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Refuse and Regret

Chapter Text

            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.

Chapter Text

            He was greeted in the depths by a host of dark eyes.

            He had been looking, first, where he was about to land, and that was how he met the first pair of them, a cracked mask that shifted and groaned underfoot but held. He would not have trodden on his own handiwork, if not for the fact there was nowhere else to stand. A field of material, like so many bones, stretched as far as the eye could see.

            It had looked so orderly, so clean, when he had first consigned the area to be what it had became. Perhaps it was only fair, to witness the results.

            The masks made for precarious footing. They creaked, slid about, were slick with the residue of void or sharp from fragmented pieces. Packed on themselves, they formed a solid layer. His robe’s already woebegone hem caught and tore on a shard of porcelain.

            The flowers grew thick and wild here, in active rebellion of natural plants. Here and there dense clusters of stems wove themselves into the shape of trees, putting out silvery leaves alongside the stained blossoms. Others curled densely into bushes, or hung down from the rock above like ivy.

            A garden of the abyss, flaunting stolen light. And here and there, fossilstone had been shaped, hewn into planters and trellises.

            Cautiously, he ran his hand over some of the gray leaves. Who would have created such a thing?

            Her?

            No. He knew Her work too well, had seen it twist and force its way through the flesh and shell of his own, those most repugnant pulsing growths swollen, weeping with Her light. Such delicate craft may not have been beyond Her once, but now, so long, so deep in Her rage and hatred, he was quite skeptical She would create something like this.

            His lady?

            The flowers were not of her make, but she would be better-posed to emulate them.

            She had never seemed to care much for the Abyss. But perhaps it was not the sea that offended her; perhaps, instead, it had been his work that had affronted. She had begun to distance herself, around that time. The spaces in their conversations had stretched longer; he had caught her lingering in the nursery, staring at the cradle, long after it had been vacated, an emotion he could not understand in her eyes.

            But if that was the case, his work was here, not merely left but indelibly worked into the very substance of the environment; up ahead the detritus of the masks were pounded flat into a path, arranged carefully so that each visage faced upwards, overlapping in lines of accusatory eyes. In other places, they had been smoothed down and placed up on the walls- again, carved precisely, the shape of the horns preserved.

            A burial mound, he realized.

            The position of the masks resembled that of a burial mound. Clusters on the walls. Pavers of it on the floor. Only this one, larger than any other in Hallownest’s history, contained such a prodigious amount of remains that they remained heaped beside the roads, overtaken by the peculiar brambles of abyss.

            Would she have made such a thing? It struck him as unlike her. Then again, his hands found the clasp of his robe.

            And paused.

            The clasp was empty.

            For years, he had worn a fragment there, sometimes run his thumb over it in thought, merely a piece of a larger thing, half of a whole, of potential; a reminder, of promise made, of a kingdom both united and divided.

            He would have noticed the moment it left his body, and, yet, he found himself patting the front of his body, retracing his steps as if it were an ordinary thing that could merely be dropped. He had made his way back up the path, eyes lowered to the ground in preoccupation until he realized, sensed more than saw, he was not alone.

            It was surprisingly difficult to discern, this presence; ordinarily, in the still air, the faintest susurrus of life was as good as a scream. But this one was different- it rippled, certainly, but in the way of something mostly underwater putting only its mandibles to the air.

            As if it were part and parcel with the environment that contained it; more grandly, and more uniformly, than the nearly negligible soul of the little Shadow Creepers.

            On the very reflex of feeling observed, he drew himself straight, lofted his head with its crown of sharpened horns, cast his eyes upon whatever might stand before him, robed once in undyed fabric, and again in light.

            The stranger wore a traveler’s cloak, that covered a body much like a bug’s, albeit a tall one. For a singular, sharp moment, he was mistaken about who stood before him- but the head proved him well wrong. The horns lacked serrations; rather than a rigid ‘v’, they rose in smooth curves, forking only at the tip. A shorter set spread outwards from where the corners of the jaw might have been.

            A golden shape, above the brow, pressed into the porcelain of the mask until they were flush with each other, glinting faintly in the abyss’s gloom.

            And those eyes.

            Were he crafting this mask, he knew he would have shaped them as broad ellipses. But these, cruel slashes, eight of them in total; two large, near the top, and three more added on each side. The material underneath each eye socket was tracked heavily with void; and yet he knew with certainty that it saw him clearly- its eyes were not damaged or blinded.

            He could feel the intensity of its focus as surely as if it were touching him personally.

            They stood still there. No breath of wind stirred cloak or robe, nothing moved them, external or inward, but the very slow flutter of breath.

            The Vessel was grown. But he had shaped a matured body only once, carved only one larger mask. It was grown, thus, not by his handiwork.

            It dressed well, he realized, in some subtle-colored fabric that shimmered at the edge of vision, not in the way of light, but like the heat mirages he had seen far beyond Hallownest in his youth. But the lining of the cloak was more worldly, the red silk so prized by Hallownest’s aristocracy since the Weavers had cautiously come to part with it.

            Silk, and gold; the gold ornament in its brow, a gold collar beneath. White crystals twinkling in the clasp of it. Both subtle and obvious in its ornamentation.

            Vessels did not yearn for finery, in his experience. The only one he had ever known had shown no interest in such things, merely faint curiosity and then that, fading to acceptance. It sat dutifully for a tailor to measure the dimensions of its matured body, stood still when the cloak was wrapped about its shoulders.

            But more than this one asserting taste, there was the question of its unnerving presence, and of that barbaric mask.

            He was not entirely certain this was a Vessel at all, or merely something else, in the likeness of one.

            But for what reasons would a creature impersonate a Vessel?

            On the other hand, what forces would act to change his handiwork so drastically?

            It was in this moment that the Vessel broke the silence first.

            A gleaming nail arced through the air, its point coming exactly where the King’s head had been a moment before. In the moment it passed before his eyes, he took in the quality of its engravings. Such a thing would have shamed all but the most ostentatious of his retainers.

            The Vessel advanced, passed the nail across its body and then swung again. Its movements were practiced and efficient, there was no time wasted to recoil, and, so, it caught him on the shoulder before his feet had properly alit from his first evasion.

            Pain flowered along the cutting edge of the nail, but, more importantly, from the strength of the swing. He flung, tumbled down a rise of the shattered masks, came to a stop on smooth stone shore.

            Ahead loomed the open water of the Abyss.

            Behind, the Vessel climbed the ridge with thoughtful steps. Unlike him, its cloak ended well above its feet, so it feared nothing from the broken shards. It regarded him, tilted its head in a way that seemed oddly childlike.

            Then its cloak billowed, swam with sudden darkness, and it was bearing down on him with terrifying speed.

            He fanned his wings and slapped them downward against the still air, leaping back away from its strikes. Again, the Vessel proceeded- horizontal strike, then angled, then hilt pressed to the opposite palm and a thrust, all in very little time. They stepped onto the surface of the Void uncaringly; it held them up.

            He had been weakened significantly, he realized; not by the Vessel’s strike, or the prickling of the thorns, but something before his regaining awareness, that had thus slipped unnoticed in the general haze of returning to lucidity.

            The Vessel was quick, and when he pulled back, it leaped easily to follow him upwards, nail raised for an overhead strike he narrowly evaded, tumbling to catch himself on one of the floating stones that formed a broken vertical ladder from the top of the Abyss down. The movement was clumsy, and it slid past, back down to the Abyss, where it landed, still watching him.

            Clumsy?

            No, lazy.

            He recalled a squire of the city watch, using the flat of her nail to juggle a Baldur side to side before realizing she had been observed. A precisely trained individual, skills that had not dulled or been limited but rather restrained, by a lack of desire to end the game so quickly and brutally.

            His injured arm shook under his own weight. He pulled himself to the edge of the stone, looked down towards the Vessel.

            It crouched, cloak spreading around it.

            He didn’t wait for it to leap, but threw himself upwards, zigzagging between the stones until he reached that final platform, grasped its edge with its good arm. Some force, some pressure, seized him from below, tried to pull him off. He tightened his grip, not trying to haul himself up, but simply clung for the moment.

            And then, quite suddenly, it abated.

            He was left to surmount the last of the distance in peace. Peering downward, he could see nothing through the clouds of darkness- no sign of the Vessel.

            If it truly had been a Vessel.

            He clambered to his feet, smoothed his robes by function of reflex (a reflex his shoulder reproached him for rather harshly) and proceeded exactly twelve steps beyond what remained of the Abyss’s door, before dropping to the ground and losing consciousness immediately.

Chapter Text

            The only sensible action, he concluded, once he had regained consciousness, was to put as much distance between himself and the Abyss as possible until such a time as he had discovered the origin of his present state of weakness.

            His arm reminded him he’d left it unattended; it hung limp, joined to the rest of his shell only tenuously. Investigating it with the fingers of his good hand, he discovered it was a rather deep cut, despite how far the impact had thrown him. The fine appearance of the nail had not come at the cost of functionality- it was a brutally efficient cutting edge. He’d do well to steer far clear of it in the future.

            He pushed his shoulder until it had returned to its usual orbit and Focused. Blood became strands of fiber- they stretched across the wound. Bone bloomed, veins spread, the biological sutures that drew the fissure closed.

            The pain abated, but only so much, and he was reminded, again, of his weakness, of the absence of the Kingsoul. It would take multiple Focuses to close the wound entirely.

            For now, just the first would suffice. He needed to move.

            At least the flowers attenuated to nothing before he reached the top of the Basin, the lower tram station. This, at least, of his works, seemed unharmed- at least, he assumed. The tram wasn’t here, but the pass machine was lit, waiting for a fitting token.

            Not that he had one. But that was probably for the best. Much as it might appeal to be swiftly carted away from the Abyss, this tram ran to Deepnest and to the Kingdom’s Edge, neither especially hospitable locations for the weak, and of course, there was the consideration of what would happen if the Vessel caught up to him while he was shut in a confined metal box.

            He may have attempted to die, but, now that he was alive, he hesitated at the idea of entering anything that would quite likely become his coffin.

            Upward to the City it was.

            The elevator had broken, some time in the days of deterioration; its mangled skeleton lay at the bottom of the shaft, and broken pieces of wood hung about like jagged teeth, but the integrity of the structure held enough- it had not collapsed, and, so, he could simply fly upward, along the path the lift had formerly taken.

            He took pause at a carcass strewn across part of the wood, the faded blues of the city watch. As he had before with the Shadow Crawler, he let sparks of light course through her body, studied it in detail.

            Here had been the plague, the pestilence born of Her particular illumination. No doubt that was what had ended the guard’s life, and yet, it had withdrawn from her now- the body was pure.

            Was it?

            His fingers found a gap in the armor, a matching aperture in the flesh beneath. Her blood had congealed, stagnated, but whatever had ended her pestilence-given unlife had done so quickly, precisely, entered under the arm and bit up towards- through- the vital organs, in a single strike.

            Efficient. Bleed the plague rapidly from her veins and render it incapable of returning. He had dispensed similar tactics to his knights, long ago, as a way of dealing with the afflicted when they began to stalk the kingdom’s roads again.

            The echoes of the plague grew louder. He unearthed something, pulled his hand back, now stained dark with blood. Among the dull blue, a fat glob of orange. It rolled from his fingers, rapidly trying to put out legs and scamper off the platform.

            He struck it with a mote of his own light, destroying it entirely. Returned to his study of the guard’s body.

            The Shadow Creepers near the Abyss were pure. Here, this body, had not been- but very little of the plague remained. Less than should have lingered in a reanimated body after its death. Was there something else in her blood?

            He blinked down at the cadaver, not an idle gesture of moistening the eyes but rather, shuffling the various layers that veiled them. One in particular, he retracted, and the world swam violently with color and light.

            He could see fading blots of that pestilence elsewhere in her veins, mired in still blood but sinking hopeful tendrils into the new matrix; if it wouldn’t carry them, perhaps it would be a matrix for growth, thus the ever-hopeful, ever-opportunistic quality of her light. He could anticipate what he would see looking forwards, with the parameters he had set with his mind- the creation of blisters that would fill with fluid, eventually new veins pushing outwards to anchor the guard’s corpse to the platform, eventually the pustules pushing themselves apart with something resembling flesh in the gap, hard structures, perhaps even bone to build on.

            And yet the future he looked into had none of that.

            The shaft remained. Moldered. Over two hundred days in the future, several essential supporting beams gave out, fell prey to moisture and mildew, caved in and the majority of the wood would cave in, crashing to the bottom, but the stone structure would hold until some three hundred days later, when, with a final, groaning, shuddering sigh, the walls would begin to slide towards each other. It could be hastened, perhaps, should parts of the Waterways fail- he knew they were close to this particular structure, had wound around it in the days of the city’s youth, and they could put pressure on these walls, variables his eyes could not discern from this vantage point.

            He closed his eyes, placed himself back in the present, and then looked towards the future again, with particular focus given to the corpse this time.

            As he thought, the lights in her veins swelled and grew, began to pry at her shell in search of more room to spread. Like hideous flowers they bloomed through her flesh, and, then…

            Withered. Turned from vibrant orange to dull brown, faded, brittle. By the time the structure caved in, there was nothing left of the boils besides the disfigurements in the rotted remnants of the guard’s shell.

            He returned to the present, blinked rapidly until both magic and the future were cleared from his gaze entirely. A certain stiffness in the legs he knelt on told him that he had been here some time, still so close to the Abyss, and the hostile Vessel.

            He shook out his wings and returned to the air, coming to the top of the shaft easily. A shallow flight of stairs greeted him, and, from there, the fountain plaza that lay at the center of the City.

            Despite himself, he turned up his palms to greet the rain. Veins of water through the rock yet fed the Blue Lake; the structure of the cavernous roof yet sieved lakewater through its fingers before it cascaded, miles, to the stones beneath him.

            He had not designed that, and yet, it was beautiful. A rare perfect thing of the natural world. In perpetuity, it asked nothing; in practice, an elegant system that required no beating heart to push it. The artistry of it had struck him early in his days in the kingdom, had inspired him to make the capital here, even before his workers had struck through the rock, found the fortuitous chasm that led all the way to the motionless bottom of the world, the endless black sea of the Abyss.

            He proceeded towards the King’s Station, recalling the long shaft leading to the lower reaches of the Resting Grounds.

            A strange name, King’s Station. All of the stations were his, really; their construction, design, the very concept underlying them. But they insisted, of the two large hubs that required names to be put on maps, that this one, in the most affluent quarter of the city, would be the King’s, and, the other, so close to her retreat, the Queen’s. She’d had nothing to do with that sort of thing- little interest in architecture, in the moving and shaping of lifeless things, except as better receptacles for life. The Stagways were, one might argue, a receptacle of life; but not the sort that seized her attention, and her genius.

            The streets had been quite empty. As he expected they might be, given the status of the Abyss, the logical decline of the kingdom, following his failure. Even now, with whatever force was counterbalancing the plague, he could only estimate its death toll. And certainly, he passed his fair share of corpses, to the point that he did not stop to examine them more than cursorily, a prod here, a moment’s vision there. Peculiarly, the corpse of a Great Sentry, lying amidst the shattered pieces of its shield, a broad dark burn marring their armor that had the unmistakable sting of void. The way the water had gathered in the shallows of its helmet told him that it had lain there for some time.

            He was reaching towards it when he sensed, keenly, that he was being observed. He straightened, turned to regard the intruder. Not much detail could be ascertained about them at the distance, but at a glance he could tell they were no Vessel, and too small to be the one from the Abyss.

            As they approached, moving a bit clumsily, he recognized white robes, the pale face and dark eyes of a bug of Hallownest, and the raiment of one of his personal retainers. And not one stricken by the plague, as he could ascertain at a glance. While this was hardly the appropriate environment for an audience, extenuating circumstances were all around them, any one of which in isolation would justify the intrusion.

            “My king,” the words escaped them like air creaking out of a forgotten bellows. “Your light…”

            “What has befallen the city?” His own voice cracked from disuse, protested being raised above a whisper. That was fine, considering the retainer continued to approach him; this close, the bug couldn’t possibly have not heard him. He had never been one to shout, and his servants were well aware of this. “My absence has-”

            The retainer had drawn to an appropriate distance and stopped. That had not caused the King to waste a perfectly good sentence by truncating it shortly. Rather, what had caught the syllable in his throat was the fact that, having reached this proximity, the bug had suddenly lunged across the difference and seized hold of him in a truly shocking gesture of impropriety.

            On faint reflex, he’d raised one of his hands, which unfortunately had not protected him as much as offered a convenient handhold for the stranger. “You’ve returned! You returned to us!”

            There was a certain odor of decay from this bug. He made effort to lean back, but the retainer’s grip had a strength born of religious fervor. “Yes,” he managed, wondering how long it would take before the bug realized how far they’d overstepped themselves and let go of him.

            Instead, to his mounting disquiet, they seemed to be tightening their hold. “Light… light…. My king, my light… it’s been so dark, so dark, so dark…”

            The eyes, he realized suddenly. They had been mere inches from his face, and yet, he hadn’t noticed- their eyes were completely dark, weeping void onto their mask in the facsimile of tear tracks.

            “So dark… so dark…”

            The hand not grasping his wrist climbed his shoulder.

            Figures moved in the shadows of the towers. Others- retainers in white, but also aristocrats in their scarlet robes. All stared fixedly at him with those weeping, shadowed eyes.

            He shook sharply in the grip of the creature holding him. “Let go of me.”

            The retainer clung like a parasite. “Returned, returned, returned…” their words seemed to galvanize the others, and the stumbling precession turned into more of a flood. Hands grasped his arms, his shoulders, feet trod on his robe; reverent palms pressed against his face, jostling, invading. Chatter arose, louder and louder and louder-

            “Light! Our light!”

            Pressing, holding, touching him-

            “Our king!”

            Their grip dug into his shell-

            “So dark, so dark”

            Seizing fistfuls of his clothes, the pale fabric blotted-

            “Save us! Deliver us!”

            Soul flickered across his body.

            “Let,”

            It gathered at his chest, flared, compressed.

            “Go,”

            Lashed out, cut a finite, precise circle in the stone. The mob babbled, heedless, clinging, staring, reeking of death and rot, unclean-

            “Of me!”

            The circle erupted, throwing bodies and dislodged cobbles in all directions. For a single, blessed, beautiful moment, the only thing touching him was the rain once again.

            He’d stumbled in the process, and found that he had some difficulty returning to his feet. The spell had taken too much from him. His vision swam- and in it, he saw one of the thrown retainers beginning to climb to their feet.

            No.

            He drew backward. His foot hit the hem of his robe, slipped, threw him off his balance. He tried to roll with the motion, fall away from them rather than forwards, but more of them were rising, now, still chattering the same inanities. His feet were tangled in cloth and in each other, the claws of them catching on other legs as he tried to force himself to sort it out without distance lost- their hands were already stretched out, towards him, closer.

            He sparked again, cut another circle, knowing he didn’t have the power to bring it to light. Soul exhausted; the darkness took him.

            He collapsed.

Chapter Text

            He awoke to the sound of rain on windows, and the crackle and smell of fire.

            Needless to say, he sat up rather quickly before discovering the flames were localized to a small hearth, although one that had clearly seen both better and worse days before some force had rendered it serviceable once again.

            “Oh, hello,” a cheerful voice offered. “You slept so soundly, I’ll admit I had my doubts you were ever going to wake.”

            The owner of the voice seemed a pill bug of sorts; smooth-faced in a way that suggested youth, but carrying himself with an air of experience. He had the simple raiment of a traveler- a scarf wound round the head and little else, and a heavy, rusted nail hung from his belt, his hand resting on in a way that did not seem precisely distrustful, but certainly well-practiced.

            Regardless of anything else, the bug kept to the other side of the room, his eyes were clear, and he was not babbling about light, all of which, in light of recent events, left the Pale King favorably inclined to his company. “Who are you?”

            Evidently equally heartened by the question, the bug’s hand slid from his nail to dangle comfortably by his side. “My name is Quirrel. I’m something of a wanderer, I suppose.”

            Such a nondescript answer might conceal very little, or it might a great deal. He arranged his robe around himself, and his legs into a proper sitting position. “Searching for something, then.”

            Quirrel’s head turned away from him, looking upward at an angle. Discreetly, the King followed his gaze, but couldn’t discern anything of particular significance. “Well, you aren’t wrong,” he said, looking back as if there had been no significance whatsoever to the motion. “But I’m certainly not at a loss for things to see, wherever I find myself. Not long ago, this world was stirring with one kind of strange life, and now… there’s been quite some shift in the air. It’s easier to navigate the city without the husks of the guards, of course, but those strangers in the street…”

            The King rose, proceeded to the window, and looked down.

            Through the curtain of rain, patches of white and red could be seen, wandering place to place. This was one of the towers overlooking the fountain square, and he could see it was occupied almost thickly enough to pass for how it had looked in its heyday. He could discern common bugs, there, and, more peculiarly, he could see that each echelon kept to themselves. Their movements were restless, unpredictable; a few seized carts, ran, others walked more slowly.

            “Quite like watching the living, isn’t it? Although, not quite. I’ve spoken to a few of these fellows. Their obsessions are all different, but each of them has one.”

            Obsessions.

            Involuntarily, he recalled the grasping hands, the crowding faces. His shell crawled with the sensation.

            “Ah, yes. They were quite taken with you. But I had a feeling you weren’t like them, so I had no choice but to use my nail, and flee up here.”

            There was something about this bug’s tone that was beginning to grate. Perhaps it was the way he spoke of such upsetting things in such an airy, candid way.

            “You killed them, then.”

            “Possibly. It seems unlikely. I didn’t wait to see if they’d stand again, considering I wasn’t sure if you were injured, but these fellows seem a bit more resilient than husks. Fortunate, then, they’re also not as aggressive.” Quirrel eyed him sidelong. “Are you much hurt, by the way? I took more time than I expected securing the area and warming it a bit, so I didn’t have the time to evaluate your condition before you woke.”

            “Irrelevant.”

            The bug looked back to the glass. “If you say so.”

            His reserve of Soul was still replenishing itself at a frustrating crawl. Furthermore, his robe was stained up and down with black handprints; mere residue, lacking the strength of the void, but nonetheless an embarrassing state to be in. The wound in his shoulder remained the most concerning, and that would hold. Perhaps if he’d held off on the initial healing, he would have had enough energy as to not require being dragged away from his own retainers by a commoner.

            A commoner whose irreverent tone either marked a deeper streak of candor than he had suspected, or who seemed, somehow, to not realize who he was dealing with. But that was not a pressing concern. He redirected his attention.

            If this Quirrel spoke truly, then the prudent action was to properly examine one of these creatures- determine if they were alive or dead, and what affliction had seized them, if it was not Her plague. However, that sort of examination was unlikely to be fruitful if he was overwhelmed and collapsed again. Perhaps if he could locate one who was not preoccupied with him, but something else, they would allow themselves to be scrutinized. But there was no particular guarantee that he would not simply land himself in the same situation or worse, if he drew the attention of the retainers.

            An odd situation. He had never been under demand to avoid them. Ordinarily, a single voiced command would send them scuttling from his presence; two, perhaps, if they felt especially impudent.

            “…perhaps,”

            Quirrel had spoken. The King looked to him. “What?”

            “Oh. Never mind then. It must not be bothering you particularly.”

            He blinked, attempting to divine the meaning underlying those words. When nothing appeared forthcoming, he chose instead to place his attention where it seemed prudent.

            Ultimately, the greatest problem was his own weakness. A powerful mind and abundant Soul wanted little for strength of the body; while his mind was clear, his Soul was anything but. Addressing that first, he would be then better equipped to focus on any further concern.

            Quirrel seemed at no particular inclination to leave. If that was the case, he could be useful. “I need to know what has befallen this city. Records, archives. Whatever can be gathered on that matter.”

            “Ah, a scholarly mind, are you?” There was something warm with approval in Quirrel’s tone. “Well. I’m afraid my own is not entirely accessible, yet, and I’ve been long distant from this city until recently. I recall crossing paths with a bug in one of the other towers, called himself something of a relic seeker. Had an impressive little room, lots of stone tablets. He certainly seems like a fellow to ask, in that regard, wouldn’t he?”

            Not entirely accessible. Was that a refusal to help, or a declaration he couldn’t? Either way, how odd, but the rest of his information was more forthcoming. He’d never thought particularly highly of relic seekers- they had always seemed a bit too invasive for his tastes, prying at things that should be left lie, but at the moment, that exact sort of maddening curiosity would serve his needs exactly. “Take me to him.”

            Quirrel paused, looked at him as if in some surprise. “Very well then,” he offered, after a longer pause than the King generally preferred, and set about banking the fire and packing up the camp.

            The floor below was nearly empty. One of the doors was ajar, faint light coming from the crack. Something was creaking rhythmically within. As they passed, it paused, Quirrel halting abruptly, his wary hand returning to the nail. After a moment, it continued, and they, too, proceeded.

            Despite the uncertainties of the situation, it was an easy pattern to return to. If not that he was in the company of a stranger, he could easily imagine this as the way that he had traveled often in the past- attended by knights. Ogrim and Hegemol were unmistakable presences- their footfalls, and Ogrim’s loud, carrying voice could not be imagined in Quirrel’s nearly silent tread. Ze’mer, perhaps, but that was because Ze’mer, for her size, moved so quietly and stood so still that many a time, even he had forgotten she was with him.

            Isma would probably have been trying to make conversation. She had been his Lady’s attendant, more than his; they had the same way of prying at strange topics until quite suddenly they would guess one’s thinking, the way that bugs in long-removed ages had claimed to tell the future from the entrails of beasts.

            Dryya, perhaps. She would prowl ahead of him much the way that Quirrel did, hand on her nail, her armor a beacon, her eyes daring anything before her to stand forth and deny the King and his Knight access.

            They passed into a quiet area, and Quirrel hummed a snatch of something to himself, and the illusion of Dryya disappeared. Studying Quirrel’s back, he could not imagine how he had even drawn the comparison in the first place. This bug was no knight, certainly not one of his.

            Perhaps whatever shift in the air Quirrel had mentioned had affected him, as well. Perhaps, once he arrived at a secure location, he would have to see to the shoulder wound after all, make sure that it was not causing him trouble.

            Lower in the tower were signs of habituation. A sign affixed to the stone, simply made, but with an ornate finial crowning it. Ahead, a closed door, sturdily secured. Quirrel hesitated, stood back, glanced at the King and then motioned to the door, grandly.

            It was in good repair, and the catch yielded easily to the touch. The interior was dark, and something swiftly moved towards him.

            He rounded, raised his hand, gathered light in his fingertips- and the shadow moved back suddenly. His light reflected in clear eyes, albeit, squinted in irritation.

            This must be the relic seeker, then. Well-dressed, with a full, straight beard that lingered nearly to the length of his feet, holding an especially stout stone journal. “Watch it,” he said, dryly, by way of greeting. “I nearly damaged an antique.” Those glinting eyes traveled him up and down in a sweep, and then narrowed in amusement. “Though I suppose if I had hit you, I would have done so anyway- more than you already are, at least.”

            “…I beg your pardon?”

            The relic seeker huffed, audibly, setting the tablet down on an armoire that was sagging under the weight of a dozen others. “I’m neither blind, nor stupid. My profession does trade in your likeness, among other things. Although, granted, it would seem the idols exaggerate certain qualities.”

            As if he had not bald-facedly insulted a god directly, he installed himself into the chair behind his desk with about as much caution as he’d set down the tablet. “So. What does the king of a dead kingdom want with a scavenger looting its corpse?”

            He wanted to say something about being recognized in such a manner, being called a damaged antique, but, when enough shocking behavior was compounded on itself all in one place, when it had been decades since anyone had spoken to him so brazenly and considerably longer since any one of them wasn’t rushed away by attendants apologizing profusely for the intrusion. Sparing Quirrel a look out of the corner of his eye, the bug seeming to not be looking at anything in particular, he somehow doubted that sort of amends were going to be forthcoming.

            Nor prudent.

            The relic-seeker was drumming the chitin of his fingers on the counter. “I’d say something about wasting my time, but, the city’s found a way to inconvenience me with something even greater than blasted husks, so, provided you can pay me for my time somehow, it’s all yours.”

            He had purpose. Objective. A plan. He reminded himself of those things, and had been about to speak of them, when he saw an object resting on the desk, about the appropriate size for a paperweight, but placed with great fanfare and occasion on a silk cushion.

            The pure pale of his hand touched the equally pure dark of the egg, traced sidelong over its surface, light flickered into it.

            The seas fall. Woe to us, cast ashore; we wither, become scattered by the light. The shell our only succor. Enveloped, we are preserved, and within, we dream the path to the citadel below. Above us fly the interloper’s daughters, below us crawl the weaver’s brood. They know not the dark. Our pure Lord-

            “-drowns in silence.”

            Had he spoken aloud? It was easy to be caught in the process. But it was not his voice that had recited that last piece- Quirrel and the relic seeker were both staring at him, the former in some surprise, the latter, with hawkish attention. It was he who’d voiced the last words, standing up, his arms pressed to his table. “That’s what it says, yes. How in the bleeding abyss did you read it that quickly?”

            The slightest trivialities of magic never did fail to enrapture mortals, did they? “For someone who speaks so impertinently of things they don’t understand, you know surprisingly little. Merely reading a fragment from an ancient record such as this leaves you astonished.”

            The relic seeker hesitated, the digits of his hands gathering into fists as he sat back down, folded his arms and leaned forwards on them. “A fragment, you say.”

            He glanced back to the egg. “Of course. The stone is old. At least seventeen layers added over time.” It may have predated him, really.

            “And you can read them all.” There was something sharp, bright, intense in the relic seeker’s voice. Not merely a gleam- fire in his eyes.

            The King lowered his attention to the egg. “Easily.”

            The relic seeker’s head dipped briefly; a rustle, a creak of a key and a drawer. From within the desk he removed three more of the eggs, set them beside their fellow, and beyond them, his hands on the table.

            “What do I have to do to get you to read these for me?”

Chapter Text

            The deterioration of the kingdom had taken about fifty years.

            It had been nearly a full century since then.

            In the strangeness left behind by the war between gods, some remnants had survived, which explained the relic seeker’s lack of questioning of the King’s survival. He seemed of the impression the King was merely another bug wandered in from a bygone age, which, while vexing to be improperly recognized, was a misconception he found himself reluctant to dispel.

            This relic seeker- Lemm, he called himself- was a transparent mind. Grumbling, irritable, but much of that was hollow fire. He’d complain about things sullying his relics, but also leave the King be under the tacit agreement he would not behave recklessly. He did not even demand the reading of the eggs upfront as payment- in fact, having probed the top three layers of the first egg, the relic seeker had taken notes with frenzied fervor and then retreated with them unannounced, leaving him run of the shop, which was where he sat now, poring over Lemm’s collection of tablets.

            “Versed in a few of the kingdom’s tongues, are you?”

            He lifted his eyes from the stone in hand, regarding Quirrel.

            This bug, however, was another matter entirely. He lingered, and watched, and evaluated, and shared very little of his thoughts except to probe further questioning.

            “It is a logical obligation to my people.” He ran his fingers over the etchings. “One I seem to have become remiss in. Dialects have emerged in my absence.” Holding the tablet in two hands, he shifted slightly, picking up another to compare them.

            Quirrel made a noise in his throat. When the King looked to him, he didn’t seem as if he had coughed.

            “What?”

            “Nothing.”

            It was not nothing, but, this was a way beings had of stating a matter was irrelevant. Although slightly peeved, he accepted the yield, turning his attention between the two tablets. There- he could glean some details from the structure of this language, guess which seeds it had grown from. Absentmindedly he plucked a third tablet, a smaller one.

            “I suppose that robe of yours is fairly concealing.”

            He regarded Quirrel. “I do not believe in flaunting my body like a lesser creature.”

            The wanderer tilted his head slightly. “Just how many arms do you have?”

            Ah. That was what he was reacting to. The King dipped his head, shifted the third journal to free one hand. “They are useful. I saw no reason to limit myself.”

            He had endured for a very long time with no limbs to speak of, merely lengths of his body and the power of his mind. But the management of a kingdom called for more precise manipulations than mere prods of a tail could accomplish, and his work had progressed greatly in being able to work objects that could not withstand the pure light of Soul.

            Studying the appendage before him now, four digits covered in rigid, segmented flesh, it was a quality that he shared in common with many lower beings throughout the kingdom. Were it not that his chitin was pure white in its entirety, it might be nearly indistinguishable from one of the two Quirrel possessed.

            And yet, he had too many of them, and that was unsettling; and yet, there was something about his eyes, and that drew pause and hesitation, or obsessive fascination. In his youth he had marveled at the discretion a smaller body afforded him, being able to pass one end of a structure to another that his old shell could have swallowed whole, and have no one flinging out of his way or gaping up at him as they once did.

            It had been years before he had resigned himself to the proper realization that regardless of anything else that happened, higher beings could not be comprehended by those beneath them.

            He returned his attention to the journals.

            Precious few were any manner of official scholarly work; far more were the personalized etchings of vagrants and scavengers. They described short lives, vicious beasts, boiling acid and a thousand other perils. A few, the more whimsical, idly described their dreams- vivid, haunting, savage dreams that would sometimes compel them to bouts of what they considered sleepwalking.

            That was concerning. How could they have lived with that pestilence gnawing at them from the inside, not even feeling their mind as it slipped away from them?

            Was it that easy, to not realize you were in disarray..?

            He set down the journals, reconsidered, and returned them to the stack. Having glanced over their contents, he had a feeling of Lemm’s organization structure, but that was more idle than anything else. His burning concern, now, lay within.

            “Done so quickly?”

            He could parse what Quirrel really meant by that question, but if the bug would not ask it directly, it was within his right to ignore it. He planted himself somewhat heavily where he had left off, arranged his robes properly. “Do not disturb me.”

            Gods did not sleep.

            They did, however, dream.

            As always, the first place he found himself were the wastes.

            Not the true wastes. The true wastes were not this particular shade of gray twilight, did not snow ash gently unto the landscape as it did before. He had long suspected the recollection in his dreams was imperfect, as well; the scale was all wrong, cobbled from memory of his larger body, when he had swum freely throughout these sands.

            Things seemed in order here. He drew his light around him and blinked elsewhere.

            His dream of the city looked much like it did in its heyday. The rain did not truly touch him; everything below it stood still, awash in silver. In his mind, it gleamed perfect, broken hallways straightened, maintained, carpeted lavishly. There were lights, not in the streetlamps, not in the windows, but fragments of things. He could see, from his position on the rooftop, the beacon of light that was his own waking body. He could also see the graying shades of the city’s populace.

            No ghosts, however. Little essence, from what he’d expect of a dead city.

            They would follow their stories through, to some conclusion or another. It was their choice to make, it had been their choice to make, what they had asked for in the first place. Perhaps not every request was good, perhaps not every one should be honored, but it was few, those requests. Perhaps some of them had been answered anyway, those- who much like themselves- wasted no time in the attempt of words, a voice, a prayer but simply cupped the water in waiting hands, took it for themselves without regard for its guardian one way or another. Theirs was the compact with the dark itself, and, despite everything, even now, they did not feel like that darkness was entirely theirs to command.

            Perhaps it had its own whim. Perhaps they would be interested in finding out what it was.

            Those were not his thoughts.

            Stand forth and show yourself.

            His voice carried through the stillness of the city. At first, it seemed vexingly unanswered.

            He drew himself upwards, spread his wings to their full length. Opened his eyes- all of them at once, not shuffled with eyelids as they were in his waking body. Light crept upwards, spilled from his mouth.

            You have spoken in dream before. I speak now, and you will hear me. You will heed,  and we will see each other, face to face.

            A flicker. Crawling whispers- dimmer lights than his own. He turned to face it- a tower not far from where his body was located, coming alive with motes of white light.

            He proceeded towards it, moving amidst the shadows of the city, pushing them back where they came too close. He wound around the tower, following the path of the lights that seemed to be flowing towards a central nexus. A broad, open balcony, its floor merely a broad, circular skylight of precious glass…

            That all at once shattered. The shards rained upwards at him in a sudden spray.

            “Why, your Majesty!”

            There was something gripping the edges of the skylight. All around, more and more of them, hands- hands that belonged to bodies. Bodies that were crawling upwards, towards him.

            “What an unexpected pleasure!”

            This voice- it was familiar.

            It was a moment of hesitation he paid for. In dream he had stretched himself over a great length, and once again, filthy hands were seizing him, his clothes, his body underneath.

            Revulsion, panic boiled under the surface.

            Would he again be helpless?

            Something else sparked to the surface.

            The grasping hands had climbed almost to his torso.

            The voice persisted, lavish with aristocratic pleasantry.

            “I must say… you look absolutely terrible. A daring statement, my King. It suits you.”

            “Quite well.”

            You.

            He still had only so much power. He pressed it, white hot, into the center of his chest, let it prickle and burn there, away from the clambering, grasping husks. More of them poured from the skylight, but not enough, not yet- the owner of that voice was still down there.

            He could feel the hands moving inwards, searching for that core, for that light. One hand found a thread that had not compressed so easily and began to tug it. He closed his grip further on his power.

            Slowly, the husks began to pull him downwards, towards the skylight. He relinquished his grip on the lower floors of the building.

            There, something, glistening, pale not in the way of purity, but in the way of a faded, dead thing.

            For a single moment, their eyes met.

            Then-

            -O-LIGHT-THINKFLOW-SURGE-POWER-SOUL-CH-EM-TARGET-

            A prickle of energy.

            ­-O-KINGLIGHT-NONAGGRESSION-STRANGELIGHT-TARGET-O-CH-EXECUTE-

            Light fireworked in all directions, blue-green sparks that flared and burst. The husks, screeching, flung away- the voice, too, was screaming-

            He felt himself falling out of his sitting position, and caught himself.

            The only hand touching him was Quirrel’s, resting on his shoulder, as if he had not just defied a direct order, as if he had not just casually done something an ordinary bug should not be capable of in the slightest.

            “All due respect, my friend, you seem to have a remarkable aptitude for getting yourself in trouble.”

            The King stood, fluidly. “If results repeat, it should imply something about the parameters of the situation. If you will insist on this behavior, you will guide me to the tower northeast of here, and its upper floors.”

            “You’d go back there, in a situation that will make it more difficult to retreat?”

            Whether or not he was capable of retreating was irrelevant. He might have expected this particular bug to understand that. As it was, he merely proceeded to the door. “Your presence is not required, disciple of Monomon.”

            He left the relic seeker’s shop, passing the bewildered Lemm on the way without a second look. There was an elevator shaft not far from here, and a lever to call it. The mechanism of the latter had not rusted, which was a small stroke of fortune- it saved him the trouble of flying the whole way.

            “That was not an answer to my question,” Quirrel offered flatly.

            The lift arrived, and the King stepped onto it. “You did not require an answer. Your question was merely a vector for skepticism.”

            After a moment, the disciple’s feet tapped onto the lift. “I thought it worth voicing regardless. You appear bent on attacking whoever dwells in that tower, and in my experience, you aren’t what you used to be.”

            “If this present course of action does not rectify that on its own, it will lead me to that which will. Even if it did not, his presence is intolerable. It will be removed.” He regarded Quirrel, considered the things that this bug said, and did not say. “…Besides which, I am certain if I overtax myself, you will intervene again.”

            A pause. Then, with a faint glint in Quirrel’s eye, “One might argue that’s another question that doesn’t need an answer.”

            The lift began to move, and, by the mechanics of long habit, the King redirected his attention forwards, at the floors they passed. “It was a hypothesis. It will prove itself in time, if you do not feel like being forthcoming with your intentions.”

            Quirrel made an odd motion, as if to tip the brim of some hat he was not wearing. His hand paused as it met empty air, hesitated. “I suppose it’s all the same,” he said, and in that moment, sounded older than he had before. “To phrase things as you do, I have some questions of my own that will answer themselves in time. Until such a point, I’d rather not find out the limits of your mortality.”

            Ah.

            So he was that sort.

            “…Agreeable.”

            He had dealt with such before. It was a workable state of affairs.

            The lift swept onward in silence.

Chapter Text

            Scaling the canyon was not difficult. In fact, it was easier now than it had ever been, with the change the kingdom had faced. Hallownest would probably never be without danger, and, yet, here, in the kingdom’s wilds, without the wandering husks, the greatest perils were simply animals bereft of a reason to assail everything that passed them.

            Hornet paused in her climb, turning to study the foggy depths below her. Well. Perhaps the Uoma seemed more restless than before, gathering together before kiting off in random directions, but she was ill-qualified to say for certain.

            Regardless of both factors, she breathed easier as the air cleared and she reached the mossy roads of Greenpath.

            Her memories of the palace were faint. Even dimmer, the recollections of Deepnest, of the village. The Midwife. Mother.

            Clearest in her mind were the halls of the Hive, the quarters she had been offered. Vespa’s voice, melodious and sharp in her ears, adjusting her grip on the needle, guiding her hands as she had those of any other knight of her queendom.

            But all three of those were lost to her, lost to time. It had left her with a reluctance to flatter anything with the title of Home.

            And yet, there was still a reassurance to Greenpath. She preferred it. It was an auspicious location to camp, with few large beasts that were not easily frightened off. The Moss Knights, plague or no plague, were tempered by duty and decorum- they would not strike at strangers who knew their place in Unn’s lands.

            There was plenty to eat, as well, as she checked her traps; here an Aluba lay waiting, having sprung the thread and been seized by the barbs snared in it. Its death had been clean. Two other traps were snapped, but hadn’t taken their quarry.

            She wound a thread through the Aluba’s body to secure to her back, and re-set the traps with easy passes of her needle. She’d been hunting for her own food for most of her youth- long gone were the days when she would sit, scowling in hunger, at a poorly-made web whose slow-moving prey had nonetheless staggered free.

            She wondered if her mother would have been proud of these webs, glittering with a light unlike Greenpath’s soft glow. Or perhaps, if instead, Herrah would look upon this in revulsion, or in grief- see the foreignness in her daughter’s self-taught needlework, or the influence of the King’s bloodline where it had twined with her own.

            What a ridiculous thought. She had more important things to worry about. Even if her companion had no need of food, she had other reasons not to keep them waiting.

            Needle flying again, this time, it spun a thread of guidance; it pulled her through the undergrowth, to an advantageous point to spring from, forwards, over an incline, under a bush, deeper into the groves, and at last to the shores of the great acid lake.

            They were waiting not inside the temple but out on the dock, a number of round stones gathered by their side. With cautious, slow movements, they took one in their hand, flicked it, sent it splashing across the surface. It bounced nearly five times before it sunk into the acid, consumed.

            For a moment, she simply stood where she was and watched as they skipped another stone. A display of childlike innocence, she supposed, though, peculiar, since she doubted the Knight’s upbringing had been any kinder than her own. Regardless, she wondered if any who yet recalled the Knight and their heavy burden would think to see them this way, in this ragged creature with a cracked mask, idling in the holy site of a forgotten god.

            At that moment they lifted their head and saw her, and abandoned their stones and idleness, climbed to sway unsteadily on their own two feet. For such a large bug, who had no doubt cut such an awe-inspiring figure, they moved gingerly, hunched, holding the tatters of their cloak close to themselves.

            They had recovered since she took them from the Black Egg Temple. At first, they had been unable to stand at all. Now, they could walk about the area on their own, sometimes unexpectedly recalling the agility they had plied in that initial fight. But they remained timid.

            Perhaps she was too accustomed to the little ghost- the way they had forged ahead, regardless of obstruction. She had demanded they go no further, cease their quest, and they had immediately drawn their nail and charged.

            The Knight had left the lakeshore temple only once, seeming wildly in search of something. When she had caught up to them, they had relinquished without attempt at pursuing it further, followed her meekly back to camp, hanging their head lower than usual.

            Perhaps it troubled her only because she knew herself sharp- she always had been. Never one to share the company of sibling or playmate in her youth, the time not consumed by training or hunting spent following either the Lady or Vespa, in mimicry of their proper Knights. In adulthood she had sought out the company of the strong, those who did not require any sort of coddling.

            The Knight had endured suffering the likes of which she had not comprehended. Were they weakling or coward, they would not have lived to stand before her now. And yet, there was a vulnerability about them, and misfortune had dropped it precisely into her hands. Even now, they stood in shared silence, regarding each other, and it seemed as if the Knight would stand at attention either until she said something, or until their legs buckled beneath them.

            She turned to face the temple door, as that was easier to look at. “Come.”

            They came. And, when directed they sat on the bench inside the temple, folding the remnants of their layers around themselves. In the shuffle, she caught glimpse of the pitted moonscape of their upper body, the scars twisting on themselves like a knot of brambles that ended in an unceremonious stump where their right arm had been.

            Hornet knew little of Vessels. She knew of their creation, of their intended purpose. She knew that the little ghost had been discarded, and that the Knight spared, pronounced pure. With such a fate that they’d met, impurity would seem preferable.

            She focused herself on building a fire and preparing the Aluba she’d caught. The flames’ flickering light cast odd shadows on the idol of Unn that loomed over them.

            She wondered if Unn had opinions on these proceedings- on the slaughtered animal, on the twice god-drowned vagrant seeking shelter, on her, half-divine thing that she was, gathered before the altar. She was sure, to at least one god, any one of those things would be considered a blasphemy.

            And yet, without judgment forthcoming, she had to consider that either Unn did not mind, or perhaps, Unn had faded so much as to not even notice what had become of the world.

            Perhaps neither. Perhaps Unn had simply fled, and slowly, Greenpath would wither and die.

            Her meal was short, and efficient. The Aluba’s meat was not abundant, nor extraordinarily satisfying, but it sustained her. The Knight’s dark eyes did not leave her the entire time- the one furrowed with the crack in their mask. Like any Vessel, they had no voice to express their opinions, nor a face by which to imply them. With their remaining arm, she expected they could write, or form signs as others of the kingdom’s voiceless did, but they had shown no inclination. Nor, for that matter, had the ghost- though she had caught them seeming to read things.

            She remembered telling them about the grave, the way those cavernous eyes had slipped off her, to the engraving on the fountain. They had given such reverence and attention to those words, the carved plaque, that it seemed absurd to assume they had taken no meaning from them.

            Was this her assumption? She knew if she were struck voiceless, it would be a concern of hers, that her words, her thoughts, find attention and understanding. Was it difficult to live in a silent world?

            Or did the Vessels simply feel as if they had nothing to say?

            That seemed even stranger than presuming the little ghost illiterate. “Hollow Knight.”

            They sat upward abruptly, banishing the slouch from their spine. In that moment, a princely air radiated from them- still scarred, cracked, in rags, but conjuring themselves to uphold the decorum of the title.

            So they saw themselves as such. And yet, she did not know if it was something she wished to use regularly. When their energy was so scarce, demanding such ceremony from them would do their recovery little good.

            She tried again. “Vessel?”

            A cautious easing of rigid stance. Still attentive, but the proud spires of their horns now hung at a contemplative angle. They were attempting to see where she was going with this.

            “You must be called something.”

            The point of their mask dipped, and bobbed up again. Agreement, or perhaps simply concession. A gesture they’d used several times, to convey that they understood her instructions, when simply attending to whatever she’d asked immediately would not be forthcoming.

            So they were the Hollow Knight to the kingdom, and Vessel to a few. But they had to be something to-

            Friends?

            Family?

            Her own name had come from neither. In the golden halls of her training, it had been Vespa to pronounce it. Like the creature before her now, she held her share of titles, but though she recognized them, they did not feel her own.

            Perhaps a name was a bit like a home. There were the places one came from, and there were the places one preferred. For her, those places were wholly separate.

            Perhaps not for them?

            She recalled the Abyss, and its collection of porcelain masks. At a glance, it was merely a shocking pile of refuse, so many corpses heaped over themselves like a crude burial mound.

            On closer inspection, however, the masks lay in gatherings. Piled together. Those which had not been disturbed, one could nearly imagine the creatures that had once lived inside of them, pressing ivory cheekbones against one another. Huddled in the dark, as they faded away together.

            She looked into those eyes, blacker than those of bug or beast, black with the void. “Below,” she said, “was there something they called you, there?”

            The Knight sat forwards. Slowly, they bent their head, regarding the stone, or perhaps, regarding what lay, layers and layers below them, beyond the canyon, the sewers of the great city.

            And then, surprisingly, they produced a sound.

            It was not the howling, wordless screech she had heard echo the halls of the Black Egg Temple. Nor was it a voice as she knew it. It was a sound like something not disturbed for thousands of years settling downward.

            She tried to repeat the sound.

            “Ahuar?”

            They shook their head.

            “Rhoa?”

            Again, no. There seemed to be something to their rejection, as well; they did not seem concerned with her getting it right.

            …Of course. She’d spent a fair amount of time around the little ghost, liked to imagine that at least towards the end of it, they’d trusted each other, and they made no such sounds. “…That sound you made. You’re translating?”

            This was a quicker nod than they’d made before. It seemed nearly pleased.

            So she was right. The children of the void spoke in a way not ordinarily perceptible.

            Mentally, she dug at the word again- not what it had sounded like, but the feeling it had conveyed. Not a scream, perhaps, though they were capable of that. In comparison, this lacked the sense of pressure. It was sibilant, quiet, almost…

            “…Whisper?”

            The Knight looked to her. Wide, dark eyes. Attentive, but personally.

            After a moment, their hand lifted from the bench, pointed to her.

            She hadn’t told them her name, either.

            “Hornet.”

            Again, they produced that settling sort of noise; this time, she could discern the differences in it- a short, sharp sound. Sharp like a stinger, she supposed. Not the truth, or the fullness of her name, but, that was a fair price to pay.

            She imagined that she had missed a great deal of the context behind Whisper’s true name herself.

Chapter Text

            The hall did not stand untouched as he had anticipated, but nor was it barren with age. Instead, marked by the rain was a portal of shining metal, the gloomy visage of some ostensibly gallant bug raised at its apex.

            The King paused to glare at it, seeing himself as a mere pale flicker in the reflection. “You rebuilt, did you? Under the same flawed presumptions as before. And you had the audacity to put such grandeur to it.”

            He swept through the door, not caring if Quirrel had something to say about the matter.

            Motes of pale soul glimmered here, floating against the faded wallpaper. A grand foyer, littered with a few samples of dark liquid in ostentatious crystal decanters. Barren steps leading upwards, into the ceiling, the top of the tower.

            No sooner had he set foot on the steps then it became apparent they were no longer alone. A grotesque bubble in the light of the world, someone warping it around them as they moved.

            He flung his hand to the side, and they crashed there, tumbled to a halt amidst their cloak. Had they stood, they would have been only just taller than him, with a broad head bereft of horn or fur, but marked with a constellation of three pale, flickering stones pressed into the shell just above and between the eyes.

            They crept unsteadily to their feet, perhaps bemused that their teleportation had failed them.

            The King opened his eyes to regard them properly. Soul flickered erratically within the skin, thrashing even as the bug made effort to gather it, shape it into a mote of fire for an attack.

            He unwound the thing as it came towards him, let the twisted soul seek shelter in the gaps in his chitin.

            “Pathetic.”

            Confusion flickered across hazy eyes. Their arts did not fail them often, it seemed; complacency, arrogance of creatures that prized their wisdom.

            With little interest for what he had taken from the acolyte, he returned it; in a singular motion it coalesced into a shining spike, flew forth and struck its target cleanly through.

            The acolyte buckled and fell, their misbegotten soul fleeing their skin in a great wave. It drifted incessantly upwards, as if drawn by something else.

            He watched it go with an impassive eye.

            Quirrel made that empty hat-cocking motion again, but seemed to recall himself, replaced it with an adjusting tug of his scarf. “That’s quite a lethal art of yours. I don’t recall…” he trailed off.

            Didn’t recall it in Monomon’s archives, perhaps. But there was something about the note of surprise in Quirrel’s tone that irked him, inspired an uncharacteristic coyness out of him. He turned his back on the bug, lifted the worn hem of his robe just high enough to place his first foot on the stairs. “I would think it would be more surprising if at my age, I had learned nothing of value.”

            He was not in the mood to be doubted.

            Unfortunately, for an astute bug, Quirrel seemed wholly oblivious. Something almost like a laugh escaped him. “Are you cross with me, now?”

            “Don’t presume so much of yourself. Baliel has spread his twisted practice to others. Given that one’s arrogance, no doubt he’s assembled quite a following.”

            Quite a following indeed, considering the size of the place, its sweeping windows artistically paned. He recognized the crest of the kingdom in a few, his own crown surmounting the familiar scarab and wings. It irked him to know his symbol had presided over what Baliel had no doubt done in here.

            Quirrel jogged in his wake. “Baliel? I cannot say I’m familiar with the name.” He paused, cupped his hand to his mouth. “No- perhaps that was hasty. An aristocrat, perhaps? Older fellow, with a horned cap?”

            The King paused, sufficiently pulled from his irritation by incredulity. “I would expect Monomon’s archive would be a prize he coveted nearly as much as he did my attention.”

            “You presume too much of me, my friend. A certain occurrence has left my mind disorganized. Often, simply stirring the matter brings me to knowledge I didn’t even know I had. Baliel, I think I may have seen myself, though he was far more interested in speaking to the Madam than he was to me. Beyond that, I know little of him. You say he taught our deceased associate down there?”

            ‘Associate’ generally implied a rapport of some kind. As did ‘friend’, which Quirrel had taken to using for him so freely.

            He harbored a growing suspicion that those words meant only so much to Quirrel, were used lightly not because the disciple was truly so quick to consider others friends, but more as idle pleasantry.

            Only time would tell what Quirrel’s self-admitted questioning would lead him to.

            “It is obvious. Baliel’s practice is unmistakable. Harvesting Soul nearly intact, gathering it within the body in great mass, with only the theory that sufficient mental discipline would protect him from its effects. How to achieve that level of discipline? More Soul, of course. It was his belief this would propel him to immortality, drive any sickness from his body. Even the plague.”

            “…Well, at least parts of that seem sound.” Quirrel ran fingertips over a bookshelf of tomes, plucked one from the shelf and flipped through its mildewed pages. “Soul is the substance of life itself. One would assume that it would prolong an existence.”

            “Leaves on a plant prolong its existence. Do you think you could simply stitch leaves to your shell and exist without eating? Your body doesn’t know what to do with such things. Soul as Baliel harvests it does not come alone; it would be more accurate to call the creature I just dispatched an amalgam of soul and essence crudely trying to be held together with a single mind.”

            “You sound so revolted by it, but you appear to stomach my company decently.” Quirrel shut the book with a snap. “The controlled gather and release of Soul is the root of all magic. I use it. And unless I have greatly misunderstood your nature, you’re effectively little else but Soul with a handful of organs and a shell.”

            What an oversimplification of him. And of the matter. He itched to deal with Baliel promptly and without delay, but, he supposed it was unavoidable. “Monomon’s practice and Baliel’s practice cannot be compared. The innate magic of Monomon and her tribe is to drain Soul from the atmosphere in thin concentration, thus, allowing the environment itself to filter it pure of essence. Pure Soul can be a viable source of power. The Snail tribe is a step more active; they were the first to bleed Soul from the veins of others for their workings. At first, it was the embalming tools by which they handled the dead. In the ancient past, however, the Snails had adapted such techniques into the art of war. Instead of knives to the dead, it was the nails they raised against the living.”

            He spoke nearly mechanically. They were things he had studied long ago, memorized long ago.

            “This more aggressive leeching was what Baliel studied to formulate his theory. But he thought the Snails were not audacious enough. The Soul you filter from your own breath is a fraction of what he dreamed of not merely taking, but hoarding until the body would begin to buckle and reshape itself under the force of what coursed in its veins. He thought to torture himself into the facsimile of a higher being, at the expense of hundreds.”

            Something was on the floor ahead of him, glistening pale as it had in his dream. It might have seemed like a heap of sundered flesh, except that it was moving, slowly, dragging itself across the ground.

            Quirrel cocked his head down towards it. “Is that?”

            “One of his sacrifices. Or, perhaps, one of his students.” He crouched to regard the thing as it approached, laid hand on its maggot-like hide and forced it upwards.

            Sure enough, a white stone clung to its forehead, below it a sagging face. Student, then. A pained gurgle arose from the depths of the thing, tendrils wrapping around his wrist, nearly as if in request of deliverance, the way his retainers had once petitioned him.

            Light sprang and flickered across the palm of a second hand as he pressed it just beneath the stone.

            He would deliver it from its agony, then.

            The incisions were efficient, precise, cutting edges as only light could craft. The swiftness of their movement was nearly perfect; the gaping face hesitated only once, as if detecting some small discomfort.

            Then it simply fell neatly apart, leaving him free to stand, retrieving the gem from the pile. It still glowed with Soul. He closed it in his hand, turned to look back at Quirrel.

            The disciple was standing more than a few strides back from him, his attention lingering on the dead remnant. It was a moment before he raised his eyes to the King, and there was something in his gaze that had not been there before.

            Baliel, he reminded himself, and circled around the body. There was an elevator up ahead.

            After a moment, he heard Quirrel begin to follow. Once they stood side by side, it was Quirrel who pulled the lever for the elevator, lifting them upward.

            “If my technique offends you, you are certainly welcome to bludgeon the next that we meet to death with your nail,” he said, eyeing the edgeless, rusted thing Quirrel carried. It was at odds with him, a thick, heavy weapon as might have been made for a knight twice Quirrel’s size to use as a small sidearm, and in poor repair.

            The Soul stone seemed warm in his hand. He wondered what sort of obscene theory had led Baliel to its creation. It seemed carved from a singular piece of crystal, with no indication for how it had attached itself to the hapless student. Perhaps that was his fault- his cuts had been precise, separating any remnant of flesh from the stone’s surface.

            Fortunately, it seemed Quirrel’s curiosity would not allow him remain silent for long. No sooner had the lift eased to a stop did he speak again. “If this Baliel disgusts you so much, one would wonder why you are so familiar with him.”

            “He sought audience and royal sanction for his hypotheses. Many times. Seemed certain that I would ‘see reason’.”

            “And you did not, I take it.”

            He would have scoffed, if such a thing weren’t mildly beneath him, and if it were not an obvious statement Quirrel was making merely to solicit him to talk further. “I eventually informed him that if he continued to pursue the matter, the Great Knights would end his life, as I had not the time to do so personally.”

            He had stepped through an open doorway, into a sort of study. One of its two chairs was occupied, a bug garbed much as the one at the entrance seated in one chair. Their stone was dark; a thick layer of dust carpeted their body. He did not need to look for traces of Soul to reach the conclusion this individual was long dead.

            Quirrel had stopped, standing back from him, still with that look in his eyes.

            But a moment later, an all too familiar voice interceded with a chortle. “Your Majesty, how humble of you! I must say I recall that meeting very differently.”

            A metal grate sprang downward, blocking the doorway entirely. For a moment, Quirrel and the King’s eyes met through the bars, before his attention was redirected to the second grate sealing on the other end of the room. Eight separate distortions rolled through the room, deposited rolled disciples all around the walls, facing him in a ring.

            “In fact,” the voice continued, untroubled, “I seem to recall you had your guards throw me out of the castle. You used some very unpleasant words, as well; let’s take credit for all of that, shall we?”

            Quirrel tested the bars with his grip, but paused, glancing over his shoulder; seconds later, the nail rang against a descending pin. Behind it loomed a sturdy figure in blue armor, the stone in their helmet glinting brightly.

            The second chair in the study creaked as it turned, Baliel turning the curvature of his mouth to that same, indulgent sort of look he had worn many times in their past interactions.

            But this was not the same Baliel back then; not a scrawny, lesser aristocrat dwelling in the less ‘fashionable’ quarters of the city. A cluster of three large crystals marked the apex of a broad brow, a fourth secured the clasp of a scarlet collar, a sable cloak hanging from its length. At a glance, he could tell the materials were expensive, more so than the bug of the past would have afforded. “You really should have been more public in your return, my liege. Until that little stunt you pulled with dreamcraft, I’d no idea you had arrived in the city. It has left me embarrassingly underequipped to accommodate a guest of your station. I do hope, regardless, you’ve found the streets to your taste.”

            Quirrel was gone, but evidently, so was his attacker; the space outside the grate was empty. That left him little to do but acknowledge Baliel’s rather transparent goad. “The retainers. Your doing?”

            Baliel laughed. “My liege, you give me too much credit! This business with the void is not my area, though I’m pleased to report that I and my students are pure of it. I live again, beyond the plague, thanks entirely to my own theories.” He shook his head, slowly, languidly. “Such a shame you were so quick to dismiss them. Your populace was not so hasty, after you abandoned them.”

            The Baliel of the past would not have been so open in his attacks, either. His arrogance had certainly grown with the rest of him over time.

            The chair creaked as Baliel stood from it, his cloak sweeping around him. “Ordinarily, seeing as you’re in quite a miserable state, I would be more than happy to let certain trivialities,” a careless motion of a large hand, “simply be bygones. Things beneath our kind.”

            The King’s eyes narrowed. “We are not of a kind.”

            A shadow passed very briefly over Baliel’s expression. “But of course, my liege. And as I was saying, I would be quite willing to let the matter slide, except for the fact that… As you’ve pointed out, there is a problem I must devote most of my energy to attending to. And the paltry matter of sufficient Soul… I don’t command quite the sway I once did. That will be corrected in due time, of course, but…”

            He was beginning to realize Baliel’s point, a moment before the bug’s smile took a distinctly predatory gleam.

            “What was that thing you always liked to say- a true servant of the kingdom gives everything of themselves?”

Chapter Text

            “You must be joking.”

            It was a terribly mortal turn of phrase. And yet it was the first thing he could think of that found and tumbled out his mouth, the only thing that seemed sufficient vessel to hold the level of his incredulity.

            It was more concerning, really, that Baliel didn’t so much as flinch at it, still wearing that sharp, self-satisfied grin, looking like nothing so much as a schoolbug that had stumped his teacher.

            “Do you have any idea what that will do to you?”

            “I have certain theories,” Baliel said warmly. “There’s no reason to be so shy, my King. After all, the process is nearly perfect.”

            A movement ran through the eight students in the area- a shift of their distorted soul, gathering for some working. His hand extended, a lance crystallizing at his fingertips. It would probably take a single disruption to break the array, given the deliberateness of their positions.

            Something struck him from behind and clung to him, and the lance, not having yet take flight, disintegrated, its energy wicked away from him. He turned to look at the obstruction, and three more connected hard with his shoulders, sending him staggering forwards.

            They were chains. Lengths of silver metal, every few inches a white crystal dangling from the links. Four of Baliel’s disciples held the other ends, and others were drawing more coils from their cloaks. His wings were pinned to his back, struck through by the barbs that tipped each chain. Others struck in the chest, held him upright as they drew taut.

            …He recognized these instruments, he realized.

            Baliel did not act immediately. He took his time studying the effect, the motionless King, the dangling gems.

            The King drew himself upright, rescinded his single clumsy stride to stand properly in the circle of the chains. He met Baliel’s eyes, the way they, like his students’, were rheumy with the light that stirred in his body.

            At length, Baliel raised his hand, motioned, and the disciples all moved at once, pulling briskly on the chains. The barbs did not dig themselves out so easily, so the King really had no choice but to keep up, moving faster than he preferred.

            Baliel teleported first, his disciples following in a flock, towing the King along for the ride. This was harder not to react to- the warping and distortion of the area left a revolting feeling as it passed his hide.

            They had moved considerably deeper in the Sanctum. Here, it seemed as if Baliel had bought out, or simply claimed for himself, several of the surrounding towards, built into them as he’d refined his heresy. Some areas shared the finery of the front; others were in more obvious disrepair, reconstruction efforts partially underway.

            Regardless of what he claimed, Baliel’s obsession had not saved him. Something else had intervened.

            Obsession?

            Quite like watching the living, isn’t it? Although, not quite. I’ve spoken to a few of these fellows. Their obsessions are all different, but each of them has one.

            He shifted the nature of his scrutiny towards Baliel.

            “There’s no need to glare, my liege. You are, after all, serving the kingdom. The timing of your return makes it clear; with the plague banished, the kingdom needs a ruler once again.”

            “The plague is not banished.” Something was consuming the seeds before they could sprout, but that there were seeds at all was proof enough- She had not died. Merely been dealt some devastating blow.

            “Oh, perhaps, but the savages of the wilderness will be tamed soon enough. Let’s not dance about the point. It’s beneath us.”

            Nothing. He could see nothing on Baliel- no evidence of the void in all that twisting, tangled Soul. “There is not an ‘us’.”

            They reached a locked door. Baliel fished a key from his cloak, pressed it to the lock, and let it shudder aside. “There won’t be for much longer. Why not savor it, while it’s here?”

            This new area was dark. It also smelled distinctly of decay. The only light came down from a circular pane of glass overhead; it, and its frame, looked considerably newer than the stone it was fitted to.

            He recognized this place from the dream. The graying shapes mounded by the walls, piled higher than even Baliel’s head, he could identify without being able to see them clearly.

            They brought him to the center of the room, a circle precisely framed by the skylight. He wondered if they would let go of the chains, but instead, they produced stakes affixed to the other end, and anchored them to the ground. A small spark of soul secured them taut, pale light flickering around their base.

            His gaze returned to Baliel in front of him. “How did you learn of the bindings used in the Sealing Temple?”

            “Surprised, my liege? You were the one to order all your followers to leave the palace. Such a grand show of things. I’m sure you were too busy preparing to move it to notice if any of them took something with them.”

            Records of his research. He had taken meticulous notes, pored over the designs for a long time.

            And now Baliel had them.

            As if reading his realization from his eyes, Baliel smiled again. “You fancy yourself a mind beyond any other in the kingdom, but your work was not hard to understand. I’m afraid that I had to tinker with it, slightly, to render it useful. You really haven’t tested it anywhere near its capacity. I was hopeful you’d attempt more.”

            Baliel evidently fancied him some sort of idiot. The first chain had consumed the energy from his spell in the first place, but the reservoir of Soul in his body was left untouched. Naturally, since Baliel’s method would want him not exceptionally drained for what the bug was about to attempt- as long as he did not attempt to work it, the bindings would not drink his Soul.

            The circle below them began to glow. He felt it pulling downward through his feet, saw Baliel’s disciples as they knelt, each one closing hands around one of the stakes.

            The bodies beyond them caught his eye. Many of them were common bugs; a few, heaped among them, however, were his own disciples, their pale eyes staring glassily outwards. Stored carelessly. “Your practice is just as revolting as your original promises suggested. On this scale, it is a small wonder any of you are thinking.”

            Bodies, heaped over each other, left not to rot- for there could be no rot, not in the Abyss, not in the still air. Left, instead, to linger, the cavernous voids of masks, one after another after another, carefully carved, carelessly disposed.

            “You speak as if I do this selfishly.”

            His gaze snapped back to Baliel. “You speak as if you do not.”

            The light from the circle glowed, cast strange, flickering shadows across the bug’s face. “Perhaps your absence has dulled you. As I have said, Hallownest is returning to life. It needs order. Structure. Education. Long ago, you may have brought us such gifts. But your light has faded, my king. You turned away from them when their need was greatest. I? I remained. I built my order. The husk of the city you forsook became the eggshell of this undertaking, and it has hatched, healthy and promising. But I can do so much more!”

            He could almost see his reflection in Baliel’s clouded eyes; perhaps that was because the clouds were thickening, brightening, unifying into something like a glow. “You have the audacity to stand amidst these corpses, and say that you did that for their own good? It was not even for your good. Your method is flawed, exactly as I told you. You fare slightly better than your test subjects, and insist that you are growing into a god. You talk carelessly of seizing my light, as if you really believe that will do more than lower the both of us to-”

            A balance had to be struck. The Egg was mindless. It could hold Her, but only for so long. It would never waver in its duty, but nor could it defend itself against the onslaught. What held Her must be mindless, but yet, must defend itself. Must act, anticipate, strike, parry- and yet, be hollow.

            If it were not perfect in its emptiness, Her light and its would twine together; worse would emerge of it.

            It had to be pure.

            If it were not, he could not spare it; could not set it towards that duty. If he were to save the kingdom, his convictions must remain.

            The Abyss sealed, what reagents it may have yet contained consigned to linger, the door shaped organically of a piece with the rock behind it, his mark burnt into its surface as both warning and order. The presence at his side, watching with empty eyes. For the Vessel’s sake, they could not look back. Such things risked impurity.

            Small black hands, gripping a nail balanced to a child’s frame. A waiting Kingmould, its instructions as clear and precise as those he was directing its opponent. “Strike.” Nail glanced off armor. The claw scythe came down, slowly. “Parry.” They rang against each other. A faster blow from the side. “Evade.” Nimble little feet, dancing back and away from the impact, slid, steadied themselves with their free hand, then- initiative, sensing an opening. Springing in with a flurry of blows, weaving around the movements of the scythe. Hooking it- and throwing the weapon clattering into the underbrush.

            “Good.”

            Purity.

            He had still been holding the stone he had taken from the unfortunate creature. It was warm, hot against his palm. The circle flared brightly- the impact buckled him forwards, left his shoulders hunched.

            “To? How strange of you to wander from a sentence. I dreamed of this day, you know.” Baliel was pacing, the restless scrabbling of his legs belying the calm he attempted to present. The light followed him, created afterimages in his wake. The lines of his shell were glowing. “They say that you’re incapable of fear, that you don’t bleed. Well,” he regarded the barbs, yet pristine. “Perhaps there’s some truth, and yet, now that the hour is at hand, you’re scrabbling for excuses. Would the King of Hallownest really beg for his own life?”

            His Vessel, standing beside him. Prepared, in every way that they could ever be, staring down the entrance. Their hands rested still and calm, folded on their nail.

            They proceeded into the Temple alone, their head held high.

            The words that he had left to them- a certainty of their success.

            Hallownest will be whole again.

            “Your wish was always to protect the kingdom, was it not? And you failed to do so. I must say, I prefer your writings much more to the reality of you. After all, how could you reject my art, because of the reagents it demanded? I hold the salvation of the kingdom, and in that matter, you said it quite well yourself…”

            Baliel seemed not entirely looking at him, caught in some personal rapture as he stared at his own shining hands. “No cost could ever be too great.”

            There was a sound. In isolation, it might have been delicate. All at once, it was a cacophony, like so much glass falling to the ground.

            Soundlessly, the disciples fell at the edge of the circle. At first, it was two of them, then four, then seven. The last staggered, clung to the ground, and then all at once the light in their eyes went dark.

            The channeling stones attached to the chains had all shattered. They lay in fragments on the ground, like petals ripped from a white flower.

            Baliel’s breath fogged suddenly in the room. His was the only that did.

            Rime climbed the chains. Above them, the skylight creaked, and cracked.

             The rain on the glass didn’t sound much like rain any more.

            The King straightened to regard Baliel, and tore the chains from their fixtures as he did. It was surprising, really, how he had ever believed the bug larger than him.

            Baliel was small. Very small. The flickers of stolen light blinking away in his carapace merely illuminated him as he staggered back.

            A speck. An inconsequential mote, and it had hurt him. He could feel all the warmth in that meager body. An eyesore it was. If Baliel wanted to be perfect so badly, the King could do him this favor, could grant him this, tear him apart, drown what was left until the Abyss had boiled off the residue of his disgusting life, assemble something cold, beautiful, perfect-

            These thoughts were impure.

            Hail shattered the skylight. The King blinked up at the pieces as they struck and bounced off his face. The shards of ice scattered, mingled with the crystals on the ground.

            He spread his wings, only faintly noting the prickling of pain as they tore free of the barbs. Pain was another impurity. This place seemed to breed them; he needed to leave immediately.

            Baliel seemed to realize something- he staggered forward, chanting, his candle-warmth flickering against the ice-encrusted room.

            The King’s tail was faster, catching Baliel in the chest and flinging him back into the wall where he fell among the bodies. He extended one of his hands, shaped a seal there- decaying flesh was not the finest thing that had ever received his handiwork, but he cared not, that it would not last, that it was fragile work conducted by a hand that trembled.

            The contamination of his thoughts was his only remaining concern.

            Trailing lengths of chain, he sprang into the air and through the freezing rain.

            Away.

Chapter Text

            In the wilds beyond the Queen’s Gardens, they paused, cocked their head, tried to listen for something amiss in the deep green silence.

            It was at this precise moment a loodle slammed into the small of their back, sent them staggering nearly face-first into a large bush. They caught themselves, turned sharply to stare after it, a hand on their nail, but it hadn’t even injured them, just surprised them, and it was already gone.

            That was loodles. They didn’t have that much to think about. Maybe in the past they’d have hunted it down, tearing through the undergrowth, stewing in silent fury that it had cost them, but-

            Back then, it would have cost them something. With a cautious hand, they rubbed the spot that it hit. Their larger shell was also thicker; it wasn’t so easily bruised, much less sent flying as they would have been had the loodle hit them before they’d grown.

            It was useful. They’d marveled at it the first time they’d squared off with an overgrown Mawlek, at first dashing and weaving as they usually did but after the first strike had barely burned, they had been less cautious, leaving their nail and setting into it harshly with their bare hands and lashing void tendrils.

            Now, the novelty had worn off. It wasn’t inconvenient, exactly; they were still finding out their own limits, their new capabilities, but it was a mixed feeling.

            …Was traveling less interesting, when nothing could hurt them?

            They recalled dragging their cracked shell into a niche in the wall, hoping the husks wouldn’t find them while they sprawled, leaking enough Void that it might form a Shade and give them a whole other problem to deal with, wheezing and shaking as they tried to think enough through the pain to focus.

            Did they really miss that? This was at least a familiar kind of stupid. They’d done it before, the first time their nail had been sharpened- it had swung so lightly, cut so beautifully, cleaved through things they’d been fleeing from. And then a heavy sentry had taken a strike from that lovely nail and then batted them out of the air with crushing force.

            They’d gotten complacent before. Hallownest had always put them back in their place. It’d be ignorant for them to assume coming into a bit more power than usual would change that.

            After all, so much for the God of Gods, if a loodle could take them by surprise.

            Mindful of that particular topic, they clambered the wall of the overgrown atrium, picked their way over the silvery roof spikes and crouched, content this was out of the path of any wild loodles. From here, they turned their focus outwards.

            It was a peculiar and discordant sense they had picked up somewhere in the belly of the Black Egg Temple, and for once, they wondered if their tendency to seize anything that seemed uncommonly useful had led them wrong. The being that had once been called a Little Ghost was a fairly straightforward one- they found their attention most reliable when it was on something straight in front of them. Their temper was short, and letting their mind wander created too many opportunities to forget the important- like, if something very sharp and unpleasant was careening towards their mask at high speed.

            (Just thinking of that made them check the path again. There were yet Mantis Traitors prowling this region, and while a loodle might not break their skin any more, those claws certainly could. They’d learned that the slightly easier way, trying to revisit some friends in the Fungal Wastes who hadn’t recognized them at first, and one of the Lords’ spears had bled them. Its wielder hadn’t been apologetic, necessarily- had clarified her mistake, directed the village medic to see to it, but there was a certain tacit agreement- protecting the village took priority over staying her hand against something that might be not as much enemy as she thought.)

            But this means of not quite looking over the kingdom, but reading it- a vague sense of places they had been, of bugs and beasts they knew, a scrambled glimpse of things they might either want to study in greater detail- the Midwife had just found herself a meal, a hapless traveler who’d stood too close to that serene-looking face and hadn’t pulled back in time- or not at all- the body at the foot of the Crystal Mountain hadn’t moved, hadn’t heard them, was beginning to take root where she lay- all passing so quickly in a sort of rapid portrait, they still had not quite found a way to make use of it.

            A few images jumped out of the haze, though. They pulled out their map and a handful of pins.

            Shining threads up in Greenpath, holding precise bundles of steel spikes.

            They affixed a proud, vibrant red pin to the upper left corner of the map, smoothed it with their thumb once. She was doing well, if she was still weaving, still hunting. They hadn’t worried about her, confident that as always, she would have found them if she needed their help, but it was nice to see.

            A white flower, cautiously being watered in a small pot. The face that peered over it wore a vague expression, a bit concerned; but the flower seemed to drink the water, and kept blooming, and so he seemed to assume that was good enough. He stooped to set aside the can, headed back out the door, where a lighter-colored, taller bug watched him with a certain unguarded concern.

            To the top of the map, a gray-blue pin, faded in patches, but with a subtle iridescence they were fond of as a result. Elderbug tended morose, so it was hard to say for certain how he was doing from just that, but the flower was still with him. They would know, if more went wrong. And Iselda was good, sensible and a fighter on top of that. She would take care of him, but perhaps they should visit Dirtmouth sooner rather than later. They had meant to, but things had happened.

            A murky, moist tunnel, a rumble in the filth covering the floor- an armored figure springing upright, pounding on his chest with a proud bellow to block the path of some strange, lurking figures with misty eyes. They attacked with magical fire- it glanced off his chestplate, and he swung at them, sent them flying, laughed, crouched to compact a ball of dung to better assail them at range.

            Another red pin, this one not as new as the one on Greenpath, but in its scratches and scuffs, charming for its personable nature. Ogrim was having fun. Worthy challenges for a true Knight.

            A dark sphere, twisted over itself, a holy grotto, glowing roots sprouting from it top and bottom. A body had been slumped there once, but now it was gone, moved. Taken weapon in hand and proceeded.

            A silver pin there, a new one, not one they had much attachment to one way or another yet. They supposed they respected her a bit, the Lady. Not family, certainly, but she had helped them. She didn’t seem to wish ill on the people she tended either. They had not reached out to Dryya as a favor to her, nor to Ogrim- it probably factored in somewhere, but in the end, they had the feeling she would have wanted more time, and she’d taken it. The same could not be said of Ze’mer- the grave was overgrown with flowers, no lingering essence there. She nor her lover had wasted any time past the exchanging of that final token. There was simply nothing to work with.

            Meeting Dryya might be interesting. Ogrim thought her wise. The Lady thought her caring. Themselves, they knew her only as a corpse, her slain foes mounded before her much like the detritus of the Mantis Lords’ vigil against Deepnest’s beasts. They considered that nearly unmarked pin, and then moved on.

            The next pins they dwelled on more carefully. One they had already placed on the map- an obstinately bright speck of gold, shining within the sharp domain of the mountain. After a moment they plucked it from the map’s weave, moved it higher. That one, that was their most urgent concern at the moment. They had been a bit aimless, but once again, they could not lose their head over power. There was still work to do. Still enemies that they had best be cautious of, keep track of if they could not earnestly destroy.

            Their hand strayed over another pin they hadn’t put on the map. This one, they needed no thought picking, but they could not say for certain what it meant. It was white- bright enough it glinted sharply at them whenever they took the pins out, not merely silver as the others of its set had been. Iselda said that they were made with some expensive color. This one, it didn’t seem to have any color at all. Was that because it had more of the agent, or less of it?

            Its almost-blank surface threw harsh, bright reflections.

            He had said nothing.

            Had they wanted him to? To use the voice he had, and they did not? Had they wanted him to cry?

            They remembered Ripple, the only one who could get that close to the edge of the abyss without being struck by the tendrils. For Ripple, and only for Ripple, the tendrils behaved, clutched their hands and then let go as if they were playing together. Ripple was tall, and swift on their feet; after the door had been closed they were one of the first to find their way out, one of the ones who they all thought had made it.

            Ripple, whose empty, caved skull had been filled with infection, whose body had been left propped against a rock like refuse.

            They remembered Blot, who painted pictures on their mask, on any mask that would be held still long enough to oblige them, making use of the void residue that wept continuously from their unfinished, stunted body. They had all known, even back then, that some of them were lucky and some of them were not. Blot was not lucky, but they were kind. Blot hadn’t made it until the sealing-days; they had gotten worse, after trying to climb to the top and falling. After that, none of the others could stop them from coming apart.

            Blot had been an early loss. They had set Blot up in a special place, had opened their stronger bodies and painted the best pictures they could think of over the crack in the mask that killed them. They weren’t very good pictures, but none of them were Blot. They didn’t know how to paint.

            Coil had followed Blot. They were stubborn, and cranky, and had a remnant of a painted curl around one of their eye holes that started to flake away, after Blot wasn’t there to renew it. They had thrown themselves at the spikes, at the stone, at the crawlers, and when the shell of their hands cracked it grew back as sharp claws. The claws pulled them almost all of the way up, far out of sight.

            And then Coil had come back down, hadn’t caught themselves, just fell, and fell, and their mask shattered as it hit the ground.

            They put Coil next to Blot, all the pieces they could pick up. Drip hadn’t understood, had cried- that was Drip’s rare gift, they had tears where the rest of them did not, and it felt special, even if they knew it was because Drip was like Blot, just not as bad off, not as runny.

            Ghost had understood then, what Drip had not.

            They had fallen their own share of times.

            The trick to the climb was that you couldn’t look down. Coil had looked down, and seen Blot’s mask, all alone in the corner.

            Ghost was lucky. They had been born strong. It had always come easily to them. When they fell, it didn’t matter if they landed on their feet or if their mask zinged off smooth stone or jutting tooth. Once they’d cracked their whole head up the back, gone back up and killed a Shadow Creeper and willed it closed just as quickly, before Patch had made their way over to fuss.

            At some point in their thoughts they had clenched their grip on the pin. Now a single dark crack ran over its perfect surface. They opened their hand, wondering how to feel about it.

            In the end, it suited him more now, didn’t it.

            They had found his pieces when they were looking over the kingdom, poking at the new places they had access to. He wasn’t like Coil- it wasn’t even like putting shards back together. His pieces curled around each other, wing-scale-light and cold, twined when they met so easily that Ghost had gathered an entire armful of them before they even considered if they should, what might happen if he came all the way back together.

            Then, they had wanted to show him the grave. Put the door back as he’d made it and show him how they could destroy it now, not just order it aside with the King’s Brand but eat through it with their own power. They had wanted him to see what they’d become, and what he’d made, and then they had wanted him to die again.

            But he’d stood at the bottom of the Abyss, and said nothing, and watched, with eyes that were perfectly pitch black, and hadn’t even seemed that afraid. He fled when struck or chased, but he had made the climb, back to the top.

            He hadn’t looked down.

            They could make excuses. In that moment, he’d reminded them too much of Whisper, and they hadn’t wanted to hit something that was looking at them with Whisper’s face. They hadn’t ever liked hitting Whisper, even when Whisper was so much bigger, even when a stranger was looking out at them through Whisper’s eyes, a stranger that hated them, a stranger that hated themselves, half-mad with light and pain and screaming.

            The truth was, they did not want him to die. They stuck the cracked white pin onto the map and stared down at it in frustration. They didn’t want to torture him.

            It felt like such a betrayal. Didn’t Coil deserve tears? Didn’t Blot? Didn’t Whisper- Whisper, the youngest, Whisper, the patient, Whisper, who trotted after Patch, and after Ripple once Patch was gone, Whisper, who kept trying to find somewhere new to set the masks when they started to pile up?

            Whisper deserved someone who’d cry over them. No, Whisper deserved someone who’d been there and kept them safe, that was more important than tears, and he hadn’t done that.

            They hadn’t done that either, said a little echo that had gotten quieter since the void heart, but not silenced entirely.

             They went to put the pin on the map. Hesitated above its surface, and then sank it into the center of the blue-shaded region in the middle. From there, its cracked surface stared up at them.

            With the map on their knees, they lifted their head, flicked the shadows inside of their body until it hummed a sort of song, the song they had taught the other Vessels, but that no one had ever taught to them that they could remember.

            Slowly, the thrashing anger settled back down into silence.

            They wondered what they would do with that anger. Despite what Jiji had said, it hadn’t gone away- just more often than not, it settled, like the sea at the bottom of the Abyss, until something came too close to it.

Chapter Text

            Eventually, he hit a window.

            Though, considering the distribution of the impact it might be more accurate to say he hit the floor beyond the window, and came to a somewhat tangled stop against a metal trellis.

            For the moment, seeing nothing but his eyelids, he came to the conclusion that a lot of things hurt at once.

            He bid his eyes open, pushed himself to sit upright.

            He was not a stranger to pain. But it would be a lie to say the last two days had not been considerably more demanding than palace life had been, even in the decline; the fortuitous position of the Basin and the resilience of the castle meant few breached its walls.

            He found the barbs, recalled them, and wrenched free the ones still stuck in his chest. Those in his back were already a bit loose from extending his wings, but they still required some effort. It took a full focus to close those openings, and another the tears in his wings.

            At the end, he was left with a sprawl of silver chains, scattered around him like vines cut from a cave wall.

            After a cautious repose, he crouched, brushed remnants of rime from the links.

            It was easy for a calmer eye to pick out the imperfections in Baliel’s design. Inferior materials, for one. This was ordinary steel. Attempts to compensate had been made, carving a complex structure of runes into it to create the Soul-drinking effect.

            A sensible mind, not polluted by envy, would have grounded the chains in wires, rather than finite reservoirs such as the focus stones- something to allow the Soul to bleed into the atmosphere. As it was, of course they hadn’t restrained him once he’d exerted himself.

            Once he’d embarrassingly lost control, more accurately.

            Anger was beneath him. It was a fine thing, for lower beings. For a god, it was unacceptable. Ice had settled across his robes, and now it was melting rapidly as the temperature in the city resumed natural levels.

            It had been centuries since he lost his temper thus, even discrediting the one he had passed in seclusion. He couldn’t even flatter that attempt by calling it death; all he had achieved was dreaming idly, waiting until neglect ran its course and he was forgotten.

            The image of the writhing, void-eyed mob and their grasping hands returned to his memory.

            As if that would happen any time soon.

            He lowered his head to regard the spreading pool of ice melt on the floor, and paused at the sight of his reflection.

            A dark line bisected his features in the water, forking at about the level of his brow to end in two places on his jaw. One of the cracks passed directly through his left eye.

            Feeling his chin, he could find the notch easily; press his finger into it to no pain. It seemed an old wound, but that made no sense.

            Baliel’s attempt had struck his chest and back- however disoriented, he knew that striking the window, he’d done with his arms and shoulders more than his face, and if that were the source, the wound would be fresh.

            That was just it- he would have felt it. And it would have been wicked away by either of the times he’d focused. An injury would only refuse to heal if something disrupted the process, or…

            …If somehow it had already been given the time to scar over on its own.

            He recalled, suddenly, Lemm’s edgewise comment about a ‘damaged antique’.

            Oh. Never mind then. It must not be bothering you particularly.

            I must say… you look absolutely terrible. A daring statement, my King. It suits you. Quite well.

            They’d all known.

            Shame crawled up, and with irritation, he struck it down, turning his attention sharply away from the reflection. Was he going to lower himself to petty vanity, now? His body was a convenience. It was a tool. A scar that caused him no pain, did not impair his vision was thus irrelevant to his objectives. The absence of the Kingsoul was a more pressing concern. Even if that could not be acted on without any sort of proper lead to go on, he had a litany of others. He didn’t even know what building he was in right now, and that was a more revolting thought than any disfigurement he might have suffered.

            It was a large elevator shaft, stretching high into the darkness above him. He knew one lay on the east side of the city, the other lay on the west; one to the Kingdoms’ Crossroads, and one to the Resting Grounds.

            The latter, he had seldom visited. No one expected the King to attend funerals, even for his closest retainers. Death was, of course, a matter beneath one who’d brought enlightenment to bugkind. And more practically speaking, none of the very narrow circle he’d consider anything more than acquaintances or subordinates had perished.

            Perhaps more than a few of them were dead now. He could wonder how the Great Knights might have fared, but, as he had already reminded himself, he had more important things to think about.

            He began to pace in the dark tower. Research logs. That had always been a way to organize thoughts, and his at the moment were escaping him at a chaotic pace.

            “The parameters of the matter are, as I understand them…”

            “The Pure Vessel failed. Her pestilence had begun to spread across the land again. In a lapse of judgment, I…”

            Why was it difficult to say? He had no time for this.

            “…I evacuated, and then quarantined the castle by drawing large pieces of it into a dream space, myself inside of it. Methods were taken to deter invasion- the structure was allowed to distort heavily. Ultimately, I released a large amount of essence and lost consciousness.”

            There. That had not been so difficult. He resumed his pacing.

            “Approximately one hundred and forty years passed, during which time, as best as I am able to ascertain, the palace and its encompassing dream were not breached. Attendant Kingsmoulds presumably perished over time. The wing models, being able to reconstruct their void-composed core body, may have survived, only to be destroyed by the collapse of the dream. All hypothetical; no evidence was gleaned of their survival or destruction on cursory examination of the castle’s status. At an unknown point, the dream was unwoven, my body was damaged, and I was resuscitated, presumably via return of the initial released essence.”

            “It is presently unclear the timeline of these events. Injury and unweaving would seem to predate resuscitation, which makes it difficult to place those events. With the dream’s destruction, I cannot evaluate how many and which parties may have breached it, at what times, and for what reasons. However, at least one would have to be either an extremely powerful entity themselves, or wielding a specialized artifact, presumably Moth in origin, given the subject matter.”

            He had never quite improved on the Moth tribe’s tools. A small pity, as their numbers had flagged late in his reign; he was not sure if they had been the undetected first victims of Her pestilence, or if they had themselves given up as some form of odd penitence. Then again, even when they had been his subjects, he had not truly understood them. Insofar as he understood any mortal. He could section a bug, open them, evaluate every individual organ structure and tissue that comprised their whole, apply much the same separation and scrutiny to their Soul, and, yet, there was something in the detail that evaded him.

            Essence, perhaps?

            It would explain why he had never been able to reliably work dreams that were not his own.

            Either way, here was another lead. This was, he ascertained, the elevator in the Royal Quarter- the quality of the floor that he had shed moisture all over told him that much, so, it in fact would lead him to the Resting Grounds. Before its status as the kingdom’s mausoleum, it had once been site of the last standing Moth village.

            If someone had disrupted his dream by virtue of themselves being a Higher Being…

            Radiance?

            Something was countering Her, suppressing and attacking those stray seeds of Her light. It used Void to do so. Whatever state She was in, bound or unbound, he could consider Her contained- Her hatred of the Abyss would blind Her to all else. Had blinded Her before. What was more, Her anger would not be so easily appeased if She had caught him vulnerable. She would have filled his discarded shell with that pestilence and set it roaming the streets, not leave him intact to return. At bare minimum, his palace would have become a cathedral of Her infection. It had been scattered, disrupted, but left pure.

            The Nightmare Heart?

            …Unlikely. Grimm was an aberration. Even if the kingdom’s decay would draw that clan, they concerned themselves with mortal creatures. Never once had they turned their appetites to Higher Beings. The Heart, its changing face and those torch-bearers that fed it were grotesque, but largely harmless. It would be a great deviation of Grimm’s previous behavior to attack him.

            Unn?

            Unlikelier still. Hers had been a withering light before even his arrival in the kingdom. He had brokered treatise to protect her children, in her absence, in exchange for the roads paved through Unn’s wilds- she had lent him what remained of her Knights. Perhaps that would constitute a motive, to drag him from seclusion, but she had much more direct, less vague ways to return his attention to that ancient promise, if that was what she meant- Isma, of his own Great Knights, was a child of the Greenpath, could have sought him out and spoken to him. (If she was still alive. Isma was mortal, true, and it had been a long time.)

            (…Focus.)

            His lady?

            The palace was hers as much as it was his. She would need no show of power to enter the dream, and moreover, she could have extricated him from it without destroying a place that had been her home. True, he did not know what had become of her, after his isolation, and the absence of the Kingsoul took new and concerning context.

            But, no. She had nothing to fear of him. If she’d something to say, she would have said it directly to him. If she had come to despise him for his failure, she would have restrained him in her roots and personally expressed her hatred, before disposing of him quickly. She was not a creature to be coy.

            It was one of her highest virtues.

            The likeliest candidate remained that warped Vessel. They appeared to have been waiting for him. The flowers, the change brought over the Abyss- the way that it used the Vessel masks so prominently and so heavily that they could not have been ignored or forgotten. What else would take such obsessive interest in a failure? Would seek to hew it into the landscape, would change the face of the Abyss as if the refuse of the experiment had been in danger of being washed away by the motionless sea and still air?

             Something had facilitated that Vessel’s development. The unfamiliar gold crest on its mask. Expensive materials- offerings, perhaps? Did his void-tinted retainers take to another god in their… desperation? Obsession? Had they bartered with that strange Vessel, only to become afraid of it and beseech him for succor? They had been babbling about the darkness.

            But if it had become that powerful- if it was the source of that influence- then how had it grown so strong? That problem pointed him again towards the Resting Grounds, towards something that might have been left behind by the Moths in their decline.

            His mind was made up. He would proceed to investigate the matter in the kingdom’s grave.

            And yet, he hesitated with one foot on the floor of the lift.

            If he was correct, it would not behoove him to leave his retainers in that situation. His power was nowhere near its original levels, but it had rebounded effectively- even with Baliel attempting to pilfer part of it. And that was another factor he should not leave unattended in the city. He had also lost track of Quirrel, and had not yet fulfilled the full terms of his agreement with the Relic Seeker.

            On the other hand, a disciple of Monomon strong enough to invade even an unguarded dream and pull him out of it would not need tending. Likely, with Baliel injured, distracted, and pinned by a seal, his disciples would panic and attempt to regroup around him, especially since Quirrel had never been Baliel’s target.

            He also was not sure if he was correct about what had led to the retainers’ state of affairs. If they were still alive, or could be saved from their state of affairs. If they could not, and turned to him regardless, it wouldn’t be the first time the impossible had been asked of him.

            If he left these matters, however, he would need a guarantee that he would be able to offset his limited recovery and do something about the matter.

            A weight shifted in his hands, and he was reminded that he still clutched the soul stone. It hadn’t shattered entirely when the chain focal stones had; instead, a thin crack ran across the center of it, but without leaking any of the silvery light that glowed in its depths.

            It seemed cold to touch- which was to say it felt neutral, to him, as opposed to slightly warm, as most things did.

            He turned it in his fingers.

            Lifted his attention to the fragments of chain sprawled on the floor.

            Considered. Evaluated. Created a hypothesis.

            A relatively short time later, he stepped back onto the elevator, leaving the remnants behind him. Something jingled under his robe as he put a hand on the lever to guide the lift upwards.

            It shuddered heavily as it moved, carrying him upward, into the darkness.

Chapter Text

            The Resting Grounds was quiet. Not in the way of the Basin, but in a way that made him feel, illogically, as if he were subjected to an attentive, expectant audience. It was also very humid here- mists floated in the air, and somewhere, distantly, through the labyrinth of hollowed structures, water was flowing. Ornaments and charms hung from various places, and as the air in the cave stirred, they echoed softly against each other, a nearly inaudible jingle that wandered in and out.

            It wasn’t a bad place for a repose, entirely. In ways, it reminded him of the edge of the kingdom, that cold place he had once lay dying in. Perhaps, this was what people wished for, in their dying moments, and if they could not have that, they sought it in death. Something of a frivolous exercise, since they couldn’t experience that themselves, but it would help the living, feel as if they had at least done something for those lost.

            What a strange idea. To comfort the living by pretending to comfort the dead. If he had ever had the time to carelessly spend, he might have wanted to witness such a thing.

            No, he reminded himself, that would create more trouble than it was worth. Bugs had always ascribed inordinate importance to his comings and goings. That was one way the beasts of Deepnest outdid them- descending to that village to barter with the brood’s queen, when they had forged their compact and he had departed, it had been regarded with very little attention. Herrah had taken many consorts in her time. He was merely another, never mind his position or title. But in Hallownest, the simple act of attending a funeral would mean that he would have to pick one, or a few, and this would become, he understood, a statement.

            Even if he made it clear it was not.

            Now, though, he supposed no one would stop him. The plague had abated, but not before it had more or less swallowed the kingdom whole. Lemm’s records suggested that pockets endured, but the great city was largely uninhabited, Deepnest descended to its former savagery.

            It was coming back to life, Baliel insisted. It would need a king again.

            Did it? He never thought a day would come that he gave Baliel’s words such credence. The bug spoke mostly in arrogance. He stated the land needed a king because he fancied himself for the position, and would have robed himself in stolen godhood to do it.

            The thought was a bit shocking. Baliel was an idiot, but dangerous only because he built his ignorance on half-sound thinking. Not every breath he drew was unreliable. Order was an essential quality of life, and, regardless of the state of his retainers, they had made it clear. He was awaited. He might take time to evaluate the situation, but, ultimately, to refuse them would be remiss.

            In his thoughts, he had come alongside a line of graves. He was surprised to notice a speck of red amongst the tombstones- red armor, a broad-browed helmet and cape. These were well-worn, the coppery-colored accoutrements of a seasoned warrior. The other seemed positioned in repose, facing a tall marker that had been placed at some distance from the others.

            “Cursed, were we both, and, yet, you conquered it. And yet you hoped, wanderer, and scored your hope into the very world.” Breathless, something either a sigh or a laugh. “What does that make me? Coward, traitor, fool?”

            It seemed a private conversation. Not, at minimum, one directed at the King. And yet he lingered, witnessing this dialogue with the grave.

            It did not, as he thought before, stand alone. It was set along a line of five other graves, raised on a small mound- only one of them, besides the one the warrior faced, was decorated. Some dormant familiarity plucked at him, studying the tallest- the shape of its apex, much like the shape of its mourner’s helmet.

            “I did say I would be watching. Though perhaps, now, you are the one watching me. Or is it another pair of eyes I feel?” The helmet turned.

            The stranger’s eyes were bright. Uninfected, from what he could discern, but there was something not natural about them and their carriage.

            “I would not have taken you as the sort to regret, Your Majesty.” The warrior said calmly.

            “You seem to have misunderstood me. I was passing through the area.” A true statement. He would explain, as he had to Quirrel and Lemm, only what proved necessary.

            Those eyes slid from meeting his own, to take in his body in a practiced sweep. While focusing had closed his own wounds, it had not exactly mended the various tears in his robes. He could imagine his state of appearances. “A difficult journey, then.”

            Was that pity, in the warrior’s tone? “It is irrelevant.”

            “Am I?”

            The question gave him pause. It was beneath him to flounder, but he struggled to grasp the sudden turn. He had not implied anything about the warrior. Some part of this confusion must have treacherously escaped him, because the warrior stepped fully around to face him.

            “Do you remember me, Your Majesty?”

            That prompt served its purpose. He did, he realized. His attention slid to the five smaller graves. Four of commoners. One of an aristocrat. And one, that proud, curved helmet, above them.

            A procession. An exercise of ceremony, with great fanfare, his arrival in the city itself. He had been restless, ill at ease- it took him from his work, but the insistence was clear, at a time such as this, the people needed to see their king. He had suspected little from the bug that pressed the matter so.

            Though they were not many in number, nor particularly formidable in training, they moved precisely and with surprising strength- to engage the knights and hold their attention, Ze’mer and Hegemol pulled into the fray and then, through and above the crowd, a flash of red armor and a flying, golden weapon.

            He had been a foreigner, that bug. One of the many who had arrived to the kingdom as pilgrims or refugees, enough that his particular story could not be traced. After interrogation, the others pointed to five ringleaders, and then that specific bug. Dissecting the body had betrayed seeds of the plague taken root in his person.

            The King had returned to his work, then. Around the edges, a great debate had raged, about whether plague had compelled this knight to madness, or if he was yet too early in the stages. At the end, the conclusion had been drawn without need for the King’s intervention. Six graves, and the epitaph, that even at this distance, he could read easily:

            Cursed are those who turn against the king.

            And yet, the grave’s occupant stood before him.

            “You are dead.”

            Another unclear exhale escaped the warrior. “Ah…Am I, now? That’s a relief. I was no longer certain.”

            And yet, he continued to stand calmly.

            “Have you no intention of reattempting what you did before?”

            “Would it not end the same, Your-” A pause, a deliberation. “…No, I am no longer sure what you are.”

            “What?”

            “I called you once a king. There are those who call you a god. I know of one that thinks you a traitor greater than I. Perhaps all of them are true. Perhaps none of them.” There was a sudden shadow behind the warrior’s eyes, an intensity. “What are you?”

            He’d been watching carefully. As soon as the warrior stepped forwards, he spread his hand, lifted a barrier between them.

            The void that had surged behind the warrior faded, slipped away as quickly as it had risen.

            The warrior watched him with clear eyes. “…So. That is your answer.”

            After a moment, the helmet turned, looking eastward, down the line of graves as if after something further than the eyes could see.

            A shift, not in the physical pressure of the air, but in energy and essence. And then, that quickly, he was alone, the warrior gone as if he had never been there. He could study the cavern, the graves, take a slow surveillance in all directions with as many eyes as he could think to look through, and still ultimately return the same result. Nothing. No lingering presence, no trace of passage.

            It vexed him, not being able to identify the mechanism behind it.

            But the warrior had told him something with that long, deliberate look. He faced the direction himself, still scrutinizing with eyes open, his light unfurled brightly from his body.

            Like this, he could faintly see them, echoes of dead and departed creatures of nearly every strata and region of the kingdom. They gathered, wan, on the edges of his vision, of gentle humors; less a product of their personalities in life, and more the power of the consecrated ground, a place that soothed the spirit and eased the will.

            It was a single place of Her worship he had not torn down in entirety. The only marks of his kingdom were the newest graves, the shell-and-crown peering from tombstone and sarcophagus alike. The passageway, down below, to the city’s royal quarter. Much else here had been Hers once.

            Perhaps that was why the plague had affected it little in his absence. Even Her rage was tempered by a craftsman’s selfish pride in their own handiwork.

            As he walked, nothing appeared immediately out of place, save, perhaps, that this holy site was quieter than it should have been. In his acquisition of the area, he had also granted divine sanction to an entire clan of moths to remain as they had before, tending the area with their powers and knowledge. More efficient to leave it in the stead of those who knew how to care for it, after all. Yet, those caretakers were nowhere to be seen.

            It didn’t take an exhaustive amount of cognitive reasoning to hypothesize what might have befallen them. He had no need to go look for corpses.

            Perhaps Her anger hadn’t passed the place over, after all.

            That inspired him to check his newly-crafted weapon, after its test-drive against the warrior. The focus stone continued to hold, something that impressed him, given he’d taken it from Baliel. The adjoining chain, worked into more pleasing shape- far lighter, the links tapered in such a way that they flowed easily over one another in movement, a framing structure to create the shell-and-crown around the focus- didn’t have any cracks in it, though it had accumulated a small patch of frost. Pity. It wasn’t entirely efficient as a conduit of his power. Again, considering where he had sourced the reagents, he was not shocked.

            Regardless, it had proven his hypothesis, at least, was sound: adopting an external conduit, especially one that could dangle from his wrist without demanding he sacrifice a hand to holding it, had done much to ease the more persistent weakening of his power. He folded that arm away, tucked his robes once again over them. When time and resources permitted, he would refine the design.

            The cavern ended in a tall protrusion that wound upwards, protruding platforms stretching upwards. He considered, trying to remember if the warrior had been looking particularly upward- when something caught his ear.

            It sounded almost like a harp- more like some perplexingly foreign substance trying to recreate the sound by ear. But he recognized the tune immediately, even a mockery of it.

            One of the sarcophagi here had been shattered in on itself. A dark opening gaped below, the desiccated odor of dying things drifting up to meet him. A crypt, then, not merely a single grave; hid perhaps to keep looters out, or merely to relegate an entire family to a single plot.

            “Who are you?” He demanded of the shadows. “How do you know that song?”

            The trembling notes didn’t seem to pause. They did seem to move closer, a bit languidly.

            White eyes appeared in the dark. At first, bafflingly, they seemed in isolation, the rest of the creature’s body hidden from him.

            Then it drifted free of the grave.

            His first thought was this was unmistakably a Shade. He had grown well familiar with them in the preliminary experiments of Vessel creation, and from accounts of the lighthouse keeper. Its body had a defined head and shoulders, but simply trailed in gauzy wisps below its waist. Besides the pure white of its eyes and the jagged scar that marked its features, it was a lightless shadow.

            But the Shades took the form of the Vessels they had emerged from. The initial casting of the mask and the body still affected them heavily.

            This Shade, however, had six wings, unfurled even though they were meaningless to holding its insubstantial form aloft. Its head hung slightly, as if under the weight of the ringed crown of horns that swept up from its brow.

            King and Shade regarded each other, mutually transfixed. Slowly, he raised his hand towards it.

            It matched the gesture. The limb it proffered was, in every way except color and detail, a mirror of his own. It hesitated, just before they touched.

            Then its eyes curved, quietly, in an unseen smile.

            Its hand sped forward, caught his wrist and seized it tightly. Through the grip, he could feel it concentrating power, arraying it into a spell-

            A sharp burst of pain at his shoulder, the sound of tearing cloth, and he fell back, suddenly released.

            The Shade was continuing to regard him calmly.

            It was holding his arm, neatly separated from the rest of his body.

Chapter Text

            The armored brute kept pace with him surprisingly well for their comparative size, nail and pinblade ringing against each other as they flickered through walls and corridors, up and downward.

            It was really getting kind of annoying, Quirrel thought, skipping back to catch his breath. His opponent lifted their head, blinked out of sight again. On reflex more than magical training, he tucked his limbs and rolled forwards, letting the pinblade slash downward where his head had been a moment later.

            Pity he didn’t still have the mask, part of him thought for a moment. It would’ve prevented him from having to watch his head so much at the moment.

            That thought pulled free a tangle of emotions he didn’t particularly want to sink too much thought in, considering he was still in danger of attack, and the King was… well, difficult to say with that one.

            Another set of locked weapons. Parry, strike, backpedal, withdraw. That gleaming stone, set in the larger bug’s forehead plating, caught his attention. But his scavenged nail was heavy and slow. The pinblade was exceptionally balanced, sleek and fast.

            His primary consolation was, even entirely outside of teleportation, he was much swifter on his feet than this fellow. He had to wonder what was in those dull eyes of theirs. They swung close to him, he evaded, and unloaded a burst of electricity into the softer underside of their shell- and yet they barely seemed to react to the pain. Shifted, stumbled, more surprised than wounded, and mumbled something breathless.

            Hm.

            Inhale, focus- the warrior was attacking again, and Quirrel built charge for a teleport, but adjusted the parameters last-minute.

            They were expecting him to flee, as he usually had, and paused to gather the energy to follow. It struck their clouded mind only slowly that he was moving closer, rather than further.

            The heavy nail cracked on the top of their head, damaging the plates and, with a tinnier sound, the stone nestled among them.

            The warrior toppled forwards soundlessly.

            Quirrel alighted, studied his handiwork. After a moment, the body stirred with breath. Still alive, then, at least in some form. He looked ahead to where the pinblade had clattered from suddenly loose grip, and picked it up, tucking it in his belt above the borrowed nail.

            You’ll have to excuse me, my friend, but I expect you’d put it through my back if I left it in your keeping.

            His next move was outside the building. Down to the square below seemed like a safe bet, considering he’d traveled there the entire time, oblivious that one of the towers was quite so inhabited. He caught his footing easily on the rain-slicked stones, startling a bug that was sitting by the fountain.

            “The light!”

            “It’s all right,” Quirrel said, not entirely sure if this bug could hear him. “It’s just me.”

            A hand gripped his wrist. It seemed she was at least drawn by the sound of his voice. Dull eyes streaked with darkness bored at him. “No, the light is angry. It’s too close. Look away, you won’t like it if you see it.”

            “Light? What are you talking about?”

            Something bounced off his shoulder like a dislodged pebble. He rubbed the spot with his free hand, glancing up to see where it fell from.

            It was cold, very suddenly in the square. Hail pelted instead of rain, and where droplets still fell, they slicked the stones in frost.

            Something large and gleaming departed from the top of the tower. He saw it move, quickly across the sky, and belatedly replayed the image in his mind, trying to make sense of it. Sometimes, he thought he could make out limbs, wings, but in multiple places that didn’t seem to make much sense, in isolation much less together. It moved too quickly, and far too fluidly, for something of its size, much less something with no apparent order to its features. Like a falling star it shot across the heights of the city and away, out of sight.

            Quirrel drafted and scrapped several half-formed explanations for what he’d just witnessed, blinking afterimages from his vision.

            “I told you not to look at it,” the fountain bug said, surly, swinging her feet. She was quite small, he realized, not a larva but only just, with her carapace still pale bluish. Sitting on the rim, she was still shorter than him, looking very much like a child waiting for their mother. By her short, rounded wings he expected she might be some sort of fly.

            The sudden showering of hail seemed to have parted with the creature. On habit, he reached for the mask again. It was a mistake he’d made often, and not one he felt entirely at a loss by. He would get used to the feeling of empty air over his head. That, or perhaps he’d pick up something else. “Looking away from things generally doesn’t suit me. You find out much more about the world that way.”

            The fly buzzed in faint irritation, confirming his hunch. “I don’t like you very much.”

            Quirrel blinked, contemplating the frank dismissal. “I think I can live with that.” Redirecting the subject, “Do you know what’s happened?”

            She swung her feet. “Teacher says to go back to sleep. We’ll all dream again soon she says. I didn’t like those dreams. They hurt. Don’t want to look at the light, don’t want to go back to sleep. They closed the city to keep the plague out, they said, but they just shut us in with it. It came under the door.” Then, a bit petulantly, she stuck out her arm. “It burned me, do you see?”

            There were a cluster of raised scabs, dappled around her elbow. Faint, and dark, but they marked places the fly’s young carapace had been cracked open by infection. Quirrel studied them closely before she pulled it out from under his gaze and folded it close to her body, protectively. “Does that still hurt you?” He guessed.

            “Mhm.” She either forgot about not liking him, or wasn’t that worried about it. “It hurts less when the thing in the dark sings. It’s pretty. I want it to come bring me flowers.”

            What a statement.

            “I want flowers like the ones down in the Waterway.” She swung her feet again, seemingly happy already. “Pretty flowers, all shiny and black and white.”

            Quirrel wasn’t certain he’d ever understand children under the best of circumstances. But, she seemed perfectly inclined to talk. “Did you see the king, by any chance?”

            “No, because I’m not stupid.”

            Yes, he really needed a hat. At this rate, his poor scarf was going to get ripped by all the perfectly meaningless times he was tugging on it for search of something to not look directly at the person he was talking to. “…hm.”

            “Don’t be mad at me, it’s not my fault you looked up. I told you not to.”

            That could be a totally nonsensical statement, like her comment about the thing with flowers, but, if he interpreted it a certain way, it had a worrying amount of logic.

            Well, time to talk some potential nonsense of his own, then. “He was quite angry, then, wasn’t he?” There was a hailstone by his feet, and he picked it up. Ice and snow were foreign things to many of Hallownest, but he’d seen them before in his travels. It had interested him how water, usually colorless, brown or blue at best, nonetheless froze white.

            The fly scrutinized him for a moment skeptically. “Did you make the Light mad?”

            “No, I think the bug up in the tower did that.”

            “Which tower?” At his pointing, “The scary one?”

            He eyed her, was about to ask, but.. well. He supposed that the average person would want to steer clear of someone like that Baliel sort. The average person wasn’t the King of Hallownest, of course, but considering what he’d just experienced, he expected going back to the tower, he wasn’t about to find the King there.

            He had a feeling, even without a half-remembered duty guiding him, that his path would lend him where he needed to go. No, perhaps that wasn’t quite it. At this point, his path was his own, not an obligation to another, even to an abstract such as destiny. Finding an ostensibly long dead ruler freshly unconscious on the path of the city, there hadn’t been that slow call like what had led him back to the Madam’s archives.

            There had merely been curiosity. Wondering. Even if he prodded the cavernous depths of his memory at length, he wasn’t sure if he had ever so much as been in the king’s presence. Vague images of an airy, soaring palace, more garden than state building, swam now and then, but they were images of guards, of aristocrats. He knew, in the unmoored way of knowing so common to him these days, that the King had been reclusive, largely unaffected by his court. Aristocrats would boast at great length that the King had personally attended this event or that, as if merely by standing there he had offered some sort of full-throated support.

            The creature he’d pulled off of the street was a bit too light, even for a small bug; as if it were merely an empty shell wrapped in cloth, and yet, he had been breathing. Cold to the touch.

            He knew that people said the King was perfect. That he did not bleed, that he did not feel any negative emotion- grief, despair, anger.

            The creature he had met… well, was certainly capable of being peeved with him, in a clinical sort of way. Had little qualms commanding others as if they were his own knights, calling him, dismissively, “disciple of Monomon”, without seeming reflection of what the Madam had done at the King’s behest, or what it had cost her.

            Acceptable, he had said, at Quirrel’s admission to only sticking around really in search of answers.

            Maybe it was just that he had deigned, if Quirrel hated him for the Madam’s death, that too was simply acceptable.

            And now, that thing that had crossed the sky. He could see, he supposed, the similarity- the shape of the horns, that odd, shimmering pale of the chitin. If one ignored that the creature was several completely different shapes seeming to struggle against each other, then, they were certainly built of the same materials.

            Was that the King’s true form, then? He didn’t blame the fly child for not wanting to look. And if it wasn’t, then what was?

            …What was he?

            At some point, the hailstone in Quirrel’s grip had melted. The fly, evidently bored of his silence, scooted off the lip of the fountain and started walking towards one of the buildings.

            “Where are you going, my friend?”

            “It’s wet,” she said, by way of answer, and didn’t stop.

            A solid reply. He watched her go, looked around the square. A cluster of the fellows in white were standing at the other edge, pressed so closely no one could walk between them, speaking in a frenzied hum of undertones.

            He couldn’t make out their words through the rain, but they cut off, staring at him as he passed.

            He wasn’t sure what to make of them, either. But, as it was, if he wanted to linger around a stranger he didn’t understand, he could think of a few people he’d choose over them.

            Lemm was in his shop, muttering to himself as he worked on a translation. He glanced up, raising his brows at Quirrel. “There you are. There was some horrible racket earlier. I don’t suppose you were responsible for that, were you?”

            “Partially,” Quirrel conceded.

            A faint huff. “King’s not with you?”

            “He’s otherwise occupied at the moment.”

            Lemm looked back to his translation. “More’s the pity. I hope he survives, at least long enough to read the rest of the eggs, or give me a lead on how in the blazes he’s doing that.” Then, with a certain dry humor, “I suppose worse come to worse there’s probably someone in the kingdom who’d pay lavishly for his corpse.”

            Quirrel considered what he’d witnessed. “I expect his survival may not be that much of a problem.”

            Even as he said it, he had to wonder. Certainly, there had been those who found the Madam strange. With the power that separated her from her mask, she had become something nearly more energy than creature, without organs to speak of, and sustained that way for… he prodded, cajoled, failed to come up with a number. Some very impressive amount of time.

            (And didn’t that make him feel old)

            Regardless, it hadn’t secured her immortality. There were tools, and creatures, in this world that could certainly wound a shining, unnatural thing.

            He debated saying something to Lemm. His attention caught a display case behind the relic seeker’s shoulder- a number of pale white idols.

            He looked back to the seeker, who evidently considered the conversation over, at least enough to not bother to look up from his work.

            After a moment, Quirrel stepped back outside. The sound of water caught his ear, drew his attention downward. An ornate manhole cover, a short distance from the floor of Lemm’s shop.

            I want flowers like the ones down in the Waterway.

            Pretty flowers, all shiny and black and white.

            What sort of flowers grew in a sewer?

Chapter Text

            Quirrel had been a lot of places, some of them very inhospitable indeed. He was hard-pressed to say he regretted being the curious type; after all, one way or another, things inevitably got interesting, wherever his feet found himself.

            That said, if he was never again bottlenecked in claustrophobic, wet, dark corridors by the most impressive belfly infestation he had ever seen in the clear part of his memory, he would be grateful.

            He ducked a corner, skidding to a halt in a splash of water, feeling the heat from an explosion on the back of his shell, and hesitating long enough to gauge the path ahead didn’t have more of them before picking up the pace.

            Belflies. Anatomically, impressive- that something closer to the beasts of the kingdom could live with such a volatile core as the Canyon’s endemic life did. The actuality of dealing with them, however, was a bit more of a nightmare. At least the average Ooma would leave you placidly alone unless you went out of your way to assault them first- Belflies, however, had somehow settled on interpreting most larger creatures that moved through their domain as a threat and thus to be attacked on sight, at the cost of their own life.

            Somehow, this was an evolutionary advantage that left their numbers in plentiful supply. Rubbing a slightly charred patch on his shoulder, Quirrel glanced ahead, eyeing the roof of the tunnel. The canals of the sewer had ribbed ceilings- they were designed well to hold up the weight of the stone and avoid collapse, but each dark curve between them was a suspect location for a nest from which another creature might, shrieking, alight upon him. And here, the walkways narrowed to make room for the water- with slick, treacherous footing, there wasn’t much space to maneuver.

            He pinched forefinger to thumb and focused, briefly, composing a simple command. When he released it, the gathered energy coalesced in a familiar fluttering shape. Bouncing dizzily, much like a real lumafly, it spun along the passage ahead, revealing stone worn smooth by the water, and old bronze pipes, but no waiting hazards. Satisfied, he continued his progress.

            It was peculiar and fiddly work, his form of magic. It didn’t seem to have the raw firepower of Baliel’s students, but that could simply be he didn’t recall much of its combat applications. He’d wholly forgotten himself capable of it- it had merely crawled to the forefront, sparking and twitching restlessly under his shell, in times when his nail skills fell flat and he found himself troubled in a way the Madam’s mask hadn’t protected him from. With it had come the muscle memory of handling it- the understanding of defining a task, worded precisely in a language both unfamiliar and so blatantly legible to him that he could well have been sung lullabies in it in some forgotten time.

            The magic was alive, and energetic. It was a piece of him that would not let itself be forgotten. Not like the mask, or his old nail. They had been patient things, humble workhorses that let him prod and turn them over like they were strangers, ply them for his own use with an ease beget of sundered familiarity. Neither had put up a fight when he had left them behind, the mask reunited with its master, the nail plunged in the shores of the lake, somewhere far above the city.

            But the magic wouldn’t be forgotten. It clamored for use. He filtered through the things he had heard- Baliel’s words, the King’s words. Certainly cryptic, the both of them. Talking about this thing, power and knowledge.

            Your body doesn’t know what to do with such things.

            Until the body would begin to buckle and reshape itself under the force of what coursed in its veins.

            What did that make him, he wondered? The Madam was neither beast nor bug. Her ethereal kind had come from somewhere outside the kingdom, a place she had mused on in silence for an uncharacteristic amount of time before apologetically relaying that there were not good words- in Hallownest’s dialects, or the workman’s tongue of arcana- to describe it.

            …And how strange. He hadn’t remembered that conversation before a moment ago. Contemplating it, he could feel it drift in his thoughts, settle not as a missing piece in its proper place but more a newly-gleaned snippet of information, penned in a book. They felt like someone else’s memories, a scratched, ruined diary that he’d fished out of a snowdrift in the wastes, perhaps, and been stringing together pieces of ever since.

            Did it matter, if he recalled? He felt fairly certain nothing in this kingdom would lay claim to him, at least, nothing he’d care for.

            And yet, he supposed it was his nature to wonder. To prod. It wasn’t as if it was easy. Sometimes he was good at it. Other patches of darkness he could stare into for days, and find nothing.

            In his thoughts, he’d drawn to a stop, looking down at the flowing water. The languid shapes its eddies formed had been soothing. Now, however, he focused all at once, and realized that those forms should not have been quite as distinct as they were.

            There was a shadow in the water.

            Too long and strange in shape to be anything especially bodily. Regardless, his hand rested on the pinblade’s hilt before, with a bit of contemplation, he shifted to the heavier nail. Better to use something he felt more at ease losing. Sinking down on one knee, he cast about with the point of the nail in the water.

            He expected to find another, stranger liquid, one he might swirl, but surprisingly the nail seemed to come up under cloth that he could fish out of the water and hold up. A ribbon of sopping black material, shimmering faintly. Both ends of it trailed long in the water, still seeming to flow towards its destination.

            He went to pull it in for closer examination, but it snapped suddenly, briskly in his direction, with a spray of water and a stinging impact on the bridge between his eyes. Rubbing the spot, he glanced back at the nail, and realized it had pulled free at the same time, back into the water, and was flowing away from him.

            Curious. Nail in hand, he kept pace with it.

            It didn’t move particularly quickly, which was fortuitous, as flowing as it did, it simply passed right through pipes or over falls that Quirrel had to work his way around, and he suspected he otherwise might have lost sight of it. Here, it seemed as if the passages of the waterways broke into more caves. His path took him away from the waterside briefly, but, moving ahead through a tunnel slicked in some sort of pearly slime, he found it again, and in a most spectacular fashion.

            Here, the cavern gaped into a broad cistern of clear water. A distant shore was mounded high with rubbish of various kinds, but between stretched a great lake, though smaller than the one above the city.

            The sight of it stirred a memory- a proper one, rather than the waking dreams of his past life. He sheathed his weapon, found a handhold and from there slid down the incline to the lake.

            The shadow he had followed had pooled at the opposite shore, swirled in place, and then hands protruded from it to grip the trash and pull the rest of the body up onto it. The flowing cloth became a cloak, appended by a necklace and then a mask, though the details of the latter were hard to discern as the bug’s hunched shoulders obscured it.

            Remembering the irreverent rebuke it had directed him before, it was with some caution that he considered his options. This was a large bug, and armed- the gleaming, tasseled nail strung across their back made no attempt at hiding itself- and, also, a tantalizing unknown sitting right before his very eyes.

            It’d be remiss, wouldn’t it? To not poke further? He’d come this far, after all, and while he thought that, he was already gauging the distance, seeing if he could walk the perimeter of the lake, or if the water pressed wall to wall.

            His foot found a loose stone and pushed it into the water before he realized what it had caught on, and the creature heard him, turning around.

            He was confronted not with two eyes, nor six like the beasts of Deepnest, but eight of them, clustered on a relatively narrow face. The proximity of them left only one set properly open- the others seemed nearly squinted. Regardless, it was a face with no room for a mouth or nose, a pale, perfect, motionless face. A mask.

            “Hello, there!” He called across the lake. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t already been spotted. There was no harm in being polite that wouldn’t already be done by his misstep.

            The stranger crouched, and jumped; the cloak fanning, splitting itself at the edges into black wings that then swept downward to carry them further. It was quite a leap, crossing the whole of the lake, and- what a funny thing. They could only have been much lighter than they looked. Even the impact as they landed was understated, more of a pat than a thump.

            And, all at once, there were hands on Quirrel’s face.

            On reflex, he froze rather than reacting particularly harshly. It wasn’t really a threatening grip or assault; segmented fingers patted his cheeks, scarf, ventured down his sides as if testing the sturdiness of his shell, checking it for injuries. The taller bug had even crouched to make the scrutiny easier, pointed knees drawn up against the chest as if, for all the finery and eerie air of them, they were merely a child in a too-big body.

            When he seemed, to their satisfaction whole, hands retracted to rest on their knees and they simply plunked down where they were, head tilting. Here, too, was another childlike thing; if he didn’t know better, he’d swear they were about to ask him to tell them a story.

            He felt like he was missing something important, here. Rather than disquieting, it endeared him rather immediately to this bizarre fellow. What an unexpected thing to find in the city’s Waterways, of all places!

            “My apologies if I surprised you. I saw your cloak in the water, you see…”

            They perked up at that, ceramic face yet illegible. The cloak, unaided by either of their hands, shifted and wriggled, flexed like a set of prehensile tendrils, tapping each other to ascertain they were all really there. Some revelation seemed to strike them, and all eight eyes turned back to face him. A finger pointed towards his face.

            They hadn’t been aware what they hit, it seemed, just that something had caught them in the water. “Oh, it’s fine, really.” And it was. It had barely hurt past the original impact, nothing to concern with- he’d taken worse strikes and had no wound to treat.

            He paused, considering his next words. They could be quite casual- say, have we met before? Something about you-

            He sat down on the lakeshore, turning his attention to the water.

            They did not get up, but, they shifted their position, scooted forwards and settled with their legs folded under them. Empty eyes, in a blank white face, staring over the lake.

            It had been a private moment, in as much as anything could be considered private or public in a world largely spent of people.

            “…You’re capable of some very impressive things, my small friend. Although,” Quirrel chortled a bit- familiarity had turned his words in a direction that no longer made sense. “I can’t quite call you that any more, can I?”

            Their head dipped to regard him. Tilted.

            He had the distinct sense they did not mind hearing it from him.

            He had certainly known that his friend was something exceptional. He doubted the Madam would have chosen to fall on the nail of just anyone- or at least, he wanted to believe that. And yet, that was quite a dramatic transformation.

            A sigh escaped, though not an unhappy one, and pulled with it more of his thoughts. “It’s quieter now, isn’t it? Things don’t feel so restless as they did before. Not everything is at ease, but it’s as if this dead world is remembering its mortality.”

            He paused, turned the idea around in his head. His quiet friend was easy to talk to. “Or, perhaps, that past is withering, and what stirs the air instead is something new.”

            The silence that answers him is what he has anticipated, what he has grown accustomed to. He finds, however, that in that silence is something else- a shift of body and cloak, and the side of a white mask pressed against the top of his scarf. They leaned on him, and though they did not really have eyes to close, he felt that they emanated a distinctly comfortable air.

            It was a compliment, and he took it as such.

            “…We’ve both wandered some interesting roads since our path diverged, haven’t we?”

Chapter Text

            “You are empty,” the dark told him, and there was not a note of mockery to it.

            He was not aware when the hem of his robe had become stained. Something black clung to it now, but that was peculiar- he was far from the abyss. He does not bleed. He is above such things.

            “There is nothing left. Baliel was wrong. The kingdom is dead. There are no kings without kingdoms,” it continued, not impatient, not breathless, not frustrated.

            “Where are you going?” it asked him.

            A pause in the stride. The king turned his head. “If you are aware of what I am, you know that.”

            The shadow’s eyes curled upward. It flowed forward as he moved, over the ground as it became rougher, past the crumbling rudiments of a miner’s rest stop. Kept pace. “I do. I want to know what you think that will accomplish. When there was anything left of you, before you failed your lady, you couldn’t defeat Her directly, then, either. Now, you are empty. Do you want Her to kill you?”

            His shoulder socket ached. It was an annoyance, a continuous low sting at the corner of his mind, but he found it kept him awake. Focused.

            “I would not waste another’s time, even Hers, if that were my intention.”

            “Would you?” Now, at least, he could hear the shadow’s scorn.

            He paused to look at it again. “I did not before.”

            “Then what do you think to accomplish here?” No longer content with following, it circled in front of him, cut his progress off. “You are refusing to think. You really have lost everything.”

            “I am able to continue.” He stared ahead. “That is enough. I am still needed.”

            “Are you? By whom?”

            “Do not.”

            “Monomon’s disciple? The one you didn’t return and search for?”

            “Baliel? The one who was beneath your attention, who you only promised another’s nail to execute him?”

            “That Vessel? The one that you discarded?”

            “Do you cling to them only now, because you fear being alone?”

            As if jerked by a thread, he drew himself upright, gleamed brightly, threw the shadows back until they were pressed against the walls. “I fear nothing.”

            The shade, isolated, watched him with his own eyes.

            He left it there, and continued past it. As soon as his light withdrew, found the confines of his skin once more, he felt it trickle behind him once again.

            “Do you even remember what you were?” it asked him. “Before this little place?”

            He paused, when he had already wasted too much time, when he should not continue to answer.

            “I do not forget,” he told it. “There was nothing there. There is no point in lingering on nothing.”

            The caves below the mountain were warm. The friction of machinery, the light of crystals. It prickled along his shell, seeped through his robes and clung to him. He reached the bottom of a shaft, its lift long torn and scattered aside.

            “You didn’t answer me. What do you think will happen when you get to the top of the mountain? When you find Her? You can’t possibly think that terrible plan of yours will be fixed if all you do is choose another sacrifice you think cannot regret. You were wrong first. You can be wrong again.”

            He turned his head. “Will you tear my wings out, then, and stop me?”

            “I might,” the dark said.

            “Then you have already hesitated, and you are a coward.”

            He left it behind in the tunnels.

            The peak. There was a way to the peak. He just had to find it.

            His vision wandered, even when his eyes did not. The lights gleamed strangely.

            A platform, across the haze. He could get there; it wouldn’t stop him.

            He spread his wings in the dark.

            A sudden lashing pain.

            As he fell, he saw the shadow watching him; the same eyes, the same cracked face.

            Oh, he thought.


            Little Sting hadn’t come back in some time.

            Not Sting. Hornet? Hornet. They felt bad, thinking of her that way; even if it made more sense, to phrase it that way, she had made sense of their name, tried to chase the not-sounds, echo their shape. They could do the same for her, even if in the comfort of their mind, it was easy to fall into the pattern of thinking of her as Little Sting.

            It was accurate. She could sting quite hard, they recalled, faintly, fuzzily, touching the furrow that across the top of their mask. It didn’t really ache, not in the way that void-flesh rebuked a breach to the shell, but they could feel air through the gap in the mask. It had probably hurt more at the time, when the tip of her cold needle had pushed down into their head, but, they had been very scattered at the time- too many things hurt, light and wounds, bled and torn, and they had not been the right place in their head to find the pain to spare there.

            Maybe that was better. Better not to recall it clearly. To be guessing how much time was passing by how overgrown, how decrepit, how estranged other things looked now. As it was, if they looked forwards, if they did not think about it too much, they could think about how today, they had more energy than they had the day before, how the deep pitted shape in their chest did not hurt so much. They had cleaned their nail, tended the cracks as best they could, and that had tired them only a little, and now they were up, by the shore of the acid lake.

            Still no sign of Hornet.

            They proceeded out to the edge, looked down at the hissing, bubbling waters. Back up the pier, and onto the steep beach, picking their way a bit slower, more cautiously. Their foot had slipped before, when they weren’t so sure on their feet, and it had eaten rather quickly into their shell.

            This time, they did not fall, but made their way back up to the shore again. Around the temple. Maybe they should clean? They did not know much of Unn, but, they bore her no ill will, and her temple had harbored them. They gathered a handful of leaves and scrubbed the face of the idol.

            Sting would come back soon, they thought, forgetting to correct themselves. She’d come back, soon, and they could reassure her, a bit, that they were doing better.

            They cleaned the bench under the idol, too. Then they started to pick the leaves out of the corners of the room. They had made about half of a pass before they stopped themselves.

            Sting was not invincible. She was voidless, and, even voided things tired, or stumbled, or hurt themselves. She was strong, but even if it was silly to worry, it was better to check. They knew the path she took.

            Admittedly, knowing the path was easier than following it. They were doing better, but not perfectly; climbing through Greenpath’s undergrowth required frequent breaks. They nearly tripped over little mossy things, some of them yet mobile; others were curled up, looking like they’d been dead for a while. These were the simple mosskin; the ones that crept along the ground as animals, rooting in the leaf litter for food.

            There were wiser ones, they knew, remembered from their lessons. The moss people, some of them knights, even; once upon a time, there had been a distinction between Unn’s Lands and the roads the King had laid through her domain. That distinction was no longer, as far as they could tell; shining paths were overtaken, and wild lands had roads beaten through them.

            Still no flash of red. They reached the place where she set her traps, found two empty, two filled, but they were untouched.

            Once they had rested there, they set off at a faster pace. The moss thinned, then faded out entirely, and the light was soon filtered through a cloud of spores. They cast everything in a golden tint, one that blurred as Whisper descended through it.

            These lands lay west of the City, they knew; even if they had never traveled them personally. They were winding, odd caverns; here, somewhere that looked like it had been a campsite once, now long abandoned.

            They weren’t sure if this was even the right way, or where Sting might have gone. They had descended further than they meant to- looking up, they weren’t sure if they would have the energy to turn back if they waited much longer to do so.

            But then-

            Red!

            A flicker of red, a small figure. Whisper bounded up the shallow incline, and-

            Stopped.

            There was a child standing there. He was about Sting’s size, but the horns were much too short, and the red was only on the inside of his tattered cloak, not the outside.

            “Oh. Hello,” the child said, peering up at them with red eyes. “Were you looking for someone?”

            Whisper crouched, a bit cautiously, and nodded.

            “That’s okay. I’m looking for someone, too.” The child had a soft voice, with the faintest odd crackle to it, like he had hurt his throat some time before. Tilting his head, “I’m not doing a very good job finding them, though. I think I’m supposed to be better at this, but I’ve no practice yet.”

            Had Whisper eyelids, they might have blinked. What an odd way to put it.

            “You don’t have to worry about me,” the child said, those strange eyes curling upward in an earnest manner. “But if you’d like to, we could look together. I think if we do that, we’ll be luckier.”

            It seemed reasonable. Whisper nodded, then pointed to the child. It was only polite to ask, even if they couldn’t really ask.

            “Me?” Another smile. “I’m not Grimm yet.”