He fell into darkness surrounded by Merlin’s cries.
“Arthur! No! Arthur!”
As the strange weight crawled into his bones, Arthur had one last wistful thought:
If Death itself couldn’t force Merlin to obey, then what chance had he ever had as a mere king?
Arthur wanted to tell his friend this gibe, to turn Merlin’s desperate cries into wry laughter. But he no longer had the strength to speak. He no longer had the strength to do anything. Certainly not to fight this heavy weight pulling at him. Down, he sank, away from his life and his lands, from his castle and his country, from his friends and his foes.
At his side, Merlin screamed his rage at destiny and fate and the spirits of the world, his words charged with such power that Arthur could feel it resonating within his bones.
“I can’t lose him! He’s my friend!”
The fabric of the world rippled and surged under the force of Merlin’s pleas. But the darkness did not loose its grip.
Arthur let it take him into its numbing embrace, relieved to leave behind all pain and loss, all battles and betrayals. Grateful to be going to his rest at last.
Arthur strained to focus one last time on the living world. To take one last memory with him. Just one, to hold, while he slept.
Of the feeling of his body rocking on soft waves. Of drops of saltwater falling upon his cheeks. Of hoarse sobs mixed with whispered words of power. Of a warm, tender hand pressed to his forehead.
Merlin, he thought.
And the name was a goodbye, and a thank you, and a promise, all in one.
But then the world fell away.
And all was darkness and peace.
There was no time here, where he was, and yet he could feel the years surging past him. There was no consciousness either, and yet he somehow knew that everything he had known was now gone.
These were simple facts, devoid of emotion. Nothing mattered here. He simply existed. That was all.
Sometimes, though, a ripple from the living world pierced the timeless nothing, to touch him in the dark.
Memories would flow in, fleeting but intense. Gleaming castle spires and clashing swords and laughter and betrayal and love and friendship and a warm hand upon his forehead and blue eyes searching his face and a hoarse voice screaming his name.
Darkness swept it all away every time.
From within his world of timeless nothing the world spun on and on, the sun rising and setting, the generations of man living and dying, growing and changing, transforming into something beyond his imagining.
Again and again the voice would come, touching him lightly in the void. Strong and weak. In pain and in laughter. Each time reminding him who he was, who he had been, who he would be, if only for a moment.
It was like that for a long time.
Until quite suddenly, it wasn't.
This time, the voice brought a flood of memories and emotion and life that did not recede.
Merlin, he thought.
Arthur turned from the darkness, focusing on the voice. This time, it let him go.
Arthur, called the voice.
He focused on the name with everything that he was.
And then thought again: Merlin…