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Refuse and Regret

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            The King awoke on the floor of a crumbling hall, his robes strewn around him as if he had been thrown there. His light cast dim echoes across the braces of the castle, where they curved overhead like nothing so much as a broken ribcage. Distant beyond was the shadowed ceiling of the Basin.

            His hand found a fallen column before it did the ground, and he pulled himself slowly to his feet. He straightened his clothes with precise motions, and, at the same time, assembled his thoughts with much a similar demeanor.

            He had perished, without intention to reform. Of course that meant little. It had meant little when he had tunneled across the wastes centuries ago to discard his body at the edge of this kingdom, and it meant little when he had arranged himself on his throne for the last time. One, he had gathered his essence willfully about him, precisely, and reassembled within his own shell, to climb out the empty mouth and onward. The other, he had quite simply allowed himself to scatter in all directions, to drift, unknowing, in so fine a dispersing to be unable even to dream.

            He had perished within the halls of his castle, not the true structure, but something woven of its dimensions and twisted by threads of dream, with one of the knight moulds to serve as anchor. Those, perhaps, were the answer to being dragged back; that dream he had woven of his own essence, thoughtlessly. He had a great deal of it to spare, and had not thought to unweave the dream of the palace.

            Had not thought?

            No, that was simply an inaccessible notion. It would be unseemly to maintain only the throne room, and he could not have simply flung his corpse into Hallownest. What entity, beyond even the lens of his sight, could possibly have plucked those lingering strands of essence, and used them to reign in his drifting awareness?

            And to what end?

            He paced through the castle grounds, and observed. The physical parts of the structure had been ejected, as if by force, from the mould-dream; the violence and scale of the action left it looking not particularly like a building at all. No trace of the gardens, no leaf or flower, but the stone, metal, and shell components were all there, tossed astray. The action seemed nearly petulant, he thought, observing the remains of a colonnade, three formerly parallel pillars, two resting in a broken heap ten feet away, another flung thirty in the opposite direction.

            Nearly like a child’s tantrum.

            The Basin beyond appeared undisturbed. Indeed, it was pleasingly exactly as he had left it, much as it had remained for thousands of years. This very oldest part of the kingdom, this primordial if flawed seed from which all of Hallownest had sprouted- it did not care for change. The mere effort to refine it enough to build the palace here had taken teams of bugs nearly everything they had.

            It was, in the face of the confusing change to his palace, a reassuring assertion of the nature of the world. No one could simply will the Basin to restructure itself.

            And in this bubble of consolation, he nearly tripped on a flower.

            ‘Tripped’ was perhaps too generous. His leading foot hooked a fragile stem, and, had he completed the stride, he didn’t doubt he would have uprooted it entirely from the stone. Instead, he extricated himself cautiously, took a step back, and knelt to study it from a more appropriate angle.

            Flora was not precisely his domain; he had never quite mastered the intricacies of it, but he could understand immediately this was a rare and valuable one. He had once known a Knight who tended such plants: their shimmering, pale petals, thinner than the material of his own wings, forming a broad, circular head.

            But this… he traced his fingers under the flower. The petals were edged in black. On closest scrutiny, thin veins of it ran through each, only joining together into the sable border. The pistil, too, was dyed black.

            After a moment, he shifted his grip downward and tugged on that stem he’d encountered. To his surprise, it wasn’t fragile at all- rather, it resisted his pull with supple strength, and reproached him with a bite of thorns.

            What had become of this flower? It had permutated beyond anything possibly found in Ze’mer’s garden. And why here- in the Basin, a place antagonistic to most forms of life? The only sort of things that naturally dwelled this far down were-

            …No, it couldn’t be.

            He leaned forwards with renewed vigor, drove a spark of his own light down into the tip of his fingers and pushed it against the stem.

            As if a maw that had tasted something bitter, it spat back; the flower’s head bent heavily to the side, its stem nearly snapped. But, a moment later, in that characteristic fluid manner, it reconnected itself; sutured.

            He recalled his own notes.

            The substance of the Abyss. Easily scattered by concentrated light. But the greater the concentration, the greater its power to resist, to flow back as if it were never stricken. Even fairly powerful light-giving entities, like the charged lumaflies endemic to the Teacher’s Canyons, can be overwhelmed and consumed by a comparable mass of void ichor.

            His own revival was worrying. The destruction of the palace was perplexing.

            But this?

            This was a problem.

            The Abyss was ungoverned. If it had a mind, he had never once observed its thoughts. Like any fluid, it would fill containers; unlike most, it would creep freely up the rocks that confined it to seek new ones. But this, he thought, flexing his stinging hand; the stem was not a vessel. There was no plant matter to form that shape; this was something the Void had learned and recreated.

            Learned.

            Been taught?

            He proceeded past the flower.

            The Basin was not, in fact, unchanged. It almost was, long enough for him to fan his wings and descend a short distance from the Palace Grounds- but as soon as he landed, there was another one of those flowers. This one was not even orderly in the structure of the void- it was heavily shadowed on one side, the other nearly pristine. It grew from the wall above his head, sprouted from a thick vein of Void cut into the wall.

            His hand was still prickling and burning faintly from the rebuke of the first one, so he made no attempt to touch this stem. He doubted he could cut it down, anyway.

            He had to find its root.

            Patches of the path had crumbled away, leaving whorls of pale spikes. His light reflected across their surface, but they were simple to fly over. Despite this, he found himself tired by the end of the third pit.

            He didn’t waste time catching his breath, as the rest of the descent could be managed without flight. A Shadow Creeper passed, its glassy blue eyes boring into him as it climbed, at the same untroubled, inexorable pace as it always had.

            Blue eyes.

            Not orange.

            He tucked his fingers under the creature’s belly and hefted it off the wall. Its many legs wriggled, seeking the surface it had been deprived of before it simply settled in place.

            The Creepers had always been strange creatures. They didn’t particularly fear death, or seem oriented towards any one thing. They always seemed to have a destination in mind, so he could only gather that, somehow, they thought in a way he couldn’t sense. It was unlike a wild animal to resign itself to being held, turned over, prodded with light.

            He did not feel Her influence. It was, as much as he could gather, wholly uninfected.

            He placed the Creeper back on the wall, where it resumed its pace as if it had not been interrupted in the slightest.

            It shouldn’t worry him, the absence of the plague. It had been something he’d once worked towards, after all.

            And yet, it was merely another unknown to the situation. Another factor he did not understand. It left him to senseless worries, useless thoughts that chased each other around the back of his mind.

            He knew he was drawing close to the Abyss when the already stagnant air of the Basin turned truly motionless. Neither warm nor cold, humid nor dry, the deep tranquility at the very bottom of the world. Each breath that stirred its particles felt like an intrusion, and the air thus drawn in felt peculiar in the lungs.

            There were more flowers here. Some of them grew two or three a vein, wound through the spiraling figures of the rock. The staining of the flowers was even more uneven- some were blotched as if by a fungal infection, others pristine save for a cluster of black petals.

            Deterioration?

            No. They grew upward from the darkness below. That he was sure of.

            Evolution.

            Something had begun in the Abyss, and had perfected its art as it climbed higher. A harmonious blending of void, with a holy power that should have by all means routed its existence immediately.

            Not consumption, not mutual destruction, but stability. Containment.

            He had rested enough; he hastened onward.

            And came to a halt.

            There stood a portal, twice his height, emblazoned with the four-pointed crown and spike, the tablet standing beside it.

            Our pure Vessel has ascended.

            Beyond lies only the refuse and regret of its creation.

            We shall enter that place no longer.

            As if his past self stood before him, ordering him to halt.

            He remembered a child’s mask, lifted towards him. Obediently, patiently, nail on their back, dusty cloak about their shoulders. Following him forwards, out of the Abyss. No complaint, no protest. Trusting, enduring.

            A much larger mask, its eyeholes watching him with the same attentive air, as the Black Egg closed.

            Cowardice forced his foot back a stride.

            He looked down at his hands, was surprised to find them shaking. Useless behavior. He bid them still, returned to his scrutiny of the door. He had forsaken much, but not the Brand, the mark his first and most eventful rebirth had left on the palm of his hand.

            He had created this, this door, this seal, this epitaph at the forgotten bottom of the kingdom. He, alone, could will it aside.

            He regained the ground he had retreated across, lifted his hand, and hesitated.

            The symbol on the door had turned black.

            The bottom of the spike’s point wept onto the floor, black liquid that ran around the seam. It did not reflect the light his body shed; rather, it continued to drip, until the drip became a flow, the flow a cascade, then a deluge.

            The portal did not shatter in light, did not burst outwards as something of its power befit. Instead, it simply bubbled away into nothing, until the flow of void had, itself, abated.

            The abyss stood open.

            He lowered his arms, cautiously, from where he had thrown them up to protect his face. That had been unwise, considering what would have happened if the mind directing that torrent had meant him ill. He would have fared better than his creation, certainly, but it was clear:

            Something here was aware of him.

            In that light, the destruction of the door was not a suggestion, but a demand.

            That, surprisingly, soothed his nerves. It was at a measured stride, the faintest whisper of his robes over the stone, that he proceeded onto the tongue of the Basin that jutted over the Abyss.

            Just the way that he had entered, and left it, many times before. He could nearly remember the precise footfalls, recreated them, joints and toe claws aligning, for that moment, with their own phantoms.

            This time, he did not stand back, waiting for little, pitch black hands to grasp the edge and haul themselves up. Instead, he stepped all the way to the edge himself, and looked down.

            A waft of emptiness rose to meet him.

            He spread his wings and fell.