AN: Well, I'm finally posting squeeee! This story is going to be fully illustrated with 13 to 15 fanarts to go along with what I believe will be 17 chapters and around 30,000 words. I wanted to have an illustration for every chapter, but I think I'll miss 2 to 4 chapters. 12 pictures have already been completed and I'm working on the 13th. To view them with the story you'll have to check this out on AO3. I'll try to make my icon the image for each chapter as I post too, but they are so small I don't think you will see much lol!
The story is placed at the end of season 3 since that's when I started this. I left it on my computer half-finished for two years before returning to it and deciding to try and complete it :) I want to say thank you to the wonderful, the amazing EchoRose480 who is the awesome beta for this story. Without her I might not have gotten through some pretty horrible writers blocks. You rock! *hugs* P. S. She also has some great stories so please go check them out.
Anyway, pleeeeease let me know, what you think. Reviews are like candy and they'll inspire me to complete the last few chapters *grins*
Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin, if I did Arthur would still be alive, and the golden age of Albion would be upon us. Also, everything would be happy with rainbows, and flowers, and sunshine, and bunnies. No tragedy that leaves you feeling that your soul has just been sucked out and stomped on like BBC did *glares*
Chapter 1 - What Lurks Beneath
Merlin curses Arthur under his breath, because his boots are now ruined, completely and utterly unsalvageable. There is no way he'd be able to bring them back from such grievous treatment, and he can't help the look of irritation that crosses his features as he continues his waist deep trudge through the swamp waters. With each step he fails to keep a grimace from manifesting, because there is something very unpleasant and disturbing about mud and god knows what else squelching between your toes as you walk.
He's been partially submerged for the better part of two hours, and if he didn't know any better, he'd believe there was no end to this horrible place. With a huff of frustration he tugs on Breckon's reigns, signaling the horse to continue following his lead. The horse moves swifter than Merlin anticipates and the young man finds himself stumbling forwards, arms flailing for an ungraceful minute or two, before he manages to awkwardly catch his balance.
"Really Merlin, is it that hard to stay on your feet?" Arthur's mocking voice rings out from behind him. The younger man can't help the provoked tension that slides up his spine, or the irked roll of his eyes as he continues forward.
"Why is it again, that, out of eight men, I'm the only one having to wade through this muck and lead my horse?" Merlin huffs in exasperation, pushing another floating and questionable mound out of his path.
"That is because the seven of us are knights and you are the servant. Our supplies are crucial to our mission, and keeping them secure and dry is of the utmost importance. You're not suggesting to me that I volunteer my horse to carry them, and then that I, the prince, go wallowing through this filth?"
"I wasn't suggesting anything; I just don't see why I can't carry all the supplies and ride at the same time."
"In case you've forgotten, it is not your place to question, but to do. Besides, you're clearing the way and making sure the swamp bed is stable and safe for the horses to continue forward. It's an important job, and you should feel honored to have it."
Sir Lorvel lets out an amused snort and Merlin can feel his cheeks heat with both embarrassment and hardly suppressed anger.
"Really Princess, is this truly necessary." Gwaine spouts with a frown of obvious disapproval.
Merlin looks back at the older man with a sincere look of gratitude, and Gwaine winks at him. "I mean really, Merlin is more than welcome to double up with me." He suggests, grinning as he twists sideways in the saddle, and pats the space behind him emphatically.
Before Arthur can even respond, Sir Lorvel is scoffing "A servant riding with a knight is absolutely preposterous and absurd."
Merlin sends a quick, scathing look at the man who remains completely oblivious to the amount of contempt being passed his way.
Arthur who is watching shakes his head in amusement, and gives Merlin a mischievous look, "You heard him Merlin, keep moving."
Merlin sputters. "You can't be serious. Why can't I just…?" Arthur interrupts him with a look, eyelids pointedly shuttered as if to say, "Shut up, Merlin" or "Now, Merlin."
The warlock sighs exasperatedly, and Gwaine gives him an apologetic shrug as he silently mouths, "Sorry, mate" before sending his own disapproving glare at their two uppity companions.
Merlin nods and turns to glower in silence. Sir Lorvel had been in Camelot barely a month and all the while he and Arthur had been locked in some unspoken rivalry. What irked the warlock more than anything was that the two seemed to be competing on who could be more of a prat. In his opinion, Arthur was winning, despite the fact the whole prospect of making him trudge through the murky waters was Lorvel's idea in the first place. If truth be told, Merlin's reasoning for that was really because he held Arthur to a higher standard than the other man.
Merlin is jerked from his inner brooding when Breckon gives a nervous snort. He looks up at the moss covered canopy, his eyes darting around the dimly lit area with unease. He hadn't liked the looks of this place since the moment they rode up to it. It is far too dark, for the time of day. The trees are bent into sickly shapes, gnarly roots twisting together before disappearing into the muddy waters. Not a breeze blows, and the air that hangs heavily is old, filled with the scents of slimy moss and stagnant water. Vines and all kinds of plant life dangle from the trees like webs, and at the moment he is trying to ignore the mosquitoes that are attempting to drain his body dry. 'Bloody vampires' he hisses inwardly, swiping one of the aforementioned insects off the side of his neck.
"Are you sure this is safe?" Merlin grumbles. "Do you even know where we're going, because from where I stand it looks like we're traveling through this God forsaken place for no other reason than to torment me. Even the horses' seem to be-I don't know…uncomfortable."
"The horses are fine, stop being so paranoid and whiney. You know as well as I, that the creature we're looking for was sighted just past this swamp. If I really wanted to torment you, I'd hardly have to go through something this elaborate. In fact, I'd have you muck out the stables for a week, or just leave you in the stocks for a day," Arthur grins smugly.
"I don't care what you say, this place gives me the creeps," Merlin states flatly, a wary shiver moving down his spine as he continues to slowly drag his legs forward. Just when he is beginning to feel somewhat relaxed, the violating sensations of something sliming along his upper thigh causes him to let out a startled yelp. He stumbles back and begins to twist around, his horrified blue eyes darting around the obscured water for the offending creature, or whatever it was.
"Merlin, you okay, mate?" Gwaine asks with obvious concern.
Merlin's frantic gaze flits upward to see the men staring at him with varying expressions ranging from curiosity to mild annoyance. He shakes his head "No, no I'm not," he answers, clearly miffed. "I've had it, I want back on my horse!"
Arthur's serious expression turns into an exasperated one. "You're being such a girl Merlin, honestly."
"I'm being a girl?" Merlin exclaims, face turning red as he starts to sputter and gesticulate at the water surrounding him, "You're not the one getting groped by all sorts of…god knows what!"
Merlin is clearly not prepared for the roar of laughter that comes from the troupe before him. Only Gwaine and Lancelot have the decency to look apologetic when they try to cover their amused grins behind their gloved hands. "Well, by all means, laugh it up! I'm so glad you all find my distress so entertaining!" He growls, sending a scalding glare at his supposed friends before turning his back on the lot of them. He wades forward determinedly, dingy water splashing up around his waist.
If Merlin hadn't been brooding, he might have seen the piercing gold eyes that peeked out from the shallow depths. Both orbs focused predatorily on him from underneath their scaly lids. So lost in his internal raging, Merlin hardly notices Breckon tensing up behind him, but when she whinnies and lets out an agitated snort, he can't help but glance backward. By then, the animal has lowered her ears flat, and both brown eyes are crazed as they stare intently out into the marsh.
Merlin gives a commanding tug on the reigns, but the horse refuses to be persuaded and instead takes a hesitant step backward. It is then that a deep sense of foreboding sweeps over the warlock, and Merlin can't help but swallow thickly while he scans the foreboding scenery around him. Something was wrong, he just knew it.
"Why have you stopped?" Arthur Inquires loudly of him.
"Something's not right," Merlin answers vaguely, too occupied with the strange ominous prickle at the back of his mind, and the heavy weight of dread in his stomach to realize how unenlightening his response had been.
"Do you see something?" Lancelot asks seriously, his cautious interest peeking through.
"No, but Breckon…" Merlin stops abruptly, seeing movement in his peripheral vision. When his eyes scan the spot, a blink of an eye later, only a soft ripple remains to be seen.
Instantly the hairs on the back of his neck begin to stand on end, "Arthur, I think there's something in the water," he breathes shakily, backing away slowly.
"Where?" Arthur asks, his hand already moving to the hilt of his sword.
"I saw something to the left," Lancelot announces, pointing off to the area behind the warlock.
"Merlin, get on your horse," Arthur orders.
"Gladly!" Merlin exclaims, before moving toward the side of his mare. Breckon jerks back suddenly, violently pulling the reigns from the warlock's grasp as she rears back with a shriek. All at once, the other Horses begin to panic and the water begins to splash up from their erratic movements. The previously quiet surroundings are now echoing with the uproar of several terrified animals.
"Get out of the water now Merlin!" Arthur shouts fiercely, trying to calm his own steed.
"I'm trying!" Merlin sputters as he gropes for his lost reigns, the frightened horses forcing him to inhale more of the water that they continue to disrupt. He can barely decipher who the shouts are from, but there is a simultaneous outpouring of alarmed cries. Merlin can feel the sound of his name, and the phrase 'behind you', shouted in varying degrees of horror, resonating in his ears clearly. It is in that moment that he knows something terrible is about to happen, and the magic that has been pulsing beneath his skin erupts along with the sense of urgency that floods through his veins. Swiveling in the water he tries to face whatever the impending danger is head on, but everything happens in such rapid succession that there is no chance for him to process what unfolds next. Merlin lets out a shout of surprise when the only things he can see in the blur of movement are teeth, rows and rows of razor sharp teeth that are rapidly descending upon him. 'Oh, god!'
Then there is only pain as the creatures jaws clamp down on his torso, and immediately uses the force of its enormous frame to pull him underneath the murky surface. Merlin screams out what little air he has as the beasts grip on him tightens and agony tears through him. When he gasps in an attempt to retrieve it, he only receives a mouth full of water for his effort.
He can feel each tooth ripping into the soft flesh that covers his upper body, all of them working together to tear him apart. He claws at the creatures scales with his hands, even though the skin is tough like armor. He knows it's futile, but he continues desperately all the same, his instinctive need to survive prompting him to fight despite his mind being clouded with frantic terror.
Then, he is swept up in a world of vertigo and pain as the beast shakes him roughly, and begins to roll. From then on all he can comprehend is agony, darkness, and swirling water. Merlin screams although his lungs are empty, and instinctively he drags in another breath of filth. His lungs protest vengefully to the foreign substance that invades them a second time, and it only takes mere moments for his fingers' grip on the dark hide to go lax. His body starts convulsing as it struggles to maintain its fragile grasp on life. Merlin's ears are ringing so loudly now that he can hear nothing else. The magic inside him screams to be released, but Merlin has not the strength left to heed it, nor is there enough life remaining to answer its call.