Merlin sealed his fate the moment Excalibur pierced Morgana’s skin. The fated blade had already killed many that week in the battle, so it was only fitting that its final moments were used to kill her. It was the only thing that could. He sealed it further by casting the blade out into the lake, seeing Freya’s hand catch it before sinking below the surface and letting it become lost in the lake’s sandy depths. It was the only thing that could kill him.
He spent centuries alone after that. Waiting. He watched empires rise and fall. He watched the years fade together, blurring like the landscape outside of a moving vehicle. Conflicts would arise and escalate, and he would wonder if this was the time Arthur was destined to come back. The British Empire rising and breaking apart when America revolted. Not one, but two world wars. Countless other wars before, in between, and after that he couldn’t even remember the names of. The people were dying. What could be worse than a world war, killing hundreds of thousands? What would it take for Arthur to come back?
With each and every war that passed, Merlin lost a little more hope. He watched as magic disappeared from the world, surviving in only small, hidden sanctuaries and thus becoming mere fables. Even his own story, the story of King Arthur and his knights, was lost to time. A forgotten piece of history, just like him. When it was re-discovered and rendered a mere myth, Merlin started to seclude himself. He found a cottage not far from where he left Arthur and claimed it as his own.
Merlin made a sanctuary of magic behind the closed iron gate and stone walls surrounding his property. A small colony of fairies lived among the trees, flitting back and forth between the branches and flashing like fireflies as they did. The water spirits that once saved his life lived in the bubbling brook running through his garden, splashing water up onto the gray rocks and letting it seep into the soil to water the nearby plants. Bright red rose bushes proudly boasted their soft petals and prickly thorns. Yellow chrysanthemums dotted the ground, sprouting up like miniature suns. There were even a few berry bushes to feed the wildlife or other magical creatures that visited or stayed, vibrant blue blueberries, iridescent blackberries, and even a few plump pink raspberries all intermingling with one another.
Anything he could want for was stated by magic. He had not forgotten the old ways, afterall, and often felt the magic flowing just under the surface of his skin, his heart pumping it throughout his body as it ached to be released, to be used. He could make food, drinks, and clothes for himself with just a thought, or, occasionally, with a look through a spellbook to remember the proper words. He entertained himself with his magic as well, when he wasn’t talking to the others that dwelled on his property or tending to the garden. He wanted for nothing.
And yet, there was nothing that could replace human interaction. While he did chat up the spirits or the fairies when he wished, he was always the one who had to initiate the conversation and to keep it going. They didn’t always quite understand what he was trying to say, either, as they were usually too young to remember what he was talking about, or too different of a species to know what he meant. So, even in his seclusion, he still made monthly trips into the outside world. He could catch up on recent events, talk to a few people, and visit Arthur on the way back. For a while, he was at peace.
He of all people should have known that peace does not last. There might still be no sign of Arthur’s return, but there was the return of other things. Other magical things, to be exact. No one knew they were magical except for Merlin, of course, but if misused or in the wrong hands, the effects could be catastrophic.
He found a new calling then, one that brought him back into modern society. As himself, it would be extremely difficult to get a hold of these items and artifacts. It would require magic like he hadn’t used in a very long time, so it wasn’t quite reliable anymore in a delicate situation. Besides, he didn’t really want to try and fight these people for them. So he took on a new name: Marcus Hermite. Dr. Marcus Hermite, to be exact. With his fake doctorate, even his rather unfortunate choice of a surname made it past interviews, and before he knew it, the nearby university welcomed him as their newers anthropology professor.
His entire world flipped upside-down then. No longer was he the old hermit who only saw a human once a month. No, he was an immortal, ageless sorcerer who could change his appearance at will. The older appearance had reflected his feelings of hopelessness and despair, but if he was going to try and get these artifacts, he needed to play the part and be younger once again.
With a fresh face and a touch of persuasion magic, he was able to collect the artifacts he wanted. People even began to ask him to join them on archeological dig sites when they thought there could be something he would be interested in, which he gladly accepted. The only issue? Everyone knew he had these artifacts, but didn’t know where he was keeping them. With the university’s help, he opened a small curated exhibit on campus, putting a lot of his collection on display, but keeping the more dangerous artifacts in the backroom, his office, or in his own home.
He quickly became one of the most popular—and highly contested—professors. Most people believed the Arthurian Era to be nothing more than a legend afterall, but he challenged this thought regularly, laying claims with proof about how it did exist. His class solely built on the Arthurian Era was always full ever since he was given the first opportunity to begin it, proving he wasn’t the only one interested in this era. He was happy to see so many people interested in the subject, and he was quite the expert.
Looking at his watch, Merlin noted the start of class and spotted no empty seats. He cleared his throat as he dropped his arm to gain everyone’s attention, and quickly, the class’s conversations ended and silence fell around the room.
“I’m glad to see you all here,” he started with a smile, booting up the projector. “As a reminder, there will be no class next week as I will not be in town, and will instead be on a dig.” A chorus of disappointed sighs rang out around the room, and he chuckled. “I know, I know. That’s why, for this week, I have prepared what I believe to be a rather interesting presentation.”
The projector finally turned on and he dimmed the lights, listening to the excited murmurs around the room as they saw the topic—himself. Not that they knew that fact, of course, but he knew the subject of Merlin was always the class favorite.
“Merlin is perhaps the most contested figure of the Arthurian Era,” he began, suppressing the twinkle in his eye. “Anthropologists and historians alike all have varying opinions on who he was, his relationship to Arthur, and what happened to him. Some say that Merlin was Arthur’s advisor, some say he was a bard and a prophet, but all accounts we have discovered mention his extensive magical prowess. Of course, the anthropologists and historians hotly debate about whether he had any form of magic at all as well, since many believe magic does not exist, leading to the belief that these are no more than grand tales. Yes, Jack?” he said, acknowledging the hand that was raised.
“What do you believe, professor?”
He drummed his fingers against the desk in front of him. “I believe that magic is not out of the question. We see all the time that certain human traits can grow and decline, so what’s to say it just died out? We discuss this more later when we focus more on Arthur’s father, Uther. As for the role Merlin played…” he clicked to the next slide. “I believe Merlin to have been something much more humble. A silent protector, always by Arthur’s side. A servant.”
The lecture went well, he thought. The students listened raptly as he talked about himself and his position in court, but from the perspective of an outsider. Personally, it was his least favorite part of the class. Gloating about himself was more of an Arthur thing, really. But it needed to be said, and the students always loved it. He put it together for today so that he had something to look forward to after class finished—hopefully, he’d be coming back with a new artifact.
“Alright class,” he said as the sound of bags shuffling around and opening started in the room, signaling the end of class, “Before you go, I need to tell you about your homework, which is due the next time we meet. The reading is online. Other than that, I want you to act like historians and anthropologists. Use the readings to develop your own hypothesis and questions. As long as you have factual proof to back up your claim, everything and anything is on the table. We will have a full open discussion on these at our next meeting. Please email me if talking is an issue for you and we can work it out so you can still participate.”
The class filed out the door as they collected their things, a handful of them stopping to wish him luck at the dig or to thank him for the interesting lecture. He merely smiled at them and told them their next one would be even more exciting. He loved hearing what the students had to say about what might have happened in Camelot from the readings he assigned, trying to see who could get the closest to what actually happened.
Once the room had emptied, he shuffled the papers that were out on the desk into a semi-organized pile and stowed them in a folder. Taking his things, he stopped by his office to deposit what he didn’t need and locked it up, ensuring his protective spell would be in place while he was away. He was already packed, his suitcase waiting in the car, so he told the department secretary, Anne, that he was leaving before walking out. With the keys in the ignition, he set out to Scotland.
After a late stop overnight to sleep, he reached his destination the next day. Though the drive over had been uneventful, he couldn’t shake the feeling that budded inside him as he approached. Something about the area seemed familiar and mysterious at the same time, and it sent chills down his spine. Overall, this bad feeling permeated the air and didn’t seem to be going anywhere as he parked his car.
“This area is off limits,” someone said to him as he shut his car door, but that didn’t deter him. He pulled his staff ID from the pocket inside his jacket as he made his way over, handing it to them once he was close enough. “Oh, you’re Dr. Hermite! Apologies. David is expecting you; he’s over there. The short one, can’t miss him. Er, you might want this hat.”
“Thank you,” he said, donning the white hard hat. He took a badge from them too, which he clipped to his jacket, the laminated plastic gleaming in what little sunlight filtered through the clouds. With the proper identification and safety wear he set off onto the dig site, looking around for David and anything that could explain why he had called.
“Ah, Dr. Hermite!” David exclaimed, hurrying over to him. Merlin looked down at him with a smile.
“Please, just call me Marcus.”
“It truly is a pleasure,” he said, shaking his hand. “I’m David. Thank you for coming so quickly.”
“Well, your call did interest me. Most things we find that may be related to Arthur and that era are in England, not out here in what feels like the middle of nowhere.”
“Ah, yes. That is the main reason I called. The land he allegedly ruled was parts of England. But, as a king, he surely had allies and enemies, right? And they would trade or war with one another?”
“Yes, of course. But I doubt you’re asking because you want me to list them.”
He giggled, his excitement clear by the way his eyes wrinkled when he smiled. “No, you don’t have to. A recent discovery has led us to believe these ruins might have been one of the many hiding places the sorceress Morgana lived in.”
They had begun walking together, but at the mention of her name, Merlin stopped in his tracks. Yes, that would explain the feeling he’s had since he arrived. If Morgana really did live here…he smoothed his worried look over quickly, replacing it with a thin smile. “I’d love to see what you’ve found so far.”
While they didn’t have much, and what they had unearthed wasn’t dangerous, there was no denying it belonged to Morgana. If not her, then her sister, Morgause. He said as much to David after stepping into the tent set up and examining the objects, finding their house seal amidst some of the documents.
“Have you found any traps or anything sealed that you can’t open?”
“We actually haven’t managed to get inside yet. All of this has come from digging around in collapsed sections. The one place still intact has a solid stone door that won’t budge. We’re working on digging through it without ruining some of the more intricate architecture. Hopefully we’ll breach it in a day or two.”
Merlin hummed lightly. A basement that hadn’t collapsed, an immovable door—sounded like magic to him. He should definitely stick around, for fear of the consequences. “Any way I can help?”
Subtly, Merlin spent his time on the site searching for signs of magic. If they thought opening King Tut’s tomb was a curse, they would never be prepared for what enchantments Morgana might have placed. He tried detection spells and found nothing in the immediate area. As a precaution for if the magic was somehow undetectable, he started placing protection spells instead. Anti-jinxes, anti-harm, anything he could think of to counteract anything she could.
It was a couple of days before the door was finally opened wide enough for a person to fit, and Merlin found a reason to be even more thankful he was invited over.
“You simply must come in with me,” David said. “I want your help identifying anything we might find right away.”
“Just hand me a torch and I’ll be right behind you.”
Not only was he handed his own torch, but Merlin was handed a pair of gloves as well. The last thing they wanted was for fingerprints to sully any possible new finds.
The corridor was dark, but their light revealed puddles of wax lining the walls, possibly the work of burnt out candles, as well as several braziers. It indicated that this section of the building had been used previously, and from the amount of wax, quite frequently. He suppressed a shudder at the thought of what it might have been used for. It was eerily quiet, the kind of quiet that made everyone reluctant to speak—only doing so when necessary and with hurried whispers. Merlin found himself holding his breath as they walked on, waiting for something to happen.
When they came to a crossroads they paused, looking down both passageways back and forth to determine which one to explore first. Merlin eventually gestured to the right on instinct, leading the way down the hall.
A door stood open just outside of the light’s reach, so when they had taken those first few steps and it was discovered, excited murmurs spread around the small group. They fanned out after entering to the left and right, examining the walls and corners—all except Merlin. His light had landed on something shining across the room, drawing him in.
“It can’t be…” he muttered, reaching out and running his fingers lightly over the hilt of the sword sticking out of a rough, dark hewn stone. The touch was electrifying, sending chills up his arm and down his spine. He jumped back and rubbed his hand in shock, but his thoughts were confirmed. Excalibur, the sword he sent out into the lake when Arthur died, had somehow teleported to the other side of the island, into a new country. There was a well of magic connected to it, buried in the earth far below them, and Merlin was concerned he just activated something he didn’t understand.
The noise of him jumping back alerted David, who turned and gasped when his light landed on the sword.
“Is that Excalibur?” he asked, hurrying over. “Why, this could be the best—”
“Look for bodies,” Merlin said, taking a step back to search the immediate area.
“King Arthur wouldn’t have been buried without Excalibur,” he lied. “Knight tradition.”
Even though Merlin knew it was indeed Excalibur, he wanted to throw the scent off of it. A blade forged in the breath of a dragon… the sword would be extremely dangerous in anyone’s hands, whether they had magic or not. If there was no Arthur nearby he could pass it off as an imitation. While it was still certain to make a lot of noise as news spread of its discovery, it would still hide under the radar. He put a quick spell on it to ensure no one could pull it out, the subtle gold glow of his eyes missed as the others continued to search.
Secretly, there was another motive to the search. The sword was with Arthur until the end, even buried in the same spot. If they couldn’t find his body...was it finally time for him to come back?