“Oh fuck. Andrew!” Aaron shouted but it was already too late. Andrew’s face always looked as if it were carved from stone but now it actually was. Andrew stood, arm raised, still sheltering a fallen Neil, and he had turned entirely to stone.
Matt let out an incoherent yell of rage and ran forward. He leapt onto the attacking troll, forcing it to the ground and breaking off its hand at the wrist so he held the dagger coated in Creeper Sun poison. A quick slash later and their adversary was on the ground, also turned to stone. Kevin smashed the fallen troll with his war hammer and it was pulverized to dust.
Everyone stood frozen in the clearing, unsure of what had just happened. Everyone except Neil who still lay on the ground, far too still.
Their state of shock was broken when Neil groaned and stirred. He blinked and carefully pushed himself into a seated position, rubbing his eyes and trying to figure out what had just happened. His eyes widened when he saw Andrew. He shakily got to his feet and circled Andrew’s statue.
“You fucking idiot,” he cried, lashing out and ineffectually punching Andrew in the jaw. He shouted in pain and cradled his fist to his chest, nursing what was probably one or more broken knuckles. Then he collapsed to the ground.
Aaron didn’t know what to do in the face of Neil’s grief. He stepped forward, hand outstretched, but Neil shrunk away from him, wrapping one hand around Andrew’s calf, pressing his face to Andrew’s knee, and wailing.
Kevin stood there awkwardly. His war hammer was a simple racquet once more and he looked small, vulnerable in a way Aaron hadn’t seen before.
Matt knelt, trying to make his hulking form small and comforting. “Neil sad?” he asked.
Neil turned and buried his face in Matt’s mossy chest. Dan opened her mouth to say something but she closed it as soon as she realized she had absolutely nothing to say.
“Carry him home,” Matt said. “Need doorway.”
Neil nodded and stood, face pale and tear-streaked. He lifted his staff. It took a moment but he opened a portal into the Heartstone chamber and they all stepped through, Matt bringing up the rear with Andrew’s statue.
“What took you so long?” Wymack asked, coming toward them with his staff. He stopped short when he saw Andrew. “Dan, I thought you were going to protect him.”
“It’s my fault,” Neil said, swaying to stand up on his own. Kevin rushed to his side to prop him up. “I let the troll flank me and Andrew had to step in and stop it. He took the blade meant for me.”
“It’s not your fault,” Aaron interrupted.
Neil turned to him, face twisted with rage. “You shouldn’t even be here. What have you ever done for him besides divide his focus and get in the way?”
Aaron knew they would hate him for the words he was about to say but he couldn’t keep them a secret. “Andrew was already dying,” he said. “He was poisoned weeks ago and couldn’t bear to tell you.”
Neil flew toward him and Aaron was fully prepared to be obliterated but Matt caught Neil in mid air. “Andrew brave,” he said. “Would have done same.”
Aaron opened his mouth to speak again. He wasn’t sure what he could say but maybe if he just started talking it would come to him. He was interrupted by the sound of his name in an unfamiliar voice. “What? Who said that?” he asked.
Everyone glared at him but there was a tug in his chest, pulling him toward Andrew’s statue. The amulet on Andrew’s chest glowed. Aaron put his hand out, unable to do anything else. It flared when he touched it. Everyone in the room gasped as the amulet came free in his hand.
A sick dread flooded him but he had to know. “For the glory of Merlin, daylight is mine to command,” he whispered. Light surrounded him and he felt himself lifted off his feet as armour surrounded him and a sword appeared in his hand. Aaron closed his eyes and finally let himself cry. This was the last thing he wanted.
Aaron was tired. It had been a long two weeks. He still hadn’t figured out how to tell Bee that one of her adopted sons was now a statue so he was pulling double duty at home, doing Andrew’s chores as well as his own and impersonating his brother when Bee got suspicious that she hadn’t seen him in a while. Neil wore a glamour mask on the few occasions where both Aaron and Andrew had to be in the same place at the same time but Aaron hated to drag him away from his research.
He was also jumping full speed ahead into Trollhunter training. Dan was merciless, trying to get him up to Andrew’s level as quickly as possible so the Trolls outside their inner circle didn’t realize what happened to Andrew. She and Matt had completely different reactions to Andrew’s petrification. Dan threw herself into her work and didn’t let anyone catch her having emotions while Matt regularly gathered Aaron, Kevin, and Neil up in his arms for long, mandatory cuddle sessions. Once Matt decided to cuddle, there was no escape. Sometimes he could be distracted with Go-Go Sushi but he was a big guy with a big grief.
And of course, every spare moment not spent fighting, training, or pretending to be two people to deceive the woman who had rescued Andrew and Aaron from the foster system and all the horrible things that entailed, was spent researching a way to reverse the effects of Creeper Sun poison. And while Aaron might have been keeping up with the first three, he was making absolutely no progress on the fourth.
Aaron flopped over onto his bed, relishing the softness. Dan had seen how worn out he looked and had promised not to bother him for anything but the most pressing emergencies. He was almost asleep when he heard a pop and the air thinned in a way that could only mean Neil had made a portal directly into his bedroom.
“Seriously?” Aaron griped, rolling over to glare at Neil. “Can you come back in a minimum of eight hours?”
“Well sure. I’ll tell you how to reverse Andrew’s poisoning tomorrow then,” Neil said snappishly and formed another portal.
“Wait!” Aaron shouted, jumping out of bed so quickly he took the covers with him and almost fell when they tangled around his feet.
Neil lowered his staff and turned to face Aaron. He looked as bad as Aaron felt. “I found a cure.”
“Where?” Aaron asked suspiciously.
Neil looked cagey as fuck. “Does it matter?” he asked. “We finally have something constructive to do instead of sit around with our thumbs up our asses while you play Trollhunter.”
“Hey, I don’t want to be doing this either,” Aaron snarled.
Neil hunched over, exhaustion overwriting every feature. “Do you want to hear what I found, or not?”
“Of course I do,” Aaron said, suddenly too overwhelmed with exhaustion to fight.
Neil pulled a single sheet of looseleaf paper out of his wallet. “It’s a potion. If we pour it over him, it will reverse the effects.”
Aaron carefully took the paper from Neil and scanned the ingredients. “What the fuck?” he asked. “A live mouse? A gnome skeleton? What the fuck does it mean by tears of unfulfilled love?”
“Those are all doable. It’s the last one that worries me,” Neil said.
Aaron looked back at the list. “Nightblood flower? I’ve never heard of it.”
“That’s because it only grows in one place: the Darklands,” Neil said.
Aaron felt rage rising up in him like a tidal wave. “What the fuck? I thought you said you have a cure. This flower might as well grow on the moon for all that we’re going to be able to get it.”
“Well that’s the thing,” Neil said, “before Andrew...you know, we were trying to track Riko’s movements, figure out his plan. His older brother, Ichirou, is trapped in the Darklands and honestly, he makes Riko look like a harmless gnome. Riko’s trying to free his brother and he’s been gathering pieces of Evermore Bridge. It used to stand as a connection point between the Darklands and our world. If he puts it back together, he can open the door between worlds and let Ichirou out.”
“And you want to what...use this gate to cross into the Darklands and risk letting this Ichirou out to wreak havoc on the world? Sounds like a great idea,” Aaron sneered.
“Well, forgive me for thinking you actually cared about your brother and wanted to get him back.” Neil glared, snatched the paper back from Aaron, and raised his staff to open a portal.
“Wait,” Aaron said softly. “Why did you even come to me? Why haven’t you just gone in by yourself to find this flower? Why involve me at all.”
Neil turned back. “Andrew’s amulet. Merlin sealed the gate and only the power of Merlin can open it. And since Andrew is stone and for some reason you can wield his power, it has to be you.”
“I have to go alone?” Aaron gasped.
“No, you can take me along with you. But you do have to pass through the gate yourself to let me through,” Neil sighed. “Look, I don’t like you anymore than you like me. But I would do anything, everything to bring Andrew back.”
Aaron nodded. “Fine, let’s go.” He picked up the amulet and activated it.
“I thought you wanted to sleep first,” Neil teased.
“Like I’m going to sleep now,” Aaron replied.
Actually getting into the Darklands was somewhat anticlimactic. They waited until Riko was busy elsewhere and Aaron activated the gate by proximity. The Darklands were basically what Aaron had expected, giant caves of bare rock with the occasional glowing rock to light their way. Thankfully it wasn’t pitch black. The other end of the gateway opened on some sort of stone bridge that soared high above the ground below. It was dizzying.
Aaron turned to Neil and nearly jumped out of his skin. He managed to keep from screaming but it was a near thing. Neil had grown perhaps a foot taller. Instead of red curls, his head was covered with green moss and two curving horns sprouted from his forehead. His teeth were wickedly sharp and his eyes were slitted and glowed like a cat’s.
“Oh,” Neil said, looking down at himself. “I wondered if this was a possibility.”
Aaron drew his sword and held it, arm unwavering, tip held at Neil’s throat. “What is this? Is it a trap? Are you a double agent?”
“Shit, now is not a good time to have this conversation,” Neil said. “We need to get out of the open.”
“Fuck no, I am not going anywhere with you. You’re a...you’re a Troll,” Aaron stuttered.
“Half Troll actually,” Neil said. He grabbed Aaron’s arm and dragged him over the bridge and toward some kind of burrow in the cave wall.
Aaron dug his heels in but Neil didn’t even notice. He was tempted to use the sword and run but he was in no hurry to lose his only possible ally in this place.
Neill shoved Aaron in first and looked around carefully before ducking in after. “Well, I'm really more like a half Changeling. My father was a full Changeling and he married my mother. Changelings and humans aren’t supposed to be able to have children but he found a strange stone on his travels and the magic enabled her to conceive and tada!” Neil half-heartedly made jazz hands in the dim light.
“That is fucked up,” Aaron said. “Did Andrew know?”
“Of course Andrew knows. I don’t keep secrets from him,” Neil said. “He trusts me. You should too. Working together is the best chance we have at getting Andrew back.”
Aaron didn’t want to, but he knew Neil was right. “How do we find the flower?” he asked.
Neil pulled out yet another piece of lined paper, this one containing a crude drawing. “I have a map.”
“From your still unnamed source?” Aaron asked.
Neil nodded and bent over the map. “We’ll need to blend in as much as possible. I hate to say it but you probably want to put your armor away.”
“And leave myself unguarded?” Aaron asked.
“I’ll protect you,” Neil said. “Trust me.”
Surprisingly, Aaron realized he did, even in spite of his misgivings. He took a deep breath and released the armor, leaving himself dressed in plain black. He felt completely and utterly vulnerable. “Can’t you just make a portal and take us right to the flower?” he asked.
“Sorry, the magic doesn’t work down here. The rules are a little different in the Darklands,” Neil said. “I didn’t even bring it with me.”
Neil popped his head out of the cave and looked around. After a moment, he gestured for Aaron to follow him and he started on a quick pace. Aaron had to jog to keep up.
Aaron really regretted not having a good night’s sleep before setting out. He was already flagging. His mouth felt dryer than bone dust and a quickly evolving migraine pulsed behind his right eye. Neil didn’t slow but he did hand Aaron a water bottle from his pack.
The relief was short lived. This place, this giant yet claustrophobic place sucked the very life from him. He couldn’t imagine being imprisoned here for a day, much less eternity.
Eventually Neil stopped. “I think...yeah, if you look straight up here, you can just see it.”
Aaron peered upward at the rock face. Neil must have better night vision because after about twenty feet, the wall dissipated into darkness and Aaron could not spot a single living thing.
“I’ll take your word for it,” Aaron said bitterly before taking another deep swallow from the water bottle.
Neil shrugged and set his hands to the wall, quickly climbing up and disappearing into the gloom. Aaron turned his back to the wall and peered out, making sure no one was coming. He could hear nothing in the emptiness except the occasional scuffle above him when Neil’s stealth failed him.
Eventually those sounds grew louder again and Aaron could tell Neil was coming back down. Finally he was standing on solid ground again and triumphantly holding a flower. It looked somewhat like a morning glory but it was black as night.
“Can we go now?” Aaron asked.
Neil wrapped it up and stowed it carefully in his pack. “Ready when you are.”
The trip back was just as quiet. Aaron couldn’t believe their luck. They hadn’t seen a single living creature the whole time they had been in the Darklands. He could see the gate now. They were going to come out of this unscathed. He reined his thoughts in, knowing he was tempting fate, but it was already too late.
A voice echoed strangely across the bare, black plain. “Nathaniel.”
Neil’s eyes went wide. He shed his pack and shoved it into Aaron’s arns. “Run,” he whispered hoarsely.
“What? No! I’m not leaving you,” Aaron protested. “For the glory of Merlin, daylight is mine to command.” The armor appeared and Aaron held up his sword, ready to fight alongside Neil.
“You have to save Andrew. Nothing matters if you don’t bring him back to life. I’ll hold them off.” Neil smiled bravely and pulled two long knives from somewhere on his person.
“Neil,” Aaron tried one more time but he could see swiftly moving shapes in the darkness and Neil had a stubborn look on his face that was so much like his brother’s that his heart ached to see it.
“Go, Aaron,” Neil said. “Tell Andrew…” but his voice was lost to the groaning of rock and the shouting of Trolls as they came closer.
Aaron turned and sprinted for the gate. He didn’t turn to look, knowing he couldn’t let Neil’s sacrifice be in vain.
“The Trollhunter is getting away!” A harsh voice sounded behind him and Aaron put on an extra burst of speed, even though his legs felt like jello.
He sprinted through the gate, knowing that whoever was following him might be close enough to come through with him. He didn’t stop until the light went dark behind him and he whirled around to see if anything else had made it through.
He wasn’t alone in the room. A towering Riko appeared from the shadows, craggy mouth stretched in an unnatural smile, giant sword carried over one imposing shoulder, voice like breaking stone. “You are going to tell me how you did that.”