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 his body rocking on soft waves. Of saltwater dropping upon his cheeks. Of hoarse sobs mixing 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, intense but fleeting. 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 away every time.
Beyond his timeless nothing, the world spun on and on. The sun rose and set. The generations of man were born and died. The centuries passed, each one changing the world, turning it into something he no longer knew.
Again and again the voice would come. Strong and weak. In pain and in laughter. Each time reminding him who he was, who he had been. But only for a brief moment.
It was like that for a long time.
Until quite suddenly, it wasn't.
This time, the voice brought a tidal flood of memories and emotions that did not recede.
Merlin, he thought.
Arthur turned from the darkness, focusing on the voice.
This time, the darkness let him go.
Arthur, called the voice.
He focused on the name with everything that he was.
And then thought again: Merlin…