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Dust to Dust

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“Awakening” is not the proper word for your sudden existence. “Activating”, perhaps. “Beginning” more so. You dimly recall that this isn’t your first time, but the memories are as faint as smoke. There is only the now, and your mission, your reason for existence unspools in your mind.

*You have been assigned to a being called The Fallen Child.
*The Fallen Child has a very important mission. Be sure it is accomplished.

You find the the Fallen Child face down in a pool of goldenrod, barely illuminated by a stream of light from above. Their designation is very literal - here is a child, fallen from above. That, and the fact that there are no others here makes it easy to identify them.

The child stirs, bringing themselves to their feet with the aid of a long and sturdy branch. For a moment they stand there, eyes peering into the shadows surrounding them, and then their gaze settles on you. They step back, seemingly startled, but fear gives way to understanding. There is a hesitant nod of acknowledgement, a permission granted without words.

You take up the strings and lead the child into the dark.

---

Determination.

It’s a power the Fallen Child overflows with. It edges their weapons, turning soft wood and dull plastic into something hard and sharp. It’s a feeling you recognize, the power of growth and change, funneled into physical form as sheer power.

The monsters of the ruins have their own strange ways of attacking, swarms of insects and spheres of light that assault the Child’s very core - but their patterns are predictable, and the Child trusts you to guide them through the onslaught, and to steady their hand as they strike their return blow. With every victory, their determination grows.

It isn’t long before the monsters stop coming, and the ruins are left coated with their white dust. The Child too is dusty with powder, turning the bright stripes of their clothing into muted grey. It’s a look you’ve seen before, long ago, and it tugs a word from distant, faded memories.

Pure.

You can’t put words to the feeling that word inspires.

The guardian of the ruins falls swiftly before the determination of the Fallen Child. The monster doesn’t understand - she speaks of hatred, of protecting the world beyond the door.

She doesn’t understand that it is not hatred that drives the Fallen Child forward. It’s duty.

The child steps through the dust, the plastic knife playing easily through their fingers, and doesn’t look back.

---

There’s something about the skeleton that bothers you.

Not the tall one, obviously. That one is almost laughably incompetent, obsessed more with puzzles than anything else. The Fallen Child doesn’t bother to play along with its games, and you allow it - there’s no challenge to them, no real consequence. The tall one’s growing frustration phases neither of you.

No, it’s the short one that bothers you.

It has a way of moving without moving, of always being one step ahead that you’ve seen only once before. It’s clearly the more observant of the two skeletons despite its lazy manner, but it’s not until later that you understand just how observant it is.

“If you keep going the way you are now… you’re gonna have a bad time.”

And just before the entire world blinks and the skeleton is gone, you see that it’s not the Fallen Child it's looking at when it speaks.

It’s you.

---

The town is empty, its inhabitants purified or vanished into the woods. The Fallen Child helps themselves to the things they’ve left behind before moving on, following the muddied footprints marking the path of exodus.

You’re only mildly surprised to find the taller of the skeletons blocking your path - it was clear that at least one of them would be the guardian of this place. You thought it would be the short one.

You don’t understand why it tries to appeal to the Fallen Child, choosing to speak rather than fight. Leaving itself open turns out to be its final mistake, and the Fallen Child’s sharp jab knocks the skeleton’s head clear off. Even then, as the skeleton’s body fades away, it is more sadness than anger that colors its words.

The white dust scatters across the snow, covering the muddy track. The Fallen Child brushes off what they can from their gloves and moves on.

---

The caves are dark and damp, and its guardian chooses to bring the battle to you, chasing and nipping at your heels.

You are accompanied by a monster that attaches itself to the Fallen Child like a magnet. You chose to leave it be, which turns out to be a good decision. It seems that every time the guardian of the caves approaches, the monster is there to draw its attention. It’s almost a pity when it makes a weak attempt on the Fallen Child’s life. They try to make it quick.

However, the hunting guardian takes the blow in the monster child’s stead, allowing it to flee.

It is a blow that should’ve been fatal, but the guardian is made of stronger stuff than the rest of the monsters. Rather than dissolve, its dust holds together, shifting into a new form. You recognize the glue holding it together - determination, a weak echo of what fills the Fallen Child.

It is the first challenge you’ve had in a long time, and it is the first time the Fallen Child falls in battle. The flurry of sharp-tipped magic is relentless, and it isn’t long before one spear too many slips past your guard. You watch as the Fallen Child’s soul shatters, and the world fades around you.

Just as suddenly, it stops, and the child stands on the bridge once more, clutching their uninjured chest. The monster child approaches again, and the sequence of events repeat. It shakes you at first, but then you remember - this isn’t new to you, either.

This time, the dust of the cave guardian is carried away by the howling wind.

---

The damp caves give way to sweltering geothermal heat, but the Fallen Child shows no discomfort as they walk the paths that wind over the molten earth. It is nearly abandoned, and even the guardian that the machine names is gone, fleeing with the other monsters to a place of safety. It is a disappointment, a delay in your duty, but there are still the stragglers. The white dust burns away in the heat, becoming grey ash that drifts in the heat like a fog. The journey has made the Fallen Child stronger, more resilient, and the knife-sharp edge of their determination cuts through monsters in droves.

There are some that the child ignores, watchers that the child doesn’t even see. You notice them though, grey as the dust. They feel familiar, and you wonder if they’re like you, beings sent here with a mission. You wonder if this is what happens to those who fail.

They speak in whispers of a scientist, of the Core, of an unseen listener scattered across time and space itself. You do your best to ignore them, but the feeling of being watched chills you deeper than the heat of the lava can reach.

---

The Core feels like an ending. The Fallen Child feels it too, cutting their way through the attacking monsters with thinly veiled impatience. You think you recognize some of them, back from when this all began, but they don’t last long enough for you to confirm, and what attention you have left is consumed with the task of keeping the Fallen Child alive and moving.

By the time they reach the Core’s end, they are more battered than ever before, but determination keeps them moving forward. The robot that stands in their way puts on a show, calling itself a guardian of the world. In the end, they aren’t even a bump in the road.

There’s only one more place to go.

---

The city is empty but for a flower, which follows along as the Fallen Child walks along the abandoned streets. It knows them, or at least it thinks it does - the Fallen Child gives it no acknowledgement either way. There is nervousness in its words, no matter how hard it tries to conceal it.

Even so, you can’t help but sympathize with it a little. Anyone would be nervous in the pure grey wasteland of a bustling city, with nothing but the whispers of the dead and the tolling of the bells to accompany them. It won’t be long before worse things move in to take their place.

---

You were right to fear the skeleton.

It gives you a languid grin as it stands in your way, its eyes glinting through the sharp shadows of the sunlit hallway. Not at the Fallen Child, who plays dully with the knife in their hands, shifting on their toes in anticipation of imminent motion. It’s you he speaks to, asking questions of morality.

You should have recognized what it was from the start. There was a Judge last time, too.

It raises the field of battle, and what comes next is an onslaught you can hardly register before it burns the child’s HP to nothing, and time snaps back to the beginning of the golden hall. The hands of the Fallen Child tremble for a moment before you steer them down the hall once more, the death erased from the world.

He sees the look on your face, and mocks you anyway.

---

You lose count of the number of times the skeleton has set you back, long after he stops counting himself. It frustrated you once, having to throw yourself against the spray of magic he flings at the Fallen Child, only to fail and have to face his grinning mask once again. Now though, you’ve begun to see the patterns, to understand how to escape the linear progression of his assault. You break through his barrage, damaged but alive, and take a moment to enjoy the startled look in his eyes.

He presses onward, every blow leaving a lingering pain that shivers across the strings, and your fleeting victory is swallowed up by darkness once more.

---

The Fallen Child’s determination is an endless well. Even as you find your own energy flagging through constant stops and starts, they push onwards, and you let yourself be carried by the wave.

Throughout it all, the skeleton keeps talking. To you, and not the Fallen Child, even as he throws volley after volley of magic their way. He meanders with his words (somewhere in your mind you understand that is simply the way of a Judge), and you do your best to push past them, but they wear on your mind like water on a stone.

He knows what your mission is, what the Fallen Child is to do. You are met by his opposition, and it is fiercer than anything you’ve faced in the past.

What have you done, P̶̢͢͞l̢͢a̸̢҉̷͟y̸҉͘͠͠e͏͞r̵̢̀̕͢?

You’ve done this all before.

---

Sans gives you a choice. Every fibre of your being screams trap.

And yet, you find yourself considering his offer.

The Fallen Child looks at you - the first time they’ve done so since you first took up the strings. They speak no words, but the message comes through clear. This choice is yours, and yours alone.

You don’t know if it’s curiosity that compels you, or some distant echo of memory dragged from the darkness between each reset.

When the trap springs shut, you can’t even bring yourself to be angry. There was never a choice to begin with, was there?

Right?

---

The next time the choice is offered, you don’t take the bait.

“i guess that means we never really WERE friends, huh?”

He speaks the truth, of course. These creatures were never your friends. There was always only the mission.

The words cut anyway, sending a chill crawling up your spine.

Did you have a choice?

---

In the darkness between resets, a thread winds away, gleaming, into the darkness.

You are gone before you can investigate where it leads.

---

He swings at you too now, sending the burn of karma coursing through your veins. There is no time to think or rest between volleys like this - there is only the back and forth of combat and the constant fight against the clock.

Sans speaks of a special attack. You wonder what he could possibly have left.

---

He has nothing, and you have no defense against it.

You rage uselessly against the borders of your prison. Sans has turned the rules of this world against you, and you have no weapon against it.

Nothing except to reset.

---

You fight your way to the end once more, but you can’t change what is already set in stone. Sans traps you again in a turn that never progresses.

You’re so tired of this.

---

It turns out you aren’t the only one who’s tired.

---

Sans bleeds red. In the monotone of the battlefield, there is nothing more striking.

You don’t see him die, but you know when it happens all the same.

---

You leave the battlefield. The golden hallway fades - slowly, but surely, the color will drain away. Soon, your mission will be fulfilled. And yet...

There is no joy in the victory, only a hollowness that the fading sun can’t warm. The Fallen Child looks ahead to the end, but you find yourself looking back instead. The completion of the Fallen Child’s mission, of your mission, is only a step away. And yet here at the end of it all, you find yourself hesitating to move forward.

Did you have a choice?

The Fallen Child waits patiently for your decision.

Do you have one now?