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Face Your Fears

Chapter Text

Boots doesn't tend to pay much attention to rumours.

Nyms love to gossip, after all, and the current carries myth and legend wherever it runs, be it in the air or underwater. There's not much stock in them when it’s been turned over and reformed three, four times by fantasy and imagination.

However, Boots has also learned that the rumours always have to start somewhere; and the ones that survive the test of time need to have some truth to them. The moon sometimes covers the sun as space rock rains down, whistling flames, but it is less the coming of the apocalypse and more of a temporary destruction. Whirlpools can drag you down to what feels like another planet but is at best a deep crag and at worst death. The leviathans of the deep are not as large as the stories say but they could still swallow a whale whole, and not all of them take kindly to Nyms in their space.

But this time, the rumour starts with them.

 


 

The whispers haven't quite made their way out of the town when Boots arrives; it's a small one, carved out of the edge of a drop-off into the deep blue and characterized by sand coloured a desert shade of brown, bright like the sun's heat had been seared into it when most of the light is brought artificially by technology or organically by bioluminescence.

It's a small town, more Brevis-influenced than it is Nym, though most of the hardcore Brevis warriors seem to have moved on. There’s no sign at the entrance of the town—Boots isn’t even sure the town has an official name—but the sand underfoot grows looser and softer, the mark of movement and livelihood unmistakable in the otherwise harsh terrain. The homes are simple and easily defendable, one main entrance and many back exits, weaving through the cliff's hard stone and out between the razor peaks of broken rock in winding, efficient tunnels; invisible to the outside and only known by those on the inside. There's evidence of Nym influence, too, big rounded domes that look like boulders half-sunk in the sand if it weren't for the holes carved in the sides to let in light and bodies both. Community buildings, if Boots had to guess, and likely much more colorful on the inside than the out.

There’re a few names for the area— the Brevis call it The Spike Wall but the Nyms like to argue over more dramatic names: The Razors Edge, The Spear-Point Peaks, the Pufferpig Cliffs.

The name Nyms are most fond of, though, Boots find they can agree with: looking out over the edge of the drop-off and into the dark, cold open water until the surface light spirals into nothingness and flickering nonsense shapes fill their mind conjures to try and make sense of the void below.

The World's End.

Boots can't find anything in the open water to dispute it, so they step back from the edge slowly, purposefully. There's likely nothing out there at all, and if there is, it's even less likely that it'll cause them trouble now. The mind’s a powerful thing, though, and Boots has learned not to make a habit of trying to guess what lurks in the dark.

A riptide breaks from the strong currents flowing over the razor peaks of the cliffside and whips the sand in front of them into a frenzy, staining the world a deeper shade of orange until the dust storm settles, stray energy expended but leaving a tangible chill in the water.

Glee shivers in Boot's bag, shuffling nervously. It's not the most welcoming town they've been to, but they haven't been shot at yet, so it’s not the worst.

Boots walks forward.

They don't see any Brevis, but they can feel sharp eyes on them as they step into town.

Boots isn't sure if it’s their time with the Nyms that has tempered the Brevis’ territorial nature or the spear strapped to Boot's back, but they're not stopped as they approach one of the bigger boulders; the paths around this one are worn enough that Boots can pick it out with their eye, and the openings on this one are rounder at the edges, more inviting. From up close, Boots can see that the entrances are covered by bits of seashells laid on fishing line; easily parted, if you have hands, but the sharp bits of coral and shell help keep any pests from trying their luck. They knock on the outside of the boulder lightly before entering; Nyms change when they spend time with Brevis, too, and entering somewhere unannounced is rude at best and cause for a fight at worst.

The coral curtain clicks and jingles as Boots brushes it to the side and lets it float shut behind them, squinting through the curls of desert sand that chased them within. It's bright on the inside, more than Boot's had expected; before they can catch their bearings, a flurry of bright, streamlined fish equipped with sharp dragonfly fin-wings circle them in a tornado, fast enough to leave trails of rainbow bioluminescent light before they scatter back in retreat. Boots grits their teeth to keep from reacting, one hand raised to grab for their spear and the other laid protectively over their side bag flap, pushing Glee further behind them and keeping the Pompip well out of sight.

They wait a beat, then two, before Boots forces themselves to relax the grip they have on the end of their spear, holding carefully still while they blink the dots out of their eyes and try and adjust to all the light contained in the room.

The dragon-dart fish have retreated to a corner, turning over each other in a mesmerizing ball of color and scales anxiously as they struggle to make sense of Boot's presence, but the entire room seems to move and pulse in time with their colors. Pastel lighting strips line the ceiling and walls, rotating slowly through every color of the rainbow and back again. The floor beneath their feet is lined with some kind of moss algae and leaves a glowing blue imprint of their foot when they move, its surface speckled like stars with bright blue pinpricks of light, flickering and twinkling. There's a big glass tank in the back corner opposite to where the dart fish have converged, containing a white, goopy substance that lazily floats to the top of the container and back down again, splitting apart and coming back together seemingly at whim.

There's a bar counter between the tank and the dart fish, lined with stools, and a few tables scattered along the floor with chairs tucked in around them, some pushed out like they've been sat in recently and others that the moss carpet appears to be starting to grow onto. Another cave entrance is carved into the far wall behind the counter, obscured by another seashell curtain, but the shadows behind it suggest a tunnel that curves into an area Boot's can't see into without jumping the counter and venturing into the tunnel itself.

Were they above water, Boots would compare the place to a saloon or a bar, but underwater it’s more out of place; like a sunken ship, something settled in a world not meant to house it.

All in all, it's the kind of place that would be mystifying, even charming, were it not totally empty. Empty, it's the kind of place that sets Boot's teeth on edge, makes their fingers twitch for their spear and keep Glee tucked in Boot's bag and out of sight.

Boots forces themselves to stop and think, take a few breaths through the gills before they jump to conclusions or decisions.

Boots takes a step forward, then another, leaving a trail of blue footprints as they make their way further into the room. The dragon-darts whirl faster in anxiety as Boots approaches but seem to relax slightly when Boots ignores them in favor of approaching the counter.

They pull out a stool and sit.

 


 

It doesn't take as long as they thought for someone to come to them.

There's a dull sort of thumping that carries through the tunnel, the sound of shuffling feet and sliding boxes, before a brightly colored Nym peeks around the corner and through the curtain, the gentle tinkling noise almost too loud in the otherwise silent room.

Boots can't imagine the Nym is more surprised to see Boots than Boots is them, but the other Nym gives a good show, anyway.

"Well howdy there, partner!" The Nym greets— they've got a few extra points on their teeth, Boots notes, and when they grin it comes out crooked but genuine. One of their eyes is covered by a dark green half-mask, a mark of their friendship with the Brevis, which sits at a jaunty angle. Their visible eye is slit into a sharp pupil, so thin Boots almost hadn't noticed it at first, and the cheek that Boots can see has a set of jagged scars running from under their eye to back behind their mantle. They wear a half-cape in the same color and pattern of their mask, hiding the arm on the opposite side of their mask but not the set of swords that lie at their hip. They're carrying a small crate in the other arm, and their fingers end in sharp points that look less like claws and more like the flesh itself had twisted to mimic the cliffs the Nym had called home.

"Howdy," Boots responds, raising a hand to give a lazy, two-fingered salute and grin back. Boots thinks, distantly, that they would have been more wary if they came unarmed.

This, at least, Boots is equipped to deal with.

"Hope you weren't waiting long, stranger," the Nym says, "we don't get many visitors these parts— not very many people wanna visit The World's End. Can't imagine why!"

The Nym smiles at their own joke, setting the crate they'd been carrying down on the counter at the side closest to the dragon-darts. Boots finds themselves smiling back: it'd been a while since they'd last had a conversation with anyone outside of Glee, and even in such an odd place, they find that they've missed it.

"You've picked a right bad time to visit, too— what with all that ruckus about the reef, and all," the Nym goes on, and after what is probably a too-long pause Boots remembers themselves and makes small a sound of confusion.

"The reef?" Boots prompts, assuming the other was looking for confirmation to continue; the Nym nods seriously, taking the top off of the crate and rooting around the inside while they speak.

"Some of the young'uns went further out of town than they should've a couple weeks ago; stumbled upon one of them downed reefs, all bleached out and broken down, you know the ones," the Nym says, squinting into the depths of the crate as they continue to rifle through its contents. "The kids keep callin' 'em... was it tidepools? Tidepods? Something 'bout 'you only eat once'?"

Boots nods, though they're not sure they understand— they're pretty sure they've heard similar jokes about 'forbidden snacks' but Boots had just assumed that there was another wave of that strange trend where Nyms just ate sand or dirt off the ground.

Dead reefs, however, are no laughing matter. White-washed coral as far as the eye can see, broken into sharp and jagged points; the petrified bones of what used to be a living ecosystem, pulsing and breathing with the ocean itself. They're graveyards, no doubt about that, but Boots has never heard of one being haunted.

"They say it's full of ghosts and ghouls," the Nym continues, an edge of teasing colouring their tone, "the kids keep trying to go back, anyway, sayin' there's gold in them-there hills."

Boots chokes on a laugh, biting off the sound into a huff of bubbles in the water but can't quite keep the grin from their face. "I can believe that."

They've never been around children all that much, but they've always liked the sense of wonder and adventure that seems to be characteristic of childhood. The lack of experience to really know what fear is, so they never really fear anything; nothing that can keep them down for too long.

Still, a haunted reef is a bit much, even for the fearlessness of youth to brave.

"If you're keen on trying your luck, the reef ain't too far from town: just follow the path through and deeper into the cliffs. The kids always scare each other silly before they get far enough to get themselves hurt, but maybe you'll have more luck. They might be on to somethin' about those treasures; word around town is there's some relics of Nym's long past floating around in there."

Exploring isn't really Boot's style, but the idea of relics is intriguing enough to catch their attention and hold it captive. The spear on their back has been their companion for years, but they've never been sure where it came from or how it was made. Who owned it before them.

It's worth a shot, anyway.

"Thank you," Boots says with a deep nod— something they'd picked up from their travels, an acknowledgement closer to a bow than anything else. Most creatures they've met seem to understand the meaning without Boots having to go through an explanation.

Boots has never been good about shaping words in quite the right way to say what they mean.

From the way the other Nym inclines their head to the side in another half-nod acknowledgement, Boots thinks they get the message. Destination in mind, Boots stands, careful of the living carpet underneath their feet. A few of the braver dragon-darts move closer to investigate Boots after seeing their owner comfortable with the outsider.

"Be safe now, stranger!" The Nym says, shooing a few particularly inquisitive dragon-darts away with a gentle hand. "Come back with a story; we're always in need of news here!"

"Of course," Boots promises over their shoulder, and slips to the outside world.

The darkness of the open water is jarring after spending so much time in a room filled with light, but Boots has enough sense to crouch low to the ground and wait for their eyes to adjust before standing, carefully checking the water above their head for anything lurking in the thin streams of sunlight before moving away from the boulder.

They draw their spear, anyway, and follow the path out of town, keeping one hand carefully on the top of their bag until the boulders and cliffside caves disappear around a bend in the cliffs.

Glee jerks impatiently against their side, twitching in Boot's side bag, and Boots carefully undoes the front flap of the bag so the Pompip can stick their head out, at least.

Glee looks deeply affronted about being kept in confinement for so long, fixing Boots with a long look before forcing themselves through the opening and into the open water. Boots frowns, but doesn't order the Pompip back in— they're far enough away now that no one would come after them if they saw, and they don't think anyone would berate them for carrying a Pompip so far out of their habitat and comfort zone.

Besides, one never could be too careful. While many sea creatures wouldn't attack a Nym, they'd love to make a snack out of a stray Pompip.

Glee, as if reading Boots' thoughts, swims underneath their mantle and begins picking at it with only slightly more force than the Pompip would normally use, so Boots figures they're mostly forgiven.

The path flattens out in front of them, craggy spikes and bright sand giving way to worn spires and too-white sand littered with sharp bits of coral, laying like shark teeth among the bonedust of what used to be a massive living ecosystem.

The World's End softens and smooths out into a deep, sandy basin, and when Boots turns a corner around a straggling bit of the black-rock crags they stop short, looking out to where the dead reef should be and trying to make sense of what stands in its place.

There is a forest in the distance.

Chapter Text

It's quiet, there.

The reef— forest? — is peaceful, at least from the outside. The current is gentle, ebbing and flowing through the leaves like a breeze might a few hundred feet above Boots' head. The trees themselves are colored a dark purple, the leaves coloured dark green and inlaid with glowing blue veins, pulsing with the movement of the water like the lazy heartbeat of an old, massive creature.

The sand changes abruptly, too, from bone white to rich brown in a clear border between the sand basin and the underwater forest. And it is a true underwater forest; the trees look like they've been transplanted from the surface, standing on gnarled roots that spread thick and far before diving beneath the sand. Their leaves are all broad and thin, quivering and dancing in the current as they try and soak up what little of the sun's light filters so far down in the depths.

The forest itself is brighter than the surrounding area: it has a subtle glow to it that Boots can pick out from a distance, like the light in a faraway lantern, the combined effort of the pulsing bioluminecent leaves and the constant pinpricks of blue-pink light set in the tree bark, scattered across its surface like freckles and each small as a grain of sand.

Boots imagines that a Nym who was better with words would have a better way to describe it than they: that another could wax poetic about a twilit forest at the edge of the world, could spend pages describing the way the light of every individual tree moves and shifts as one in cosmic dance, could spend breathless hours explaining the serenity of a place so far from society even rumours hadn't graced its presence.

But Boots isn't good with words, and it's just them and their Pompip standing in front of a setting out of a fairytale. It is beautiful, and unexpected, and it's not quite jarring enough to make Boots immediately turn in the other direction and pretend they never saw anything.

Glee presses close to the back of Boots' head, tiny heartbeat pressing against Boots' conscious like a drum, quick and warm and nervous. Boots hesitates at the precipice, unsure when they'd crossed the white expanse between The World’s End and something they can only name Unknown. The gaps between the tree branches aren't as dark as the void just beyond the forest but it's dark enough to get lost in, dark enough that Boots almost thinks there's something in there, watching them watch the forest.

It's unnerving, almost. Something adjacent to unsettling. But Boots doesn't feel threatened: they don’t feel like the branches are bone and the leaves are the teeth of some dark, twisted monster. It's calm, it's quiet. It tugs on something in them and whispers safe so softly, so genuinely, that Boots wants to believe it. Wants to trust it in a way that Boots hasn't been able to since they were a child.

Their spear lies across their back like an old friend (they're not sure when they put it up, and the feeling of the warm metal is still imprinted in their hand when they flex it) and the weight helps ground them, helps keep their focus on what was here and not what was there.

There's nothing in that darkness, they tell themself, reaching a hand up to stroke soothingly across the top of Glee's head. The darkness is just darkness. There is nothing in the open water. If there is, it probably doesn't want to take a bite out of you.

There is nothing to be afraid of.

Safe, the forest whispers, tugging on Boots' instincts, on their heartstrings. It's safe here.

Not a bite out of a Nym, no. But plenty of things want to take a bite out of a Pompip.

Never, the forest counters to an argument Boots only half-realizes they’ve made. It's safe here. Trust me, trust us, trust this.

"Glee," Boots croaks—their voice sounds wrecked, far too loud for such a quiet place— "Get in the bag, please."

Glee chitters, a noise Boots has come to recognize as anxiety-worry-careful, but slowly climbs out from behind Boots' mantle and down to Boots' side bag, pawing at the flaps before crawling in. Glee is afraid, Boots knows. Hesitant to hide when Boots could be in danger and more hesitant to be here in the first place.

Boots feels like they've been standing at the edge for days; hovering between the Unknown and The World's End in a trance, but the sun hasn't moved very far in the sky; the midday currents have yet to change to night. If Boots lost any time at all, it wasn't much.

Boots takes a step back.

They want to know more— they want to know about this forest, about what lies in the dark. They want to know about the treasures and relics that are whispered about; they want to know who's ghost haunts the reef. They want to know if there's any truth to any of the rumour.

But they want to keep their only friend safe more than they want any of that.

Never, the forest whispers, so low it can only be truth. Never, never, never, promise. Trust this, trust us.

Glee squeaks, the sound muffled by the bag and Boots' hand half-curled over its opening. It's louder than the forest, real, and Boots forces themselves to look away from the lights and at their friend.

Glee pushes gently at Boots' hand with their front arms, carefully manipulating Boots' fingers to point towards the forest.

It's an unmistakable gesture, but still, Boots hesitates. "You sure?"

Glee chirps affirmation at the same time the forest does, less of a whisper and more of a feeling; like a warm hug, like coming home, like safety.

Trust, trust, trust.

"Okay," Boots says, not quite sure if they're talking to Glee or to the forest or to the open ocean itself. "I trust you."

They step over the line.

 


 

Nothing happens immediately, like they'd half-feared it might; the ground doesn't cave in beneath their feet, nothing jumps out at them from the darkness, and when they look over their shoulder they can still see the white sand of the basin, shrinking as they walk deeper into the forest.

It's weird, definitely, Vaguely unsettling, in the sense that Boots' paranoia and years of training tell them to be unsettled. But the forest is calm; tranquil, even, just leaves swaying in the underwater breeze, the ebb and flow of the tides tugging on bark.

The rumour had said that the reef was haunted, full of ghosts, but Boots hasn't seen anything  malicious or frightening. The forest isn't anything like the rumour at all, in fact, and it leaves Boots more than a little puzzled.

Of course not, says the forest. There's nothing to be afraid of here.

There's very little life here, despite the thick plant cover; no fish dart between the branches and other than the trees, no plants line the ground. There's no sign of larger predators or sea-floor bound scavengers, either, and Boots isn't sure why. Maybe the leaves are poisonous, or the bark leeches toxins into the water, or there's something much more dangerous than that lurking between the pulsing veins of the foliage.

Boots wonders if maybe that's how it got its reputation as haunted; some Nym described it as a ghosttown, devoid of life, and another took that a bit too seriously, and imagination took it from there.

Glee chirps nervously from Boots' side, a warning tone somewhere between caution and danger, and Boots realizes with a sluggish kind of alarm that they've been frozen in place, standing still, for an amount time that they can't quite nail down, minutes slipping like sand through their fingers.

The pulse of the forest is slower than it was, Boots notes distantly. Its' glowing heartbeat is slower now, fading in and out in increasing intervals, and every time the forest fades so does their concious, their eyes closing in time to the lights.

They grasp behind themselves blindly, latching onto instinct with both hands and their teeth as they try and force themselves back to awareness.

The only thing they find is rough bark beneath their hand, behind their back, as they slide to the ground, Glee's distressed chirping sounding further and further away as the hypnotic lights slow further, dim out.

The forest goes dark.

Boots closes their eyes.

 


 

They wake up to screaming.

There are lights in their eyes again but this time the flickering comes from the ravenous dance of fire gnawing on the bones of houses, chewing flesh black and bloody. The sun burns low in the sky but it's eclipsed by the slow ascent of a twisting, serpentine creature, rising from the waves as its fins shift into slanted wings like oars down the length of its body, dripping white ooze and chunks of shed flesh. Armour lines its head upper body in great spikes that jut like teeth from its form, serrated and jagged and large as a mountain. The leviathan is a living continent, a moving mountain range that is still mostly hidden beneath the waves, the tip of an iceberg.

A bird whistles by Boots like an arrow and splits their face open along the line of a cheek, cutting through their mantle like paper. Their blood hits the sand tinted purple by the flames and Boots rolls instinctively with the hit, crouching low and tracking the bird as it swerves up at a hard angle and twists around for a second pass.

The bird is bone white and faceless, the sharp point of a beak without a mouth and wings that cut like knives. It has no feathers but it has a chitin carapace that even Boots' spear can't crack easily and a delicate, toxic membrane blanketing the soft spots of its joints like lace. It doesn't have feet or a tail or a brain, Boots knows, because it's just a drone cut from the body of a leviathan. A hivemind army that knows nothing but to protect their queen and their hive, both concepts one in the same.

Face your fears, something whispers in the back of Boots' mind, and Boots takes their spear in hand.

Boots catches the drone with the tip of their spear in the soft spot between its beak and wings and lets it cut itself in two on its own momentum, blood neon green bright as it rains down, mixing with Boots' own.

The nearby drones flip midair, narrowing in on their comrades' final distress call. Boots rocks back on their heels and braces themselves for impact, mind going quiet and smooth, streamlined and unthinking in the way only fighting has ever truly make them.

They lose two fingers and most of their mantle, and their spear shivers in their bloody grip, but the horde lays in ruins at their feet and they still stand.

The leviathan roars in rage, blotting out the light in its entirety as it turns its head towards land. The drones unlucky enough to be swarming around its head drop dead to the ground from the force of the soundwave, revealing its ten, burnt orange eyes, each glowing like a sun trapped in its face.

The fire still rages around them, torches and beacons knocked over from the drones attack and spread wild by fear and panic. Bodies line the streets and Boots knows that if there are any survivors there won't be for much longer.

(The leviathan is one of the old ones, one of the creatures of an era gone by still clinging to life but dying as it refuses to adapt. It's one of the ones that sleeps for centuries at a time, Boots knows, and the land shifted away from its favour while it slept. It's looking for breeding grounds that don't exist, Boots knows, searching for a family that it will never find. It's just as scared as the people who used to inhabit Boots' home are and is lashing out at the perceived intrusion, their trespassing, at a world that left it behind.)

Boots knows because this is a memory, this is the awful end to where they came from, to everyone and everything they've ever known, to a person they’d once been but could no longer be.

But they don't understand, because this is what haunts their nightmares and follows them doggedly into the waking world. This is where they were thrust into an uncaring, unfeeling ocean with no one to guide them and no life to live.

This was a tragedy, yes, and one Boots doesn't think they will ever recover from.

But, they think as the leviathan twists to face them, terrible mouth opening wide and showing off the rows of teeth that lie within, the second set of jaws that lies deep in its throat just visible by the light of fire that surrounds them both, I'm not afraid of this.

They're not afraid of fighting. They're not afraid of monsters and madmen and the things that lie in the darkness of the abyss, in between the anchors of stars. Between leaves in a haunted forest.

I know, a voice in the back of Boots' head says. There's nothing to be afraid of here.

The Boots of the past makes a mad scramble for the water, tucking and rolling as the leviathan's jaws come close enough to cut, rancid breath washing over their back before the riptides of a great beasts' dying throes carry them out to the open sea.

This Boots holds their ground. They don't drop their spear, but they don't raise it either, heart hammering in their chest as the leviathan draws nearer.

"Okay," Boots says to the open air, to the memory, the dream, the leviathan, the forest, themselves. To a world that had left them behind. "I trust you."

The leviathan bites down.

Chapter Text

Boots wakes up with a full-bodied jerk, springing to their feet and scrambling for their spear, heart in their throat.

Glee chirps loudly from the ground, startling Boots enough to snap all of their attention to the Pompip, who was apparently deeply offended over having been thrown from their perch on Boots lap, poking and punching at their face as Boots slept.

"Sorry, Glee," Boots apologizes on dazed instinct, blinking quickly as they take stock of their surroundings.

The forest is dark again, and it takes Boots a moment to realize that the forest is simply gone, and the space above them is just open water, filtered dark by the moon's light above.

And it is moonlight— Boot's doesn't quite believe it, but their internal clock has always stayed true to time and all their senses point to it nearing midnight, nevermind it having been midday when they left the small town at the edge of the world.

Boots pauses for a moment, ill-advised as it is, surrounded by the sharpened bones of the dead reef and open water. The lights of the illusory forest are familiar, now that they think about it, the patterns something they've seen before, known before.

"Huh," Boots whispers, a sound so small the sound of the tides overhead crush it before it gets very far, a quiet realization stolen away before it can travel far enough to matter.

They wonder how long they've been dreaming; if the small town situated at the World's End was ever really there, at all. If they should go back, stare the flickering lights of dragon-darts and glowing algae carpets, knowing what they are, what they were. If even that small hint would turn out to be a false start, gone as quickly and completely as the forest.

They're not sure they want to try. Anyone or anything with the ability to confuse them so completely, so thoroughly that they hadn't even known they were being led, is someone to be avoided. Something to be feared.

Boots squares their shoulders, closes their eyes and sways with the movement of the tides, feels the tug of the moon above on the blood in their veins as sure as it pulls on the tides above, calm and steady. Safe in the hollowed skeleton of a dead world.

When they open their eyes again, the water is still dark. The illusion hasn't taken hold. They breathe out in a sigh, entire body deflating with the motion. Face your fears, Boots thinks to themselves. Trust.

It's a lesson they're still learning, but it's one that's worth the try.

“Glee,” Boots says, just above the current in their ears and crashing waves above, “Let’s head back.”

The trek back through the dead reef and through the winding cliffside slow, dark, and quiet enough that Boots can hear their own teeth grinding whenever a shadow moves unexpectedly, dancing in the moonlight. But they're not scared, not really, not like they were when they faced down the leviathan, not like they were when the ashes settled and the fires cooled and they walked away from a half-sunk island. They've been so many different people, over the years, and all of them have been so scared,

Not this time, they tell themselves. Not this time.

The town is the same as they left it; duller by darkness, as most towns are, but Boots isn't one to fall for the same trick twice. The dome buildings are well concealed, but they can see the light trickling out from between the cracks and curtains that cover the entrances, flickering a familiar pattern, quiet like a rumour.

Glee squeaks a warning tone, and Boots brushes a hand soothingly over their antennae, gently urging the Pompip to duck back into their bag, though they won’t have to remain there much longer.

“I promised, remember?” Boots says, just loud enough so that anyone within could hear them coming. They think they can hear the shuffling of chairs on the inside, but they can’t be sure until they go in. “I’ve got a story to tell, after all.”

Boots raises their hand and knocks.