Krel and his team – that's weird to think, his team, but that's what it is – hide around the canal watching Merlin and his trolls exit Trollmarket. Part of Krel wants to go ahead and start fighting, but that isn't why they're here. Beside him, Seamus gives him a reassuring smile. Eli, on his other side, clutches his arm with wide eyes. Krel's glad to have his friends there with him.
It's immediately obvious that Merlin doesn't know – or is pretending not to know – where the formstone is, because he leaves with the trolls and only four or five trolls remain at the entrance to Trollmarket. Krel makes eye contact with Zadra and nods. She, Ikram, and several of the Taylon roar out of the bushes they're hiding in to subdue the trolls. Seamus, their only wizard, skids into the canal to perform the de-brainwashing spell. The rest of them follow into the canal at a calmer pace. They aren't in a hurry, now that the trolls are defeated and Merlin isn't here.
"That was far too easy," says Zadra with a frown.
"Gift horse, mouth," says Seamus.
"What?" says Krel.
"Dude, one day we are going to sit down and I'm going explain a ton of idioms to you," says Seamus.
Krel kneels on top of the formstone and places his hands on the ground. As expected, it's still there, buzzing hotly under the concrete. Seamus puts a hand on his shoulder as he sits up.
"What if Merlin just – comes at us with everything?" Krel says quietly, brow furrowed. "We won't stand a chance."
"If he knew the formstone was here, he'd be here already," says Seamus. He offers Krel a hand to help him stand. "We're going to be okay. You've got your friends to back you up. You're not alone."
"I'm glad I have you," he says. Seamus smiles and holds out his fist for a fist-bump. Krel grins and returns it.
"Alright!" exclaims Eli, linking arms with each of them. "Friendship!"
Krel and Seamus both laugh. Zadra paces in front of them, wordlessly directing Taylon soldiers to different areas of the canal. She glances at the three of them. "Stay on guard. Merlin could be here any moment."
"Okay, but seriously, we won't stand a chance alone if Merlin shows up," Krel says.
Seamus shrugs. "So we call for back-up. Pepperjack! Think you can do that?"
"You got it!" Eli chirps.
Krel glances up at the clear sky. Unfamiliar constellations hover above them. Seamus follows his gaze and points upward. "Do you see that one? It looks like a spoon? That's the Little Dipper. Ursa Minor. And right there, that bright star at the end of the handle is Polaris. The North Star. People used to use it to navigate the seas."
"Amazing," Krel breathes. "Did it work?"
"Sure it did," says Seamus. "I mean, it must have, or else they wouldn't have used it."
"You'd be surprised," says Krel.
"When I was little, it was my favourite star." Seamus focuses his eyes on the glittering star and smiles softly at it. "Mom said if I was ever lost, I could use the North Star to help guide me home. And a compass spell. I still think I would have gotten myself more lost, but – the sentiment was nice."
"We didn't have anything like that on Akiridion-5," Krel admits.
"Well," says Seamus, glancing back at Krel. "Now you have this one."
Krel smiles at him, but despite the warm feeling that always comes with interacting with his friends – friends! Krel still can't believe he has friends! – he still can't help but let the smile fall back into a worried frown.
"You know," says Seamus, "after this, school is gonna be a breeze."
"A breeze?" says Krel with a grin. "Why would school be a light wind?"
Seamus shoves him. "You know exactly what I mean."
"Perhaps," says Krel.
"Man, I'm kinda glad I won't be going back to school," says Eli. "I would not be ready."
"Listen, there's no life-threatening adventures at school," says Seamus. "The bar is so low after this summer that that's literally all I'm asking."
"That, I can agree with," says Krel.
"Well, you two can have fun with homework," says Eli.
Seamus scoffs. "After this summer? I'll welcome it."
They stand around waiting for far too long, in Krel's opinion. He's suspicious as to why Merlin hasn't found them yet, why more trolls haven't found them yet. Zadra gets more and more on edge the longer they wait, even though it can't have been much more than half an hour. Krel, Seamus, and Eli pass the time playing hand games that Krel has to be quickly taught. He's good at being able to play Rock, Paper, Scissors with two people at once. It seems to really amuse Seamus and Eli.
They're about to start another round of Rock, Paper, Scissors, when they're hit with a sudden blast of energy. All of them go flying. Krel manages to right himself in mid-air and catch Eli. Seamus hits the ground and skids a couple of feet.
"Ow," he grunts.
"He's here!" yells Zadra. She helps Ikram to her feet and glares around at the Taylon. "Remember! The king-in-waiting takes full priority! Do not let the wizard anywhere near him!"
Krel deposits Eli on the ground. "Call for back-up! Do you have a weapon?"
"Got a serrator," he says.
"Do you know how to use it?"
"It'll have to do." Krel pushes Eli away from where Merlin's trolls are approaching down the canal side. The Red Knight is among them, helmet on, and Krel forces himself to not think about the last time they faced off. That's a trauma he doesn't have time to deal with right now. Or ever, preferably. Merlin himself hovers in mid-air, floating down to meet them. His eyes roam over their somewhat pitiful defences. Krel summons a sword and a shield and readies himself.
"I'm giving you the option to surrender now," says Merlin. He meets Krel's eyes. "If you do, no one else has to get hurt."
Krel adjusts his stance and lowers his brow into the most intimidating glare he can.
"Never," he says.
"Very well," says Merlin. He raises a hand and lowers it towards them. "Attack!"
The battle is on. Krel quickly finds himself locked in combat with an unfamiliar troll. They should have had more wizards on their team. He can see Seamus working overtime to try to de-brainwash trolls as they fight, but he's also the only wizard there so he's not having a ton of luck because he also has to defend himself from attacks.
"Forget it!" he calls to his friend. "Focus on knocking them out!"
"Alright!" Seamus calls back.
Krel manages to knock the troll he's fighting away, and one of the Taylon brings a blunt weapon down on his head, knocking the troll out. Krel has to dodge quickly to avoid getting skewered and turns to face his new opponent. He freezes.
"No, no, not you," he says.
Mugg snarls at him, eyes empty of recognition. Krel's core hurts, but he parries her next attack anyway. Why did it have to be one of the few trolls he actually knows? It's one thing to fight nameless, brainwashed minions, but another to fight someone who helped him in one of his worst moments.
He ducks to avoid a swipe aimed at his head, then vanishes his weapons to grab Mugg's leg and knock her over. She shrieks and growls at him, then grabs his arm and slams him into the concrete. He manages to materialise his helmet just in time but still yelps.
"You are way stronger than I thought!" he tells her. He focuses on summoning a hammer or – well, something with blunt force. Stabbing is really, really out. He manages a bat. Good enough.
Mugg lunges. He cringes, swings the bat, and yells, "I'm sorry!"
It makes contact. Mugg is out like a light. Krel sighs in relief and mentally apologises again. He vanishes the bat and takes a moment to look around. To his horror, he sees a few stray Akiridion cores on the ground – members of the Taylon. This isn't their home, and yet they've given their lives for it. Krel sends a silent, devastated thank you to them.
It's more difficult than Krel expected, fighting the trolls. He's doing his best not to hurt them too badly, and he knows the others are too. Part of him worries it's why they're losing. Because they are losing. They need back-up an hour ago if he's honest. Eli, across the battlefield from him, is struggling with his serrator. Krel can only assume he's called for help.
He manages to knock out another troll and gives himself a second to breathe. Just a second, but he doesn't even have that long. He dodges an attack from a nearby troll right into the rocky punch of another. He's left winded from the blow.
Then, suddenly, he hears Seamus cry, "KREL! LOOK OUT!"
He starts to look, too late, as hands slam into him and he stumbles and falls to his knees. He turns. Time stops. His breath catches in his throat as the Red Knight's sword is withdrawn from Seamus's chest and his friend drops to the ground.
"NO!" Krel screams. He scrambles on his hands and knees to Seamus's side. His blue eyes blink slowly and meet Krel's. A small smile forms on his lips. Krel shakes his head and chokes back a sob. "Seamus – Seamus, hold on. Hold on, I – I'll fix you. You're okay."
Krel places his hands down on the injury and focuses all his energy to it. He begs it to heal. He begs his powers to let him heal his friend. He can feel the energy gathering at the wound but it isn't fixing it, it should be fixing it. Seamus's breathing rasps, weak and wet and bloody and Krel's hands are coated with scarlet blood and why isn't this working? It should beworking.
"You're okay," he forces out. "You're okay, you're okay, you're going to be okay."
"Krel," Seamus says. He coughs and red stains his lips and chin. One of Seamus's hands lands on Krel's. "It's alright."
"It's not," Krel sobs. "Don't do this. Seamus, please, please, don't do this. Why did you do this?"
"Couldn't let you die." Seamus coughs again, longer and wetter this time. Krel gasps in a strangled breath and tries, tries so hard to get his powers to heal his friend. Seamus can't – he can't – Krel won't let him. Seamus smiles. Why is he smiling? "You're one of my best friends, Krel. You're – amazing."
"Please, Seamus," Krel pleads. "Just hold on. Don't leave me."
Seamus raises his other hand to the side of Krel's face. Krel leans into it, choking on more sobs and watching his friend's blood stain the concrete around them.
"You're going to be okay," Seamus says. He lets out a shaky breath. His eyes dim. The hand on Krel's face drops. No. No, no – no. He's – he's – Krel can't even think it. He lets out a wail and hunches over, resting his forehead on Seamus's and letting his tears drip onto his friend's lifeless face, as if that could bring him back, as if that could make things better. His hands are warm – the blood is still warm – Krel sobs, desperate, trembling, and feeling so, so alone.
He hears metallic footsteps behind him and takes a deep breath. Anger floods him and his powers spark, electric, violent, broken-hearted. He turns to face the Red Knight, lifting off the ground and into the air without even meaning to.
"You killed him." Formless energy gathers in Krel's hands. The chill of loss in his core gives way to bright, fiery rage. "You killed him!"
The Red Knight takes a step back. It's the first show of hesitance Krel has ever seen from him.
Krel attacks anyway.
There's no holding back this time. Krel's barely aware of anything he's doing, only of the burning grief and the stabbing fury and the fact that one of his best friends is dead, dead by this man's hand, dead to save Krel.
"MURDERER!" he shrieks. "MURDERER!"
Before he knows it, he has the Red Knight defenceless, kneeling, helmet discarded and hands up in surrender. There's fear in his eyes and blood dripping from his hairline. He's completely under Krel's power.
"Please," blurts the Knight. "Mercy! Mercy!"
Hot, angry tears spill down Krel's cheeks. He pulls his lips into a snarl.
"No," he says. He plunges his sword into the Knight's chest and twists and watches the Knight's eyes go as dark as Seamus's. When he pulls the blade out, the Knight collapses to his side. Dead.
Krel lowers to the ground, suddenly exhausted. He walks numbly back to Seamus, still motionless on the ground, surrounded by crimson blood and staring sightlessly at the stars above them, at the North Star meant to guide him home. He kneels and carefully closes his friend's eyes.
"I'm sorry," he whispers. "This is my fault. I'm sorry."
He pulls Seamus into his arms. He needs all four to support his weight, but he manages to carry him away from the battle, to the edge of the canal, and lay him down. He presses his forehead to Seamus's again, desperate for his friend to just wake up, laugh, admit that this was just a cruel joke. He's fine. He's okay.
A hand lands on Krel's shoulder. He turns. Zadra lowers her head respectfully, and Krel stands and wraps his arms around her. She holds him as his body shakes with sobs and he mourns his lost friend, one of his best friends.
"Krel," Zadra says softly after a moment. "There is still a battle. Mourning must wait."
Krel pulls away from her and tries to swallow the lump in his throat, wiping his cheeks with a hand. He flinches when he feels this action smear Seamus's blood across his face like perverse warpaint.
"Merlin dies," he promises grimly.
Something in Zadra's expression is very sad, but she nods anyway. Krel doesn't let himself look at Seamus. He can't let himself. He shoots into the air and joins the battle the Red Knight eliminated, all they need to do now is knock out the trolls and deal with Merlin. Except Krel can't see Merlin, which is just klebtastic. Well. Trolls first. Without Seamus, they can't de-brainwash any of them.
Krel forces himself not to think of Seamus.
He fights in a blur. Their numbers are down by at least ten, but Zadra's right. Mourning must wait. Even despite his grief, he does his best not to injure the trolls too badly. They're innocent in this as much as the rest of them are. He winds up beside Eli, whose face is stony. Krel knows he saw what happened. He's relieved Eli is okay, although he's bleeding from a long cut on his torso. Krel wishes Eli had armour. Not that armour did Seamus any good.
Finally, he spots people – reinforcements for them – appear at the edge of the canal and run in. Krel's gaze focuses on Steve and Toby among them. He flies towards them, lands, and runs the rest of the way to hug Steve. Steve stumbles, clearly a bit surprised, but he wraps his arms around Krel.
"Hey, hey, you're okay," Steve says. Krel chokes on a sob at his words, an echo of Seamus's last, a painful reminder. He feels another hand on his back – Aja, he realises, it's Aja – but refuses to let go. "Krel?"
"It's not going so well," says Eli grimly. "Good news is, the Red Knight is dead."
"Hey, that's great news!" says Toby.
"What's the bad news?" Jim asks warily.
"We lost Seamus," Eli says quietly. Steve sucks in a sharp breath, and Krel feels his grip tighten.
"No," Toby chokes out.
"Oh, little brother," Aja murmurs. She wraps her arms around Steve and Krel to join the hug. Krel holds on just a few more moments before pushing away. They don't have time. Steve reaches out to wipe Krel's cheek and his dark glove comes away wet with Seamus's blood.
"Let's kick Merlin's butt," he says.
Krel nods and summons swords again. He takes a deep breath, then charges back into the battle. He tries to keep an eye on all his friends – like Seamus was doing for him – vowing in his mind not to let another one of them die. The Red Knight may be out of the way, but Merlin is still conspicuously missing from the action. It's not a good sign, but Krel can't get too distracted by it. Not while fighting. Not while trying to keep his friends and himself alive, trying to make sure Seamus's sacrifice wasn't in vain.
More and more of their allies start converging on the canal. At some point, Krel finds himself fighting beside Mort and Douxie. Both look worse for the wear but they're alive and that's what matters. The expressions on their faces tell Krel they've seen Seamus. They know.
"Where is Merlin?" Mort bites out.
Krel shakes his head, mentally thanking Mort for not asking the question Krel knows he's thinking. "He vanished. He hasn't got the formstone, but that's all I know."
Mort curses under his breath. "Okay. We'll deal with that later. How are you holding up?"
Krel presses his lips together and looks away.
"Yeah, I thought so," sighs Mort.
"Uh, how about fight now, talk later?" grunts Douxie, holding back two trolls with magic and a strained grimace. Mort lunges forward to perform the de-brainwashing spell. The trolls look around in dizzy confusion before joining the fight themselves, this time on the good side.
It seems things are finally starting to turn in their favour. With reinforcements flooding in and trolls being de-brainwashed left and right, Merlin's makeshift army is slowly being defeated. Unfortunately, Krel isn't the only one to notice this.
"ENOUGH!" A paralysing shockwave of magic thunders through the canal. Krel finds himself frozen, trapped no matter how he struggles. He is lifted into the air despite every effort to stay planted on the ground.
"No!" Mort cries.
"Krel!" Steve and Aja both shriek.
Merlin appears out of nowhere in front of Krel, like he was invisible or – or something. Krel growls at him. His powers spark and fizzle angrily but he can't break free of Merlin's magic.
"I know the formstone is around here somewhere," says Merlin. "You will give it to me."
"I'd rather die," Krel snarls. Aja lets out a desperate cry that might have been a "No!" but also might have been wordless. He feels almost bad, but he never expected to survive this, anyway. He wouldn't tell Merlin. He wouldn't give the formstone to Merlin.
Mort shoots into the air towards them, bronze magic shimmering on his hands. Merlin tosses him away with a flick of a hand, like nothing more than an annoyance, then freezes him much like he has Krel. Mort struggles uselessly, his magic sparking but unable to free him.
"Let him go!" he demands. "He's just a kid!"
"He's not even human," scoffs Merlin. He returns his attention to Krel. "Now, will you cooperate?"
Krel just glares at him. Merlin's face falls into a scowl, then – pain. He should have been expecting it, but a scream still rips from his throat as Merlin's magic seems to rip through him and bring agony nearly as sharp as integrating with Gaylen's core was. It's short, but Krel is left panting and trembling within the grip of his enemy's magic.
Toby lets put an angry shout and rockets towards them with his hammer. Merlin swats him away as well. Toby flies backwards into the bridge, hard enough to leave a dent, and he drops to the canal floor. Jim and Aaarrrgghh! swarm him immediately. Krel doesn't have time to check is his friend his okay. Merlin's magic jerks his attention back to him.
"Let's try this again," says Merlin. "The formstone. Now."
"I said," Krel grits out, "I'd rather die."
The pain comes again, shooting through him like plumes of flame and burning, burning, and he's back in the bookshop as fire engulfs him and the Red Knight – murderer, murderer – looms over him with dark, angry eyes. Then it's gone, but Krel can feel it linger in the shaking of his body and the aching in his core. Maybe he should agree – just say he agrees – and the second Merlin releases him, he'll manifest a blade and go out the way Seamus did, a sword in his chest and the formstone safe. Maybe he should have done that a long time ago.
"I can see pain won't persuade you," says Merlin slowly. At first, Krel, dazed from the pain and vivid memories of the burning bookshop and of one of his best friends, laying dead just away from the chaos, doesn't realise Merlin has done anything, but then he manages to see that Merlin has lifted his friends a few feet into the air. He can see Aja struggling furiously, Steve's wide eyes on him, Toby death-glaring Merlin, Mort silently chanting what must be attempts at counter-spells, all the people he cares about here within the wizard's grasp.
"No," Krel whispers. "No, no, no."
"Give me the formstone," says Merlin, "or they all die a most painful and slow death."
Aja grunts and contorts in the grip of the magic. "Don't listen to him, Krel!"
"Don't do it!" Steve yells. "We're not worth the entire world!"
The magic flares. His friends scream despite themselves. Cold horror settles in Krel's core at their pain, because of Merlin, because of Krel. There's no way Krel can win anymore. Somewhere along the line he messed up, and now he's paying for it and, worse, his friends are paying for it.
"What'll it be?" says Merlin.
Krel swallows. He looks around at the others, no longer screaming but shaking and angry. At Mort and Ikram and Nimue, mentors who have helped him so much this summer. At Zadra and Varvatos and Stuart, his family, not by birth but by love all the same. At Douxie and Jim and Claire, his friends, at Toby and Eli, two of his best friends, always there for him. At Steve, the brother he never had, someone he knows he can count on. At Aja, his big sister, who's always been his protector and role model.
At Seamus. Dead, because Krel couldn't protect himself. Dead to save Krel.
He can't let another friend die.
"I'm sorry," he says softly. "But you guys are my world."
Merlin's scowl twists into a smirk. He lowers both of them to the ground and releases Krel. Krel takes a deep breath.
"Don't!" Toby cries. "Krel!"
And Krel almost does it, almost ends it all then and there, almost eliminates Merlin's chance to get the formstone - but he doesn't know what Merlin will do to his friends once he's gone, and he can't risk them getting killed. No one else he loves is getting killed.
"I'm sorry," Krel whispers, before kneeling and resting his hands on the ground above the formstone. It responds instantly to his presence. He instinctively knows how to coax it to the surface, standing as he does and watching the shimmering white stone break through the cement and glint in the starlight. He rests his forehead on it. It's warm. It feels like – coming home. Like curling up in his bed after a long day, like seeing his family again after being away from them.
Then he's grabbed from behind and thrown away from the formstone. He skids on the concrete, shivering in the loss of the formstone's warmth, then pushes himself to his feet just as Merlin places his hands on the formstone. He feels sick.
"At last!" Merlin exclaims, eyes alight with malice and power. The formstone sparks and Krel can hear it screaming in his head, or something like that, as its power is drained and sapped by the wizard.
His friends are alive.
But Krel still made the wrong choice. He's doomed the Earth, his home, and it's all his fault. He falls to his knees and chokes on a new round of tears. He failed everyone. He should have eliminated the opportunity for Merlin when he had the chance, before the fight even started. No Krel, no access to the formstone. It's too late for that now. It's been too late. A bitter laugh escapes him. It sounds more like a sob. What has he done?
The others are dropped. Mort wastes no time charging towards Merlin, twin swords summoned, but with one hand Merlin is able to throw him backwards, sending him flying all the way into the side of the canal where he leaves a human-sized crater in the cement.
"Uncle Mort!" Douxie cries, running to Mort's side as the older wizard pushes himself up and rubs his head. Krel shoots into the air. This is his fault, his mess, and he has to fix it, somehow. He dives towards Merlin, sword poised to drive it right through the monster's head, when Merlin's hand shoots out and Krel is enveloped in energy again. It's not the same as Merlin's. It's not the formstone's either. Or maybe it is, just perverted and changed by contact with Merlin's darkness.
"I don't need you anymore," says Merlin.
"No!" Aja yells. "No, no, no!"
Merlin sends a piercing burst of sparking magic straight at Krel's core – the power is sharply overwhelming for a few seconds, before Krel realises it doesn't hurt. At all. Of course it doesn't hurt. Tainted as it may have been before reaching his core, it's still the formstone, Gaylen's core's origin point, and it recognises him as much as he recognises it.
"You think the formstone can hurt me?" he roars. Merlin's eyes widen. "I am Gaylen's heir! And this is my home! I won't let you destroy it!"
He breaks free of Merlin's hold and rockets towards him. Merlin is forced to dodge, hands leaving the formstone, which means he can't keep draining it. Krel will count that as a win. He grabs Merlin by the arm and – shockingly – manages to throw him into the bridge. Merlin shoots back towards him, acid green focusers forming around his hands. Krel tries to dodge the attack, but one of the magical fireballs still hits him in the torso. His armour mostly protects him, but it hits in the worst possible place so it manages to bite through his undersuit at his hip. He grits his teeth against the all-too-familiar burning sting and moves to charge again, and Merlin shoots out a hand. The magical dagger flies past his shoulder. At first, Krel is relieved that Merlin missed. Then he hears the soft gasp from behind him, followed by Steve's scream, "AJA!"
Krel spins around in cold horror. Aja has fallen to her knees clutching her left shoulder as Merlin's dagger vanishes and leaves glowing blue blood to spill through her fingers. Steve kneels beside her, but he glances up at Krel and his eyes widen.
"Krel!" he shouts.
Krel has just enough time to start to turn around, but that isn't enough time to prevent himself from being once more engulfed in Merlin's magic. His own powers spark and flare to break him free, but it's no use. He's dragged through the air to Merlin, whose snarl is the deepest Krel has seen it yet.
"I'll just have to kill you the hard way, then," he says.
His hands wrap around Krel's unprotected throat. Krel struggles, trying desperately to get air past the tight grip blocking it. He hears Aja's strained voice call his name. Black spots start to dance in his vision. He doesn't know if this will kill him, but he doesn't want to find out.
Then, out of nowhere, a blast of golden magic slams into Merlin, knocking him away from Krel. Krel spirals into the ground; pain shoots up from his chest and head at the rough landing, but he forces himself to ignore it and sit up. Above him, Merlin and Morgana are locked in furious, magical combat.
Toby stumbles to Krel's side and steadies him.
"Hey, man," he says. "You good?"
"Fine," Krel manages. "I'm sorry. This is my fault. I messed up."
"You were just trying to protect us," says Toby.
Steve also falls to his knees next to them. He runs a hand down Krel's unburned cheek, brow pulled in concern, armour worryingly dented in places.
"Aja?" Krel asks.
"She's okay." Steve jerks his head back towards her. Krel glances back. Varvatos has helped her to her feet. She looks like she wants to run to him, but Varvatos won't allow her. "I'm not good at healing spells but I knew a couple."
Bitterly, Krel thinks that if Steve had been there instead of Krel – useless Krel – Seamus might have lived. Steve could have healed him, even if Krel completely failed. He doesn't say it out loud.
"I'm sorry," he says again, for giving Merlin the formstone, for letting Seamus die. "I messed up. I'm sorry."
"Don't apologise," says Steve.
Krel glances up at the battle above them. Morgana is powerful, but Merlin has at least some of the formstone's powers on his side. She isn't going to win alone. She's still doing better than they were, but she's going to need help.
"Back into the fray?" says Toby, standing and offering Krel a hand. Krel takes it and pulls himself to his feet.
"You know it," he says, materialising a sword and letting himself start to hover. It's coming more and more naturally. He decides it's a good thing, for now. He ignores the bitter voice in his mind that says he could have saved Seamus if he just knew how to use his powers better.
"Stay alive," Steve says.
Krel smiles grimly at his friends. "Only if you guys do, too."
He pulls himself back into the air as he stands and lets his powers wash over him once more. Whether he survives this or not, Merlin is going down. For Earth.