When he and his uncle returned to Arthur’s chambers the prince was still in the same condition as before, if not worse. As Merlin helped Arthur onto the bed and Gaius gathered his wits they both missed the cube under the bed.
“What happened, sire?” Gaius asked, stooping over the prince and checking him over.
There was a pause and Merlin was quite sure that Arthur hadn’t heard.
“It hurts…” Arthur whimpered eventually, his fingers curling with pain.
“Can you open your eyes?” Said Gaius.
“I…I…d-don’t know.” Arthur stammered, not making any attempts to try.
Merlin watched on from the other side of the bed with a sort of frustrated helplessness at his disability to do anything to even at least make Arthur’s pain go away. It hurt him to see Arthur in the way he was, unable to open his eyes for some reason and writhing in agony.
“Can you try?” Gaius persisted with a firm voice.
Arthur squirmed and forced a nod. He seemed to be having some kind of inner struggle to open his eyes but slowly and surely the creases around them began to lessen.
Suddenly, as soon as a tiny crack of his eye was open, a burning white light shot out and filled the room, hitting Merlin and Gaius and throwing them to the floor.
Arthur immediately closed his eyes again and wailed softly to himself with misery.
Merlin, knocked flat and almost unconscious, felt like he had been destroyed by the intense brightness of the light alone. He’d felt it physically burning him. He scrambled up into a sitting position, his head spinning.
Gaius took a moment to stir and Merlin would have gone to help him except for the fact he was seeing stars and appeared to have lost the power to move.
“What,” Gaius exclaimed, “was that?”
Merlin shook himself as though to rid him of the stars that floated before his eyes and managed to climb to his feet. He glanced at Arthur on the bed. He was in no fit sate to hear what Merlin wanted to say next.
“That was magic.” He told Gaius, going over to the old man and helping him up.
“Who’s done this to him?” Gaius pondered, a hand on his chin.
“Arthur, what happened before you became like this?” Merlin asked, going to his friend’s side and shaking him gently to get his attention.
“It’s all my fault. You told me not to but I took it anyway. I’m so sorry! You’re right, I am a prat.” Arthur said.
“What? What did you take?” Merlin urged.
“The cube.” Was the gurgled reply.
Merlin frowned for a moment before he remembered the box they had found in the temple. It really couldn’t have meant less to him at the time and he had completely forgotten it after they had left the temple.
So, Arthur had taken it after all, regardless of Merlin’s warnings.
He couldn’t help but feel slightly peeved despite the pity for Arthur that overwhelmed him. Though really he shouldn’t have been surprised. It was not like the prince to give up easily if he wanted something and he had been drooling at the sight of the box for crying out loud.
Merlin could have kicked himself. He should have said something. He knew there was something wrong about the cube. It just oozed magic. Perhaps it was his fault just as much as Arthur’s that the prince was now in agony.
“Cube? What cube?” Gaius asked, perplexed “Merlin?”
“We found a cube in the temple.” Merlin explained thickly.
“Temple? What temple-“
“There’s no time for that! Arthur, where’s the cube?” Merlin asked, turning back to the prince.
Arthur began to cough and splutter and Merlin was sure he was having some kind of a fit but then he realized that he was in fact trying to speak.
“I…I…d-d” Arthur tried but gave up and simply shook his head, clutching the blanket, rubbing his forehead and then clasping the blanket again, not sure what do with himself – nothing took away the pain.
“It gotta be around here somewhere.” Merlin said, looking around.
He and Gaius began to search the bed, floor and room in general for the cube. Merlin was wondering what they were going to do with it if they did find it when he happened to look under the bed and saw it.
Except it looked different.
The silver lines were gone and there were smaller centimetre high squares protruding from all six sides. The only way Merlin could describe it was ‘open’.
He grabbed it and held it up triumphantly.
Gaius came over and looked at it with interest, digging a magnifying glass out of his pocket and going to study it on the table.
“Merlin?” Arthur croaked from the bed, waving his arms in the air, trying to find his friend.
Merlin’s breath lodged in his throat at the sight of the so normally independent man blindly searching for an anchor that would keep him in the real world. He stopped Arthur’s arm from thrashing about and gripped his hand tightly.
“Merlin, what’s going on? Why can’t I open my eyes?” Arthur asked huskily with a dry throat.
“The cube’s done something to you.” Merlin told him, feeling a sense of failure crushing his heart. He wished that he could do something but he’d never come across anything like this before. He’d battled Avancs, killed Questing beasts and destroyed witches but a cube? How on earth did you reverse the effects of a cube?
“I saw my father die. I saw you die.” Arthur was telling him and he looked down at him to see the prince’s face troubled, wretched even.
Merlin felt rather touched that Arthur seemed so distraught at the thought of him dying and allowed himself a smile.
“Uther’s not dead and neither am I.” He reassured him.
“I don’t think I’m going to last much longer.” Arthur said with a suddenly quiet resignation.
“Don’t be stupid! You’re not going to die!” Merlin snapped at him with harsh fright.
“Merlin,” Gaius beckoned to him from the chair were he was inspecting the cube, “come here.”
Merlin forced himself to let go of Arthur’s hand and went over to the table; hating to leave the prince alone in the blind darkness he was suffering.
“What is it?” Merlin asked as Gaius held the cube up into the light.
“Well, I can’t see anything wrong with it. I’m going to have to do further studies.” His uncle replied.
“How long is that going to take? He’s in pain!”
“I know but if we’re going to solve this then I’m afraid it’s going to take time.” Gaius said, glaring at the cube from behind his spectacles.
“What are we going to do in the meantime?” Merlin asked.
“I don’t want to tell the king anything until we have at least some idea of what happened.” Gaius mused.
“I didn’t mean that! I meant, what can I do?” Merlin exasperated.
“If you mean magic then you can do nothing. Don’t risk dabbling in things you don’t understand.”
“What do you mean?”
“This is a different type of magic altogether. Its nothing to do with the Old Religion.” Gaius said enigmatically.
“But I can’t just leave him like this!” Merlin said, gesturing at Arthur who was still writhing on the bed.
“There’s nothing I can do for him, I’m afraid but I do have some elixir that will help him sleep.”
“That’ll work?” Merlin asked.
“I don’t know what we’re up against but I’m hoping it will.” Gaius said, making for the door and motioning for Merlin to follow him.
Merlin, blocking out the faint sobs from Arthur, reluctantly followed Gaius out the door and down the corridor.