Okay. Recap. The end of the world has officially begun for the fourth time, except this time feels like the most serious and apocalyptic yet. Krel just got literally tortured and then the rest of them got low-key tortured until Krel, like Steve predicted, gave up the formstone to save them. Oh, yeah, and one of Steve's closest friends since childhood is dead.
Steve still can't believe it. He hasn't had time to – go see him – but he's not sure he wants to anyway. He can't right now, or he'll crash and burn when he needs to be fighting. Something in Krel has changed – the way he lifts into the air and energy crackles off of him is scary. His eyes glow so bright they might as well be pure white, and the snarl on his face looks – wrong. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Aja take a hesitant step back. This is Krel at the height of his new power, and it's almost terrifying.
"Wizards!" yells Mort. "Keep freeing the trolls! Everyone else! Focus on bringing down Merlin!"
Krel doesn't wait for any other permission before shooting towards Merlin to join the fight again. Mort follows him, looking every bit the ancient wizard he apparently is. Yeah. Steve's still not over that. Toby and the rest of the Trollhunters charge into battle together. Toby quickly takes to the sky to join in the assault on Merlin.
Eli offers Steve a c-shaped hand. Steve smiles grimly at him and completes the symbol.
"Alright, Pepperbuddy," he says. "You watch our backs, okay? Keep yourself safe."
"You got it," says Eli.
Steve lets out what he decides is a fierce war-cry and runs forward into the fray. The goal is technically to bring Merlin down, but, like, that's kinda hard, because he's encased himself in a barrier and, oh, he's also flying. Only – what? – five of them can fly, if he counted Toby, and he wasn't completely sure he could count Toby. Everyone else is stuck on the ground trying to shoot him with serrator-guns or magic blasts or – in Ikram's very angry case – throwing swords at him. There's also enough mind-controlled trolls left that they're having to fight them, too, which sucks.
Oh, the other bad news. Merlin is fighting back. It seems almost effortless for him. It probably is. People are getting thrown all around the canal. Steve himself keeps getting thrown into other people and cement. He is not going to break his stupid leg again, so he's trying his best to land safely. It's harder than it looks. He can feel the bruises building up and by the way his shoulder throbs there's something wrong with it. It won't matter soon, if they can't stop Merlin and he destroys the world. Then they'll just all be dead.
"Steve!" Logan's familiar voice calls. Steve instinctually shifts so that Logan can fall into place beside him. He has a lot of questions, but most immediate would probably be, like, what the heck is Logan doing here? Followed rapidly by, where the heck did Logan get a bow and a bunch of arrows?
"Dude?" he manages incredulously, nodding to the bow.
"Found it in my basement," says Logan. "Cool, huh? Check it."
He aims and looses an arrow. It sails right past Merlin, missing by at least a yard. It's immediately obvious that Logan has no idea how to use a bow. Like, none whatsoever. Not even the briefest internet search.
"Okay," says Logan sheepishly, "we'll call it a work in progress. You seen Seamus?"
Steve's heart lurches, and his focusers falter with his emotions. He forces himself to steady them and aim another blast at Merlin. He's halfway decent at ranged magic, if only because he'd spent so long with ranged magic as his only option in case of a fight.
"He's gone," Steve bites out. Logan's grip on the bow goes slack and he stares at Steve with wide, horrified eyes. "Before I got here. I don't know details, but... I can guess."
It's easy to guess, in the way Krel had hugged him when he arrived, trembling and sobbing, in the way Eli looked at Krel so worriedly and said, "We lost Seamus." Wasn't it Seamus that said no one would be sacrificing themselves? Yet Steve can't even bring himself to be surprised.
Logan covers his face with a hand, then looks upward and drags his hand down. "I can guess too. He's so – he was so – it's not fair."
"No," agrees Steve, staring up at the fight in the sky so he doesn't let himself look over to where he knows his childhood friend's body is laying. He can't. Not now. The breakdown will have to wait until they – if they survive. "It's not."
Mort throws out his hands to send a maintained pulse of magical energy at Merlin's barrier. Steve rubs his hands together then does his best to mimic his mentor. Surely a double assault will work even better, right? Logan, face pulled carefully blank, does his best to hit Merlin with an arrow. He's not very good at, well, aiming, and even the arrows that might come close are deflected by Merlin's shield.
Strickler tries to dive-bomb Merlin, which Steve would have thought he'd've learned by now wouldn't work; he's ricocheted off the shield, as expected. He sees Jim, out of the corner of his eye, gesture to Aaarrrgghh!, who grabs him and throws him towards Merlin's shield. Jim roars and tries to drive his sword into the magical barrier. No use. Even the Akiridion blaster shots fizzle and explode uselessly against the barrier.
"Does anyone want to tell me how the kleb we're supposed to win against a seemingly indestructible, flying wizard?" Zadra growls.
"Yeah, we don't know," says Steve.
"This is impossible!" Varvatos roars.
"We've done the impossible before," Aja says. She fires several more rapid, useless shots at Merlin. She's either really good at hiding her pain or Steve did a better job healing her than he thought. "We can do it again. We have to."
Steve wishes, desperately, that he had her confidence, but with the way the fight is going so far he can't muster it. One of his best friends is dead. Worse still, he's not the only one. Steve is grateful he doesn't recognise any of the others that he can see – Akiridion cores and trolls turned to stone and humans, maybe wizards, maybe mundanes – but he knows the aftermath of this, if they survive it, is going to be a lot worse than any before.
"I have an idea," says Aja.
"No, your ideas are never good ideas," Steve shoots down immediately. She looks insulted. "It's always something that might get you killed. Bad idea."
"Well, I wasn't asking for permission," she says primly. "Varvatos! Throw me!"
Steve groans. "Oh, man."
Unfortunately but also unsurprisingly, Varvatos listens. Steve doesn't know why Aja thinks she'll succeed where every single other person has failed, but he can concede that it's a typical Aja move. Merlin barely glances at her before she's thrown backwards into the bridge, hard enough to break off chunks of rock as she falls back into the canal. Steve's breath catches when she doesn't get up.
"AJA!" Krel screams.
Steve scrambles to her side and gently turns her over. She's out like a light, but she's still breathing and her form isn't flickering away, so that's a good sign. Steve seriously can't deal with this right now.
"Aja?" he says, heart pounding as he waves a hand in front of her slack face. "Aja, hey, hey – seriously, don't pull a Krel on me."
She doesn't wake up. Okay. Not good. Not good at all.
There's a sharp cry from behind him – Steve turns, then catches sight of Krel caught in Merlin's acid green magic. Mort lets out an angry shout and shoots forward, only to be batted away like an insect and skid painfully along the canal. He doesn't shoot back into the air right away, which scares Steve more than he'd like to admit.
Toby gives a battle-cry and launches back into the air, towards Krel, now pulled behind Merlin's barrier and struggling uselessly against the wizard's grasp. Toby yelps as he, too, is caught in magic. Steve pushes himself to his feet, heart thudding in his chest. No. No, no, no.
"You've been a pain in my side for far too long," Merlin snarls.
"Toby!" cries Jim, hand curled around his ribs like he's injured. He probably is. Even if he wasn't, there's nothing he can do to save them.
"Krel!" Varvatos thunders, the panic in his voice only intensifying Steve's own.
Steve's fist curls tightly around Excalibur. No. He's not losing more friends today. Not Toby, who despite how much of a buttsnack Steve used to be to him has stuck by his side through the thick and thin of this whole mess. Not Krel, his little brother in all but blood, who he's already lost once and refuses to lose again. Steve is not losing anyone else, and especially not them, and especially not now.
He isn't even conscious of what he's doing, really. All he knows is he has to save his friends. He feels his feet lift off the ground, like he's jumped but he hasn't, and he needs to get to his friends, behind the barrier, struggling, faces twisted in what might be pain. Morgana's magic finally manages to blast a hole in the barrier, just big enough.
"Leave my friends ALONE!" Steve roars. He rockets through the hole in the barrier, sword poised. Merlin only has a second to look surprised before Steve drives Excalibur into his neck. Steve himself is shocked as Merlin's eyes fly wide and blood spills from his lips.
The green magic fails. Krel and Toby plummet first. A last, desperate shockwave of magic knocks Steve away from the wizard. He slams into the bridge and gasps at the ensuing sharp pain, then drops and manages to catch himself before hitting the ground and depositing himself on his knees. His arms tremble from the effort of flying – flying, holy crap, he just flew. He pushes himself up to sit on his calves and look around. Aja is awake, a hand to her head. That's – one less person to worry about. A few feet away, he sees Krel standing, and in the other direction, Jim is helping Toby to his feet as well.
A hand appears in Steve's line of vision. He glances towards its owner.
"Proud of you, son," Dad says softly. Steve smiles and lets Dad help him stand. Any trolls who had still been mind-controlled seem to be free now, blinking around at the carnage in confusion. Steve still feels sick to look around and see so many people dead.
Mort limps back into view, supported by Morgana of all people, her face twisted in grim approval. Steve, almost afraid, makes his way to Merlin to retrieve his sword. The old wizard is definitely dead. Steve shakes blood off his sword. He swallows and backs away, back to his friends. Krel meets him with a hug.
"We did it," Steve mumbles.
Toby laughs excitedly and joins in the hug. Merlin's dead. They won. The cost of the victory hovers painfully in the back of Steve's mind, the overwhelming relief pierced by the sharp sting of loss, but they did it.
"We won," Douxie blurts in amazement. "It's over."
Krel pulls himself out of their group hug. He turns and frowns at the formstone, flickering weakly in stark contrast with its earlier bright glow. That… can't be good. Steve meets Krel's eyes. The younger boy shakes his head. "It's not over yet."
On cue, the ground rumbles beneath their feet. Eli stumbles and almost falls, but Varvatos steadies him with a big hand. Aja sways dangerously. Steve grips her shoulder to keep her from falling. Mort's lips turn downward in a deep frown and he and Morgana exchange worried glances. The trolls nearest them murmur anxiously.
"Great," says Toby. "We won, but we're all going to die anyway!"
"We can evacuate to Akiridion-5," says Aja. "We will help you restart on another planet."
"That won't work," Mort says. "There's too many people and too little time."
"It is the only solution we have," Zadra says. "We can save Arcadia, and as many others as we can."
Krel has that expression again, the frown and furrowed brows that tell Steve he's not going to like whatever it is his little brother is about to say.
"I have an idea," Krel says. Yep, he was right. Steve already doesn't like it. He doesn't even have to hear the idea to know he doesn't like it. Bad ideas run in the Tarron family.
Krel walks over to the formstone and lays all four hands on it. His face turns sad. They all know the formstone is dying, but maybe Krel can feel it the worst of all of them. Mort's frown deepens further, then his eyes widen and he rushes forward and turns Krel around, hands gripping his shoulders. Morgana hovers forward, her own lips curled into a frown. If even Morgana's worried, it – can't be good.
"Krel, no." There's a note of terror in Mort's voice that Steve doesn't understand. It scares him anyway. "It's too dangerous. This could – this will kill you."
"What?" Aja demands. "Krel, what is he talking about?"
Judging by the way Krel refuses to look at any of them, he knew his idea would probably kill him. Steve wonders if Krel has been anticipating this since he gave up the formstone. The thought makes him feel cold, despite the warm summer air, and he suppresses a full-body shiver to take a hesitant step towards Krel.
"If I give my energy to the formstone, it might fix it just enough that the Earth won't be destroyed," Krel says. "It's the only way."
"But at the cost of your life?" Toby cries. He shakes his head, eyes shining with unshed tears. "No – no, that's not – that's not okay."
"Krel, we were worth the world to you," says Douxie. Krel flinches. "You're worth the world to us. Don't."
"We're all going to die anyway if I don't do this!" Krel exclaims. "This is my fault. I chose you guys over the world – and I'd do it again – but now I have to fix it."
The worst part is that he's right. They are all going to die anyway. Steve desperately tries to think of another solution, one that doesn't involve losing Krel, for real and for good this time. His mind is coming up heart-achingly blank.
Krel walks over to them. He meets each of their eyes in turn, pleading for them to understand. Toby pulls Krel into a hug.
"You weren't supposed to die, man," he manages.
"I know," Krel mumbles. "I'm sorry."
Aja practically tackles Krel next, sobbing unabashedly. Her fingers curl on the metal of his armour and she struggles for a few moments to form any words.
"I just got you back," she finally chokes out.
"I love you, Aja," he says. "Keep being extraordinary."
Aja lets out a weak, broken noise and holds her brother tighter before pushing away and wiping her eyes, breath hitching through her tears. Steve grabs Krel by the shoulders. Krel gives him a soft, sad smile; tears have already streaked down his cheeks, through blue and red blood staining his skin, tangible evidence of the trauma they've all been through. Steve tries to force the words to come out, but he doesn't know what to say.
"It's okay," Krel whispers.
"It's not," Steve says desperately. "You can't do this."
Krel's smile falters. "There's no other choice."
And Steve has never been the plan guy, he'll never be the plan guy, but he's always been good at working on instinct. It only takes a split-second to come up with something and finally blurt, "What if there was?"
Krel's smile completely falls and his brow furrows. "What do you mean?"
"What if – what if I helped?" he suggests. It's only a half-formed thought at best. It might not even be possible, but a half-formed thought is better than losing Krel, too. "Maybe if there's two of us, we'll both live."
"Or we could both die." Krel shakes his head. "No. Too risky."
Toby's face morphs into grave determination. "What about three? We're in this together. From the start."
"Together," Steve echoes. "We've faced down knights and near-death experiences all summer. This isn't any different."
Krel glances between them. Steve tries to convey his resolve when he meets his little brother's glowing eyes, tries to tell him without speaking that no matter what happens, he's not leaving him to die again. They're in this together, all three of them, no matter what he tries to say. He's not alone. They're not alone. They have each other, and that's going to be good enough. It has to be.
"Alright," Krel says finally, softly, smiling sadly despite himself. "The three of us."
They follow Krel back to the formstone. Another quake shakes the canal, stronger this time. Krel almost falls, so Steve reaches out to stabilise him. They need to work fast. Krel lays his hands on the formstone again. Steve puts a hand on his shoulder; Toby mimics him on the other side. Krel takes a deep breath, then the glow around his form grows slowly brighter. Steve almost yelps and lets go when the glow starts to spread up his own arm, morphing from white to the gold of his aura. A brief glance at Toby shows the same thing happening to him. It isn't painful. Steve can feel his energy draining, but it's more like the end of the day after an all-nighter, when wakefulness is starting to fade just out of reach, slowly but surely. He has to close his eyes, because the glow is too bright.
Finally, after what may have been hours or may have been minutes, Krel lets go and stumbles backwards. Steve catches him out of pure instinct, because his legs are jelly and he's dizzy and blinking bright lights out of his blurring vision.
"We did it," Krel breathes.
They did it. They stopped the end of the world. Steve only has the energy to let out a brief, weak sound of agreement before the world goes dark around him and he succumbs to unconsciousness.
The first thing to filter back into Steve's awareness is the faint beeping of hospital equipment. The first thing he thinks is that it's kind of sad he knows what hospital equipment sounds like without even considering it.
He shifts ever so slightly, wriggling his fingers and toes and hesitantly tensing muscles. No pain follows. Well. That's a good sign, right? He forces his eyes open and pulls himself into a sitting position. There's a mechanical noise as the hospital bed shifts, and Steve looks over to see Dad smiling at him, eyes shining with what might be unshed tears.
"Hey, son," he says softly.
"Hey, Dad," Steve says. He glances around the room. There are two other beds. The closest to him holds a still sleeping Krel, and the next holds a just-barely-waking-up Toby. Jim – human Jim, how did that happen? – sits by Toby's bed, curled over asleep with half his body on the mattress. Claire rests her arms and head on his back, also asleep. Aja is asleep in a chair between Steve and Krel's beds. Douxie is on the floor, back against Krel's bed and also out like a light. Eli is sprawled out on the floor with a jacket folded under his head.
"About time you woke up," says Dad. "We've all been worried sick."
"I'm alright," says Steve. "Just tired."
"I'm just glad you're alive." Dad raises a hand to wipe his cheek. "Your mom's gonna be mad she missed you waking up. She's helping with repairs. We've been taking turns."
"We did it?" Steve asks, even though it's obvious the Earth is still here. "It worked?"
"You did it," Dad confirms. "Mort said the form-thingy was all back to the way it should be. And all three of you are going to be just fine."
Toby, across the room, carefully sits up and stretches his arms. He glances over at Steve, eyes hesitating briefly on Krel, who has only now begun to stir. It only takes a second before he shoots into a sitting position and looks around in panic. When he realises he's in the hospital and the rest of them are all there, he relaxes.
"We survived?" he says in disbelief, before laughing. "We survived!"
His exclamation wakes the others. Aja is quick to grab her brother in a tight hug, speaking rapidly to him in what Steve realises must be their native language. Eli leaps onto Steve's bed and hugs him, knocking the breath out of him with the suddenness.
"You're awake!" he exclaims. "Thank goodness!"
Steve chuckles and lets his hands rest on his friend's back. "Good to see you, too, Pepperbuddy."
Dad stands and smiles at them. "I'll leave you kids alone to catch up. Better go find everyone else, tell 'em you're up."
He leaves the room. Eli sits at the edge of Steve's bed. Aja returns to her chair after helping Krel adjust his hospital bed so he can sit more comfortably. Douxie relocates to sit on Krel's bed. The Trollhunters seem to have also finished exchanging hugs, and Jim and Claire have returned to their seats by Toby's bed. It seems almost poetic to have all of them together – well, not that Steve knows much about poetry, but he thinks that's right. The Trollhunters, the Creepslayerz, the Akiridions, and – well, Douxie, who's one of them now. Steve probably falls under a category with him. Wizards, he guesses.
"I'm so glad you're okay," says Jim. This is, probably, the wrong thing to say. Krel's face falls, expression crumpling as he stares at his hands.
"Most of us," he murmurs.
Steve sucks in a breath and closes his eyes. Yeah. Most of them. Seamus's absence is starkly evident, too evident. He should be here, probably sitting next to Krel on his bed, berating all of them for being stupid. It isn't fair. Steve's heart aches, a too-familiar sharp pain he's learned to associate with grief and loss and mourning.
"I still can't believe…" Claire trails off and shakes her head.
"He saved my life," Krel says quietly. "He – he saved my life, and it got him–"
He can't complete his sentence. Steve doesn't blame him. The idea of saying it out loud feels – wrong. Steve had expected that was how it happened, honestly, even if this was his first confirmation of it. Seamus wasn't stupid. He could keep himself alive if he wasn't trying to protect someone else, but like all the rest of them, self-preservation always flew out the window when it came to his friends.
"He was a hero," says Toby. "A real hero."
"I – he's really gone." Krel blinks rapidly as if to force back tears. "It doesn't feel real."
"He won't be forgotten," says Steve. "He helped save the world. We'll make sure that's not forgotten. That's what you do for your friends."
Krel nods and wipes his cheek with a hand. "Yeah."
Aja reaches over to grab one of her brother's hands and squeeze it comfortingly. Krel gives her a small, sad smile. Steve gets it. It's going to be a long time before they recover from this – maybe never. Steve kind of thinks never is more accurate. Or maybe they'll recover, but… things are never going to be the same again.
"So what now?" says Jim hesitantly. "It's over. It's actually all over."
"I almost hate to say this," says Toby, "but, man, am I looking forward to school."
"Do I even want to know when school is starting?" Steve asks warily.
"About a week from now," says Douxie. "Same for the Academy. Although Uncle Mort's not sure if I'm going back there this year or coming to your school. But either way."
Aja bites her lip and sighs.
"I know this is your home," she says to Krel.
He grabs two of her hands. "And I know Akiridion-5 is yours. I'll try to visit. And call more often. No more – what is the saying? – no more keeping you away from the looping."
"You going back, too?" Steve asks Eli.
"Well, I did tell my mom I'd be there all year," says Eli. "And I don't really want to go back to school just yet."
"Fair," Steve says. He looks between him and Aja. "I'll visit, too. If – uh, that's okay."
Aja smiles at him. "You're welcome on Akiridion-5, Steve. You all are. I'm sorry for – kicking you out."
Krel stares at her in disbelief – well, apparently he hadn't known the details of that – and shakes his head. Toby chuckles at his expression, then turns to Jim.
"And what about you guys?" he asks hesitantly.
"I don't know where we'd find another Heartstone," says Jim. "We'll have to find something, but - something here in Arcadia. We've already started rebuilding Trollmarket, but – it'll take a while."
"You know," says Krel slowly, "I might be able to figure something out."
Steve leans back against his bed and closes his eyes. Yeah. Things will never be the same again. It's going to be a long recovery for all of them, and a hard one at that, but he thinks they'll manage. Together.
They're discharged from the hospital and sent home the next day. Mom can't seem to stop hugging him, which Steve is actually fine with. It's freeing to be home and not worry about being attacked at any time.
Aja and Eli return to Akiridion-5 with Varvatos and Zadra a couple of days after they're released. Aja seems reluctant to leave, but Krel promises to call her if there's any trouble and Mort promises to make sure he actually does. Steve really hopes there isn't more trouble.
Krel ends up inviting Mort, Douxie and Archie, still homeless after the attack on the shop, to stay with him. Steve has a feeling that even after the shop gets rebuilt, they won't move out. He's pretty sure Krel was lonely by himself with the Blanks, and Mort's never met a kid he can't parent. It's good for Krel. Steve's glad, although there's a part of him that thinks it would have been fun if Krel had moved in with him, instead.
Seamus's funeral is that weekend. It's – hard. It hadn't felt real until the funeral, until he's watching his friend get lowered into the ground and realising that Seamus really is gone forever. It hurts. Krel is taking it just as hard as he is, if not more, and he must apologise to Mrs. Johnson at least a hundred times before she gives up trying to get a word in and just hugs him instead.
It's almost refreshing to walk back onto campus the first day of school. All the buildings have been given blackout curtains for the windows in order to make them troll-friendly if needed. Strickler is back to teaching. Steve thinks it's going to take some getting used to, seeing a teacher he's known for a while now in front of the class as a troll. It's also pretty cool. Douxie ended up staying at the Academy (according to Krel, the main argument had been his boyfriend and also that it was his senior year), but everyone else is back. Well. Almost everyone.
Steve runs into Toby first when he gets to school.
"No Jim?" he asks.
"He's running late, told me to come ahead and tell Coach," Toby says. "He's lucky we have Coach first."
"Jim? Running late?"
"I hope you like fancy home-made lunches, because now that Jim can cook human food in human form again he's decided he's making lunch for all of us."
"That's dedication," Steve says after a moment. He laughs. "Well, I bet Krel's early."
"Probably," Toby agrees. Sure enough, as they walk into the courtyard, they can see Krel already there, standing at what used to be Seamus's locker but has now been turned into a memorial of sorts. Krel glances back at them as they reach him, then holds up a small hologram: a static, 3D image of the three of them and Mort and Douxie and Seamus, something Steve recognises from photos taken earlier in the summer before everything got – well – crazier than it already was.
"I was going to just print out the photograph, but I thought this would be better," Krel says. He gently places the hologram inside Seamus's locker, the faint glow of it lighting up the metal walls.
"He'd love it," Steve says.
Krel smiles, eyes still sad in the way Steve expects all of theirs will be for a while to come. He closes the locker. Some of the artsy students had gotten together to paint on the front, a colourful, vividly alive portrait of Seamus, but Steve can recognise Krel's handwriting spelling out "HERO" in large letters across the top. Akiridion letters line the bottom as well, and Steve expects they mean the same thing. Krel's hand traces down the side of the image before he turns back to them.
"Here's to a boring year," he says.
"You know it will never be boring for us," Toby points out.
"Well, one can hope," Krel says.
Steve just laughs, and the three of them begin walking towards gym, the first class of the day and probably the easiest. He glances back, one last time, at Seamus's locker and the bright, smiling image on it. Yes. Things are different now. They've all changed over this summer, over this year. Steve's changed. A lot. So things will be different this year, but in some ways – he hopes they're going to be better. They've grown and learned, and despite everything they're stronger for it. They're going to be okay.
He finally brings his attention forward again and slings an arm around each of his friends' shoulders. "To a good year."