To be fair, somehow, he didn’t see this one coming.
Which is surprising in and of itself, honestly, usually he’s much quicker on the uptake. Usually he’d have already singled out who, and why and how to stop whatever plan they’d made, be it a sword in a hallway or an arcane piece of ancient magic.
He was used to that, prepared for rogue sorcerers and cursed objects and shadowy assassination attempts in quiet castle spaces, he was prepared to knock a goblet out of the others' hands if someone so much as blinked at them wrong, ready with an excuse of his clumsiness, knowing the others knew by now the difference between him actually stumbling and a desperate move to protect them.
Perhaps it’s because it’s been peaceful. Morgana is ruling beside Arthur as an equal, all the injust laws against magic have been repealed, the people are happier than ever. There had been no omens, no strange sightings, no whispers of monsters lurking nearby, perhaps it’s because he’s so used to people targeting them so obviously he can spot them from miles away, perhaps he'd just gotten the short of the stick this time.
Perhaps it’s because he’s so focused on threats to Arthur that he hadn’t even considered someone would target himself, would slip something into his own goblet, would choose to go at him over any of the others. Despite what they all say, he’s never seen himself as really all that important.
It doesn’t make any sense, really, and he can’t quite figure out why, he would get it if it were a distraction, or something to get him out of the picture so that an attack could occur, but it isn’t, at least not immediatly. He’s aware enough even now, to be searching for threats, though reaching with his magic seems to make it worse, sends shards of glass piercing into his veins, but he doesn’t let up until he’s sure. He’s sure this is all there is to it, at least for the moment.
Well. That’s not so bad, then.
He's sure the knights don’t agree, based on the distant shouting he can hear, he thinks Percival is telling everyone to back off, give them space. He's pretty sure it’s Lancelot, who balls up his cape and slips it under his head, so it isn’t cracking against the hard stone every time his body judders and convulses. Gwaine is running for Gaius, and Leon is searching the crowd, eyes sharp, trying to spot a single tic of suspicion on someone's face. Elyon is holding Gwen's hand, who started rushing to him as soon as he fell, and Arthur…
Arthur is squeezing his hand, he’s so warm, and he’s squeezing his hand, promising not to let go, he thinks, but he can’t hear him, past the roaring in his ears, the pounding in his skull. His stomach twists violently, and he retches, feeling as if he’s been turned inside out, his organs shoved into an oven and baked into mush, and everything hurts.
He reaches for his magic on instinct, it can help, it can heal him, and for a moment, it almost does, the familiar flicker of warmth wrapping through him.
Then it turns into fire, searing iron brands under his skin, and he screams, his voice echoing with power at the agony coursing through him as the poison latches on to his magic and ignites, kindling into a raging inferno.
Distantly he hears Arthur's frantic voice, calling his name, begging him to hold on, just a little longer, come on, you moron-
His body has other ideas as everything in him shudders, then shuts down.
He hears distant voices, feels distantly things are happening, and he whimpers as he's lifted, the shift hurts, everything hurts, but then he's held close against someone’s chest, and they smell like leather and metal and ink and relaxes as much as he can, because this is safe.
That doesn’t stop him from trembling, as every step seems to jolt the marrow from his bones, seems to send another wash of heat through his body, tingling at the tips of his fingers and toes, like acid eating away at them. Weakly, he tilts his head closer to the body, feeling it still.
“Merlin? Can you hear me?” he manages the tiniest of nods, already slipping back under, the harder he clings to awareness, the faster it seems to slip from his grasp.
“you’re going to be alright, Merlin, ok? We’re taking you to Gaius, and he'll… he'll fix this.” He hates the tremble in Arthur's voice, and realizes for some reason it’s fear. They’ve been in much worse situations, and Arthur is never afraid. It’s not like him to start now. He casts out with his magic, trying to make sure Arthur's truly alright, but as soon as he does every muscle in him tenses as white hot agony shoots through him, sending him choking and gasping, something sticky and wet leaking from his nose. He hears Arthur curse, feels him speed into a run, the world fading out to black.
“-don’t know sire.”
“That’s impossible. You always know, or have a suspicion, at least, I know you do, even when you and Merlon won’t tell me what it is.” Pacing.
“Believe it or not, there are things in this world I have not seen, and, unfortunately, this is one of them.”
“no. No, surely there's an answer, what’s the point of all these moldy old books if not a single one of them has the answer!?” loud thuds, crashes. The table being swept clear of its contents, sending them flying to the floor. He manages to crack open his eyes, seeing Arthur resting heavily on his hands on the table, head low, exhaustion stamped across his shoulders.
“We can’t afford to lose him, Gaius. I can’t…” Arthur breaks off with a low puff of air, and when he raises his head, his eyes glisten. “please, Gaius.” Comes the plea, and it sounds so broken, he longs to reach out, to comfort him, to tell him it would all be alright, but he doesn’t have the strength to bend his toes, much less actually speak.
“I know, Arthur. He means a great deal to me as well. I promise you, I will do everything I can, to get him through.” He’s never seen Gaius this soft with Arthur before, he’d laugh, if he could. But Arthur smiles, a small, tired smile, but it reaches his eyes and it warms him inside, seeing Arthur smile, as he drifts away once more, missing the strain that comes back to Gaius as he looks to him, his frown deepening.
“what do we know?” Lancelot, his voice low.
“Not enough.” That’s Gwaine.
“And that isn’t helping.” Elyan. Despite speaking quietly, he’s the loudest. He realizes Elyan must be the one sitting beside him, dabbing at his forehead with a cool rag.
“He was the one and only target. The poison is actually part enchantment, some kind of binding spell. Its effects won’t fade on its own. It wouldn’t be toxic to any of us. Gaius is trying, but as of yet, there is no antidote or reversal.” That's Percival. The room stills at his words, all the air sucked out of it.
“Who? Who did this?” Lancelot near growls, ready to stab someone through the chest.
“Also unknown. Being worked on."
“How are we so useless at this? How have we not been able to fix this?” Elyon.
“Because Merlin's always been the cleverest one of us. He’s always steps ahead, before we even catch wind of a threat, he’s stopped it.” Gwaine answers solemnly. “and curing unknown poisons is usually something he can manage in minutes, sussing it out with his magic."
“It was a smart move. What? It was. He’s Camelot's best defense system. Obviously he’s so much more than that, I'm talking from a strategy perspective, but even that gives someone an advantage. Not only is the Court Sorcerer out of commission, the most powerful one here, it also has all of us distracted and distraught. And none of us saw it coming. That itself is a feat.” Percival, and the room goes silent again.
“So. We should anticipate an attack. Possibly from other magical forces, if they slipped through so easily, and had the knowledge to do… this.” Elyon says grimly, though the hand he brushes against his hair is soft and gentle.
“He’s stable, at least." Lancelot adds, trying to keep positive. “He’s not getting worse, not significantly, anyway.”
“We need to prepare. If something is coming, we must be ready.” He hears the men getting to their feet. Leon isn’t here, nor is Arthur. Leon must be making the king get some rest, which he no doubt needs. And the others all need to be rested and ready as well, but... he doesn’t want them to go. It’s selfish, but having them here, hearing their voices around him, eases the ever present burn in his chest, lightens the weight pressing in on his lungs, it makes it hurt less.
All he manages is a pathetic mewl, as Elyon's hand draws away, curling up slowly into a ball, trying to ease the pressure, ease the ache eating away at him. The intense agony iss gone, leaving him with this low burn, this crushing sensation, and he hates it. He hates feeling so weak, so useless.
“Shh, Merlin. It’s alright. I’ll take care of him, for you, until you’re back on your feet. Nothing is going to happen to Arthur. I swear it.” Lancelot, of course, Lancelot. He shudders, at the softness of chapped lips pressed for a long moment to his forehead, gods, how is everyone so warm, leaning into the touch as he drifts under again.
He shoots upward, regretting it as his head pounds and his body screams in protest at the sudden motion, but he doesn’t have time to care, as he tries to shove himself upwards.
“And where do you think you’re going?” He blinks, bewildered, his vision speckled with blobs of darkness, but even through it he can recognize Gwen's stern face staring at him.
“I need to go.” He rasps, it chokes his throat, and he coughs dryly, his throat is parched. Gwen's face softens, helping him raise a cup of water to his lips, his hands too shaky to hold it steady himself. Swallowing hurts, but the water helps immensely. Gwen tries to push him back down, but he weakly bats her hand away, stumbling to his feet, almost instantly dropping to the ground, sharpness lancing up his spine, twisting his gut. The only reason he doesn’t collide with the hard stone floor is Gwen's steady hands.
“Merlin, you’re freezing.” She murmurs, rubbing up and down his arms, her hands setting his skin tingling with soft warmth.
“Seems to me you lot are always hot.” He mumbles, and there, that gets Gwen to smile. Then he feels the tug again and gasps. Something is wrong.
“Gwen, what’s happened?” he asks. Gwen raises her chin.
“Who's to say something's happened?” Her point is underscored by a distant rumble, the castle nearly shaking around them.
“Arthur's in trouble.” He breathes out, looking desperately up at Gwen. “We’re under attack, and Arthur's in the thick of it, like always.”
“he’s got his knights, and Morgana is handling the magic, Merlin, they will be fine.” They won’t be. The attackers wanted him out of the way for a reason, and while Morgana's strong, as strong as he is, even, she isn’t fully trained, yet, can’t access all of it. She’s not a match for whatever is happening out there, not alone, not yet.
“I need to get out there.” He fumblingly pushes Gwen away, getting unsteadily up to his feet, swaying, but this time his legs hold firm.
“You can’t, Merlin, please, just listen-"
“There’s no time-"
“It will kill you, Merlin!” Gwen shouts, startling him into silence. “The only reason you’re even remotely ok right now is because you’ve been unconscious and not using any magic! The poison is still there, Merlin, it reacts to magic! The moment you use a spell, it’ll tear you apart!” Ah. That makes sense, why it’s an ache now, instead of agony. He constantly uses magic in some small way, so it’s leeching onto that, but it isn’t enough for the poison to really get its hooks in. He takes a long, slow breath, in and out.
“Better me than them.” He can see the shock on Gwen's face, the astonishment. “Now, I am begging you to get me out there, but I will crawl my way to the parapets if I have to.” Despite how he’s staggered against the wall, struggling for breath, his determination is fierce as ever. “I can’t lose him.” Gwen sighs, cupping his cheek.
“and what do you think Arthur would do, if he lost you, Merlin?” She asks softly, not waiting for him to answer, wrapping an arm around his shoulders to support him. His nerves twist with guilt, thinking over her words, but he shakes it away. He will always put his life on the line for Arthur. It’s his destiny, but more than that, it’s become his honor. The world needs Arthur more, anyways. It always has.
“Merlin! What on earth are you doing up here?” Morgana scolds, as soon as they step out onto the parapet. They had to stop several times, for him to catch his breath. His brow is covered in a fine sheen of sweat, from the concentration it takes to keep his magic from doing anything at all, he hadn’t really realized how constantly it did things, until he had to reign it in completely. He’s exhausted already, and the wind up here is freezing, and he’s shaking so hard his teeth are chattering.
“have ‘t help.” He answers. Morgana sweeps off her cloak, wrapping him in it instead, and he can’t help his shoulders slumping, at the softness of it, the warmth.
“He was going to make his way here or die trying.” Gwen explains, and Morgana lets out a soft huff.
“Of course he was. Come here. It’s almost over, they’re outnumbered and we’re pushing forwards. I’ve been countering their spells well enough, thanks to your lessons.”
He lets himself lean heavily against her, as she pulls him close to her side, looking out over the battle raging below.
It’s true. The invading army is retreating, being pushed back, and even from here, he can spot Arthur, his broad form unmistakable as he swings his sword, his knights fighting beside him, weaving around each other in practiced motions, a ravaging choreography as they cut a path through their foes.
But something’s not right. He can’t tell what, not yet, but something in the way the army's pulling back, but not panicking, as they should. Something in the way they take a few more blows to go down than they probably should. Something about how while there is blood, yes, there’s not nearly enough for what carnage Camelot's men are doling out. It’s a trap, somehow, it’s a trap, he just doesn’t know how, if he could just reach-
He bites his cheek until he tastes copper, forcing the surge back down, a warning tingle in his fingertips. He just has to wait. He has to wait for the trap to snap shut and hope he can react fast enough to stop it.
“Something's wrong.” Morgana says, and he nearly startles. He’s been so focused, he forgot she was practically holding him up. But of course she can tell, even without magic she’s a brilliant strategist, she knows the army isn’t behaving right.
“Where? Where is it coming from?” If he has a target, maybe he can nip it in the bud.
“I don’t… all over. It’s coming from all around them. I don’t understand-" Merlin does, a moment before he sees someone raise their hands, silver lights sparking from their hands, he understands a moment before the fallen soldiers rise, picking up their weapons, trapping Camelot's men in a thick swarm of enemies.
This time, when one of the undead goes down under the blows of a sword, they rise up not a second later, resuming their assault. This time the tide is turning against the knights. There are too many enemies, they are tiring, growing slower, clumsier, his breath catches as a sword slices across Percival's cheek, another clanging off Arthur's shield, barely blocked.
At another flash of silver, his eyes snap back to the sorcerer, seeing him hefting something in his hands, not needing to use his magic to see it’s riddled with enchantment, it would pierce right through the heart of Camelot, the heart of Arthur, and bring the entire kingdom crumbling down around them in mere moments. It was destruction and death and cruelty, that would imbue itself into the land, making it a hard, cold, unlivable place for all eternity.
No. Not on his watch. Not his family. Not his friends. Not his Arthur.
With a wordless cry he breaks from Morgana, stepping forwards and throwing off the cloak, eyes molten gold. For a moment, his power rushes through him, shining and untainted, and he can feel everything, every atom, every tree, every molecule of air, he can feel the entire world responding to his call.
Then that blinding agony rushes through him. He can feel the sorcerer smirk as he throws the spear, thinking he’s won.
‘Ignorant oaf' he thinks, gritting his teeth, shoving back the pain, forcing his magic to his fingertips. It’s hard, so much harder than it should be, with the damned poison eating its way into his center, now that magic is flowing again, he can feel it creeping closer to the well of power at the core of him. If it reaches that, there was very possibly no coming back from this.
It doesn’t matter. He shoves his thoughts away, too, it’s taking everything in him not to fall to his knees, not to black out from the strain, and he hisses out a sharp breath from between clenched teeth, twisting upwards with his magic.
Instantly, the ground rises up, lifting Camelot's men skyward and out of reach. Then a flick of his wrist and the undead are burning, their eerie, echoing cries ending one by one as they fade to ash, their souls settling peacefully into the ether. Finally, he clenches his fist, freezing the spear in midair, at the top of its arc, finding some satisfaction in the fear now in the sorcerer's eyes, as his own weapon spins to point back at him, impaling him through the heart before he can vanish.
He has just enough presence of mind to lower the men back to earth, now that the danger was gone, before crumpling to the ground, chest heaving as blood drips from his nose, the corner of his mouth unable to catch his breath, unable to breathe past the bone crushing pressure pressing in on him, sweat drenching him as he shivers so hard his muscles ache from it, an inferno raging through him, the heart of the fire deep in his chest, a corrosive heat devouring his well of magic, and therefore his very self. He is magic, made of it, and once this poison does its work, tears it all to shreds, he'll breathe his last breath.
He’s very thinly aware of a distant roar, someone screaming his name with heart wrenching panic and pain, and it sends a pang through his heart.
‘S ok. S worth it, for you, ‘s always worth it' he speaks into Arthur's mind, surprised at the anguished turmoil there. Then the inferno spikes and he drowns in fire.