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Missing Number Nine

Chapter Text

The Round Table had eight members.

Arthur had plans of expanding its membership to the rest of his knights and advisors, but decided to hold off on that until he became king. He had to maintain hope that one day his father would recover and reclaim his authority. Part of keeping that hope alive meant not making any drastic changes to the kingdom’s political structure in Uther’s absence.

The Round Table consisted of Gaius, Guinevere, Arthur, and Sirs Leon, Lancelot, Gwaine, Elyan, and Percival. They were all present at the Table’s debut, and all of them were crucial participants in the reclaiming of Camelot from the year before. They kept the Table stored in an unused guest room in a particularly vacant wing of the castle, where they rendezvoused every Saturday afternoon to discuss matters of state.

The truth was, Arthur didn’t entirely trust his advisors. Sure, he trusted Agravaine, and had half a mind to induct him into the Round Table ranks as well, but most of the council belittled him and worked behind his back. So while the official council of Uther’s curmudgeonly court advisors met with him on Mondays, he also sought a second opinion with a council of his choosing on Saturdays. It was a system they’d had in place for months now, and it worked beautifully.

No one could recall who came up with the idea. Probably Gaius. That sounded like the sort of smart and wise thing he would do.

One such meeting terminated on an otherwise ordinary rainy Saturday. As everyone was filing out of the meeting room, with Gwaine and Elyan debating the etiquette of asking a barmaid to shag, Arthur passed a glance at the Table. He had intended to look back at it in pride, admiring the past few months and all the friendship this Table had brought him, when instead he was hit with a realization.

There were nine chairs at the Table.

No, wait, that couldn’t be right. Why would there be nine chairs? They had carried the original Round Table all the way from the Castle of Ancient Kings (well, Percival and Leon had), and brought with it only as many chairs as they needed.

Maybe this was just some extra chair they found lying about and accidentally pushed it in with the rest of them?

No, the ninth chair looked just as old and regal as the rest of them. It was part of the matching set. Which meant they had brought it back from that derelict castle too. But why?

Staring at it made his eyes burn.

“Hey guys,” he beckoned, keeping his gaze off the chair lest the burning sensation bubble into a full-blown headache. “Come here for a sec.”

It took Lancelot jabbing Gwaine in the ribs for him and Elyan to halt their conversation. Everyone paused in their efforts to leave the room at once, all turning their eyes back towards the prince.

“Yes, sire?” Leon asked.

“Why do we have nine chairs?” he asked. “There’s only eight of us.”

“Well that’s odd,” Gwen said with a contemplative frown. “Perhaps it was an accident?”

Gwaine shook his head. “No, that can’t be it. I remember just how back-breaking it was lugging this junk all the way to Camelot. There’s no way we would’ve carted off more than we had to. If princess made us carry an extra seat, I’d have tanned his hide by now.”

The rest of them chuckled at that.

“It’s probably nothing, sire,” Elyan suggested. “Maybe we’re not remembering it right. I mean, those first few weeks after the invasion were pretty hectic.”

Elyan had a point. The month after ousting Morgana from the throne was exhausting - both physically and mentally. He had to wrest power from his ailing father, welcome his estranged uncle to the castle, defend his decision to knight commoners, find someone to tend to Tom’s now abandoned forge (Elyan had been using it up to that point), lead the cleanup and restoration efforts, pile up and burn all the enemy bodies, hold funerals for the fallen...and that was alongside the nigh-infinite list of duties that came with being regent.

Luckily he had friends to support him and stand by him in his darker, more frazzled moments. He didn’t know where he’d be without…

Who? Without who?

For a moment, there was a presence in the back of his mind, whispering to him that someone was missing, that if he would only just look and remember then he might know whatever name was at the tip of his tongue. For a moment, he almost had a glimpse of something. But the details of that something slipped faster than he could grab them.

It was probably nothing.

“But why did we never notice it until now?” Lancelot, unlike the rest of the knights, didn’t seem content with Elyan’s explanation. “I mean, we’ve been having meetings like this once a week for the last ten months. I don’t understand how none of us noticed until today.”

Percival shrugged. “It’s as Elyan said. We’ve all been rather busy lately. We were likely too preoccupied to notice.”

“That must be it,” Arthur said, and the whispers in the back of his head vanished, ebbing the headache that had begun to mount in his temples.

As they all resumed exiting the room, Lancelot cast a final look at the chair. Voice laden with reluctance and face twisted in pain, he murmured, “I suppose so.”

His tone hinted that he didn’t suppose so at all.


 Ever since Tuesday, frequent migraines haunted Arthur wherever he went. There was the constant, ever-present buzz between his ears, the crackling of static to drown out certain forbidden whispers (Remember, remember, remember) he tried so very hard to ignore. Then there were the occasional jolts of agony that would burrow into his skull and sit there whenever he paid any attention to the whispers. If he gave them any prolonged thought, the whispers would turn to ungodly screeches and his brain would turn to mush until he forgot, forgot, forgot again.

He considered going to Gaius about it, but that would mean bringing up the very thing causing him pain, and doing so was forbidden.

Really, if he left the matter alone then he only had to deal with the static. And sure, the static was as annoying as a drunk Gwaine (AKA: Gwaine at any given moment), it was at least manageable. He was glad for the static, then, because if he focused hard enough on it then he could distract himself from those whispers.

It was for this reason, then, that Arthur despised Lancelot. Lancelot, who wouldn't quit mentioning the one thing they weren't supposed to talk about.

“Who did I pair up with in Morgana’s War?” he asked during training.

A sharp twinge pulsed through his brain matter, and Arthur’s grip on his sword faltered, giving Percival enough advantage to knock the sword out of his hand. He rushed up to press the tip of his own blade against Arthur’s neck.

Arthur, unable to fight both Percival and his headache at the same time, held up his hands in surrender.

Did Lancelot do this on purpose? Did he realize how much pain it put Arthur through, and bring up uncomfortable, forbidden thoughts just to spite him?

Distantly, Arthur knew Lancelot was far too chivalrous and approval-seeking for such behaviour. Gwaine, definitely. And Elyan might, if he and Guinevere had gotten into a fight. But Lancelot was the human embodiment of the knight’s code.

Even knowing this, pain had a way of making Arthur bitter.

God did he regret pointing out the chair.

“Hm? You mean when you took out the warning bell?” Leon chimed in, and Arthur could only glare at him. Not him too. Were all his knights determined to make him suffer?

For a moment, Leon contorted into a grimace, and gripped his temples like they were falling apart. Did the same migraines afflict Leon as well?

“I thought you did that alone,” Percival said. His furrowed brow betrayed a hint of pain within him as well. Come to think of it, it seemed everyone - save Lancelot, of course - agonized in this conversation.

“No, no,” said Lancelot. “I remember requesting assistance to help me find my way around the castle.”

Gwaine guffawed, but it was abnormally subdued. “So that’s why you never took out the warning bell - you got lost!” Percival and Elyan laughed in accompaniment, laughing through subtle winces on their faces.

It was obvious the rest of these idiots were also in pain at the thought of Lancelot’s stupid theories, and he wouldn't be surprised if they were in just as much pain as Arthur. All knights were well-practiced in the art of hiding their pain.

He shouldn’t think about it. Just forget the theories, ignore them, stop listening to them, and walk away. Then the pain would leave, and he could carry on with nothing more than the static.

Lancelot frowned, hands on his hips. “You guys just don’t want to admit my idea makes sense.”

Leon chortled. “What? That there’s a secret ninth member of the Round Table we all conveniently forgot about?”

Yes, yes, it was ridiculous. Absurd. There was nothing wrong with the Table. It had eight members, always had.

Remember, remember, remem-

No. Absolutely not. There was nothing to remember.

But everything to forget?

Arthur smothered the whispers in static. The static washed over the sound of quiet, devious echoes that only sought to distract him. This did little the quell his headache.

Gwaine doubled over with laughter, he and Elyan both holding onto each other’s shoulders for support as their knees shook with mirth. “Yeah, right next to the bogeyman hiding under Lance’s bed!”

“And the fact that he’s secretly Arthur’s long-lost brother!” Elyan chimed.

“Or that he’s actually from the future,” Percival added in a mocking tone. “But - oh wait, he conveniently forgot that too!”

The three of them howled out in hysterics, even Leon and Arthur unable to hide their snickers.

“Alright,” said Arthur, ignoring his pain and looping his arm around Lancelot’s shoulders. “That’s enough, you three. Don’t you think we should be getting Lancelot back to the nutter house by now?”

Lancelot’s scowl deepened. “Sire, I understand it seems a bit outlandish, but -”

“A bit outlandish?” Arthur snorted. “Look, I value your proficiency as a knight, and I always appreciate your counsel, but what you’re suggesting is flat-out impossible! We haven’t all just up and forgotten an entire person, Lancelot. It doesn’t make any sense.”

It had to be false. It had to be an illusion. It didn't seem in-character for his most straight-laced knight (more so than even Leon) to suddenly lose his sanity, but it was the only answer Arthur could accept. Because to believe the drivel Lancelot was peddling would mean...

Remember, remember, remember. 

Another wave of pain surged through his head. 

No. He refused to believe it. 

“What about magic?” Lancelot challenged, voice raising steadily but still tempered by his rigid respect for authority.

Arthur sighed and rolled his eyes. “Enough’s enough, Lance. We’re not enchanted or cursed or bewitched, end of story.”

“But sire -”

Arthur turned to the rest of the knights. “Elyan, Gwaine, switch in.”

Elyan and Gwaine both bobbed their heads in unison and swept up their respective swords, trading places with Arthur and Percival as the former fighters stepped aside.

That was the last they heard of Lancelot and his stupid theories for the rest of the day, and Arthur suffered nothing but static.


 It was a fairly normal patrol.

Since he was prince regent now, he had to stay closer to the city. Shorter patrols, shorter distances, and the like. The council wanted him to relinquish his knighthood altogether and become a politician full-time, but if he didn’t leave the castle at least once in a while he’d go stir-crazy. So this was the compromise they agreed on.

Sure, Arthur missed riding out for weeks on end, trotting along the border and flushing out bandits. His heart lay with adventure, after all. But this was fine. A one-day ride out into the woods, camping out for one night, then heading directly back. This was all the council would budge on, so this had to be fine.

It wasn’t.

“Let’s set up camp here for the night,” Arthur declared as he dismounted his horse. “Elyan, go collect firewood. Leon, unpack our things. Lancelot, you’ve got cooking duty. Gwaine, Percival - with me. Let’s see if we can catch us a nice rabbit for dinner.”

Gwaine tossed his head back and groaned. “Seriously? Lancelot? His stew tastes like dishwater!” Lancelot let out an indignant scoff of protest. “Er, no offense or anything.”

Rolling his eyes, Arthur asked, “And who would you suggest make dinner instead? You?”

“Don’t give him any ideas,” Leon pleaded mockingly. “Last time Gwaine was on cooking duty, he served us boiled mead.”

“Oi! I’ll have you lot know, mead is a perfectly valid meal.”

Elyan and Percival both bowled over in laughter in a rather un-knightly manner, unable to contain themselves. “Maybe for you,” Elyan joked, wiping the laughter tears from his eyes. “Seeing as you’re practically made of the stuff.”

Arthur rolled his eyes again and grabbed Gwaine and Percival by the shoulders. “Come on, you loons. We’ve got some hunting to do, and daylight’s wasting.”

For some reason, though, the brief hunting excursion was a lot more somber than usual. Typically, Arthur would relish in the hunt. Hunting was his element. It took speed, strength, and an agile mind.

You seem to manage on two out of three, came an unbidden, echoey, headache-inducing whisper from the depths of his mind.

He banished the thought immediately, and the headache with it. No, ignore it, ignore the voice the rose up from that place within himself he never looked. Someplace he wasn’t allowed to look. As though someone had taken a chunk of his mind and wrapped it up in a thick layer of chains, then threw it into a pit of vipers and swallowed the key. He wasn’t supposed to look, or think, or even acknowledge that tiny sliver of his mind. He didn’t know why. He wasn’t supposed to question it. It was forbidden. That was just how it was.

It was probably nothing.

Typically, hunting was fun - even with Gwaine there to chatter inanely until all the game had run off and Arthur returned to camp with a headache and no supper.

Why did he decide to bring Gwaine again?

But no, not this time. This time, Gwaine was stock-still and silent. His eyes narrowed in contemplation, his demeanor completely different from the boisterous commoner-knight everyone was used to.

Arthur had seen this look before. It was the same look in Lancelot’s eyes when he talked about...that.

Forget the Table. There’s nothing wrong with the Table.

“Who usually cooks dinner?” Gwaine asked, seemingly out of the blue, just in time to startle Arthur and make him miss his shot. Before Arthur could berate him for it, Gwaine continued. “I mean, I know I don’t. Lancelot sure as hell doesn’t. The only one of us even remotely good at cooking is Percival, and that’s only with vegetable broths.”

Percival gave a sheepish shrug, pain merely a vestige on his face “What can I say? Meat is difficult.” He paused. “But you are right, Gwaine. Normally food doesn’t taste that bad while we’re on patrol. In fact, most of the time it’s pretty good.”

Oh god, he and Gwaine had fallen into Lancelot’s little game, hadn’t they?

Just block it out, Arthur, block it out.

Arthur bent over and swept up his misfired arrow. “If you too don’t stop nattering like a pair of old hens we won’t be getting any food.”

He pulled back his arrow, aiming to strike at the rabbit just a few dozen meters away -

“But I know for a fact none of us have done the cooking,” Gwaine blurted again.

The abruptness of Gwaine’s voice caused Arthur to fumble in his grasp of the arrow. He let out an impatient, frustrated roar. The rabbit skittered off. “Argh! Will you two shut up for once!”

Gwaine scowled good-naturedly, as nothing ever truly pierced his thick skin. “Dollophead,” he grumbled.

“What the hell does that even mean?” Arthur asked.

In two words? Prince Arthur.

Arthur ignored the pressure mounting in his temples.

It was probably nothing.

Gwaine shrugged. “No clue. Just some word I picked up at some point.”

Fortunately, Gwaine and Percival seemed to leave it at that, each of them lost in their minds and Arthur pointedly avoiding the forbidden, forbidden thoughts swirling in his own.

The three of them were quiet enough that they managed to return to camp with four dead rabbits in tow.

Lancelot’s stew did, in fact, taste like dishwater - a fact he apologized profusely over, but the rest of the troop was too pensive to listen.

Arthur once believed he would celebrate the day those idiots finally shut up for once. But now that it was here, he was wishing for someone, anyone to say something. For it was through the silence that those whispering thoughts came, and they were causing his brain to twist and squeeze into unpleasant sensations. He rubbed his eyes.

You have to remember , came the whispers. You cannot forget.

As always, Arthur pushed those whispers to the side.

“You remember the Perilous Lands quest, princess?” came Gwaine’s uncertain tone, stabbing through the eerie silence.

Arthur glared. “That never happened, Gwaine .”

Gwaine waved his hand impassively. “Whatever. But what do you remember of it?”

Everyone in the Round Table was at least familiar with the Quest That Never Happened. It was a favourite story of Gwaine’s whenever he got exceptionally sloshed.

“I was going on a quest by myself ,” Arthur hissed. Even nearly two years after the fact, he was still bitter about it. “When you just popped out of nowhere for no good reason at all. We fought a few wyverns, got the trident, and went our separate ways.”

Gwaine shook his shaggy head. “No, there was a reason alright.” The rest of the knights set their dishwater soups aside and leaned in with intrigue. “It had something to do with that bracelet you were wearing, the one with the pretty orange stone on it.”

“Yes, Morgana gave it to me.” His throat closed up at the sound of her name. She was still evil then, wasn’t she? Oh god. Wait - “It was enchanted, wasn’t it?” Arthur almost didn’t want to know the answer.

A nod. “Called the ‘Eye of the Phoenix’. Supposedly, it drains your life force and slowly kills you. So I dove in to get rid of it and make sure you didn’t, you know. Die or anything. You’re welcome, by the way.”

Hm. It made sense. The exhaustion, the heavy limbs, the burdening desire for sleep. How when he woke up to no one, no one at all smiling down at him , the bracelet was gone and so was his fatigue. He hadn’t questioned it at the time, but now...

Arthur’s gut twisted at the irrevocable realization of just how far back Morgana’s treachery went. And the whole time, he was blind to the truth.

“That’s odd,” said Leon, eyes glinting in bewilderment. “How could you possibly know about a thing like that? None of us knew about that until just now, and we weren’t banished at the time.”

“Yeah, and that’s another thing I don’t get,” Gwaine said. Ever since they went hunting a few hours ago, he’d gone uncharacteristically serious, and something about that made Arthur’s skin crawl. “Why was I banished in the first place?”

“Easy,” Leon said, looking almost relieved at the arrival of a topic that didn’t make him question his memory. “You had attacked Sirs Oswald and Ethan -”

“Who were actually thugs in disguise!” Gwaine interjected, frown briefly lifting from his face. “Can’t forget that!”

“Right, but we didn’t know it at the time.”

“Yeah,” said Gwaine. “And no matter how much I hate nobles, I don’t just go around picking fights for no reason.” He flashed a cheeky grin, but it didn’t ebb the seriousness in his eyes. “Now, if we were in a tavern , that’s another story. But if my memory serves, and I suspect it doesn't, I knew about the fact that they were trying to kill Arthur in the melee. I was..trying to stop them, I think. And they were hurting someone. I don't remember who."

Remember, remember, remember.

No.

Elyan poked at the fire with a stick, brown eyes filled with that complicated ‘I feel I’ve forgotten something’ emotion. “Which begs the question: how did you know that?"

Gwaine kneaded his forehead with his knuckles, head no doubt pounding with the same pains bothering Arthur. “I don’t...I don’t know. Someone told me. Someone had to have told me. I don’t know who.”

“Number Nine,” said Lancelot in a knowing tone.

Everyone moaned in sync.

Arthur dragged his hands down his face, and the headache tore back into him. “God, not this stupid theory again.”

“What? It makes sense. For example.” Lancelot stood up, leveling each of them with an unreadable stare, gesticulating like a conspiracy nut. “The plan to take out the warning bell? That was a cover story. I was actually headed for the Cup of Life.”

A gasp of shock befell the audience. They hadn’t heard that part of the story before.

“Lancelot, what the hell were you thinking?!” Arthur shouted, rising to his feet as well. “You could have been killed!”

“Which is exactly why I didn’t say anything,” said Lancelot. “I didn’t expect to come back alive. But - but it wasn’t my idea. I know that much. I didn’t know that dumping the blood out of the cup would make all the immortal soldiers…” He waved his hand aimlessly, at a loss for how to describe what had happened.

“Poofed?” Leon offered.

“Yes, poofed . I didn’t know that was how you defeated the army. And I still don’t know how I survived against Morgana, a squadron of immortal soldiers, and Morgause, on my own.”

“Number Nine,” Percival said with a sagely nod of his head. “It’s got to be. It doesn't make sense, and yet it's the only thing that does make sense."

“Not you too,” Elyan whined.

“Enough of this!” Arthur cried. A cloth of fire wrapped around his brain and told him to forget, forget, forget. “Don’t you think we would know if there was a ninth member of the Round Table?! I wouldn’t just forget something like that!”

Don’t think it, don’t think it, those thoughts are forbidden, forbidden, forbidden. There’s nothing in that corner of your mind. Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t remember -

“Much as I’d like to think Lance here is off his rocker,” said Gwaine. “There’s just too many things that don’t add up.”

“Then -!” Lancelot started, eyes dancing with delight that someone was finally on his side.

Gwaine held up a hand. “Now hold on. I’m not saying I believe your weird-as-balls crackpot theory. I’m just saying you might be onto something.”

“Thanks, I guess,” said Lancelot, uncertain whether or not he should actually be thanking him. “Percival? Elyan? Leon?”

“I think it’s a valid theory,” said Percival, shifting his weight. “I mean - who sent the letter that convinced me and Lancelot to take part in Morgana's War?"

“Percival!” Leon cried, aghast. “You can’t seriously be considering this madness.”

Percival merely shrugged in response. Lancelot cast him a grateful smile.

Elyan shuddered, head shaking in his hands. “I...I don’t know. If Lancelot and Gwaine’s claims are to be believed, then we owe this person our lives at least twice over. How would we forget someone so, I don't know...someone so important?”

“That’s what I aim to figure out,” said Lancelot, jaw set and lips pressed thin.

A grim moment of silence rolled through their campsite with the brisk evening wind, before Gwaine’s eyes lit up with an epiphany. “Oh! I know! What if we all clunked our heads especially hard in training a few days ago and the trauma somehow shook us out of sorts?”

“Is that even possible?”

“Dunno. Ask Gaius, he’s the physician here.”

“Oh for the love of - you’re all insane!” Arthur tossed his hands into the air. He didn’t need or want to hear this. He couldn’t. It was forbidden .

Arthur stormed off into the woods, under the guise of clearing his head but really just to escape that wretched conversation. The knights called back to him, but he didn’t listen to them. He just needed to get away, get away , before the headache and the whispers and the alarms ringing in his head closed in and suffocated him.  

There were whispers thrashing against his ribs, trying to drag him back into the fire, trying to scream some unknown name to the high heavens. The whispers sputtered and stammered, banging their words against the confines of the cobwebs that kept them bound.

Please don't forget me.

He ignored it like he always did.

It was probably nothing.

Chapter Text

It was a Tuesday when everything changed.

Monday, he could understand. Or a Friday. But Tuesdays were so innocuous. Important, life-changing events never happened on Tuesdays. Like Thursdays, perhaps, except that wasn’t entirely true since Arthur was born on a Thursday. Guinevere too, now that he thought about it. And the cook.

How did he know when the cook’s birthday was, anyway? He didn’t even know the cook’s name, or what she looked like. Or if the cook was even a ‘she’ at all.

“Sorry I was late, I had to help set up a surprise party in the kitchens for -”

It was probably nothing.

Nothing .

But see, Tuesday the 1st of June was a strange day. Not just because something remarkable actually happened on a Tuesday, but because it was the day that began all the subtle changes befalling his kingdom.

For starters. Two guards came to the gate just after the midnight bell to trade in for their shift, only to find both of the guards from the previous shift laying dead in pools of their own blood. They rang the warning bell and sought out the knights and other guards, who all scoured the city and citadel for any sign of the culprit.

It was Sirs Pelleas and Elyan who discovered the body of a third bloodied guard, this one still alive but hanging by a thread.

His name was Edrick; no last name, for he was a bastard. He used to get picked on a lot because of it, and as a result of such a status had spent much of his life in squalor and misery. That is, until four years ago when he somehow convinced the Captain of the Guard to take him on and have him trained. No one could recall who had spoken to the Captain on Edrick’s behalf, but whoever they were, everyone was grateful. After all, he was a stoic, brave, and compassionate person who was often considered the guard version of Sir Percival. Hell, they even looked similar!

So to see him bloody on the cold stone ground, enemy sword still sticking out of his stomach, was a horrific sight.

They dragged him to Gaius’s chambers in a desperate attempt to save his slowly fading life - only to find Edrick wasn’t the only one having a rough night.

The room was mostly in order, but an overturned chair, scorch marks on the walls, and a few puddles of still-wet blood betrayed the truth. Then of course there was the fact that in the center of it all was Gaius, lying unconscious on the ground with a shallow cut along his throat. And about ten feet away from him was the shattered remains of a sleeping draught bottle.

Pelleas, who had more medical training out of the two, set to work doing what he could for Edrick, while Elyan took the easier case of coaxing Gaius awake and treating his injury.

The three of them worked hour after hour to save his life while the rest of the guards, knights, and Arthur himself scrambled through the city with a vengeance. No one maimed three of their own without an expectation of recompense.

Tuesday arrived at sunrise, and with it came no captured criminals and Edrick in stable - but comatose - condition.

Arthur and the rest of the Round Table adjourned in Gaius’s chambers, Gaius and Elyan tending to Edrick while the rest of them helped put the whirlwind chambers back into sorts and Pelleas went to get some rest and wash the blood off his clothes.

Gaius also had to give his statement about what happened. As the only conscious survivor, he was the only one who could tell them who was responsible. Arthur was hesitant to put a strain on him like this, though. After the throat injury, his voice had become small and raw, or perhaps that was due to the emotion laying thick on his words. Arthur couldn’t exactly blame him for being shaken up, and felt horrible forcing this interrogation upon him. But he shoved his feelings aside and pressed on nonetheless. They needed to know.

“It was Morgana,” he said, careful physician mask cracking. “She broke in, held a sword to my throat and...she took…” He shuddered.

“What? What did she take?”

His mind turned fuzzy when he tried to think about what Gaius said she stole, but it must not have been too concerning if he couldn’t remember such a detail.

The Round Table knights set out to catch Morgana post-haste. They couldn’t let her get away with breaking into the city, killing two guards and critically wounding a third, hurting their physician for unknown but likely insidious reasons, and taking...something ( someone ). They for some reason brought an extra horse with them to the chase, though no one thought this strange or even noticed it until about a day into their search of Camelot's outskirts. It was a fruitless trip, and within days they returned back to Camelot empty-handed. Edrick still hadn’t risen from his coma, and Gaius assured he wouldn’t for quite a while to come.

Upon their dejected return was when things really turned strange, which was saying quite a bit considering how many absurd curses this godforsaken kingdom fell victim to on a weekly basis. At the moment, Arthur’s favourite had to be when Lord Sagramore came to council with dog paws instead of hands. It wore off within a matter of hours, but no one could take him seriously for weeks afterward (and still didn’t).

The first noticeable change was Gaius’s behaviour. He had...regressed, sort of.

Now, Arthur couldn’t lie and say he was the most open or personable physician back in the good old days. He wasn’t cruel or rude, and until Arthur started repressing his emotions at about age twelve he could always lean on Gaius for a good cry. But at the same time, Gaius was a withdrawn and reticent old man. Always in a hunched, submissive position, seldom raising his voice and looking fifty years older than he was. He was only seen and interacted with as often as needed, and had little patience for immaturity or foolishness. He loved Arthur, and Arthur knew that, but Gaius always seemed far too depressed to express as much.

Five years ago, that all changed. After the Mary Collins attack, he began smiling more. Laughing, helping, speaking up against Uther’s less wise decisions. Something had lit a fire within his eyes, like he finally had a purpose in life, like he finally had someone to love. Someone or something had pulled him out of his shell, a feat Arthur had spent his whole childhood trying to pull off. The age ebbed from his face, and if not for the wrinkles and white hair Arthur might have mistaken him for Leon’s cousin or something. In the past five years, Arthur had grown to consider this newer, happier Gaius as a father figure to him (as loathe as he was to admit it, Uther was rather lacking in parental skills).

After Tuesday, though, he quickly snapped back into his old ways. In fact, you might argue he got worse. He was suddenly hundreds of years old with hardly any energy and not much light left in his eyes, constantly scanning the room for someone who was never quite there, but who he could also never quite remember. Many times people asked him why he looked so lost, and he explained that he was missing something important. When asked what it was, Gaius would scowl and shakily declare he didn’t know.

This could easily be explained away by the traumatic ordeal, but Arthur’s warrior instincts told him there was something more to it. And if he could only just dig a little deeper and remember remember remember then he might figure it out.

But he wouldn’t do that. He wasn’t supposed to. Not if he didn’t want his brain to split in half with the Headache From Hell.

Then there was the fact that everyone, not just Gaius, had grown a bit more subdued in recent days. Knights smiled less, servants talked less, and even the nobles in court were the slightest bit grumpier (if such a thing were even possible). There was this feeling all through the corridors as though everyone was holding their breaths. Again, much like Gaius’s behaviour, this was common for Arthur’s childhood, but was yet another thing to change after Mary Collins's assassination attempt. The fact that this silent edginess had returned was chilling to consider. 

Then came the realization that he didn’t have a servant, and somehow had gone without one for the last five years. How no one noticed this until now was beyond him, but the knights simply joked it must have been because his father was fed up with his servants quitting every few days and just decided to stop giving him servants altogether. To teach him a lesson, to teach him the meaning of hard work and humility, the knights teased. And while Arthur would sooner eat his own sword than admit it, they were right. In the last half decade he had grown into a more compassionate, humble, and understanding individual who sought fairness and justice for all.

When Leon asked him if he would like a servant, to rectify his past five years without one, he got this twist in his gut and impulsively shrieked “No!” , an overreaction no one understood or dared question him about.

Then there was Arthur’s strange urges to throw goblets at his doorway whenever someone opened it, look over his shoulder to share a joke even though no one was there, barge into Gaius’s chambers just to call someone an idiot…

Remember remember remember

And that wasn’t even counting the extra chair pulled up at the Round Table, the strange dreams, the migraine-causing whispers in his mind, and an unusual ache of loneliness between his ribs.

It was all probably nothing, of course.

It was always nothing.

Wednesday the 9th saw the arrival of a visiting royal, King Cadoc Durien of Elmet. Cadoc and Uther were old friends from their days of princehood, often visiting with each other as their fathers discussed matters of state. Uther had been eager to cultivate a similar relationship between Arthur and Cadoc’s son Simon, once upon a time, but Simon was a prat and Arthur got a foul taste in his mouth even thinking about him.

Lucky for Arthur and the knights (for Simon was notoriously hissy about commoners), Simon remained in Elmet with his mother Queen Olivia. Simon apparently hadn’t wanted to stay in Camelot for an undefined period of time, since Cadoc had arrived without knowing how long he would stay. Whatever the reason, Arthur could only sigh in relief.

Cadoc was an old man in his late forties with firm, wide, pock-marked features and thin salt-and-pepper hair. He had the slightest hint of white stubble gracing his chin, and an almost invisible scar running from the bow of his lip down to his jaw. He held himself as all kings held themselves, but his eyes were a bit more lost and the thin press of his lips were a bit more trusting.

He clasped forearms with Arthur, golden crown towering on his head and glittering in the rays of afternoon sun. “My my, how big you’ve grown, Arthur. Why, I believe you went up to my waist last I saw you. Always whining and weeping about how you had the physique of a girl - but I did promise you’d fill out eventually, didn’t I?”

Gwaine chortled behind him, but was cut off by Leon harshly elbowing him in the hip. Arthur struggled to hide his vindicated smirk. Looked like someone would be getting the stocks tomorrow. They’d seem oddly vacant in the past week.

“It’s good to see you again, Cadoc,” said Arthur, doing his best to sound as regal as his father always did when receiving visitors, even in spite of the embarrassment. “I only wish it were under better circumstances.”

Cadoc’s smile dropped to reveal the true grimness of his features, which was seemingly exacerbated by mention of said circumstances. “Yes, I’m sorry to hear of what happened to your father. I would have come to check on him much sooner, if I’d only known. I actually learned his condition from a passing minstrel singing of heartbreak.”

Arthur twitched, and tried to hide his sheepishness. “My apologies, King Cadoc,” he said with a regretful bow. “I have been so busy in my role as regent, I completely neglected to send a letter to inform you.”

Cadoc waved his hand. “It’s alright, boy, this is your first time on the throne. You’re allowed a few mistakes.” Then under his breath he muttered, “Lord knows Uther and I have our share.”

“Well,” Arthur interrupted politely, snapping Cadoc out of his reverie. “I’m sure you’re tired after your long journey. I trust you’d like to indulge in a warm bath before tonight’s festivities?”

Cadoc clapped his hands. “Oh that would be most desired.”

Arthur gestured towards a small arsenal of servants standing to the side. “Please escort Cadoc and his entourage to their guest chambers,” he said before turning back to Cadoc. “We will be holding a feast to welcome you and your people this evening. It begins at sundown.”

“Splendid.”

And that was that. The rest of the day was spent with Arthur filling in Uther about the day’s events, trying to ignore the queasiness that told him something was missing, and prepping himself for the welcome feast.

Tangled in the throes of his white banquet tunic, he groaned. How the hell had he lasted five years without a servant? What had he been thinking to turn Leon's suggestion down?

So he poked his head out of the doorway, careful to hide his less than princely state of attire, and barked out for a servant to assist. The one who did happened to be a dreadful man with a strangely familiar colour scheme and a penchant for terrible puns. If all servants were as boring and boot-licking as “George”, then perhaps his lack of a servant was almost a good thing.

Almost.


The feast came and went as feasts always do: food, wine, music. There was a notable absence of spills, though. Not to say it happened often, but Arthur had the distinct feeling it was supposed to happen often.

Remember remember r-

Arthur clutched his head and groaned. A week in and these damned migraines still hadn’t let up. He made the resolve that if another Wednesday came and went without relief, he’d see Gaius about it. But not right now. He was a prince, almost a king, and he couldn’t be taken down by a little pain between his ears.

No, but you can be taken down by a servant with a stick-

“Arthur?” came the weary voice of Cadoc. “Is everything alright?”

“Hm? Oh, yes, I’m fine. Just a headache.”

Cadoc gave a weak, cynical smile as he gazed out at the loud and colourful sea of feast-goers. Gwaine seemed to have found a kindred (drunken) spirit with one of Cadoc’s knights, and had led almost everyone at their table into a drawled tavern song. Minstrels and bards played their instruments in the center of the room while ribbon dancers performed circles around them. On a normal day, this wouldn’t bother him. But now, it only made his headache worse. Perhaps he’d have to turn in early tonight.

“Yes, I’m all too familiar with those,” said Cadoc.

Arthur turned to face him. “Oh?”

Cadoc nodded. “For the last...twenty years? Twenty-five? Yes, I think it was twenty-five. I’ve been afflicted with these horrible migraines. And when it’s not pain, it’s a low buzz in my ears that won’t go away. Came upon me after a war from my late teens.” He paused. “I do hope you don’t have my same illness.”

Arthur shook his head and assuaged Cadoc’s concerns, despite how mildly disconcerted he was with how similar their symptoms were.

“You could talk to my physician, about it,” Arthur offered. “People say Gaius is one of the most skilled in all of Albion.”

Cadoc chuckled. “Yes, I do recall trying to convince him to join my court when I was first coronated.” He shook his head. “But I’m afraid not even Gaius can explain my condition.”

Arthur rubbed a finger into his temple. “And you say war had caused it? Did you suffer brain damage perhaps?”

Cadoc shook his head. “That’s just it. We went to war with…” He frowned. “... some kingdom, I can’t recall which one. I had sprained my ankle in a skirmish with some bandits just a few weeks prior, but refused to stay off the battlefield, so our court physician Emaya let me help by tending to the wounded. I stayed in that medic tent all through the fighting, and…”

The loss in his eyes, the loss that permeated the old king’s every joint and crevice, grew heavier in the following moments. His wrinkles deepened, his brown-eyed gaze clouded over, and a slight tremble racked his weathered hands. It bore an uncanny resemblance to the way Gaius decayed and atrophied whenever he thought about the break-in, and whatever he had ‘lost’ that fateful night. Were all old men like this?

Remember remember remember

Arthur placed a hand on Cadoc’s arm, but nothing could snap him back to focus. Nothing could stop the tears slowly rolling down his cheeks.

“Cadoc? Cadoc?”

After a few minutes, the minstrels received a round of applause and began a new song. This one, the knights all drunkenly sang along to.

Slowly, far too slowly, Cadoc turned his hyper-aged face to Arthur. “Oh, sorry. I seem to have gotten lost in my own memories. It happens at my age, sometimes.” He scrubbed the tears away. “What were we talking about?”

Not wanting to bring back such a painful reaction, Arthur shrugged and turned away. “Doesn’t matter.”

Arthur made a mental note to never bring up the subject of Cadoc’s past ever again.

Remember remember rem-


 Lancelot was really, really, really, really getting on Arthur’s nerves.

“According to one of Gaius’s books,” he said during training on Thursday. “There are certain spells that can erase memories. Maybe someone abducted Nine and then made us forget them so we wouldn’t go looking for them.”

Between exhausted pants, Gwaine sweatily asked, “Nine?”

“Th-that’s what I’m calling our missing person for now,” said Lancelot, blushing a bit. God, could Lancelot act like a weak-willed maiden when put on the spot. He was simultaneously the bravest and most self-conscious person Arthur had ever met. “You know, since they’re the ninth member the Round Table.”

Elyan sighed, rotating the shoulder of his sword-arm. “I still think the theory is ridiculous. Why would someone want this missing person -”

“Nine,” Lancelot corrected.

“Alright, why would someone want Nine bad enough to kidnap them and make us all forget about them?” Shaking his head he added, “Magic or no, that can’t be easy.”

While Lancelot sat there and pondered an adequate response, the rest of them watched as Percival and Leon went head to head on the field. The sounds of metal on metal managed to temporarily transport Arthur away from the whisper-induced headache, if only for a few moments.

“Maybe...” Lancelot mused as he flopped onto the grass. “...they’re Arthur’s sibling. Most magic-users hate the Pendragons, after all. They must have done it to disrupt the lineage.”

To Lancelot’s frustration, no one took the idea seriously. A long-lost brother? Really, Lancelot?

This wasn’t even the worst theory to come out of Lancelot’s mouth in the last week.

There was the theory that the imaginary person (Arthur refused to call them ‘Nine’. It was like negotiating with rebels. Acknowledging their name only validated their existence) had died, but their ghost didn’t want anyone to mourn them so they erased their own selves from existence.

Then there was the theory that the imaginary person had slain a unicorn and being unseen, unheard, and unremembered by his loved ones was the consequenting curse.

Or that the imaginary person was a vengeful sorcerer who had been sentenced to the pyre but escaped at the last minute, and erased everyone’s memories so no one would chase after them.

Or that Camelot had a secret protector who had been abducted to make the kingdom vulnerable, and everyone was enchanted to forget so no one would think to compensate for the protection the imaginary person gave (by far the most ridiculous).

Or that some sort of time travel shenanigan had caused a disruption in the time stream, a timeline where the imaginary person existed merged into one where they didn’t, and this was the result.

Some people, Arthur being chief among them, had quickly tired of Lancelot’s outlandish ‘Number Nine’ theories; others, Gwaine being chief among them, found it increasingly hilarious. Everyone used to argue that Lancelot was the most sane among them. How far would he take this before recognizing his own madness?

Before Lancelot could open his mouth and give Arthur more headaches than he already had, a new voice hit his ears.

“Prince Arthur Pendragon?”

It was unfamiliar, yet familiar all the same, as though he had met this person once before but it had been a long time ago and the meeting was nothing to write home about. His head didn’t split to hear it, though, so at least it was better than listening to Lancelot.

He rose to his feet. “I am he.”

The man who owned the voice didn’t look like he could be called a ‘man’, inasmuch that he was more of a ‘boy’. He wore a tattered green cloak that wasn’t in great condition, but still nicer than most of what commoners wore. He kept the hood over his face and his chin pressed down to conceal his identity, but his efforts did nothing to hide the youthful squeak in his voice or the lanky stretch of his hands. Something orange glistened and shone deep within the folds of the man’s brown tunic.

“You’re in danger,” said the man.

Hearing word of this, Elyan and Lancelot rose to their feet, hands gripping their swords and ready to defend their prince. He rolled his eyes at their over-protectiveness.

“What is the threat?” asked Arthur casually.

“I...I...you just are , okay? I’m not lying about this!” One of the man’s pale hands shot up to grab the orange thing near his collar, clutching it like a lifeline. “Camelot is defenseless. Anyone could attack and you’d all be sitting ducks,” he hissed.

Arthur chuckled. “Glad to know you’ve got so much faith in my knights.”

“You don’t understand!” the man cried. “There is a great wealth of people in this world who want to hurt you and your kingdom. Dangerous, powerful people. What do you expect a silly little sword to do against magic?”

“Are you saying there is a magical threat against Camelot?” Lancelot inquired. Oh god, he was going to add this as evidence to his theories, wasn’t he?

The man shrugged. “I can’t say. Perhaps. Just be wary. Increase defenses and patrols. You may not live to regret it if you don’t.”

And with that, the man sauntered away.

As with all unpleasant thoughts running through his mind these days, Arthur tried his darndest to forget the cloaked figure and his cryptic warnings. But like with the whispers ( Remember remember remember ), he couldn’t shake his concern.

He spoke to Agravaine about it, who insisted they were just the ravings of a madman and Camelot was more peaceful than it had been in ages. It was foolish to put more strain on Camelot’s guards on the whim of a stranger, especially so soon after the attack on Edrick and the other guards. Increasing security would only throw the staff into undue panic.

“And besides,” said Agravaine. “We have the king of Elmet in our castle for the next undetermined period of time.” Which was true; Cadoc intended to stay for as long as it took to see at least some progress on Uther’s recovery, with his queen and prince managing kingdom affairs in the meantime. “We don’t want to worry him. There’s also the possibility that his entourage might fear the increase in security as being more sinister than it truly is.”

“You’re right as always, Agravaine,” Arthur conceded, but he couldn’t say he was happy about it. Something about the man's warnings set him on edge, and it took every ounce of rational thought he had not to heed them. Agravaine was right, though. The man was likely just a street urchin with delusions of grandeur.

"You need to listen as well as you fight."

Arthur kneaded his forehead as the whispers rose in volume and intensity, just for the briefest of moments. His shoulders quivered a bit. No, not quiver. A prince didn’t quiver . That was...manly shaking. Yes. Extremely manly. 

A few moments later the whispers faded and they took their headaches with them, leaving Arthur with nothing but chronic mental static, a raw sense of foreboding, and an eerily empty chamber.


With every day that passed, Arthur hated Lancelot more and more.

On Wednesday, he hated Lancelot for telling everyone not to trust Cadoc since it was too suspicious that he was arriving within such a close temporal proximity to the break-in and the imaginary person’s “abduction”.

On Thursday, he hated Lancelot for accosting servants and nobles in the hallway to ask them questions about memory loss and strange dreams. Lancelot continued to maintain that he was onto something huge and dangerous, and the man's warnings only confirmed his beliefs. If he had any love for Camelot in his heart, he needed to do this.

Even after the knight waxed poetic about duty and honour for a good ten minutes, Arthur was still a hair’s breadth from putting him in the stocks. And Lancelot was never in the stocks.

And then today. Why did he hate Lancelot today?

Oh, right. That was why.

He had corrupted Guinevere.

“It’s just,” she said, wringing her hands, posture laden with something akin to confusion and guilt. “I can’t remember who was present at my father’s funeral. I know Morgana was there, and Gaius, and a few of Father’s friends...but after the parting words were said and the blessings were given, everyone left in the end.”

She furrowed her brow, and instantly Arthur knew where this conversation was going. He would have turned heel and ran the other way, but she was gripping his upper arm and looking far too emotional for him to abandon her in good conscience.

There was also the eensy little detail that they were talking in his personal chambers, and no self-respecting prince would flee his own room just to escape his feelings.

“Well, not everyone . I know there was someone beside me. I remember crying into someone’s shoulder as they held me, and I cried myself to sleep in their arms. And I didn’t make breakfast for myself the next morning.” Her frown grew deeper, brow furrowed, eyes wet, voice wavering. “I remember being upset that my father was gone, but happy to know I wasn’t alone.”

Arthur’s heart clenched. He never learned these details of her father’s death. Usually the memories were too painful to bring up, and he knew to leave well enough alone.

“Guinevere,” he started, unable to scrub the pity from his face, eyes lingering on the tears that spilled down her cheeks. “Guinevere, I -”

“But I don’t remember anything about them,” she quivered out. “Not their face, or their voice - not even their name!”

Her posture folded a bit, and she wrapped her arms around her heaving shoulders. He drew her in and held her into a tight embrace. He wasn’t experienced with hugs or soothing people, but for her sake he had to at least try.

“Every day,” she said. “I wake up and feel like someone’s missing. Someone important.”

Arthur had nothing to say to that. He gave no wise, kind response as she collapsed further into his arms. He had nothing to say, because there was nothing he could say. How did he tell her how he felt the exact...same…

The headache slammed into his skull.

No. No he didn’t. Not at all. He didn’t feel how she felt. Ludicrous.

Arthur! Please!

Go away!

Gritting his teeth, he strained against the whispers. Pushing them farther and farther back, no matter how much they kicked and screamed and struggled as though their lives depended on it.

Go away, go away , GO AWAY.

The whispers faded, locked deep into the darkest corner of his mind.

No one was there. No on ever was.

That dark, cobwebbed, forbidden room in the corner of his dreams beckoned to him. Fists thumped at the door in the rhythm of a heartbeat. Calling to him, screaming to him, telling him to open up and let it in.

Let what in?

It was probably nothing.

Wasn’t it?

“Sire! Sire!”

Guinevere and Arthur both jolted, and threw themselves out of each other’s arms. Arthur snapped his back ramrod straight to assume his best I'm-the-future-king pose, while Guinevere wiped her eyes and shuffled away.

Leon burst into the room. “Sire, you need to come quick.”

“What is it?”

“It’s the guard, Edrick. He’s awake.”

Chapter Text

Edrick the guard had spent about a week in comatose, unmoving and seemingly lifeless.

It was unnerving to watch him lay limp on Gaius’s patient cot, because of how uncanny Edrick’s resemblance to Percival was. They were both hulkish walls of muscle, both had short hair, and both had the same complexion. Edrick’s features were sharper, Percival was taller, Edrick’s hair was darker, and Percival smiled more - but it was still a close resemblance.

It had been unnerving the past week, because if Arthur didn’t look close enough he would start panicking over Percival’s wellbeing. Edrick’s complexion was drained and ill, blood still crusted under his fingers, and it wasn’t a condition he would wish upon any of his knights - or guards, or citizens, or anyone except his enemies, for that matter.

And yet, somehow, seeing Edrick awake on his feet was even worse.

The rest of the Round Table was already gathered in the physician’s chambers by the time Leon, Arthur, and Guinevere arrived. Percival, Lancelot, and Gwaine stood along the wall, trying to stay out of the way and looking rather out of their depth. Elyan stood next to the table, hands quivering like he wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do. Gaius followed Edrick, trying to placate him as he paced frantically about the room.

Yes, paced. Stomping this way and that around the chamber, despite being so near to dying just a few hours ago, and even now Arthur could see death haunting Edrick’s blue eyes. Every so often he’d run a clammy hand through his sweat-slicked hair, mumbling out a tirade of nonsense as he stumbled about.

“Edrick, you need rest,” Gaius attempted. “Just lay back down and conserve your energy.”

“My name’s not Edrick!” He ran his hand through his hair again, both hands this time, and shook his head. “I can’t rest, Gaius, I can’t ! She’s still out there! We have to find her!”

“We’re doing everything we can to find Morgana,” said Elyan. “But you have to calm down and tell us what you know, Edrick.”

That’s not my name! ” Edrick wailed.

Gwaine pressed out of the shadowy corner he’d stuffed himself into, jabbing a harsh thumb in Edrick’s direction. “He’s been batty like that since he woke up,” he said to the three newcomers. Lancelot slapped his arm for being crass.

Well if Edrick wouldn’t listen to the ministrations of his physician, then perhaps he’d listen to his prince. “Edrick,” Arthur called, puffing out his chest and straightening up into a more commanding posture.

The plan worked. Edrick snapped back into himself, haziness in his eyes clarifying and feet halting in their steps. “Arthur,” he breathed. Which was odd, because Edrick was even more of a stickler about rules and rank than everyone in the Round Table combined (including Leon). He never would have called the prince by his real name, not in his right mind.

Before Arthur could admonish him for it or even tell him to sit down, Edrick clamored towards him. “Arthur, you’re here!” he exclaimed, face lit up in relief. “I was so worried - it’s so cold in here, but I had to - I had to make sure you were okay.”

No, it wasn’t ‘so cold’ in here. It was actually a bit humid. “Sit down, Edrick, you’ll wear yourself out.”

It looked like Edrick was going to open his mouth and once more declare how ‘Edrick’ wasn’t his name, but he stopped himself, and collapsed onto a wooden bench.

Arthur could only be grateful the headache took this moment to leave him. He wouldn’t have been able to handle both the nagging whispers and Edrick’s newfound insanity. There was still that chronic buzz rattling his brain, but that was at least manageable and easily distracted from.

“What happened the night Morgana hurt you, Edrick? Do you know why she broke into the castle?”

Edrick nodded. His hands were shaking in his lap, knuckles whiter than sheets. “To take me. She wanted to take me.”

Arthur exchanged a leveling glance with Leon, confusion communicated wordlessly between them. “Why would she want that?”

“I do too much, I know too much,” he murmured. He ran his fingers through his hair again, and moved to stand up, but Arthur pulled him down before he could. “I’ve stopped her too many times.”

Well didn’t that just clarify everything. Really. What was with people being cryptic right when he most needed a straight answer?

“I don’t understand,” Arthur said.

“No, I suppose you wouldn’t.” Edrick gave a sad smile, eyes crinkled with tears. “You always were a dollophead.”

The word jostled something deep within him, like the whispers, but the whispers weren’t there anymore. They weren’t even locked up and hidden in some dark corner of his mind, they weren’t struggling to reach his thoughts. They were gone, and the only evidence they had ever been there in the first place was the static.

For some reason, that one nonsense word elicited dampness to spring into his eyes. Dollophead. He coughed the feeling back. Princes didn’t cry. His eyes were sweating, that’s all.

“Ahem. Well. If she wanted you, why are you still here?”

Edrick cocked his head and furrowed his brow, as though he had any right to be the confused one in this situation. “But I’m not here, Arthur. She took me away. Far, far away.”

Arthur tried not to bark out a laugh at the absurdity of his claim. Edrick was broken, traumatized, and more than a little shaken - the last thing he needed was a prince laughing at him. A bit of absurdity could be expected, at any rate, and a circumstance as tremulous as this demanded patience.

Which happened to be the one thing Arthur lacked, but he would have to make it work for now.

“Where are you, then?” Arthur asked. It probably wasn’t a good idea to entertain Edrick’s neurosis, but he couldn’t hold back his curiosity.

Edrick rubbed his arms the way a small child might, cowering into himself and eyeing his toes. It was such a strange posture for someone who was usually so large and stoic. Arthur shuddered at the sight.

“It’s cold here, Arthur,” he said, sounding for all the world like a little boy afraid of the dark. “And empty. And I can feel it...biting me. It’s trying to destroy me. It’s eating away at my memories, my thoughts, my soul . So much of me is gone, and I…” The tears flooded faster, and Edrick sniffed. “...I’m trying to hold on as long as I can. Even now it’s trying to pull me back, but I can’t. I have to warn you, Arthur, before I’m too weak to reach you anymore.”

Arthur flinched back as Edrick clasped his hands. Edrick tried to hold him firmly, but the coma had left his body so emaciated that his grip was loose enough for Arthur to shake it off. When he did so, Edrick only reached out and grabbed his hands again, at which point Arthur figured he was probably doing this for comfort. And while his father always maintained that princes didn’t comfort their subjects, he didn’t have the heart to deny Edrick his wish.

Well, he thought it was a comfort thing, anyway. The look on Edrick’s face and the tremble in his bones were those of a man who had long been starved of touch, food, and light, and craved the feeling of someone else out of fear that he might soon get sucked back into isolation. It was raw, it was scared, it was desperate.

Usually, Edrick was shielded and reserved with his emotions. Usually, you would find more emotion within a statue. But now his eyes were swirling with life and urgency and devotion. Never had Arthur seen eyes quite as emotional as these.

Had he?

“Morgana is planning something,” Edrick said, setting his jaw in resolute determination. “I’m gone and she thinks she can harm Camelot’s people in my absence. You mustn’t let her, Arthur. Put your faith in the glass bauble, but fear the day it turns red. When it turns red, Camelot is in danger. Never let it turn red.”

What was all this about a glass bauble and Camelot being in danger? Clear evidence Edrick had gone off the deep end, that’s what.

Oh! The man. From yesterday, during training. He had said the same thing. That Camelot was under threat.

Arthur tried to convince himself it was mere coincidence, but his warrior instinct told him otherwise.

“What is she going to do?” Arthur asked. He had intended to school his tone into something more compassionate and understanding, but what came out was harsh and insistent instead. Edrick flinched as a result.

“A beast. She plans to summon a beast. I don’t know what kind, but it’s only a matter of time before it awakens to do her bidding. I know because she gloated about her schemes all the way to…” Edrick cut himself off with a shiver.

“All the way to where?” Elyan was the one who asked this time. “Where did she take you?”

Edrick trembled, and his eyes turned wild and unfocused as though he were staring at things that weren’t there. His semi-manic gaze trailed along the imaginary walls and ceiling of a dark, dark box that no one could see but him. “I’m trying to escape, Arthur, I swear I’m trying, but there are no walls. There’s nothing here. I...” He rubbed the tears from his eyes, but more tears fell in replacement. Just as he opened his mouth to speak again, Edrick doubled over with a groan of pain, both hands flying up to clutch at his head. His face screwed into something of agony.

“...it’s taking me back,” he whispered. Shivers racked his body with new vigor. “I can’t go back.” He sounded so defeated when he said it.

Arthur just sat there, dumbfounded and unsure. He’d been taught all manner of battle and conflict, but never how to deal with emotion. Did he reach over and pat Edrick on the shoulder? Tell him well done? Scold him for his madness? His father would have just pressed Edrick for more answers, heedless of his shambled mental state, but Arthur got the nagging sense it wasn’t the most ideal approach.

Guinevere, bless her heart, rushed up to Edrick and held his hands within her own.

“I’m scared,” he confessed, and this was the first time Arthur believed that maybe this wasn’t Edrick after all. No warrior of Camelot would say such a thing, much less ‘Emotionless Edrick’. “I don’t want to go.”

“It’s okay, Edrick,” she said. ” You’ll be okay.”

He wept as he squeezed her fingers, and shook his head. “That’s not my name.”

Reaching a hand up to stroke some tears from his cheek, she asked, “What is your name?”

His tears faltered. “I...I don’t remember.”

Edrick’s eyes rolled back into his head, everyone crying out in panic as they did, and he flopped gracelessly over the bench and backward onto the table. Guinevere let out a gasp at the sudden lifelessness of his body.

The presence of whispers returned to Arthur’s skull, but instead of loud and annoying as they usually were, now they were naught but a faint, weak pressure in the backs of his eyes.

It was probably nothing.

Gaius and Elyan both rushed towards the fallen guard, while Arthur his pressed fingers to Edrick’s neck. A pulse was there, but it was weak.

“Percival,” Gaius croaked. A quick glance revealed everyone’s eyes were rimmed with red. If Arthur hadn’t such a strong reign over his emotions, he might have also been hard-pressed to cry. It was hard to watch Edrick endure so much hysteria and not get shaken by it. “If you and Leon could carry Edrick back to the patient cot -”

“Of course,” said Leon. He gingerly stepped around Guinevere and grabbed Edrick by the shoulders. Percival took Edrick by the ankles, and the two of them made gentle work of setting him back on his bed.


 It was wishful thinking on Arthur’s part to assume Lancelot would just let this go and not use Edrick’s trauma as ammunition in his Number Nine Theory.

“I’m just saying,” said Lancelot. “First Morgana attacks Gaius for no apparent reason, then Cadoc shows up, then that man from the training pitch gives us a cryptic warning, and now this. It’s too many strange things to be coincidence.”

“You’re right,” Elyan conceded. “Camelot is overrun with weirdness as it is, sure, but this is a lot even for us. Granted , I still don’t think it all leads back to a missing ninth member of the Round Table, but…”

Lancelot’s eyes danced eagerly. “But it’s at least a possibility.”

Great. Just lovely. Now Elyan’s been inducted into the conspiracy cult. Was no one free from Lancelot’s insanity?

Shrugging, Elyan simply said, “It’s a valid theory. I’ll admit it. But we need to exhaust all possibilities before we follow that particular goose chase.”

“I believe it,” said Guinevere, who by now was sitting at the table where Edrick once was. “There are a lot of holes in my memory, and ‘Nine’ would explain most of it. All of it, actually. But you are correct, Elyan, we should entertain every possible solution. We have to be scientific about this.”

“Thank you, both of you,” said Lancelot. The besotted look he shot Guinevere was sickeningly sweet, but for the sake of chivalry Arthur ignored it. Gwaine, however, mock-gagged behind Lancelot’s back, which had Percival stifling a chuckle.

“You’re all insane,” Arthur said. “Maybe that’s what Morgana’s doing. She’s put an insanity curse on everyone and now we’re all slowly going mad.”

Leon’s eyes darkened. “Don’t joke about things like that, sire.”

“Why, afraid I might be right?” he hissed. He wasn’t sure why he was so snippy all of the sudden. Maybe all the emotions in the air were getting to him. Or maybe he was just disgruntled about being the only sensible person in this goddamn room . Did they all seriously have to believe Lancelot’s ludicrous theory and then treat Arthur like he was the one who’d lost his mind?

“Well,” said Gwaine, stretching like he had just woken up from a long nap. Knowing Gwaine, he’d probably sensed Arthur’s mood and interrupted to prevent a fight from breaking out. “I say we look closer at the break-in. That seems to be where all this weirdness picks up.”

“Good point,” Percival chimed in, swiveling his bulky frame over to the physician. Gaius had spent much of this conversation hung by Edrick’s bedside like a shy, subdued ivy plant. “Hey Gaius, what do you remember from last week’s attack?”

Gaius slowly, owlishly turned his head toward them. “Hmm? What do you mean?”

“Besides what you’ve already told us,” said Leon. “All we know is that you were attacked by Morgana, she mussed up your chambers a bit, cut your throat, and let you be. But surely there must be more to it. She wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of killing two guards and maiming a third, just to give you a superficial wound.”

Gaius shrugged, still dabbing a wet cloth on Edrick’s forehead. “It is as you say, Sir Leon. I can’t recall much more than…” He trailed off.

“Gaius?” Arthur waved his hand in front of Gaius’s face, who had all but zoned out. His eyes got that lost look in them again. Just like when he asked Cadoc about the war. He shook the physician’s shoulder. “ Gaius .”

Gaius jolted in surprise. “Oh. Sire. I just got - lost in thought there, I suppose. My apologies.”

Lancelot’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, but managed to keep his expression neutral as he walked up to Gaius and knelt down to be at eye-level with him. “Did you remember something, Gaius?”

With great hesitation, he nodded. “Morgana did not just injure me,” he said, absent-mindedly tracing his fingers along the new scar that had formed on his throat. “I remember being held hostage, actually. She said she would kill me if...if someone didn’t drink a whole bottle of sleeping draught.”

“Gaius,” Lancelot murmured in what sounded like regret. Because talking about this made Gaius’s whole form hunch and age more than it ever had in the past week, and he now looked so frail Arthur feared he might break if a strong wind blew through the room.

Nevertheless, Gaius continued. “I begged them not to. I’d be fine either way, but there was no telling what would happen if she took them. I...I wept, as I watched them bring the draught to their lips and fall into an unconscious heap on the floor.” His eyes grew wet. “And then she dragged the sword along my neck, and...and as I lay there, before I fainted, I saw her drag their body out of the room and down the hall.”

“Thank you for your input, Gaius,” said Arthur. He patted him on the shoulder. It was an inadequate gesture, but it was the best he knew how to provide. “You don’t need to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

Gaius nodded, and turned back to his patient. Everyone seemed less keen to engage him after that, but Guinevere took it upon herself to join him in a silent vigil beside Edrick.

“Nine,” Lancelot said, keeping his voice low so as not to distress Gaius. Arthur’s head started pounding like it always did when this topic came up. “It has to be.”

Elyan’s eyes widened. “You think Edrick was telling the truth when he said he wasn’t Edrick?”

Stop, stop, stop talking about it. Everything was fine and normal in Camelot. Nothing was wrong.

“But then what was that ‘cold place’ he kept referring to?” asked Percival.

“And how was he possessing Edrick?” asked Gwaine. His eyes sharpened, a rare sign of Gwaine’s true intellect. This couldn’t be good. Gwaine only ever hinted at what was really going on in his head when the situation demanded it. And for a situation to demand it…

No. They were all being dramatic and ridiculous. Everything was fine . All of this ‘Nine’ garbage was nothing.

Nothing at all.

The more Arthur said it, the less he believed it.

No, wait, of course he believed it. There was nothing that could possibly waver his conviction that anything in any way sinister was going on in Camelot. Lancelot was being stupid. He was always being stupid.

“Maybe this ‘cold place’ isn’t a tangible location,” Lancelot theorized. “Perhaps Nine is trapped in some otherworldly realm of sorts, and can only communicate with us via mind and thought.”

Gwaine shrugged. “Explains the voices.”

Arthur’s blood ran cold.

What?

“You mean you get them too?” Arthur didn’t pay attention to who was talking anymore, just the static throbbing in his mind, growing steadily louder with each word they spoke.

“I thought it was just me! For a week now I’ve had these voices in my head telling me to ‘remember’.”

Remember remember remember

No.

No.

NO!!

He had to get away, away, away, before the whispers came back and the static wrapped around him. Suffocating, asphyxiating, smothering him, until the only breaths that came from his lungs were those of the whispers. The whispers were bad, forbidden .

They weren’t real. No one else had them in their minds. He was alone. Alone.

You’re never alone, Arthur

SHUT UP!

“Do you guys also get headaches whenever the voices come up?”

“Oh, yeah. But they’ve gotten lesser over time. I think it’s a matter of open-mindedness. I stopped fighting back, and now the headaches are barely there at all.”

Headaches. They had headaches, too.

A small part of him bled and cried and screamed, begging him to listen and take their advice, to accept the truth, because how dare he forget -

But it was a small part. Small.

He fled from the room.

No, he didn’t flee. He walked calmly and briskly like the prince he was.

The whispers were back now - if weaker - and they chuckled sadly at him.


 “That’s enough, my friend.”

“Do I know you?”

“My name’s -”


 Arthur couldn’t sleep. He blamed the whispers bleeding into his dreams.

He slipped into a red jacket and some boots and toed into the dark, silent corridor. Perhaps a stroll out along the parapets might do him some good.

There was someone already out on the parapets, sitting along the wall with their legs dangling over the edge and their eyes cast up at the brilliant canvas of stars above.

“Nice night for stargazing, is it?” he teased, and sat down next to the figure.

“I suppose,” said Sir Leon. “Couldn’t sleep?”

Arthur gave a vague shrug. “You?”

“Insomnia. I’ve had it for years.”

Arthur blinked in surprise. His oldest ally ( friend ) had been suffering with insomnia, and he never noticed. It made sense, though, with how he always took night shifts and took first watch whenever they went camping. How his eyes were always heavy with exhaustion. Arthur cursed inwardly. He should have seen the signs, considering how obvious they were.

“Have you gotten something from Gaius?” Arthur suggested. “He might be able to help you.”

“Never wanted anyone to know. I tried my hardest to keep it under wraps.”

“So why are you telling me now, after all this time?”

Leon’s eyes adopted a look of longing, a world of stars reflected into his blue irises. He was in plainclothes, an earth-coloured tunic and black trousers. Arthur distantly realized this was the first time he had ever seen Leon in anything besides his armour.

“Nine would want me to, I think,” said Leon with a shrug.

Arthur groaned, both in frustration and to drown out the burgeoning headache. “Not you too. Leon, this whole thing is ridicu-”

“Who saved me?”

Arthur furrowed his brow. “What?”

“Who saved me, sire?” Leon repeated. His tired gaze didn’t stray from the stars. “All due respects but it wasn’t you or any of the knights, I know that much.”

“The druids saved you,” said Arthur, desperately hoping the answer would please Leon so they could change the subject. “It ended up causing the whole Cup of Life fiasco.”

Leon grimaced.

“Not - not that it was your fault or anything,” Arthur quickly amended, but the damage was done. He really was bad at this comforting thing, wasn’t he?

“I wasn’t talking about Morgana’s War,” he said. “I - just - I only - that is…” His shoulders sagged. “Do you remember how I was when we were children, sire?”

Arthur nodded. Yes, Leon had been rather straight-laced and serious back in the day. Never smiled or laughed. He followed in his father’s shadow day in and day out, and no amount of prodding or teasing could pull him out of his shell. When he became a squire, and later a knight, he was disdainful and looked down at servants like they were bugs under his boot. The only commoners he was ever kind to were Guinevere and Elyan, as he had grown up with them since their mother had been a servant of Leon’s family estate. He seldom spoke unless it was to bark orders or criticize someone’s faults.

“You were a bit of a prat,” Arthur said. His tongue burned on the word ‘prat’.

“I guess I was,” Leon chuckled. “My father wanted me to be a perfect knight, and raised me up to follow in his footsteps. He wouldn’t have settled for any less than First Knight.”

Arthur gave him a playful shove to the arm, trying to inject levity into the conversation. “Well it’s a good thing that’s what you became then, eh?”

Leon spared a glance and a smile at him, but it was fleeting. His attention returned to the sky once more.

The stars truly were marvelous tonight.

“I lost my father at a young age,” Leon said, once again proving just how little Arthur knew about the ones he cared about. “I thought by becoming a knight, I’d do him proud. And I...I had seen what happened to my mother over his death. I saw what was happening to me . The pain of loss is something I would not wish on my enemies, sire.”

Arthur knew about loss. He had seen enough of his soldiers die in battle to know the gut-clenching agony of watching the light fade from a man’s eyes. But never had he lost someone quite so beloved. It was naive of him to wish he never would, but still he wished.

“So I pushed people away,” Leon said. “If I never knew people’s names, never grew to like or love them, then their deaths wouldn’t hurt me.” He shook his head, blonde curls rustling in the cool midnight breeze. “It didn’t work, of course. For years, my dreams have been haunted by all the death I’ve seen. And every night, I’d sneak out onto these parapets to escape my prison of sleep.”

Arthur had the feeling this would all somehow circle back to the topic of Nine and, despite wanting nothing to do with Nine, sat in anticipation.

“It all changed,” said Leon. “After the Mary Collins attack.”

Arthur groaned. Everything started with Mary Collins, didn’t it?

“There was... someone ...up here on the parapets. I don’t know how they found me, or why they were up there. I never bothered to ask. Or maybe I just don’t remember.” He laughed breathily. “At first I got mad at them, told them to leave me alone. They never did. They’d always come back the next night, sitting on the parapets.”

“Leon…” Why was everyone fessing up to their traumas around him these days? Perhaps he ought to start charging people.

“We didn’t always talk,” he continued. “Sometimes we’d sit here in silence. But...knowing them, interacting with them, feeling less alone - it helped me, I think. Helped me come out of my shell. They taught me that yes, people were going to die. But it would hurt less if I didn’t push them away, but rather made the most of what time I had to spend with them. So I started learning the knights’ names and hanging out after work. And Nine was right. When I watched a knight die, it was painful, but I had happy memories to hold onto as I mourned.”

An unusual strategy, Arthur had to admit. He was always taught to know the names of your subjects, but never their hearts. Otherwise you’ll get attached. And a prince must never get attached, because a king cannot put his people above his kingdom.

If his father were here to see Arthur now, he’d be disappointed.

“After the dragon attack,” Leon went on, and it was here that his voice cracked and his breathing hitched. “Morgana was missing. So many people had died. So much of the kingdom was in ruin. I...my dreams were overcome with loss and death. So I went and stood on this exact spot on the wall…”

It took all of four seconds for Arthur to realize what Leon was implying.

Oh god. He didn’t . No way, not Leon. Leon wouldn’t.

But it made sense. The shadows in his eyes made a horrible type of sense.

Leon had tried to jump.

Noticing the dawning horror on his prince’s face, Leon hurriedly added, “I didn’t throw myself off, of course! I wouldn’t be here today if I did!”

Arthur sighed in relief. “Never - never - do that, Leon. Never .”

Leon nodded. “Yes, sire. I see the error in my ways now. But you have to realize. Back then, I had given up. I thought the pain of all this loss was too much to bear. I thought it would have been better to run away from my problems.” A nostalgic grin spread his lips. “You know what saved me in the end?”

Hating himself for even suggesting it, Arthur grumbled, “Nine.”

Another nod. “Just as I take one foot off the wall, someone comes bursting out of nowhere.” His brow knitted into an unreadable emotion. “I don’t remember their face, or their voice, or anything about them, really. I do recall the feeling of their arms looping around my hips as they pulled me backward, and the rage in my chest as I throttled them. Gave them a good few punches. Broke their nose, I think.”

“Why?”

“Because it was under their advice that I opened my heart and let myself love people again, and it was those same people who I had lost to the dragon. In some twisted way, I thought my pain was their fault. And, of course, I was angry they tried to stop me.”

“Leon -” Arthur started, but said nothing. Whoever it was, definitely not Nine , he’d have to thank them for saving Leon. He didn’t know if he would have made it as far as he had without Leon there to guide and help him. “I - I’m glad you’re okay now.”

“And it’s because of Nine, I think,” said Leon, but this time Arthur had the courtesy not to groan and grumble at the mention of Lancelot’s imaginary friend. “I remember someone grabbing my face and shouting, ‘It’s still here’. And they were right.” Leon gestured to the expanse below his feet.

There was no moon in the sky, but there were billions of stars casting tiny streams of light down upon the cityscape below. Houses and shops alike dotted Arthur’s vision, streets crisscrossing every which way, roads paved with footprints and horse dung, chimneys smoking, the hum of slumber falling upon a peaceful town.

Life , Arthur realized.

It was still here. No matter what happened, no matter what tragedy befell the kingdom, no matter who died or who suffered, Camelot was still here. It still endured. While they had suffered many losses over the years, they hadn’t lost everything. And as long as there was still something to lose, there was still something to fight for.

“Do you think they’re okay, sire?” asked Leon. “Wherever they are. Edrick - or Nine, if it truly was Nine speaking from Edrick’s mouth - seemed so traumatized.” Then, voice smaller than Leon had ever sounded before, he added, “It pains me to think that after all they’ve done for me, the moment they need me , I can’t help them.”

Without waiting for a response, Leon sighed and kept on. “I guess that’s why I’m here on the parapets. I thought maybe I might find Nine, waiting up here to comfort me after a bad dream. But they’re not here, of course they’re not.” He looked to Arthur. “Do you think we'll be able to save them, sire?”

He gave no answer. He had no answer to give.

Arthur stopped ignoring the whispers.

Chapter Text

Dreams were peculiar things.

Back when they were children, back when things were simpler, Morgana would sometimes creep into Arthur’s room after a nightmare. She would sit at the foot of his bed, share her dreams, and he would listen. He was young and naive, and he wholeheartedly believed her when she claimed they were premonitions of the future.

So the two of them would waste the night away, laying out convoluted schemes to reroute destiny and prevent her dreams from becoming true. Did they ever follow through with their schemes? Sometimes. But whether or not they followed through was of no consequence. Because either way, Morgana’s dreams didn't scare her when she was doing something about them.

But then Arthur hit adolescence and stopped listening to her fairytales, stopped subscribing to her ‘girl nonsense’, and started following more tangible, manly pursuits. They no longer had emotional discussions or heart-to-heart chats, because Uther had all but beaten the emotion out of him. He was a knight, and a prince, and an heir to the throne. He didn’t have time to play along with Morgana’s childish games.

And then Morgana got Guinevere, and she had an excuse to become something of a recluse. She was never a particularly sociable person, too roudy to have tea with ladies but too dainty to go hunting with knights. But Guinevere was pliable, so to say, and was always exactly what Morgana needed. And for years, Guinevere was all Morgana had. She didn’t go to Arthur about her dreams, she went to Guinevere.

And then she had no one.

Few days went by where Arthur didn’t question whether things would’ve been different if he hadn’t pushed Morgana away. If she hadn’t felt so alone, so afraid...would she have bent to Morgause’s manipulation as easily?

Arthur, on the other hand, never had dreams. Not anymore. He used to have dreams almost on a nightly basis, though.

Well, dream . Singular. Just one, and it was the same one every night. A dream of a golden dragon coiling itself around his fingers, singing to him as it slithered farther and farther up his arm, until eventually it was flicking its forked tongue in his ear. And then it would hiss in a deep, distinguished voice, “The time of the Once and Future King has not yet come. Until your other half arrives, my enchantments will shield you from harm. Until then you may rest easy, young prince.” And then he would wake up.

It had too much to do with magic, so Arthur never told anyone but the nursemaid. Not even Gaius, although he was tempted to do so on many occasions. And definitely not his father.

Then, five years ago, the dream stopped. It didn’t fade into oblivion like he always thought it would, it just up and left him, never to return. It actually vanished the night before the Mary Collins attack, come to think of it.

Arthur slammed the pillow into his face and muffled a groan. All of this madness started with Mary Collins, didn’t it? Maybe she had cast a confusion spell on the kingdom. Any minute now he’d wake up to discover five years hadn't passed, but five measly days in an enchanted coma.

You know that’s not true

Argh! Why wouldn’t those stupid whispers just leave him alone ?! Couldn’t he get one whole night without his brain being harassed from the inside?

You have to remember

“And you have to shut up!” he shouted out to the empty room. He tossed a pillow at the wall for effect, but there was an uncanny sense of heartbreak accompanying the action. There was one person he ought to be throwing things at, and it wasn’t the wall.

Who was it then?

No, stop thinking that, those sorts of thoughts were what led Lancelot to insanity. Don’t be Lancelot, don’t be Lancelot, don't be -

Who saved you from Mary Collins?

What?

...Well, Mary Collins cast the sleeping spell, the chandelier fell on her, the spell was lifted, and in her dying breath she threw a dagger at the prince. And he was pulled out of the way at the last minute.

By whom?

There was a war, of sorts, in his mind. In one layer of his brain there was the knife-twisting, blood-letting agony the whispers burgeoned; in another, the static. On most days, Arthur gave no heed to the static, content to letting it just dwell as background noise. But the more he listened to the whispers, the more the migraines ebbed - and the louder the static grew.

Who saved him from Mary Collins?

There, in the memory, in the corner of his eye! A silhouette! That was his saviour! He pressed his mind harder against the memory, sifting through fog to try and glimpse just the tiniest detail. But where there should have been a face, a body, a smile, there was only a scribble of black. Like someone had taken a piece of charcoal and scratched out anything to do with...whoever the silhouette was.

Remember

Remember what ? What was there to remember?

You know what

He refused to believe it. No. There was no way he’d forgotten an entire person. Because if he forgot them then that meant…

Growing up, he was a lonely child. As a prince, he was preserved as a trinket on a shelf. A trophy to pull out, admire, and then lock up in a monochrome box until he was needed again. He never had friends because people did not befriend a trinket on a shelf - things so far above your head, things you could not hope to reach. Sure, they would be pleasant and friendly, they'd revere the trinket's craftsmanship and admire its finesse, look up to it with wonder - but never, never befriend. 

But something ( someone ) had broken the shelf and smashed the box, leaving the little trinket laying on the ground. They didn’t pick the trinket back up and put it in its place, but rather held it and smiled at it and told it jokes.

Looking around his room, there was no one. No saviour, no rescuer, no friend . He was alone. He was born alone, and that was how he remained.

He couldn’t accept it. He couldn’t accept that he had a friend. A real, living, breathing friend who didn’t see the prince, only the Arthur. He couldn’t allow himself to hope, and then have his heart broken. Couldn’t accept that he finally had everything he ever wanted, that he finally found a cure for his loneliness…

Only to lose it all. And remember none of it.

It hurt too much to accept.

I’m still here

Arthur’s heart lodged in his throat. No...no, don’t listen. You’ve gone insane, like Lancelot, and the silence is driving you mad. Go to sleep and forget, forget, forget .

I promise you, Arthur

Arthur moved to put a pillow over his ears, to block the whispers out, but stopped himself. He was a prince, and a warrior. Face this like a man, his father would say.

“Leave me alone,” he hissed.

In truth, he didn’t want the whispers to leave him alone at all. He was sick of being alone.

I swear on whatever is left of me

Who saved him from Mary Collins?

Who talked him out of marrying Elena? Who held him back from killing his father after Morgause had tricked him? Who did he wake up to find smiling down at him, declaring he’d slayed the dragon?

I don’t care if it's the last thing I do

When he discovered Morgana’s true nature, who spirited away his shocked, catatonic body out of the throne room? Who gently led him out of the castle, holding him by the wrist and whispering platitudes as they made their way to the caves? Who made sure he ate all his meals and bathed at least once a day? Who kept him from wallowing and withering in his own misery?

I will find a way back to you

Who supported him in his lowest moment? Who inspired him to reclaim Camelot?

Who sat next to him at the Round Table?

And you will never be alone again

...

Oh god. What a fool Arthur had been. How could he have turned his back on the whispers?

They were real, and tangible, and they niggled nebulously in his dreams and coursed through his veins and shivered in the dark corners of his empty, empty room. The whispers were a torrent of spectral hands, all reaching out to him from the chasmic pits of nothingness, begging him to catch them and hold them. 

Even now, he could feel the whispers flickering and waning. No matter how far they pulled out, no matter how hard they held onto him by his sleeves, the darkness was always there to pull them back down. Over time, they were getting imperceptibly weaker. They were losing the fight.

But they were real nonetheless. The twinge of pain when he thought of a clever joke but had no one to tell it to, the ache when he went attended a council meeting but no one accidentally spilled water all over his lap, the longing when he did paperwork at his desk and there was no one wandering his room and humming some off-key rhythm. Those feelings were real.

Arthur had a friend. And he had lost them.

No, not lost. His friend was stolen .

And he was going to get them back.


 There were two ways to become a knight of Camelot. The first way was more common, for obvious reasons. You had to grow up in a noble household, be a squire for a few years, and then endure a rather severe vetting process. If you were vetted thoroughly enough and deemed worthy, you got the knighthood.

The second way was unofficial, but easier. Just save the prince’s life.

As a result, the past year had seen a growth in the number of people trying to artificiate a life-or-death situation to rescue Prince Arthur from. All of their plots inevitably turned on them, got exposed to the court, and left them running for the hills.

Of course, when Arthur knighted four commoners, he’d also inadvertently created a third route: side-step the whole squire thing and just get vetted right off the bat.

Word of commoner knights and equal opportunity employment spread through the kingdom (and all of Albion, really) like an outlandish rumor shared between gossiping courtiers. And with this brought droves of commoners all vying for a place in Camelot’s ranks.

Two months into the chaos of random shmucks walking up to him at random moments demanding a duel to prove their worth, Arthur finally got fed up with it. So Guinevere and someone else created a new system.

On the first Sunday of every month, people from all walks of life could come to the citadel and register as a knight applicant. Then they endure the traditional two-week vetting process, and the survivors go through another three years of knight training. Then, the knighting ceremony.

After a year, only eight commoners had made it that far - one of which died on his second patrol.

The system worked, though. Arthur wasn’t harrassed on a daily basis, commoners could be knights if they so desired, and conservative nobles could be pleased knowing commoners would only get knighted if they’d earned it. It was a win-win for everyone - except Leon, who was responsible for vetting (babysitting).

The vetting process was a round-the-clock schedule of interrogations, duels, running laps, getting lost in the woods, getting wounded and having to sew yourself back together, torture resistance training, starvation and dehydration, running into fires, and all sorts of other brutal activities. And all that on two to three hours of sleep. It was painful and torturous, and it was designed specifically to make people suffer. That way, only the most dedicated and capable would see it through.

By now, halfway through the process, sixty-nine applicants had been sifted down to just six exhausted young men (two commoners, four nobles) and one equally exhausted common-born lady. The first lady to apply, in fact. And while Arthur could only imagine the shades of red his advisors would turn if Miss Kay Greenwelt was knighted, he couldn’t deny her combat prowess.

The all stood in a line, slouched over and eyes drooping, clothing lazily tossed on. Three of them didn’t have have any armour, because commoners couldn’t afford such. Just their threadbare peasant garments whipping about in the bitter chill of morning.

“Awake on your feet, applicants!” Leon barked out. “We’ve got things to do! Sparring in the morning, then you’ll spend the rest of the day scrubbing out the dungeons, and then some torture resistance before bed.”

Arthur chuckled at the responding cacophony of grumbles and curse-words. Yeah, vetting was like that.

He, too, had gone through this same process. Just because he was a prince didn’t mean he was spared, after all. Even his Round Table knights had to go through it (mostly just to placate his incensed court advisors, who insisted the commoner knights prove their worth).

He didn’t envy Lancelot, though, who had to go through it twice. First when he faked a seal of nobility all those years ago to get knighted, and later with the rest of the Round Table when they were officially and legally knighted. Where most people bragged about surviving the Two Weeks of Hell, Lancelot could easily boast that he hadn’t just scraped through Four Weeks of Hell, but that he had also become one of the highest-performing knights in the kingdom.

He didn’t boast, of course, because this was Sir bloody Lancelot and he was the closest you could get to a saint without being religious (not that it made Arthur feel insecure at all, because princes didn’t get insecure).

“Enough,” Leon bellowed sternly, and the applicants all hushed down. “I don’t want to hear you louts moaning and groaning like that in front of our special guest.” For effect, he gestured to Arthur.

Several jaws unhinged at once, finally shaking out their early-morning dazes and noticing Arthur’s presence. “S-sire!” several of them stammered out, and almost all of them bowed. The only two who didn’t were Miss Kay and a young man in a light brown tunic.

Arthur loved his role in the vetting process. For one randomly chosen day within the the two-week period, he would audit the applicants and spar each of them personally. If he didn’t like someone’s form or even just their attitude, he could have them packing home with naught but a word.

Don’t be a prat, Arthur

Arthur rubbed his temples, but the headache was ebbing on its own. The pains weren't so bad, now that he accepted the whispers instead of locked them away.

Not even trying to hide his sadistic grin, Arthur waved at the applicants - waved as though he were greeting an acquaintance at the tavern, not a prince meeting his future knights right before smearing their arses across the field.

As expected, this pulled them all into an even deeper state of shock. The scrawny, black-haired boy at the far end looked like he was in the midst of a heart attack.

“This is his Highness, Prince Arthur Pendragon,” said Leon. He was a bit better at hiding his grin, but anyone who knew him well could see the amusement dancing in his eyes. “You’ll be sparring against him this morning. Feel free to take it from here, sire.”

Hm. Who to choose first? There was Miss Kay, tall and disrespectful with steely brown eyes. He was eager to see her in action, definitely - but was a bit hesitant on how to go about fighting a woman. Chivalry would demand he let her win, but Guinevere would demand that he was being sexist.

Chivalry or Guinevere, chivalry or Guinevere…

Let’s - let’s put a pin in that one for a bit and fight the men first.

Coward

Arthur pointed to the other one who didn’t immediately bow to him, the man in the brown tunic. He looked about Arthur's age with short ginger-ish hair and round features. He had the physique of a typical commoner, but with a bit more muscle, a bit more defiance, and a rather high-quality leather chord tucked around his neck and under his tunic.

“You there,” he said. The man briefly faltered at being singled out, but quickly regained his composure. “You’re up first.”

The man had a stiff but confident gait as he collected one of the blunt training swords and took on a battle stance.

Before anyone could even announce the start of the match, he lunged.

Arthur parried the attack, but the man was already siding him with a kick to the hip. Ooh, this guy liked to play dirty. Clever . The blow knocked Arthur a few steps to the side, but he regained his balance with an expert swing of his sword.

Advance. Deflect. Parry. Thrust. Advance. Thrust. Advance. Deflect. Deflect. Lunge. Parry. Parry. Parry -

The man got cocky. Didn’t guard his left side. Arthur feinted right, and hit the man’s left rib.

Swish, sting, knocked to the ground. Arthur had the training sword’s blunted tip at the underside of the man’s chin, whose eyes were filled with begrudging respect, and just the tiniest hint of surrender.

“Well played,” said Arthur. He reached out a hand and helped the man to his feet.

In the commotion, the man’s hair had tousled, and the leather chord around his neck had slipped out from under his shirt. Bound to it was a small, rose-coloured marble, which he stuffed back down his shirt before giving Arthur a congratulatory handshake.

“You too, sire,” the man said between pants.

“Why do you want to become a knight?” Arthur asked. He had already intended to ask each person he fought this morning, but this time he asked out of curiosity. There was something peculiar about this man. Maybe it was the disregard for rank and authority. Maybe it was the way the air around him seemed to warp and wibble. Maybe it was the way his eyes occasionally caught and flashed in the light.

“Someone once told me that if I want to be a force for change,” said the man, and the passionate blaze in his eyes made Arthur’s skin crawl. “I have to be a force for good.”

But that wasn’t all within the man’s eyes. There was loss. The same loss in Cadoc’s eyes, the same loss in Gaius’s, and Guinevere’s, and Leon’s. This was the expression that haunted people’s faces whenever they thought about Nine.

“And you think you can be a force for good as a knight of Camelot?”

“I hope so. I have to be. I’ve got people counting on me to keep them safe.”

Arthur turned over to Leon, who had gone stoic and contemplative. It seemed Leon had noticed it too, how the look on this man’s face reeked of Nine's influence.

“You’re a good fighter,” said Arthur, for once wishing the whispers would just tear into his brain already and give him at least a hint as to how this man puzzled into everything. But no, there were no whispers. Just static. “What’s your name?”

The man smirked.

“Gilli,” he said, and walked away.


The cells only held one person that day. Forty-year-old Gregory Jonner had been arrested for serial theft, punished with two nights in the dungeon. He was a waifish person, with wind-swept grey hair and warm brown eyes.

It was convenient there was only person there, or else cleaning out the dungeons would have been rather difficult. The applicants just needed to ask him to move over every once in a while, and Mr. Jonner was an agreeable sort, so it ended up being a much easier afternoon than most days during the vetting process.

So easy, in fact, that Aaron Shephard (male, twenty-one, noble) and Claudin Saloram (male, twenty-seven, noble) had taken to whacking each other with mops and wrestling on the floor. Kay Greenwelt (female, 28, commoner) decided to lay on the prison cot and rest her eyes. The only ones who were actually doing any real work were Gilli Reddon (male, twenty-five, commoner), Jules Emerart (male, twenty, commoner), and Phillip Vagner (male, thirty-three, noble).

“You okay, Jules?” asked Gilli. He dipped his rag into his wash bucket. Just a few feet away, Aaron tackled Claudin to the ground.

Jules, whose day job was a chimney sweep, had chronically ashen features and a lanky, narrow frame. “Yeah.” He rubbed his eyes, shivering. “T-tired, is all. Maybe a bit sick.”

“Ain’t that just the way,” Phillip quipped. He paused in his floor-scrubbing to adjust the hair tie holding his stringy red hair. “But don’t worry, Jules. It’ll be over soon, and then you can rest a bit before tonight's torture resistance training session.”

Gilli lifted his head up and shouted, “Yeah, and it’d go a lot faster if you idiots all helped out!”

Kay waved her hand without a word, refusing to open her eyes, head still leaned back against the wall and focused on something. Claudin and Aaron just laughed at him and kept up their rough-housing.

“I think I need to throw up,” said Jules, arms wrapped around his gut.

Aaron paused mid-swing, open palm just inches away from Claudin’s face. “ Again? ” he groaned. “Does a day pass where you’re not losing your lunch?”

“Are you sure you want to be a knight?” Claudin added with an incredulous arch to his pronounced brow. Aaron took advantage of Claudin's hesitation to accost him with a punch to the gut, and the two resumed their wrestling match.

“If you’re going to throw up,” Phillip implored, not sparing a glance from the floor as he scrubbed at a particularly difficult stain. “Don’t do it here, we’ve got enough to clean as it is. Perhaps you’re just overworked.”

Jules rose to his feet, and Gilli rushed to his side to keep his shaky legs steady. “I-I’m gonna -” He pressed a fist to his mouth, body overwhelming with shakes.

Gilli swept his arms around Jules’s shoulders and prepared to rush him to the nearest chamber pot, but he didn't make it far.

Before Gilli could take a single step, the dungeons exploded. 

Chapter Text

Claudin Saloram could not feel his legs. Or his arms. Or anything.

No, wait, he could feel pain. The throbbing in his skull. The crooked yank in his spine. The crushing numbness of everything below his collar-bone. The blood dribbling down the sides of his face.

He often considered himself to be rather level-headed in the face of trial. When he found his father’s unmoving corpse at the bottom of a staircase at the age of seven, he quickly and calmly told his mother, then moved on. When his mother was found hanging from a chandelier, bloodless eyes wide open and ghost-white suicide note tucked into her blouse, he cut her down and took reign over the family estate. When his long-lost older brother came to claim rule over the estate instead, he shrugged and stepped aside, eager for the opportunity to finally pursue his dreams of knighthood.

But for some reason, now, he hadn’t a calm bone in his body.

Just moments ago, he was laughing and rough-housing with fellow knight applicant Aaron Shephard. Though Claudin’s sheltered noble upbringing prevented him from making many friends in his life, he could say that in the week they’d known each other, Aaron was easily the best friend he’d ever had. They just...clicked. Somehow, Aaron understood him in ways no one else could.

And now…

Aaron’s jaw was slack, his eyes haunted as his lifeless green gaze bore into Claudin’s soul. His body was twisted and mangled amidst the blood and rubble, one solitary hand outstretched to Claudin as though begging him to grab it. And Claudin tried to grab it, he truly did, but his hands were numb, far too numb, and all he could do was lay there and scream Aaron’s name.

For the first time in his life, Claudin Saloram cried.


 

Elsewhere in the castle, Arthur was having a fantastic day. The sun was shining, the knight applicants were fun to mess with, and accepting the whispers had caused his headaches to go away. Guinevere smiled at him, he had a nice breakfast, and he had walked out the door with a plan: figure out who Nine is and what happened to him (Nine was, in fact, a ‘he’; Arthur didn’t know how he knew this, just that it felt right).

Arthur loved it when he had a clear direction to things. Having a definitive structure to carry out. As a warrior and a leader, he needed schedules to be clear, concise, and followable. Wandering around with a mystery in his mind and no clue what to do about it - that was torture. So it was with great relief that he walked down to the Round Table meeting room, thoughts filled with purpose and plans.

It was Saturday, which meant another Round Table meeting. In this meeting, he would sacrifice his pride to admit Lancelot was right, then they would collect all their evidence and questions, and maybe try to piece the clues together. And then Arthur would be doing something, instead of sitting on his hands like a lost child.

Not to say he was a 'lost child' with Nine gone. Arthur was a perfectly functional adult on his own, thank you very much. 

(Arthur did not, in any way, want Nine back because someone had been dressing him every day for the last five years and he didn’t know if he could handle another week without the help. That was not part of his motivation for seeking Nine out. Not at all.)

Out of the blue, the castle shook. It was a brief but aggressive tremor, gone as quickly and mysteriously as it had arrived. 

What was that? Perhaps just an earthquake, but those were rare in this area and…

Arthur groaned. Earthquakes in Camelot were usually caused by magic .

With an exasperated grimace, Arthur took off in search of the tremor’s source. Couldn’t all these vengeful sorcerers leave him alone for just one day? That’s what the earthquake was, of course - another angry magician trying to avenge the supposed genocide of their people by causing yet another genocide. Because everyone knows that to put out a fire you have to start a second, deadlier, more magical fire. 

Never let it be said that sorcerers were in possession of rational thought.

Neither are you

“I don’t need your sass, Nine ,” Arthur huffed at the empty corridor, trying to ignore the way Nine’s mind-voice quivered with weakness, as though it was taking every ounce of his strength to sit in Arthur’s head like this.  

“Sire!” shouted a voice. Arthur turned around and found Percival running up to him. “Did you feel that?”

“I was just on my way to investigate it.”

“I could be wrong, but it felt like it was coming from the dungeons, sire.”

So that was where they went, since Arthur didn’t have any better ideas. They ran into Leon along the way.

The entrance to the dungeons had collapsed, chunks of ceiling smashed into the stone floor and looking like they’d been precariously hammered out with a large mace. The three Round Table members didn’t need to so much as exchange glances, before rushing towards the wall of debris and flinging stones aside. 

“Hey!” Arthur shouted. “Is anyone alive in there?!”

A faint, feminine voice rose from the other side. “Y-yeah.”

Leon let out a curse, which sounded foreign coming from the mouth of someone usually so formal. “Kay,” he identified. “Sire, I had the applicants cleaning out the dungeons today. I think they’re trapped in there.”

Percival was still digging the wall away, but Leon paused to shout, “Kay, status report, now !”

For a long period of time, a few minutes perhaps, there was nothing but the sound of Percival and Arthur’s steady, frantic digging while Leon stood by in anticipation of a response. 

Just as Leon opened his mouth to ask if Kay was alright in there, she spoke again. “Jules, Gilli, and Phillip are alive, but they’re all unconscious. Claudin’s awake but he’s...he’s not lucid. He was screaming for a bit, but now he’s just crying. I don’t think he’s in his right mind. He’s not moving, at least.”

Leon swallowed hard. Arthur could only imagine what he was going through. He took quickly to applicants, and was always fond of making new friends (after the late-night parapets talk, he now knew why). This applicant group in particular had captured his attention, and he sounded like a proud father every time he waxed poetic about their promise and potential.

While the First Knight did a good job of reeling in his emotions, Arthur knew him well enough to see the grief, disbelief, and blame in the firm set of his jaw.

“And Aaron?”

Another pause. “Dead, sir. I think the impact snapped his neck. Same goes for the prisoner.”

Percival let out a groan as he heaved off an especially large chunk. A hole appeared, just enough for Arthur to peek an eye through and gauge the condition of the dungeons.

The walls were uneven and torn, like someone had scooped out large sections of them to try and replicate the interior of a cave. Chunks of the roof had fallen to the ground and left little craters in their wake. Bodies were strewn about, a few crushed under rubble. Only two figures were moving. The first was laying on the ground, shaking its head as it let out a low stream of whimpers. Claudin, if he were to hazard a guess. The second figure was pacing around the room, flitting from body to body and checking for pulses. Kay.

But none of this is what captured Arthur’s attention, what ripped out his intestines with a rusty gauntlet and squelched them until he hurled. No, not even the ripe stench of death, or the sickening contortion of the bodies as they lay limp and heavy. Those details played second fiddle in his mind, and he would only truly acknowledge them late at night, when sleep had left him in favour of the same memories playing over and over in his head. 

What horrified him, what shook him so deeply that it would take months to scrub the image out of his mind, was the blood.

There was just so much . Why was there so much blood? 

Oozing down the walls. Splattered and splashed across the rubble. Dripping down what remained of the ceiling. The bodies were dripping with blood like it was rainwater. Puddling on the ground, still wet and still viscid like melted honey. It splashed every surface of the room with a hideous smell, permanently staining everything it came into contact with (including Arthur’s psyche). 

Dry-heaving, Arthur pushed away from the hole. But it was too late. The image had cemented into his eyelids, haunting him every time he closed his eyes.

Kay's face briefly passed his view. Thick lines of red trailed down her cheeks, clumps of deep maroon matted to her hair. 

Flesh, he realized. The clumps of deep maroon were flesh .

Leon peeked through the hole after him, only to give out a similar nauseous response. But Arthur managed to compose his stomach and pull himself together just a moment sooner than Leon did, and set back to work digging at the wall.

Part of him didn’t want to. Part of him wanted to put the rocks back where he found them and lock away the blood so it would never terrorize him again.

He didn’t, of course, because that meant locking away the survivors too.

Arthur was a prince, soon to be a king. He could handle this. He had to. The applicants needed him.

As he dug against the wall, he struggled to fathom the idea of the applicants wounded and bloody and dead . Just that morning, he was sparring Gilli and theorizing how he might have known Nine. Debating whether to let Kay win - only for her to lose and demand a rematch with axes, which she won. He had teased Phillip for his poor footwork. He laughed with light-hearted Claudin and Aaron, who were basically if Gwaine had been split into two separate and marginally better-mannered nobles.

Aaron liked puns and was a bit hot-headed, but never one to shy away from a hug. He was quick on his feet, but his arrogance made him sloppy.

Claudin was easy-going, and had a strange way of swinging his hips like a pendulum. He was generally rather reserved, but Aaron brought out his inner goofball.

Kay was serious and brooding, reminiscent of Morgana with her scathing retorts. She had no respect for authority and took every chance she got to sleep.

Jules was young and innocent, had a weak stomach, and was miraculously the strongest in the group despite his lanky frame. The others all treated him like their little brother.

Gilli was defiant, but had a kind heart and a bright smile. He was shifty and suspicious, but only Arthur seemed to notice it. 

Phillip was cynical and introverted, and interacted with others with a tough-love mentality. Arthur remembered playing with him when they were both children. 

And Aaron was dead. And all of them were drenched in blood, so much blood, oh god why was there blood everywhere -

Calm down. Deep breaths

Arthur gripped his knees, still dry-heaving. Percival was still chipping at the wall, shouting occasional platitudes at those trapped inside. Leon was...where was Leon? Where did he go? Was he -

I told him to get reinforcements. He’s okay

Between gasps, Arthur huffed out a disbelieving - “You told him?”

You’re not the only one I can mind-speak to, y’know

Nine’s voice shivered and strained a bit, but Arthur was too busy focusing on his breathing to notice. In, out. In, out. He took in a longer, sharper breath, and regained his footing. Time to act like a leader.

Leon returned with a group of guards behind him.

“Clear the rubble away,” Arthur ordered, and hoped dearly that no one could see the weakness in his eyes. He couldn’t afford to be weak. He was a warrior. He'd seen blood before. Granted, never quite so much, but that didn't matter right now. All that mattered was getting the surviving applicants to safety. 

For what felt like forever, bit by bit, Arthur and the others deconstructed the rubble barrier, slowly but surely exposing the graphic sight within. Every person on the rescue team had a moment where they stepped back and heaved, and three people had actually vomited.

Needless to say, no one would be resting easy that night.

When the hole was large enough to crawl through, Arthur braved the blood-chasm and entered first, resisting the urge to draw his sword and hack at the darkness. The air was wet, sticky, and warm, and it reeked of death.

He reached out into his mind, to see if Nine was still there to vanquish the silence and make the room feel a bit less eerie. And Nine was there, if only hanging by a mental thread and slipping fast. As if the darkness around them, the darkness in his mind, in his memories, was dragging him out of Arthur’s head. 

"Nine?" Arthur whispered. "What do you make of this?"

It was rare for Nine to not say anything. Arthur got the feeling if he were in his proper body and reality, Nine would be even more unbearably chatty in person. Odds were, he and Gwaine would get along together like a house on fire. And yet here Nine was, reticent and still.

No, not still. Thrashing. Wriggling. Fighting. But why was he fighting?

Something was grabbing at the whispers, snipping their ends and winding tighter and tighter around the space Nine occupied in Arthur's head. Constricting, tightening, pulling, yanking. The strange sensation of intangible claws dug into his thoughts and cementing themselves in place, as a chorus of whispers begged him not to let 'it' take them.

What was 'it', though?

'It' was a darkness. Dark like the dimly lit blood-room. Dark like the menacing shadow cast over Morgana's face as she revealed her true nature. And this darkness, this 'it', was squiggling deeper into his mind and skewering the whispers from every angle. 

The static! That's what it was. The darkness wasn't any darkness, it was the same hum and buzz of the crackling sensation that filled Arthur's head for as long as the whispers had. The static was louder than ever before now, which froze Arthur in his tracks, and it threatened to overtake his mind completely. 

This didn't last forever, though. The static was receding, growing quieter and dimmer as it pulled away from his thoughts. This would have been a welcome change, if the static wasn't dragging Nine along with it.

Nine fought, of course. That's what this whole fiasco was. But it was a losing fight, and each throb against the contents of his skull grew steadily weaker as Arthur swayed on his feet at the headache it caused.

Before slipping completely and leaving only static in his wake, Nine had but a warning for Arthur. A hoarsely whisper-screamed, Morgana's plan has just begun.

Of course she’d be involved. Only she was twisted enough to do something like this.

With a pained, withered gasp, Nine was gone. His presence wiped from Arthur's mind as though he was naught but a film of dust, cleaned off and discarded. Arthur mentally sought him out, any familiar pressing of spiritual weight upon his skull, any friendly warmth swirling in the back of his mind and sassing him every once in a while. Anything to reel in Arthur's frantic emotions, to pull him together and help him brave the blood. 

But Nine, who was there even when Arthur didn't want him to be, was finally gone. And given the thrashing and writhing as Nine collapsed into the static, desperately clinging to Arthur, he probably hadn't left by choice.

A bloody silhouette moved, pulling him back into the here and now, and again Arthur had to quell the defensive itch in his sword-hand. Right. The applicants.

It was Kay, or the blood-bathed semblance of Kay, shakily rising to her feet and running up to the first person in her path. She grabbed Arthur by the collar of his jacket, blood dripping, smearing crimson all over his clothes and neck. He fought the urge to push her back, and instead tentatively held her quivering shoulders. 

“Miss Kay,” he groused. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head, but her unsteady eyes didn’t seem to register who she was talking to. She was a lot less lucid in person than their past conversation indicated. “Just a few scrapes and bruises.” She relieved one hand from his shirt and pointed at the wall. “B-but Jules, he…” 

Arthur passed her to Leon, who was just behind him, and Leon guided her out of the dungeons. “Let’s get you cleaned up,” he murmured.

Arthur, meanwhile, could only press on further into the room, blood squelching under his boots. 

The dark spot on the wall she’d pointed to was a person. A small, emaciated frame with a sparrow-nose and messy black hair. Jules Emerart.

His brown eyes blearily opened. “S-sire?” 

Arthur looped his arms under Jules’s slight frame and hoisted him upwards. Through the film of blood caking his body, Arthur could see crack-like cuts running across his skin, and what looked like either scrapes or burns. Or both. 

Jules coughed, and a bit of fleshy blood and bile spattered onto Arthur’s chest. He did have a weak stomach, after all. 

“S-sorry,” Jules whimpered, before his head lolled back. A quick press of two fingers to his neck revealed that no, Jules hadn’t died, and he wasn’t quite on the brink, but he did need Gaius.

He gave Jules to a guard with the instruction to take him to the physician’s chambers, while another guard was shaking the shoulders of an unconscious body and Percival was trying to cajole a weeping Claudin into lucidity. 

A voice pierced through the dark, dark red. 

“H...help…”

Arthur’s heart twisted. Gilli .

Forgetting his uneasiness at the blood, Arthur dove down towards the weak cry. Gilli was just a few steps away from Arthur's now-red boots, a raw, red hand stuttering as it stretched upwards. 

“H..help…”

Arthur dropped to his knees and lifted Gilli onto his lap. “We’re here now, it'll be alright,” he said, and he would have been surprised by the gentleness of his voice if he wasn’t busy scanning Gilli for injuries. “Just hang on a bit longer, Gilli.”

A breathy, relieved laugh. “Sire? Is...t-that you?”

Arthur soldiered his face into one of neutrality. Even the slightest tap into his emotions and the whole mask would crumble. He couldn’t afford that. Gilli couldn’t afford that.

“Where are you hurt?” he asked, voice flat and monotone as he checked Gilli up and down for signs of a wound. Aside from the blood all over him, all over the room, there was nothing to report.

“I-I don’t know,” said Gilli. “It’s so d-dark. Can't see my own - h-hand in front of my f-face.”

With a deep breath through his mouth, as Arthur refused to breathe through his nose and risk smelling the blood blood blood , he squirmed his hands under Gilli’s back and knees and lifted him upwards. 

“Let’s get you to Gaius, he'll patch you up in no time,” he said. His breathing hitched with fear, and he inwardly scolded himself for it. He got the queasy sense that Nine would have been better at this.

Where was Nine? Where were the whispers? Where had the darkness - the static - taken him?

Morgana! Nine had mentioned her before vanishing from Arthur’s mind. This was her fault, wasn’t it? This is what she got rid of Nine to accomplish, so he wouldn’t stop her. But this couldn't be all she had planned. As Nine said, this is only the beginning.

As he stepped out into a fully lit corridor, sunlight beating into his eyes and blood glistening in the light, his gut twisted with the realization that it would only get worse from here.

The glass charm around Gilli’s neck slipped out of his tunic, innocent rose colour now bleached in a monstrous, bloody scarlet. “So dark,” he whimpered, turning his head away from Arthur. Arthur leaned over to see if Gilli’s eyes were closed, because the corridor was filled with noontime sun. Far from dark. 

Gilli’s eyes were wide open and searching. Lost. Frantic. Unseeing. "So dark."

Arthur’s heart skipped a beat at the realization of what was wrong with him.

With a shudder, Gilli seemed to realize it too.

“It..it isn’t dark at all, is it?” he asked, although from his heartbroken tone it was obvious he already knew the answer.


“Kay suffered the least injury,” said Gaius as he flopped onto the bench. He wiped the blood from his hands onto an equally bloody rag. “Just a few cuts, and two cracked ribs. I’ve already given her a clean bill of health.” 

He gestured to a figure sitting swaddled in blankets by the fire. Her black hair trailed in wet - wet with water, not blood - ringlets down her back. She spared a glance at him, her face now free of blood (but some of it was still crusted under her fingernails). There was, however, a thick, angry line cutting down the edge of her eye and down to her jaw. Kay spared a meaningful, heavy look, and turned back to the fire before Arthur could ascertain what the meaning was.

“And the others?” Arthur asked. Since going to his chambers to clean up and change his clothes, he had managed to steady the shake of his tense, white knuckles, and put on a brave face. Just as father would have wanted. “How are the rest of them?”

“All of them are in stable condition, and Phillip should be free to go in about a day or two. Although I’ll have to keep Jules and Claudin here a bit longer. Jules is covered in horrible cuts and burns, while Claudin…”

Gaius’s gaze fell upon the unmoving mass on the bed, whose face was set into a scowl and blue eyes were glaring at the ceiling. 

“No need to sugarcoat it, Gaius ,” came Claudin’s bitter voice. “Just say what we already know. No hurt feelings to be spared. In fact, there’s no feeling at all!”

“He’s - paralyzed,” said a flustered Gaius. “He can’t move anything below his neck.”

Arthur nodded sharply. “And - and Gilli?”

“As you feared, sire,” Gaius said. “His eyesight is gone. But we can count our blessings that that’s the only injury he suffered.”

“Where is he now?”

“A friend of his from the lower town showed up and has taken him to get washed up.”

Arthur opened his mouth to ask what could have caused the incident, just as Guinevere entered the room and cut him off. Red streaks marked the front of her pink dress, and her hair was a wild, windswept tangle. Panting, she held up a sloshing pail of water, which Gaius surged forward to receive. 

“Thank you, dear.” He dipped a cloth into the pail, and shuffled towards Claudin’s cot to dab the blood from his skin. Claudin seemed rather resistant to someone washing him like a helpless child, but his paralysis kept him from fighting Gaius off. 

“Arthur,” she breathed out, still catching her breath. “Are you alright?”

"I'm fine," Arthur said.

“Do you think…” She cupped her mouth and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Do you think this is why Morgana got rid of Nine?”

“It’s possible. But what’s her end goal?”

Guinevere bobbed her head in conceding his point, and tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear. “I can’t believe she would go through the trouble of breaking into Gaius’s chamber, kidnapping Nine, and making us all forget him - all to randomly blow up the dungeons. There's more to this, there has to be.”

Ah, so Guinevere also thought Nine was a ‘him’. At least he wasn’t crazy. Or at least if he is crazy, he’s not the only one. 

She didn’t just 'blow up the dungeons', though. She blinded Gilli. Paralyzed Claudin. Killed Aaron and that prisoner, Gregory. Wounded Jules, Phillip, and Kay. Filled the room with too much blood for any one body to spill and live to tell the tale. Traumatized -

No. He was fine. There was no trauma. As his father always said, ‘trauma’ wasn’t real. ‘Trauma’ was a weak-willed concept for weak-willed people.

(Of course, that was before Morgana’s betrayal turned him into a lifeless shell)

“As always, she’s got more up her sleeve,” said Arthur, and his throat clenched to refer to his sister like just another villain. “She’s always been clever and strategic. What we’re seeing is just one small part of her scheme.”

“But what’s her scheme?” 

“I don’t know. Let’s just hope we can stop her before we have the chance to find out.”

Guinevere smiled weakly at him. “And we will. We always do.”

Arthur smiled back at her, but it was superficial at best. Sure, they always pulled through, always one-upped the enemy - but the more he thought about it, the more he realized Nine was probably pulling the strings behind their successes. 

Where are you, Nine ?

Nine had slipped away a few hours ago, and gave no hint of presence. Like he was never there to begin with. And Arthur never thought his mind could feel so empty. 

Hadn’t Edrick - or rather, Nine speaking vicariously through Edrick - mentioned something about a cold, dark place? About ‘it’ dragging him into the void against his will, and that fighting against it was a struggle?

Arthur shuddered to think the whispers’ disappearance meant that Nine had lost the fight. No. He refused it. He couldn’t believe that Nine was here, then gone, then here in his mind, then gone again before Arthur could even (re)learn his name. 

“Something else is troubling you,” Guinevere surmised, reaching up a hand to stroke his cheek.  

Arthur contemplated lying to her and saying it was nothing, but she was frustratingly in-tune with all this emotional junk, and she’d have him figured out in no time at all. Just like someone else…

The fact Arthur couldn’t remember who that someone else was, meant it was probably Nine. Damn him. Was there any part of his life or thought processes that didn’t involve that bastard?

“Nine,” Arthur confessed.

"What about him?"

A part of him still struggled to wrap around the idea that he was not just supporting Lancelot’s theories, but full-on snapping on his conspiracy trousers and wading straight into a pool of insanity. What was next, running down the halls screaming that the earth was round or something? 

Arthur swallowed and shook himself out of it. No. He couldn’t think like that. Nine was real, however bizarre it was to acknowledge the truth of it, and he needed Arthur’s help. 

So Arthur relented against his pride and skepticism, and relayed to Guinevere what had happened in the dungeons. Nine’s last words echoing in his mind as the static grabbed Nine by the whispers and dragged him away. Nine’s desperate, shaky tone as he scraped and scratched and clawed his way past the static, seeming to fight for his very survival (perhaps he was). But then Nine lost the fight, and Arthur’s mind had never felt so silent. Hollow.

As he told the story, Guinevere alternated between pouting in concern, and smiling warmly at him. By the time he finished, her face was set upon the latter.

“What?” he asked, in equal parts annoyed and confused that she could smile in the face of Nine’s predicament.

“Oh it’s just,” she pursed her lips, trying and failing to repress her smile. She grabbed his hand in both of hers, running her thumbs along his knuckles in a gesture of comfort. “I know what happened to him.”

Arthur couldn’t help but bug his eyes out in surprise. “You do ?”

A nod. “Apparently, ‘it’, the strange force keeping him trapped, had pulled him away from your mind -”

“Like I told you.”

“- and communicating with us as he does requires a lot of effort, so he didn't have much energy left to come back. Your mind is one of the hardest to pry into, he says.”

Arthur scowled. “What do you mean, hardest to pry into? Can't be that hard. Nine’s almost constantly babbling in my head. It’s a wonder getting him to shut up, actually.” Not to say he wanted Nine to shut up, of course. If this little disappearing act had taught him anything, it was just how nerve-racking the silence could be.

“Well he told me he does it because you’re his best friend,” said Guinevere. “Supposedly, I am too. And since fighting ‘it’ when it tried to pull him out of your mind, coupled with the fact that my mind is easier to enter, he’s spent most of the day with me.”

“Wh- but - why is your mind easier to get into than mine ?” Arthur spluttered, for some reason offended at the idea. 

Shrugging she said, “I don’t know, and neither does Nine.” A pause. “But - he wants me to tell you he’s sorry for scaring you."

“I wasn’t scared .”

Guinevere laughed that light, bells-and-whistles laugh of hers, and patted his hand. “Of course you weren’t.” 

Chapter Text

A boy floats in an empty sea of blackness. The cold bites at his fingertips as he reaches out towards a light he cannot see or fathom. He tries to call out for someone, anyone, but no sound comes out. He has been here for so long he cannot even remember what his voice sounds like, or what sound sounds like. 

His eyes are blind, his body is numb, and his muscles are beginning to atrophy from the motionless torpor of the void. 

He is caught in an endless spiral of memories from a happier time. But the silence, the darkness, the nothingness has wrapped itself around his mind for so long that he can no longer recall what happiness feels like. He knows there are memories in his head, and they are pleasant, but the void has robbed him of his ability to see them, and he has gone deaf with madness.

He cannot remain here much longer, of that he is certain. For the more he stays, the more the void consumes him. It has devoured his name, his life, his everything. There is very little left of him now, and yet still the void craves for more.

He clings to the smallest, almost faded scrap of hope that maybe - just maybe - he might one day escape. 

But soon, that too shall flicker out.


 

Arthur woke up in a cold sweat and found himself in his bed, just moments before dawn. He wasn’t in some inky pit of despair. He was in bed. 

He let out a relieved, breathy laugh. The void, the darkness, the boy, the terror that dug into his chest and consumed his heart - it was all just a dream.

Just a dream.

And yet, he had the sinking suspicion it wasn’t a dream at all.

Chapter Text

The sight of blood and viscera streaming down stone dungeon walls did not make for a good bedtime story. Nor did the memory of carrying a bloodied, shaking Gilli to Gaius’s chambers, or looking at Gilli and expecting to see a defiant glare or a taunting smirk - only to find empty eyes and hollow features. 

Needless to say, the dungeon explosion did not grant him any restful sleep. 

Arthur kept reminding himself that if he could go to sleep after seeing the Great Dragon’s carnage, after being overcome by the stench of burning flesh and the sound of wailing babes, then a little bit of blood certainly wouldn’t stop him.

And yet there he was, being stopped by a little bit of blood. To be fair, though, there had been more than just a ‘little bit’ in the dungeons. By Gaius’s estimation, there was enough blood to fill an entire adult human body. 

“It is as though someone just up and exploded,” is what Gaius had said when examining the bloodied remains of the dungeons. The horror and disgust was evident in his eyes, but it was tempered by years of physician work. "But if that's the case, then it's a question of who exploded and how. One thing is for certain, sire: I've never seen anything like this."

Arthur tried not to hurl at the suggestion of a person's body literally bursting like an overflowed waterskin.

He tried, at least.

But just as he finally faded into the cover of sleep, it was not dreams of blood that shook his mind, but rather dreams of darkness and all-consuming voids. Dreams of Nine .

No matter what he did, Arthur couldn’t roll over and go back to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes the darkness in his eyelids only served to remind him of the vacant loneliness of the void. The cold but sharp sensation of a million shadowy teeth chewing away at his soul. The emptiness and the darkness and the atrophy and the -

Arthur hurried into a pair of boots. Perhaps he could see Gaius about a sleeping draught or something. Anything to burn away the feeling of the void that still ghosted his skin.

There weren’t many guards out this late at night, and perhaps that was how Morgana broke into Gaius’s chambers so easily. And sure, Agravaine said to hold off on any security increases until after Cadoc left, but Arthur itched to think of his beloved citadel being so unprotected.

What was it that hooded man had said back at training the other day? Something about how Camelot was defenseless, and how they ought to increase patrols? God, that felt like such a lifetime ago. 

Perhaps he should have listened to the hooded man. Perhaps the explosion wouldn’t have happened if he did.

Arthur knocked, and expected Gaius to call out for him to come in. Instead, he was met with Percival opening the door.

“Percival?”

“Sire?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Same as the rest of us, princess,” came an unpleasantly familiar voice from deeper in the room. Peaking past Percival’s shoulder granted Arthur the sight of an equally familiar face sitting at the table.

“Seriously?” Arthur cried. “Gwaine is here too? Oh, and I don’t suppose you’ve got Guinevere tucked into a corner as well, do you?”

Though he couldn’t see her face, he could recognize that sheepish stammer of “Er, h-hello Arthur” anywhere. Arthur groaned.

Percival opened the door wider, and Arthur stormed through, only just the slightest bit irked that he wouldn’t receive any privacy in his quest for a nightmare remedy. Did everyone have to come here? And he did mean everyone - Elyan, Lancelot, Guinevere, Leon, Gaius, and Gwaine were all sitting at the table; Percival was closing the door behind Arthur; and all the knight applicants were drawn up into patient cots that crowded the fireplace.

“What the hell are you all doing here?” Arthur asked, hands on his hips. 

“I, er, had a nightmare, sire,” said Lancelot.

“Nightmare as well,” Leon concurred.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Guinevere said. 

“Bad dream,” said Elyan.

“Same as everyone else,” said Percival as he sat down next to Lancelot.

Gwaine shrugged impishly. “Who’s to say.”

Guinevere shot Gwaine a withering glare, the kind she usually gave him whenever she wanted him to stop fooling around for once. Most of the time it was an effective weapon in getting people to do what she wanted, almost as effective as Gaius’s infamous eyebrow raise (she learned from the best). The problem was, Gwaine was on the receiving end of her glares so often that by now he’d grown immune.

Arthur, meanwhile, frowned. They were all having nightmares too, just like him. Considering all the nonsense with Nine and Morgana and blood explosions, this couldn’t be a coincidence.

“What kind of dreams?” he asked.

“We’ve all got the same one, apparently,” Elyan said. “There’s this black abyss, and...and…” 

“And the darkness is eating away at you,” Arthur finished for him. “No matter how hard you try to run away from the pain of being torn apart and consumed, you’re too weak to move and a part of you has even forgotten how to move in the first place.”

Percival’s eyes glistened with confusion. “Sire?”

“I had the same dream too.” He slid into the vacant spot beside Leon.

Lancelot rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “So all of us shared a dream, then. But what does it mean?”

“I believe it may be a distress signal,” Gaius offered, voice quiet and thoughtful.

“A distress signal?” Leon retorted. From what Arthur could see with the thin moonlight flitting through the curtains, Leon’s brow was knitted in concern. 

Gaius nodded. “It is possible that our mysterious friend -”

“Nine,” Arthur corrected. Lancelot’s eyes shimmered with hope and pride at finally being accepted by his prince. 

Gwaine laughed. “Now hang on, does this mean what I think it does? That Arthur Pendragon is admitting he was wrong about something? That Lancelot was right all along?”

Gaius shushed him. “Keep it down, Gwaine, we don’t want to wake anyone.”

Gwaine pursed his lips and turned away, looking like a scolded child. 

“But as you were saying,” Elyan prompted. “The dream we all had was a distress signal.”

Arthur shook his head before Gaius could expound any further. “No, that can’t be it. For some reason, Nine doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would ask for help.”

“A bit like you, then,” Guinevere murmured, with no shortage of fondness colouring her tone. 

Gaius’s face crinkled into a forlorn smile. “I suppose you’re right, sire. Perhaps this is just the raving of a senile old man, but I get the feeling ‘Nine’ is a very independent person, who would much rather give help than receive it.” He spoke as though a father would speak of his son, words laden with reverence and paternal love.

“So then perhaps he was trying to help us in some way,” Lancelot said. “Somehow, seeing... that ...was supposed to help us figure something out.”

“But how?” Guinevere asked. “And what?”

“Maybe what Morgana did to him is somehow related to the explosion,” said Percival, still squirming as he struggled to comfortably fit all his bulk into the bench seat. 

“Well whatever he was trying to tell us, it must have been important,” Arthur said. He hoped the fear and concern twisting in his chest didn’t reach his voice. After all, princes and kings weren’t supposed to be worried about their subjects. “Guinevere, didn’t Nine tell you that communicating with us costs a lot of energy for him?”

She nodded, frowning.

“So to not just give this warning to one person, but to all of us, it must be important. Has he said anything to anyone since the dream?”

Sparing glances at each other, everyone in the Round Table slowly shook their heads. 

“He’s gone,” said Guinevere. Arthur didn’t need any moonlight to see the haunted gaunt of her features. “Just like how he left your head earlier, he left my mind too. He’s just - gone.”

Arthur did his best not to let the revelation deeply unsettle him - he did, he really did try his best. But no matter how tightly he locked away his emotions, burying them deeper than even Camelot’s vaults, he could not withhold the ache in his chest. Did this mean Nine was gone for good? That he had finally lost the battle against the static? Had that dark, demented void consumed the last of him? Perhaps the dream was a farewell then - a timestamp of Nine’s painful last moments. 

No, that couldn't be right. Nine wasn't dead. He couldn't be sure, but Arthur had the feeling that if Nine was dead, he would feel it. Like waking up and discovering your arm had been cut off. If Arthur pressed hard enough against the static, resulting headache be damned, he could almost feel a presence. Flickering and tremulous as it was, but it was there. So Nine was still there, still fighting - just conserving his energy and fighting for survival. 

Good. Though it pained him to admit, perhaps it was better if Nine remained tucked away in the void instead of reaching out to communicate with them. The more he entered people's minds, the more exhausted he grew. And the more exhausted he grew, the harder it became for Nine to resist the darkness consuming him. 

This was fine. He could handle this. It wasn't like he needed Nine's presence in his thoughts or anything, or that he needed Nine in his life in any capacity. He could defeat Morgana and stop her schemes on his own, without Nine's help. Arthur was a competent prince and regent, he could do this.

It wasn't like he had any choice, anyway.

“Oh!” Guinevere snapped her fingers in epiphany. “He did say one thing before he slipped away.” Seven pairs of anxious eyes locked on her. Arthur motioned for her to continue, and she did. “He said…’applicant caused explosion’. Yes, that was his exact wording. And then he was gone.”

Arthur’s blood ran cold. Colder than the blood on the walls in the dungeon. Colder than the feeling of Aaron Shephard’s limp, lifeless hands. Colder than the emptiness in Gilli’s unseeing eyes. Colder, even, than what he had dreamt of the void. 

‘Applicant caused explosion.’

That could only mean one thing.

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” said Leon breathily. He ran a hand through his curly golden locks. “The applicants are all good people, I would vouch for -”

“You’ve only known them for a week,” Percival argued. “Any one of them could be allied with Morgana. And it’d explain why it happened when and where it did.”

Gwaine leaned in, shifting his lackadaisical posture into something Arthur would expect to see on a far more hardened knight. The fact that Gwaine was bothering with any modicum of seriousness at all was a testament to just how messed up life had become. 

“Now hang on,” he said, voice low and disbelieving. “All the applicants were wounded in the attack. Why would they hurt themselves like that?”

“Maybe they’re enchanted,” said Arthur. “Or maybe they’re just extremely loyal to Morgana’s cause.”

“Loyal enough to risk their own lives?” came Elyan’s incredulous response.

Gaius shrugged. “The rest of us would die for Arthur, wouldn’t we? Do not underestimate how far people would go for what they believe to be the right thing.” 


“Oi princess! You gonna help out or just stand there looking pretty?” Gwaine shouted between strained breaths. He and Elyan were both struggling to carry knight applicant Phillip Vagner’s bags through the narrow guest-chamber doorway. 

“Someone’s got to do it and it certainly isn’t you,” Arthur retorted. He made no effort to move from his spot against the wall. 

Percival glided effortlessly through the doorway with five cases stacked in his arms, snickering at Gwaine and Elyan's struggles.

“Show-off,” Elyan muttered, and Percival threw a cheeky smirk his way.

Phillip himself was sitting all prim and proper on the lavish four-poster guest bed, dressed in a fine white tunic and red hair neatly combed. He looked a far cry better than he did laying on that bloody stone floor, and Arthur couldn’t help but marvel at Gaius’s medical abilities. If not for the gauze wrapped around his forehead, cut-peppered skin, and thick sling hanging his arm, it would be hard to tell there was ever an explosion at all. 

Phillip Vagner was a distant, distant relative of Arthur’s, distant enough that he had no real claim to the throne but just close enough to be considered family. He was something along the lines of Arthur’s second cousin’s nephew’s step-sister’s uncle’s half-brother’s father’s bastard son - the product of a one-night stand with a whore, who wasn’t acknowledged as the son of Lord Vagner until he was thirteen.

Arthur tried not to think too hard about the relation between him and his...whatever Phillip was, because it often got his head spinning. They never interacted, because he wasn’t of high enough noble standing to warrant any citadel visits, so Arthur never had to think about it. Until Phillip applied for knighthood, that is.

“Thank you for the help,” said Phillip. “But this really isn’t necessary, sire.”

Gwaine chortled. “You really think you can heft all this stuff into your room with one measly arm?”

Phillip waved him off with said measly arm. “No, no, I meant -” he attempted to gesture at the guest room they all stood in, but with his injuries it looked more like a pathetic flounder. “- this, all of this. You needn’t put yourself out of the way just to give me a chamber. My room at the tavern was more than comfortable this past week.”

Arthur pushed himself off the wall he’d been leaning against fand leveled his - cousin? - with a professional but cordial look. “Nonsense. You’re still recovering. Gaius’s chambers aren’t big enough to keep all the injured applicants, and there aren’t enough people to excuse opening the infirmary, so this will have to do.”

“But what of King Cadoc and his entourage?” Phillip countered. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up, but out of respect did not meet Arthur’s gaze. “Surely you could be occupying the guest wing with someone more important, sire.”

Gwaine and Elyan came back through the doorway with yet another trunk of things, with Gwaine grumbling explicits about just how much junk did one nobleman need anyway. His hand slipped, causing the trunk to drop onto Elyan’s foot, who let out a yelp of pain. 

“As regent,” said Arthur. Elyan chased Gwaine around the chamber in retaliation, but Arthur ignored them. “It’s in my authority to fill the guest rooms as I see fit. If I want to station all the applicants in the guest wing until they’ve recovered, then I don’t see how anyone is in any place to stop me.”

“But you and your favourite knights don’t need to unpack my things. Don’t you have servants for this, sire?”

“Again, Phillip, I am the prince . What I say, goes. I say that my knights help you settle into your new room, so it goes.”

Phillip chuckled, but whether the mirth was directed at Elyan and Gwaine’s antics or Arthur’s rank-pulling, he couldn’t tell. 

In truth, the matter of putting all the applicants in the guest wing was a far more delicate matter than Arthur was willing to let on. Yes, there was the matter of wanting to give the applicants a place to stay while the vetting process was halted, and to give them time to heal properly. Yes, there was the matter of Gaius’s chambers being too small and the infirmary being too big. Yes, it was even a matter of Phillip and Claudin both being nobility, and the fact that their respective families would be outraged at any less than the utmost hospitality. 

But the real reason Arthur suited them all up in the guest wing was for far more...conspiratorial reasons.

He was keeping an eye on them. 

The Round Table spent much of the morning debating this. Arthur didn’t want the applicants leaving the castle, lest they take the opportunity to make a run for it. Plus, they could keep tabs on all of their suspects for suspicious behaviour. And if they were lucky, the culprit could lead them back to Morgana, and from Morgana to Nine. 

Throwing all their suspects into the dungeons was par for the course in most investigations, but it wouldn’t work this time around. Two of the suspects were nobles, and whoever had caused the explosion was in kahoots with Morgana, so arresting them might cause some sort of magical conflict. And then there was the fact that the dungeons were more or less out of commission.

Naturally, having an unknown criminal in their castle was a definite threat, which was why most of the knights were hesitant to support his decision of keeping the suspects around. Especially with King Cadoc so close by. But again - he was prince, and his word was law, and that was all that really mattered at the end of it.

Jules Emerart and Claudin Saloram both sustained injuries far more severe than those of their peers, so they would be remaining in Gaius’s chambers until he gave them a clean bill of health. Everyone else - Kay Greenwelt, Gilli Reddon, and Phillip Vagner - were well enough to leave the physician’s constant care, and would be staying in the guest wing until further notice.

Lancelot placed one of Phillip's trunks on the floor. “Phew. That’s the last of it.”

“Thank you, Sir Lancelot.” Phillip bowed in thanks, and Lancelot reciprocated with a bow of his own. “All of you, in fact. I appreciate the help.”

Elyan and Gwaine, the latter of which trapping the former into a headlock on the ground, paused to look up at Phillip. 

“No problem,” said Gwaine, and Elyan took advantage of his distraction to fling him off. Of course, Gwaine being Gwaine, he only jumped right back on.

How Elyan chasing Gwaine had devolved into Gwaine suplexing Elyan in an impromptu wrestling match, only god could answer that. 

The two of them kept at their little skirmish, until Percival swept down and picked the both of them up by their shirt collars. He grinned smugly at their frustration over being man-handled, and Leon and Lancelot could only offer sympathetic chuckles.

“Thank you for that, Percival,” said Arthur with a curt nod. He turned to Phillip, who looked inches away from bursting out into laughter. “Well then, we’ve got other rooms to unpack. I trust you’ll be able to sort your things on your own?”

Phillip bowed again. “Shouldn’t be too much trouble, sire. Thanks again for the help.”

They all filed out of the chamber, Percival still carrying Elyan and Gwaine as he went. Leon, however, made no move to leave yet, and instead coughed pointedly at Arthur.

Oh! Right. There was a reason they were unpacking instead of the servants, after all. Arthur had nearly forgotten.

“Before I leave,” said Arthur, and Phillip’s head snapped up at him. “I would just like to ask if you could tell me anything you remember from the explosion. Anything...strange, out of place, you get the idea.”

Everyone in the room froze at mention of the explosion. Even Elyan and Gwaine stopped their squirming in favour of more somber expressions. 

Phillip’s lips turned downward and his eyes glossed over with a familiar look. It was the kind of look he saw in the eyes of traumatized soldiers coming back from their first war, or knights being rescued from months of torture. 

Then the look faded, and he said, “No, sire. Not anything besides what I’ve already told you. We were cleaning the dungeons - well Gilli, Jules, and I were, anyway. Aaron and Claudin were rough-housing, and Kay was taking a nap. Then...then Jules got nauseous again, it’s practically a daily thing with him, and when Gilli stood up to take him to a chamber pot to throw up…” He made an emphatic gesture that Arthur could only guess was referencing the explosion.

“Thank you, Phillip.” Arthur patted him on the shoulder. 

Phillip smiled weakly. “Anything to help the investigation.” 


Where Phillip Vagner was agreeable and polite, Kay Greenwelt was most assuredly not . She kept insisting she didn’t need help, didn’t want to be there, and didn’t need a babysitter or a watchdog. Judging by the way she glowered at them, Kay had likely already figured out the true motive behind her transfer to the guest wing. 

At least she had much less stuff than Phillip, though. They must have carried in at least ten or fifteen trunks into his room - whereas she only had two small cloth sacks filled with clothes, various knives, and a thick hard cover book. The book had an old leather cover, but bore no title or labels, and was clamped shut with a formidable brass lock.

“What’s this?” asked Gwaine, picking it up for closer inspection. 

She snapped it out of his hands and tucked it under her arm. “Nothing you need to know about, that’s what. Now if you’re all quite done rummaging through a lady’s things, I need to unpack.”

Gwaine held up his hands in a surrendering gesture, but it did nothing to placate Kay’s foul mood. She seemed to have a chronic frown etched into her face, which was only exacerbated by the cut running from her eye to her jaw. It would scar eventually, and would probably only heighten her already impressive aura of intimidation.

“I’d just like to ask you about the explosion, that’s all,” said Arthur, trying to sound far more patient and reasonable than he actually was. 

Leon placed a hand on his shoulder to calm him down. He was the only one who had been with the prince long enough to recognize the frenetic mood hidden behind Arthur’s mask of regal indifference.

“What about it?” Kay hissed. “I already told you everything I know this morning. There’s nothing more to say.” She tossed one of her cloth sacks onto the guest bed, tucking her book under the pillows as she did.

“I just want to know if anything seemed off or suspicious about that day.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, the cut on her face creasing as she grimaced. “You want to know if I did it.”

“Well, not necessarily if you -”

“I didn’t. I wouldn’t.” Kay’s movements were terse and rigid as she pried one of the bags open and started tossing various dresses out of it and onto the bed. “Jules is my best friend, and did you see what happened to him? For a while I thought I had lost the one person who ever cared about me, who didn’t treat me like some kind of...” She bit her lip, and her hands stilled. “Get out.”

Arthur quirked a brow in surprise. “I am the prince, you can’t just -”

“I said, get out .” She pressed her palms against his back and pushed him towards the door, doing much the same with the rest of the knights. She faced no resistance from them, no one quite sure if they were willing to face off against an angry, traumatized woman. It was probably best to give her some space.

Before Arthur could get another word in edgewise, she slammed the door in their faces.

“Well,” said Gwaine, sounding a bit miffed but not altogether surprised. From all the campfire stories he'd told about his adventures in carnal passion, this wasn’t his first rejection (and certainly not his last). “She seemed nice.”

“And suspicious,” Elyan said, eyes narrowing as the group stepped away from hearing range of Kay’s door. 

“She just underwent a serious ordeal,” Leon defended. Even after Nine’s warning, he was still unwilling to place blame on his favoured knight applicants. “A bad mood isn’t evidence of an alliance with Morgana.”

“If it was then Arthur would be a suspect too,” Gwaine joked. Leon and Lancelot glared at him, but he’d developed an immunity to those glares as well. He just shrugged and took a swig from his wineskin.

Something about Kay Greenwelt gave him chills. And while Leon was right - that bad moods don’t necessarily make for bad people - Elyan was right as well. Something about her was...eerie? Ominous? Whatever it was, it made him grip the pommel of his sword whenever he was in her presence.

His gut feeling told him she wasn’t the terrorist they were looking for, no matter how intimidating she could be. But even so, his gut feeling also told him that she was hiding something, something big and dangerous, and that for the sake of his kingdom he would have to figure out what it was. 

Chapter Text

By the time Arthur and the knights arrived to help Gilli settle into his chamber, everything was already unpacked. What few clothes he owned were hung up in the wardrobe, his bags were neatly tucked at the end of the large guest bed, and everything was organized and tidy. 

Gilli sat in a chair pushed against the table, fingers tented and posture at ease. A new and unfamiliar face flitted about around the guest room, dusting off all the surfaces and straightening things up.

The unnamed person - a young man, roughly Gilli’s age - wandered about like a little amateur servant, but didn’t dress or act like one. He had similar hair to Gilli, but darker and bushier, and overall had less hardened features. His face was more innocent than Gilli’s, but a shadowy twinkle in his green eyes betrayed his hidden intellect and cunning. 

It was odd how they compared and contrasted. Where Gilli wore greys and tans, this other person stuck to darker browns and blacks. Where Gilli was broad-boned and muscular with a narrow face, his companion was narrow in frame but had a rounder face. Where Gilli’s eyes shone with defiance and blatant disregard for authority, the other man’s eyes were more submissive and shifty (but somehow still sincere). 

“How do you like the new room, Gilli?” asked Arthur as he stepped into the chamber, knights close behind.

Gilli’s brow rose in surprise. An unfocused gloss over his pupils exposed the truth of his newfound blindness. “Prince Arthur, is that you? What are you doing here?”

“Just checking in,” Arthur said. He turned to face the other man in the room, who had stopped wiping down the mantle to stand ramrod straight with his eyes locked at his feet. The young man flinched as Arthur stepped closer. 

“S-sire,” he greeted, shifting his weight. An uneasy tension pulled at his lips.

“I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met,” said Arthur, trying to keep his tone neutral and non-threatening.

Being in the presence of royalty caused the young man’s posture to harden with fear. Not the normal fear commoners had towards people above their rank, but the fear held by someone with a dangerous secret.

Hmm. Arthur would have to keep an eye on him.

Gilli got to his feet, but his body wasn’t turned to face the correct direction. He was staring Gwaine down, actually, not Arthur and the young man like he probably intended. “He’s my friend,” said Gilli. “He’s been helping me since the explosion.”

“What’s your name then?” Arthur asked the man.

As though it took great pain, the young man stammered out, “D-Daegal, milord.”

Daegal. Good name, certainly fit his soft edges and youthful appearance. It didn’t fit the nuanced and partly suspicious emotions swirling in his eyes, however, but perhaps Arthur was just being paranoid.

“Will you be needing a bed of your own, Daegal?” asked Leon. “I’m sure we could figure something out for you.”

“N-no,” Daegal said. “Gilli needs me close to him while he adjusts. I can sleep -”

“On the floor,” Gilli interjected. “He’ll be sleeping on a mat on the floor.”

The shiftiness in Daegal’s eyes migrated to Gilli’s, while Daegal now just looked embarrassed. But both of them appeared to be set on this sleeping arrangement, so Arthur didn’t debate the matter.

Breaking the ice, Gwaine said, “You must be awful close with Gilli here to be doing this for him.”

Daegal didn’t lift his gaze off the floor, but did occasionally spare glances at Gilli. “I-I suppose.”

“How’d you two meet?”

At first, Arthur was going to berate Gwaine for the invasion of privacy, for asking a question that didn’t matter to the investigation and certainly wasn’t their business. But as much as Arthur hated to admit that Gwaine had any shred of usefulness, it was a good question. 

Daegal was a new face in the castle. If they were looking for Morgana’s inside accomplice, for the one who had caused the explosion, then they needed to explore all available evidence. While Nine had warned them that the accomplice was one of the applicants, Daegal had connections one such suspect and therefore was a suspect himself. 

And then there was the fact that Daegal and Gilli were both acting like they had something to hide. That couldn’t be ignored.

However, in response to Gwaine’s question, Daegal’s face brightened up like the first star of the night. “Oh! You see, we were -”

“None of your business,” Gilli groused out, low and dangerous. Daegal’s smile fell. 

“But Gill,” he said. “There’s no harm in telling them how we met.”

Gilli frowned. “They don’t need to know, so they won’t.” To change the topic, Gilli sat back down and said, “So, sire, I believe you’re here for some follow-up questions about the incident?”

Arthur jolted at the boldness from someone so otherwise unassuming, but acquiesced. “If that’s not a problem, then yes.”

So Gilli told Arthur exactly what Arthur had expected to hear, exactly what lined up with all the other witness accounts he’d heard. The explosion came out of nowhere, with nothing odd or out of the ordinary. 

Gilli had a strange way of getting harsh and defensive whenever Daegal was brought up in conversation, so Arthur did his best to steer away from such topics. For his part, Daegal tried to include as much input as he could - mostly to insist on his friend’s innocence - but Gilli bristled whenever he spoke.

That was the weird thing, though. Gilli didn’t act so harsh towards him out of dislike or loathing, in fact he seemed rather fond of Daegal. But whenever Gilli spoke about his friend, his voice was clipped and...fearful? Like he was afraid that if they looked at Daegal for too long, he’d spontaneously combust. For his part, Daegal seemed more frustrated with this than anything.

With nothing left to inquire about, Arthur and his men bid their adieus and departed from the room. 

The Round Table members all walked down the hall in a tight pack, with Lancelot riding up just behind Arthur to say, “They’re hiding something.” 

“You may be right,” said Arthur, shaking his head. Dammit, he liked Gilli. But no one was exempt from suspicion, not when his kingdom - not when Nine - was at risk. 

Yes, Nine was at risk. Because if the accomplice was helping Morgana blow up the dungeons, then there was every possibility they had also helped her kidnap Nine. 

“Is it possible Daegal could have done it?” asked Leon. His eyes gleamed with an almost naive hope, clinging to the possibility of his beloved applicants being innocent after all.

Arthur shrugged. “Perhaps. It’s too early to tell.”


It was times like this that Arthur questioned his decision to knight four commoners.

Lancelot, he could understand. Lancelot was so noble and morally upright that even Leon paled in comparison. On a good day, Lancelot could out-prince the prince himself in terms of chivalry and passion. Not that Arthur was insecure or anything. Not at all.

Elyan, he could understand to an extent. He was a fiercely loyal individual who stood for saving lives and protecting his sister. But when combined with others, like Percival or Gwaine , he became an element in a perfect storm for chaos. He wasn’t inherently mischievous, per se, but when put together with the right catalyst…

Arthur shuddered to think of the prank war from two months ago.

Percival? Well, Percival was a mixed bag. He was quiet and Arthur didn’t have much prior experience with him, but knighting him had been straightforward enough. Although while his combative prowess, gentle spirit, and physical strength went unrivaled in Camelot’s ranks, he was also a troublemaker. He didn’t even need Gwaine’s poor influence to get himself banned from the kitchens - he managed that all on his own.

He didn’t act like a troublemaker, though. He acted like a stoic, laid-back giant of a man who would sooner adopt a pet cat than put itching powder in your sheets - and yet

Truly, an enigma.

But then there was Gwaine. Bloody Gwaine . The insubordinate thorn in Arthur’s side, the bane of Leon’s existence, and the source of many a headache for Gaius and Guinevere. 

“Come on!” Gwaine chanted. “Per-cy! Per-cy! Per-cy!”

Percival had a bright red face and bulging, strained muscles. His beefy hand was clasped over a table and wrestling a far more spindly, gaunt arm - that of knight applicant Jules Everart. 

One would think Jules Everart, as chronically nauseous and scrawny as he was, would be easy to defeat in an arm-wrestling match.

And yet, he had held out for ten minutes now. Against Percival .

How had it all gone so downhill? They had just gone to Gaius’s chambers to question Jules and Claudin further, as those were the only two applicants who had to stay with Gaius instead of getting their own guest chambers. Gaius had to leave to attend a broken leg in the lower town, leaving his patients at the mercy of six bumbling knights. They were just supposed to get in, ask some questions, and get out. Simple.

Claudin had seemed rather haughty and upset - considering what he had gone through, no one could blame him - but complied to their interrogation without much fuss. His responses provided no new details.

Jules was the most subdued in his responses out of all the applicants, eyes wet with trauma and shame. His shoulders quivered, and tears rolled down his face as he tried and failed to stammer out just a few words about what had happened. Harsh burns scored his face and neck, reddening his shaky fingers and crusting the flesh around his eyes with half-peeled fillets of burnt skin. 

Claudin barked out a cruel jab about how the explosion had happened when Gilli was taking Jules out to throw up, and mocked him for his apparent weakness. The knights all jumped to his defense, of course - Jules seemed a wholesome sort, after all - and that was when the interrogation spun out of control.

“I’m not weak!” Jules had shouted, indignant and huffy. “I’m the strongest applicant and you know it!”

Though none of them said anything, Jules could sense their disbelief, and kept on insisting that he could take any of them in a fight. So Gwaine being Gwaine, he just had to challenge Jules to an arm-wrestling match.

Jules won it, somehow, despite looking like an emaciated, underfed squirrel who had just spent the night in an iron maiden. Gwaine was impressed, Elyan was next to give Jules a shot, Elyan lost too, and then Percival accepted Jules’s challenge as well.

And here they were, with Jules somehow lowering Percival’s bulky fist onto the table without breaking so much as a sweat. Just smiling cheekily and confidently.

That...that cheeky smile, the insistence that he was stronger than everyone in the room, the unhealthily skinny body…

Arthur’s heart clenched in recognition. It was just like Nine. 

How could he tell that Jules was so similar to Nine? He couldn’t even remember Nine. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe Arthur was overreacting.

And yet, he couldn’t deny the aching familiarity that throbbed from Jules in waves. 

Was Nine alright? He wasn’t speaking anymore. He wasn't there. Talking, sharing observations, supporting Arthur. 

Standing by his side, protecting him like he always was. 

Well, whatever Nine had done for Arthur in the past - a lot, probably - it was now time to return the favour. This was for Nine. To get him back. To make him proud.

“Uh, sire?” came Leon’s uncertain voice, snapping Arthur out of his reverie. Leon was no longer watching the antics of the knights and their sudden brotherly protectiveness over Jules. No, now he was staring at the wall.

The wall? What was so special about a wall? It was blank, almost abnormally so, without any of the furnishings that clung to all the other walls. And it wasn’t even the whole wall that was so empty, just a squarish section of it. A section that was oddly clean and white. It had none of the discolouring, age, and cracks the rest of the walls bore. No, this part of the wall looked like it was brand new.

“Has that always been there?”

Arthur snorted. “Yes, Leon, the wall has always been there.”

Leon shook his head, blonde curls bouncing. “N-no, my lord, the...the door .” 

“Door, what d- ”

The strange, empty wall had an outline. Static crackled and light fuzzed in the periphery of it, spotlighting the contrast between normal, old wall and this suspiciously flawless rectangle of it. The border between new and old buzzed and rippled. 

Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Look away. Nothing’s there. If you look at it too long your brain will split open, open, open, and your skull will crush under the pressure and you’ll turn to dust, dust, dust, there’s a price to pay for looking at things that don’t exist, because nothing exists there, nothing at all. 

See, isn’t it wonderful not thinking about it? No headaches, no pain. Only beautiful, untainted bliss. Look away, Prince Arthur, look away. Look away and live your happiest, fullest life. How can a prince become a king if he spends his whole life staring at walls? Ridiculous.

Yeah. Ridiculous. There was no door there. Leon was crazy. Leon was always crazy. Everyone was crazy. Maybe believing in Nine was foolish after all, maybe he ought to stop entertaining everyone’s absurd fantasies. Yes, he would do just that.

It was just a wall. It had always been a wall. There was never any door there, because what sort of room could that door possibly lead to? Just a wall.

...Just a wall with a weird, out-of-place chunk plastered onto it. Just a wall plagued with the same static that drowned out all of Arthur’s thoughts, the same static that pushed Nine further and further away, away, away…

A weak, translucent presence dug its phantasmic nails into Arthur’s consciousness, just long enough to whisper out a hoarse scream into the folds of his mind. The words were dry and raspy, and the static kept overwhelming them with noise, but the scream was just barely desperate - and agonized - enough to capture Arthur’s attention.

Don’t let go, Arthur! Please!

Nine. 

It was Nine. 

He had almost forgotten Nine.

He had almost forgotten Nine .

The static clawed at Nine's disembodied presence, forcing him to loosen his grip on Arthur’s thoughts.

Fight , Arthur said internally, in an effort to transmit his thoughts to Nine. Hold on. I won’t let go, but dammit you can’t let go either!

Arthur leaned into the table, head clasped in his hands as a battle waged between his ears. Everyone was watching him with concern, asking if he was alright, worrying over their suddenly ill prince - but Arthur didn’t care. All that mattered was pouring every ounce of his strength and focus into helping Nine fight back.

Leon’s hand was on Arthur's back in a soothing gesture. Arthur’s hands were gripping the roots of his scalp, in some desperate attempt to keep Nine locked in the forefront of his mind. To keep Nine safe.

Wispy tendrils of thought and love feathered against Arthur’s psyche, the closest thing to a tender embrace that a noncorporeal entity could provide. It was weak and shaky and unstable -

I’m sorry

- and then it was gone.

Leon, who seemed to understand what had just happened, patted Arthur on the shoulder. “We’ll get him back,” he said, but Arthur wasn’t so sure anymore.

“Was it Nine?” asked Elyan, because everyone in the room was looking at him now. Arthur nodded weakly.

Jules quirked a scabbed eyebrow. “Wait, who’s Nine?” 

Gwaine just wrapped his arm around Jules’s skinny shoulders, and with a somewhat subdued, forced chuckle, he said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Leon leaned down to meet Arthur’s gaze. “Sire, do you think you can look at the door again without getting a headache?”

Oh, right. The door. The door that wasn’t there.

Arthur expected to look up and see the same span of empty wall. He expected to turn to Leon with a confused expression and tell him that he was seeing things.

But there was a wall there.

It was simple and plain, and had two stone steps leading up to it. Vestiges of static still clouded the corners of his vision, still threatened to blind him to the presence of the door, but Arthur had enough mental clarity to wave them off. 

The rest of the knights took a moment to wage their own similar wars with the static in their minds, before the door became clear to them as well, but Jules and Claudin just looked on in confusion.

Arthur ignored everyone's questions.

He took a step towards the door.

The static screamed. He ignored that, too.

Step.

Step. 

Step. 

Step.

Up to the door, firm grasp of the handle. Shaking hands, why were his hands shaking? 

Twist, twist, push…

A room. It was a room. There was a bed that looked too small for a grown man and too uncomfortable for anyone with any amount of wealth. It was small and cramped and cluttered, and it made Arthur’s heart ache with nostalgia. 

There was a desk by the window, and covering the desk were dozens of loose-leaf pages. Sketches, mostly of plants. They were annotated with descriptions about uses and properties. Sometimes, there were little childlike scribbles in the margins. 

In the upper left corner of a detailed orchid diagram was a rather crude rendition of the prince himself with reptilian wings, an angry expression, and fire coming from his mouth. The label read, “The Great Prat-dragon.”

Despite the fact that almost everything about Nine was unknown, this felt rather on brand for him.

Along the edges of all the professional sketches were blotches of ink. It was probably Nine signing his work, but no matter how hard Arthur strained his eyes, he couldn’t make out the letters.

Gwaine, standing in the threshold, whistled. “Damn. What is this place?”

“It's a room,” said Percival. He pushed past Gwaine to inspect the wardrobe. It was empty, and all of the clothes that should have been hung up inside it were sprawled across the floor. So Nine was messy, then. 

Gwaine smacked him upside the head. “Well no crap, Percival, I never would have guessed it’s a room . But whose room is the question, and -”

“And why couldn’t we see it before now?” Lancelot finished. Lancelot sat on the hard, scratchy-looking cot and fingered the hem of a blanket as though it might just reveal the meaning of life if he stared at it long enough.

Leon pulled the curtains open and sent a lingering glance at the cityscape just beyond the window. “This must be Nine's bedroom."

“That still doesn’t explain why we couldn’t see the door.”

Elyan stood on the top step, since there wasn’t really enough space for more than a few people in the room at a time. Peering around Gwaine and Percival, he said, “Maybe...we can’t remember anything that has to do with Nine, but what if the curse makes it so we can’t see anything that relates to him as well? You know, anything that would remind us of him."

The rest of the knights continued to speculate over the possible nature of the curse, how this room related to everything, and how they were able to see it now and not before. Arthur didn’t listen. 

He flipped to the next illustration. It was a flowery thing he didn’t recognize, but the graceless scrawl at the top of the page labeled it as ‘Yarrow’ . The side of the parchment listed off all its uses - fever, cold, dysentery, diarrhea, et cetera - and the bottom edge had a few more of those crude drawings. The knights, Gaius, and Guinevere were all reimagined as stick-like figures with abnormally circular heads that all seemed to be smiling and cheering. Above them was a speech bubble that read: 

“[|||||]  saved the kingdom again! We are forever in his debt!”

The ink was smudged illegibly where a name should have been. 

Arthur let out a breathy, incredulous laugh. This felt like the fantasies of someone who who never got any appreciation but secretly craved it. That didn’t make any sense, of course. If Nine had saved Arthur from Mary Collins and overturned the Cup of Life during Morgana’s War, then surely he was celebrated for his deeds. If nothing else, at least a pat on the back and a ‘thanks’.

Maybe Nine had a sense of grandiose or self-importance. And while neither of those traits matched what Arthur knew about Nine (that is to say, almost nothing), it was the best explanation he had. 

“What’s that?” asked Elyan, pointing to the nightstand. “That wooden thing.”

Lancelot reached out and picked up the ‘wooden thing’ in question. It was a sculpture of a dragon. “You mean this?”

Wait. Wasn’t that…?

Arthur set down the sketch he was holding and snatched the figurine out of Lancelot’s hands. Lancelot seemed a bit miffed by this, but said nothing. “Hold on, I recognize this. It was during the Great Dragon fiasco, when I was tracking down the last dragonlord. Oh, what was his name again?”

“Balinor, I think,” Leon offered.

“Right, Balinor. Well, I don’t remember who or why, but he carved this dragon-thing out for .... someone ...before dying.”

Gwaine nodded sagely. “Nine.”

“Well, of course it was Nine. But why?”

Elyan shoved his way into the room, which was now far more cramped than it had any right to be. Percival resorted to standing on a pile of clothes to make space, and Gwaine scooted onto the small bed next to Lancelot. How did Nine live in such a tiny area?

Arthur internally vowed that when they got Nine out of this mess, he’d give him a bigger chamber. It was the least Nine deserved, after everything he’d been through and everything he’d done for his kingdom.

Unfortunately, after minutes of passing around theories and ideas, no one could come up with any logical reason for why Nine would have received and kept a wooden sculpture from a dragonlord.

With the mysteries of Nine, it seemed, pursuing answers only led to more questions.

Arthur stepped forward to place the wooden dragon back on its perch at Nine's bedside, but his foot ran into something.

It was a ratted strip of cloth, long thrown lamely and carelessly on the floor, but there was something inextricably important about this little patch of red. Its edges were frayed, and its coarse material was threadbare and riddled with holes. It smelled of mud and basil. It was rough against his skin as he bunched it up in his palms, sculpture long forgotten in favour of the cloth. Nothing looked outright important about it, but there was a solid, wet lump in his chest that insisted it was far more invaluable than its humble appearance suggested. 

Much to the dismay of his internal sense of fashion (which sounded a lot like Morgana, oddly enough), Arthur was overcome with the idea that this ugly rag was supposed to be worn around the neck. Yes, tied around the neck like a scarf, worn with a tunic of the opposite colour. Red tunic, blue scarf. Blue tunic, red scarf. When the scarf and tunic were the same colour - well, those were strange times indeed. 

As he rolled and rubbed the fabric between his fingers, a torrent of sounds ripped into his mind. Bit by bit, the static cleared, and through the haze of pounding headaches and garbled noises, words began to emerge.

 

"Here. You dropped your stupid scarf during the ambush."

"Did the prince of Camelot seriously bother picking up after a servant? Be still my heart."

"Shut up."

"Admit it, Arthur - I'm growing on you!"

"Like a cyst, perhaps."

 

W-what? What was that? A memory?

"Sire?" came Lancelot's voice, laden with worry. "Are you alright?"

Arthur opened his mouth to snap back that yes, he was fine, stop nagging over his wellbeing like a fishwife, but then he felt it. 

Tears. Streaming down his face. Clouding his vision. Swelling in his eyes and flooding down his cheeks uncontrollably, leaving little wet stains on the scarf in his hands. 

Arthur wiped his eyes and clenched his jaw. "I'm fine," he grumbled, and ducked out of the room before anyone could ask any more questions.

If anyone asked why he was crying, he would deny it. Princes didn't cry, after all.

If anyone asked why he'd tied Nine's scarf around his wrist, he'd deny that too. 

Chapter Text

The most recent time Arthur went into the library, he was six years old. He was playing hide and seek with his nursemaid Ella, and decided to go someplace she would never think to look. So he crept past Geoffrey, who was deeply entrenched in a history book, and snuck into the farthest, darkest, most obscure corner he could find. So long as he curled himself up extra tight, Ella might not find him for days.

It didn’t take him long to realize he wasn’t the only one who saw just how perfect this hiding spot was. There was a kitten there as well, grey with black and white spots, and heterochromatic eyes. Its ear looked like it had been chewed off, and its front left leg was cripplingly deformed. 

It limped up to him with a brave mew as it nuzzled his shin. He shushed it to keep it from giving away his location, but the kitten was undeterred. After a few moments, Arthur relented and coaxed it into his arms, and he held it gently against his chest. 

“I’ll call you Dagonet,” Arthur whispered. The kitten - Dagonet - purred in response, the vibrations of such rattling Arthur’s ribcage with a fond warmth.

They sat there for what may have been hours, Arthur tucked into his corner with Dagonet snuggled up against him, and smile on his face as his fingers carded through the cat's short and grimy fur. After a while, the two of them fell asleep like that.

This was his first embrace. Well, not his first embrace, per se, just the first one that mattered. Ygraine had held him tight as she died, but he was just minutes old at the time and didn’t remember. The nursemaids all coddled and cradled him in their arms, but mostly because they were paid for it. None of those hugs counted, in his eyes.

Because he was the prince, he was born to be respected and protected, so being cared for came naturally to him. But being loved was a different story. There was always the element of his princehood tainting his relations with the castle staff. No matter how much the cooks and servants may have mothered him, he was still their superior and there was still a sort of emotional distance between them as a result.

But this cat? Dagonet didn’t know - and frankly didn’t care - about his rank. It just saw a warm body, a child it felt it could trust with its love, and sought to spend the day in Arthur’s company and his alone. It was his first experience with real, wholesome intimacy.

It was also his last.

A missing prince was a scandal worthy of getting the whole castle into uproar, and once they realized he was gone it didn’t take long for the entire staff to band together and find him. And when they did, Uther was enraged to discover his son had been absent because he was busy cuddling with a deformed cat. 

Uther ran a sword through Dagonet’s body without mercy, and made Arthur watch. Then he blamed the nursemaid for not only letting Arthur go missing, but also for raising him up as such a lily-livered girl that he would even think to spend his time doing something so effeminate. The nursemaid was fired, and Uther decided his son didn’t need a new one.

The young prince cried himself to sleep that night.

The next day, Uther put a bow in his hand and took him hunting. Taught him that animals were not friends. Showed him how to skin a rabbit. Shouted at him to ‘be a man.’

Arthur learned not to cry that afternoon. He learned that he was a prince, and he needed to man up if he was going to be the king that Camelot deserved. Crying made him weak, and weak men led weak kingdoms. Having a strong kingdom meant being strong himself, and that meant he would have to lock up his feelings into an iron box.

Some nights, Arthur would stare out the window and try not to be horrified at how easy it was to put his heart in the box.

Sure, he had courted many a mistress in his days as a cocky and hormonal teenager, and there was his burgeoning relationship with Guinevere - but even so, there always remained an invisible barrier between him and whomever happened to share his bed. 

Never again did he have the same powerful, intrinsic connection with another living being as he had with Dagonet. There was no one he could like and love unconditionally, no one who could love him back in equal measure, patriarchy be damned. There was no one who made him feel like every strand of his chest was soaked in sunshine, as Dagonet had. 

There was, however, the aching raincloud that came with Nine’s absence.

“Ugh, remind me why we’re doing this again?” Gwaine groaned. He was laying along the top of one of the bookshelves, flipping through the pictures of a dusty horticulture book that looked like it might turn to dust if he shook it too much. How Gwaine had scaled the bookshelf without knocking anything over was a mystery - as were most things about him. 

Guinevere gingerly placed a large and fragile book back onto its shelf. “You know why,” she said. She picked up another book and scanned through its contents. “We need to look for clues on how to save Nine.”

“And aside from the obvious reasons, Nine’s also our only lead regarding the explosion,” Lancelot added, flipping through a book of his own. “We don’t have any other clues, aside from what Nine has told us. Once we get him out of...wherever he is, he might be able to tell us what Morgana is planning and how to stop her.”

Gwaine tossed the book down to the floor. To everyone’s mutual shock, it did not disintegrate upon impact. Although, the binding did snap and leave pages to flutter about in every direction. Lancelot and Guinevere both shot him their nastiest looks as they swept the pages into a pile. 

“I get that ,” Gwaine said, ignoring the plight of his friends. “But - why are we here, researching in the library ? Without Percival, Elyan, and Leon, no less.”

“Because they’re busy keeping an eye on the suspects, as well asking around for witness testimonies,” Lancelot said. 

Arthur rolled his eyes. “And this may have escaped your notice, Gwaine, but libraries are usually where one does research.”

Gwaine shook his head and swung his legs over the side of the bookshelf. “No no no, you misunderstand. Usually, we don’t do research. We just walk into Gaius’s chamber, where he and his apprentice have a bunch of books out, and then they tell us how to fight the monster, and then we kill it, and then blood gets in our armour and it takes days to -”

Sensing a mindless ramble coming on, Lancelot interjected. “We’re not fighting a monster this time though, we’re fighting Morgana. And maybe a sentient abyss, depending on Nine’s situation.”

“Eh. Morgana, monster, what’s the difference?”

Guinevere shrugged. “I don’t know, magical incidents never go as you expect around here, it could very well be a monster after all. I personally believe the void theory, though.”

“Fifty gold says it’s a monster,” Gwaine goaded, eyebrows wiggling the way they did whenever he struck a bet with someone. He reached his hand down toward her.

“Sixty says it’s another realm,” she said, giggling, and reached up to shake his hand - much to Arthur’s shock.

“Wha -”

Gwaine just laughed at the prince’s surprise. “Oh please, wait till you see her during game night in Elyan’s quarters. She’s a beast at gambling. The only one who can even remotely surpass her in skill is…” He scrunched up his face. “...well, since I can’t remember, I’ll go out on a limb and guess Nine .”

Struggling to reel from the shock that Guinevere of all people not only gambled, but was good at it (and that his friends held game nights without inviting him), Arthur cleared his throat and changed the subject. “...r-right. But, Gwaine, you mentioned Gaius having an apprentice?”

Gwaine jumped down from his perch, causing dust to unsettle as he did, and brushed off his trousers. “Yeah, had one for as long as I’ve been here. You didn’t know?”

Before he could register yet another shock, this time that Gaius had gotten an apprentice and Arthur never noticed, Guinevere added, “Oh! Yes, I remember. He’s always been very helpful with anything medical or magical in nature. He and I worked together to expose the witchfinder’s fraudulence. And sometimes when Gaius is indisposed, I help him out a bit. His name is...er…it’s...” She trailed off, frowning.

A mysterious apprentice Arthur never knew about, who Guinevere couldn’t remember the name of, and who apparently was useful in the matter of magical threats against Camelot. Oh god, was this who he thought it was?

Groaning with realization, the four of them spoke in unison. “ Nine .”

“Damn that rat bastard,” Gwaine huffed. “Is there any part of life in Camelot he doesn’t have his little hands in?”

“Probably not,” said Lancelot. “He wouldn’t be worth kidnapping and enchanting otherwise.”

And that was the kicker, wasn’t it? Someone they didn’t even remember had been taken, their absence detrimental to Camelot’s wellbeing, and the only things they knew were who did it and why.  

Which was also precisely why they were here, in this library. They needed answers. They needed to find what had happened to Nine, where he was, how to get him back, and maybe even how to give Morgana a swift kick to the teeth for her troubles.

And, of course, rescuing Nine had the added bonus of gaining access to his intel on the explosion. Which should have been a higher priority in Arthur’s mind than being just an ‘added bonus’, considering the entire kingdom could be at stake.

Though he would not admit it even to the recesses of his own mind, a large part of him feared that if he were to face Morgana without Nine by his side, then he would fail. This wasn’t just a matter of information or stopping his sister, this was a matter of self-confidence and success. And maybe, just a bit, it was a matter of friendship as well.

And as for why they were here instead of Gaius’s chambers...well, Arthur had already woken up Gaius in the middle of the previous night asking for answers. The two of them stayed up until nearly the crack of dawn - until Jules returned from his late-night walk along the parapets, anyway - pilfering through all of Gaius’s old tomes. And, frustratingly, it was to no avail. Whatever had caused the disappearance, static, and memory charms was beyond the realm of Gaius’s knowledge.

So Arthur knew from personal experience that nothing in Gaius’s collection could help them this time. No, to solve the riddle of this particular mystery, they’d need to do a bit of outsourcing. 

But Arthur couldn’t just up and admit to this. It would mean admitting he had spent countless sleepless hours troubling over the emptiness of his chambers, rubbing his fingers along the scarf tied to his wrist, pining over Nine like a withering maiden. It was unseemly behaviour for a prince, and he’d sooner die than give Gwaine the satisfaction of knowing about it.


 

Arthur groaned and rubbed his face. It had been four hours and they were still no closer to getting answers. Gwaine hadn’t said a word or made an immature joke in at least half an hour, a mark of just how tiring all the research had been. Lancelot’s head frequently dozed off on Guinevere’s shoulder, which didn't bother Arthur at all. Arthur was not jealous about their casual tenderness with each other, not in the slightest, there was nothing to be jealous about.

Ugh, this was so frustrating. A few times, Arthur had prodded into his own mind in the hopes of stirring up Nine - but ever since discovering the hidden door, Nine had yet to communicate with him. He hadn’t even spoken to Guinevere or Lancelot, who were supposedly easier to reach. 

If he could just get another clue from Nine, a word of advice, a spectral finger pointed in the right direction...at this point, even a whispered, “You can do this” would be appreciated. But he was hung high and dry without any leads, clues, evidence, or help. All he had were a bunch of headache-inducing mysteries.

The first mystery was obvious. Nine’s disappearance. 

The second mystery was also obvious. The explosion.

The third mystery was something Arthur was too busy to dwell on, despite Lancelot’s vehement insistence. Lancelot believed the visiting Elmetian king, King Cadoc, had a larger role to play in this whole Nine-Morgana-explosion scandal than any of them could suspect. And while it was strange that Cadoc’s arrival was in such close proximity to both Nine’s abduction and the explosion, it was probably just a coincidence. 

“Ah!” Guinevere exclaimed, her sudden shout jolting Lancelot into awakeness. “Come look at this.”

Everyone abandoned their varying stages of sleepiness, snapped up to her side, and peered over her knees to look at the book on her lap. 

“You found something?” 

Guinevere flashed a brief smile, uncertain and pleased with herself in equal measure. “I think so.” She tapped at the page before her.

It was an image. The image was comprised with deft, smooth strokes and sketchy cross-hatch shading, and took up the entire left page. It was a glass sphere, only the slightest bit larger than a marble, with glowing red fibers spiraling within it. It hung from a dull metal chain, draped around a rather scientific-looking sketch of a human neck. 

“The Alarming Bauble,” Lancelot read aloud, rubbing sleep from his eyes as he withdrew the book from Guinevere’s lap and onto his own. For some reason, the term ‘bauble’ stirred something familiar in Arthur. 

“What’s so alarming about it?” Gwaine joked.

“No, not like that,” said Lancelot, shaking his head. “Ahem. It says here: The Alarming Bauble is a complex, high-level spell that only the most accomplished of magic users can employ. If casted properly, it creates a glass sphere - often disguised as jewelry - that changes colour based on the safety status of a chosen person, place, or thing. ” Lancelot’s brows pinched. “But Gwen, what does this have to do with anything?”

Instead of answering, Guinevere gestured back to the passage. “Keep reading, Lancelot.”

He did so. “Er, let’s see... The inventor of the Alarming Bauble, Wiladriel the Magnificent, famously tied the bauble’s alarm system to his daughter and wore it as a pendant, so it would alert him if any harm befell - Gwen, I really don’t see how this is relevant.”

“Keep reading,” she repeated, much to everyone else’s mutual consternation. 

With a reluctant inhale, he resumed trailing his finger along the tiny, elegant script. “ When the subject of the spell is not in harm’s way, the bauble is pure white. Orange indicates the subject is in danger of an impending attack. And red, should the subject be so unfortunate, indicates that they are in current, extreme danger. The specific shade of red deepens as the danger becomes more life-threatening. If red darkens to black, then the subject is dead.”

“What’s the big deal?” Gwaine asked. “Did you see one of these recently? Or - oh! Did Nine have one of these bauble-things?”

“Now don’t tell me you’ve all forgotten,” Guinevere said reproachfully. After a few moments, she realized they did in fact forget, and frowned. “Do you mean to say none of you recall Nine’s warning?”

“You mean his warning about Morgana’s accomplice?”

“N-no. I mean the warning he gave back when he possessed Edrick.”

Oh god, that felt like such a lifetime ago. It was actually only a few days ago, but so much had happened recently that it felt like years had passed. Honestly, it was all going a bit too quick for Arthur’s taste. 

Now what all had Nine said again, while frantically inhabiting Edrick’s skin? He talked about why Morgana wanted him, told them a bit about the ‘cold’ place he was trapped within, and…

“Put your faith in the glass bauble, but fear the day it turns red. When it turns red, Camelot is in danger. Never let it turn red.”

That’s what he said just moments before slipping out of Edrick’s mind and back into the void. A strange statement, sure, but Arthur had chalked it up to hysteria at the time and promptly forgot about it. But if the red bauble Nine had mentioned was the same one in Guinevere’s book, then this web of mysteries went ever so slightly deeper.

Lancelot and Gwaine, it seemed, had reached a similar realization. 

“So do you think Nine knows about this Alarming Bauble?” asked Arthur. “I still have a hard time believing he'd want us to 'put our faith' in something of magic. But even if he did, then how does he know about the bauble, and where is it, and how does he expect us to be able to see it and know when it’s turned red? Any and all magical artifacts are either destroyed, taken to the vaults, or -”

“Oh!” Lancelot’s face lit up in realization. “You and I saw the bauble a few days ago, sire.”

Well this was news to him. “We did?”

Lancelot nodded. “You were there too, Gwaine, remember? It was during training, the day after Cadoc arrived. A man in a hood approached us on the training pitch.”

Oh, yeah. They were all taking a breather and watching Percival and Leon spar, when some man came up to them. He warned Arthur that he was in danger, his kingdom was vulnerable, and any number of magical threats could be putting his people at risk. 

“Be wary,” the man had said. “You may not live to regret it if you don’t.”

Lancelot said they had seen the bauble at that time. Where was the - 

Oh.

Oh.

There had been a strange orange glow coming from under the man’s shirt, and if he looked close enough Arthur saw the faint silhouette of a glowing sphere attached to a leather cord around the man’s neck. 

According to the book Guinevere had found, orange was the colour of threat. Orange meant something big - something dangerous - was coming. 

Arthur had assumed the light was messing with his eyes, but maybe there was something more sinister at play after all.

“He was…” Gwaine said. “He was wearing a necklace. A glass ball around his neck. I snagged a glimpse down his shirt as he walked away, and it looked exactly like that.”

Lancelot took the time to fill Guinevere in on the events of the afternoon in question, as she was the only one out of them who hadn’t been there. 

Meanwhile, Arthur felt only numb. His life was already so weird as it was, between memory charms and blood explosions and traitorous half-sisters. Why not give an ominous hooded figure an even more ominous magical artifact that could gauge how safe Camelot was at any given moment? Not to mention his questions about why Gwaine was looking down the hooded man's shirt in the first place. It was just one more confusing thing to add to Arthur’s laundry list of confusing things. 

When he got back, Nine was going to seriously owe Arthur for making his brain hurt.


Unfortunately, the discovery about the bauble seemed to be the only thing their research would expose. Another hour was spent and wasted trifling through flowery, academic writing, and they had nothing to show for it. 

At one point, for the sake of all their sanities, Arthur snappily announced that they were done researching for the day and should all go get something to eat. Maybe they could come back later with Leon, Percival, and Elyan in tow. More eyes, more progress, and all that.

However, as they all filed out of the library, an idea struck. He slapped himself on the forehead for not thinking of it sooner.

Geoffrey was sitting at his desk, magnifying lens in one hand and starchy, yellowing parchment in the other. He lowered the paper and gave the prince a weathered smile. “Ah, hello, sire. I never see you down here. Did you need something?”

Lancelot, Guinevere, and Gwaine drew closer, but only Guinevere seemed to pick up on what he was doing.

“This may seem strange, but do you have any material on...memory spells?”

Geoffrey raised a hairy eyebrow. “Do you think you’ve been enchanted in some way, sire?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said with a disarming, noncommittal shrug. “But do you have any books covering that sort of thing?”

Geoffrey set the lens and paper down on his desk, and leaned back. After a few slow, contemplative moments, he said, “I wouldn’t think so. Memory magic is extremely difficult. Only the most powerful high priestesses were capable of such a feat as manipulating someone’s memory, and even then it was so delicate a procedure that many victims wound up irreparably brain-damaged. It’s considered so dangerous that any books containing information about it are burned on sight.”

Well, aside from Gwaine, he could confidently say that none of them were irreparably brain-damaged. “Do you think Morgana could be powerful enough to cast a memory charm without that kind of mistake?"

“Not at all,” Geoffrey said. “In order to even successfully attempt a memory charm of any kind, you would have to train under the high priestesses for many years. And while I admit Morgana’s magic was a surprise to us all, I doubt she’s had the opportunity to get deep enough into her studies for such a lofty achievement.”

So Morgana wasn’t an all-powerful megalomaniac yet, just a insanely powerful one. But as relieved as Arthur should have been, it only added more questions. Supposing Geoffrey wasn’t mistaken, then Morgana couldn’t cast the memory charm. 

Which meant one of three things: one, Geoffrey was mistaken about Morgana’s power level, and they all needed to live in fear of her impending tyranny; two, some unknown third party had casted the memory charm for her; and three, they were dealing with something different than - and possibly scarier than - a memory charm. 

None of those options were appealing, to be honest.

“Thank you, Geoffrey,” Arthur said, feeling a bit faint at yet another layer of complexity being added to the nightmarish puzzle that had become of his life.

“Of course,” said Geoffrey. “Although, if I may ask, sire - why are you looking into memory magic?”

Arthur stiffened. “It’s…er...that is - y-you see, we, um…”

“There have been reports of memory loss out in some of the border villages,” Gwaine piped up without missing a beat. “And Gaius doesn’t know anything, so we figured we knights would look into it ourselves. Gwen's just here because she offered her help."

Gwaine shot Arthur a smug grin, to which Arthur just glared in heavy contempt. With every passing day, he wished more and more that Morgana had taken Gwaine instead of Nine.

“I see,” said Geoffrey. “I certainly hope you resolve the matter, then, but I’m afraid I can’t be of much help to you. The only place I can think of that might have the sorts of books you seek would be…” He shifted his weight, demeanor falling into shame and self-consciousness. He averted his gaze.

“Geoffrey, what is it?” Arthur asked. “Where can we find the books?”

As though it took great pain to say it, Geoffrey coughed out, “Th-the Forbidden Wing, sire.”

Oh, just great. Wasn’t this his lucky day. The one possible lead they get after tireless searching, and it’s in the Forbidden Wing of all places.

Everyone in the castle knew about the Forbidden Wing. It was a dark, long-abandoned corridor in a seldom visited part of the citadel. No one had been there since the Purge began, when it was first closed. Nobles ignored it, servants avoided it, and Arthur tried not to ache whenever he thought about it. 

The Forbidden Wing was home to a few rooms that had been reserved for guest chambers back in the day, and was largely a rather innocuous part of the building. Or at least, it would be innocuous if not for the things stored in one of its rooms.

According to the stories, a defiant sorceress had snuck into the castle at the beginning of the Purge and stored a bunch of her magical belongings in one of the rooms. To keep Uther from removing them, she cast a spell so her things couldn’t be taken out of the room by someone with ill intentions, and couldn’t be destroyed as long as they remained on castle grounds. So to block off all access to her treasonous and nigh indestructible magic, Uther quarantined an entire section of the castle under lock and key. 

Uther claimed it was just a poor coincidence that Queen Ygraine’s chambers just so happened to lie in that same stretch of corridor, and just so happened to be quarantined with the rest of the hall - but Arthur always suspected he did it on purpose. After all, Uther much preferred taking an out of sight, out of mind approach with his late wife.

In his younger years, Arthur yearned to sneak into the Forbidden Wing and explore his mother’s old things, but never got the chance. No one was allowed in the Forbidden Wing. It was, well, forbidden . Nobles, knights, and servants alike couldn’t go in. Hell, not even princes or regents were allowed. No one but the king himself could open the door.

Which meant, obviously, that this was another dead end in their investigation.

As the four of them walked out of the library, Gwaine flashed him a mischievous grin that suggested maybe it wasn’t such a dead end after all.

“No,” Arthur said flatly, hoping to nip Gwaine's ideas in the bud. 

Gwaine huffed. "Oh come on, princess, where's your sense of adventure? I'm sure we could get Elyan to pick the lock for us. We'll be in and out. No one would know."

The prince shook his head. "No, Gwaine. We are not breaking into the Forbidden Wing.”

Later that night, they broke into the Forbidden Wing.

Chapter Text

For a stealth mission, most members of the Round Table were poor candidates. Gwaine, for example, was too chatty and noisy. Percival would have been stealthy, if not for his cumbersome size. Leon was alright for stealth, one could suppose, but his penchant for virtuousness caused him to self-sabotage (it made him a terrible liar, too). Lancelot had a surprising talent for subterfuge and keeping secrets, but oddly enough this didn’t extend to sneaking. Gwen was sneaky, as evidenced by her skill in investigating Morgana’s treason, but preferred not getting involved in such matters. And Gaius...well, that didn’t need explanation.

Elyan, though - Elyan was another story entirely. He had once confessed that during his years away from Camelot, he’d been employed as a spotter for a bandit troop. His job mostly consisted of slinking about in dense forests and looking for easy targets to report back to the troop, and as much as it irked his morality at least it paid well.

Not the most honourable of careers, he shamefully admitted, and Gwen practically skinned his hide for it (or would have, if not for someone intervening. Nine, probably). But, while Elyan disliked talking about his past for obvious reasons, it left him with the kind of experience Arthur was looking for.

Breaking into the Forbidden Wing - which was as creepy as it was, well, forbidden - required the upmost discretion. That meant they could afford no larger than a two-man (“Or woman,” Gwen had haughtily insisted) party, and those two men (“Or women!”) had to be extremely deft at being secretive. Arthur was a default selection, of course, being both the prince and an entirely flawless individual who excelled at everything he did. And Elyan’s resume made him an excellent second choice.

The sound of heavy footsteps echoed down the hall. Arthur and Elyan hurriedly pressed against the wall of an alcove to hide, while a pair of guards marched past the perpendicular hallway. 

Once the footsteps faded, the two of them pushed off from the wall and continued their moonlit journey.

Did they have to hide from guards like this? Not really, no. Arthur was the prince, and he could do almost anything without question, so if he wanted to wander around at night then he could darn well do so. 

But chatting with guards while participating in illegal activities was not something he was fond of, and they also couldn’t afford to be noticed within the vicinity of the Forbidden Wing itself. Prince though he may be, even Arthur wasn’t allowed in the Wing. 

Of course, even if they did tattle on him, there was the question of who they would tattle to . He was, after all, the regent. And with his father out of commission and likely to -

No. He couldn’t think like that. Uther would get better. And when he finally pulled himself together, he would have all the time in the world to reprimand Arthur for going places he shouldn’t. 

It showed just how desperate he was, if he’d gotten to the point of longing for one of Uther’s punishments. Because right now anything - anything! - was better than the catatonic emptiness that had possessed his father as of late. Even a public flogging, if that’s what it took to get his father back.

A few minutes later they ducked into another alcove while yet another set of guards patrolled along, this time right past Arthur and Elyan’s hiding spot. Their bodies locked still with anxiousness. 

It took a few moments for either of them to stop holding their breaths after the guards had left, simply because of how close a call that had been. And it took yet another few moments to pry themselves off the wall and continue onward.

Were they being melodramatic by hiding from the guards so religiously? Absolutely. But it was well within the prince’s authority to be melodramatic if he so chose.

 

“Prat.”

 

Arthur shuddered as the word - barely a word at all; more like a breeze of wind that sounded vaguely like human speech - tenderly rattled in his ears. On reflex, he spun around, but found that no one was there.

Was it a ‘whisper’? Was it Nine speaking to him from beyond the void? 

No, couldn’t be. There was no heavy, sentient presence behind Arthur’s eyes, tugging at the bones in his neck, setting a course of tingles through to his fingertips. 

Instead, the sensation he got from this was...soft, and gentle, and inviting, and it beckoned a warm nostalgia to rise up through his nostrils. 

This was another memory. 

Arthur slowed his pace to let Elyan take the lead, closing his eyes and clearing his mind. If he tried hard enough, maybe the rest of the memory would reveal itself to him. 

With enough coaxing and static-curtaining, the full memory emerged.

 

“See, that over there is Cepheus, and that’s...Cassipee? Cassiop? Cassio..peia. Cassiopeia!”

“What in the hell are you going on about?”

“Constellations. Gaius has been teaching me.”

“Amazing. Now shut up and go to sleep.”

“Amazing? Don’t you mean... stellar?”

“One more word and I will have you in the stocks for a year.”

“...”

“...”

“Prat.”

“Alright, that’s it -!”

 

Arthur got the sense that he told Nine to ‘shut up’ quite a bit. So far, a great deal of the memories he’d begun to recover involved him doing so. 

Ironically, now that Nine’s words were limited and his presence was reduced to that of a spiritual wisp, Arthur would have given anything to hear Nine prattle on about constellations. Anything to hear his voice, just once.

Sure, Arthur had memories, and Nine occasionally snuck into Arthur’s thoughts to warn him about things, but he couldn’t really pin down a specific voice. They were just hollow, impersonal words that rang out in his skull, and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t seem to recall what those words actually sounded like. 

With a lurching pain in his chest, Arthur realized that Nine’s voice was probably a wonderful thing to hear, and he had been foolish to stifle it.

Well, when Nine came home, Arthur would be sure to never take it for granted again.

Arthur was snapped out of his musings by the sudden appearance of a door at the end of the corridor. A large, gawky door with iron handles and splintered wood. It was weathered by time and neglect, but was still formidable enough to easily block off any and all entry. 

There was an ostentatious lock plastered to the doorframe right above the handle. Arthur would have cursed its existence if he hadn’t had a blacksmith and locksmith-by-hobby at his side. Really, Elyan was practically made for this kind of operation.

 Elyan stepped forward to shimmy the lock, with Arthur keeping lookout. So far, no guards, but he knew the patrol schedule well enough to know that a pair would pass through any minute. 

“Uh, sire?” came Elyan’s uncertain murmur. “It's already unlocked.”

What ?” Arthur hissed.

“See, look.” Elyan tugged on the doorhandle, and it came ajar without resistance. 

Arthur scowled. “Do you mean to tell me it’s been unlocked this entire time? For years , maybe?”

Elyan merely shrugged.

“My father’s the only one with a key,” said Arthur with a deflated sigh, measuring his tone carefully to prevent an outburst. “No one knows where he keeps it. And he certainly wouldn’t forget to lock it behind him. So whoever unlocked the door -”

“Must have broken in,” Elyan finished. “What do you want to do, sire?”

“Continue as planned,” Arthur said. He pulled the doorhandle, and with a low groan its hinges swung. “But proceed with vigilance.”

As the door opened wider, a gust of stale, musty air washed their faces. It was dark in the Forbidden Wing, with none of its wall-mounted torches lit and the windows all boarded up. Light from the hallway trailed through the open door and onto the Wing floor, which was thickly dusted and littered with animal droppings, spiderwebs, and maggot-eaten rat carcasses. The stone floor itself remained invisible under the detritus.

While no human had entered the Forbidden Wing in over twenty years, clearly the same did not hold true for animals. 

A shiver ran down Arthur’s spine, but it was uncertain whether this was because of the cold air or...something else.

“Well,” said Elyan, swallowing hard. “Princes first.”

Arthur snorted and rolled his eyes good-naturedly, but his face hardened with hesitation. He didn’t want to go in, for sure, but it was because the Wing looked disgusting. Not because he was the slightest, teeniest, tiniest bit scared. Not at all. 

Before he could lose his nerve, Arthur gingerly stepped into the Wing - careful to steer around the animal carcasses, of course. He reached for a torch, shook all the cobwebs off it (while trying not to shriek as a thumb-sized spider almost crawled up his sleeve), and passed it to Elyan to have it lit by one of the mounted torches in the hall. 

Elyan passed the newly lit torch back, grimacing as he closed the Wing door behind them. The door shut with a rattling thud, and dust plumed in their wake. Elyan sneezed.

Another step forward. A hardened rat dropping crunched under his boot.

Arthur internally vowed to ring Gwaine’s neck for suggesting this.

“So what are we looking for?” Elyan shakily asked.

“Rooms,” said Arthur. “The story goes that a witch hid all her magic contraband in one of the rooms here, and due to the charms she cast no one has been able to remove any of it. With any luck, we should be able to find a book or two about memory spells.”

“And that should help us figure out what happened to Nine.”

“Precisely.”

They toed past a window. Thick, rotting planks of wood were nailed to the window frame with shivers of rusty metal. Somehow, it only made the Wing more ominous. Arthur repressed a shudder.

Even more ominous, perhaps, were the footprints already defined in the dust, like tracks in fresh snow. If Arthur were to hazard a guess, these tracks couldn’t be more than a few days old.

 Whoever had broken into the Forbidden Wing, they must have done it recently.

Was it Morgana? Or maybe her accomplice? An equally ill-intended but unrelated third party? A part of Arthur didn’t want to find out.

Neither Arthur nor Elyan said a word as they pushed ever so reluctantly further into the Wing, although Elyan did try to hum out a note or two to fill the silence. But the Wing had tall ceilings, which created some rather unpleasant acoustics - so what should have been an innocuous, innocent tune was warped and echoed into something that sounded almost inhuman. 

After a few moments, Elyan stopped humming.

A few paces ahead, on the right-hand side, was a door. Arthur’s heart skipped eagerly. The sooner they found what they were looking for, the sooner they could leave and forget this place ever existed.

Perhaps it was all the magic in the air that was making Arthur so skittish. 

The orange light shedding from his torch cast shadows upon the door - long and misshapen shadows of Arthur and Elyan, monstrified silhouettes of rats scurrying along the walls, and other inexplicable swirls of darkness that Arthur chose to neither look at nor think about. But it wasn’t the bastardization of reality splayed against the light that had Arthur on edge. 

No, what caused Arthur’s heart to sink into his toes was the blood.

Blood, smeared along the walls in the shapes of gnarled handprints. Splattered and sprayed and stained onto cracked, cobwebbed stone. 

The blood made a bit of sense, considering the bloodiness of the dungeon explosion. Some of it certainly did look a few days fresh. But combined with newer layers of red, crisping blood streaks, were splashes of long-aged black. 

The more recent intruder must have bled in here, but someone else had bled in here as well at an earlier date. From the look of the black blood stains, that ‘someone else’ must have bled here many years ago.

The newer, redder blood was shakily clustered around the doorhandle, like the intruder’s hands had shaken as they tried to open the door.

“Arthur! Look!” Elyan pointed at a squarish lump on the wall beside the door, and used the edge of his palm to wipe dust off its face. From the grime, an engraved plaque emerged.

Queen Ygraine’s Chambers

Ah. Because Ygraine’s room had also been quarantined with the rest of the Wing. Supposedly, it was an unfortunate coincidence that her room had been so close to the contraband rooms. Rather convenient, considering Uther’s intentions to lock away every sign of his wife.

“Do you think…?” Elyan trailed off meaningfully, gesturing to the door in front of them.

“We’d better check it, just to be thorough,” said Arthur. His throat was unusually dry and tight, as though he’d spent a ration-less week in the Perilous Lands. A speck of dust flaked into his eye. 

Right there, on the other side of the door, was a fulfillment of all his childhood dreams. His fantasies about having a mother, about knowing who she was and what she looked like, about getting to know all the finer details of her persona and loving every bit. Finding evidence that she hadn’t just existed, but that she had lived .

His fingers trembled as they closed around the doorhandle. If Elyan noticed, he didn’t mention it.

He pulled it open. The hinges whimpered under the strain of movement. 

A subtle gust of air caressed his face as he leaned into the room. Ygraine’s - his mother’s - chambers, even in the dimness of the torch-light, showed signs of having once been magnificent. Although years of abandonment had not done it any favours.

The four-poster bed was dressed in magnificent silks and satins, but the colours were faded and the fabrics were torn. The candelabras were elegant and regal, but many of the candles were missing and it was infested with cobwebs. The room was decorated with ornate mahogany furniture, but it appeared to have been chewed up by some kind of insect.

“Woodworm,” said the voice in his memories.

There was more blood - mostly new - smeared along the room’s interior. Most of it concentrated around the rickety bookshelf, and stained the books with red handprints. A few of the books had been thrown to the ground, perhaps in impatience or perhaps in rage (or perhaps a mix of both). 

Hands tense, Elyan picked up one of the books, but Arthur was too far away to read its title. 

Distantly, Arthur knew he should help Elyan search the books for what they were looking for. But this, this whole room and everything inside it, was Arthur’s childhood dreams coming to fruition. If he could have his way, he would just sit in this room and absorb the presence of his mother’s old belongings all night. 

Wait. Hang on. He was the prince, he could have his way.

In this instance, however, he probably shouldn’t. Better to get in, find the answers they sought, and get out. But maybe he could come back at a later date, once all this Nine stuff was sorted out, to explore his mother’s things with greater depth and scrutiny. 

Of course, that would mean going through that terrifying hallway , and exposing himself to more magic than necessary. As his father was adamant to remind him, prolonged exposure led to corruption. And after Morgana, Uther’s heart likely couldn’t take the strain of yet another child betraying him to the siren song of magic.

Pushed against the farthest wall, closest to the bed, was a bespoke wooden vanity. It had little flowers carved into the frame of its mirror, the glass of which lay in discarded shards on the vanity’s desktop. Along the rim of the desktop were two more bloody handprints, as though someone had been gripping it tightly. These handprints, unlike all the others, were clear, unsmudged, and by far the most vivid. 

Arthur hovered his own hands over the prints for comparison. They were far smaller and far more slender than Arthur’s. Either the print owner was an adolescent, or very little for their age. Whatever the cause, they didn’t have much physicality to them.

Assuming the intruder was the same person who was behind the explosion (which was not a definite fact), this handprint was possibly the beginning of a profile. Small, not physically fit, probably young. He’d have to go back and look at the applicants' hands to try and find a match.

On the adjacent wall, not far from yet another boarded-up window, was a painting. It was bordered with a shiny golden frame, untouched by age or dust, and of a rather unwieldy size. The painting itself was a sturdy canvas that looked almost brand-new, with bright and vibrant watercolours orchestrating a domestic scene. The only possible reason it was so well-preserved was magic, but Arthur tried not to think about that.

The scene depicted no background or location, just a happy moment shared among friends on an empty white backdrop. Four people sat around a circular table, playing dice and drinking from silver goblets. On one side of the table was a man with brownish-blonde hair and mirthful, sparrow-like eyes. He had a crown on his head and his arm around a woman’s shoulders. She was petite, with an intense mane of curly blonde hair and familiar blue eyes. Across the table was another man, with wavy black hair and black robes. He seemed to be high-fiving the woman next to him, who had a dainty red gown and brown hair woven into tight but narrow ringlets. The ringlet woman was tossing dice onto the table with a competitive smirk on her face, and the rest of them were laughing. 

The crowned man, if one placed a scar along his forehead and a scowl in his eyes, might pass for Uther. And the woman under his arm looked uncannily like the false specter of Ygraine that Morgause had conjured. As shocked as he was to admit it, the black-robed man had a horrifyingly striking resemblance to Balinor the Dragonlord. Or at least, a Balinor who wasn’t scruffy and unkempt from years in exile. 

Really, the only person he couldn’t identify was the ringlet woman, but a sense of vague familiarity niggled at the back of his mind nonetheless.

The idea of Uther being this carefree was foreign to him. He might have dismissed it as fiction entirely, if he hadn’t known from Gaius’s stories just how much Ygraine’s death had changed his father. But what was almost harder to imagine was Uther getting along with Balinor , a magic-user, as though they were old friends.

Arthur tried not to let the painting bother him, and turned away to help Elyan do what they came here for: researching what might have happened to Nine.

It took about a half hour for them to upend the entire bookshelf and skim through the contents. Most of the books were about etiquette, history, or magical creatures. Given the sheer volume of content on the subject, Ygraine must have had a strange fascination with redcaps. 

“Well, that wasn’t very helpful,” said Elyan in a tired pant, leaning onto his hands. Books were scattered around the both of them. 

“This isn’t the only room,” Arthur said hopefully. He got to his feet and offered a hand to help Elyan up as well.

“How long do you reckon we’ll spend here tonight?”

Arthur shrugged. “As long as it takes.”

“Don’t you have a meeting to get to tomorrow?”

“I’m the prince , Elyan. If I don’t want to go to a meeting, the meeting won’t happen. My word is law, after all.”

Elyan held open the door for his self-proclaimed prince to exit the chamber first. “Does this mean you’ll be making a law against meetings or something?”

“I just might,” Arthur grumbled without heat.

Arthur took a moment to linger in the door’s threshold and soak in one final, withering view of his dead mother’s room. He let out a sentimental sigh as the door closed, unintentionally harmonizing with its noisy hinges.

Ygraine’s room had been dilapidated, sure, but it had a homely feel to it that set Arthur’s nerves at ease. Now when he continued his trek down the eerie Wing corridor, it was a lot easier to not jump out of his skin whenever a rat scurried too close or when a decayed carcass looked a little too haunting.

Up ahead on the left was another door. It looked a great deal like the door leading to Ygraine’s chamber, straight down to the accompanying plaque. There was one key difference, however, in that this door had significantly more blood near it - most of it being the old and blackened kind. The person who had bled out in this hall years ago had likely done most of their bleeding here.

Using the hem of his sleeve, Arthur wiped dust off the plaque to reveal its engraving.

And promptly gasped out of shock.

Chapter Text

To his memory, Arthur had witnessed no less than forty executions, thirty-eight of which being for possession of magic. At first, he hadn’t been able to stomach the sight of burnt flesh or severed heads or waterlogged bodies sinking lower, lower, lower…

But of course, like any man he learned to pull himself together an grow up. Sorcerers put it upon themselves by practicing magic in the first place. As for the children, it was a mercy to deal with them while they were still innocent. Like putting down a rabid dog. 

(Internally, Arthur had his doubts. But he also despised himself for having those doubts, and despised himself for despising himself, and so on)

When Arthur was a twelve-year-old prat who spent most of his time training with Leon, pestering Morgana, and being a menace to his servants, a bounty hunter arrived with a sorcerer in a cage. He regaled them with the story of village children falling ill, and how this captive sorcerer was the one responsible. The sorcerer himself claimed he was only trying to heal them, to save their lives, but that was clearly a lie. 

The sorcerer in question was an old man who couldn’t walk without a cane. Arthur and some of the squires would throw rocks at him in their spare time once he was transferred to the dungeons, an admittedly shameful action Arthur dared not try to justify. No one ever learned the sorcerer’s name, for they quickly cut out his tongue to keep him from reciting spells. 

He was sentenced to burn at the end of the week. 

Every day, after Arthur and his ‘friends’ (henchmen, he now realized) ran out of rocks to throw, the sorcerer would scoop up the rocks and give the prince a courteous smile. The fact that he took his torment with grace only made Arthur hate him more.

Every day, the sorcerer would take those rocks and use them to scrape masterful drawings of sunsets and flowers into the prison-cell walls. 

On the day of the sorcerer’s execution, Arthur stood by his father on the balcony to watch. As with all executions, Morgana had holed herself up in her room, refusing meals until Guinevere could coax her out of her petulance.

The guards strapped him to a pole and lit him ablaze. His screams were blood-curdling. His flesh blackened. His eyes bulged agonizingly, melting in their sockets. Arthur looked away, but Uther’s firm, callused hand grabbed him by the chin and tilted his face forward. 

“Be a man,” said Uther coldly. “Be a king.”

So Arthur steeled himself, neutralized his face, and forced himself to absorb every grotesque scream that rent the autumn air. A part of himself felt bad for throwing rocks, because no person should suffer in their final days, but Uther was always quick to assure him that a sorcerer forfeited its right to personhood the moment it learned magic. 

Sorcerers weren’t people. Not anymore.

It wasn’t Arthur’s first execution - or ‘extermination’ as Uther would jokingly call them - and it certainly wasn’t the most unpleasant. No, that honour went to the botched beheading of a four-year-old druid girl. But what stood out about this particular sorcerer was the aftermath. 

Morbid curiosity got the better of him, so Arthur snuck into the sorcerer’s cell to see what sorts of horrible magic things he had left behind. But instead of runes or poppets, what he found was a poem. Scratched into the ground with one of the rocks, it read:

 

The hypocrites, they haunt me

But I shall leave them soon

Oh Court Sorcerer, please join me

I’m getting burned at noon 

 

Curious, Arthur approached his father with the question of whether or not Camelot had ever had a ‘Court Sorcerer’, as the poem had implied.

“Sorcerers will always believe they are more important than they are,” Uther had explained stiffly over dinner. “They believe they deserve authority and power, and that is why they are always attacking our great kingdom. But there has never been a place for magic in Camelot, and there has certainly never been a place for a Court Sorcerer either.”

He went on to talk about how magic was a plague, and sorcerers were rats. Hideous, disgusting, unloveable vermin. For years before Uther’s ascent to the throne, people had been clamoring to see sorcerers scorged from the kingdom, but the previous king had been too lazy to take necessary action. Uther’s Purge was nothing more than a much-needed extermination, a breath of fresh air, for the betterment of Camelot.

One would certainly never give a crown to a cockroach, so there could never be a Court Sorcerer. It defied common sense.

And yet, here it was, carved into this dusty, golden plaque on the wall. Evidence to the contrary slapping him right in the face.

Court Sorcerer Nimueh’s Chamber

No. It couldn’t be. It had to be a farce. Sorcerers were power-hungry. Why would one be content to just being a member of the court, and not seize the throne itself? Why would one have the ability to reach authority in the first place? Why would…

Why would his father lie?

“B-but that doesn’t make any sense,” Elyan stammered out uncertainly, snapping Arthur back to reality. “It’s got to be a trick. You said there was a witch who put a bunch of magic contraband in here? Well, maybe this is just her idea of a sick joke.”

“Must be,” Arthur said. He didn’t sound half as hollow as he felt.

There was a hollow ache at the bottom of his gut, telling him - screaming at him - that this was no trick or illusion or subterfuge. This was real.

He refused to believe it, of course.

His father was a good man. Sorcerers were evil, deplorable, detestable ulcers that ought to burn and rot. And there was never one in the Court of Camelot.

That was the truth. It had to be. Because if Uther had lied about one thing, what else had lied about?

No. No! Arthur would not go down that hole, he would not think those treasonous, blasphemous things. Uther was good, Uther was good, Uther was his father .

Elyan passed the torch to Arthur while reaching out to open the chamber door. “Well, perhaps the fake plaque means there’s something special about this room. We might find what we’re looking for.”

“Maybe,” said Arthur.

Elyan tugged on the doorknob, and grunted a bit when it wouldn’t budge. He pushed it again. Tugged some more. Pushed some more. Tugged with a bit more force. Twisted and pulled and rattled and shook.

“Sire,” he gasped. “It won’t budge!”

“Perhaps it needs a key,” Arthur said. His grip tightened around the torch.

Elyan glanced down at the knob. “No, no locking mechanisms.”

“Maybe it’s jammed?”

“Maybe. Here, let me try.”

Once more, the torch changed hands, and Arthur grabbed the knob. A tingling warmth shot up his arm, and he recoiled. You could never be too careful with magic, after all. 

After a moment of hesitation, he reached for it again. The warmth returned, a bit more subdued now. The knob felt like soft wax in his grasp, complacent to the whims and sculptures of his hand. 

Twist, twist, twist…

He pushed the door open. A sweet, musty air whistled through the crack. 

Despite the sinking feeling in his gut, he shot Elyan a wry smirk. “Won’t budge, huh?”

Elyan rolled his eyes. “Ha ha. No need to rub it in, sire.”

Arthur swallowed, regained a bit more of his resolve, and pushed the door open further. But it hardly came open more than a hand’s width, before it flung open the rest of the way on its own. The two of them jolted back in surprise. 

Once the door was fully open, a set of candles lit up within the chamber and bathed the room in a warm, friendly glow.

No, not friendly. Magic wasn’t friendly. It was trying to deceive him. Arthur couldn’t let himself fall for it. 

The chamber itself was circular, likely shaped with magic. Bookshelves lined the walls, foreign rugs blanketed the floor, and a few glass figurines dangling from the ceiling - all of which were sheathed in a coarse film of dust and cobwebs (although significantly less than everywhere else in the Forbidden Wing). There was a spiral staircase in the center of the room, but the steps were more like floating slabs of marble that swayed from side to side, as though inviting him to come walk on them. He didn’t dare look to see where they led. 

Where there weren’t bookshelves, there were paintings. One was of the same ringlet-haired woman from the painting in Ygraine’s chamber, sitting alone with a clever grin and hands folded over her knee. In another painting, younger versions of Uther and Balinor dueled with wooden training swords while Ygraine sat off to the side stitching into a satin cloth. 

At the far end of the room was a bookshelf that didn’t hold books, just a single stone figurine. It was sculpted into the shape of a serpentine dragon, with bug-like wings and massive bug-like eyes. It sat perched and posed on a stone pedestal, which had an engraving on it, but it was too far away for Arthur to read. 

There was more of that black blood in this room, and none of the newer red stuff. Black lines trailed along the floor, and splotchy handprints - bigger than the one he’d found in Ygraine’s chamber - stained almost every surface. Most of the dried blood was concentrated around the stone dragon statue, the staircase, and a small table that was pushed off to the side of the room. On the table’s surface was a pile of blood-smeared parchments. 

“Well?” Elyan prompted. “Might as well get this over with.” 

With one hand gripping his dagger, Elyan brisked towards the doorway. But just as he stepped his toe into the threshold, his foot froze. He kicked the air, but it stopped right as his foot hit the doorway. He reached a hand out, but it ran into an invisible barrier that wouldn’t let him through.

“Guess it was locked after all,” Elyan said lightly, trying and failing to diffuse the tension. Neither of them were eager to deal with such blatant magic.

Arthur cursed. As much as he very much did not want to go into a room of dark, evil magic, he needed to exhaust every option. The answers to Nine’s predicament might lie in this room, and he wouldn’t - couldn’t - rest until he had saved his friend.

He approached the door and raised a fist to bang against the invisible threshold barrier. Instinctively, he knew he wouldn’t be granted access just because he hit the air especially hard. As far as he knew, magic didn’t work like that,

And yet - 

His fist passed through the threshold, and onto the other side. 

Maybe magic did work like that.

Elyan tried the same thing, but his hand just banged into a firm, unseen wall. 

“Arthur,” Elyan said. “I don’t have a good feeling about this.”

“It’s magic,” Arthur said. “Anyone who’s ever had a good feeling about magic is touched in the head.”

Never mind that Arthur himself had once felt positively towards magic. But no matter. He had long since grown out of those dangerous ideas.

“What if it’s a trap? Gwen will kill me if I let anything happen to you. And the knights, for that matter. And your father, and Agravaine...and Nine too, probably.”

Arthur snorted. “Wow, Elyan, you must be quite popular to have so many people vying for your death.”

Elyan snorted in kind. “Just be careful, alright sire?”

Despite his hesitation, Arthur smiled cockily. “I’m always careful.”

“You’re really not.”

Taking a steady breath, Arthur took the plunge.

The room didn’t seem too treacherous now that he was on the inside, but he couldn’t afford to let his guard down. Not around magic. He pulled out his sword, just to be safe. 

Arthur gave the torch back to Elyan, whose eyes darted about anxiously as he remained stranded and alone in the eerie hallway. But it’s not like it was Arthur’s fault that he was the only one this door seemed to permit entrance for - although this fact did unsettle him deeply.

He picked a book off the first bookshelf. Magical Monsters and Maladies , its title read. He tossed it into the hallway, along with How to Lift a Curse, and Elyan had to drop the torch to catch them.

This process carried on for a bit, with Arthur chucking out books into the corridor and Elyan scanning them for clues before pilfering through a few of of the texts himself. These books were a bit more sophisticated than the ones in the castle library. Every once in a while Elyan or Arthur would stumble onto something that sounded similar to Nine’s symptoms - a serpent that caused people to astral project, a parasitic creature that fed on insecurities, portals into alternate realms, enchanted mead that could manipulate the drinker’s memory - but never anything definitive. 

“We should be writing these down,” said Elyan. “Is there any spare parchment in there, do you suppose?”

“Let me see…” Arthur glanced around the room. Books, books, creepy dragon statue, weird staircase, more books, paintings - 

Aha! There, on the table, was a stack of bloody parchments. If he was lucky, he might find a quill and inkwell to match.

He moved to grab the parchment, however blood-stained it was, only for his heart to sink in disappointment. Darn. The parchment already had writing on it. Thin, shaky penmanship formed into wispy, blood-and-tear-stained letters. On the top of the first page read, “To the Once and Future King.”

The Once and Future King. He’d heard that before. Hadn’t he? 

In a dream...yes, he had heard it in a dream…

A dragon coiling up his arm, flicking its tongue in his ear, whispering to him. Every night, for years, it was that same dream of that same dragon. Until five years ago, on the night before Mary Collins’s attack, when it vanished. 

“The time of the Once and Future King has not yet come,” the dragon would whisper. “Until your other half arrives, my enchantments will shield you from harm. Until then you may rest easy, young prince.”

It had been so long since the last time he’d had that dream, it was almost completely forgotten. A part of him hoped it would have stayed that way. 

The Once and Future King.

What did that mean? Why did the dragon call him that? And why was Arthur dreaming about it?

He must have heard about it in passing, then. One of the sorcerers set up for execution must have mentioned it, and he must have overheard, and it permeated his dreams. Maybe the sorcerer had even enchanted his mind like that. 

The Once and Future King.

These parchments had to be filled with all sorts of pro-magic, anti-Camelot propaganda. Maybe if he read it, some sort of soul-sucking curse would brainwash him into thinking magic was good, or maybe it would cause him to develop magic. Maybe the dragon dream was the symptom of a dormant curse, and reading this letter would awaken it. Maybe that’s why he was the only one allowed in the room, because it was a trap.

Even knowing all these terrible, horrible risks, Arthur’s shaky eyes couldn’t bring themselves to look away. 

So he read.


To the Once and Future King.

You have probably realized, but this room has been spelled so that only you and your other half can enter. You are the only person this letter is intended for, and the only person I can trust to look after my things. You may think it odd that I trust someone I have never met, but I believe in the world you are destined to create. 

By the time you read this, I will likely be dead. It pains me to think that we shall never meet, but I suppose destiny has never been in my favour.

My name is Nimueh. I was once the Court Sorceress of Camelot, and highly regarded by the people as a saviour and protector. I was loved. I had friends.

Uther Pendragon took everything from me. He was bitter and unable to take the blame for his actions, so he took it out on me. He has spread his propaganda and his lies, and you would now be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t strike me on sight or run away in fear.

It wasn’t always like this. Camelot wasn’t always a wretched hell. 

To be the King you are destined to be and fix what Uther broke, you must understand how it all began.

I was born as Nimueh Geomor, daughter of Lord and Lady Geomor of the Castle By The Sea. I had a proclivity for magic at an early age, so they sent me to study under druids, and when I returned, I pursued an apprenticeship under Camelot’s Court Sorcerer. 

I was young when I met Prince Uther Pendragon. He was mischievous and cocky, but quite romantic. Many an afternoon were spent with the two of us scheming to get different ladies to court him. We were joined by a third: Balinor Bebodrae, son of Lord Augustus Bebodrae and sole heir to the Court Dragonlord title. The three of us were young and foolish together, and we got up to a great deal of pranking. 

We grew up, but not apart. Lord Bebodrae died, Balinor took his place at the tender age of nineteen, and I became the Court Sorceress just a year later. After that, Uther was assigned to betrothe a foreign princess - Ygraine du Bois. I will admit we were all wary of her and how she might foil our trouble-making, but then she demonstrated an aptitude for sneaking food from the kitchens, and we quickly accepted her into our fold.

Uther and Ygraine married, Uther took the throne, and for a while, everything was wonderful. At least, for a while.

In a distant land, near Elmet, was a mysterious, consumptive force. No one knew what it looked like, or anything about it, just that things weren’t quite right. Inconsistent memories, maps with entire sections censored out, and a steadily growing sense of forgetfulness pervaded the region. My magic gave me enough strength to fight off the memory curse that had swept through the rest of my friends, forcing them to forget the existence of people and places they should have known, but even I’m not infallible. There are still many gaps in my mind that I doubt will ever be filled again. 

Seeking answers, I journeyed out and discovered that there was, in fact, a beast roaming Albion and devouring everything in its path. Whatever it ate, people would forget about. I and other powerful magical entities were hard-pressed to maintain hold of our memories, but we managed just enough to try and solve the problem.

I visited a bendruy, who stated that there are prophecies of such a beast, although I do not recall most of what she told me. All I remember is that the creature cannot be killed except by the combined powers of the Once and Future King, and his other half.

The High Priestesses and I, the only ones capable of fighting off the memory curse with any true capability, collaborated to lock away the creature in an underground tomb; unable to escape and feed, but unable to be defeated either. I fear it is only a temporary solution, for a powerful sorcerer may one day come and release it from its cage. 

After sealing the beast away, however temporarily, I spent much of my time working on a way to provide the Once and Future King - you - with the proper resources to take on such a creature. However, my work was interrupted when it was revealed that Ygraine could not conceive.

For all that we tried, neither my magic nor Gaius’s medicine could help her. We told Uther he might need to find his heir through other means. Of course, Uther has always been a stubborn fool, and refused to give up hope. 

I suppose I can’t fault him for his desperation, if nothing else. Ygraine’s inability to bear children had become a source of depression for her, and none of us could figure out how to make her smile again. She was my best friend, you see, and it pained me to watch her suffer day in and out, unable to hear that lovely little laugh of hers. Uther just wanted her to smile again. We all did. 

He felt the solution to our problems was to use magic to put life into her womb. It was a very dark, mysterious, arcane magic he asked of me, and I warned him of the risks. To give something life, another life must be taken. Everything is balanced in magic.

But Ygraine hadn’t left her room in days, and her refusal to eat had turned her ill. If she kept up like this, her broken heart would kill her. So, against my own reservations, I agreed to perform the spell.

When she found she was pregnant, Ygraine was so, so happy. She lit up like a full moon, all smiles and tears of joy. She thanked me profusely for the help, but knowing the risks I was hesitant to accept her gratitude. 

She spent most of her time researching names for her child. I offered to use magic to discern the baby’s gender, but she refused. She wanted it to be a surprise.

After nine months of celebrations, preparations, singing, and laughter, the risks of the spell had faded into distant memory. I had grown complacent in the face of happiness. I will not make that mistake again.

It was only me and Gaius allowed in the chamber while she gave birth. Uther and Balinor were both pacing in the hall outside, and all matters of state were put on hold until they knew Ygraine was well.

The baby emerged after a few hours. He was wrinkly and loud. I placed him in his mother’s arms. She looked pale and exhausted. I thought it was because of the ordeal she’d been through. I had no idea her son’s birth was slowly sapping the life out of her body. 

She stroked his face. “He looks like an Arthur, don’t you think?” And then she convulsed, and then she fell limp, and then she was gone.

Gaius and I were in shock. It had been so sudden. We did everything we could to resuscitate her, to fix this, to figure out what had gone wrong in the first place. And then we remembered the spell that was cast all those months ago.

Uther, of course, blamed me. Blamed magic. I had warned him, but Uther was a fool, and his actions costed me the life of my best friend.

He set the knights to kill me, but I escaped. Bloody and near death, I crept into my chamber and enchanted the door so no one could open it without my permission. Even after all this, I had to stay. My work, my work to help you defeat the beast, was not yet completed, and I refuse to leave until it is done.

I nursed myself back to health here, with occasional visits from Gaius whenever he was able to leave Uther and Arthur’s care. Whenever he came by with food and provisions, he would tell me what was going on in the outside world. He told me that magic was now illegal, that magic-users were being killed left and right. Balinor had been chased out of Camelot. 

And still, Arthur grows tall and strong. I try so hard to hate him. It’s because of him that my best friend is dead, and that everything I loved was destroyed by pain and prejudice. But hearing stories about him growing up, I cannot bring myself to despise him. Sometimes when I’m feeling well enough, I sneak out to catch glimpses of him. He reminds me so deeply of Ygraine that it makes my heart ache, and a treacherous part of myself yearns to care for him as my own. 

I will kill him, though. One day, when I have regained my health, I will avenge what Uther has done to my people. I will destroy the one thing his blackened heart still holds dear, and he will truly understand the pain his actions have wrought. I will kill Arthur as a justice for how he, albeit inadvertently, stole away the life of someone I loved. Just thinking about killing Arthur pains me, but I pray that in the coming years my resolve will harden. My hatred for Uther outweighs my love for his son, and I hope it will continue to do so. 

I do not know who you are, oh Once and Future King. No Seer will tell me. I can only hope that you are more than just a bedtime story, and that you shall come to save us all. I can only hope that I might still be alive to see that day come. 

Until then, I must leave you. I have finished what I stayed in Camelot to do, and the creation I made to serve you is now complete. Palki awaits your summons, Once and Future King. 

I have written this account to you in the hopes that one day, my reputation that has been sullied by Uther’s propaganda may finally be restored, and that I will be recognized for the victim - the hero! - that I have become. But mark my words, oh great King. Camelot will pay for how it has wronged me.

Nimueh Geomor


While Arthur read the letter, dread, horror, and disbelief knotting into his gut, Elyan was facing an ordeal of his own. 

He held the torch out, straying from the doorway as far as he dared, squinting into the darkness. “W-who’s there?”

No one responded. 

Spiders spun their cobwebs in the high corners of the ceiling, crocheting magnificently fatal patterns with their silk and dining on their frightened, bloody, paralyzed bounty. Rats scurried along the edges of the corridor, eating the decayed remains of their long-dead relatives. More and more dust flaked in the air and settled onto the ground. The blood smeared along the wall shone and suffused the light of Elyan’s torch, which flickered ever so imperceptibly as shadows swirled and danced around it, threatening to put it out on a whim.

Elyan knew he had heard the entrance to the Wing open and close. He knew he heard that steady and wet step, drip, step, drip…

He edged a bit more away from the doorway, and his grip tightened around the torch. 

The corridor made not a sound. In the chamber, Arthur still read Nimueh’s letter in awe and horror, ignorant to Elyan’s circumstance.

The heavy, slurred steps from earlier returned.

Step. Step. Step. Step. Step.

“Declare yourself!” Elyan shouted. 

The steps did not declare themselves. They did, however, grow steadily louder. 

Step. Step. Step. Step.

The hollow, echoey thuds cornered him closer, closer, closer against the corner. His back ran into the wall. He’d run out of space behind him. And eve  still, the steps grew louder.

Step. Step. Step.

“Arthur,” Elyan called out. 

Arthur didn’t hear him. He was busy learning details that threatened to upheave the foundation of his world. He had toned everything out, and at the moment the letter was all that mattered to him.

Step. Step.

Elyan turned his head every frantic direction, and everywhere he looked, shadows moved. Were his eyes just seeing things? Was the silence driving him to hear things that weren’t there? Was he well and truly alone, or was his mind just playing tricks on him? 

Step.

A curdling thwack! shook down the corridor. It startled spiders to fall out of their webs. It caused the rats to pause in their eating.

Elyan’s head hit the dusty, grimy floor. Towering above his unconscious body, was the gleaming silhouette of something that might have once been human. 

Chapter Text

Elyan awoke to a vast expanse of white. There was no ground beneath his feet, nor a sky above his head, and he certainly wasn’t in an eerie hallway. 

“Hello?” he called out, voice creaking with anxiety.

There was no response, just a chilling silence. 

“Hello? Is anyone there?” 

Again, no response. The emptiness shifted a little, if such a thing were possible, and Elyan wished he could shake the feeling of being watched.

“What is this place?” he asked aloud. He took a few steps out further into the white - rather, the mimicry of a step, since there was no ground to stand on - but it was hard to tell if he was actually moving at all. Cupping his mouth, he shouted, “Hello?!”

The last thing he could remember was crouching on the dusty floor of the Forbidden Wing corridor, surrounded by occult tomes and pilfering through them for clues as Arthur searched the -

“Arthur!” Elyan gasped. “Arthur, are you here?”

Was the prince alright? Had he been attacked by the same entity that had attacked Elyan? Because Elyan knew such a thing was the case. He recalled a sharp pain on the back of his head, and then he woke up here. Perhaps his attacker had gone after Arthur next.

Wringing his hands, Elyan could only hope that whoever they were, the barrier on the Court Sorcerer’s door kept them out, too. That way, as long as he stayed in the room, Arthur would be safe.

Of course, knowing Arthur, he’d probably rush out and endanger himself at the sight of Elyan collapsed on the floor. Wouldn’t be the first time. Elyan had no doubt that he was unconscious on the floor, considering the fact that this was almost certainly a concussion-dream. Was there any blood coming from Elyan’s head? Was his lifeless form being kicked and tossed around by the mystery assailant? Was the culprit holding Elyan’s body up like a shield, pressing a dagger to his throat as a means of threatening Arthur into compliance? Was Arthur falling for it?

That’s a stupid question, of course he was falling for it. This was Arthur bloody Pendragon, the guy who went out of his way to save people no matter the cost. 

If Arthur was putting himself in danger for Elyan’s sake, Gwen would kill him twice.

A raspy wind coarsed past his ear. 

“W-we...don’t have m-much...time…”

Elyan spun around, defensively stanced, in the direction of the voice. It was a pitiable voice, like someone had tossed their throat into a bin of sharp rocks. It was also quiet, impossibly quiet, as though someone was on their deathbed but fighting to keep their eyes open just a while longer.

“Who’s there?” No response, save the new introduction of an ominous, wheezing breath that came from nowhere in particular. Perhaps it was the emptiness itself breathing so sickly. “Reveal yourself!”

“...you m-must know…”

The white shifted again, tufts of greyish-gold light glimmering into existence and shakily dancing in the cold, stiff air. The tufts formed smoky tendrils, which formed the outline of something that, if you squinted your eyes, might vaguely resemble a human. 

“n-not...m-much…”

One of the tendrils reached towards Elyan, causing him to flinch back. The tendril’s edges shaped into the form of a misty hand, like that of a child reaching desperately for their mother. The loose fog-fingers struggled and failed to grip his hand, and he shivered. 

The more the cold mist ghosted over his skin, the more stable the apparition became, until he could almost make out the curves of a human face. It opened what might have been its mouth, stammering to speak as its hazy form flickered weakly.

“C-can’t...can’t rem-m-member…”

The puzzle pieces snapped into a horrific sense of clarity. 

“Nine?” Elyan quivered out. 

The apparition didn’t respond to him. “Answers...y-you need answers…the v-void, i-it -”

Before the apparition - Nine - could respond, the disgusting sound of wriggling, squelching worms slithered into the air. 

Nine’s smoky lantern eyes widened, and he gasped raspily. “N-no...not yet...I need more t-time…”

His spectral grip tightened on Elyan’s hand, and Elyan gripped back. “What’s going on? What are you talking about? More time for what?”

The expanse of white became stained with thin black veins, sprouting from the horizon and gradually creeping upon Nine’s shaky form. The sound of slimy, hissing serpents grew louder as the veins grew closer. Nine flickered.

“There’s a…” Two smoky hands evaporated as he reached them up towards his head. He backed away from Elyan, curling into himself in pain, hovering and flickering all the while. The edges of his body bled into each other, until it became difficult to discern his arms from his torso and his torso from his legs and his face from his knees. The veins grew steadily closer. “...letter. A l-letter…on - un-n-under the bed…”

Elyan stepped closer to Nine and placed a hand where his shoulder might have been. “What letter? What’s - what’s happening? What are all these veins?”

“V-void,” he huffed out with great difficulty. “I’m...t-trying to r-reach out to...you...head i-injury left...you...w-weak e-enough...for me to sl-slip...through…”

Ah, that’s right. Gwen had mentioned that Nine could only enter certain minds based on how weak or emotionally vulnerable they were. It was why Nine could possess Edrick, who was comatose and possibly brain-dead, while he strained to leave even the slightest passing thought in Leon’s mind, who was the most emotionally reserved person at the Table. 

So when Elyan got attacked, Nine must have taken advantage of his injury and unconsciousness to slip into his weakened mind. 

So what were these black veins then?

“So much of me is gone, and I...I’m trying to hold on as long as I can. Even now it’s trying to pull me back, but I can’t. I have to warn you, Arthur, before I’m to weak to reach you anymore.”

That’s what Nine had said when he was possessing Edrick, and at last Elyan was starting to understand what it meant.

Elyan was all too familiar with the feeling of Nine being dragged out his mind by that damnable static. That same staticy feeling radiated from the veins.

Were...were these veins...the void? Were they coming in to take him back? Was their dark presence an invasion into his mind?

“It’ll be alright,” Elyan vowed, even though he knew it wouldn’t. “What did you want to tell me?”

The apparition, which was devolving into formlessness as quickly as it had anthropomorphized, shook. “Let...l-letter...bed…”

Elyan nodded encouragingly. “Alright, there’s a letter under the bed. What’s it for? What’s it say?”

Veins crept in - faster, harsher, firmer. They squiggled in midair, and if not for the way they made Elyan’s skin crawl then it would have been beautiful. All of them were targeting Nine - or rather, whatever was left of him. 

The first vein touched Nine’s golden mist, and he let out a quiet, pained whimper.

“Nine!” Elyan exclaimed. He tried to bat one of the other veins away, but he yelped upon contact. It was sharp, like driving a shard of glass into his flesh, but a shard of glass that turned everything it touched to ice. Elyan retracted his hand, grimacing with empathy as another vein pierced Nine’s shapeless spirit.

“...answers,” Nine whispered, barely loud enough to be heard. “...th-the letter...h-has an...answers…d-danger...danger c-coming...”

A third vein struck, then a fourth, then a fifth. The whimpers became more and more heart-wrenchingly young and painful with every blackened impact. The mist continued to flicker.

“Come on, Nine,” Elyan said from a distance. He didn’t dare get any closer to the rapidly building nest of veins that now crowded around the weeping apparition. “Fight it, you have to fight it !”

“...tired…” Nine moaned. “s-so...tired…”

The mist flickered. Another vein struck, and this time Nine didn’t make a noise. 

A horrific thought occurred. Was this what Nine went through every time he reached into someone’s mind to speak to them? 

“You can’t give up, Nine,” Elyan insisted. “You have to keep fighting. Help is on the way. We will get you home, I swear on my life.”

A face flickered in the smoke, but it was gone before Elyan could make out any details. “...h-home?”

Elyan nodded, and tried not to shout as a vein sliced past his arm like a bolt of frozen fire. “That’s right, Nine. Home. But you have to promise you’ll hold on until then, okay?”

The veins swirled and twirled and knotted around the golden cloud, dampening its glimmer with fuzzy grey strokes. And still more veins rushed in, blotting out the light and plunging Elyan into an abyss closely resembling the void that Nine so feared. 

As the veins consumed more and more light, the air rattled with a nauseous throb. It pricked at the gooseflesh on Elyan’s arms and threatened to tug his bones out of his skin. 

He hardened himself with the knowledge that whatever pain he was feeling, Nine had it ten times worse.

After a moment that seemed to last forever, Nine spoke. “...I-I’ll hold o-n...f-for Arthur.”

“Alright, Nine. Hold on for Arthur. He'd be proud of you, you know.” Elyan wiped his eyes, and - oh. He was crying. He hadn’t noticed. “I’ll find the letter. I swear. I’ll get you out of here. I swear .”

There was no light anymore, besides the dying, golden, misty embers bound within a shell of thick black veins. 

And then, that light flickered out, and so too did Elyan’s consciousness.


One thing Arthur valued about himself was that no matter how many people he killed or executed, he did his best to remember their faces. Many a sleepless night, those were the faces that haunted his mind. Other times, he looked to this part of himself as evidence that his humanity wasn’t completely in shambles yet.

Staring at the fire that roared softly in Gaius’s chambers, Nimueh’s letter crumpled between his fingers, Arthur would have given anything to forget those faces.

He had sat in the Court Sorcerer’s chamber - Nimueh’s chamber - reading the letter again and again in horror, trying to find some sort of plot-hole to pick at, some inconsistency to prove the lie. 

Arthur hated every fiber of his being for admitting it, but Nimueh’s claims made a grotesque sort of sense.

“He’s been unconscious for a long time,” Guinevere said with somber eyes. She dabbed a cloth at her brother’s brow, which was still caked with blood in some areas.

Arthur didn’t respond to her. Couldn’t trust his voice not to crack.

The knights and guards were all patrolling the castle with ferocious passion, the Round Table in particular. They all saw what happened to Edrick, and no one was eager for a repeat of that. They would find the one who had harmed Elyan, and they would make that bastard pay. 

Arthur should have been out there, searching for the culprit with the rest of them. But he wasn’t. He was sitting here, all nice and comfortable in his chair by the fireplace, while mere feet away Elyan battled for his life.

It was Arthur who had requested his presence on this mission. Arthur who went into the chamber without ensuring Elyan’s safety, who left him alone in that dark hallway. Arthur who spent so long reading Nimueh’s letter that he didn’t notice Elyan being attacked and bleeding just outside the door. Arthur who found Elyan’s body laying there, limp and seemingly lifeless, with the culprit long gone. 

This was Arthur’s fault.

And if Nimueh was to be believed, then this wasn’t the only thing he was to blame for, either.

Edrick had been relocated to Nine’s bed, although the decision to do so had been met with conflict within the Round Table. Gaius argued that between Edrick, Jules, and Claudin (and now Elyan), the physician’s quarters were getting crowded, and the best way to remedy this was to put their coma patient into a bed that wasn’t being used anyways. Arthur still felt that it defiled Nine’s quarters, and that they ought to reserve it for Nine’s return - but in the end he had to concede that Gaius’s plan was more practical.

Edrick slept in Nine’s bed, Claudin slept on a cot that had been put in Nine’s room, Jules slept on a cot in the main area, and Gaius slept in his own bed. Of course, since Elyan was injured and they didn’t have any cots left, Jules volunteered to take one for the team and sacrifice his cot for the good of the order.

At this very moment, Jules was holed up in Kay’s room, because apparently they were close friends. Gaius seemed none too keen about this, because Jules’s injuries had yet to heal fully, but begrudgingly bade leave to the young applicant. 

While Gaius briefly stepped out to check on his two bedridden patients, Guinevere tended to her brother.

And what was Arthur doing? 

He was sitting here like a lazy, apathetic lump who let other people do all the hard work for him. 

It was for the best, really, that he sat here instead of getting in everyone’s way. He was sluggish and couldn’t think clearly, not after reading Nimueh Geomor’s claims. With every move he made, sentence he spoke, breath he breathed, the only thing consuming his thoughts was the letter.

“I was once the Court Sorceress of Camelot, and highly regarded by the people as a saviour and protector. I was loved. I had friends.”

“He felt the solution to our problems was to use magic to put life in her womb.”

“Uther blamed me, of course. Blamed magic. I had warned him, but Uther was a fool, and his actions costed me the life of my best friend.”

“But mark my words, oh great King. Camelot will pay for how it has wronged me.”

If what Nimueh said was true, then magic wasn’t evil. All the men, women, and children slaughtered under Arthur’s command were innocent. His father was a tyrant. And every magic user who sought anarchy and assassination over authority were - bitter? Justified? Revolutionaries? Victims?

Heroes?

Was Arthur a bad person? Was he a tyrant? Were magic users justified in wanting him dead?

Arthur shook himself out of it. He wouldn’t - couldn’t! - entertain these thoughts until Gaius came back and provided him with proper answers.

“Arthur?” Guinevere furrowed her brow at him in concern. “Are you alright?”

He didn’t stray his gaze from the softly dancing flames in the fireplace, didn’t dare escape his imaginations of what it must feel like to burn alive. 

“Arthur,” she called out again, startling him from his reverie.

“Hmm?” He stilled didn’t spare her a glance. The fire was entrancing, in a gruesome way. Screams of the dead echoed in his ears.

“You seem a bit...distant,” she said. Then, narrowing her eyes, she added, “Did you find something in the Forbidden Wing?”

He tightened his fists around the letter, and didn’t answer her. Sensing a lost cause, Guinevere returned to her cloth-to-forehead ministrations.

The door to Nine’s recently discovered room opened, and a haggard Gaius stepped out. “How is Sir Elyan?” 

Guinevere shook her head. “No change.”

The physician sighed, and Guinevere gave up her chair for him to sit down. He opened Elyan’s eyelids, one by one, inspecting the pupils. 

In the periphery of Arthur’s gaze, Guinevere and Gaius buzzed around the chamber, administering various tests - probably to assess Elyan’s condition, if Arthur’s limited medical knowledge was worth anything.

“You should rest,” Gaius insisted.

“I can’t,” she said, just as insistently. She had always been rather headstrong, especially where the wellbeing of others was concerned. He could still remember seeing this withdrawn maidservant with whom he seldom interacted, bravely - and slyly - deceiving the prison guards to smuggle away the Mortaeus flower. 

Who was the flower for again?

Nine, probably.

Arthur was grimly pleased that after all they speculated Nine had done for them, Arthur managed to do something in return.

But in light of all the people he may or may not have killed unjustly, this small victory served as little consolation.

“You’re no good to your brother as exhausted as you are,” Gaius said.

Again, she shook her head, choking up with distress. “I can’t leave him, Gaius. He’s all I have left.”

Though Arthur couldn’t see it, he could guess that Gaius had enveloped her in a hug. 

Arthur should be there for her, comforting her. And yet here he sat, doing nothing.

But again, every attempt to get up and move was racked with more and more insidious thoughts. The screams of children, the pleading distress of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers as they helplessly watched their loved ones die. The questions, so many questions, about good and evil and love and hate and morality and magic that kept swirling, swirling, swirling around in Arthur’s -

Eventually, Gaius convinced Guinevere she could stay the night in one of the nearby guest chambers that no one used. Her ingrained servant sensibilities protested to this, but she was tired and desperate and it took very little prodding to persuade her.

Then she left, and it was just Arthur, Gaius, and Elyan in the physician’s chamber. 

Now or never, Arthur. If he didn’t ask Gaius about the letter now, he’d lose his resolve and remain plagued by questions forevermore.

He opened his mouth, tried to get his voice out, but his throat was twisted and dry. Every time he tried to say something, he couldn’t find the right words.

“Are you alright, sire?” Gaius asked. 

Arthur jolted in surprise, and wordlessly cleared his throat. Still, his words escaped him.

Weaponizing his eyebrow into The Look, Gaius approached. Arthur made no move to hide the letter, so Gaius noticed it within moments.

“Gaius,” he said, trailing off. “I...found this. In the Forbidden Wing.” He held it out, and Gaius received it from his uncertain grasp.

Gaius’s old, weathered eyes scanned the first page, and in an instant his entire face contorted into an expression of heavy, heavy distress. The kind of distress you see coming, the kind of distress that comes with years of hiding and lying, and finally coming face to face with the consequences of your subterfuge.

“Is it -” his voice crackled. Arthur cleared his throat and tried again. “Gaius. Is it true?”

Gaius didn’t respond. He just witheringly sat down on a nearby chair, his gaze not leaving the blood-smeared parchment and penstrokes. His trembling silence said everything.

No.

NO .

NO!

This couldn’t - this couldn’t be true. If it was, then that meant…

That meant the sorcerers weren’t evil. Arthur was.

“W-why didn’t you tell me?” Arthur shakily asked. 

“I’m sorry.”

“I deserved to know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I...I killed innocent children in the name of a hypocrite .” 

This time, Gaius said nothing. Just stared at the fireplace with a haunted look in his eyes.

Gaius used to practice magic. Did he fear the pyre? Were his dreams tormented by visions of his loved ones writhing amidst flames? Did he live in fear? Did he know what it was like to hate himself? 

Thinking of Gaius suffering in such a way made him nauseous. 

Running a stiff hand through his hair, Arthur stood up and made for the door. “I need to think,” he said. Gaius made no move to stop him. 

Chapter Text

It had been two days. Two days of the prince sulking around, the physician solemnly tending to his patients, and the knights’ restless desire to make something bleed. One of their own had been injured, and no one could sit still knowing the perpetrator was still out there.

The feogwyrm was pleased with this. It seemed that it made the right call in attacking that knight as it had. That intrepid band of investigators were getting too close to the truth, but luckily the attack had left them disparaged and distraught enough to put their sleuthing on hold. 

It wouldn’t last forever, of course. Either the knight would die and they would seek vengeance, or he would awaken and they would continue their investigation. And then their searching eyes would land on the feogwyrm. This was an inevitable outcome, and all the feogwyrm could do now was stall for time. 

Of course, the feogwyrm’s host-body was not pleased with this. Its host possessed a great deal of morality, and they were willing to fight tooth and nail to put an end to its control over them. Given the scars littering their flesh, they already had. 

But no matter how badly they wanted the feogwyrm to suffer, the host could not afford to get caught. If anyone knew what creature dwelled under their skin, they’d probably get executed, which wasn’t exactly ideal .

Which was why they were here, eavesdropping. 

“A letter, you say?” asked the physician. His name was Gala or Gaia or something of the like.

The knight, the dark-skinned, even-tempered one, nodded. “That’s what he said. He said there was a letter under the bed.”

“Hmm. And what is the nature of this letter?”

“Answers,” said the knight. His voice was hoarse and weak. “Answers about the void, I think.”

For a while, the physician said nothing.

“Gaius?” Ah, yes, that was his name. Gaius.

“Yes?”

“Do you think the void has something to do with the current situation? You know, with the explosion and whatnot?”

He mentioned explosions. The feogwyrm’s explosion in the dungeon, no doubt. While the host didn’t understand all that stuff about letters and voids, they did understand explosions. 

“Whatever gives you that idea?”

“I don’t know," Elyan admitted. "It just makes sense. Nine warned me that there’s ‘danger coming’. And then there’s the fact that he knew that one of the applicants is the culprit. It's got to be connected somehow."

Crap. The knights knew that much already? The host had to get rid of the feogwyrm, and fast . The moment the knights found out about its existence, they’d have the host beheaded faster than you can say ‘parasite’. 

Find this ‘Nine’ , the feogwyrm advised. And kill him.

While the host wasn’t fond of such violence (the incident in the Forbidden Wing was just a lapse of control), they were almost inclined to agree.

“Hmm,” Gaius mused. “But if he’s trapped in this so-called void, then how was Nine able to write the letter?”

“Maybe he knew about the void before he ended up there,” said the knight. “We’ve concluded that Morgana had kidnapped Nine a few weeks ago, right? That’s why she broke into the citadel.”

Morgana. Wasn’t that the name of the black-haired woman who gave them this parasite in the first place? She - she dragged them from their home, strung them up, shoved that thing into their -

Wuss , the feogwyrm chided. The host scowled. It was one thing to have a parasite, but did it have to be so rude all the time?

“Right.”

“And we’ve also concluded that he’s got a history of foiling her plans.”

Gaius was far more pensive this time as he shakily responded, “...Indeed.”

“So then maybe he knew about her plans for this explosion-thingy and tried to stop her. But, she caught onto his meddling and trapped him in the void. You know, to get him out of the way.”

For a long time, Gaius said nothing, to the point that the host was tempted to crack open the door just to make sure he was even still there. But then, after what felt like forever, he spoke once more.

“If your suspicions are correct, Elyan,” Gaius said, his voice slow and metered. “Then this is a lot more complicated than any of us could have thought.”

“And,” the knight, Elyan, pointedly added. “It means we can find answers to everything - the explosion, Morgana’s plan, the void, all of it - in Nine’s letter.”

“Where did Nine say this letter is located?”

“Under the bed,” said Elyan. “That’s all he told me.”

“Well, his room is just over there,” Gaius said. 

“It must be there, then.”

This Nine character seemed oddly in the know. Morgana’s plan? Neither feogwyrm nor host knew that . Whatever and wherever this mystery letter was, it must be highly important. 

To the host, it was a chance at learning more about the parasite in their body, and possibly how to get it out. Nine might have known something. For that reason alone, they were willing to seek out his letter.

To the feogwyrm, it was a liability. If information on its mistress’s plans - and maybe even how to exterminate it- existed, then such information must be destroyed. 

For the first time ever, both parasite and host were in agreement. The letter must be found. 


Arthur sighed, rolling his shoulder and grimacing at the way it popped. Needless to say, he hadn’t taken well to this shift in world view. Most of his time was now spent running himself ragged on the training pitch or pacing anxiously in his room. 

He didn’t sleep much anymore. His dreams were all filled with the screams of children as they burned alive, the screams of those poor druids as knights - his knights! - cut them into ribbons.

He could have requested a sleeping aid from Gaius, but he was determinedly avoiding the physician’s chamber. Seeing Elyan unconscious just made him feel worse.

The other night, amidst his many sleepless hours, a hidden memory had trickled into his mind. It was of the first patrol the Round Table went on together as official knights. 

They were all laughing and chatting away, while stew simmered aromatically over the fire. The topic of conversation was their most embarrassing childhood memories, of which Lancelot surprisingly had the most. Percival was interrupted mid-sentence as a faceless seventh party exclaimed, “Dinner’s ready!”

The knights all clamored towards the pot, bowls in their hands and hunger in their bellies. The faceless man - Nine, probably - dished out stew to each of them. They all moaned and groaned at the taste of it, showering Nine with accolades and compliments for making something so good. Arthur, though pleased with the stew as well, refused to admit that Nine was actually competent at something. But in his defense, the knights were overreacting. The stew was good but it wasn’t that good.

“If you all like it so much, then why don’t you marry it,” Arthur had grumbled.

In response, Gwaine said, “Maybe I will” and planted a sloppy kiss on the cook’s face. Both of their faces were red - Nine from embarrassment, and Gwaine from all the mead he’d been drinking.

Then Arthur recalled the patrol from two weeks ago, back before he was willing to admit Nine existed. Lancelot had made the stew, but unlike Nine's, everyone hated it. Musty dishwater, they called it. How was it that two people could use roughly the same ingredients, but the results tasted so drastically different? How could one person create a culinary masterpiece, while the other person made glorified sludge?

That was when it hit him. 

Magic is like stew.

Not in the sense that magic was something you could eat - at least, as far as Arthur knew (he was regrettably ignorant on the subject). And if it was...well, he’d have to ask Gaius about that.

Rather, magic and stew were both things that one was only capable of making/using with skill and practice. And whatever made the stew good or bad was entirely dependent on the one cooking it. Stew wasn’t good or evil , it was just stew. The one making it might be evil - might slip poison into it or just generally inedible - but the stew itself wasn’t evil.

This then sparked the laughable image of Uther starting a purge against soups and stews, burning cooks at the stake and beheading their children, saying that the culinary arts were a force of darkness and that it must be eradicated from the land, and ordering that all cook-books and soup-ladles be destroyed.

“Soup killed your mother,” Stew-Purge Uther would say. “One cook put poison in her food, so that means all cooks must be put to death. Never trust a cook, Arthur.”

The Purge was ridiculous when Arthur thought of it like that.

Of course, considering what Arthur had learned from Nimueh’s letter, she hadn’t even poisoned the stew. It just had an ingredient that she didn’t know Ygraine was allergic to.

Killing cooks was ridiculous, of course. If you killed off everyone who knew how to make food, then no one would have anything to eat and everyone would die. 

Magic wasn’t like that, was it? Would humanity perish if sorcerers went extinct?

Another thing to ask Gaius about.

This metaphor was starting to get a bit...tangential, but the core of it held true: magic was just a neutral force that was only as good or evil as the one wielding it. 

To Arthur’s surprise, this was by far the easiest conclusion to reach. In fact, realizing that magic wasn’t evil made sense. As if the world had been slightly tilted all his life, but this epiphany had set things right again. 

Considering he was born of magic, it was only reasonable that he would feel this way.

So all in all, accepting magic wasn’t difficult. 

The thing that had Arthur moping around for hours on end was his guilt.

But hopefully, after this, he could lay a few of his demons to rest.

“Hello, father,” Arthur said. He eased into one of the chairs by the window. 

Uther made no reaction to his son’s presence, wistful gaze forevermore cast at the courtyard beyond. His hands tremored and his face was frail. Arthur’s eyes stung to see such a formidable man reduced to something so...pitiful.

“I hope you’re well.”

Still no reaction.

Deep breath. In. Out.

“I...I know what you did, father.”

Nothing.

“I know the truth you hid from me all these years.”

There. The barest of flickers in Uther’s eyes. Perhaps Arthur was only imagining it. Still, he pressed on. 

“When I realized what you did - the genocide, the propaganda, the injustice,” Arthur continued. He choked on his own voice. “I tried so hard to hate you, father. I wish I could hate you.”

Arthur shut his eyes and took a long, drawn breath. In. Out. Resume. 

“When I realized I couldn’t hate you, I started hating myself instead. Hating myself for loving a father who’s done such horrible things. Hating myself for all the things you made me do. Things I did in your name, all to make you proud.”

Uther bore no sign of acknowledgement, not the slightest hint that he even registered his son’s presence in the room. Arthur tried not to let it bother him. It bothered him nonetheless.

“I killed people, father,” he said. His vision was blurred with tears, but their wet heat was nothing compared to the flames of the pyre. “I killed...innocent children. And I did nothing. I felt nothing.”

He wiped his eye. “I’m going to fix this. I’m going to make things right. I will make Camelot a safe place for all it citizens.”

Uther’s hand twitched.

“Nothing I do can make up for what I’ve done,” Arthur continued, thick with emotion. Every time he wiped tears from his eyes, more just slid down in replacement. “Or what I let you get away with. But it's a start.”

Screams still rang out in his mind. Whenever he closed his eyes, all he saw were his friends on the pyre. Gwen. Gaius. Lancelot. Percival. Screaming out to him, begging him to spare them, to let them live, they weren’t evil. But the fires of his imagination never spared them mercy. No matter how many times they sobbed out for Arthur to save them from the flames, no rescue arrived. 

There was...someone else burning, too. Someone with static for eyes and a voiceless scream. For some reason, their death was far more visceral than the others. 

If that wasn’t Nine, he’d eat his own boot. 

Was this what Morgana feared? Was this what motivated her to turn against them? Did she live in fear that every breath would be her last? That her own friends would be the ones to light her fire? Was that why she grew so bitter?

Arthur shuddered.

He was starting to accumulate a lot of questions for Gaius. Perhaps he should write them all down.

Arthur rose to his feet. Two wet tracks remained on his face. He made no effort to wipe them away.

“I just hope that one day...that one day, you’ll be proud of me.”

A long, heavy silence passed between them. Uther continued sitting there, staring blankly, hands tremoring as always, and Arthur sat attentively beside him. 

Arthur sighed, and rubbed his face dry, and stood up. He made for the door - 

- but a hand shot out and grabbed his wrist.

“Arthur,” Uther rasped.

“Father.” His eyes glistened with a watery sheen, lips trembling, body frozen. 

“Arthur,” he repeated. His grip was loose, and Arthur could finagle his wrist free if he wanted - but he didn’t.

No matter how hard Arthur tried to cement the visage of a loveless tyrant into his father’s features, he couldn’t see anything but the withered, pitiable skeleton before him. And it made his heart ache .

“Father,” Arthur likewise repeated.

“Th…” Uther stuttered, struggling to get the words out of his faltering, limp throat.

Arthur held his breath, and dared not move a muscle lest Uther lose his resolve to speak.

“...thank...you.” The words were whispered like a tuft of cold wind, like the slightest rustle of autumn leaves, like the final caving breaths of a man on his deathbed. Arthur almost didn’t hear his father speak - and when he did, he almost didn’t believe his ears.

His father returned to his lifeless stoicism, gazing out the window like a statue, as though nothing had changed.

And yet, everything had.

Thank you. His father had said thank you .

That was all it took for Arthur to dissolve into a sobbing mess.