“Are you sure?” Merlin asked, chewing his fingers to shreds and pacing up and down the room while Gaius inspected the book.
“Beyond any doubt.” His uncle replied, “This,” he picked up the cube, “is The NightmareChild.”
Merlin plummeted into a chair and stared far into the distance, an unnaturally old look in his eyes for someone so young.
“Then there’s no hope.” He said, his voice cracking halfway through.
Suspense hung thickly in the air for a moment.
Merlin dipped his head and swallowed a lump in his throat. He felt that crushing failure return and an icy fist clutched his heart. Spiders began to spin cobwebs of defeat into his mind as the truth set in.
“Is there anything, anything at all we can do?” Merlin whispered, choking on his own words.
Gaius shook his head.
All his hopes thwarted, Merlin broke down in a matter of seconds as a mess of emotions welled up inside his chest.
He’s going to die. He’s going to die. He’s going to die.
Words spoke themselves inside his head as Gaius hugged him tightly. After a few minutes, which seemed like a lifetime Gaius let go of him and held him firmly by the shoulders.
“I must go and tell the king.” Gaius said quietly, “Then I shall make a cordial to ease his passing. Stay here.”
Merlin looked up at him with dull unseeing eyes and nodded once. Gaius waited there, clutching his shoulders for a moment longer before hurrying out of the door, which slammed shut behind him, loudly echoing around the suddenly silent room and sounding a hundred times more powerful to Merlin.
Gentle, blissful, unaware snoring carried to him from his room where Arthur slept, completely oblivious to what was happening. It was almost unfair in a way.
Merlin slumped back into the furthest reaches of the chair and lent forward into his hands where he hid his face and tried to stop the tears from coming. But they came.
He was too upset to hear the ghostly voices that suddenly began to whisper to him.
Merlin sniffed and wiped a warm salty tear away from his eyes.
He heard it that time.
“Over here,” The voices hissed, “on the table.”
Merlin cast his gaze over to the table where the cube sat. What got his attention was that it was no longer open; the smaller diced sized cubes had slipped back inside the box.
He blinked at it.
“Merlin.” The voices hissed again.
“What? What do you want?” Merlin asked, wondering if he was going mad as he shifted over to the table and stared at the cube.
“We want what you want, Emrys.”
“What do I want?”
“You want to save the young Pendragon. You can do that.” The NightmareChild replied.
“What? How? Tell me!” Merlin demanded, seizing the cube.
“This is no easy decision to make, Emrys.” Said the voices, “The only way you can save the prince is by taking his place.”
“I’ll do it.” Merlin said quickly as a glimmer of hope began to grow in his chest.
“You will die. We will not drag out the pain of the visions for long. We will kill you almost instantly.”
Merlin paused a moment. He was scared but when it came to choosing the life of Arthur or his own there was no choice.
“Are you willing to do this?” The voices asked in an almost curious way.
“For Arthur I am willing to die.” Merlin replied quietly.
“So be it.”
“Can…can I say goodbye?” Merlin asked, a lump rising in his throat.
“Hurry, Emrys. We will not wait for long.” Someone laughed. It sounded suspiciously like Nimueh…
Merlin set the cube down on the table and quickly stumbled up the stairs to his room.
“Arthur, Arthur, wake up.”
Arthur felt a hand on his shoulder shaking him gently and he sat up a little, hearing Merlin’s voice.
There was a pause and the prince waited curiously for his friend to speak.
“I…umm…I’ve found a way to cure you…” Merlin eventually said, his voice sounding slightly flat.
“What? Really?” Arthur asked with excitement.
“You’re going to be alright in a minute.” Merlin said. Arthur said nothing so he carried on, “I’m going to save you but don’t worry about me.”
“Why would I worry about you?”
“I’m going somewhere. Not entirely sure where…”
“What are you on about, Merlin?”
“Nothing, nothing but don’t hate me for it. I don’t have a choice.”
“I know your odd, Merlin, but this is extreme even for your standards.” Arthur said, trying to sound whimsical but finding it difficult as a worried confusion filled his mind.
“I know you’ll be a great king, Arthur, but promise me you’ll let magic return to Camelot. Magic isn’t bad.” Merlin said, confusing Arthur further.
“What’s wrong? What’s going to happen?” The prince asked, his forehead furrowing.
“I just…uhh…goodbye.” Merlin choked, paused a moment and hurried away, leaving Arthur somewhat puzzled.
What on earth was he on about? Had he really found a cure?
Doubts began to gather in Arthur’s mind. Merlin sounded as if he wasn’t coming back. He sounded as though…
Arthur guessed what he was going to do. He knew what abused lengths Merlin would go to, to save him. He remembered how hard he had tried to convince him about the snakes in Valiant’s shield, how he had gone after him to rescue him from Sofia and disobeyed his orders to stay behind and followed him to the Labyrinth of Gedref. Arthur had no proof of his theory about how he’d survived the Questing beast attack but he was quite certain Merlin had been behind it somehow. After all, who had killed the creature after it had bitten him?
What if Merlin was going to save him by some means but at the cost of his own life? It wasn’t that far fetched really. It was something Merlin would do…
Arthur quickly crawled out of the bed and dragged himself blindly over the floorboards to where he hoped the door was. He fell down the stairs and fumbled around for a supporting table.