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Zero at the Bone

Chapter Text

It was dark when he came to the Barrier, a distant rumble of intermittent thunder in the distance, like empty funeral urns rolling down a long slope. He was alone, picking his way quickly under the dripping cedar branches. He’d separated from the others days before to lure the following humans off their trail and still hadn’t caught up, but he could pick up traces of magic from the stones and grass near the cave mouth, so he knew they’d reached the Barrier. They had probably entered the Underground by now. But he had to check.

As he reached the cave mouth he paused to be sure that he was alone, then sang a verse of The Rosemary Tree. Quiet. He walking into the darkness, both eyes glowing a sharp mulberry to signal his presence.
“Hello?”
They’d gone. Good. But now he felt lonely. It always felt like an empty world at the end of a run—fewer and fewer monsters to guide to their new home and all the humans either dead, locked indoors, flagellating themselves in the squares or trying to kill you. Oh, plenty of them were still out and about, keeping that up. Gaster thought they might have given it a break, what with the war being over (and decidedly in their favor) and their own numbers dwindling so rapidly with the plague—some said it was the judgement of God on them for attempted genocide. Some blamed the monsters themselves. And of course, some of them blamed the Jews.

If God was judging them, he certainly wasn’t discriminating. Though maybe things were better beyond the Barrier. He hadn’t been through, because he could still lend his help as a guide on the Surface, but things were probably going great down there, with all the monsters banding together to help each other. He hoped.

No answer from the cave except the quiet purr of the Barrier’s energy from deeper down, hidden behind curves of rock. They were gone. Gaster let his eyes dim and started to step backwards when he sensed motion in front of him and froze.

Something metallic cut into his skull above his right eye. The force knocked him down onto his face. He lost consciousness for a moment, then hearing something moving through the air above him, rolled quickly to the side. There was a crash on the stone where he’d been lying. He flattened himself onto the floor, skull throbbing, and buried his hands in some light substance that covered the rock.

Somewhere deeper in the cave he heard flint being struck, then there was a blaze of light, and he realized that he was surrounded by humans. The right side of his field of vision was darkened, and everything was blurred with the particles he was lying in. They’d been stirred up by his movement. It smelled a bit like dust.

It was dust.

The world reeled back into focus and he recognized his situation. The human closest to him was raising an axe. Streaks of ectoplasm from his skull darkened the blade. He manifested his shield in a frantic burst which knocked the human into the air, the axe flying. Gaster quickly stretched it to force the other humans out of his way, then dropped it and ran. A crossbow bolt whizzed past his elbow from a dark crevice as he passed, but there was the Barrier, a dark-light-dark pulsating wall of energy with the surrounding rocks outlined in sharp relief. He’d almost reached it. Thank God.

Another crossbow bolt caught him in the side of the pelvis and knocked him down. Of course it did, he thought.  

He got up stiffly. Just a few more feet and he could touch it. Ignore the pain.

Almost.

He heard one of the humans running towards him, but they weren’t within striking distance. Gaster reached out, but then heard the whizz of a spear.

The world seemed to split into tiny fragments, then slowly piece itself back together. He looked down at the point of a spear which had split his sternum, the most sensitive bone on a skeleton’s body. Funny, he thought clearly, that he hadn’t noticed the pain.
It had transfixed his soul on its trip through his ribcage, then his hands, which he must have thrown up in some desperate attempt to block it.  
…So that was what it felt like when one’s soul cracked. Oddly sensual. A release of everything he’d spent his life clinging to. Memories, hopes and dreams, color and taste and scent melting away from him like his body, which was turning to dust before his eyes.
He didn’t realize that he was falling forwards until he hit the Barrier, which was a shock. His body froze, and then it left him.

Wis the cat monster watched the huge monster before him tear down sections of cave wall with lashes of rock-rending heat, exposing large sections of the Barrier. Wis’ body appeared entirely relaxed, his well-groomed grey fur lying flat, paws tucked up his sleeves. Only the tip of his tail showed his tension in its metronomic back-and-forth drift. The other monster stopped and took a few steps backwards to stare up at the Barrier.
“You can’t bring it down alone,” Wis said gently. “No one can. Calm yourself. This will accomplish nothing.”
The monster snarled at him and flung a fireball into the Barrier, which swallowed it up silently, and a moment later spit it back out. It disappeared over their heads in a flare of light through the darkness. The huge monster was breathing heavily. Wis watched his shoulders rise and fall as he stared down the Barrier.
He was drunk on EXP and desperation, a bad combination at the best of times, but lethal for someone as powerful as this monster was. But he had let Wis get close and talk to him, which was an improvement. Wis hoped that he’d eventually tire himself out by attacking the Barrier, and that if he wasn’t interrupted again, he might snap out of it.
Then again, maybe this was only an interlude in his rampage. He always came back to rage at the Barrier. But so far it had been the scene of repeated and ineffectual ambushes. The King and Queen had been desperate to subdue him and stop the carnage. It had probably made things worse, Wis thought. There were some forces, like gravity, like plague, that it was useless to try to fight. You had to let them sped their strength.
Or if you were Wis, you could volunteer to try to talk them down.

The Barrier hummed, and the monster’s head swung up. Wis followed his gaze, tail stilling in concentration. The Barrier flickered, pulsing with energy. Something was coming through from the Surface. He couldn’t see what yet. He watched as the Barrier shifted through dark to light and back again. He still couldn’t see what it was. Frowning, he watched it shift again, and then, just as it was passing through its brightest stage, a form flickered—as if fading in and out of reality—in its center. A very tall, thin form. Then it was lost again.
The huge monster gave a low gasp and his bright body flickered and turned several shades lighter. He stepped close to the Barrier. Wis’ tail twitched twice sharply.
“Let him come through, big guy, he hasn’t done anything to you.”
They needed this monster alive, whoever he was. There were far too few of them. And this was a boss monster, judging from his height. The fiery monster’s head whipped around and he prepared a magical attack.
“.L..E.A..V..E...U..S.S...”
He snarled. Wis let his body relax and gazed, eyes half-closed, lower than the huge monster’s line of sight, purring softly, soothingly. A third of his tail jerked slowly from side to side, three times, then he gave a faint sigh of relief as the half-formed fireball faded away beneath the huge monster’s fingers. But where was the monster from the Surface? They should have come through by now.

Dust began to fall from the Barrier, first a small trickle, then sheets. The huge monster stood motionless in the rain, palms up, as if trying to catch it. Wis watched silently. The tip of his tail had resumed its metronomic waving.
Then a body appeared, so abruptly it seemed to have been snapped into existence just outside the Barrier’s surface, and tumbled into the huge monster’s arms, where it lay in a cloud of dust. The huge monster caught and held it without moving, as if in shock.
.G..A.A..A.S..S..T.E..R..?
Wis took a step forwards and sensing it the fiery monster snarled at him. A wall of heat sprang up. Wis tumbled backwards and sprinted away on all fours. He knew when he’d overstayed his welcome.

When he felt safe he stopped and gave a few cursory licks to the scorched places on his fur, then looked back towards the Barrier. A wall of light hovered between him and it.
That was a shield. He’d never seen that monster use shield magic before. What was even more puzzling was the wisp of green he’d seen just before he ran. He could have sworn it was healing magic.

 

A/N: This is… sort of an AU of an AU.
It borrows heavily from AmberTale, the AU connected with my CORE fic, but there’s more major canon divergence and the characters are slightly different.
Also it got darker. Heads up, I’ll be dealing with heavy stuff. Probably too heavy for me, I’m a lightweight. Humor me. 
Not sure what the update schedule will be, but it should be -much- shorter than CORE. More like an outline of how I see things going down in this AU than a really involved story. I’m going to view it as a side project.
What say you?

The title is a line from Emily Dickinson's Poem 986 (or 1096 in some versions) describing her feeling when meeting a snake. 

Several of Nature's People 
I know, and they know me—
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality—

But never met this Fellow 
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing 
And Zero at the Bone—