sword aside, rushing to his horse to check on Merlin. The Keeper spoke the truth, the boy's lips were tinted blue around the edges and it took several heart stopping seconds before the knight was able to find a sluggish pulse in Merlin's frail wrist.

Not wanting to waste any more of their precious time, Gwaine slid Merlin off the horse, cradling the thin boy to his chest like a child, and strode back towards the archway. As he passed the Keeper he gave a solemn nod and mouthed his gratitude before continuing into the narrow tunnel beyond and finally emerging into the sunlight on the other side.

The scenery, something that the knight usually would have taken great interest in, was completely forgotten, its beauty and allure totally eclipsed by Gwaine's worry for the boy in his arms. Merlin's shallow breaths were coming much too far apart, each one weaker than the last, and his skin was growing cold to the touch, the life rapidly draining from his broken frame even as Gwaine all but sprinted down the hill to the water's edge.

When he reached the sparkling lake, he laid Merlin on the sand, arranging the boy's limbs neatly around him before sitting back on his heels to wait for something to happen, for the promised healing to commence. After holding his breath in motionless silence for close to a minute, he decided that something was wrong and dropped his fingers to the boy's wrist to check for a pulse.

Almost immediately, his heart dropped in his chest and his eyes began to burn because the sluggish beat that he'd been expecting was noticeably absent. He swiped angrily at his eyes and tried to quell the panic mixed with despair that was forcing its way up his throat as he checked Merlin's other wrist, and then his throat, before finally pressing his ear to the boy's still chest.

"Come on!" he muttered, the words no more than a broken whisper, as his friend's face blurred before his eyes and hot tears began running down his cheeks, leaving burning trails through the stubble that lined his jaw. "Just breathe, dammit!"

He clenched his hands in the sand beside him, relishing the way the rough particles ground against his skin, before letting them run through his fingers. It couldn't end like this, not when they were so close, he couldn't bear the thought of wondering every day for the rest of his life whether there had been anything he could have done, something, anything, to give Merlin a little more time.

"Please!" he pleaded, placing his hands on either side of Merlin's pale face, "Please! You have to live… please, just don't be dead."

And then, as if in answer, the impossible happened, Merlin's bloodless lips parted slightly, his chest rising a fraction of an inch as he drew a miniscule amount of air into his lungs but it was enough. Gwaine stumbled back in shock as waves started lapping up onto the shore of the previously calm lake and dark black clouds appeared out of thin air above their heads.

Bolts of electricity raced through the clouds, charging the air and raising the hairs on the back of Gwaine's neck, filling the valley with an almost audible hum and lending a distinctly metallic taste to the air. For a second, the roiling storm clouds seemed to still then, with an ear shattering rumble of thunder, the heavens broke loose, unleashing torrents of rain on the ground below and a giant bolt of pure white lightening struck the center of the lake, turning its waters the color of molten gold.

"Merlin!" Gwaine called, struggling to stay upright as his voice was ripped away by the power of the gale-force wind but no matter how loudly he shouted or how hard he strained his eyes, the boy was nowhere to be found.

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