When Arthur came to himself, there were the sounds of panic all around-voices screaming, crying, and the sounds of destruction outside.
"Just like those swamp thingees in Florida. Right here in the damn park."
"That's because that's him-that's Matthew Hyde!"
"They can't open the doors. They don't know how."
"They can just break the glass!"
"If they wanted to, maybe, but I think they just want him."
"Someone should help him! My god..."
There were several gasps.
"What the hell?"
"Daddy, did...did he do that? Is he okay?"
"It's okay. The police will help him. They'll get those bastards."
There were more screams and a gun fired outside at close range-then more shots and more screaming.
For first time, Arthur thought to himself, "I know that sound. I should help."
But when he moved, it was like moving through gallons of honey. Every part of him was tired and aching, and even the emotions of concern and fear for those around him were muted. It seemed like forever before he made it to his feet and staggered to the door, where he couldn't see any of the things those people had been talking about. The empty mist in the parking lot was already dissipating.
Then Arthur saw the body of a dead wendigo.
He pushed outside, registering the police car off to the side with its two frantic officers, one yelling at the other before jumping in the passenger seat and banging on the top of the car. They peeled off with a screech of tires and Arthur jumped in the station wagon, instinct telling him to follow.
Questions flooded his mind and there were no answers yet.
When he saw the Mammoth Cave National Park sign, a desperate jolt of fear went through him. Merlin. The gray witch.
Horror stole his breath. He had driven the wrong way, completely given over control of his body. Merlin had tried to get him to turn around and Arthur had...he had hit him. Forced him to stay in the car and even gone after him at the cafe.
Arthur tried to bring his breathing under control as the rest of the memory unfolded in his mind.
The wendigos had taken Merlin and Arthur had just laid there and listened, thinking it was good because the wendigos weren't attacking the other people. No! Arthur slammed his fist into the steering wheel.
Now he remembered fighting, trying to fight his way through the commands in his brain, but he hadn't been strong enough. And now they had Merlin-she had Merlin.
Arthur pushed the car to its limits until he screeched to a halt in the parking lot. He ran to the caves, hardly knowing what he was doing, not even realizing anyone else was there until a guard was in his face, barring his entrance. The man babbled something about inhuman creatures and a man being dragged down into the caves.
"The police are already down there, sir, and it's not safe for civilians," the guard concluded. "Just step back and wait in your vehicle."
Arthur pulled his sword out and tried to form coherent, simple words that the man would understand. "I'm going to get my friend back. Now move."
Something about his look must have convinced the guard, because he stepped aside, pale, mumbling, "It's your funeral."
Arthur descended down the long, open staircase that ducked down into the large cave and disappeared into the earth. The temperature dropped steadily and the air grew heavy with moisture.
"Hey man!" Arthur looked up and the guard tossed him a flashlight. "You'll need this."
Arthur blinked. "Thank you."
It was obvious which direction the creatures had gone. There was a trail of destruction- trash, lights, bodies-in that direction. Once there was the sound of gunshots ahead. The policemen were doing their duty. He hoped they had sense enough to retreat quickly when the bullets didn't work.
Five minutes later, Arthur came across body parts in uniform and knew that the police were not going to be of any further help. There were several dead wendigos as well, but not nearly enough for Arthur's peace of mind. He took a moment to wish for Gwaine's solid presence before moving on.
The path was getting harder to see and it seemed calculated to slow him down, making him grind his way through narrow caves and then duck down underneath low ceilings. His only consolation was that the wendigos must have found it even more difficult.
The next large cavern he entered was completely dark but for his flashlight. Echoing hoots and the slide of rock on rock indicated that he was nearly upon them. There was no missing the sounds of rejoicing wendigos.
After a few more cautious minutes of creeping ahead, Arthur switched off his light. There was a vague glow from up ahead and someone was talking-a woman.
Matthew was so glad to be lying on the uncomfortable stone floor of the cave that it was absurd. He was hurt badly-everywhere. It was impossible to catalog so much pain. He knew something was broken but his head was too messed up to tell exactly what. There was ringing in his ears, almost as loud as that obnoxious voice. What was she saying? He tried to concentrate, because it was probably important.
"...for fifteen years, I siphoned off your power to make me strong. Never taking too much. Never letting anyone see. Never, never. Even at night, when you slept and dreamt of me. Sometimes I called to you, and they would always keep you from coming to me. But not this time." She stopped pacing and leaned over him, thrusting her gray, wrinkled face into his line of vision. When he turned away, she took his chin in her hand. "Now I have you, my gorgeous, glorious mate. Broken and perfect, ready to feed me. All it will take is a few minutes and a teensy-tiny spell."
She released him and turned away, waving a hand to make the torches on the walls burn brighter. He was just a power source to her. Arthur was right. Matthew had ignored his power and now he was paying the price. His only recourse was...was...trying to get to the power first. Yes. Somehow, he'd done just that, outside, fighting the wendigos-if that hadn't been a panic-induced dream.
It was so hard to think. Matthew gritted his teeth and focused, growing still, feeling the dawning of a idea in his mind.
Matthew could take this power for himself because...because...Matthew really was Merlin...the sorcerer who didn't die...who had lived for thousands of years, forgotten and abandoned by everyone he'd ever known. He didn't want it; he had tried to fight it, but it was still true.
Matthew really was Merlin.
Matthew wailed as the pain of it came crashing into him-the pain of fifteen hundred years of living on and on and waiting and waiting and waiting, the absolute agony of being Merlin without Arthur, who had gone on without him, who had forgotten him like everyone else or he would have returned by now-
"Are you listening to me?" the voice of the lady hissed. "Get him up."
Merlin was summarily snatched from the floor and held by two wendigos. The hot jolt of pain shocked him back into a distant awareness. He was here, in a cave, facing a gray witch served by a pack of wendigos who could apparently understand her. Shocking how intelligent they were, after all that howling and thumping and pulling. Now that he thought about it, he was actually quite annoyed.
"This next part of the ritual needs blood. I know, so old school, but necessary. We'll take a little bit of yours and a little bit of mine." She was tall and yet still humped over, her gown and skin somehow all the same-wrinkled and gray and aged. Merlin watched her slice his arm, surprised to realize that his shirt had been removed at some point, which he did not like at all. Blood welled up immediately, and a pittance of pain followed after.
"What can you possibly think you're doing?" he said quietly.
She laughed at him, her wrinkled lips pulled wide, and stuck out her black tongue to lick at his blood. The smear of red on her face was obscene and her eyes, lit gold, were narrowed in hate. She moved closer and looked up into his eyes. "Poor boy, so young, so inexperienced. Why didn't someone protect you from me? They should have never sent you here, where I could suck on your magic like a lollipop. Yum." She leaned forward and nuzzled his chest and he shuddered.
Her closeness and the noisome foulness of her magic grated against him until the heat in his chest flared. Oh, right. Magic in its purest sense was flooding him. He almost laughed to think that he had been denying it, hiding it, wishing it all away.
Well. No more of that, then.
With a thought, Merlin tossed the wendigos away. Swaying, he used magic to heal several somethings that were bothering him and stood straighter. He'd definitely gotten better at that over the centuries.
A sudden cacophony of wings and shrieks invaded the cave. Merlin looked up to see a cloud of giant bats diving down from their perches above. They swooped down into the cavern, their wings beating, throwing light and shadows across the rocky walls.
All it took was a thought and a golden glare from Merlin and they began tearing each other to shreds, tumbling to the ground below. When not one of them was left to attack him, Merlin turned to narrow his eyes at the witch. She was gathering her puny power, almost all of which had been stolen from him over the years.
There was a shout from the side, and then suddenly a vision of Arthur appeared, bursting into the scene and wielding his sword on Merlin's behalf. He sliced through one wendigo and faced off against two others, trying to get to Merlin's side. "Are you all right?" he yelled.
Merlin frowned. Why was his mind constantly doing this to him? Yes, that is exactly what Arthur would do if he were here, but he wasn't here to be so sweetly and unnecessarily heroic.
Merlin tilted his head and simply looked at the creatures and they stopped, confused. Their nature had been distorted by magic, and Merlin peered into them until he found their genesis and simply... nudged it. They shrunk to skin on bones, dissolved to skeletons, and then collapsed to the ground, lifeless. Hardly a challenge.
Arthur blinked and turned to look at Merlin. "Behind you!"
Merlin played along with his subconscious-generated vision and turned to see the witch poised with one hand in the air, syllables of destruction in her mouth.
"Inexperienced? Really?" With a swipe of one hand, Merlin caught her spell and held it before him. Her wrinkled face went slack. "Is this how you hoped to defeat me? This tiny, little spell?" His mouth twisted in a smirk. "It's been a long time since anyone has been that foolish. How dare you," he continued in a darker tone, emotion bleeding through. "How dare you try to use my own magic against me! You will not survive this."
He released her spell as though it were nothing and lifted his other hand. With cold malevolence, he re-established the connection she had made to him and infused her whole being with the power she had so desperately craved.
"Is this what you wanted? Pure, raw power?"
The gray witch opened her mouth in a silent scream, her head thrown back, her entire being taut with tension as she strove to hold that which she was not built to receive. No one was, except for him. It was his burden, his blessing, his particular brand of torture. No one could share it; it was his alone.
"Well. You've come to the right place." Merlin sent another stab of power, then another and another. It was endless, truly.
A soft smile turned up the corners of his mouth as he watched her begin to burn from the inside-out. Tilting his head, he enjoyed the feeling of rightness as her life began to gutter like a candle in the wind.
The gray witch dissolved with a puff of air and a flash that took all the torch light and left behind echoing reverberations. Arthur stayed still as it quieted, crouched, sword in hand, holding his breath. Then there was the slightest sound of movement, and Merlin spoke.
"Not with a bang, but a whimper," he whispered, his voice filled with a dark satisfaction that Arthur couldn't begin to fathom. What had his friend become? He watched as Merlin conjured a small ball of light to look out over the destruction. There were bones and bloodied, eviscerated bat bodies strewn all over the cave floor. After a moment, Merlin laughed and the sound chilled Arthur's blood.
"I know exactly what you're thinking, Arthur," Merlin said in a chiding tone as he turned away, his voice echoing in the cave walls. "You're thinking that I've become a monster."
Arthur stood and then paused, completely confused. Merlin wasn't looking at him. Did he know Arthur was there?
"I was thinking more along the lines of a deranged madman, but yes, that was the basic thrust of my thoughts," Merlin answered himself in a passable imitation of Arthur's voice.
Merlin snorted and answered in his own voice. "I'm only laughing because I see no human bodies here. This is death on a small scale, Arthur, nothing like what we've seen in the past. Nothing like the fields of death and destruction...in...in-" and he choked off, smothering his sobs in the crook of his elbow.
Arthur opened his mouth to speak and found he couldn't. Merlin was as deeply damaged as Gwaine had led him to believe. The look on his face as he had destroyed the witch had been...well, if not evil, then at least not good. And not very much as he used to be.
Arthur quietly cleaned his sword and slid it back into its scabbard, sure that Merlin was too deep in his own misery to hear him now. After a moment of gathering himself, Arthur stepped closer and cleared his throat.
Merlin sniffed and wiped his tears but stayed where he was, turned away from Arthur.
His hand flailed in the air by his ear as if Arthur's voice were nothing a buzzing fly. "Go away," he whispered.
Arthur stepped closer. "Merlin?"
Merlin jerked but he didn't turn around, as if he were afraid to. When his voice came, it was broken, tentative. "Arthur?"
"I'm here, Merlin. I've returned. Do you remember?"
Merlin shook his head, still not turning around. "No. I remember you not being here, over and over and over and over again, that's what I remember." He pressed a hand to his ear. "Times like this, when I hear you and see you and I could swear it's all over I just have to remember it's not. It's just a trick of my mind, my masochistic mind that won't let the past go even after I've tried killing it over and over and over and over again. " His voice had taken on a sing-song quality that unnerved Arthur yet again. Merlin lowered his hand and started to walk away wearily.
"Merlin, turn around," Arthur commanded.
Merlin froze again, his shoulders hunched and his breathing irregular. "But you're not here," he whispered. "It's a trick and I can't-no, or I'll have to kill myself again and I don't want-"
"Merlin!" Arthur said and finally strode forward and forcibly turned his friend around, huffing out a breath when Merlin stubbornly shut his eyes. "Open your eyes, Merlin."
"I've just gotten my mind back, you hellish apparition-"
"Open your eyes."
"No, not when it's only going to end up damning me back to-"
"Merlin, open your eyes or I'll-I'll post that video Gwaine took of you sleepwalking on Youtube."
Merlin tilted his head to the side and paused. "That's a new threat."
Arthur sighed. "I came back from the dead, saved your life multiple times and still, you won't even look at me?"
A tear slid out from under Merlin's eyelids and his lips trembled. "Do you promise not to disappear?"
A perfect sphere of blue light appeared beside them, but still, Merlin hesitated. "Truly?"
Arthur gripped Merlin's arms. "Trust me. Please?"
Merlin nodded. When the blue of his eyes appeared, Arthur felt his own eyes moisten and then Merlin's hands were on his face and awe was choking out the despair in his eyes.
"Arthur?" he breathed.
"It's me, Merlin. I'm back."
Merlin was floating-was he even still alive? Had he somehow died in the cave, or fallen asleep? But this was so much better than a dream, better than any dream he'd ever had. He dashed away his tears so he could see Arthur's face better-Arthur's actual face. He was here. Arthur had returned!
"It's you," he whispered, "it's really you." He put his shaking hands to Arthur's smiling face again, wondering at the tears he saw in those eyes, revelling in the fondness there, laughing at the joy he saw bubbling up in the king's grin.
"I should have known," Merlin babbled, "I should have felt it." Merlin kept blinking, trying to get the tears out of the way, but they kept falling, as if they were anxious to see the Once and Future King, too. "Why didn't I feel it?" His whole body felt anxious, hopped up and full of energy. "The power came so easily, so ready, when it hasn't since...since you died, Arthur. Arthur?" he had to ask again, searching the man's face.
"Yes, Merlin. I've been here for days, just waiting for you to remember. Idiot."
With a shout of joy, he released his hold on Arthur's face and threw his arms around his friend, laughing and sobbing at the same time, emotions rushing and tumbling in him until he didn't know if he was miserable or joyful or some devastating mix of the two.
"It's all right, Merlin," Arthur kept saying, somehow knowing it was what Merlin needed and not despising him for that weakness. He was solid in his arms, real-smelling, just as strong and kingly as ever, only without all that armor. But they had never held each other like this before. Merlin pulled back, thinking he ought to feel awkward, but knowing that he didn't and really couldn't anyway.
And then with a snap, his memory returned, of those awful, final days in Arthur's last life, when Merlin had finally revealed his magic and was completely inadequate in every way, had failed and the king was suddenly dying in his arms.
"I couldn't save you," Merlin gasped. "Arthur, I'm so sorry," he babbled, swiping away more stupid tears because he needed to see.
Arthur put his hands on Merlin's shoulders. "I know, Merlin. I knew you would feel that way, but you have to listen to me: you weren't meant to save me, not that time. I'm sorry I didn't return sooner to tell you that."
Merlin shook his head. "No, this was my penance." His face crumpled and he looked away. "But you asked me not to change, Arthur, and I did. It got so hard and I..."
"No," Arthur said softly, "Merlin, look at me. I asked you to always be you. Are you still you?"
"Erm...yeah, now, but, erm," Merlin sniffled, suddenly self-conscious. "I'm a bloody mess?"
"That's okay. Anyone would be. But I have good news. You've earned your rest, Merlin, many times over. It's time to go home."
"Home?" Merlin asked, his heart beating faster.
"There are quite a few people there who have been waiting for you."
"Avalon," Merlin whispered reverently, "I didn't think I'd...I'd ever get there..." Merlin trailed off and started laughing.
Arthur watched him with concern and pulled him back into his arms as the mirth changed to tears again, the tears of the broken and hopeless whose most desperate prayers have been answered in one, ecstatic moment of bliss.