Matthew couldn't catch his breath. Blood was all over him. The smell was everywhere. Arthur was saying something, but the sounds were drowned out by the roar in Matthew's ears. He pushed past Arthur and went for the door, an instinct telling him to find clear air. But outside, on the walkway, there were dead creatures and more blood. Down below, there were even more twitching bodies scattered-ten, twenty. And two human bodies, still as death.
Matthew gagged and retched. Nothing came up but bile. Death was all around him.
He fell to his knees and he suddenly knew the truth: death was always around him.
A memory welled up, of another time and another place...
He was in uniform, hungry, dirty, numb. There was grit in his mouth and the taste of blood on his tongue. The landscape was gray, smoke hanging in the air, the land shapeless with bodies. Before him, the waters of the Somme were running dark with blood.
His legs felt watery and he sat, the bottom of his boots sliding into the dark waters. Why was he in uniform? He looked around distractedly and saw that the bodies around him were in uniform, some matching his, some not. Thousands of them, stretching on forever, with so much blood, so much wasted life...
A muffled boom in the distance broke through his reverie. The tanks were still firing and the front line had moved on. Merlin tugged at his uniform at the shoulder, where a bullet had lodged itself so inconveniently. Warm blood was pumping down his arm. He could magic it away, if he hadn't used so much magic already. It tired him, especially healing magic, and he had already healed many of his comrades today, as he had on previous days, weeks and months of this wretched war.
He lay back and stared at the sky, its charming blue stained with smoke and indifference.
Merlin hated war...hated the endlessness of it, the long slog of marching toward death in the hopeless hope that evil would not prevail.
This is what he had strived to prevent and failed to prevent: an entire world at war.
It was madness.
Matthew gasped and came back to himself with a jerk. Or, actually, Arthur had pulled him up with a jerk and now he was aware again. He was Matthew. Not Merlin. Not shot on a battlefield.
He grabbed at Arthur, clenching the shoulders of his shirt, shocking him. "Why? Why did he have to live through all of that? Why? What in the hell was the point?"
It wasn't until Arthur's arms came around him that he realized he was crying, sobbing deep sobs that wracked him through and through.
Arthur was talking calmly to him, something about destiny and wholeness and worth, but it was all washed away in a flood of emotion that left Matthew weak and as numb as Merlin had been on that battlefield.
"I can't do this," he whispered, his gaze far away, "not yet."
Arthur held on to his friend, desperately trying to pick up clues as to who he was holding-Merlin or Matthew. There was a struggle going on inside this man, a fight for dominance between two persons, though they were essentially the same. Matthew was an increasingly traumatized twenty-two year old forced to watch his life fade slowly away, the same way Arthur had once painfully watched his own. Merlin was an ageless, immortal sorcerer who had been through unfathomable grief so often that death seemed like an unattainable dream.
Both had reasons for good reasons for falling apart and Arthur realized with some relief that this was not the time to have deep, meaningful talks. So he held onto him, whichever of the two men it was, just as Merlin had once held onto him at the end of Arthur's last life.
Slowly, the man stopped repeating his mantra of "can't do this" and his body relaxed. When he pulled away, Arthur released him.
"Are you all right, Merlin?"
"Don't call me that-not yet. My name is Matthew."
Arthur patted him on the back lightly, trying not to be disappointed. He looked around, assessing their surroundings. "Of course. Matthew, we need to move on."
"But what about Gwaine?" he asked, the light of pain making his blue eyes so vulnerable and so perfectly Merlin that Arthur was struck dumb. It felt wrong to smile at that moment, but he knew what Matthew did not, that Gwaine was in Avalon and Matthew was becoming Merlin and all would be well soon. He put a hand on Matthew's shoulder.
"He will be taken care of, in this world and in the next. I've seen Avalon and all the people we love wait for us there. Gwaine's purpose in accompanying me here was to do exactly what he did-repay a debt. Not one that we felt he owed us, but one that he felt he must repay. It was well done," Arthur admitted, shaking Matthew's shoulder to get him to look at him, "and we should not waste the extra time it gave us to flee. We must move on."
Matthew put up a hand to stop Arthur. "Are you telling me the truth? About Avalon?"
"Yes, I am."
Matthew thought for a moment before nodding. When he headed for the car, he moved as if carrying the weight of Gwaine's body on his own. Arthur slung his arm around Matthew's shoulder as they walked, grimacing as he saw the smear of blood on its hood and the cracked windshield.
"Bloody giant bats from hell," he muttered, pulling a small smile from Matthew. "I'll drive," he offered and Matthew broke out of his reverie long enough to look at him doubtfully. "What? I can drive, you know. You don't seriously think that I let Gwaine drive the car more than once? I'm not that stupid."
For a time, Matthew let himself drift, refusing to think about all the million and one things clamoring for his attention-Gwaine's death, his own guilt, giant bats, battlefields or fires or abbeys, his damaged computer on the floor of the hotel, his far away parents, the wendigos or the horrible, powerful EVIL that must be behind all of this. Nor did he allow himself to think about why this was happening either. He simply watched the dark road go by, letting himself be hypnotized by the endless trees, the strip of darkness and stars overhead and the sounds of the car around him. At some point, he drifted off.
When he woke, his neck aching from the cramped position he'd slept in, Arthur was switching between channels on the radio.
"Did you have a good nap?" Arthur asked, sounding irritable.
Matthew started to use sign language to reply, then remembered. "Yeah. Even had a nice dream. Best one I've had in ages. You need a break? I can drive." He yawned. It was still dark outside, not even dawn yet.
"In an hour." Arthur continued to switch between talk stations on the radio. There was nothing unusual on them, no reports of creatures hunting down college students. The gargantuan bats that had come out of nowhere hadn't made the news yet most likely because no one had been left alive at the motel. Matthew let the guilt slide in and out of him, trying not to let it lodge too deep. He was pretty sure he was carrying enough guilt already. Speaking of which...
He turned to face Arthur. "So I don't...Merlin doesn't...die?"
Arthur looked over at him, startled. "No. You're tougher than you look apparently." He sent a ghost of a smile at Matthew but received no reply. Arthur looked back at the road. "Gwaine said that you've faked dying a few times to get out of bad situations."
"That's sick," Matthew said, shocked.
"It is. You wouldn't have done it if there were other options. I know that."
Matthew huffed out a breath and after a moment, slammed a hand into the dash. "That's not me! I don't want it to be me."
"I know. But this is not the time to try and fight it, Matthew. Being who you are is dangerous. You're the most powerful sorcerer that ever lived. And all that magic you're not using is attracting attention."
Matthew put his feet up on the chair and hugged his knees to his chest. "What does that even mean?"
"Follow me: your President here is one of the most powerful men in the world. What if he were to sit in his office every day and ignore that power-doing nothing to exercise it for right or for wrong. What would happen? Someone would come along who wanted that power for themselves and they would find a way to take it. It's simple human nature. Do you understand?"
Matthew's stomach turned over and he nodded uncomfortably. That made too much sense. His gaze was pulled outward by a bright flash of lightning, followed by another rumble of thunder.
Arthur continued. "We are only running until you remember who you are, why you are here and accept the power that is yours. Once you do, you'll be so powerful that the things the gray witch sends against you won't even be a threat."
"The gray witch?"
Arthur grimaced and rubbed at his forehead. "I've been having dreams. I didn't realize it might have any meaning until Dr. Driscoll brought up the gray lady. She must have been sending me the dreams."
Matthew sat up straighter. "What does she look like?"
Arthur looked at him. "Tall, impossibly tall, and gray like the bark of an old tree. Evil to the core. I'm certain she wants me to deliver you to her, but I'm not going to do that," he said with a thin smile. "She wants me to go north, so I'm taking you south."
"But we are going north. If we keep on 75 like this, we'll be in Atlanta soon."
Arthur cursed. "And that's farther north than Jacksonville?"
Matthew's eyes widened. "Jacksonville is...that's three hundred miles south of here, Arthur."
Arthur grabbed his cell phone and started punching angrily at the screen, settling the steering wheel against his knees. "How did I miss that?"
Matthew watched him with that familiar feeling of ants moving under his skin. Was Arthur simply confused or was something else going on? "We're not going to go north anymore, right?"
"No, of course not. We'll head...west on 20 once we get through Atlanta."
"You should let me drive through the city."
"I'll be fine," Arthur snapped. Ten minutes later, he was cursing at drivers right and left as they merged and cut him off again and again.
"Arthur, you really should be going faster than forty-five. The speed limit is fifty-five."
"Then why in the bloody hell is everyone going seventy?"
"It's Atlanta, that's why. Really, you should let me drive."
Only half an hour later, they were on interstate 20 and headed west.
Matthew felt himself nodding off again and tilted his seat back. "Sorry, but I'm so tired."
"You're still recovering. I don't need much sleep these days. I'm fine."
Matthew tried to get comfortable, but felt himself falling asleep before he reached that point. Sometime later, he woke with the dawn, feeling better and brighter than the day outside, which was only offering only shades of gray as the sun rose behind a curtain of clouds. Arthur looked pale and tired.
"Where are we?"
Arthur didn't answer. He was staring straight ahead, blank-eyed. Matthew thumped him lightly on the arm and he jumped.
"Is there a problem?" Arthur frowned at him.
"You didn't answer. Where are we?"
"We're heading west."
But as Merlin saw a road sign, he felt a sinking sensation in his gut. "What-Arthur, we're going north on 65. What are you doing?"
Arthur looked around, befuddled. "I was going west, I was. And then..."
Thunder rumbled in the distance.
"Stop the car, Arthur."
Arthur stared at him "I can't."
"Why can't you? We're going the wrong way!"
Arthur's gaze danced around, from Matthew to the road and back again, nervous, like he had something to hide. "I have to get you somewhere safe."
"And where is safe?"
"North. Northeast. We're almost there," he breathed out, "just a little farther, Matthew. And then you'll see."
"Stop the car!" Matthew yelled and he tried to reach the brake pedal with his foot, but Arthur slammed a fist into his thigh. Matthew yelped in pain, clutching his leg.
"Matthew?" Arthur asked, sounding lost, "I didn't mean to do that. I just...I just can't stop the car. I'm sorry."
Matthew ignored Arthur's babbling. The witch had gotten to him. That image he had described, of the gray woman...Matthew had seen her when he had been a child. He hadn't thought she was real. But she was and now she had Arthur doing her bidding. Matthew was being delivered to her.
He tried to stay calm. How could he stop the car without hurting Arthur? If he tried to gain control then he might wreck the car...but then again...maybe Arthur would just hit the brakes.
Moving quick, Matthew jerked an elbow down into Arthur's arm, using all his weight to break the man's hold on the wheel. It worked and Matthew yanked the wheel to the right with both hands.
It worked for three brief seconds: the car swung right; Arthur braked.
And then Matthew's nose exploded with pain as Arthur elbowed him. Reeling, seeing stars, he was manhandled to the other side of the car.
It took nearly five minutes for Matthew's nose to stop bleeding and his eyes to stop watering. Beside him, Arthur muttered, his words divided between apologies and assurances that this was the right way. Watching the world go by out the window, Matthew contemplated jumping for it, but he couldn't risk it at this speed. If they slowed down, maybe. His nose really, really hurt.
When they slowed to turn North on 255, he gathered himself and went for the door handle, but a rock solid grip on his arm disabused him of that notion.
"Everything will be fine, Matthew," Arthur said in a hollow voice, "just stay in the car."
Matthew winced at the bruising grip but obeyed. He wasn't stronger than Arthur, and he'd used up all his tricks. Except magic, he reminded himself hopelessly. Yes, okay, that damaged aura might be a store of magic inside, but he had no idea how to go about using it. He groaned, and Arthur's grip loosened.
It wouldn't be too bad to jump now, but all Matthew could do was stare as he saw a sign by the road ahead. Mammoth Cave National Park, it read. They were turning into the park.
For the first time he began to think maybe Arthur wasn't ensorcelled. In Matthew's visions of the past, the woods and caves had been Merlin's home when he wanted to escape the world of men. Was it possible that some other force was at work here? Even Magic itself? "I'll be safe here?" he peered at Arthur.
"Yes," Arthur said, sounding relieved, "this is where we're supposed to be. You'll be safe here."
As soon as they reached the parking lot, which was already hosting a dozen cars, Arthur released Matthew's arm and eased into a slot. He turned off the car and sat, blinking for a minute. Then he frowned. "Why am I so tired?"
Matthew rubbed his arm, trying to get the circulation going again. "You drove through most of the night. Just lay back and sleep. I'll keep watch."
Arthur nodded and leaned his chair back. Matthew watched in amazement as he fell asleep instantly.
Looking around, Matthew saw other cars with families piling out, ready for a day of exploring the caves. Maybe this could be his safe place, like in his visions. Maybe he should check it out on his own.
Just then, his stomach rumbled. Matthew groaned. He had no food and looking around, he didn't see anywhere to get food. But there had been a cafe a few miles up the road. "I'll be right back," he told Arthur, reaching over to lock the door and grab the keys. "And I'll bring food."
His face, leg and arm ached as he got out of the car, reminders of how violent Arthur had gotten on the way here. The bruises made walking painful and of course it was farther back than Matthew had remembered. All in all, it took about ten minutes to get to the Crystal Lake Coffee Shop.
The walk did clear Matthew's head a bit. By the time he got there, he knew that he definitely didn't want to stay. In fact, he now thought that he should have forced Arthur into the back seat, driven here to eat and then taken off for some safer place.
But there was a niggling part of his mind that said a sleeping Arthur was safer than an awake Arthur right now. Waking him up would not be easy or fun and who knew what the consequences would be? Like this, he was unpredictable at best, and scary at worst.
At the cafe, Matthew ordered a couple of muffins and a latte. The first muffin he practically inhaled, but the second, full of big chocolate chips, was so good that he took his time. He was doing an excellent job at not thinking about anything catastrophic, focusing instead on the interesting people around him. There was a sweet family with three little blond-headed kids who were happily tucking into pancakes with some mix of fruit and whipped cream on top. Their dad was reading the newspaper.
The scene reminded him to call his mom and tell her where they had driven to and that no, they weren't coming home just yet. Hopefully they would soon. To make her feel better, he told her about the good dream he'd had; she knew how rare they were for him. "That must mean something good is going to happen, right?"
"I hope so, sweetie. Just stay with Arthur and Gwaine; they'll get you home safe."
Matthew felt guilty for not correcting her, but he wanted the call to reassure her, not make her worry more. She seemed shocked at how far they had driven, so he convinced her that they were doing some sightseeing.
"Might as well have some fun, right?"
"I love that idea. You do that, Matthew. You need some fun. Call me when you've figured out your next step, sweetie. And tell Arthur to call me when he wakes up. I have a few questions to ask him."
"Sure thing. Bye, Mom. I love you."
"You have no idea how wonderful it is to hear you say that out loud. I love you, too. Be safe."
Matthew hung up, determined to take charge and try to get some place safer. Unfortunately, his mind did toss out the idea that he might actually be safer now without going back to Arthur. But that felt wrong on so many levels. Matthew went back and forth over the idea until it made him dizzy. Then he got the waitress's attention and ordered Arthur a greasy breakfast sandwich and a couple of bottles of chilled water to go. He couldn't abandon Arthur.
After a moment, the television nestled against the ceiling caught his attention. The cafe had several spaced around the eating area, all tuned to the same channel. And that channel was showing his own face right now.
Matthew stared, looking at his high school senior picture, the one where he'd smiled like a dork because the photographer had been blond, attractive and had told him that he had beautiful eyes. He fumbled with the control at his table and listened in on the nationally televised morning show.
The anchor sat casually in front of a large picture window as he continued what must have been his introduction to the segment, "...since the interviews in Crystal River after the wendigo attack. We now know that Matthew was adopted at the age of five and brought up in a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky by his parents, Verona and Jim Hyde. The orphanage, Happy Acres, has reported that Matthew appeared mysteriously in their yard one day, toddling around at the age of three, completely naked."
Matthew swore softly, blushing. "They just love telling that story," he muttered. As he glanced back up, he saw his waitress staring at him, her eyes widening. He ducked his head as the anchor continued.
"We have with us today a man who says he not only met Matthew Hyde and King Arthur himself, but they were overnight guests on his estate in Arlington, Florida. Dr. Driscoll, welcome. Let's cut to the chase, weren't you scared of the wendigos showing up at your house?"
Dr. Driscoll chuckled from under his droopy mustache, looking trim in his solemn brown suit. "Thank you for bringing me here. And no, I was not afraid of the wendigos. Our house has extra security measures. I was actually looking forward to them getting tested. But alas. The night was even calmer than I had anticipated."
"So you met a man claiming to be King Arthur."
Dr. Driscoll raised his eyebrows. "No, no, not claming to be-"
"That's right," the anchor agreed, "let me clarify-you met King Arthur himself."
"And how did you find him to be?"
"Kingly, of course," he chuckled, "possessing a certain gravitas and bearing the like of which I have rarely seen. But I also found him extremely kind and caring. I have to admit," he looked over the top of his glasses for a moment, "that I was quite taken aback to see how much he cared for his young friend. Their relationship seems quite special."
"Yes, that has been mentioned before. But let's get back to the king himself, because I find this fascinating and you are an expert on the legend of King Arthur. It has been said that Arthur was a warrior king, is that correct?"
As Dr. Driscoll agreed and went off on a short lecture about Arthur's legacy, Matthew's waitress, Laura, finally approached.
"Here's your order to go," she said, handing him the brown bag breakfast and waters he'd ordered. "Are you ready for your check?"
"Thanks. Sure," Matthew smiled uneasily as he got out his wallet, but Laura didn't ask any questions. She kept glancing at the television and then back to him. Matthew was relieved when she went to get change.
The anchor was more solemn now. "...then the security tape from St. Mary's hospital in Crystal River was released to the press. After viewing it, I have to admit that there is more to this story than I first believed. Here, you can see a short snippet of how this man, reputed to be King Arthur, deals with the attack of one of the wendigos. It is not for the squeamish."
The view switched to a blurry, daytime shot of the back parking lot at the hospital. Three figures had just appeared, weaving between the cars, obviously Arthur, Gwaine and Matthew. Matthew's jaw dropped. Of course they would have it on tape. He watched as Arthur handily dealt with the first wendigo, cutting off one arm and then the other before stabbing it through the mouth. Arthur was magnificent-balanced, powerful, deadly.
"Stunning piece of swordsmanship, really," the anchor noted.
"I hadn't seen it. It's astounding, yes, but not surprising, given the place he came from."
The news anchor looked down at his notes. "But you have something surprising to reveal about the younger man, Matthew. What was it that you discovered while he was in your house?"
"Matthew is none other than Merlin the magician, reincarnated."
Matthew winced and ducked his head again.
"And as I hear you say it, I can only have the same reaction I had the first time. What on earth could have convinced you of that fact? Did he perform magic for you? Did he grow out the long beard and white hair on the spot?"
"No, no, of course not," Dr. Driscoll rushed to assure him. "It was something that Arthur himself attested to and I came to believe as I studied him further. Matthew is a man divided between two worlds and two persons. He is struggling, not just to stay safe, but to find himself and the truth of who he is. I felt honored to help him in any way."
"Though he didn't speak a word to you the entire time he was in your house?"
"No, sir, he did not. He communicates by texting most often, or by a series of looks and gestures that Arthur or their other companion, Gwaine, can read extraordinarily well."
"Gwaine? Would that, by any chance, be Sir Gwaine of the Round Table?"
"I believe it was, indeed."
"Fascinating. And where were the three of them headed after leaving you?"
"I couldn't say, but I know wherever it is, it is not a place of safety. There is a doom laid upon that young man and I only pray that he is able to find himself before the weight of it crushes him completely. Without Arthur's help, he never would have survived even this long."
Matthew put his head in his hands, overcome by a rush of conflicting emotions. Was he doomed? It felt so much worse hearing someone else say it. In a haze he heard the anchor signing off as they went to a kitchen segment about fish stew.
Matthew felt dazed. Everyone he knew had probably seen that report, or would by the end of the day. Even Cricket, who had been completely silent since her return to California, had probably seen that. There was no coming back from this. "Oh, god."
His waitress appeared at just that moment, "Here's your change," she said quietly. "Are you okay? Because I know you can't be, but you look just like that Matthew guy." He looked up at her and had no idea what to say. "You do! Mary and I were just talking about that, how much you look like him and she says, 'It's got to be him. Go and ask him!' And I just couldn't help myself. It's just that you have the same amazing eyes."
He sighed. "It's me."
She wrinkled her nose. "Only...you talk and they said he didn't."
Matthew nodded. "Yeah. I sort of just started yesterday."
"Oh. Okay. Well, so...are you Merlin?"
"Um. I think so. Maybe."
"Whoa. That is so totally awesome. And where's King Arthur? Is he, like, here somewhere?"
"I left him in the car. He's sleeping."
"Whoa. The actual King Arthur?"
"Um. I think so. Maybe."
"Can I get your autograph?" Matthew stared up at her blankly. "I have a pen. Oh! Here, can you sign your receipt?"
"But I'm not...I'm not anybody..."
"Come on! You're freaking Merlin, right?"
"Oh. Okay," Matthew agreed because he didn't know what else to do, and signed, blushing the entire time.
"Thank you so much! I'm sure they're wrong about the whole doom thing."
Matthew nodded and handed her back the pen.
"I'm like, never using this pen again. Thank you!"
Laura rushed off, leaving Matthew to make his own awkward way to the door. He felt eyes on him as he scuffed across the tiles. Then someone tugged at his sleeve.
"Mr.? You're him, aren't you?"
Matthew looked over to see the oldest of the blond kids at his elbow, his big brown eyes open wide with wonder.
"Who?" he asked, fidgeting, putting off the inevitable.
"The guy who knows King Arthur! I saw him on Youtube when he killed all those ape things. He was awesome!"
Matthew smiled and knelt. "He was pretty cool, wasn't he?"
"You don't...you don't want my autograph, do you?"
The boy's eyes got wider. "Yeah, I do, but my Dad said I couldn't ask for it."
"Oh. Well, just explain to him that you didn't ask. Here," he grabbed a napkin off a nearby table and signed it with the pen that Laura, who was suddenly at his elbow, handed to him. "Thanks," he told her, and she smiled at him shyly. He signed and gave the napkin back to the boy.
"Does that say 'Matthew Hyde?" the boy asked him, studying the napkin.
"That's right. And there's only two of those in the whole world right now. So hang on to that. It might be worth something one day."
"Okay," the boy agreed, nodding vigorously. Then he grinned. "Thanks!" and ran back to his table, yelling "I got it!"
Matthew smiled and gave the boy's father an awkward half-wave. Then he saw the interested looks from the other tables and turned quickly for the door. Time to go before anyone else got any ideas. He handed the pen back to the waitress and then paused, noticing that the sky outside seemed darker than it should be. Thunder rolled across the sky. Matthew tensed. Something in the air didn't feel right.
Seconds later, he watched in stunned amazement as a mist rose outside, flooding the parking lot and obscuring all view of the world beyond. He looked at Laura where she stood behind the register. "Have you ever seen anything like this before?"
Her eyes wide, she shook her head. "It's like the whole world is disappearing. Does this have something to do with you?"
"I don't know," Matthew said softly. Around him, others had begun to notice the strange phenomenon. A couple of people were at the windows, cell phones out, taking video. The mist outside had thickened to a fog in less than a minute. Not good.
Matthew was contemplating his options when a figure stepped out of the swirling mist and strode to the front door. It was Arthur. He looked wide awake and ready for battle, sword and gear in place. Matthew looked around at the other people in the cafe, worried what they might think of the weapon as Arthur pushed inside the glassed entryway.
"Is that him? Ohmygod, it is, isn't it?" Laura went running off with a squeal, probably to spread the word.
Matthew stepped forward and opened the inner door as Arthur approached. "Did you drive over? I was just about to come back and..." he trailed off when he saw Arthur's blank expression. "Oh no."
"You must come with me," Arthur said, his eyes fixed on Matthew.
"No. No. I don't think so," Merlin said, backing away. "I, I got you some food." He offered the bag but it was knocked to the ground with a minimum of movement. "Arthur, come on. You know this is wrong. "
"You must come with me," he repeated, turning to follow Matthew's fumbling footsteps as he moved away.
"I don't want to come with you, okay? I don't-"
"Look, weirdo, I think he's made himself clear," said a large, beefy man in overalls. "He don't have to go nowhere." Almost everyone in the cafe was turned toward them now, watching the unfolding scene with interest.
Arthur just stared at the man before moving forward to grab Matthew's shirt and pulling him. "You must come."
"Arthur, let go! This isn't you talking. Let go!" Panic was beginning to rise in Matthew's voice as he fought the ants-under-his-skin feeling but it wasn't easy.
"I thought they said you were supposed to be his friend," Laura called out, looking shocked.
"He is," Matthew insisted, "he can't help it!"
Then the large man stepped up and grabbed hold of Arthur, jerking his hand away from Matthew. "Back off, idjit! He said no and around here, no means no."
"Hey!" yelled the blond kid from his table, "leave King Arthur alone!"
Arthur just looked confused and reached out for Matthew again. "But she wants him. I can't...I can't stop her."
The man stared at him. "Are you mental? Mary, you'd better call the cops," he called out to a lady standing just on the edge of the scene with a shrewd look and stiffly styled hair. "This guy's nuttier than a pecan pie."
"Already did," she drawled. The noise was rising in the cafe and a lot of people were rising to get involved.
Then Arthur shoved the man back and ripped Excalibur out of its sheath. There were screams and movement from every corner of the room as people scrambled to get away.
"No, Arthur!" Matthew yelled.
Arthur's face was pained and eyes wide in desperation. "I have to do this! You must come with me!"
"Cops'll be here in two point five minutes, king idjit, so you'd best be leavin'," called the man in overalls from where he crouched two stalls away.
But something raw in Arthur's voice had touched Matthew. "No. It's okay. Arthur, put the sword away and I'll go."
Protests came from every direction, but Matthew only heard one.
"No. No, it's too late," Arthur said softly, looking down at the floor, "She's already sent them." He looked up again, his face suddenly alive with fear. "Everyone has to leave-now!" He shouted the last word and Matthew rushed to understand.
"They're in danger?"
There was instant pandemonium.
"This way," Mary yelled over the rush, pointing to the way out the back.
Matthew ignored the noise. "But they're just after me, right?"
Arthur looked up at him, his jaw working and his eyes bright. "No," he whispered, "don't do it, Matthew. Don't...don't." But the words seemed to take too much out of him and he staggered against the wall.
For the first time, Matthew saw that Arthur was fighting the control of the witch, fighting and failing. Arthur could no longer protect him. Gwaine was gone. There was only one choice left.
Matthew shoved his fear down deep. He slammed open the inner doors of the restaurant and took a deep breath before pushing through the outer ones, ignoring the outcry behind him.
There was only mist to see, the shapes of dark trees overhead and the dark, cloud-covered morning sky behind. But there were noises rolling out of the whiteness that nearly stopped his heart-muffled grunting and roaring, moving closer with every second.
Matthew fidgeted, trying to hold his ground and protect all those behind him. The creatures only wanted to take him to her, but they might kill the people in the restaurant if he tried to hide. They might even kill Arthur. Matthew swallowed. He knew what he had to do and he knew what might happen. In his heart, he said goodbye to his mother and father, wished desperately that he had been brave enough to call Cricket or smart enough to see this coming. He gritted his teeth and held his ground.
But when the first shape broke through, he quailed. Over eight feet tall, knuckles dragging the ground, the creature's black diamond eyes fixed on him as it howled. Other howls split the air and then a second creature broke through the mist and a third and a fourth.
Matthew's hand went up, fingers spread on instinct. He could feel ants under his skin, heat in his chest that swelled up into his eyes.
Then, they charged.
Something was moving in him, flaming up and out and two of them went flying-
Then there was fur in his face, a stench in his nostrils and he was caught up in the air, squeezed by clawed hands that shook him to the deafening accompaniment of roars. The world went white, then black and there were pinpricks of light in the dark. Just as Matthew got his breath back, another set of clawed hands dug into his legs and pulled. Another pair swiped at his shoulder and side.
Then he was screaming from pain and terror as they fought, as the lights and siren of a police car filled the mist with color and sound. But it was all a blur to Matthew, whose body was pulled, pummeled and jerked until a collision with the ground sent his mind, thankfully, spinning.