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A Hat in Time - Headcanon Prompts

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Hello! Krekka01 here.

You may have read some of my earlier "A Hat in Time" fanfics: Of Cats and Nightmares, Into the Lions' Den, and Picture (Im)Perfect.

 

Now, I've decided to try something new.

I've decided to write a series of short stories based on headcanons on the game...

... and I'd like you, the readers and the fans, to submit your own headcanons to me!

I will choose the best one(s) (or whichever one I personally like the most), and I will write a short story for each chapter based on the headcanon, with full acknowledgement to the original prompter.

 

Rules:

  1. Submit your headcanon(s) in the comments below.
  2. You may submit between 1-5 headcanons at a time after every "chapter", but no more. I don't want to get too bogged down with ideas.
  3. Please keep it somewhat PG rated. I may include some depictions of violence and such, but nothing too extreme. Also, no sexual content, either.
  4. No AUs. I prefer to write as close to the canon as possible, with minor changes here and there if necessary.
  5. Shipping is allowed, but I may not be very good at it.
  6. I may combine two or more headcanons together, if I feel like it would benefit the short story. If that happens, I will acknowledge said combination.
  7. I and I alone will choose which headcanon prompt will be made a short story. If your headcanon is not selected, don't feel too bad. You may have another chance next time.
  8. It may take time to write said short stories, based on which headcanon is selected. I would greatly appreciate your time and patience with me.
  9. To make things fair, after a prompt has been completed for a person, I will not do prompts from the same person twice in a row. I can pick more prompts from them again, afterwards.

With that said, I hope to read your headcanons, and I look forward to writing for you guys, again!

 

Let's get to it!

Chapter Text

Things had been much busier and more frantic than usual in the past few days, even for the Dead Bird Studio. Hat Kid, immediately after setting foot within the studio lobby, recognized that everything was in turmoil. Nervous express owls scurried all over the place with equipment she did not recognize, wearing strange raincoats that covered their whole bodies, while moon penguins screamed into their phones in language that their boss would most certainly not have approved of.

It seemed like this was the one time that both express owls and moon penguins were working together towards the same goal, that both parties were on the same page. Too bad it wasn't a movie both the Conductor and DJ Grooves were working on, together.

What was going on, Hat Kid thought to herself.

The alien child did her best to get someone's attention to ask why everyone was running around like headless chickens, but to no avail; the moon penguins were busy screaming hoarse into their phones, and the express owls jumped at her touch, like she was infected with something. The girl frowned at the birds' refusal to explain anything to her, too caught up in their panic and rage to be of any help.

It seemed like the large owl receptionist, standing behind his desk, was the only one who wasn't caught-up in all this pandemonium. He looked more annoyed than anything else. Perhaps he'll be of help, Hat Kid thought.

“H-hello?” the young explorer spoke up towards the large owl behind the desk.

“Hey there, little chirper!” the receptionist greeted the little girl as she walked towards him, trying to mask the irritation in his voice. “You could have not arrived here at a better or worse time, I'm afraid.”

“Do you mind telling me what's going on?” Hat Kid inquired, doing her best to stay out of the way of running express owls. “Why is every bird here acting like it's the end of the world?”

The reception owl merely gave her an embarrassed look. “We've – uh... we've gotten a little bit of an infestation here,” he answered.

“Infestation?” Hat Kid asked curiously. “With what? Spiders? Mice?” The girl forced down a nervous lump in her throat. “Rats?”

The reception owl scoffed at the girl's question. “If only it were that simple. As owls, we could just eat the rats we find!” It took a moment for Hat Kid to process the large bird's words, before being forced to suppress her gag reflex from bringing out her lunch at such gruesome imagery. The receptionist chuckled a little, continuing. “We have something far worse than that. Come with me.”

The large owl hopped over his reception desk with ease, beginning to walk towards the door to the Conductor's side of the studio.

Hat Kid followed close by.

“Well,” the brunette girl asked, more insistent now, “what's infesting the place?”

The reception owl gave the girl an awkward look, passing through the door to his boss' studio. “It's kinda hard to explain.” He paused, trying to come up with an answer. “We got what we like to call... 'poppers'.”

“Poppers?” Hat Kid asked, more curious than ever. “What the heck are poppers?”

“They're... um...” the large bird hesitated for a moment, “they're called that, because they pop in and out of existence at will.”

The two continued walking through the Conductor's studio, passing by more express owls wearing those whole-body raincoats. It seemed like they were running experiments to find the “poppers”, judging by the equipment they brought with them. They all looked ridiculous. Both Hat Kid and the receptionist owl felt embarrassed for the frightened bids, trading cringed looks on their faces.

“It all started about a week ago,” the large bird explained, “with only one 'popper' showing up, at first. Of course, since it wasn't a bird, and it was ruining our recordings, we scared it off.”

“And then what happened?” Hat Kid pressed.

The receptionist stopped in his tracks, giving the girl a dark look in his eyes. “More showed up. At least twenty, I think. Maybe more.”

“And you weren't able to get rid of them?”

“Getting them to go away is easy,” the large owl clarified, resuming his stroll through the studio. “Getting them to stay away is the trick. We tried everything: shouting at them, swatting at them with brooms, throwing knives at them, playing loud music, trying to catch them... everything.” The bird gave a defeated shrug. “But nothing worked.”

Stroking her chin, Hat Kid looked away, deep in thought. What kind of creature (or creatures) would have the power to phase in and out of existence, and use its powers to harass these birds? There were only two possibilities she could think of that could fit the description.

One of them were the dwellers that resided within the Subcon Forest, under the rule of the spectral Snatcher. The ghostly spirits seemed to have a tendency to show up in the most unusual of places, seeming to aid her in her exploits within their forest home. Most of the time, though, they floated aimlessly around the dreary forest of theirs.

She also remembered seeing some of them when she traversed the mountains of the Alpine Skyline, well outside of the Snatcher's realm. It could very well be possible that some of them had managed to find their way into the Dead Bird Studio. But the dwellers in the mountains were drawn to the mystical powers of the Twilight Bell, and no such power resided within the studio. There was hardly anything mystical about the studio, anyway. Why would they want to be here of all places?

The only other possibility was the masked Badge Seller (or other beings that were the same species as the mysterious vendor), who always seemed to be in the right place whenever Hat Kid needed badges during her adventures. It also seemed like she was the only one who could see him (or they? It? She was never certain who or what the Badge Seller was), with everyone around her seeing that she was talking into thin air. Could there have been more Badge Sellers than even Hat Kid was aware of?

The thought of everything made her head spin.

“What do the 'poppers' look like?” Hat Kid inquired.

“Well, I... uh...” the receptionist owl attempted to answer, hesitating, “I've never actually seen any of them, personally.” He gave a sheepish grin.

The brunette girl frowned at such an unsatisfying answer. “Well, can I see them?”

“They don't appear when we actually want them to,” the large owl stated. “From what I heard, they only ever show up whenever shooting is being don-”

ACTION!!”

The two winced at the sound of the Conductor's voice echoing through his side of the studio.

“... and it looks like they're recording right now!” The large owl darted towards the movie set, with Hat Kid following close behind him.

Reaching the movie set of the Conductor's, the girl spied a whole flock of express owls covered head-to-talon with those ridiculous raincoats, armed with equipment she could only assume were meant to capture the “poppers”. Even the Conductor, sitting in his director's chair, looked more dishevelled and exhausted than usual. These intruders (and the express owls' paranoia) must have been taking a toll on the old owl(?). Not too surprising, Hat Kid thought.

Looking towards the set where recording was taking place, the young explorer saw that the owls were, predictably, recording a train-related western. This time, a cardboard cutout of the Conductor in a cowbird's outfit was chasing after a runaway train on horseback. On top of the train was the presumed hero's damsel girlfriend (a male express owl wearing a fake-looking wig) as “she” was at the mercy of the movie's merciless mastermind (another express owl wearing an even faker-looking pig mask). The evil villain would throw barrels at the Conductor's cutout, and the cutout would leap over all of them, causing the bad guy to curse out loud.

It was as cheesy and corny as Hat Kid imagined it would be.

Turning her gaze away from the movie set, the girl watched as several express owls fixed their sights on the movie; some of them watching intently for those “poppers”, while the others were too busy with the recording infront of them.

That was when Hat Kid saw them... the “poppers”.

Floating above and behind the express owls, a handful of ghostly figures drifted well out of eyesight of the preoccupied birds. With different colored slug-like bodies ending in different animal masks, the “poppers” stood in place, high in the air, looking towards the movie set.

Hat Kid instantly recognized what the “poppers” were:

Dwellers...!” a wide-eyed explorer murmured in shock under her breath.

Staring slack-jawed at the spirits, Hat Kid's mind ran a million miles a minute. She had the answer to what was haunting the Dead Bird Studio, but several more questions took its place. What were the dwellers doing in the studio, anyway? Did they come from the Subcon Forest, or the Alpine Skylines? Were they stuck here? Did they come on their free will?

Her thoughts were interrupted when she noticed that the dwellers were bobbing their heads up and down, almost in a rhythmic fashion. Turning back to the movie shooting, it seemed like they were following the action of the Conductor's cutout jumping over the barrels being thrown at it; their heads bobbed up with every jump of the cutout.

Were the dwellers watching the movie?

The ghosts leaned ever closer to the intensifying action, and reacted with shock when it looked like the Conductor's cutout was destroyed in an explosion by the evil mastermind. That shocked turned to cheer when the cutout emerged unharmed. The spirits went wild, flying in every which direction, caught up in their excitement...

... and flew right infront of the express owl crew.

“P-p... POPPERS!!” an express owl shrieked, pointing his strange equipment towards the intruders with his trembling hands.

Everything after that fell into complete pandemonium; screaming express owls trying to catch the “poppers” with their equipment (which turned out to be just fancy-looking vacuum cleaners and nothing more), the dwellers flying into chaos, trying to avoid being captured while they popped out of existence, the crew on the movie set nearly destroying the carefully crafted props as they ducked under the flying dwellers, and Hat Kid herself ducking behind the receptionist owl to avoid the chaos.

After a long minute of pure turmoil, the dwellers disappeared, and the studio returned to a tense calm.

The Conductor, still sitting in his seat and having none of it, finally spoke, “Cut.” The old owl(?) let out a deep sigh.

Poking her head out from behind the large owl (who didn't seem to react in the slightest to the haunting), Hat Kid observed the owl crew sheepishly recollecting themselves after the incident. It looked as though the owls had caused more damage to their set than the dwellers did.

“So that's what those 'poppers' look like,” the receptionist owl remarked. “I thought they'd look more like spheres.”

“They're not 'poppers',” Hat Kid clarified. “They're called dwellers.”

The large owl raised an eyebrow at the girl's words. “Dwellers? What's a dweller?”

“They're spirits...” the little girl explained, “...ghosts from the Subcon Forest. But they sometimes---”

“This p-pecking place is haunted?!” a random express owl cried out as he overheard the girl's words, fainting in another owl's arms. The rest of the owls exchanged scared and worried glances to each other. Strange, unidentified creatures was one thing, but ghosts? Potentially vengeful ones, at that? The studio wasn't prepared for ghosts.

“Ye know what these things are, lassie?” the Conductor spoke out, stepping down from his director's seat and marching towards Hat Kid. “Ye know how to get rid of them?”

“Kinda...?” the young explorer hesitated. “The... the only way to get rid of them would be to have them possess cherry bombs... and then explode them.”

Bombs?!” the yellow bird screeched. “There will be no bombs exploding in my studio unless I say so! These peck neck 'poppers' have already set us back long enough. I don't need more property damage around here than there already is!”

“Okay...” Hat Kid murmured, looking away in shame for not being any more helpful.

The Conductor reacted with surprise at the girl's expression, guilt written all over her small face. Something about it made him feel guilty about blowing up and taking out his frustration on her, even mildly so. She (most likely) had nothing to do with this fiasco, yet it looked like it was her responsibility. The look on his face softened as he placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “It's not yer fault, lass. I'm certain if anyone can get these 'poppers' to leave, it'd be ye.”

Hat Kid looked up at the Conductor, smiling at his kind words. “Thanks. I'll do my best.”

The old owl(?) nodded. “Now then, why don't ye go help DJ Grooves with his 'poppers' problem? I'm certain the peck neck would appreciate yer help.” The Conductor walked past Hat Kid towards his worried express owl crew, barking out orders and whipping them back into shape.

Hat Kid looked back at the receptionist owl, who merely gave a shrug as he marched towards DJ Grooves' side of the studio. The girl followed close by.

DJ Grooves could certainly use her help, Hat Kid thought.


When Hat Kid stepped into DJ Grooves' side of the Dead Bird Studio, she could feel the tension and anger hanging in the air. It was either the moon penguins keeping a tense quiet while keeping an eye out for the “poppers”, or it was the moon penguins that were speaking harshly or screaming into their phones.

From what the girl could gather, the penguins were giving conflicting stories to the people on the other end of the phones; the penguins either said that there was an alien invasion happening within the studio, or that there was no alien invasion going on, and that everything was fine. Either way, the people on the other end of the phones were threatening to pull funding and sponsors away from DJ Grooves and his studio, and that the penguins were doing everything they could to stop the sponsors from pulling out (even cursing loudly at them). No one wanted to deal with an alien invasion or conspiracy nuts.

Hat Kid couldn't help but smile a tiny bit at the irony of moon penguins from the Moon talking about alien invasions.

Come to think of it, she herself was an alien to the inhabitants of this world. Could her presence here be considered an alien invasion?

Arriving at the movie set of DJ Grooves' with the receptionist owl besides her, Hat Kid observed several moon penguins preparing for a film shooting. Their boss stood in the middle of a large dance floor as the movie set, with several other moon penguins in various different outfits by his side. Though it wasn't immediately obvious, DJ Grooves looked like he had seen better days, with his large ball of hair looking frazzled, and his red jacket looking like it hadn't been washed for days. There were times where the director would lift his star-shaped rhinestone shades to rub the sleep out of his beady eyes, accompanied by a yawn.

It looked as though the “poppers” was getting to everyone, even DJ Grooves.

“Alright, darlings,” the penguin director called out, lacking in his usual enthusiasm, “let's take it from the top. And keep an eye out for those 'poppers', okay? Action!”

At the start of the recording, loud, pumping music blasted out of the large speakers on the set, and a technicolor light-show shined down on a dancing DJ Grooves and his back-up dancers. Hat Kid couldn't help but notice that the moon penguins' dance moves – even DJ Grooves' – were not keeping in rhythm with the beat of the music being played. She wasn't sure if the penguins noticed or cared that they were being sloppy.

The moon penguins on the phones kept mostly quiet, still speaking harshly to the people on the other end, and too distracted by everything else around them.

That's when Hat Kid saw them again... the “poppers” - the dwellers.

The masked spirits (at least ten of them) drifted in the air, well out of sight of DJ Grooves and his back-up dancers, and the penguins on the phones were too distracted to notice them. But Hat Kid saw them, and so did the receptionist owl.

“You seeing what I'm seeing?” the large owl asked the little girl. She nodded. Like before, it looked as though the dwellers were starring at the movie set, and they were bobbing their heads to the beat of the music being played. Some of them were even “hopping” from side to side.

“Are they dancing?” Hat Kid wondered out loud. She found her answer as some of the spirits broke off into pairs, twirling in the air like dance partners on the dance floor. It was almost mesmerizing seeing the dwellers moving with each other to the music and having fun.

That's when it hit her.

These “poppers” - these dwellers - weren't trying to ruin any movies. They weren't trying to cause trouble for any of the birds involved. They just wanted to watch a good movie. They just wanted to feel the excitement of an action film. They just wanted to dance with each other over pumping music.

They just wanted to have fun. They just wanted to feel alive again...

Because they were children, once.

Innocent children.

Children who cruelly met their end when their queen fell to madness, and had their kingdom plunged into an eternal winter. Now they were just wandering spirits, left adrift in a cold, cruel world, either to be used as fuel for cherry bombs, or to be made as servants or slaves of the Snatcher.

This realization, along with remembering how the dwellers first met their fate, made Hat Kid's heart ache. They didn't deserve this. They deserved better. But what could she do to help?

So lost in her own thoughts, the young explorer only had enough time to witness the dwellers' dancing intensifying with the music...

... and their dancing spilling over infront of all of the moon penguins.

POPPERS!!” a moon penguin shouted out. “Get outta here!” Soon, the rest of the moon penguins joined in, hurling harsh words and obscenities towards the ghosts. Even DJ Grooves and his back-up dancers had joined in the shouting. The screaming - combined with the loud music still playing - terrified the spirits, causing some of them to “pop” out of existence. Some moon penguins even threw their phones at the fleeing dwellers.

Less chaotic, a surprised Hat Kid thought, but much more hurtful.

Finally, after the last of the dwellers fled the scene, the studio returned back to a relative normal. The loud music had stopped by this point.

“Cut...” DJ Grooves announced, walking glumly off the set. It looked like he was getting too old for this. The rest of the moon penguins sheepishly returned to their movie duties.

The receptionist owl, who barely flinched as everything went down, finally commented out loud, “That was really something, wasn't it, kid? Kid?”

Hat Kid gave no answer, as she slowly trekked back to the main lobby, alone.


Hat Kid sat by herself in the empty lobby, deep in sad thought at the predicament both the dwellers and the birds were in. The dwellers just wanted to have fun and feel alive again, while the birds just wanted to make their movies without interruption.

But what could she do to help? She didn't know how to talk to the frightened spirits, and the birds didn't seem like the type to listen or compromise to anyone. She knew the situation would just get worse and worse each day, with more dwellers showing up, or the birds taking more drastic measures to make the “poppers” go away. Either side would have to give, or end up in total war.

Hat Kid felt totally helpless in this whole situation. Wrinkling her nose, the little girl wiped away a tear from her eye, hoping she wouldn't start crying.

“You alright there, little chirper?” the receptionist owl asked, entering the room. “You're not crying, are you?”

“I just want to help everyone,” the alien child answered, little more than a whisper, “but I don't know how...”

The large owl sat himself in the seat besides the girl. “Well, you can't win them all. These things just happen, you know. Life's full of disappointments.”

“You're not helping.”

“What I'm saying is you shouldn't concern yourself with things that are well out of your power,” the large owl remarked, “unless you had a way to speak the poppers' language and broker a deal with them.”

Hat Kid's ears perked at the owl's suggestion. Language? Broker? Deal? Was he trying to tell her something?

Suddenly, an idea popped into her head. Smiling, the alien girl ran towards and hopped onto the reception desk. Touching the brim of her top hat, she transformed it into the fox-like Dweller's Mask. Unsure on what would happen next, she activated the mask's otherworldly power – shining an eerie green light around the room - and called out towards any dwellers nearby.

To her surprise, however, the words that came out of her mouth were words she did not understand. Was she speaking a different language? Was she speaking their language?

For a moment, nothing happened.

Then, a dweller, phasing through the walls, drifted towards the little girl.

Then another showed up.

And another.

And another.

Suddenly, the room was filled with dwellers, about thirty of them. And all of them were looking right at Hat Kid and her mask. Good. She had their attention, now.

Hat Kid, still speaking their language, asked why the dwellers were haunting the Dead Bird Studio. The spirits said nothing, though it looked like they were trying to speak, but no words came out. This was going to be difficult, Hat Kid thought.

Suddenly, her mind was flooded with images – images of the past. This must have been their way of communicating. The images formed their story:

They were once innocent children who lived and played in their village by the Subcon Forest, but it all came to an end when their kingdom was frozen over by Queen Vanessa's madness. The murdered children's souls departed their frozen-over bodies, becoming the dwellers they were today. Soon afterwards, a ghostly specter calling himself the Snatcher offered a deal: become his servants, or be left as wandering spirits for all eternity. Half of them agreed and became his servants, though the other half refused; they did not want to become slaves to another cruel monarch.

The dwellers were left to live within the dreary Subcon Forest, a mockery of its former glory days. It was boring. So. Painfully. Boring . The were no games or activities for the dwellers to do. Any type of activity they could find was quickly squashed by the Snatcher; they weren't allowed any kind of fun unless he approved of it (which was never). Fun was only reserved for the minions who worked for him, if he allowed it. Most of the time, the Snatcher would turn the dwellers into fuel for his cherry bombs to break Queen Vanessa's ice blocks, usually against their will.

Contract or no contract, the specter lorded over the spirits with an iron fist.

Growing tired of his cruelty, some of the dwellers left the “comfort” of the forest, and ventured high into the mountain tops of the Alpine Skylines. They had been drawn by the mystical powers of the goats' and nomads' Twilight Bell, and some even ingrained themselves into the bell's power, forming dweller bells, themselves.

But that, too, was boring.

Eventually, the group of dwellers found the Dead Bird Studio, and, seeing the action of the Conductor's movies, as well as DJ Grooves' pumping music, decided to stay. It was the closest thing they had to having fun in a long time. The closest they felt to being alive. Even though the birds tried to make them go away, the dwellers were not going to leave. Though they had no intention of harassing the birds, the dwellers didn't care if their presence annoyed them. They were done being told what they could and couldn't do. They were having their fun at last, and that was that.

Hat Kid, still reeling from the mental images in her brain, tried to catch her breath. This was quite the story of the dwellers, leaving the Subcon Forest and Alpine Skylines to settle within the Dead Bird Studio. Though she fully understood their motivations for not wanting to leave, it still was a problem for both spirits and birds, alike. Neither looked like they were going to budge; either the dwellers had to go, or the birds would do something drastic.

There had to have been something else the dwellers wanted, Hat Kid thought. Something both dwellers and birds could work towards, together. She both worked for and alongside the Snatcher; she had to have picked up some of his tricks and skills.

She had to find what the dwellers truly wanted, and make a deal.


A mass of bird crew - both express owls and moon penguins - assembled in the main lobby, forming a crowd around the Hat Kid, “poppers” hanging in the air infront of her. They had heard a loud, unearthly cry coming from her, and they just had to investigate. Was she being attacked by the “poppers”? From the looks of things, though, it looked like she was having a conversation with them in some weird language they had never heard of before.

Even the Conductor and DJ Grooves - rivals to the bitter end - stood side-by-side, close to the Hat Kid. They would never let these ghosts lay a finger on their movie star. They'd rather die, first.

“What are they doing?” a random express owl asked, having taken off most of his weird raincoat.

“It looks like the kid is negotiating with the poppers,” the receptionist owl replied.

“Well,” the Conductor remarked, “if it means these peck necks will go away, I'm all for it.”

“On that,” DJ Grooves added, “we can agree.”

Finally, the Hat Kid and “poppers” nodded in agreement. Removing her mask, the little girl turned to the assembled birds with a smile on her face. “Good news, everyone! The dwellers have agreed to leave the Dead Bird Studio!”

A collective cheer and sigh of relief escaped the beaks of every bird within the lobby. Finally, after a long week of torment, it would be over! The birds could go back to making their movies! The owls wouldn't have to look ridiculous, and the penguins could convince their sponsors to return to them! Things were finally starting to look up---

“What's the catch?” the Conductor asked, unconvinced.

The smile on the Hat Kid's faded slightly, forming an uncomfortable frown towards the two bird directors. “They want to star in your next movies.”

The room fell eerily silent at the girl's words – the poppers' demands.

NO WAY!!” the Conductor screeched, breaking the silence. “Out of the question! There is no way I'm letting these peck neck ghosts star in my movie! I'm not gonna let them walk all over me!”

“I'm gonna have to side with the Conductor on this one,” DJ Grooves added. “What's to say they won't stop making outrageous demands if we give them what they want?”

“Well,” the Hat Kid shrugged, “they're not gonna go away anytime soon, and I'm certain more will show up if we can't compromise. Besides, I have a friend they could talk to if they go back on their word.” The “poppers” shuddered at her words. It seemed like they knew who she was referring to.

The birds looked conflicted. Both the Conductor and DJ Grooves huddled together with their bird staff, speaking in hushed tones. Even the receptionist owl joined in, displaying a determined look he had not displayed all day. It looked as though they were considering their options. The Hat Kid remained hopeful. The “poppers” looked a little worried.

Finally, after a long and tense few minutes, the birds broke out of their huddle and faced the girl and the spirits.

Fine,” the Conductor spoke, sighing with defeat. “They can star in our next movies.”

The Hat Kid's eyes lit up like stars, and she cheered in place at the bird's agreement. She was happy for the birds. Happy for the “poppers”. The spirits themselves looked overjoyed, dancing and flying around in the air. They would no longer come into conflict with the birds.

“But we will be the ones calling the shots on how they star in our movies,” DJ Grooves sternly added. “Once the movies are finished, the 'poppers' will have to leave.” The cheering died down a little. The ghosts knew they would still have to follow the birds' rules if they were to star in their movies.

“That's fair,” the Hat Kid commented. The “poppers” nodded their heads. They agreed, too.

“Now then,” the receptionist owl concluded, “how about we make those movies, huh?” Both birds, ghosts, and the little girl cheered with agreement and excitement.


It was a dark and stormy night at Mafia Town, far darker than usual. The rain came down like bullets from the blackened sky.

A lone mafia goon patrolled the wet and empty streets. The rain didn't bother him in the slightest; he barely even realized he was wet. His mind was... elsewhere.

The Mafia of Cooks were never ones to be afraid of anything, but the past few weeks had been troublesome for them. The little red-hooded mustache girl was back, and now she was armed with one of those shining hourglass pieces they had heard so much about. She had doubled her efforts, and mafia goons were disappearing in the nights.

The lone goon nervously checked his surroundings, trying to see if the little girl was hiding somewhere in the rain. It didn't help matters when he thought ghosts may be about, too. Watching those scary bird movies with the little ghosts with the masks... it spooked him. It spooked him more than he cared to admit.

The mafia goon shook his head. “Mafia not afraid of no ghost!” he declared, “Not afraid of anything!”

Suddenly, the man felt like something was tapping on his shoulder. Nearly jumping, the mafia goon spun around, and right infront of him, a group of serpentine creatures with weird masks for faces floated in place, barely an inch from his face. The blood drained away from his whitening face, as the ghostly figures stared straight into his soul. Thunder boomed overhead.

“P...p... POPPERS!!” the mafia goon shrieked like a little girl, running off down the street away from the ghosts.

The only thing he could hear, aside from the rain and the thunder, was the playful laugh of the poppers.

 

Chapter Text

The Snatcher sat in his corner of his “BFF's” room, quietly brainstorming potential Death Wish contracts for the kid to complete (because she had somehow already completed the first set, and he was out of ideas).

With a quill pen in hand and a piece of parchment paper in the other, the specter mused to himself on what challenges he would have to give the little girl. It was much tougher than he had imagined; he wanted to make his contracts as difficult and frustrating as possible, but not too difficult, or else the kid would either not bother with completing the challenges, complain about the difficulty spike and throw a fit, or find some loophole to exploit and “cheese” the terms of the challenge.

Part of him loved seeing the look of pure frustration on the alien child's face every time she failed and died (death was merely temporary during his contracts), while a small, tiny part of him cheered whenever she succeeded. It was the darnedest, he thought.

Letting a sigh escape his glowing mouth, the Snatcher placed his quill and paper off to the side. He couldn't think of any ideas! Perhaps a little break could help him clear his head.

It was an odd feeling, living within the kid's spaceship, Her Spaceship. He thought it would be as loud and chaotic as that dumb penguin director's music, or small and cramped, but being inside of the bedroom? The only thing he heard was the quiet hum of the ship, and the bedroom was quite spacious. It was almost... comforting. Perhaps he had grown too accustomed to the crickets and other noises of his Subcon Forest. A change of venue every once in a while would be nice.

Smiling to himself, the lord of the Subcon Forest leaned back on his corner. He didn't have to deal with the annoying kid right now, she was on another one of her adventures. Nope, for the time being, the spaceship was his and his alone.

Swoosh!

And right on cue, the Hat Kid made her entrance into her bedroom, ruining his little moment for himself.

“Hi, Snatcher!” the little girl greeted in her annoyingly cheerful tone.

What are you doing here, kiddo?” the Snatcher asked, lazily glancing at her direction. “You know I don't have anymore contracts for you to complete at the moment, right?

“Well, this is my room,” the Hat Kid stated, as if it was obvious.

Dumb question, the Snatcher thought, dumb answer.

Fine. What do you want?

“I'm going to bed,” the young explorer yawned with her answer. “I'm all tuckered out with my adventures, today.”

You do that, then,” the specter spoke. “I'm just gonna stay here for the night.” The girl nodded.

“But first,” the Hat Kid added, rushing towards her bed, “I need to take care of something real quick.” Disappearing behind her bed, out of the Snatcher's sight, the girl re-emerged, having quickly changed her purple tunic and top hat for pink pyjamas and ice-statue hat, the Ice Cap.

Clever name, the ghost sardonically thought to himself.

The Snatcher watched as his “BFF” ran towards the large pile of pillows before him, taking a diving leap into the pile and “swimming” in it. These sorts of activities of hers always left the specter confounded; she was such a weird child... an alien child, no less. But if she was having fun, and if he didn't have to be involved in her “fun”, who was he to judge?

Reaching the opposite corner of her pillow pile, the Hat Kid activated her Ice Cap, transforming into an ice statue, and sank underneath. What was the kid up to, the Snatcher wondered. Was she trying to see if she could hold her breath under all those pillows? Could she drown? Regardless, the ghost smiled to himself. Alone again, he could take the time to finally relax, even if it was only for a few minutes. There was no way that annoying kid would be able to hold her breath down there for that long.

But minutes passed, and the kid still hadn't come back up, yet. Glancing over where he last saw her, the Snatcher was left uncertain about the kid's fate. He wasn't worried about her. No, absolutely not worried for her safety. Not at all. He just needed her to complete his contracts when they'll eventually be finished. Still, she was down there for an awfully long time.

Curiosity winning him over, the ghostly Snatcher left his corner, gliding towards the spot the Hat Kid sank into. Hovering above where he last saw the young explorer, the specter took in a deep breath, and plunged himself into the sea of pillows.

To his surprise, however, the Snatcher found himself in what seemed to look like the inside of a tent, with a small bookcase and plush animal resting against the walls. The Hat Kid sat at a small table with a small candle illuminating the space. After a long minute, she finally noticed her “BFF” floating behind her.

“You found my hiding spot!” the young explorer cheered, a wide smile crossing her little face.

The Snatcher said nothing for a minute, still trying to process this secret area of hers. “What is this place?” he asked.

“This is my secret hideout,” the Hat Kid explained, showing off the items in this little room of hers. “It's where I go whenever I need to relax and decompress and stuff.” The girl pointed towards the bookcase on the side. “That's where I keep the books I read... it's mostly comics, though.” She pointed towards the stuffed animal besides her, giving it a big hug, afterwards. “This is my stuffed panda bear, Big Jiggles.” Returning to her table, the child showed off a small book with a star on its cover. “And this is my diary!”

You have a diary?” the Snatcher inquired, almost intrigued.

The kid nodded, but quickly shielded the journal with her body, giving the specter a friendly, if stern, look. “But it's for my eyes, only!”

Okay, okay! Jeez...” the ghost recoiled, bringing his claws up defensively.

Satisfied, the Hat Kid placed the diary back onto the table, and started to write in it. With her body blocking the view, the Snatcher couldn't see what she was writing about, though he had a feeling she was writing about him, wasn't she?

It was at that moment that the Snatcher realized just how small the hiding spot was, no bigger than an average tent. The Hat Kid sat comfortably in her little seat, while the specter had to coil himself around just to fit within. It was terribly uncomfortable, to say the least, being forced into a ball. It was almost as embarrassing as being forced to being the girl's “BFF”.

His face just behind the Hat Kid's head, the Snatcher dared a peek over the kid's shoulder. Perhaps he could read what she was writing about him – anything to take his mind off such an enclosed space. To his disappointment, however, the girl was writing in some foreign language he didn't recognize. Heck, the letters didn't even seem like letters he recognized; more like chicken-scratch than anything else. She was an alien, after all. That didn't stop her from writing the Snatcher's name, every now and again, in a language he could understand. She was writing about him, but what was the context? Something good, something bad?

The Hat Kid slammed her book shut, and shot a dirty look at the eavesdropper behind her. The Snatcher, ever the crafty specter, looked away, innocently whistling to himself. After a minute of glaring sternly at her nosy friend, the alien child returned to her book, continuing with her journal entry.

That was no fun, the Snatcher sighed internally. Without a real means of figuring out what the kid was writing about him, his mind returned to the small space that was the Hat Kid's hideout.

The ghost started to sweat.

This hideout of yours...” the Snatcher remarked, forcing a lump down his metaphorical throat, “it really is quite... small, isn't it?

“I like it,” the Hat Kid responded, not taking her eyes off of her diary. “I find it kinda cozy and comfortable.”

Cozy and comfortable wouldn't be words the Snatcher would use to describe this hiding spot, he thought. Tiny would be more appropriate. Yes.

Tiny.

Tiny.

Tiny.

 

Suffocating.

 

Closed off.

 

Trapped.

 

Chained.

 

His vision was growing darker.

 

Eyes darting.

 

His breathing labored.

 

He could feel the cold stone walls.

 

Cold. So cold.

 

Was that the smell of mold?

 

“Snatcher?”

 

The walls! The walls were closing in on him!

 

No escape! No escape!

 

She left him in this place!

 

“Snatcher?!”

 

The chill bit at his flesh!

 

Chains felt heavy!

 

He spoke, but no words came!

 

Droplets boomed like thunder!

 

Her voice! Her damned voice!

 

Vanessa! Vanessa!

 

Why? WHY?!

 

“SNATCHER!!”

 

Have to get out!

 

Get out!

 

Get out!!

 

GET OUT!!!

 

The Snatcher flew out of the Hat Kid's hiding spot in a panic, eyes darting and talons clawing the walls. It only took him a second to find the entrance out, but it felt like an eternity for him. He must have knocked over some of her things, but that was the last thing on his mind. He had to get out, now.

AHH!!” the Snatcher cried out as he breached the pillowy surface. Trying to steady his breathing, his blackened vision returned to him. He was back within the Hat Kid's bedroom in her spaceship. The ghost breathed a sigh of relief, though it did little to calm his nerves.

“Y-you alright?” the Hat Kid asked in an almost frightened tone, poking the upper-half of her body out of her hiding spot.

The Snatcher turned to face her, staring daggers at the annoying girl. “Fine! FINE!! Never better!” He shot his noodle-like arms out in exasperation. It was a little harsher than he had intended. He was obviously lashing out.

Silence filled the void between the child and the specter. If he had a heart, it would still be racing, and he was certain the girl's own heart must have been racing. Racing for him, for his sake.

“Are you... are you afraid of tight spaces?” the Hat Kid asked, little more than a whisper.

The Snatcher, aghast at such a notion, gasped at her question. “Afraid? Me? The Snatcher? Why would I be afraid at such a thing like th---?

“It's okay if you're afraid,” she interrupted him, offering a sad, sympathetic smile to him. “I understand.”

I'm not afraid of anything,” the specter scoffed at the girl's sympathy, his voice rising, “but if I was afraid of anything, it'd be having to deal with you for the rest of eternity! I'll never be rid of you, will I?!

The Hat Kid gasped at his words. The smile of hers quivered away at the corners of her mouth, as tears began to fill her eyes. Shooting one last dirty look at her “BFF”, the young explorer stuck her tongue out at him, blowing a loud raspberry, before ducking back down under the pillows, back to her hiding spot.

The Snatcher stared for a long minute to where the Hat Kid was. Letting a sigh escape his glowing mouth, the ghost floated back to his corner.

It wasn't right of him to scream at her like that, he thought. He shouldn't have said those nasty things. He was frightened, and she was just trying to help – to show sympathy. But what would she know? She didn't understand what he had seen – what he had been through.

Still, he handled that very poorly – taking out his anger and frustrations on the little girl. Maybe once everything cooled off and both parties had time to calm down, he could give an apology to her. Maybe she'd realize he was lashing out for feeling... confined. He didn't mean what he said, of course.

With nothing else to do, the Snatcher resigned himself to going back to coming up with ideas for his Death Wish contracts for the Hat Kid. He didn't know whether to still make her time a frustrating one, or to show her some measure of mercy. One thing was for certain, though:

He wasn't going back in that little hiding spot. Ever. Again.

Chapter Text

“Stupid Snatcher!” Hat Kid fumed, stomping through the undergrowth of the Subcon Forest. “Stupid Snatcher and his contracts!”

In any other time, the young, hatted explorer would have marveled and be mystified by the mysteries and history of the enigmatic forest of old. In any other time, the little girl would have spent most of her time with the spectral lord of the Subcon Forest (much to his chagrin), playing with his minions, or doing the odd-job contract he would sometimes assign her to.

But this time, she did none of those things. She was crossed.

“Stupid Snatcher not keeping his word!” Hat Kid continued fuming, wandering near aimlessly in her “BFF's” dreary domain, cursing the specter's recent transgression.

It had been little over an hour since the hatted child completed the last of the Snatcher's Death Wish contracts, a task she first thought would be impossible. It had been almost a week since she first started the “advanced contracts” (as he put it), though at the rate she had to slog through some of the more challenging contracts, it more felt like months had passed during her time doing the ghost's dirty work. Every time she failed a contract, death was a hard (though temporary) slap on the wrist. Some of her more heartbreaking failures still lingered in her mind (like being stabbed right in the middle of the chest by the Conductor's knives).

But Hat Kid muscled through, anyway, and eventually came face-to-face with her final challenge: fighting her friends she had fought before (including the Snatcher), one after the other. To this day, the young adventurer was not sure whether she really fought her friends again, or that her “friends” were mere images or copies of them, empowered by the Snatcher within his pocket-realm.

It was a long and hard-fought battle, with many, many failures and close-calls. Eventually, figuring out an attack pattern for each “boss” she fought, Hat Kid finally defeated them all, and completed her final contract to the Snatcher.

In the past, whenever she completed a contract of the Snatcher's, Hat Kid would return to him and claim her reward (usually extra clothing or cool outfits and effects).

But this last time? She was left empty-handed.

Dumbfounded and livid, the Snatcher - having his near impossible tasks completed - refused to hand over any more rewards. So after all that, with completing her “BFF's” insanely difficult challenges, as well as “dying” an innumerable amount of times, Hat Kid was left with nothing. Not even a hug, or a sincere “congratulations”.

Betrayed. She felt betrayed... again. All that hard work for nothing.

Hat Kid knew anger, before. She knew anger from being betrayed by her friends in the past, but was tempered by her friends at least showing some remorse for their actions, afterwards. But now? She was furious at the Snatcher.

She wanted to say things to the Snatcher. She really wanted to say the most hurtful and heinous things she could think of; things she knew would definitely hurt the specter's feelings and possibly compromise their “BFF” contract together. But she instead chose to vent her frustrations out in the open, away from anyone - away from the Snatcher. The Subcon Forest was the perfect place for that.

And that's where she'd been for the last hour.

For the last hour, Hat Kid had screamed herself hoarse in the dreary air, hot tears streaming down her beet-red face. The little girl vented out her sorrows and frustrations from the Snatcher's challenges, recounting the most painful of deaths she had encountered and the most crushing of failures, and not being compensated for her grief. The denizens of the Subcon Forest made sure to steer far away from the angry child (even Queen Vanessa would probably keep her distance).

It went on for the hour, until she had finally run out of steam. She was still angry, but her rage was a mere simmer, having died down from the raging inferno it once was.

This was probably what the Conductor was like on a daily basis.

“Stupid Snatcher jerk face!” Hat Kid fumed once more, kicking a rock in her path.

Her tantrum had led her to the swamps of the Subcon Forest. The smell of smoke billowing from the ever-burning flames filled the air, as well as the putrid smell of death that bubbled out of the swamps. Hat Kid wrinkled her nose at such a disgusting scent.

The girl stopped in her tracks, spying a fallen tree that had been left to rot ages ago. Letting out a deep, exhaustive sigh, she plopped herself on the trunk of the dead tree, burying her face in her trembling hands. She now had time to think. The rage inside her subsided, and a new emotion took its place:

Guilt.

What did I do? Hat Kid wondered to herself, a deep feeling of remorse and regret filling her thoughts. I shouldn't have lost my temper like that. She could now think a little bit more clearly. I mean... the Snatcher did give me a bunch of cool things, already. Guess I was just selfish for expecting more.

Tears of shame ran down her face, as the girl did her best to wipe them off. Removing her top hat from her brunette head, Hat Kid looked at her namesake headgear with contemplation. Maybe throwing a fit within the Subcon Forest wasn't the best idea; the Snatcher's minions would most likely relay what they saw back to their master, telling him how she lost her temper so poorly. It didn't matter to her. If the specter decided to mock her for her childishness, she would take it in stride. She had to apologize for her outburst.

Calming herself a little bit and putting her hat back on, Hat Kid hopped off the dead tree, preparing to head to the Snatcher's home within the forest, or back to her spaceship (whichever place he decided to stay for the time being). It wasn't going to be easy facing the Snatcher again, but she knew it had to be done... for both their sake.

“He's still kind of a peck neck, though,” the young explorer muttered to herself.

You can say that again!

Hat Kid nearly jumped out of her skin at the sudden voice. Eyes darting from side-to-side, the alien child tried to find the source of the voice, but only saw her own shadows being cast off by the flickering flames around her.

What was that voice, she wondered to herself, and why did it sound just like her?

“Hello?” Hat Kid called out. “Anybody there?”

Look down, peck neck,” the voice spoke up. It unmistakably sounded like her.

Obeying, Hat Kid looked down to the ground, staring at her own shadow...

... and that the shadow was staring back at her with glowing yellow eyes.

Hi there!” the shadow greeted, flashing its glowing and fanged mouth.

Hat Kid yelped in surprise, falling to the dirty ground and attempting to scramble away from the creature. The shadow responded in kind, seeming to mirror the girl's movements as it scrambled away from her. Now a safe distance, the girl stared at the cowering shadow, as the shadow stared back at her as she cowered. She noted the shadow wore a top hat much like her own, and that its face kinda looked like her own, except that it had glowing yellow eyes and a fang smile.

It looked as though the Snatcher had attempted to copy her appearance, but kept his black and purple look and glowing face.

“Snatcher?” Hat Kid asked the shadow. “Is that you?”

No, dummy!” the shadow responded in her voice. “I'm your shadow!

“Shadows don't talk!”

The Snatcher's a shadow,” the shade retorted, “and he doesn't stop talking!

This got a quick laugh out of Hat Kid. The shadow's smile grow even bigger at her reaction.

“Well, if you're my shadow,” she questioned, “how are you able to talk and stuff? How are you...” -the girl made movements with her hands, with the shadow mimicking her movements- “... alive?”

I dunno.” The shadow almost seemed to shrug. “Maybe the magic of this forest has something to do with my birth and stuff.

“Maybe...” Hat Kid rubbed her chin, deep in thought. She did remembered that storybook she found about the Snatcher's dark “rebirth”, how he was created out of the magic of his former lover. She let out a frown at the sad memory. “I'm not dead, am I?”

Still alive and kicking butt!” the shadow assured her with a wink.

Relieved, the young explorer let out a quick sigh. “So, what did you wanna do? Play some games? Mess with the Mafia?”

Well...” the shade hesitated, “... there's not much I can do as your shadow. Unlike that Snatcher, I don't really have a body of my own. Best I can do is trail behind or in front of you.

“That is true,” Hat Kid conceded, but quickly snapped her fingers with excitement. “I have an idea!”

What is it?” the shadow asked, giving her an inquisitive look in its glowing eyes.

Reaching out with an open hand, Hat Kid crept towards her shadow, just as the shadow crept closer to her, copying her movements. “Grab my hand.”

The shadow merely looked at her, dumbfounded by the request. “What,” It spoke flatly.

“Grab my hand,” Hat Kid repeated, “and I'll pull you to the physical world.”

That's not how that works!” the shadow protested, giving the girl an odd look.

“If it can work for the Snatcher,” the alien child reasoned, “it could work for us, too.”

The shadow remained, a conflicted look crossing its face. “You sure about this?

The girl gave her shadow a reassuring smile. “Would I lie to myself?” The shade smiled at her words, almost seeming to nod with agreement.

With her hand still reached out, Hat Kid crept closer to her shadow, until she was touching the spot where both their hands would “meet”. She wasn't exactly sure how she'd be able to pull her own shadow from the ground, but she's seen and done weirder things, before. Doing something like this would seem tame in comparison.

In a split second, the shadow reached out from the ground and grabbed her hand. Hat Kid smile triumphantly at the success, but quickly turned to terror as the shadow snaked up her arm, covering it in an inky black substance. She tried to brush the creeping darkness off her body, but it had no effect as it continued to envelop her other body parts. The girl screamed for help as the blackness spread to the rest of her body, but was cut off as it covered her mouth. Now being fully enveloped, the world around her turned black.

...

Minutes passed by like hours, and Hat Kid finally opened her eyes again, staring up at the cloudy, smoke-filed skies. She was laying face-up on the ground.

I'm not dead. she thought. Good. She was still within the Subcon Forest – the swamps, to be exact. She could still smell the smoke and the putrid gases of the swamps. The smell alone kinda made her wish she was dead, though.

How did she end up on the ground, anyway? The last thing she remembered was trying to help her shadow out...

The shadow! Hat Kid screamed in her thoughts. It must have taken possession of my body! As swift as lightning, the girl propped herself up from the ground, shooting her arms out in front of her. She breathed out a sigh of relief; she wouldn't have been able to move her body on her own if she was possessed. Her body was still her own.

That's when she noticed something odd with her arms. Her hands were no longer a peachy color, and her coat sleeves weren't a deep purple.

They were pitch black in color, with a hint of dark purple acting as an accent.

Looking down at her feet and the rest of her body, it was also a black and purple shadowy color on her. In fact, examining her signature top hat revealed it was also a black and purple color.

To an outside observer, it looked as though Hat Kid had become a shadowy ghost – a specter, just like the Snatcher. She even had the ghost's glowing eyes and fanged smile.

Cool!” Hat Kid marveled, her voice kind of sounding like the Snatcher, too.

I know, right? a sudden voice rang out inside of her head, startling her.

Hold up!” the kid called for pause. “Are you inside of my head, shadow?

I am. the shadow responded in her thoughts. Sorry about the scare back there. I didn't know THAT would happen, either.

The girl stood in her spot, still trying to process everything that had just transpired. One minute, she's befriending her own shadow, then she and her shadow become one! It was quite the unusual day to be had, even for Hat Kid.

Are we stuck being this cool?” Hat Kid asked.

I dunno. The shadow in her head shrugged. If we are, we may need to ask the Snatcher for help.

The Snatcher. The girl thought to herself with a smile. She ended up in this happy predicament when the specter refused to give a final reward for his contracts. In a way, the Snatcher did give her a final prize, albeit unintentionally. Now she had one more reason to speak to her “BFF”:

Wanna show-off this new skin to the Snatcher and the rest of the world?” Hat Kid asked her shadowy friend in her head.

Would I ever! the shade cheered with excitement. Lead on, Hat Kid!

Beaming with her glowing and fanged smile, Hat Kid turned towards the direction of the Snatcher's home, skipping happily along the old trail.

By the way,” the girl questioned, “what's your name, friend?

I don't have a name. the shadow in her head replied. I was just a shadow before we really met.

The little adventurer frowned for a moment, thinking about a possible name for her new friend and look.

How about 'Shadow Puppet'?” Hat Kid asked. She got no answer for a short minute. The shadow in her head must have been thinking.

I like it! Shadow Puppet answered with glee.

Awesome!” Hat Kid cheered. “We're gonna have so much fun together!

Running with renewed vigor, the shadowy Hat Kid sped down the path of the Subcon Forest, eager to show the Snatcher her newest outfit and friend to him.

Perhaps the final Death Wish contract was worth it, after all.

 

Chapter Text

“Thank ye, everyone! Thank ye! No, no! Yer too kind!”

“Conductor, darling!”

“Ah, DJ Grooves! Just the moon penguin I wanted to see!”

“Congratulations, darling! How's it feel for your very first win?”

“Ah, it feels great! Thank ye, Grooves! Tell ye the truth, I was a bit nervous about me movie. I wasn't sure if it'd be good enough. But I knew ye'd make yer movie to be the best, so I had to do my best, too!”

“I'm very happy for you, darling.”

“Maybe ye'll win next year, Grooves.”

“Only time will tell. Put'er there!”


“Thank ye! Thank ye! Please, please! Bring it all in!”

“Another victory for you, darling? Color me impressed.”

“Ah, Grooves! Thanks for coming to me Annual Bird Movie Award ceremony again!”

“I could never let my best bird and rival fly solo.”

“Aye! Ye know... I couldn't have made this win without ye, Grooves.”

“Oh?”

“I knew I couldn't let ye win that trophy and break me record.”

“Eh...”

“I couldn't let ye win without a fight, of course!”

“Oh, of course!”

“Maybe next year you could try again to win a trophy.”

“Sure, sure. Best of luck to you, darling!”


“Ha ha! I win again! Thank ye! Thank ye!”

“Another year, another trophy to your collection, darling. How do you do it?”

“Oh! Grooves! Thank ye for coming to me 40th bird movie award win! It's quite simple to me secret. I just look at yer movies.”

“My... movies?”

“Oh yeah! I remind meself how much better my movies are and how I always manage to come up on top.”

“... oh.”

“Especially with that pecking train-wreck of a movie that ye made!”

“But... but I was very proud of that movie. Conductor, you... didn't like it?”

“Ha! I'm just kiddin' around, peck neck! I'm certain ye did yer best. But I won't be givin' up me perfect record, any time soon!”

“Of course, darling. I'm... I'm very happy for your success.”

“Thank ye, Grooves! I know I am.”

“Yeah...”


The moon penguin director stood by the podium of the award ceremony, countless spotlights shining down on him. Had it not been for his rhinestone shades, he'd most certainly would have been blinded by the intense glare. But the brightness was the last thing on his mind, as he stood before a whole theatre crowd of cheering owls, moon penguins, other birds, and fans across the land.

It was an almost surreal experience for the director – too good to be true, like a dream. But for DJ Grooves, this was no dream; this was better than a dream. Better than he could have ever wanted. After so many years and hardships, he had finally done it! He won his coveted trophy of the 42nd Annual Bird Movie Award!

Still standing before the audience with his golden trophy in his flippers, DJ Grooves was still awestruck from his victory. He honestly didn't expect to win the Award 42; he thought he would lose once again, just like last year and the year before. His passion project, Electric Igloo, was almost certain to lose to the Conductor's latest movie, Drakes on a Train, but he was glad to be wrong this time.

The usually dancing penguin stood still, still in shock by the unexpected victory. He didn't even prepare an acceptance speech, but he didn't really have to. He had heard the Conductor's acceptance speech over a hundred times (most came from a script or teleprompter). But he'd deliver his words from the heart, not from a sheet of paper.

Smiling as wide as he possibly could, the moon penguin turned to the audience.

“Thank you, darlings!” DJ Grooves cried out with joy, tears streaming from behind his shades. “Thank you all for this award!” The audience erupted in cheer once more at the director's words. “I never, in a million years, would have expected to win the 42nd annual movie award. I could never have done any of this without the love and support of all my adoring fans, or the aid of my penguin darlings.” DJ Grooves' crew took a bow in appreciative acknowledgement for their hard work. Being surrounded by adoring fans and helpful crew, it really left the director feeling sentimental. If only his folks could see him now.

“But most of all,” DJ Grooves continued, wiping his tears away, “I would like to thank the Conductor. Despite our little rivalry together, he has pushed and inspired me to make my movies the greatest they can be. Without him, I wouldn't have the drive to continue making movies. Come on up, darling! Share this moment with me, Conductor!” The penguin director gazed expectantly in the crowd, waiting for the old owl(?) to rush up to the stage, and congratulate him on winning Award 42.

But the Conductor didn't run up the stage. He wasn't even in the seat reserved for him.

Frowning for just a split second, DJ Grooves brushed off the train operator's absence as a ploy to making his grand entrance; both directors were known for their dramatics. He himself would sometimes make a quite a grand entrance in the Conductor's own award ceremonies, but not too much to upstage the winner. He would just wait for the owl(?) director's grand entrance.

But minutes passed, and the Conductor was no where to be found. No presence in the audience, no grand entrance, no nothing. Had he forgotten DJ Grooves' award ceremony? Did he get lost? Get hurt?

Though hardly distressed, DJ Grooves did start to worry that the Conductor wouldn't be cheering for him during his big moment (especially when he cheered for his rival in the past). Most of the crowd did not pick up on his sudden change in mood; the moon penguins, on the other hand, did. Even the express owls, standing opposite to the penguin crew, looked at the director with confusion. They had no idea where their boss was, either.

Waving a final farewell to the audience, DJ Grooves stepped down from the stage to his awaiting penguin crew, handing his trophy to one of them. Though the crew expressed their pleasure at his victory and worry for his current well-being, DJ Grooves hardly paid attention to them. Offering fake smiles to the crew, the moon penguin director had only one thing on his mind:

The Conductor had flaked on him.


Marching down towards the Conductor's office in his platform shoes, DJ Grooves' mind was a whirlwind of emotions. He wasn't sure what he should be feeling right now: joy from winning his trophy, sadness for the Conductor not being present during the ceremony, or anger for the Conductor possibly not being there on purpose?

Stopping just shy of the Conductor's office door, DJ Grooves took in a deep breath. If he was going to confront his rival, he was going to do it in a civil and cordial manner; he wasn't going to raise his voice or curse at the old owl(?), but he was going to let his feelings on the matter known. He would be firm. Adjusting his red jacket, afro, and giant eyebrows one last time for neatness, the moon penguin director knocked at the door...

... but was surprised when the door ever so slightly creaked open. It hadn't been closed or locked.

This left DJ Grooves worried; the Conductor was always very careful about keeping his office door closed or locked, as he was always the first and last bird to be in the room. The fact that it was left open (even by just a crack) meant something was wrong.

Could there have been a break-in? DJ Grooves wondered internally. Steeling himself, the penguin director opened the office door, and immediately gasped in horror at what he had stepped into.

The Conductor's office looked less like an office and more like a war-zone – like a bomb had gone off inside the room, or a tornado had ripped through. Countless sheets of paper lay scattered on the ground, broken furniture everywhere, bookcases toppled over, and glass shards of broken bottles littered the floor. At the end of the office lay the Conductor's table, now covered in half drunk bottles of drink.

And the Conductor himself laid motionless on his table, an empty bottle in hand.

He's been drinking again, DJ Grooves thought grimly. It would explain the old owl's(?) absence during the award ceremony.

Tip-toeing towards the passed-out Conductor, the moon penguin waded his way through the debris of paper, broken furniture, and broken bottles. This sort of thing wasn't entirely new to Grooves. The Conductor was always a drinker, ever since he and Grooves met, but it had gotten far worse in the past few years. At first, it was just one bottle. Then two. Then four. Then eight. And almost every time, something of his would be broken, or smashed into pieces. But this? This was something else entirely.

Standing before the Conductor's desk, DJ Grooves merely grimaced at the passed-out bird.

“Conductor?” the penguin director spoke out, clearing his throat. “Conductor? You awake?”

The old bird immediately shot up. “Wha-WHA?!” the drunk Conductor screeched, waving the empty bottle in his hand like a club, and knocking off more bottles off his desk. DJ Grooves backed away from the crazed bird, the grimace on his beak growing deeper. The Conductor was always one to make himself presentable, but now he looked all disheveled and dirty. He could easily pass as a homeless bum from off the streets.

The Conductor continued to swing his makeshift weapon in his hands, before noticing the moon penguin standing before him.

“Well! Hello, DJ Grooves,” the old owl(?) smiled sheepishly, dropping the bottle in his hand to the floor.

“You've been drinking again, Conductor,” the penguin director stated, not bothering to mask the annoyance in his voice.

“Just... ah... just a wee bit,” the Conductor quickly cleared the rest of his bottles off of his desk. “It's fine.” The yellow bird leaned on his desk, trying to look casual, but looked more drunk than before. “So... what are ye doin' here?”

“What am I doin...?” DJ Grooves almost stammered on his words, feeling his temper rising. “What are you doing here?”

The Conductor merely looked at DJ Grooves like he had grown a second head. “This... this is my office, ye know.”

“You were supposed to be somewhere tonight,” the penguin director shot back, trying to keep his cool. “Remember?”

“Right, right...” the old owl(?) murmured, trailing off into incoherent mumbling. Cocking his head to the side, the Conductor continued to look at DJ Grooves with a funny look on his pointy face. “Where, exactly?”

“At the award ceremony!” DJ Grooves began yelling, starting to lose his temper with the drunken imbecile. “For my award! Award 42! Remember?!” The Conductor recoiled at his rival's words, clutching his head in agony from his hang-over. Grooves mentally scolded himself for raising his voice, even for a second.

“42... 42,” the owl(?) director grumbled under his breath. “That was tonight?”

“Yes,” the penguin snarled, losing more of his patience, “it was. You were suppose to be there... for me.” Part of him knew he sounded kind of selfish for demanding that the Conductor be there to cheer for his win, but it was only a whisper compared to the roar of the need of appraisal.

“Oh, right!” the Conductor gasped, ruffling the yellow feathers on his face. “Tell ye the truth, Grooves, I had no interest in showing up to yer award ceremony thingamajig.”

The words struck DJ Grooves, hard. He could barely comprehend what he had just heard.

“What,” he murmured in shock.

The owl(?) director, either from his irritation or his hang-over, looked at his rival with an irate look on his face. “I said I didn't feel like goin' to yer stupid award thingy,” He repeated.

The moon penguin was glad he was wearing his rhinestone shades, or else the owl(?) would be seeing tears welling up in his beady eyes. “W-why not?” he asked, hurt heavy in his voice. “This was my moment, darling. I've always stood by your side when you won. Why couldn't you do the same for me?”

“Eh...” The Conductor shrugged. “If I'm not the one winning, there's no point, really. Besides, ye didn't have to cheer me on. I don't need ye to hold me hand for everything I do. I can do fine by meself.”

This was all DJ Grooves could take – to learn that his rival not only intentionally flaked on him on his big moment, but that he was being a sore loser about it, too. He had to leave, before he would let himself do something he'd later regret. The penguin turned to face the door to walk out of the room, but only made it halfway before he heard the Conductor mumble something out loud:

Award 42 should have been mine, peck neck.”

That word. DJ Grooves thought to himself. That darned word! The Conductor was being a very bad sport about all of this. That owl(?) wouldn't let him have his day, would he? Feeling the blood boil in his veins, the penguin director turned to face his rival, marching to the yellow bird until they were barely an inch from each other.

“What did you say?” DJ Grooves growled lowly, his giant eyebrows furrowing deeply. Anyone who saw him like this would have been scared half to death. Not the Conductor, it seemed, as he stared down the penguin with a pointy scowl.

“I said...” the owl(?) director snarled back, rising from his seat, “I should have won Award 42, peck neck! Yer movies stink! Nothing but noise!”

“Is that what you think of my movies?!” the penguin shouted. “Just noise?”

“Just noise and pointless dancin' around!” the Conductor shot back. “There's no plot or point to any of yer movies.”

“And your movies are any better?” Grooves inquired sardonically. “Your movies are the same, tired train-related westerns since you started directing, darling.”

“And yet, I kept winning, eh?” A smug smile crept on the Conductor's pointy face.

“Not fairly, I think,” the penguin argued. “And besides, Drakes on a Train didn't win Award 42, did it?”

“That's only because everything was stacked against me!” the Conductor shouted, pointing an accusing finger at his rival director. “My movie would have been my greatest yet, had it not been for everything going wrong in my life!”

“I don't know what happened in your life to make you be this way,” DJ Grooves spoke defiantly, “but that's not an excuse for you acting the way you are.”

“Easy for ye to say!” The Conductor was almost screeching at this point. “Ye didn't have yer baby train be nearly destroyed in an accident during shooting! Ye didn't have yer props be stolen on a daily basis! Ye didn't have to go to the hospital from the stress! Ye didn't have yer wife...!” The old owl(?) cut himself off, sinking back in his seat with a defeated sigh. “Ye didn't have yer perfect record – the one good thing left in life to look forward to – be broken by someone else.” His words came out as a weak murmur.

The silence between the two grew deafening. Only the intense breathing from the two directors could be heard.

“Get out,” the Conductor ordered, his voice starting to crack. “GET OUT, PECK NECK!!”

Shooting one last dirty and hateful look from behind his shades, DJ Grooves marched out of his bitter rival's office, slamming the door behind him with terrible force. He could hear the old owl(?) possibly throwing another drunken fit of rage, judging by the sound of crashing furniture and glass bottles being broken. He could also hear the yellow bird wailing about his life being over and falling apart, but was it his career, or something in his personal life?

But none of that mattered to DJ Grooves. Not anymore.

He wasn't going to let that rude Conductor win any more trophies. And he wasn't going to cheer on that old owl(?) if he did.

No more mister nice Grooves.

Chapter Text

There was a burning scent that lingered in the air, the queen noted.

In any other time, this oddity would have been ignored; it was either the burning wicks of the candles that lined the hallowed halls of the manor, or it was the roaring hearth that provided a tiny ounce of warmth to the manor's sole occupant. But she could not ignore this smell – the burning of wood and plastics. It was everywhere.

It was getting on Queen Vanessa's nerves, to say the least. No matter how many times she would swat the air before her with her blackened, spindly talons of hers, the smell would not go away. It only grew more intense with every passing moment.

Most days, the witch's mind would be dominated by her fantasies of herself with her “prince”, their long-forgotten days of past, and the possible new memories they could share together (as soon as the “prince” learns his lesson about going behind her back with other women, that is). But the burning smell was too overpowering to ignore, pulling her attention away from her day-dreaming.

Where was the smell coming from, she wondered.

Shambling from room to room (and leaving a trail of ice behind her), the queen could not find anything unusual or out-of-place (to her, at least), just the frozen bodies of past intruders who dared disturb her peace. Everything else was where it should be, down to the centuries-old layer of dust that caked every inch of the manor, and the old scratches she made along the walls.

Yet no sign of the source of the horrid, burning smell, and...

Was that smoke billowing across the ceiling?

Though none could see it, a wretched smile crossed the shadowy woman's face; where there's smoke, there must be fire. No longer needing to wander aimlessly through her manor, Queen Vanessa followed the path of the smoke above her head. The smoke trail seemed to lead to an open window, allowing the black clouds to roll on into the manor.

Odd, the queen thought to herself. I don't remember leaving that window open.

The shadowy witch moved to close the rogue window, but stopped herself when she noticed something about the environment outside her dwelling. There was a faint, orange glow flickering outside. Did that pesky Snatcher have his minions start a fire outside of her home again? Both the specter and his minions were the cowardly sort, she reasoned. Did the fire spirits take up residents by her home? No – they were smart enough to stay away from her.

Shaking her head, Vanessa moved to spy out of her window, but froze as she peered outside, her glowing red eyes of hate widening in horror...

The tranquil cold that was her winter home had been replaced by a raging inferno – flames reaching as high as the stars licked the skies, and lava creeping across the ground, consuming the white snow beneath. The Subcon Forest was gone, and the lava was inching its way towards her home!

This was no work of that ghost or the fire spirits, the witch thought to herself. This was something else. Fire and lava stretched out as far as the eye could see, the horizon obscured by plumes of billowing black smoke.

Vanessa focused her dark magic to form an icy barrier around her dwelling (or any kind of magic to kill these flames), but a coughing fit from all the smoke kept breaking her concentration. The closer the lava crept, the worse it got. It didn't help matters with hordes of her half-melted headless statue servants trying to climb their way back into their queen's manor, pulling her attention away. Enraged, the queen backhanded one of her headless statues away, causing it to plummet into the lava bellow, melting into nothingness before it even reached the bottom.

Why was this happening, the queen thought to herself in a panic. She lived her life in the cold, even as a child. Now it was threatening to end up in smoke – herself, her manor, her princ---

MY PRINCE!~” Queen Vanessa shrieked with horrid realization, bolting down her hallway towards the cellar. Her house was now engulfed in flames, but she didn't care. Her icy collection would be destroyed, but she didn't care. Flames licked at her shadowy dress, but she didn't care. All that mattered to her was to retrieve her “prince”.

The smoke of the burning wood intensified, obscuring her vision and filling her lungs. Icy tears stung in her glowing eyes as her coughing fit grew more hoarse. Her vision was blackening. Her mind was clouding. The heat enveloped her. She found herself on the carpet floor, wheezing.

My prince...~” Vanessa wheezed out, “... must... save... my prince. My... prince...~

Finally, blackness enveloped her, and her mind went silent.

 

...

 

Queen Vanessa thrust her eyes open. Was she dead? She didn't feel dead. What was death like, anyway? A new beginning? An end? Cold? Hot? Painless? Agonizing?

Regardless, she was not in her icy domain, anymore.

Taking in her surroundings, the queen noted the room she was currently in. The walls were dominated by blood reds and gold accents. Giant golden statues of some child stood resolute at the corners of the room. A large stained-glass window spilled light from the heavens upon her. Piles of shining hourglass pieces laid haphazardly around. Before her stood a larger pile of hourglass pieces...

... and on top of that sat a large throne. Sitting (or slouching) in the throne was a little girl, wearing a red hood, and sporting a golden mustache on her smug face.

“Hello, Queen Vanessa,” the mustached girl greeted the shadowy queen with an air of superiority. She looked down upon the twisted monarch (in every sense of the word) with golden eyes.

CHILD!~” the queen shrieked, attempting to raise her arms up to freeze the little girl, but found that her arms had been bound to her sides. Thick chains had been wrapped around her body, forcing her arms to her body. She struggled to break free, the chains clattering together, but to no avail. Her strength was quickly sapped. “What is the meaning of this?!~

“Those chains?” the girl remarked, pointing to the metal bounds ensnaring the wretched woman. “I know you got quite a fearsome reputation for freezing people who get in your way. It was kinda difficult to find something suitable to keep you pacified, but I'd say it was worth it.”

Queen Vanessa struggled once more against the metal chains, but when the bounds refused to break, she sighed inwardly with resignation. She wouldn't be able to use her dark magic on this upstart child, but her legs were not bound together. She could still walk and run, but decided to remain still, for now. She wouldn't let herself run – too many questions filled her twisted head:

Where was she right now? How did she get here in the first place? Why did it feel so hot? Who was this girl peasant? Was she responsible for burning her house down? The burning of the Subcon Forest? The lava? How? Did that Snatcher help? Did she have powers of her own? From these shining hourglass pieces? What of her “prince”?

Perhaps this child could be reasoned with, then she'd find a way to freeze her.

Now, now...~” Vanessa cooed sweetly, masking the anger building within, “why don't you come down here? We could just talk. Be civil.~

“There's nothing civil about you,” the mustached girl bluntly stated. “You know, everyone else outside these walls are going to have their turn for judgment” -the smile on her tiny face grew crooked- “but for you, I think I'll make an exception and judge you first. You'll serve as an example to everyone else who passes these halls of mine.”

Me? Being judged? the queen thought to herself. By this peasant? How dare she?!

You?~” she forced out, hardly attempting to hide her annoyance at this predicament. “But you're a child... a peasant, and I am a queen! Your queen!”

The girl merely shook her head, dismissively. “I don't think you quite understand who's in charge here, little lady.” She stretched her hand out, motioning towards the shining hourglass pieces around the room. “See, with all these Time Pieces by my side, I'm in charge of things around here, not you!”

Behind her veil of darkness, the queen gritted her rotting teeth in fury. The nerve of this girl! Who was she to play judge, jury, and executioner? That was the duty of the queen, not this little girl!

“For your crimes,” the mustached child listed, “boy, are they plenty! Firstly, you smell bad. Secondly, you're kinda scary, and a total eyesore. I mean... a black shadow with red eyes? Try being more original.”

The wicked witch cursed inwardly. This child is far too young to be passing judgment on anyone, much less a queen.

“On a more serious note,” the peasant girl continued, “you plunged your kingdom into a winter horror-land, and turned the rest of your forest into a creep show! You keep freezing anyone who gets in, and your haunted house was in really bad shape! Thank goodness I took care of that disaster, am I right?”

Ridiculous, Vanessa thought to herself with disgust. She's going to judge me for those things?

“Those would be bad enough,” the mustached girl concluded, “except because of you, your princely boyfriend has really done a number to a bunch of people who entered that forest... stealing their souls and all. But don't worry” -the girl rolled her eyes- “he'll be judged, too.”

My... prince?~” Queen Vanessa murmured, her glowing red eyes widening in shock. Suddenly, it clicked. She knew why she was here. She knew exactly the reason the child burned her house down. She knew why the child chained her up, waiting to pass judgment on her. She knew exactly why:

The peasant was going to take her “prince” away from her, and keep him for herself! Of course! She should have known this was the upstart child's plan all along, to steal her crown and her lover! If she was angry before, she was furious, now! For the briefest moment, the hot air within the judgment room grew a little colder.

The prince is MINE!~” Queen Vanessa shrieked, stamping her free foot. “He is MINE! MINE, AND MINE ALONE!! YOU WILL NOT TOUCH HIM!!~

People in the past who would have fled in terror at this terrifying display, but the mustache girl did not flinch. She almost seemed bored of it all, like a parent growing tired of their unruly child.

“I've had enough of this,” the bored mustached girl concluded, giving the queen a thumbs-down. “Bad guy! NEXT!”

Before the queen could even react, the floor beneath her gave out, revealing a trap door beneath. And the queen fell below.

The air of the girl's palace filled with the horrid screams of the witch, as she fell deeper and deeper down the burning hole, the burning air searing her blackened flesh. She wouldn't have to scream much longer; she spotted lava at the very bottom of the pit, rushing towards her (or as she fell towards it).

Was this how it all ends, she thought. This is how she dies? To be burned alive? It was almost comical... the icy queen to be burned to death. She screamed no more, seemingly accepting her fate.

As she reached the bottom of the lava pit, and her world was enveloped by whiteness, only one thing remained on Queen Vanessa's mind as she died:

My prince...

 

...

 

Queen Vanessa gasped out loud, her glowing red eyes of hate widening. Was she dead? She didn't feel dead, but how would she know? Was this the afterlife? Was this her torment?

Calming herself down, the witch checked her surroundings. The same dismal halls she had grown accustomed to. The same frozen intruders on the sides. The same cold chill she liked.

Though none could she it, the wretched queen smiled. She was back in her home! Her manor! Her domain!

Questions quickly filled her mind. What just happened? Was she dreaming? A nightmare? It seemed so real, but it couldn't be, could it? Who was that little girl with the mustache and red hood?

It didn't matter to Queen Vanessa. She was back home, and no one will ever be able to take her realm, or her “prince”, ever again!

The witch let out a wicked, horrid laugh of triumph that reverberated throughout the manor, seeping into the rest of the Subcon Forest, too. The Snatcher and the rest of the forest will be sure to hear her cackle, and despair!

No burning scent in the air, either.

Chapter Text

The Snatcher could feel a thousand eyes bearing on him from every direction, from all the creatures and unnamed horrors that lurked in the shadows of the Subcon Forest. It was a feeling he was quite accustomed to (and quite liked), being both feared and respected by all those who dwell or venture in his home. He paid no attention to the onlookers, though.

His interest had been glued to a certain law book he had for as long as he could remember. His glowing eyes slowly glossed over the faded words printed on the deteriorating paper, taking in information that had long since lost its meaning from centuries of neglect. The leather binding of the tome had shown signs of rot, with the glue that bound it to the book's spine beginning to lose adhesive. In less careful hands, the book would have fallen apart ages ago, and the pages would be scattered to the wind. It must have been read from cover-to-cover hundreds of times, if not more.

Still, the Snatcher loved this book. It was one of the first books he bought when he attended law school (when he was alive), and one of the few that still survived to this day. Written by some law professor whose name has since been lost to history, it ranked up there with such titles as “How to kill kids” and “Loophole abuse and you!”. Even after centuries, the specter would differ to this tome when it came to dealing with pesky contractors (current and former) who thought too highly of themselves.

Speaking of pesky former contractors who thought too highly of themselves, he could feel a particular pair of eyes bearing on him right now.

The Snatcher knew the kid was there. She was always there. Ever since she first arrived at the Subcon Forest, his “BFF” had been a constant thorn on his side; she'd either pester him with a barrage of questions, annoy him with demands of playing one of her games with her, or just be a smug little brat in the smuggest way she can be. Some days, he wondered if this was some sort of punishment for his actions as a soul-snatching ghost.

And yet, part of him admired the little child for her optimism, determination, and childish innocence. None before her or since had challenged him as the ruler of the Subcon Forest, and he was kind of impressed at the kid's guts and wit. Though he'd never admit it, part of him was impressed on how she managed to outsmart him at his own legal game, forcing the two in becoming contractual “BFFs”. There were days that made him wonder if he had gone soft, or if he really did care about the girl.

But today was not one of those days. He was too busy with his reading.

Sitting in his chair within his dwelling, the Snatcher buried his face within the pages of his tome, hoping that the kid may either get the message that he didn't feel like playing today, or she'd get bored and move on-

Knock knock!

“Snatcher?” the girl called out loud.

Ah heck, the purple specter groaned inwardly. Prying his glowing eyes away from his beloved book, the Snatcher feigned surprise at the direction of the voice. Standing by the doorway to the hollowed-out tree of a home was the Hat Kid, wearing her typical purple top hat and tunic, as well as a particular look in her cyan eyes that he couldn't quite place.

Oh, it's you,” the Snatcher "greeted" the girl, barely concealing his annoyance at her presence. “What do you want, kid?” He probably already knew the answer. It would either be a request to play one of her games, a demand for more rewards for one of his advanced contracts, or a prying question in his personal life.

“I was curious about something,” she answered candidly. “About you.”

Of course it would be a personal question, the specter mentally sighed. Why would she even bother with these questions? He never wondered about her own personal life, so why would she bother him about his?

Well, what is it?” he questioned, growing more impatient.

The girl fidgeted with her hands in her spot, a conflicted look written all over her little face. “What's your name?”

The Snatcher looked at the child in partial confusion, a wry, fanged smile creeping on his face at such an odd question. “Didn't you just answer it a second ago?

“I know that!” The Hat Kid rolled her eyes. “I meant your real name. Your first name. The name you had before you died and became a ghost.” The look on the ghost's face said it all, as his fanged smirk faded away into a deep frown, and his glowing eyes widened in shock. The girl raised her hands in an embarrassed and frightened posture, like she just realized she had greatly offended her “BFF”. “I-I didn't mean to upset you! I'm sorry.” To her credit, at least she looked remorseful for her lack of tact. “I know it's personal for you.”

No, no. It's fine,” the Snatcher fibbed, placing back a plastic smile on his ghostly face, acting like remembering the past didn't bother him. It did. “My name was... uh...” He “sneezed” his answer into his talon-hand, and immediately buried his face back into his law book, pretending to read. Perhaps that answer would be good enough for the kid, the Snatcher thought. Soon she'd be on her merry way without a care in the world.

But the Hat Kid remained in her spot, unconvinced. “I didn't quite catch that,” she remarked, not fooled by the specter's ploy. “What's your name?”

The Snatcher sighed inwardly. He wasn't going to get rid of this girl, was he? “My name was... eh...” He “coughed” his answer into his hand, and once again buried his face in his book, hoping she'd get the message and go away.

But she didn't go away. She started to giggle. “You're acting like you don't remember your own name!” The Hat Kid broke into short fits of giggles that must have lasted for a few seconds, before tapering off into nothingness.

A deathly silence fell upon the forest; not even the crickets and other insects dare chirp now. Out of the corner of his glowing eye, the Snatcher peered over his book to the young explorer, a look of utter shock written over her little face, as though she finally figured out the truth:

“You can't remember your name,” the Hat Kid murmured in sad realization, “can you?”

This response earned her an unearthly sigh from the Snatcher, placing his book on his lap, and giving the girl an evil glare from his glowing eyes. She just had to keep prying, didn't she? She just couldn't leave well enough alone, could she? She couldn't just be a nuisance, she had to keep drudging up the past. His past. His past!

The specter began to rise from his seat to kick the alien child out once and for all, but stopped himself with a look at the trembling girl's face. Her face was filled with shame and guilt. It wasn't a “guilty” look like being caught doing something bad, but something more... genuine (like she actually meant it). It looked like she was going to burst into tears at any moment. If he had a heart, it'd be breaking (just a little bit, mind).

“I'm sorry...” the Hat Kid croaked, her voice cracking. “I didn't mean to... I didn't know...”

It's okay, kiddo,” the Snatcher sighed with resignation, his hardened features softening at the sight of the poor girl. “You're just being curious, that's all.” He sank back into his seat, deflated.

Confound that girl! the ghost cursed to himself. The Hat Kid was a weird child. Weird and infuriating. He should be angry at her – angry at her for bringing up his past, no doubt out of spite. Had a minion of his pulled off the same stunt, he would have given them a “time-out” on the business-end of a noose, or voided the contract from ages past and return them to life as a dweller.

He should be angry at the Hat Kid, and he had every right to be. And yet, he wasn't. He just felt guilty... guilty for making her feel bad about herself. Was he just feeling bad for the girl because he was contractually obligated to do so, or did she soften him up? He couldn't tell, anymore.

He hated it. He hated that he hated it!

The Snatcher returned his gaze to the Hat Kid. She didn't look like she was going to cry anymore, but still had an upset look on her face.

You're right,” he confessed, throwing his noodle-like arms up in tired exasperation, “I can't remember my real name. I've been dead for a long time, kiddo.

“I'm sorry, Snatcher,” the Hat Kid apologized again, inching her way towards the specter.

Don't be.” He offered her a fake smile. “If you've lived and died for as long as I have, little details of the past can easily slip through the cracks. I can remember some things... some better than others.

“But to forget your own name?” the young explorer nearly shouted, almost in disbelief. “That must... stink!”

To be fair,” the Snatcher remarked, “you don't even give out your own name. Unless your parents despise you, I seriously doubt 'Hat Kid' counts as a name." He "air-quoted" with his claws for emphasis. "Do you even have a name?

“I so have a name!” The girl pouted, indignant. “But you wouldn't be able to pronounce it!” She crossed her arms, haughtily sticking her nose up and away from the ghost.

The sight of the annoyed and flustered girl earned a light chuckle from specter, a real smile creeping across his fanged face. This in turn made a smile creep on the girl's face as well, and she broke into a fit of giggles. The two chuckled and giggled for what seemed like minutes, before dying down in content sighs.

This kid, the Snatcher mentally noted to himself, as he stared at the girl staring back at him, always brings out the best and worst in me, huh? Breaking his gaze away, he returned to his law book in his lap.

“What if I were to help you find your real name?” the Hat Kid offered optimistically.

Don't bother,” the specter dismissed, not even looking up from his book. “The Subcon Forest is not a good place to preserve old things. You'll only find death and decay. There's no place in my forest which would tell you who I once was.

Again, a deathly silence fell upon the two. He had a feeling the girl must have been thinking of something that could only be vaguely called a plan. It was nothing good, he thought.

“Vanessa's manor might have something,” the Hat Kid offered, little more than an ominous whisper.

Though he lacked a backbone, a cold chill went up the Snatcher's spine at the very mention of her – that witch. His mane flared up, puffing outwards. He should be angry at the girl for bringing her up, but the only emotion he was feeling was fear. Anxiety. Dread.

Hold up, kid!” the ghost called out, rushing up to the girl from his seat and dropping his book to the floor in the process. “You're not actually thinking of going back to that place, are you?

“Last time I was there,” the Hat Kid explained, “I found her old diary entries talking about you, and even some of your old letters to her.” She paused, stroking her chin in deep thought. “I think there must be more diary stuff lying around. Maybe one of them will have your real name written down!”

Kid,” the Snatcher urged, hardly hiding the desperation in his voice, “I appreciate the thought of you wanting to help me – really, I do, but you hate that place just as much as I do!

“I know...” the girl sighed, but quickly gave her “BFF” a determined look, “but this time, I'll know what to expect. I went in blind before, but I'll be ready this time. That old Vanessa won't scare me now!”

The ghost merely looked at the girl and her suicidal courage, dumbfounded. Was she brave, or just dumb? Probably both (mostly the latter, though).

Why are you even doing this?” he inquired, shaking his head in disbelief. “You're not even getting a Time Piece or a reward or whatever out of this.

The Hat Kid offered him a small smile. “You're my friend, Snatcher. We're friends, and we'd do anything for each other! You'd help me if I was in a bind, wouldn't you?”

L-let's not get too hasty!” the Snatcher protested, earning him an eye roll from the alien child.

“But also” -the young explorer grew silent- “I just wanna help you recover something worthwhile about your past. Don't you want something from your old life?”

The way the kid put it, the specter had to admit; a part of him really wanted to know what he originally went by before his untimely death. What kind of man was he back when he was alive? He had vague recollections, but nothing concrete.

Wait... what was he thinking? This was a terrible idea!

I get the feeling you're not going to back down from this,” the Snatcher remarked, “are you?

“Nope!”

Fine...” he sighed with resignation, “but if you're going to sneak around back at that place, I need to ask a favor from you.” He gulped down. “A request.

The Hat Kid bristled defensively. “You're not gonna take my soul again, or take my hats, are you?”

You can keep your crummy soul for all I care,” the Snatcher dismissed with a hand-wave, “but please don't use your hat tricks on her.

The girl raised an eyebrow in perplexed confusion. “Why?”

I just...” -he hesitated- “I just don't want to imagine what would happen if you did, okay?

Once more, the Hat Kid grew silent. The Snatcher could tell that the girl was debating with herself whether or not to agree to his demand request.

“Okay.” the young explorer spoke finally. With one last meaningful look at the specter, the girl took off in the direction of the old manor, disappearing in the foliage of the Subcon Forest.

The Snatcher looked on where the kid ran off to, his gaze fixed for minutes that seemed like hours. So foolishly brave, he thought. She would risk her own life for his sake? To find his old name? He didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or to shake his head in disappointment. She'd either be added to Vanessa's “collection”, or would return with something of value... or nothing at all.

Returning to his seat, the specter picked his law book back up, grimacing how it was beginning to fall apart in his care. He couldn't focus on his tome, though. He shifted his gaze back at where the Hat Kid stood in his home... the Hat Kid he may never see again.

She is so dead. he thought - half grimly, half amused.

Chapter Text

The path to Queen Vanessa's manor was just as cold as the last time she went through, Hat Kid thought to herself. In fact, it was colder now than it was before; whether that was due to the queen's growing influence or because Hat Kid had her soul (which was somehow affected by dark magic). It was difficult to say, but it didn't matter. She was on a mission.

Passing by the iced-over houses of old, the young explorer couldn't help but be reminded of the tragic story of the kingdom. Though she only caught a brief glimpse into the past, she knew too well about the queen's fall to madness, and her freezing fury that followed afterwards. She grimaced at the thought.

This icy trench was once a happy village, a forlorn Hat Kid thought. A happy village filled with happy people, going on about their business without a care in the world. She could only imagine in her darkest dreams what the citizens must have went through when their villages were frozen over and their lives were destroyed. There was no helping the dead, now, but she could still help one person.

Running past the icicles that jutted out like spears, Hat Kid knew she was getting close to the manor. The haunted mansion had many secrets within its scratched and darkened halls. Maybe - just maybe, it would hide the real name of the Snatcher when he was the prince. When he was alive. Maybe, she thought, it could help bring some kind of closure to the specter's troubled past (and maybe he won't be so crabby all the time, particularly to her).

That is, if she could get out without being turned into an ice statue.

When she passed by the broken set of iron gates, the little brunette knew that she had finally arrived at her destination. Stopping in her tracks, the girl set her sights on the foreboding manor, looming over her like a silent, dark judge, waiting to pass down her sentence. At that moment, an all too familiar feeling of dread and hopelessness washed over her; the courageous bravado she held onto had all but evaporated.

“This was a bad idea...” Hat Kid whimpered, realizing too late the error she just made.

There was a soft wind that blew in the air, as tiny snowflakes drifted from the sky above. It would have been an ideal winter feeling, had it not been for the deathly cold that hung in the air. Yet for the alien child, the biting chill that bit at her flesh was the least concerning thing on her mind; there was still the queen that commanded the cold. She could swear she heard the witch's mad laugh whistling in the wind.

The girl thought about turning back and running away, but her trembling legs remained planted, refusing to obey. A deep lump formed in her throat. She could almost feel the queen's impossibly cold and spindly talons wrap around her neck, choking the life out of her. Images of the shadowy witch and her piercing red eyes flooded her mind. The cackling in her ears grew deafening, drowning out the already thunderous pounding of her heart. She closed her eyes shut and blocked her ears, but the images and sounds only grew more intense.

It was all too much for the scared child to take. Out of her wit, Hat Kid threw her hands out, hoping to grab something – anything – to stop this mental assault.

And in an instant, everything stopped.

The images of the queen vanished, but the alien child kept her eyes shut, just to be safe. The cackling had returned to soft blows of the wind whistling against her ear. Peace had settled back in.

Peeking with one eye open, Hat Kid looked around to see what she had grabbed onto. She was holding onto the brim of her top hat on her head. A smile returned to her face. Her ever-faithful companion, the hat had been with her on countless adventures; it gave her strength in more ways than one, and it was the one thing that would never turn on her. With her hat, she knew she was (almost) invincible!

Besides, she had a mission to do. She had a friend in need!

With newfound determination, the brave explorer bolted towards the manor, but quickly stopped halfway. The front door was locked, she remembered, and it was guarded by Vanessa's headless angel statues. Though nowhere near as scary as their mistress, the headless statues always gave her the creeps; even when not on the attack, they always seemed to move while not moving at the same time.

Keeping a trained eye on the front door, Hat Kid stalked the side of the mansion towards the cellar door. Hopefully, that was not locked after her first break-in. Sure enough, the cellar door wasn't locked.

It was wide open.

The girl paused, the feeling of dread creeping back into her form. Peaceful (if chilly) weather? No statues attacking? Cellar door open? It was all too easy for her tastes, like she was meant to walk right in. Walk right into a trap, that is. She could only imagine the queen lying in wait for a foolhardy girl to just waltz right into her icy claws.

No. She shook her head. I can't back down now. Walking past the inviting doors, the young girl stared down into the abyss that was the cellar. Who knew what lie in store for her now. But if it was for the Snatcher's sake, she would venture in the deepest, darkest, and dankest of places for him!

Swallowing down the last remnant of fear and hesitation down her throat, Hat Kid pressed forward and plunged herself into darkness.


The girl pushed the door away every so slightly, careful not to make a sound. Her wet boots from the flooded cellar left behind a mushy trail on the crimson carpet, but that couldn't be helped. Like before, it seemed as though the inside of the manor was much colder than the outside was. She could even see her breath hang in the air. If she could stop shivering, it'd be much easier to start sneaking around the manor.

If only she brought a better coat with her, Hat Kid frowned.

Treading the floor on the tips of her toes, the young explorer walked up the hallway of the mansion – the same one where she first met the dread lady of the house. Her heart raced. Any moment now, the witch would round the corner, announce her presence and start to give chase, her icy claws for fingers inching their way closer to their prey.

But when she made it towards the end of the hallway, the queen did not appear.

Ordinarily, the lack of a shadowy monster chasing her would have been a blessing, but at the moment, it wasn't. Hat Kid knew the queen must have been around, waiting for her. She couldn't let her guard down for even a moment, for that would be the time when the lady of the manor would catch her by surprise. The girl shook in her boots, freezing and filled with fear and anticipation. The waiting – the tension – was killing her.

Still, the child had to take her little victories whenever they presented themselves; a brief respite from the witch's terror could very well be used to look for any information about the Snatcher's true identity. She'd just have to be very careful going room-to-room, and never get too comfortable, less she be lulled into Vanessa's grasp. She really didn't want to be added to the collection.

Creaking the door next to her as carefully as she could, Hat Kid peered into the kitchen. No shadowy Vanessa lurking in the room. Good. The girl tip-toed across the marble floor, carefully rummaging through utensil drawers, cupboards, and even the refrigerator for any kind of paper or anything. To no surprise, she found nothing. Her search only gave her the curious question on how the manor had running water and electricity, despite being possibly centuries old, and the witch herself most likely freezing any plumber or electrician foolish enough to wander in.

Does Vanessa do her own plumbing? Hat Kid cringed at the thought.

Shaking her head, the young explorer stepped into the adjacent room full of bookshelves. The piano lay broken in the middle; it looked as though it hadn't been touched since last time she broke in. She frowned at the loss of a possible hiding spot, but she'd have to worry about that later.

As quietly as she could, the little girl searched through the books on the bookshelves. One of the books had to have been a diary of sorts, or at least contain the specter's true name in some fashion, she thought. After a few minutes scanning through every book in the room, Hat Kid concluded that there were only boring law books and encyclopedias, dumb romance novels, and rather tame horror stories (what was so scary about being chased by an automaton who dressed like a bear?). None of them had the Snatcher's true name written down anywhere.

If there's nothing on this floor, Hat Kid concluded, perhaps the second floor would be more fruitful. She froze at a thought: Queen Vanessa would most certainly be on the second floor, too. What if the witch was purposely waiting for the girl to walk right into her clutches? What if she knew what the girl was looking for? She shook her head. She wasn't going to let the shadowy woman stop her from her mission. She came this far - no sense in backing out now.

Returning to the hallway, Hat Kid tiptoed up the carpeted floor, passing by an iced-over victim of the queen.

Strange, Hat Kid thought with a worried cringe, stopping to inspect the unfortunate victim, I don't remember that ice statue being there when I came in. It was a cat, possibly from the Lazy Paw Gang, judging by the bandanna on its head and boots on its feet. Was the cat trying to steal from the manor? With its paws stretched out and head raised up in horror, it looked like it was struggling mid freezing. She looked away with sympathy - even a thief doesn't deserve this fate, she thought.

Pressing forward, the girl entered what she assumed to be the games room. A quick, cursory glance revealed no books lying around, and – more importantly – no Vanessa lying in wait. With the first floor cleared, only the second floor awaited her. Even before reaching for the door leading upstairs, the air around her grew significantly colder; the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, as if to urge her not to go up. She chose to ignore the warning signs.

Pushing the doors away - as well as her doubts, Hat Kid ascended the flight of stairs.

Despite her careful footwork, there was no way she could avoid making the wooden stairs creak under her feet. With each moan coming from the wooden boards under her, a sharp gasp escaped the brunette's mouth. She just prayed the noise alone wouldn't alert the witch to her presence.

Finally reaching the second floor and familiar carpets, Hat Kid breathed a quick sigh of relief. No shadowy fiend in sight... for now. It was only a matter of time before the lady of the manor would come for her... or she would run into the lady. Neither option sounded good to her.

Opening the door to the bedroom, Hat Kid creaked it open ever so slightly, and her cyan eyes widened in terror.

Queen Vanessa was in the bedroom.

In her bed.

Sleeping.

For minutes that seemed to stretch for an eternity, the hatted child fixed her gaze upon the sleeping form of the witch. A million-and-one things ran through her head: why was Vanessa sleeping? She actually sleeps? How would Hat Kid search for the Snatcher's name without waking up the queen? Was the queen just pretending to sleep to lull the girl into a false sense of security?

Even just standing on the opposite side of the door to the bedroom made it very difficult to concentrate and breathe; pressure was building up from behind her eyes, and a low, ringing sound rang in her ears. It seemed that even when not awake, Vanessa still had an effect on her. Would it affect her performance in searching for a clue to her “BFF's” true identity?

Hat Kid looked away, debating with herself whether or not to dare search for clues while Vanessa slept in the same room. It would be certain suicide to even attempt to look around the room – any kind of noise would likely wake the sleeping witch up. At the same time, though, she was so close to discovering the truth, she could taste it. It would be a waste to turn back now. And besides, the Snatcher would be most proud of her to once again steal something right from under the queen's nose.

Gripping the brim of her top hat with a nod and a smile, Hat Kid slowly opened the door into Queen Vanessa's bedroom. It was now or never, she thought.

Holding her breath and tiptoeing quieter than she thought she possibly could, the girl hugged the way of the bedroom, keeping a wide and constant eye on the sleeping monarch. There was an odd calm about Vanessa, not making a sound (or soft breathing or snoring), and hardly moving at all. She looked more like a formless lump of shadow than an actual person, with the odd leg or clawed hands poking out, indicating that this is was a person. At least those glowing red orbs of hate were closed. She almost looked... peaceful.

Could the queen still freeze someone, even if she was asleep? Hat Kid shook her head at the thought. No way she'd test that out!

Reaching the wooden cabinet along the wall, the alien child carefully pried the doors open, and was immediately assaulted by the stench of death. Struggling to not let the strong odors overwhelm her, she peered a collection of different dresses that presumably belong to Vanessa. Though they must have been beautiful to look at back in the day, these dresses looked torn, dirty, and partially eaten. It almost looked like they hadn't been worn in centuries.

Hat Kid was about to close the cabinet when she spotted something hiding behind the ruined dresses. It almost blended into the cabinet, but the spot of faded red grabbed her attention. Reaching in, she grabbed the foreign object, careful not to touch the dresses. With the object firmly in her hands, the girl discovered she was holding onto a book – an incredibly old and faded book, that looked like it was about to fall apart in her hands. Dust had collected on its ruined, leather-bound cover.

And on its cover with faded gold lettering, it read “Diary of L”, with the rest of the letters having faded into nothingness.

Hat Kid's eyes widened with joy. She almost let out a shriek of happiness. This had to have been what she was looking for! She didn't know of anyone else that started with the letter 'L', so that must mean that the Snatcher's name must have started with an 'L'! That alone would be cause for celebration, but this was only the beginning. First, she needed to discover the rest of his name, then to get out alive and tell him who he really was.

Maybe she could take the time to read the diary, she thought with curiosity.

With the book now in hand, the girl crept her way towards the next room. The nursery could be an ideal spot to do a tiny bit of reading. As she creaked the door open, she shot a quick glance at the queen again, and gave a silent raspberry with her tongue before slipping into the room.

Now safe, Hat Kid could stroll over to the baby crib and hide underneath it. If the queen does wake up during her reading session, at least she won't get caught. As she crouched down to crawl under the baby crib, a sad thought occurred to her: both Vanessa and the prince must have been planning to have children one day. A child could very well have changed their lives. Just how differently would things have gone had the queen not left her lover for dead?

Well under the crib now, the young explorer flipped open the faded book in front of her, careful not to let it disintegrate. Many of the pages were either torn out, heavily faded, or just unreadable, but there were still a few pages that were legible. Starting from the beginning from what she could read, she could finally start with her search:

 

-that was when I saw her for the first time, standing out from the rest of the crowd. I knew from the moment I laid my eyes on her with her emerald-green dress, I knew she had to be the one. And when she laid her eyes on me, I knew she must have felt the same way. Love at first sight, I had heard it be called. I thought it always as a foolish fairy-tale, but since that night, I believe it with my heart!

I moved across the ballroom floor to meet her, as she approached me in turn. Mere words cannot describe her, but I will do my best. Her honey-golden hair flowed behind her with grace and radiance. Her rosy reds cheeks brightened against her porcelain-white skin. And her eyes! Gods! Her eyes were as blue as the sparkling sea!

It was only when I spotted the golden crown on her head did I realize that she was Princess Vanessa of the Royal Subcon Family! I felt nervous at first... what kind of royalty would choose the lowly son of the Duke of Yung as her prince? But the way she looked at me as we began our first dance toget-

 

Hat Kid rolled her eyes in annoyance. More useless, flowery language, she thought grimly. Did the Snatcher always talk like this when he was alive? Was the rest of the diary going to be him talking about how beautiful Vanessa was before her fall to madness? It was times like these that reminded her how she hated reading. It wasn't that she couldn't read – she could read very well, but it didn't take long for her eyes to get bored by a wall of useless text. The image of a blueish-green antlered animal entered her mind at such a thought (and, strangely, demanded a citation).

Flipping over the next few pages to something potentially more interesting, the girl continued her reading:

 

By the Gods is the manor cold!

When Vanessa asked me to move into her family's manor, I was surprised at first. We had only started courting for a month, and she's already asking me to live with her. But who was I to refuse my love?

But the moment I stepped into the manor, I could feel something wrong in my bones. It was freezing! It was mildly cold, like a mid-to-late Autumn day. But why was it so cold, especially in the middle of Summer?

I asked Vanessa about it, but she brushed my concerns off. The cold never bothered her anyway, it seemed. Perhaps she had grown accustomed to it. I wished to raise issue about it, but I kept my mouth shut. Perhaps I could get used to it, too.

 

Frowning, Hat Kid flipped over some more pages. The Snatcher's name had to be somewhere in this wall of text, right?

 

The queen...

I'm uncertain if I can trust her or not. She's just as frigid as the manor she and her daughter, Vanessa, live in.

Since the day I moved into the manor my new home, the queen had done nothing but give me odd looks, like I wasn't welcome there. She rarely never speaks to me (at least directly), yet her eyes and body language tell me that she hated me! Vanessa brushed off my concerns, saying that her mother was always like that with newcomers. She says the queen will warm up to me, eventually.

Though I have my doubts, I trust Vaney Nessa my princess. She knows what to say to calm my nerves.

 

Who was this queen, Hat Kid wondered to herself, and why did she hate the prince? She continued flipping through the pages, her curiosity piquing:

 

I overheard Vanessa fighting arguing fighting with her mother, the queen, again.

I was in the study when the two started raising their voices from the kitchen. I hate it when the two fight, so I tried to block it out as best as I could with my legal documents. It felt very cold. Despite this, I could still make out some of the words being thrown around.

I think Vanessa's late father, the king, was one of the subjects of their quarrel. I even heard my name during the fight! I wanted nothing to do with their argument, so I just stormed out of the manor to catch some fresh air. I wasn't sure if they heard me or not.

I took some time to explore the town - familiarize myself. The kind flower lady gave me a bouquet of flowers as a gift. I think it's meant for Vanessa, but I have to admit, both the flowers and the flower lady smell good. That helped me calm my nerves.

Everything's settled down now, though I could still feel the tension in the air. Neither Vanessa nor the queen felt like talking about what just transpired, so I decided to drop it, too.

Vanessa did love the flowers, though.

 

“Come on!” Hat Kid whined at the diary entry, frowning deeply. How dare the diary tease the name of the prince without actually revealing it. Still, she must be close to the big reveal yet:

 

Out of the blue, I asked Vanessa what the earlier fight she had with her mother was about.

She looked a bit embarrassed by the fact (I was ready to drop the subject for her sake), but she explained what happened that night. Basically, it was kind of their way of grieving for her father, the king.

They were once a happy, royal family, but after the king's passing, Vanessa's relationship with her mother kind of fell apart. It seemed like his death hit the two especially hard, as any little argument or spat would degrade into a full-blown war. They had great trouble getting past their loss, it seemed.

I did what any kind “prince-to-be” would do: I offered what little comfort and sympathy I could for my princess. We hugged, as she whispered she never wanted to let me go. I would never let her go, either.

Still, I can't shake this feeling that she wasn't being entirely truthful to me... like she was hiding something from me. Then again, this was a personal issue between Vanessa and her mother, and I had no right to barge in.

For my princess' sake, I'll drop the subject.

 

Hat Kid was about to turn the page, but the thought of what she read gave her pause. From what she discovered prior, she assumed Queen Vanessa was just some obsessive and heartless monster who killed whenever it pleased her. Reading this diary, however, it seemed like even a fiend like Vanessa was human once upon a time, with her own dreams and issues. For the first time since landing on this planet, she almost felt sorry for the murderous shadow woman. Almost.

Could her father's death have had some impact into her eventual descent into insanity? The girl shivered at the thought, turning to the next page:

 

She came into my room, last night. The queen came into my room.

I was asleep at the time, and I didn't even realize she was in the room until she started speaking. She never spoke to me, at least not directly.

“Do not get involved with that girl,” she told me, icy blue eyes staring into my soul, “or she will be the end of you.” And then she left. As quickly as she came, she was gone.

Was she talking about Vanessa? Was that a threat? I could barely comprehend why she would say such a thing. I didn't feel like bringing this up to my princess.

I don't think she needs to hear about her mother trying to tear us apart.

 

“Tear you apart,” Hat Kid murmured out loud, a feeling of dread forming in her gut, “or warn you about what Vanessa would do to you.” She turned to the next page:

 

The queen has died!

I heard the terrible news during one of my lessons. My immediate thought was for Vanessa's well-being. No doubt, my princess would be devastated by the loss of her mother! Like the wind, I rode to the manor to comfort my love. I thought I saw snowflakes in the air. It must have been pollen.

When I arrived, I went to search for Vanessa. She was in her room, crying her eyes out. She reacted coldly to me. She didn't speak to me. She didn't speak at all! I could only imagine what she was going through... first her father, now her mother? I didn't need words to be spoken.

I just held onto Vanessa, and she held onto me for dear life. She was freezing cold.

 

Hat Kid stared for the longest time at the page, unsure of what to make of it. Could the death of her parents have been the start of Vanessa's obsessive tendencies, or did they just make the pre-existing tendencies much worse? She shook her head and continued reading:

 

The last week was mostly a blur for me.

I set up funeral arrangements for the queen. It would have been easier if Vanessa was involved as well, though given everything that had happened to her, I completely understand her absence. The flower lady was a big help, though, with her choices of flowers for the funeral.

Not only was Vanessa mourning for her mother, but she was also being crowned as the new queen of the Subcon Kingdom (a prospect she had told me countless times she felt she wasn't ready for). I should be happy for Princess Queen Vanessa, but with the circumstance of her ascension, it sort of leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Rumors had spread concerning the manner of the late queen's death; most seemed somewhat plausible, while others borderline on slander and conspiracy. The common theme of these rumors, however, was the fact that she slipped on some ice and broke her neck on the fall. Though where did ice come from in the middle of Summer?

“Do not get involved with that girl, or she will be the end of you.”

Her last words to me still haunt me to this day.

 

Her breathing heavy, Hat Kid had to look away in shock. The queen slipping on some ice? Was Vanessa responsible for her own mother's death? The two did seemed to be at each others' throats, and Vanessa was best known for her ice powers, but it made no sense. She remembered Vanessa crying about being crowned queen (as she wouldn't be the prince's “princess” anymore). There was no way she'd willingly kill her mother to assume the throne, unless...

Hat Kid stared wide-eyed with realization: Vanessa didn't kill her mother to assume the throne, but to keep the prince all to herself! The queen did seem to warn him about her daughter's true nature just before her death, and Vanessa was the extremely jealous type. Did she see her own mother as a rival to the prince's affections?

The girl had set out to find the Snatcher's true name, and found herself in the middle of a centuries-old murder mystery with Vanessa as the prime suspect. Well, it was too late to help the dead now, but at least she was the only one to discover the truth. Maybe she'll tell the Snatcher about it when she gets back. If she gets back, that is.

Turning the next page, Hat Kid discovered the next several pages had been torn out or ripped to shreds. She grimaced; at this rate, she'll never find the prince's name. Still, she read on:

 

I don't know if I should be writing this down. I know I can't say it out loud, not even to my own family (whenever I'm allowed to see them). If I were to speak my mind, people would either dismiss it out of hand, think I'm crazy, or suspect me of treason. I would certainly never speak of my thoughts to Vanessa! It seems like this diary of mine is my only solace.

I'm beginning to have second thoughts about my relationship with Queen Princess Queen Vanessa.

Don't get me wrong – I love her with all my heart, and I would love nothing more than to wed with her in holy matrimony one day; however, there are days where I wonder if I had made the wrong choice with falling in love with this woman.

Vanessa banned all the bacon in the manor, claiming it was bad for my health. I love the taste of bacon, but I would certainly have agreed to cut-down on my intake if it worried her so much (I don't think I even eat that much, anyway). I just wished she would have talked to me about it before going ahead with her decision. Then she cut my hair while I was asleep! She wanted us to have the same color and hairstyle. When I objected to having my hair cut without my knowledge or consent, she cried out (like she always does), bawling her eyes out. She thought I didn't love her anymore, that I hated her hard work – that I hated her. It took me several hours to calm her down and ensure her that I still loved her.

Then, whenever I decide to go outside for whatever reason, Vanessa insists on coming along with me, to never leave her sight. While I love the nature walks with my princess queen, it gets incredibly awkward and uncomfortable whenever she gets hostile towards other women if they so much as wave or smile at me. She's acting like they're coming to steal me away like I'm her property. Her pet. It's like she's an entirely different person when I'm involved...

And that's not even getting into all the big and little “episodes” Vanessa would have when it came to my law studies. She'd either cling onto to me, begging me not to go to my studies, or would throw legendary fits of rage whenever things weren't going her way, calling me the most hurtful things I ever heard coming from her. And the worst part? She'd always acted like nothing had happened, afterwards.

I love my Vanessa, and I can understand if she's still having trouble moving on from her mother's death, but that was almost a year ago, and her behavior is starting to tear into me!

“Do not get involved with that girl, or she will be the end of you.”

What do I do?

 

Hat Kid let out a deep, sullen sigh. She always believed that Vanessa and her prince lived a happy fairy-tale fantasy (before she lost her mind), but reading this diary had proven otherwise. If the queen's obsessive tendencies was driving a wedge between her and her lover, no wonder he was doubting their relationship.

No wonder the Snatcher hated the witch so much (aside from locking him in the cellar to die).

The little brunette debated with herself about pressing forward; she thought there was nothing but more sadness from this point on. It'd be only a matter of time till the final entry before he was left for dead. Still, she couldn't quit now. Taking in a deep breath, she turned the next page:

 

Camilla. Camilla, Camilla.

On the odd days when Vanessa has to tend to her royal duties as queen, I have time for myself! With my free time, I decided to once again explore the town. The townsfolk are all very nice to me, and some even asked me to help with some their chores or play with them. I obliged, of course.

And that was when I met her again – really met her – Camilla the flower lady Florist. She was the woman who gave me flowers for Vanessa, and was the one who helped me with the old queen's funeral arrangements. I barely remember talking with her, and without Vanessa to snap at her, I decided to have a conversation with her. Couldn't hurt, right?

She smiled at me with her rosy freckled cheeks, and I smiled back. Playing with her brilliantly red hair, she introduced herself as Camilla the Florist, as I introduced myself as Lukas of the House of Yung-

 

Lukas!” Hat Kid nearly squealed with joy, then remembered where she was and toned her voice down, “Lukas! The Snatcher's name was Lukas!” She couldn't believe it! She thought his name would be lost to history forever, but here it was, clear as crystal.

She smiled ear-to-ear at the revelation, but as the seconds passed, her smile drooped down into an unsatisfied frown. It seemed a little... anti-climatic. Instead of being the last word of the diary, or hidden away behind some code, his name was casually dropped in the middle of a sentence. Still, a lamely-delivered name drop was better than no name at all.

Though she now had the Snatcher's true name (Lukas was a good name, she thought), the young explorer decided to stay and read the rest of the diary:

 

-as I introduced myself as Lukas of the House of Yung. Just as I had remembered her from earlier, she remembered me, too. What was supposed to be a small chat evolved into a conversation that went on for hours.

She told me how she worked with her father on the barn, and that they sold the flowers they grew on the side for a bit of extra money. Her mother had died when she was very young, which made her decide to stay with her father when she very well could have started her own business. Because of her knowledge on flowers and other plants, she could tell me the true names of any plant she sees, and knows exactly how to take care and nurture it. I didn't know different flowers had different meanings! She had hoped to one day to open her own flower shop when she and her “pa” (her words, not mine) got enough money.

Ordinarily, I would have been bored to tears, trying to hold a conversation for hours. But to my surprise, I hung to every one of Camilla's words! I wanted to know more about her! As for me, I told her about my own family life, growing up as the son of a duke with two older brothers. I told her about my interest in becoming a lawyer when I finish my studies, and maybe even a judge if I get lucky! She, too, seemed very interested in what I had to say.

Our conversation lead to my engagement to Vanessa, and it got... a little awkward , to say the least. Camilla remarked on how she saw my princess queen react last time when we were in time – when she roared at a woman merely glancing at me. I was getting very uncomfortable at the topic at hand (and she seemed to notice my discomfort). I bowed my head, said our goodbyes, and headed straight back to the manor.

I was lucky enough to arrive back home before Vanessa did. Hopefully, she won't suspect a thing. Though I do feel kind of bad about going behind her back, I at least take some pride in only having an innocent conversation, and doing nothing truly nefarious (I hope).

I very much would love to see Camilla again. She smelled so good, like lavender!

 

Hat Kid couldn't help but smile to herself, a warm feeling entering into her heart. The Snatc- Lukas had made a friend! It was nice for him to have had someone he could talk to without incurring Vanessa's wrath. They would have made a great couple, she thought.

And just as quickly as her happy mood came, it went away. That was all in the past, she remembered, and the prince wouldn't have a happy ending... thanks to Vanessa.

One more page , she mentally ordered herself, and that's it. Turning to the last page (it looked like water droplets had stained the pages), the alien child read on:

 

I caught myself thinking about her again. The florist. Camilla . Was it a curse to think about a woman – to fantasize about being with this woman – when you're already engaged to another woman? To a queen, no less? No. I don't think there's anything wrong with just a fantasy. At least... that's what I like to think, anyway.

Once again, Vanessa had to attend to her queenly duties. As soon as she was well away from the manor, I bolted outside, making a beeline towards the town. Towards Camilla. I just had to talk to her again!

She was at her little flower cart, selling her lovely flowers. She smiled as I approached, and we once again talked for hours. She was unmarried – too busy helping her aging father to look for love. She expressed her fears about losing her father – about what would happen to their business when he would pass on. I assured her that things will always get better when the worst happens. She was a resourceful woman, after all.

That was when she asked me about my relationship with Queen Vanessa. At that moment, the dam broke. I poured my heart out about how I loved my princess queen with all my heart, but I hated the way she treated me – like I was nothing but property to her. I told her about Vanessa's temper tantrums and her micromanaging my life. I don't remember how long I went on, but I could feel my throat dry out, and tears running down my face.

Camilla gave me nothing but sympathy to my plight. She tried to touch me, but I recoiled, both because of my heightened emotions, and it would be considered taboo for a prince to fraternize with a commoner in such a manner. And what would Vanessa say?

I returned back to the manor, ashamed in myself. Why was I thinking these things? Why was I thinking about Camilla so much? What would her hands feel like (coarse, but warmer than Vanessa's)? Sometimes... sometimes I wish I could just wish my heart away. At least I wouldn't feel anything.

“Do not get involved with that girl, or she will be the end of you.”

If I had the power to travel back in time, to fix my mistakes, I would take it in a heartbeat!

Maybe some time alone with my studies would do me some good. Anything to get my minds off things. I wonder who my new teacher at law school will be.

 

That was all Hat Kid could take - that was plenty enough for her. Slamming Lukas' diary shut, the little girl propped herself up from under the crib, and prepared to leave the manor.


Walking down the main hallway with the aged diary still clutched firmly in her hands, Hat Kid 's mind ran a million miles a minute. She was just looking for the name of the Snatcher, but found much more than she bargained for: a murder mystery, the queen's obsessive nature over her prince, Lukas' doubts in his relationship to her, and, more importantly, him possibly wanting to court the flower lady. And if the prince possibly wanted to court the flower lady, were Vanessa's fears about him seeing other women vindicated?

She knew the prince's story would end badly, but what of Camilla? Where did her story end after being indirectly responsible for Vanessa's start of darkness? Did she even know? No doubt she was dead at this point, but did her end come peacefully? Was she another victim of the witch's rampage, or did she meet her end at Vanessa's cold hands... personally? The girl shivered at the thought. Still, she had her “BFF's” true name, and that was alright with her!

So distracted in her thoughts, the girl didn't even notice the iced-over cat statue (which seem to have been moved again) she was about to bump into. By the time she realized her incoming error, it was too late.

CRASH!!

“PECK!” she cried out, nearly tripping on the statue. Losing her balance, she fell over besides the cat statue, throwing the diary in the air, which crashed into the ceiling. The book exploded outwards, scattering the pages all over the place. Her cyan eyes widened as her heart sank, watching every piece of paper flutter around like butterflies in the wind.

No!" she shrieked, panic setting in fast. “No no nonononono!” Stumbling about as she rushed up from the floor, she vainly attempted to grab the pages in her little hands, but they were all over the place. It would take forever to retrieve all the pages, and she didn't have forever to take! Things couldn't get much worse for her, she thought.

And that's when things got much worse.

Hello, little one.~ ” The voice of Queen Vanessa rang out from every direction within the manor. “ Have you come to visit poor Queen Vanessa, or have you come to steal from me again?~” Her voice dripped with honey and venom.

It only took a split second for Hat Kid to realize in terror what she had just done, and what it meant for her:

I'm so dead, she thought to herself in grim panic.

Chapter Text

In her relatively short life, Hat Kid has made mistakes. Many mistakes, in fact. Some were minor and easy to laugh at. They'd make for entertaining stories to tell her friends. Others were major with devastating consequences, leaving a permanent stain on her heart and in her nightmares At best, she could learn something from those mistakes.

But destroying the Snatcher's (aka “Lukas ”) personal diary after bumping into an iced-over victim? It had to rank somewhere in her Top 10 biggest mistakes ever made.

Waking up Queen Vanessa right after destroying said diary? An easy Top 5.

There the girl stood, the toppled Lazy Paw Gang cat statue by her side, and surrounded by pages and pages of her “BFF's” diary (now scattered on the floor of the manor). The cold air of the manor bit at her flesh, biting into her soul, but the chill of the dismal place was the least of her troubles.

The queen was on her way down, and Hat Kid was in full panic mode.

“Oh peck!” She was hyperventilating, heart pounding through her chest. “What do I do?!”

It was supposed to be a relatively simple task of finding the Snatcher's true name. It would have been easy, but even the best laid plans die at contact with the enemy (or inanimate objects, it seems). Now her failure lay scattered all over the carpeted floor of the manor's main hallway. There was no way she could grab all the pages before Vanessa made her appearance. Already, she could hear the witch's footsteps growing louder and louder.

Thomp! Thomp!

The young explorer gripped the rim of her top hat for comfort, shaking like a leaf. That's when it hit her.

“Of course!” She snapped her fingers, a beaming smile crossing her face. “I can use the Time Stop Hat to gather up all the pages! Genius!”

It made perfect sense, in her mind. With the time hat, she could potentially slow the approaching queen down enough, giving herself enough time to carefully pick up the papers. Although she didn't know how far the effects of slowing down time extended (whether just the immediate area, the whole of the manor, or, potentially, the whole planet!), it was worth a try.

Gripping her top hat tighter now, Hat Kid focused her mind on the Time Stop Hat, willing her hat to transform...

... but nothing happened.

“The heck?” she perplexed, eyeing her head-wear with confusion. Again, she focused her mind on the time hat, but her hat remained the same.

Thomp! Thomp!

Again, panic was setting in. “Why isn't my hat changing?!”

She wasn't under any of the Snatcher's contracts (as far as she knew). He didn't forbid her from using her hats' powers. In fact, he merely requested that she not use her hat powers on Vanessa, not that she couldn't use them at all. Was her hat somehow abiding by the specter's request? Did the witch herself have some influence in preventing her from changing her hats? Was she too terrified to use her powers properly? It didn't stop her before.

Whatever the case, her hat, at the moment, will not be of any use to her, and the queen was closing in on her.

Thomp! Thomp!

Hat Kid eyed the end of the hallway. Any moment now, the shadowy woman will walk through the door and come barreling down towards her. Part of her wanted to run (even if her legs were feeling like jelly), but looking down at the scattered pages of her “BFF's” diary, she paused. She couldn't just leave his personal memoirs on the floor like that. What would Vanessa do if she found them? Nothing good, the girl surmised.

It was either gather the pages in her hands and risk being frozen by the witch, or to leave the pages behind for the queen to find and probably destroy. The alien child looked between the scattered pages and the iced-over cat statue, furrowing her eyebrows.

Thomp! Thomp!

She had to risk it.

Getting down on her wobbly knees, Hat Kid started to pick up the fallen pieces of paper off the carpeted floor. Some of the pages looked really old and torn, forcing her to gingerly and slowly collect them in her tiny, freezing hands. Even then, some of them started to rip and tear at the slightest touch, causing the girl to curse under her breath. She inwardly scolded herself for further destroying Lukas' diary.

At this rate, the girl thought, she'll never be able to collect the pages before Vanessa shows herself. She only had a couple pages in her hands, and there were dozens still on the floor.

Click!

A gasp escaped Hat Kid's mouth, as her head snapped towards the end of the hallway. Cyan eyes wide and ears perked, she strained her senses for any kind of movement or noise – the hallway was as still and quiet as the grave. Only the howling wind from outside could be heard. The door at the very end slowly creaked open.

“Run,” she squeaked.

The brunette bolted towards the door to the study, throwing the pages she had collected in the air. At that moment, she didn't care if the pages were ripping any further; she was not going to be frozen by that witch! Fumbling with the door knob in a frantic panic, she swung the door open and slammed it shut behind her. Adrenaline pumping through her veins, the little girl's body went numb as she slumped against the wooden frame, panting furiously. Her heart was racing a thousand beats a minute in her ears.

After a minute of trying to steady her frazzled nerves, Hat Kid forced down a nervous lump in her throat, and carefully pulled the door open. She only let it open by a sliver, just enough for her to spy throw the crack without being seen on the other side. All she could see was the toppled Lazy Paw Gang cat statue and the scattered papers on the floor. The air grew colder.

STOMP! STOMP!

The young explorer nearly jumped at the booming sound of the woman's footsteps inching down the hallway. She slapped her hand over her mouth, too frightened to make any kind of noise that may attract unwanted attention.

And she waited... and waited... and waited.

The tension was slowly killing her from the inside; it'd be almost a relief to see the mad queen show herself and end the anticipation. She almost wanted the witch to show herself. At least then, she wouldn't have to wait around!

She immediately regretted that thought, as a familiar wall of shadow filled the hall, a pair of glowing, blood-red eyes of hate piercing from within the darkness. And at that moment, from the pressure building up behind her eyeballs, and the low droning ringing in her ears, did Hat Kid knew...

Queen Vanessa was here.

The alien child was shaking, both from the terror and the cold the woman exuded. Part of her wanted to run, but either out of sheer willpower or her legs had turned to jelly, she stayed put. She thought she was ready; she thought she could handle running into Vanessa again, but she was wrong. If anything, seeing the wretched woman again, shambling through her manor, was even more terrifying than the first time she went in blind. The Snatcher didn't twist her arm into coming back – she did this to herself!

Still, Hat Kid kept a trained eye on Vanessa, as the shadowy woman dragged herself across the carpeted floor of her manor. She paused by the iced-over cat statue on the floor, giving the girl a full view of what she'd be doing. She looked at the cat with an odd look in her shining eyes, as her head cocked to the side. It almost looked like she was considering what to do next. The queen, slowly and meticulously, extended her unnaturally long arms and spindly talons out, grabbing the statue by the head, and propped it back upright.

At least she hasn't noticed me yet, the girl mentally sighed.

What is this?~” Vanessa cocked her head further to the side, staring at the cat statue. “I don't remember...~” She fell silent as she examined the statue. Something had lodged itself on the victim. Prying the object from the cat with the tips of her claws, the queen held the object in her fingers. Hat Kid gasped.

It was the deteriorating cover of Lukas' diary! The witch knows about its existence now! What was she planning on? It didn't look like she too gave much care to the cover, though; her poor handling of it made it look like it was going to fall apart in her crude, blackened hands at any moment. Just the destruction of the cover would tear at Hat Kid's heart.

Ah!~” Vanessa exclaimed with fiendish delight. “It's his old journal! I never thought I'd ever find it again.~

Again? the little alien pondered to herself. What does that mean?

The queen had finally noticed the pieces of paper that lay haphazardly on the ground, surrounding her. She waved her spindly talons before her in a pattern-like motion, and like magic, the pages shot up from the ground into the crisp air. Hanging still for a brief moment, the pages swiftly and neatly filed back into the ruined leather book cover. The (partially) completed book snapped shut in the witch's hand as the last page flew in.

Hat Kid couldn't believe her eyes. Did Vanessa just use her magic to pick up and place the pages back into their leather binding? It couldn't be real! Though she'd never admit it, she was almost impressed. Part of her wanted to cheer at the magic act, though she remembered who this “magician” was. Now that the diary was complete again, how was she going to grab it out of the witch's hand without being frozen? Maybe if she could use her Time Stop Hat (if she could actually make it work), that could be something, but would Vanessa's own powers eclipse the power to slow down time? Could she negate hat powers?

The witch skimmed through the repaired pages of the diary, using the tips of her talons to read through. Was she actually reading the Snatcher's diary? Hat Kid furrowed her brow, indignant. The nerve of that woman! Prying into her prince's secrets! How dare she?! Sure, she looked through the same diary, but it was an innocent search for his true name. Vanessa most certainly has ill-intention looking through-

I know you are watching, little one.~” the queen cooed with malice, jolting the girl out of her thoughts. “I don't know where you might be hiding, but I know you've had an eye on this book. Thank you for finding this for me.~

Hat Kid looked on, too dumbstruck to think of any thought or response. Was the queen trying to find the book, too? For what purpose? To justify her paranoia? Lukas did write about Camilla and how he wanted to spend more time with her. Would she feel validated by this revelation?

Why would you want to get your hands on this diary of my love's?~” Vanessa's glowing eyes burning brighter with hatred and anger. “You're just like mother: always sticking your nose in places where it doesn't belong! You just couldn't let things be as they were! You just had to get in my way, didn't you?!” She was screaming at this point.

The child had to block her ears, clenching her teeth; the witch's voice was like rusty nails on a chalkboard. Moments passed, and the horrible wail died down, though she could still hear the ringing in her head.

I didn't mean for her to die,~” she blurted, casually, “it was an accident! How would I know our fighting would leave ice everywhere?! It's not my fault the old hag couldn't look where she stepped!~

I knew it! Hat Kid thought to herself with pride. You did murder your mother! Even though she only played one for a brief time on the Conductor's train, she truly felt like a detective – uncovering a real murder and exposing the “myurderer”! Not that it would matter much, though. The Snatcher will have to know this.

What's worse,~” Vanessa ranted on, “she just had to dump her little title of queen onto me, her own daughter!~” The air of the manor grew more and more colder. Hat Kid started to shiver with greater intensity. “How selfish! Couldn't she have known I didn't want to be queen?! I wanted to be my prince's princess~” -the woman stomped her foot down- “forever!~

The girl just stared at the wretched woman through the crack of the door. Looking at this lady as she threw her temper tantrum, it made the girl feel something inside. She wasn't quite sure what it was, though. Anger? No. Remorse? Hardly. Sympathy? Heck no! Perhaps the closest thing she could describe it as...

Pity. She pitied the queen of the manor. She wasn't a queen. She wasn't even a woman. She was a child. A fully grown child who never quite grew up, and always threw fits of rage when things didn't go her way. It was kind of sad, though, that when things didn't go her way, good people died because of her. The girl shook her head.

Vanessa had grown quiet after her little tirade.

Although,~” she noted, placing a talon to her face, “with her gone, I was free to keep my prince for myself. I couldn't let her divide us. I knew that look in her eye... she wanted him for herself! He was MINE! He is MINE!~

Hat Kid frowned deeper. This woman was crazy!

And you wish to steal him, too?~” she accused, seemingly staring at the little brunette. “Is that why you tried to steal this book? To learn his secrets? To seduce him?! Seduce him like that FLOWER WRETCH DID?!~” The witch panted, her breath hanging in the air. An eerie calm fell over her as she gathered herself. She merely raised the diary in the air, almost above her head. “I won't let you.~

What is she planning? Hat Kid wondered, eyeing the book in Vanessa's hand. It didn't take long for an answer to come.

The corner of the diary, where Vanessa was holding onto, began to sparkle. A little at first, then more brightly. The whole book started to shimmer, too. It would have been pretty display had Hat Kid not realized what the queen was doing: she was freezing the Snatcher's diary!

Slowly but surely, ice started to envelop the book, starting from the corners. The horrified child looked on with wide eyes, hands clasped to her mouth. Vanessa was going to freeze her lover's diary out of spite, Hat Kid dreaded. Why couldn't her Time Stop Hat work? For the first time in a long time, she never felt so powerless. Tears stung at the corners of her eyes.

This isn't happening! the girl cried out in her mind. This isn't happening!

The wretched woman continued to hold the book in her hands, until it was fully frozen over. It looked less like a book, and more like a solid block of ice. The brightness of it contrasted to her blackened, spindly talons.

Hat Kid stood in mute horror, having witnessed Lukas' personally memoirs be turned frozen solid. Tears were starting to roll down her whitening face. Too afraid to stop the witch... too afraid to save the prince's belongings... too afraid to do anything. Her heart ran a million miles as Queen Vanessa cocked her head to the side, seemingly grinning at her behind the veil of darkness...

... and her heart stopped dead when Queen Vanessa let go of the diary.

“No...!” the child murmured in horror, watching helplessly as the iced-over diary fell out of the witch's hand. Time seemed to slow down as the book kept falling forever. It fell... fell... fell...

...until it finally reached the floor.

SMASH!!

The moment the frozen tome hit the floor, it shattered into a million pieces, sending ice shards flying in every direction. What was once the “Diary of Lukas”, was now a million pieces. The last remnant of the Snatcher's old life - his dreams, doubts, fears, and desires... all gone. It was now a million pieces...

...and Hat Kid's own heart had just been smashed into a million pieces.

A deathly silence fell over the manor; only the wind outside howled, like it was roaring with triumph for its evil queen.

“NO!” the girl wanted to cry out, but a lump in her throat and hand over her mouth stopped her. Her body went limp, and she fell to the floor with a loud thud. Hot tears were streaming down her face. She tried to think of something, but only came up blank. She tried to feel an emotion – any emotion, but came up with nothing.

All she could feel was emptiness inside. Not the usual kind of emptiness she sometimes gets, or even the exceedingly empty feeling she got when the Snatcher first took her soul. This was worse.

No... she didn't feel empty. She just felt defeated. Defeated utterly, like her soul had been ripped out of her body and crushed in one fell swoop. It felt magnitudes worse than the time she ran away from her fight with Mustache Girl. She had failed. She had failed the Snatcher and herself.

The hungering darkness crept around the lonely explorer, threatening to swallow her whole. She did her best to stifle her crying, hugging herself into her knees. Suddenly, she felt so very small, in a cruel and unforgiving world. She was alone.

So. Very. Alone.

“I wanna go home...” Hat Kid whimpered, her sobbing turning her coat and pants wet, “I wanna go home now! I hate this place! I hate the Mafia! I hate people double-crossing me! I hate the Snatcher being a jerk! I hate Vanessa! I hate the Empress! I hate... I hate...”

She looked up from her spot. Her puffy, bloodshot eyes fixated on her top hat on her head. Oddly, she seemed to be calming down. Just looking at her signature namesake, the tears slowed to a trickle, then finally stopped. Just looking at her trusty hat companion, it reminded her that...

... she didn't fail – not entirely. Though the book was destroyed, the memory of the Snatcher's old life lived on. She still had his old name, Lukas, and when she gets out, she'll tell him about it, Vanessa's mother, Camilla the Florist... everything.

Propping herself back up and wiping the tears away from her smiling face, Hat Kid gripped the brim of her top hat with her little hands, a feeling of reassurance filling her heart up again. The darkness faded.

She wasn't alone. Not anymore.

There was a slight problem, still: how would she be getting out of the manor? She didn't have a Time Piece on her, and it didn't look like she'd be able to leave the same way she came in (especially with Queen Vanessa roaming the halls). That alone was still a cause for concern for her. There had to be another way out, the girl thought. She'd just have to find it, first.

Pressing her face back to the door, the alien explorer spied at Queen Vanessa through the little crack. The witch had just started to leave the cat statue and the pile of ice shards that littered the floor, shambling up the hallway. It looked as though she had lost interest in searching for the girl... for now.

Hat Kid breathed a sigh of relief. Good. This brief period of calm might be enough to start looking for an alternate way out. Maybe just give the woman a few more minutes to leave the area, and then-

“The heck?” she wondered, staring at the iced-over cat statue in confusion. “Did that cat statue always look this way?” She cocked an eyebrow. The last time she laid her eyes on the Lazy Paw Gang cat, it had its arms stretched out, and it was looking up in horror. It looked as though it was in the middle of a struggle as it was being frozen.

Yet now, it was looking right at Hat Kid. Right at her, like it knew she was there.

She shook her head in dismissal. She must have been imagining it, still somewhat reeling from Vanessa destroying the Snatcher's diary. It was probably nothing.

Then the statue dropped its arms down.

Hat Kid let out a quick shriek, recoiling. That was no imagination – she definitely saw it move. But if that statue could move, could the others move, too? What other horrors did the manor hold that she wasn't aware of?

She wouldn't linger on that thought for long, as the cat statue started marching towards her, fast.

“Oh peck!” the young explorer cried out in surprise, falling back on her rear. She tried to scramble away from the incoming ice statue, but her back hit the piano in the middle of the study, blocking her only means of escape. The door swung wide open, the cat statue towering in the frame. It was too late to try and flee, now.

Panic once more setting in, Hat Kid cowered before the imposing ice cat. Would it try and kill her? Freeze her? Would it bring her before Queen Vanessa? She clenched her eyes shut, anticipating the end.

I'm not here to hurt you.

The girl opened her eyes, confused. Did it just... speak? Shifting her gaze back at the Lazy Paw Gang cat statue, it made careful steps towards her, as though it tried its best not to frighten her.

I'm here to help you,” the statue reassured, its voice surprisingly soothing, “so we can both escape this place.

The girl just stared the cat sculpture for what seemed like a life time. Not only can this thing move and talk, but it also wants to escape this place? “Who... what are you?”

The statue didn't respond. Instead, it began to twist and turn its limbs and body parts in painful (and impossible) angles. What was assumed to be hard ice bent inwards as if it were made of clay or rubber. Hat Kid's eyes widened as the colors churned from an icy blue exterior to deep browns with pockets of bright, vivid lights in the mix. The whole transformation lasted for only a few seconds, but from how painful and grotesque it looked, it almost seemed like it went on much longer. The girl couldn't help but cringe at the transformation.

Finally, the creature stood in its true form. The alien child eyed the unusual being towering over her as it swayed from side to side. It looked a bit like one of the Snatcher's minions with its hood, but it was predominately brown with splotches of bright (and gaudy) colors covering portions of it. Some of its clothing look like it was crudely stitched together. Its “face” was a black void with numerous eyes staring out from the abyss.

Hat Kid looked slack-jawed at the creature, unsure what to make of it; it looked like a creature that would fit right in the Subcon Forest (assuming her “BFF” didn't try to force it into a contract). The longer she stared at it, the more her eyes started to hurt (mostly due to the gaudy colors patch to its clothing).

“You're a shapeshifter?” the girl inquired.

Yes.” The being nodded. “But I wasn't always like this. Like your friend, I was once human, too.

“You know of Lu...” -she paused, unsure if it was wise to give out her “BFF's” true name to some stranger- “... the Snatcher?”

I knew the Snatcher long before he became the Snatcher... when he was Prince Lukas.

Hat Kid's eyes widened. The creature did know about Snatcher and his old identity! But how was that possible? As far as she was concerned, only she and possibly Queen Vanessa would know about the Snatcher's true name. Yet this shapeshifter knew about it, too. Part of her was overjoyed to meeting someone who shared some knowledge on the ghostly specter, yet part of her was suspicious about this creature. Again, how would it know?

“Who are you?” she asked, folding her arms in.

I was a friend of Lukas,” the being answered, “a good friend. In fact, I was one of the few people he trusted with his life when he started doubting his queen.” It leaned forward, narrowing its multitudes of eyes at the girl. “But you knew that already, didn't you?

Hat Kid reacted to the question, surprised. “I do?”

As if to answer her question, the being bent into itself, twisting and kneading its body around like a lump of clay. The little girl couldn't help but cringe at the sight of the transformation. Its colors changing from a deep browns to a peach color. Spirals of its body shot out, slowly forming into pairs of arms and legs. A head formed at the top. Other little details like hair and eyes emerged from the being.

When it completed its transformation, the being towered over the girl, its form more recognizable as a human. It wore what looked like a blue dress and a brown work vest over it (though part of the dress and peach skin still looked like it was patched together with colors). It had its red hair tied into a long braid, and its freckled face look at the girl with hazel-green eyes. It held a flower behind its ear.

Hat Kid gasped, holding her hands to her mouth. She recognized it... her.

“You're... you're...” she stammered on her words.

“That's right,” the woman spoke, smiling. “They sometimes call me the flower lady, but you probably know me best as Camilla the Florist.”

Chapter Text

Perhaps this was more than what she was expecting, Hat Kid thought, or bargained for. What was supposed to be a mission to finding the true name of the Snatcher (aka “Lukas”) led her to uncovering an unsolved (and centuries old) murder, discovering that the prince had doubts with his relationship to Queen Vanessa (as well as him possibly having feelings for the flower lady), and witnessing the queen destroying the prince's diary. All of those would have been crazy enough on their own, but to discover that the flower lady, Camilla, was still alive in a new form? That had to have been the highlight in the girl's ventures in the Subcon Forest, if not her entire time on this little planet.

Though her body remained still - back pressed up against the broken piano on the floor, her mind raced; it was flooding with questions she never thought possible. Though some were answered, many more took their places. She couldn't hold these unanswered questions forever; she was filling to the brim with curiosity. She had to ask the shape-shifting woman before her – she just had to!

The girl opened her mouth to rapid-fire her questions, but the florist cut her off:

“You probably have a bunch of questions,” Camilla remarked, offering her hand to the down child, “but they're going to have to wait, sweetheart. That witch is still close by, and I don't want either of us to be frozen by her.”

Hat Kid accepted the woman's hand, propping her back on her feet. Her hands were pleasantly warm and surprisingly soft, much to her delight. “Could you answer one question, at least?”

The florist furrowed her brow at the girl, then averted her gaze to the side. From the way she scratched her mismatch-colored arm, it looked as though she was debating with herself whether or not to let the girl ask her question, despite the danger still lurking in the shadows. Finally, after a quick moment of hesitation, she nodded.

“How did you...?” Hat Kid stopped herself, trying to word her question to not offend her new friend. “How did you survive?”

“It's... complicated,” Camilla sighed, laying her hazel-green eyes back on the girl. “I escaped being frozen when Vanessa plunged the kingdom, but I ended up becoming” -she motioned towards herself, covered in splotches of gaudy colors- “this.”

“How?”

“I can't quite remember.” The woman averted her gaze again. “It's been a long time. I remember a pit... and looking up to the Moon from that pit, but that's all.”

Hat Kid nodded slowly, taking in what little information was given to her by the florist. The woman had escaped being turned into a ice statue, but ended up becoming a shape-shifting creature, anyway. What was this pit she spoke of? How did she know the Snatcher was really Prince Lukas? Did she know she was kind of responsible for everything that transpired? The girl hoped not; she had already been through so much, already. No need to add more to it.

“We have to move,” Camilla suddenly instructed, her body twisting and churning back to her new default body. “There's no telling if that witch is still around.” Tip-toeing towards the door to the hallway, she inched it open with her body, spying through the crack for the queen. She turned her hooded head towards the child, motioning towards herself, indicating that the coast was clear. “I just saw her step into the game room. Let's go.” The shapeshifter slipped past the door.

“You can't stay as your normal self?” Hat Kid inquired, staying close by to the multi-eyed woman, and adjusting her purple top hat.

“No,” she answered curtly, creeping up the dismal hall, “I can't. It takes a lot of energy to assume and keep any other form other than this one.” She motioned towards herself with her swaying head.

“But the ice statue. How-?”

“If I don't move, I don't spend as much energy.”

Hat Kid nodded at the explanation. Makes sense, she thought. She did see what looked like a shapeshifter the first time she broke into Vanessa's manor. Was that the florist?

Inching closer towards the game room, Camilla suddenly veered towards the kitchen door, pushing the door open with her body again. After what looked to be a cursory glance inside, she stepped away and returned to walking towards the game room. The girl couldn't help but raise a curious eyebrow. If Queen Vanessa was seen walking into the game room, she thought, why was the flower lady spying in the kitchen? Was she looking for something else?

“Why are you here, by the way?” Hat Kid questioned. “Did the Snatcher make you sign a contract to do his work?”

The woman didn't answer immediately, instead using her body to push the game room door away and seeing if Vanessa was in the room. She motioned to follow her, indicating that, again, the queen was not in the room at present. “I was,” she answered, “yes, but that was years ago, sweetheart. I don't think he even remembers making that contract with me. I don't think he even remembers who I am” -she paused, deep in reflection- “or who I was.”

“But you remember him, don't you?” The girl pointed. “You knew that he was the prince, right?”

“We spoke before.” Camilla gazed off in the distance, a look of longing in her multitude of eyes. “He did tell me he was a lawyer, and that he was looking forward to making his contracts.”

“And you recognized him?”

The woman nodded. “He has a way of... speaking, and his mannerisms are quite unique to him. It's hard to forget a man like him.” She smiled... or at least Hat kid assumed she was smiling.

Coming face-to-face with the door leading upstairs (and no doubt leading to Vanessa), Hat Kid paused, gently tugging on the stitched fabric of Camilla's hood. “What are you looking for, anyway?” she inquired. “Something he wanted to steal from Vanessa?” Her voice dropped low, mouse-like. “His diary?”

The shapeshifter shook her head, pressing the door to the 2nd floor open with her body. “I'm looking for my father.” Immediately, she started ascending the dark flight of stairs.

Hat Kid stood in place, staring at the base of the stairs. So lost in thought of having to once again potentially face-off against the witch of the manor (as well as mourning the loss of Lukas' journal), she barely processed the words of the florist for a brief moment. How would she tell the Snatcher that she lost his diary, and that she met with his old friend (who played a part in his imprisonment and death)? The creaking of the wooden stairs snapped her back to reality.

“Your father?” she parroted, carefully climbing the stairs to catch-up. “Your 'pa'?”

Camilla nodded. “When the prince was alive, he told me he pulled some strings to get some people to work for him in the manor - friends of his, I think.” She paused, glancing back at the girl behind her. “He also gave my 'pa' a job.”

“What of the barn?” the girl pointed out. “What happened-?”

“His job was temporary – grounds-keeping. He only had to work a few times a week. He still kept the barn, but the other job offered a lot of money.” The woman paused, melancholy written in her multiple eyes. “The prince wanted to help me start my own business.”

From the words she was hearing, Hat Kid had a horrible gut feeling forming in her body; her stomach was twisting itself into knots. If Camilla's father was working for the Royal Family at the manor, he'd have to make frequent visits to tend to his duties. She remembered seeing various other unfortunate victims of the queen's rage, forever frozen in mute horror as ice statues. Most of them seemed like regular people - humans, and not like the current “denizens” of the Subcon Forest.

Could Camilla's father be one of the victims of Queen Vanessa? It seemed obvious, but part of her really didn't want it to be so (no matter how likely the outcome).

“Camilla... Cammy,” Hat Kid hesitated, “you managed to escape being frozen, but...” -she twiddled her fingers-“where was your father at the time?”

Upon reaching the top of the stairs, the florist stopped – still as stone, unnervingly so. She was either spying if Vanessa was roaming the hall, or the question had somehow struck a sensitive nerve of hers. The young explorer prayed for the former.

Though Hat Kid stopped just behind the woman, the silence between them stretched for miles. A sense of dread surrounded the child, only worsening the longer the lady kept quiet. Her silence felt eerie. Finally, Camilla turned her head towards the little girl, her multiple eyes flashing different emotions in each: anger, sorrow, determination, desperation, and many others she couldn't quite comprehend.

“I have to find him,” Camilla finally answered. “I must!” Before any argument could be had, she bolted towards the bedroom door, slamming it shut behind her.

Hat Kid jumped at her friend's sudden change in mood, nearly causing herself to lose balance and fall down the flight of stairs. She knew the woman really wanted to find her "pa", but rushing headfirst into a room while a murderous witch was roaming the place wouldn't be the best of ideas. What if the shapeshifter ran right into the queen, securing her own death? She shivered; the thought of losing her friend – one of the few people who didn't immediately try to kill her, or demand a Time Piece – frightened her.

She couldn't stand at the top of the stairs all day, whether or not Vanessa was lurking about. Steeling herself, Hat Kid pushed through the door to the bedroom, bracing herself. Vanessa wasn't in the room, nor was Camilla. It only brought minor relief towards her; the two could very well be in the next room over. There was only one way in and out of that room.

The door to the nursery was ajar.

Again, fear and trepidation filled Hat Kid. What was it about doors that were slightly open so scary to her? The florist was most likely on the other side, but what else would she find? She vaguely remembered the placement of victims of Vanessa's the first time she broke in, but since the woman may have been searching around the place while posing as an ice statue, it threw her memory into question. Again, how long was the woman searching for her father in Vanessa's manor? Wouldn't she have found him by now? Did Vanessa (or some wandering girl) always get in her way?

No use debating now, Hat Kid thought. It was now or never. She pushed the open door before her, stepping into the nursery.

Immediately, she came across the shapeshifter, standing in the middle of the room. There was, however, something different about her – off-putting. She didn't sway from side-to-side as she did, and her multitude of eyes were as wide as saucers as she stared ahead. Following the florist's gaze, Hat Kid laid her eyes on an ice statue of a heavily bearded old man, wearing nothing but his underwear. His hands were brought together around his throat, as if he was in the middle of being choked to death as he froze. She did remember seeing this man when she first did the Snatcher's dirty work. Why was he half naked? What was he doing in the nursery in the first place? Hiding? Was he put there by Vanessa?

It didn't take long for her to realize the horrible truth: he was “pa”, Camilla the Florist's father.

The woman stepped towards the man, each step seeming heavier than the last. Hat Kid stood off to the side, her heart aching. Though she could hardly see it from the angle, it looked as though that the woman was... crying – crying from her multiple eyes. Seeing the woman remain silent as she wept only made the girl's own heart ache even further. Tears had even started to form on the edges of her eyes. She removed her top hat out of respect.

Finally, the florist stood before her dead father. It was the worst kind of reunion Hat Kid could have imagined. What was worst in her mind, though? To know that a loved one was dead or transformed into some creature, or to vainly hold out hope that they were alive, only to be crushed by the truth? Tears trickled down the alien child's face. It reminded her about her own family – her own parents, and what a fool she was for leaving them behind. Oh, how she longed to see their faces again.

“Father...” Camilla murmured, her voice cracking, “...'pa'.” She fell to her knees in a hard thud.

Hat Kid, left uncertain on what to do with a mourning woman, approached her, placing a hand on her hood, trying to show some form of sympathy for her loss. The hood twitched at her touch.

“I.... I...” the girl stammered between sniffles. She tried to speak out, but a lump had formed in her throat.

“No...” The woman was shaking her head in her lap, seemingly unaware of Hat Kid's presence. “No no no!” Tears were streaming from her multiple eyes. Her hood was twisting and twitching even more so, and her gaudy colors began to shift and change.

Suddenly, without warning, Camilla thrust her head in the air, letting out a shrill and heartbreaking scream. Hat Kid, taken aback by the woman's cry, fell on her back, trying to block the horrid sound with her hands. The wail sounded like multiple people and creatures crying at the same time. It was the most horrid and heart-wrenching sound she ever heard; centuries of pain and misery culminating in a deafening screech. It felt like a thousand needles piercing her ears and heart. She'd rather hear Vanessa's wicked laughter instead of this.

Accompanying the scream, Camilla's body shifted and churned with frantic madness, taking on multiple half-forms in split seconds. It was the most horrific and nightmare-inducing visual Hat Kid ever laid eyes on, worse than that one time she was stabbed and saw her own blood. Any chance for any peaceful sleep was gone.

The whole thing lasted for only a couple of seconds, but for the two of them, it may as well have lasted hours. The screaming stop, replaced with a wailing cry from Camilla, as she assumed her human form again. Tears flowed from her eyes, pooling beneath her sobbing and shaking form.

Hat Kid picked herself back up, putting her hat back on her head. Just when she thought she had seen the worst of it, she laid her eyes on the weeping florist, and her heart began to break even further. Part of her wanted to wrap her arms around the woman to comfort her and cry together, but she knew she couldn't do that.

Queen Vanessa was still around, and she most certainly have heard that scream.

“Camilla,” she urged, wiping the tears from her face, “we have to get out of here.” The woman didn't respond, her sobs dying down to quiet whimpers. Frowning deeper, she extended her hand towards her. “Vanessa's gonna be here any moment now. We have to-”

GET AWAY FROM ME!!” Camilla suddenly shrieked, slapping the girl's hand away with her patched arm. She snarled at the girl, her eyes puffy and bloodshot with fresh tears. Hat Kid recoiled at the frightening sight, new tears trickling down her face.

Silence fell upon the two, like neither knew what to do. The young explorer stood shivering at the woman before her, while Camilla breathed heavily, gaining some composure.

Finally, a look of horror and shame crossed the florist's face, seemingly realizing what she had just done. Before either could say a word, the woman rose to her feet and bolted out of the nursery, slamming the door behind her.

Now it was twice that Hat Kid felt powerless in a day. There goes a friend, she thought grimly. If the florist didn't end up getting killed, she'd probably still be angry at her. Though, she hardly blamed her; being a monstrous shapeshifter for the rest of her life, and then find out that her father was killed by Vanessa? She had every right to mourn and be a little angry.

She'd have to worry about that, later. Right now, she still had to find a way out of the manor, and not get frozen over by the witch.

Laying one last look on “pa”, Hat Kid left the nursery, entering back into the bedroom. Camilla was nowhere in the room, meaning she had to have been in the hallway. Stepping towards the door to the hallway, the young explorer reached towards the doorknob.

The doorknob began to twist on its own.

“Oh peck!” she squeaked, stepping away from the door in a panic. She couldn't know which of the two women was about to enter the room, though knowing her luck, it was probably the murderous one. Thinking quick, the girl dove under the bed, crawling under as far in as she could. Shifting her body to watch the door, she waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Slowly, the hallway door opened, and a rush of cold air entered.

Hat Kid held her quivering breath, watching as a pair of blackened feet stepped into the room, pacing back and forth. Dark smoke spilled onto the carpet floor, threatening to smother her. Pressure began to build behind her eyes, and the low ringing droned in her ears. The pair of dark feet continued to pace around the bed, circling it, like a vulture circling its meal. Her heartbeat quickened. Did the woman know the girl was under her bed?

The pacing finally stopped, the feet placed between the frightened explorer and the door out to the hallway.

I know you're under my bed, little one,~” Queen Vanessa cooed singsong-like, her spindly talons suddenly gripping the edge her the bed frame. “Come out and play.~” Hat Kid gasped out loud, shrinking into herself. Her vision darkened, and the low ringing in her ear turned into a loud droning. Ice crept across the underside from the witch's fingertips, inching towards the girl.

Terror again gripped at Hat Kid's heart, her teary eyes focusing on the creeping ice spreading its way towards her. Would it freeze her if it touched her? No doubt Vanessa was trying to force her out to catch her. Tears flowed down her whitening face. She didn't want to be added to the collection! She wanted out of here! She wanted Snatcher! She wanted the Conductor and DJ Grooves! She wanted Cooking Cat! She wanted Rumbi! She wanted Bow! She wanted mommy and daddy! She wanted to go home, now! Please!

BOOM!

The entire manor shook at the sound, lasting only a second. Hat Kid let out a sharp gasp from her mouth. The ice creeping towards her stopped in its tracks, as Vanessa had taken her hand off the frame. It seemed she felt the shaking, too. Keeping her eyes wide open, the girl spied the witch turning towards the hallway door and stepping out. It looked like the woman was going to investigate the source of the disturbance. She breathed a sigh of relief.

Giving herself a chance to calm herself (as well as give the witch a tiny head start), the young explorer crawled out from under the bed, running towards the door. Peering out from the crack of the door, she spied the shadowy lady going up the stairs towards the attic. That must have been where the noise came from, she thought. Entering into the hallway, she made her way towards the attic door, being careful to prepare if the witch decided to head back down again.

With the coast clear, Hat Kid climbed the stairs towards the attic, not caring if the wood under her was moaning or creaking; she couldn't afford to wait around, anymore.

What was that sound? she wondered. Did Camilla hear it, too?

Finally reaching the attic, the girl stopped just the shy of the top of the stairs, cold air surrounding her. Queen Vanessa was on the other side of the room, staring at the source of the loud noise:

A giant hole had been blasted in the manor's attic.

Freezing air and snow was rushing in the room, threatening to blow out the blue flames that licked the edges of the hole. The winds would have sapped the strength and will of anyone caught by its unforgiving cold, but for Hat Kid, she only smiled; hope twinkling in her eyes like stars.

That's gonna be my way out! She thought with triumph.

Chapter Text

Hat Kid stood still at the top of the stairs to the attic, eyeing the huge hole that took out a huge chunk out of the opposite wall. Blue flames flickered at its edges, threatening to blow out from the freezing air blowing into the manor. The girl shivered in her spot, but not from the intense cold filtering in.

She shivered with excitement – that hole was going to be her ticket out of this mansion!

Brief thoughts on how the hole was made entered her mind; did Camilla make the hole? The woman didn't look like she had any other powers other than shapeshifting at her disposal. Was the Snatcher responsible? His signature blue flames did line the circumference of the blast area, so it was likely his doing; however, he hated this place just as much as she did – if not, more so. He wouldn't be caught dead (or more dead? Undead? Living?) being near this place! Regardless, the young explorer finally had a way out of this manor. She mentally scolded herself for not preparing for an escape route when she first broke in; she was too hasty in her mission to finding her “BFF's” true name. It was an incredible stroke of luck for an escape route present itself to her.

The only problem, however, was that only one thing stood – quite literally – between Hat Kid and freedom: Queen Vanessa. The shadowed form of the witch stood before the blast hole, seemingly inspecting the damage done to her home. She seemed more curious about the oddity before her than angry. A quiet hum escaped the woman's twisted mouth as she continued her investigation.

Now would be a good time to search for Camilla, the girl thought. The woman was still somewhere in the manor, hiding, and coming to terms with the death of her father. It will take much coaxing to get her out of wherever she was hiding from, Hat Kid knew, but once the two are out, it'll all be worth it!

As Hat Kid turned to head back downstairs, something caught the corner of her eye. Laying her gaze back upon the attic area, the wretched witch had her spindly hand raised up in front of her towards the hole. The blue flames had died out, and ice was slowly building up around the damaged area. The girl gasped, not taking her long to realize what was happening:

Queen Vanessa was closing the hole!

The girl's heart raced. If the queen was allowed to close the hole with her ice magic, there would be no escape. She didn't bring any Time Pieces or other forms of instant transportation, and it didn't look like there were any other forms of escape, either. The icy barrier was slowly being formed, but it wouldn't be long before it would block the way to freedom. It also didn't look like she'd be able to break through once it formed.

Hat Kid debated: would she try and find the florist before Vanessa closed the escape route for good, or would she try and save herself, ensuring her own safety? The child had only just met Camilla and learned so much from her! She didn't want to leave the woman to the witch's mercy; she wouldn't be able to live with herself if she purposely left the flower lady to her fate. At the same time, however, she also didn't want to die at the hands of the witch, herself, especially now that she had learned of the Snatcher's true name. What was she to do? Risk her only means of freedom to find the florist again, or doom said florist to save herself?

Looking back at the hole to the attic, the ice barrier was now forming at an accelerated rate. If she waited too long, the barrier would be complete.

With a heavy heart, Hat Kid made her decision.

Summoning every ounce of courage she could muster (and trying to push down the guilt), the girl bolted towards the hole. The plan would be simple, in her mind: she'd run past the queen, too quick for the woman to try and catch her, and she'll jump through the hole. The plan seemed simple, but to put it in practice?

The attic wasn't very big, and the hole rested at the opposite side to the stairs, but for Hat Kid, the floor might as well have stretched for miles. Things didn't help with Queen Vanessa still in her spot in front of the hole, using her dark magic to close it. If only she could use the power of her hats. The pressure behind her eyes and ringing in her ears didn't help much, either. Worse, the thought of leaving poor Camilla behind ate away at the girl, weighing her down. She forced the feelings down inside herself – she could deal with the guilt once she escaped.

Only a few feet away, Hat Kid noted, and she'd be free! She could practically taste the cold air of the blizzard outside the manor on her tongue – it was almost refreshing. All she had to do now was to run past the witch. She hoped she was quick enough to brush past the woman before she could even react.

Something black swiped in front of the girl at blinding speeds. Before she knew it, something impossibly cold had wrapped itself around her throat, and found herself hoisted off the ground.

Queen Vanessa had caught her.

Where do you think you're going, little one?~” the queen cooed her question, bringing the alien child to her shadowy face. “You weren't thinking of leaving here, were you?~” Hat Kid didn't respond, too gripped in terror to say anything (not that she could, anyway, with how tight the witch had her grip around the girl's neck). She kicked and flailed uselessly against the witch's freezing talons, only tiring herself out. Her vision blackened, only seeing the blood-red eyes of Vanessa's, and the ringing in her ear was now a screeching droning.

No! the girl screamed in her thoughts, though drowned out by the loud droning in her head. It can't end like this! Please! Already, she could feel ice starting to spread out from the dark lady's fingertips, starting with her neck. In just a few seconds, she'll be added to the queen's forsaken collection of victims.

Through the freezing tears in her eyes, Hat Kid gazed upon the hole in the attic wall. It wasn't closing anymore, but it wouldn't matter now. She was so close! It was right there! Why couldn't she use her hats when it counted?

Don't fight it, my dear,~” Vanessa cooed once more, hardly containing the malice behind her sweet words. “It'll all be over soon.~

Whether it was the ice or Vanessa's hands tightening around her neck, Hat Kid barely heard the words she was hearing. Her mind was fogging, and she was losing the last bit of strength she had left. There was no point in fighting it, she knew, as her flailing became more and more sluggish, until she let herself become limp in the woman's hand.

All she could hear now was Queen Vanessa's cruel and wicked laugh. At least the end will come quick, won't it?

 

“Get away from her, you witch!”

THWACK!

Before she could even register what was going on, Hat Kid found herself on the attic floor. She could now breathe, though it was very rough and labored. Massaging her neck, she could feel ice still clinging to it, though she didn't feel Vanessa's cruel grip around them, anymore.

She was free, but how? She was as good as dead, she thought.

Allowing her vision to return to her, she observed the queen stumbling about, her talons massaging her face. And standing in front of the queen, wearing her patched-up blue dress and red hair in a braid, stood Camilla the Florist, her hands brought in front of her into fists! Her hazel-green eyes burned with anger and determination.

Attempting to pick herself back up, the Hat Kid smiled weakly at the flower lady. She had come to save her, even after the woman yelled at her after finding her father had been frozen. Her heart ached even further – she was going to leave Camilla behind to save herself. What kind of friend was she, anyway?

Vanessa regained her composure, laying her glowing red eyes upon the new intruder who decked her across the face. “YOU!~” Her words dripped with hateful recognition, pointing an accusing finger at the florist. “You're the one who turned my prince against me!~

“You turned the prince against yourself, Vanessa!” Camilla spat at the queen, bringing her fists closer to her face. “You're not hurting anyone else today, or ever again!” She reared back her fist, preparing to throw another punch. She was, however, quickly subdued when the queen shot out her unnatural long arms, wrapping her talons around her neck. Both florist and alien child reacted with shock at the turn of events.

I'll be placing you in the cellar,~” the witch sneered malevolently, tightening her grip around the flower lady's neck, “right next to my prince. It'll be a lesson for the both of you to conspire against me!~

Hat Kid panicked, watching as the same ice that nearly enveloped her starting to slowly envelop the florist, herself. Her form twisted and churned at her limbs, like she was attempting to shapeshift into some other form of hers. Nothing worked, as she struggled against the cruel tyrant's grip. Vanessa seemed to have forgotten about the girl she was freezing before.

“Camilla...” the girl murmured, reaching out towards her friend.

“Don't worry about me, sweetheart!” Camilla assured with a tense smile. “Save yourself!” Hat Kid nodded, and rushed towards the hole, ready to escape the manor and the horrors within.

But she stopped herself, standing before the hole.

“No.” She turned to face both women. “I'm not leaving you behind!” Hardly a minute ago, she was ready to leave the florist behind to save her own skin, but seeing the woman risking her own life to save her, the thought of trying to leave again made her feel guilty inside. She had to save Camilla – she had to! But how? She couldn't rush in to stop Vanessa from freezing the florist, she'd just end up in her icy grips again.

The only way to save her now, Hat Kid thought, was to use her hat power, but it wouldn't transform when she called upon it, earlier. Why would it help her now? The low groaning of Camilla caught the girl's attention; more ice was enveloping her now, threatening to kill her once and for all.

Hat Kid furrowed her brow, closing her eyes. She wasn't going to let the florist die! Gripping the brim of her top hat, she thought on a hat – any hat – to help her in her time of need. Nothing was happening. Don't give up, she thought. Camilla was counting on her! Her forehead was sweating at this point, hard in concentration. Transform, hat! Transform!

Pop!

Hat Kid opened her eyes, astonished. Feeling the brim of her new hat, she instantly recognized the shape and feel of her new head-wear: the Brewing Hat. A vial of concoction materialized in her hands, beginning to smoke. She smiled, instantly knowing what to do.

“Hey, Vanessa!” she called out, instantly grabbing the queen's attention. “Catch!” With one last shake of her vial, the girl threw her weapon straight at the witch's face.

The glass vial exploded into shards and smoke, filling the queen's face. Stumbling backwards, the wretched woman let out a shrill and agonized scream, forcing the girl to cover her ears from the nightmarish wail. She loosened her grip on Camilla's throat to swat away the smoke from her face, causing the florist to fall to the ground with a dull thud. Vanessa was now distracted, Hat Kid knew, but it won't be long before she regains her composure. Now was the time to act!

Running past the screaming queen, Hat Kid grabbed onto Camilla's trembling hand, pulling the dazed woman back to her feet. The two scrambled their way towards the hole, which was now just big enough for a person to squeeze through (with some effort).

“Go!” the girl ordered the flower lady. “I'll be right behind you!” The woman didn't even hesitate, transforming back into her multi-eyed default form, and leaping through the hole without a second thought. Hat Kid smiled – at least Camilla got out. Now it was her turn-

YOU LITTLE-~” Queen Vanessa roared, blindly swiping in the explorer's direction. The girl ducked under the witch's claws, clutching her hat tight and turning it back to her signature top hat. It looked like the queen was regaining her senses, and losing her mind. It won't be long before she comes for her again.

It's now or never, Hat Kid thought, sizing up the hole to escape. To freedom. Taking in a deep breath (or what little she could from the ice clinging to her neck), the girl rushed towards the hole, diving hands first, head down, and prayed.

She was met with the frigid cold of the outside of the manor.

It work! She did it! She once again escaped Queen Vanessa and her cursed manor! Now all she had to do was-

Hat Kid crashed onto the manor's tiled roof with a hard thud, knocking the wind out of her. Bouncing up lightly, she rolled across the slanted roof until she fell right off the edge. For a tense moment, the girl was in free fall. She barely could comprehend what was going on. She was free, right? Why did it not feel right?

Thump!

She was met with a soft bed of snow. At least the landing was bearable, Hat Kid groaned inwardly. Pushing her aching body back up, the girl was assaulted by a flurry of snow and wind whipping across her face. No doubt, this blizzard was the doing of Queen Vanessa in her raging state. If the witch couldn't freeze the girl with her bare hands, she could try one last ditch effort with this snow storm to try and kill both her and Cami-

Where was Camilla? The girl whipped her head around, frantically searching the area for any signs of the flower lady. She could barely see anything past her hands in the middle of the snowfall. She cried out for her friend, but the howling winds drowned out her calls. She thought she saw the shapeshifter running into the blizzard, but she couldn't tell. She was freezing to death!

Heading towards where she thought she saw Camilla, Hat Kid trudged her way out of the thick snow under her boots, as more threatened to pile up on her. She had to find her way out of this forsaken place, and away from Queen Vanessa. She thought she heard the roaring scream of the witch, but it could very well have been the howls of the wind blowing against her ear. Regardless, the girl ran...

... and she never looked back.


Shivering, Hat Kid finally reached the Subcon Forest. It felt almost welcoming to find her boots treading against dirt and grass, and the cool wind brushing against her face felt like someone's warm breath on her skin. Despite returning “home”, she couldn't help but feel troubled.

The ice from Queen Vanessa's magic was still clinging to her neck, making it quite hard for her to breathe. Picking at the edges of the affected areas sent sharp pain throughout her body, and it didn't look like she could remove the ice on her own. She'd have to enlist the aid of the Snatcher to help remove the ice around her throat (a prospect she wasn't looking forward to). But the pain in her neck was the least of her concerns...

Camilla had disappeared. She had vanished into thin air. Not even the dwellers or any of the subconites could tell her about the flower lady's fate; for all they knew, Hat Kid was the only one going into and out of the icy domain. Of course, she was a shapeshifter. What's to say she didn't transform into something they couldn't see, or – perhaps – she may have transformed into a dweller or subconite to escape detection?

Why did she run away, Hat Kid pondered. Why didn't she stay to help out during the blizzard? Goodness knows both hated going to the manor with a passion, but the florist wasted no time making her escape – she didn't even help the kid up when she landed in the snow. Will the two ever meet again? The girl hoped so, smiling. It'd be a welcome change to find a friendly person to learn about the history of the Subcon Forest with.

The girl finally spotted the hollowed-out tree of the Snatcher's, and she knew that her quest was nearing its end.

“Snatcher!” Hat Kid cried out, rushing towards the specter's home. She could feel tears welling-up in her eyes. She never thought she'd be so glad to seeing her “BFF” or his home – it was practically her home-away-from-home-away-from-home. She'd have so much to tell the Snatcher: Vanessa's mother's murder, Camilla's fate, and his true name! The anticipation was killing her!

Upon reaching the “door” to the ghost's dwelling, she jumped in the air, stomping in the middle of the room, not caring if he was in the middle of something. “Snatcher, I... I...” She paused at the sight before her.

The Snatcher was asleep, curled up in a little ball on his chair. It looked like he was in the middle of reading, judging by an aged book resting in his lap. Upon closer inspection, however, it looked as though he was shivering. Why was he shivering, though? Was he really at his old manor when that escape hole was made? Did he make that hole? Did he care that much to try and help her out.

Hat Kid smiled softly. She could share her findings once he wakes up. Walking up to her “BFF”, she hopped into the seat, squeezing and nuzzling herself into the Snatcher's spot. He was freezing, she thought. Perhaps if they stayed close together, they could warm each other up. Smiling at the plan, the alien child closed her eyes, drifting into sleep.


“WELCOME BACK TO THE LAND OF THE LIVING, KIDDO!”

Hat Kid's eyes shot open, thrusting her whole body forward. Where was she? What happened? What was that? Taking a quick moment to collect herself, the girl realized she was back in her spaceship and back in her bed. Her top hat had been neatly placed on the drawer next to her. Looking to her side, the ghostly Snatcher floated next to her, a familiar fanged grin crossing his face.

“Land of the living?” she parroted. “Was I dead?”

Not really,” the Snatcher admitted with a shrug. “I just really felt like saying that.” The girl breathed a sigh of relief. It suddenly felt much easier to breathe now. Massaging her throat, she discovered that the ice from Vanessa's magic was gone (though the affected areas still felt tender and sore)!

You're lucky that ice was only surface-level” -he pointed towards the alien child's neck area- “or else the damage would have been permanent.” The girl sighed contently, plopping her head on her pillow. The specter eyed the little girl, expectantly. “Did you find what you were looking for?

“Oh, yes!” Hat Kid shot up from her position. “I've got so much to tell you, Snatcher!”

Well, skip the boring parts.” He waved his hand in a dismissive, brushing motion. “Just tell me what I want to hear.” The girl frowned, averting her gaze away from his own. It didn't seem like her “BFF” really wanted to listen. It was to be expected, she thought. A sigh escaped the phantom's mouth. “Fine. Give me the previews before the feature presentation.

Hat Kid sat back up, beaming. “You know Vanessa's mom, the old queen? Well, she was murdered by her own daughter!”

Tell me something I don't know, kid.

“Well, did you know Vanessa saw her own mother as a rival to your affections?” She folded her arms into themselves, smirking.

The Snatcher frowned, astonished. “Okay, I did not see that one coming. Anything else of note?

“Remember your friend, Camilla the Florist?” the girl quizzed.

You mean the flower lady responsible for getting me put in that cellar?” His voice was uncharacteristically cold. “Yeah, I remember.

“Well...” Hat Kid hesitated, fidgeting with her blankets, “she's alive.”

Is she, now?

The young explorer nodded. “And she's a shapeshifter, now!”

A shapeshifter?!” He threw his head back, laughing uproariously. “You had me worried there for a second, kiddo!

Hat Kid cocked her head to the side, perplexed. “What do you mean?”

That 'Camilla'” -he air-quoted- “you met wasn't actually her, but some random shapeshifter using you to escape the place.

“That can't be right,” the girl denied, shaking her head. “How would you know if she was lying or not?”

Trust me,” the Snatcher insisted, “I've had experiences with shapeshifters. They're pathological liars. They lie so often, they even lie to themselves. They don't even know they're lying, either; they think they're telling the truth.

“But she knew your name!” Hat Kid protested. “She knew your history with her! She hated Vanessa! She cried over her father's death! She saved me from Vanessa!” Tears were welling in her eyes again.

Everyone hates Vanessa,” reminded the specter, “and besides, they'll make any claim to garner sympathy to their cause. I once knew a shapeshifter who tried to claim he was my son. We had a good laugh, the two of us, right before I took his soul away. I never did have children.” A low, joyless chuckle escaped his glowing mouth. “I suspect they can even read minds as well.

The girl sank into her spot, feeling defeated. Was the shapeshifter really a fraud, after all? The Snatcher's argument seemed sound, and he had a wealth of experience dealing with supernatural beings. Tears flowed down her face.

“You're wrong,” she sniffled, pounding her fists into her bed. “I know it was Camilla. I just know it!”

The Snatcher made a motion, as though to roll his eyes. “Fine. Believe whatever you wanna believe, kiddo.” He leaned towards the kid, expectantly. “Anything else, now?

Hat Kid wiped away her tears from her face. “Your name... your true name, Snatcher, was Lukas.”

The specter backed away, eyes widening. From the looks of things, it almost seemed like he was struck by a ton of bricks from the revelation. His body sank into the floor, his vision seemingly staring past the metal of the spaceship into the void of space around them. What was going through his mind, Hat Kid wondered. Finally, he spoke:

Lukas, huh? Nice.

Hat Kid stared at the ghost, dumbfounded and in disbelief. “Nice? Just nice? That's all you have to say?”

What do you want from me, kiddo?” the Snatcher inquired, growing irate. “You want some reaction out of me? You want me to cry my eyes out, weep tears of joy? You want me to be thankful towards you for going on a suicide run for a piece of trivia and who-knows what else?!” His mane flared up, and his glowing eyes flashing red for a brief moment.

“Trivia?!” the girl gasped, wide-eyed and offended. “Is your old life so trivial to you?! I risked my life to find your true name – I could have been frozen by that old lady, and you're gonna just stand there and act like it was a waste of time?!” She was panting furiously, staring at the phantom who stared back at her. Her lowered her head away, averting her gaze. “I just thought you'd appreciate having your old name again. I thought you'd be happy to connect to your past life.” She buried her face into her hands, crying.

Why does he have to be a jerk all the time? Hat Kid wondered to herself, tears filling her eyes. Why did I even go to that manor in the first place? She felt a small nudge on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw the Snatcher looking at her, a look of remorse across his shadowy face.

I do appreciate what you've done for me,” the specter assured her, a look of concern crossing his face. “Really, I do, but it's hard to feel anything about the past when all that can be remembered are the bad things.” He smiled mischievously. “If it'll make you feel any better, I suspected my name was going to be 'Vincent'.

“Vincent?” Hat Kid murmured, confused.

I know you probably read how Vanessa was super controlling, what with her cutting my hair when I was asleep, or just doing things I didn't want being done to me?” He leaned forward, winking at the alien child. “Well, she tried to change my name, too.”

“She tried to change your name?!”

Yep!” he beamed, almost proudly. “She wanted us to have matching names: Vincent & Vanessa. Being queen, she had the legal power to make it so, too. I managed to change her mind, though; it'd be a lot of paperwork for her to do.” A snicker escaped the girl's mouth finding her “BFF's” story very amusing. “Besides, Lukas is much nicer, I think.

The little girl smiled. Maybe the ghost was thankful, after all! He was always a “soon-deh-ray”, she thought (she only vaguely knew what that word meant). It'll be very nice to refer to her “BFF” by his true name, and not always as “Snatcher” or “BFF”. As though he read her mind, the ghost leaned forward, an ominous look crossed his face.

Just one thing, kid: NEVER reveal my name to anyone else, ” he ordered. “ Got it?

Hat Kid stared at him, perplexed. “What? Why not?”

I got a reputation to maintain, kiddo, ” the ghost pointed out. “ It's bad enough people know about our 'friendship', but I'll be ruined once they find out my real name! People fear 'The Snatcher: ruler of the Subcon Forest'. They're not gonna fear 'Lukas: ruler of the Subcon Forest'.

“You don't always have to rule through fear, Snatcher. There can be times when you can be nice.”

Easy for you to say, kid! ” He sighed, rubbing the back of his head, fluffing his mane. “ Regardless, please don't share my name around, got it?

“You gonna make me sign a contract for that?” the girl shot back, playfully sticking her tongue out.

Ha! ” the Snatcher let out a sarcastic chuckle from his glowing mouth. “ I've learned long ago that contracts don't work with you, kiddo. No, I got something else in mind. ” He pressed his face forward, almost touching Hat Kid's own. “ What's your name?

“My name?”

Yes, your name. Give me your name, so I can use it as a hostage so you can't go spreading my name around to just anyone. It'll totally be embarrassing for you if people found out you're not actually 'Hat Kid', huh?

“I'd gladly give my own name out,” Hat Kid offered, but looked away in thought, “but the thing is... you really wouldn't be able to pronounce it.”

Nonsense! ” the Snatcher dismissed. “ You're not worming your way out of this one, kiddo! Spill the beans!

“I'm serious!” the girl insisted. “I'm an alien to this world, remember? I don't have the same biology as the humans of this planet.”

How so?” The specter folded his arms in his chest, not convinced.

“The people here have only one set of vocal chords. My species has two sets of vocal chords.” She rubbed her fingers against her tender throat. “You need both of them to speak my language, or say my name.”

Is that so? ” the Snatcher challenged. “ Demonstrate, then.

Hat Kid nodded, obliging. It wasn't something she did very often, only with close friends and family, but for the first time, she'd share her language with an outsider. He was a close friend, after all. Bulging her throat out, the girl began to speak her native language. She spoke of her name, her family, the name of her planet, and the name of her species. To the Snatcher, however, she sounded completely alien (appropriate). She sounded like if a tree frog and a songbird had a love child, and that love child tried to speak like a person (and was doing a poor job at it). Needless to say, from the horrified look on his face, the sound of her natural language must have disturbed him.

Okay then, ” he concluded, tired. “ Forget I asked anything.

“It sounds much nicer than that!” Hat Kid insisted, blushing. “My throat is still sore from Vanessa nearly choking me to death.”

If you insist. ” The specter grimaced. “ Well, get some rest, kiddo. You've earned it.

The girl smiled, ready to catch some sleep, but before she could, a thought ran across her mind. “Wait! There's something I wanted to know.”

The Snatcher sighed. “What is it now, kiddo?

“When I was in Vanessa's manor,” Hat Kid explained, “I wasn't able to use my hat powers, even though you didn't forbid me from using them. You just requested I not use them. Why is that?”

The ghost didn't say anything. Sighing with resignation, he brought his face towards the girl again. “This also doesn't leave the room. Got it? ” The girl nodded, almost scared. “ The reason why you couldn't use your hats in the manor wasn't because of me or any of my contracts, but because of her .

“Vanessa can cancel my hat powers?” the girl inquired. “Then why did you-?”

Again, ” the Snatcher reminded, “ I have a reputation to maintain. In my forest, I control everything, but my powers are far more limited in her domain. I can't let anyone know just how much control she exhorts. They'll fear her instead of me .

“That'll be good to know if I ever have to go back there again,” Hat Kid concluded, her eyelids suddenly growing very heavy now. “All that searching has got me beat.” She laid her head back on her pillow.

The specter smiled at the tired girl. “You get some rest now, kiddo. I'm gonna go do some... contracts... stuff... whatever.” He prepared to dive through the bedroom floor towards his home, but the girl grabbed onto the tip of his tail before he could make his move.

“Thank you,” Hat Kid murmured, mouse-like, “for the escape, Prince Lukas.” She closed her eyes, ready to drift into sleep.

The Snatcher looked back at the girl, a knowing smile crossing his fang face. “No problem, kiddo.

“And you can call me 'Hatty' if you'd like,” she added, keeping her eyes closed. “That's the closest your language can come to calling me by my own name.”

Kiddo will do.” Before she could argue further, the phantom phased his way through her bedroom floor. Smiling to herself, she allowed her tired body to give to the peaceful dark, as her mind drifted into sleep.


What a day, the Snatcher thought to himself as he lounged in his chair. He could scarcely believe how it would have turned out; he just assumed the Hat Kid would have either died, or turn up empty-handed. It was a pleasant surprise that she returned (relatively) unharmed, but with his name, too!

Lukas, ” he recited to himself, nodding, “ Lukas... Lukas. Not bad.

Sighing contently, the specter reached down to continue reading from his old law book (it was on its last legs, so he had to make the most of what little time it had left). As his talons collected the tome, he noticed something strange resting on top of it... something out of place:

A single, white flower, resting against the aged law book.

The Snatcher could feel a thousand eyes bearing on him from every direction, from all the creatures and unnamed horrors that lurked in the shadows of the Subcon Forest. It was a feeling he was quite accustomed to (and quite liked), being both feared and respected by all those who dwell or venture in his home.

Somehow, though, he could feel one more set of eyes laying upon him from the shadows of his forest home.

Chapter Text

The whole of the Owl Express rumbled as the locomotive traveled down the train tracks laid before it, the sound of metal grinding together an ever-present melody that accompanied the ride. Steam and smoke bellowed out of the train's lone smokestack, as the steel machine raced down the lonely stretch of desert that spanned for miles around. For any other person, the running and operating of such a vehicle would have proven quite the difficult task, especially when only sand could be seen in such a desolate place.

But for the Conductor – the owner and operator of the Owl Express, it was paradise for him.

The yellow bird sat comfortably at the controls of his train, smiling as he pushed buttons, twisted knobs, and pulled levers to ensure the trip down the lonely tracks was a smooth one. The lights on the control panel flashed brilliantly, indicating that everything was running at top efficiency. This made the old owl(?) smile even wider. Aside from making his action-packed, thriller movies, operating his baby train was his favorite thing to do in the whole world. No movie sets to stress him out; no nervous express owls messing things up; no moon penguins getting in his face; no DJ Grooves. Honestly, if his focus wasn't so intent on keeping his locomotive from derailing, he could very well take a quick nap. He could let the whole world go by him without a care.

The sounds of squawking broke his concentration, as the Conductor leaned out of his seat to peer behind him. The sounds of chirping were just coming from his grandchildren, playing together in the middle of the area, having a good time. The mere sight of his grandchildren being happy warmed the old bird's heart, with their different hats on their heads, clean diapers, and rubber knives in their little hands. It reminded him of his own youth, living the simple life as a little bird in a big desert; life was much less stressful, back then. Hopefully, they won't go through as much hardship as he did.

On the side of the area, away from the little fledglings, sat the Hat Kid in a seat of her own, wearing her signature purple top hat on her head. Besides her, in another seat, sat the girl's brown-skinned friend, the Bow Kid (or just “Bow”, as she was sometimes called), for the blue ribbon in her hair. Picnic baskets and coolers full of food rested at their feet.

“Ye excited fer this picnic, wee ones?” the Conductor called out to his grandchildren. He was greeted by the loud chirping noises from them. He nodded with satisfaction. “Ye two lassies doin' alright, back there?”

“We're doing fine, Conductor!” the Hat Kid confirmed with a thumbs-up, smiling.

The Conductor nodded. “That's good ta hear.”

“This is supposed to be a picnic, right?” inquired the Bow Kid, kicking her feet over the edge of her seat, back-and-forth.

“Aye, lass.”

“Then why does it feel more like a kidnapping?”

She was, of course, referring to the blindfolds that were wrapped around her head, covering her eyes. A blindfold was wrapped around the Hat Kid's head, too. The Conductor made them wear the blindfolds the moment they stepped onto the Owl Express. Neither of the two alien girls could see anything except blackness, while the sounds of the train rolling down the tracks boomed in their ears. To any outside observer, it would indeed look like a kidnapping was taking place, even though the girls' hands were not bound together.

The Conductor scoffed. “Because I want this ta be a surprise for ye two, and I don't trust ye ta not peek before the big reveal.” He sounded like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“What's there to reveal, though?” Bow Kid questioned, her cocked eyebrow hanging over her blindfold.

“Just sit back and enjoy the ride, lass! Yer gonna like the surprise, I promise ye.”

“If you say so, Mr. Conductor.” Though the old bird could not see the little brown girl's eyes, he could almost feel like she was rolling them in his direction. He chose to ignore her smart-mouthing him.

It was a few weeks ago when the Hat Kid returned to this little planet, and though he would never admit it out loud, the Conductor was overjoyed to have her back. Sure... she did somewhat meddle with the Annual Bird Movie Awards and give DJ Grooves the win, but with everything else that happened between them, he didn't really care. He was just happy to have the little hatted lass back. It was fortuitous to run into her during his ill-fated cruise trip with his grandchildren (a welcome and needed change of pace, after his rival tried to change history... and whatever that mustached girl did to the planet).

The girl even brought a new friend with her, the Bow Kid. Judging by the brown girl's initial body posture, frown on her face, and worried look in her violet eyes (as well as hiding herself behind her hatted friend), she didn't exactly warm herself to the old bird. The Hat Kid excused her behavior as merely being shy around new people; she's much warmer and more affectionate towards people she cares about and trusts. Part of him accepted this explanation; even with the hatted girl's help, he was still kind of a jerk (or a “peck neck”, as he liked to say).

Though part of him knew the Bow Kid was probably a DJ Groove fan, anyway.

HHHWWWOOOOSH!!

The Owl Express' whistle blew, signalling the group's destination was within sight. Though for the girls, the loud whistling forced them to block their ears, wincing.

“We're just about there, lassies!” the Conductor called out, cranking a lever by his side. “Next stop: train station! Hold on tight!”

Before either of the girls could even react, a sudden jolt of the train putting on the brakes sent the two flying out of their seats, crashing into the ground with a loud thud. They didn't even get a chance to recover (or realize what was going on), as the sudden screech of the wheels skidding across the tracks forced the two to once again block their ears.

Perhaps the blindfolds weren't the smartest of ideas, the old owl(?) pondered to himself, wincing at the sight of the alien kids on the ground. The fledglings didn't even seem to notice the sudden jolt, though; they were too busy in their play and rough-and-tumble. They were used to riding in their grandfather's train, after all.

The Owl Express continued to screech along the train tracks for several minutes, its wheels sending sparks out as they rubbed against metal. The locomotive slowly skidded towards the train station, until finally, it stopped, parked neatly in front of its destination. The Conductor slumped in his operator's seat, a hearty and satisfied sigh escaping his pointy face, followed by a content chuckle. His baby train never fails him, even after all these years. What he'd do without his prized machine, he thought.

Straightening himself up, the old owl(?) rose from his seat, and marched towards the door outside. The fledgling grandchildren were already bouncing giddily with excitement at the door, fully knowing where they were. The aged bird smiled, as he gripped the door handle and swung it open; the chicks rushed out towards the outside – some nearly flying out, too. He couldn't help but feel proud of his little ones; they were growing up so fast. He could almost cry.

Turning his attention away, the Conductor marched towards the two young girls, now on the floor of the train – the brown girl laying on top of her friend. They almost looked like they were tossed around in a laundry cleaner, judging by how torn-up and dazed they looked from being ejected from their seats.

Blindfolds were definitely a bad idea, the yellow bird mused, stepping carefully towards the girls. “Ye lassies alright?”

“Never better,” groaned the Hat Kid, giving a halfhearted thumbs-up before slumping back down.

“Can we take these blindfolds off, please?” the Bow Kid asked, bringing her hands together in a pleading motion.

“I'll tell ye when ta take those off,” the Conductor instructed, grabbing hold of the two girls' hands and propping them back on their feet in a single motion. “It'll be worth it in the end. Trust me!” He grinned nervously at the two. The two looked in his direction, and when it seemed like they were nodding (or shaking off their dizziness), he took it as their confirmation.

Grabbing the picnic baskets off of the floor (which, miraculously, didn't spill their contents during the trip), the old bird handed them to the two alien girls to hold onto. With the baskets in firm hands, he grabbed hold of the girls' free hands. He'd have to lead them out of the train and onto the station platform outside. Starting with the Bow Kid, he led her out the door of the train – one step at a time, careful not to let her trip and fall on her face. She was the sensitive one, prone to crying (according to the Hat Kid, at least), so he’d have to be extra careful to keep her steady.

When the brown girl made her safe landing on the platform, the Conductor next led his top-hatted friend out of the train. Even with the blindfold on, the Hat Kid seemed to know where to place her feet, needing little help from the old owl(?) to guide her. Finally, both kids were safely on the train station platform.

“Alright, lassies,” the Conductor instructed, stepping back into the train, “ye can take yer blindfolds off, now!”


As soon as she heard the Conductor tell her to remove her blindfold, Hat Kid eagerly ripped the piece of cloth off, overjoyed to not being blinded. As soon as she did though, she was blinded by the light of the Sun; her eyes had gotten used to the dark. Bow Kid must have had a similar experience, judging by how she groaned after removing her blindfold, as well. Taking a moment for her eyes to adjust again, the girl set her sights forward, and immediately gasped.

Past the train station platform, the ocean of sandy desert had been replaced by a wide meadow of greenery – stretching as far as she could see. Trees and hills lined the borders of the grassy area, flowers of all types blooming from the fertile ground. A soft wind blew through her brunette hair, as the Sun gently bathed her skin with a welcoming warmth. She had never seen so much green in her life; even on her home planet, no such expanse of green existed. She was left speechless, cyan eyes wide as plates. This had to have been the most beautiful land in the entire world – heck, the entire galaxy. She turned to face her brown friend, a similar look of wonder behind her violet eyes. It seemed almost too good to be true, like it was a fantasy, but it had to be true!

The mountainous Alpine Skylines could be seen far off to the horizon, and even the edges of the Subcon Forest could be seen in the distance. Perhaps she could pay a visit and introduce Bow to her spectre friend. A small hill sat a distance away from the station platform, and a lonely tree sat at the top. The Conductor's grandchildren could be seen playing at the base of the hill.

“Told ye it'd be worth it, didn't I?” a beaming old owl(?) inquired smugly, walking in from behind with the coolers in hand.

“Conductor...” Hat Kid gasped with amazement, “this place is beautiful! I didn't think such a place existed!”

“Well” -the Conductor shrugged- “it's me own little getaway secret. It's where I like ta go whenever I'm feeling stressed or if I don't feel like dealing with DJ Grooves.” The aged bird faced towards his grandchildren by the hill, a happy sigh escaping his pointy mouth. “The wee ones really like this place, too.”

“Is that why you made us wear those blindfolds, Mr. Conductor?” quizzed Bow Kid. “To keep this place secret?”

“A little.”

“If I knew a place like this,” the top-hatted girl remarked, “I'd probably keep it secret, too.”

“Glad I'm not the only one.” The yellow bird cleared his throat, walking past the alien kids. “Let's go have this picnic, then!” The girls instantly followed close by, the baskets still in their hands.

Stepping off the platform, Hat Kid landed on a particularly tall patch of grass, reaching up to her chest. With the basket in hand, it made traversing through the tall grass a bit of a challenge, but she'd been through stickier situations, and this was nothing. Would there be an encounter with a wild animal, though? Bow Kid seemed to have just as much difficulty navigating the tall grass (particularly with her exposed legs), while the Conductor cut through like it was nothing. This was his secret area, after all.

The trio waded through the tall plants, finally reaching into the clearing. Even with her boots on, the brunette could feel that the grass under her feet was surprisingly soft. Part of her just wanted to kick her boots off, and walk around on her bare feet, the soft grass between her toes. She decided against it, though; getting her boots back on would be a challenge (and she didn't like it when pebbles got trapped within).

The small hill came closer to view – it was surprisingly bigger than she first thought, looking like a light jog would be needed to reach the top for someone her size. The Conductor's grandchildren could be seen playing at the base of the mound. The lonely tree that sat at the top of the hill was in full bloom – pink and white flowers grew from the tips of every branch. They'd soon be replaced by green leaves, though, and those green leaves would fall when Autumn arrives. It'd be best to appreciate the little things now before they go away, a pensive Hat Kid thought to herself.

“Alright,” the Conductor announced, setting his coolers down at the foot of the hill, “we'll be setting up here.”

Both Hat Kid and Bow Kid set their baskets down, quickly taking out and setting down the picnic requirements. They laid down the picnic cloth, placed the plates and eating utensils, while the old owl(?) took several handmade sandwiches out of the coolers, along with an assortment of different juice boxes and other food items. From all the items the trio had in front of them, it seemed like the Conductor was preparing for this picnic for quite awhile. As soon as the three sat themselves down, the little chicks immediately flocked to their grandfather's side, chirping excitedly at all the food he was bringing out. Without missing a beat, the aged bird took out several bottles of baby mixture from the coolers, stuffing them into the fledglings' awaiting beaks. The baby birds eagerly suckled on the bottles.

Bow Kid giggled at the adorable sight. “Those baby birds are so cute!”

“The wee ones haven't quite learned ta eat solid food, yet,” the Conductor remarked, handing the last of the bottles to his grandchildren. As quickly as they began drinking their baby bird mixture, the chicks were done with their food, dropping their bottles to the ground. They quickly ran off to play in the field again, leaving the trio to their picnic. The old bird sighed. “But they'll learn soon enough.” Turning his attention back to the alien girls before him, a smile crept back on his pointy face. “Now then. I got some bologna sandwiches, tomato sandwiches, egg sandwiches, pickles, cookie-”

“I'll have that bologna sandwich and an orange juice!” interjected Hat Kid. “And maybe some cookies, too.”

“Same thing,” Bow Kid added, “but a tomato sandwich for me, please.”

The Conductor nodded, handing over the requested food items to the two young explorers. “I hope this picnic food is good enough for yer tastes, lassies.”

A quick chortle escaped Hat Kid's mouth at the old bird's word choice. “Excuse me? Could you repeat that? This what food?”

The owl(?) gave her an odd look. “Picnic.”

“Again?”

Picnic.”

“Could you repeat that, please?” Bow Kid asked with a smile, apparently catching on to what her friend was up to. “I didn't catch that. Maybe say it slowly.”

Pic-n... oh...!” It finally dawned on him. “Picnic kinda sounds like 'peck neck', doesn't it?” The girls burst out laughing at his sudden realization. He couldn't help but chuckle as well. “That's a good one, lassies! Maybe I could get DJ Grooves into saying it out loud.” The girls' laughter increased at the thought of such a funny idea. DJ Grooves being tricked into saying the “P-word”, even if he doesn't say it? Classic! After a minute, the kids' laughter tapered off into content sighs, catching their breath.

The trio began their picnic, eating in silence – the sounds of food being chewed on, as well as the gentle breeze of the wind, being the only things to be heard. The occasional moaning from either girls' throats signified that they were greatly enjoying their sandwiches. The Conductor himself was chewing on his own sandwich, filled with an assortment of different ingredients the girls weren't sure about. His eating was interspersed with the occasional swig out of a suspicious-looking bottle from one of his coolers. Neither kids said anything on the matter.


The bright Sun slowly began its slow descent; noon hour had passed, and the trio had just done their lunch. Several plates full of crumbs and half-eaten sandwiches littered the picnic cloth. The girls massaged their tummies, groaning; maybe they ate one too many sandwiches or cookies. Still worth it, though. The Conductor was on his back, basking in the warm sunlight without a care in the world. The fledglings had stopped their playing, napping by their grandfather's side.

“You know, Mr. Conductor...” Bow Kid began, “when Hatty told me about you, I imagined you'd be this loud, rude, and crass bird man.”

The old bird pulled himself up in the seating position. “Well, ye wouldn't be that far off, now.”

“But meeting you today, you're actually quite nice.” The brown girl paused for a moment, her violet eyes averted in deep reflection. “Much nicer than I thought you would be.”

“Ye can thank little miss movie star over here.” The Conductor motioned towards Hat Kid, who nodded in acknowledgement. “Before she showed up, I was all the things you thought I'd be and worse. I was a piece of work.” He sighed, turning towards his grandchildren for a moment. “Did ye know I once took me wife to this very spot for our first date?”

“Really?” the hat-wearing girl asked with surprise.

“Yeah! This was years before I started me movie career.” The yellow bird sighed happily to himself, reflecting on that old, happy memory of his. “She was quite the beauty, and I was quite the charmer.”

“Where is she now?”

The Conductor suddenly grew quiet, a frown forming on his face. The girls' own smiles faded at the sudden shift in tone. Whatever happened between him and his wife, Hat Kid thought, it seemed like it was an unhappy memory. Any moment, he could fly into a fury, berating his wife for leaving him, or double-crossing him in some horrendous way. Or he could start crying his eyes out, sobbing how she had died, or had left him. The brunette wasn't sure what he'd do next.

Instead, he simply sighed, setting his gaze upon the lonely tree up on the hill. “It's... complicated, lassie. Maybe one day, ye'll under-”

“TELL DWAGON STOWY!”

The trio jumped with surprise at the sudden shouting of one of the fledglings. All of a sudden, the other chicks joined in the shouting, demanding the telling of a “dwagon stowy”, in their words.

“'Dwagon stowy'?” a perplexed Hat Kid inquired.

The Conductor laughed sheepishly. “Oh yeah! They want ta hear the 'Dragon Story'!”

“Dragon story?” Bow Kid parroted. “What's it about?”

“Well, gather 'round, wee ones!” The aged bird motioned for his grandchildren and the interested girls to huddle together, readying for a storytime. “This is the tale of the Dragon Story:

Before there was life on this planet, there was only chaos. Fire. Water. Wind. Earth. The primordial forces of Nature ruled over the world, battling each other for supremacy over each other. Their fights were long and legendary, stretching for hundreds of millions of years, but none had the clear advantage over the others. Their fighting shaped the land, carving the ground into mountains, flooding the canyons with water, and creating the world as we now know it. When their fighting was over, only their creative devastation remained. Their old rule paved the way for new life ta emerge. Eventually, they came: the dragons!

The dragons were awesomely powerful creatures; scales as hard as metal, claws like spears, and teeth like daggers. They ruled over the land, commanding the very primordial forces that once ruled before them; they could shape the earth beneath them to their whim, fly in the air unhindered, and their fire...! The fire they breathe was death to their foes. The dragons were the masters of their domain, but there was one dragon who ruled over all. He was named 'The Conqueror'!

“'The Conqueror'?” Hat Kid interrupted. “Why did they call him that?”

“I'm getting ta that part!” the Conductor shot back.

The brunette girl looked away sheepishly. “Sorry... sorry.”

“It's alright, lass. Where was I? Oh yeah!

The dragons in the old world were many and powerful, but this one dragon, The Conqueror, was a legend among legends. He was the most powerful of all the dragons, being able ta command the elements like they were meant ta be his servants – his playthings. His strength easily outmatched a hundred dragons, his fire could burn entire forests into deserts, and he could split both the skies and the ground asunder with a single flap of his mighty wings.

And he was a thing of beauty! The giant dragon was covered from head ta tail in lustrous golden scales and feathers, and when the Sun shined down on him, the other dragons and creatures saw a radiant god before them. They just had to ask him ta be their king – their god. And he accepted without hesitation. There were some-

“Golden scales and feathers?” Bow Kid interjected. “Radiant god? Why does it seem like you’re describing yourself, Mr. Conductor?”

“Will ye let me finish?!” the owl(?) snapped at the brown girl. He quickly regained his composure when he saw the girl recoil at his yelling, looking a little ashamed in herself. “Heh... sorry. Didn’t mean ta yell at ye, lassie. Ye alright?” She nodded. “Good! Anyway...

There were some dragons who coveted the king’s position. If they could defeat him in combat and claim his throne, they would be praised by all of dragon-kin. Many, many rival dragons challenged him for the right of leadership, and all had fallen before his might. He fought so many, they were hardly a challenge for him, anymore. Thus, he was crowned ‘The Conqueror’.

One day, though, a new challenger arose to fight The Conqueror; a dragon who lived in the seas. He called himself ‘The Leviathan’ - a whale of a creature, and he challenged the king of dragons for the right to rule. The Conqueror accepted, and their battle commenced. Like the elements of old, the battle between Conqueror and Leviathan was a thing of epic tales, tearing the land apart, displacing the oceans, birthing volcanoes, and splitting the skies. Their battle raged on for generations, though it was obvious the Conqueror had the upper-hand.

But one day, during their fight, the Conqueror had to catch his breath, growing tired from his legendary battle. The Leviathan, though not as strong as his opponent, was twice as crafty, and he seized this moment of weakness. He struck down the king before he could have a chance to recover.

The fledgling grandchildren booed and jeered at the part of the Conqueror’s defeat. The two alien girls traded quick glances at each other. It seemed like they were starting to sense a pattern in this story. Regardless, they joined in the booing and jeering.

“Yes, yes. Boo...” the Conductor lamented halfheartedly, “but don’t ye worry! It gets better!

The battle was over: the Conqueror was defeated, and the Leviathan was victorious. The dragon king was furious at his loss – humiliated! He should have won! Him! Rising up back on his feet, the golden dragon grabbed the tail of the celebrating sea monster. Before anyone could even react, the Conqueror swung the Leviathan around himself, creating twisters and hurricanes. With one last mighty swing, he hurled the sea beast to the Moon! The Leviathan had remained their to his dying days.

The Conqueror had retrieved his victory, but the other dragons, seeing his tantrum at his loss at the sea beast, no longer saw him as their king or god. He was just another dragon, like the rest of them, and they parted for lands unknown. So, the Conqueror, losing the respect he once had, retired ta his den ta lick his wounds, deep in the mountains. He was still king of the dragons, but it wouldn’t last for long.

One fateful day, a bright object fell from the sky, crashing into the earth and creating a cataclysmic upheaval that wiped out the dragons. The object poisoned the land, sea, and air, making it inhospitable for the mightiest of beasts. Ta this day, the sight of the object’s fall forever tainted the land, filling the area with tragedy and spiritual energy. Some believe the land would eventually become the Subcon Forest. Even the king of dragons, the Conqueror, fell prey to the ravages of the object’s wrath. And with his fall, the reign of the dragons was over.

But with the dragons’ fall, new life arose. The land had been tamed, and new creatures took the places once used by dragons. Even the Conqueror had offspring to carry his legacy, and they would live on to keep his memory alive. Generations and generations of children passed down the story of the dragons to their children, just as I pass this story onto you.

The End.

The chicks erupted into a chorus of cheers and chirps, clapping with excitement at the conclusion of their grandfather’s story. Both Hat Kid and Bow Kid merely traded perplexed glances at each other.

“That was... something,” commented Bow Kid.

“Wasn’t it?” the Conductor remarked with pride. “It’s one of me favorite stories of my youth. I heard it hundreds of times from my own grandfeather, and it never got old!”

“Are you saying you’re part dragon, Conductor?” Hat Kid asked, stroking her chin.

“Aye! Though it’s probably diluted over the generations; I can’t breath fire, ye know.” He only got skeptical looks from the girls. The old bird gasped. “Ye don’t believe me, do ye? It was passed down to me by my own grandfather, and he had it passed down by his grandfather... or was it grandmother?” He looked away, trying to remember the finer details. “Either way, the story was passed down through generations of me family line. We’re part dragon, ye know!”

“No offence, Mr. Conductor,” Bow Kid commented, scratching the back of her head, “but it kinda seems like this story is one big reference to your rivalry to DJ Grooves, as well as describing how awesome you are. Throwing the Leviathan to the Moon? Moon penguins? It kinda seems obvious-”

She cut herself off when Hat Kid gave her a gentle elbow to the side, motioning towards the old bird. The Conductor’s smile had faded – looking like someone had hurt him badly. It almost looked like he was on the verge of tears.

“I... I’m sorry, Mr. Conductor!” Bow Kid stammered nervously, quickly backtracking on her words. “I didn’t mean to offend you! Your story was good! I liked it!”

“Yer just sayin’ that, peck neck!” the aged owl(?) retorted, crossing his arms.

“No no! Really! It could even be a great movie!”

“Totally!” Hat Kid jumped in. “I think you’d be a great director if you made a movie of the Dragon Story!”

The Conductor sighed. “Truth be told, I had considered making a film adaptation of the story when I first started directing, but when I started winning more and more awards for my train heists and westerns, the dragon story kinda fell to the wayside.”

“Maybe we can help you direct it!” Hat Kid rose to her feet, determination flashing in her eyes. “We can totally do a collab! ‘The Dragon Story: co-directed by the Conductor, and Hat Kid & Bow Kid’!”

A small smirk crept on the yellow bird’s face. “Maybe. One day, maybe.”


Several hours past. The Sun was starting to dip down past the horizon, and the sky had changed from bright blues to oranges and purples. The picnic was over; the sleepy fledglings had to get back home to their parents. With everything put away in their baskets and coolers, the trio made their way back to the train station platform. The babies were already sound asleep inside the Owl Express.

Hat Kid and Bow Kid stepped into the locomotive, while the Conductor stopped just shy of the door. Looking back, he stole one final glance at the lonely hill with the tree on top – perhaps for the last time. He was getting older, and part of him knew he couldn’t keep making the trip to visit the same spot over and over again. Would his grandchildren keep the story – their legacy – alive? Letting a pensive sigh out his pointy mouth, the old owl(?) turned to enter his train, but found his path blocked by the brown girl with the bow in her hair.

“Thank you for the picnic, Mr. Conductor,” she spoke out, fidgeting with her hands. “I’m sorry if I ruffled your feathers.”

“It’s alright, lass,” the Conductor cheerfully responded, playfully messing with her hair. “I know ye didn’t mean no harm.”

“So... no hard feelings?”

“None.”

“Alright.” Bow Kid yawned, getting ready to fall asleep. “I’d like to do this again some other time, Mr. Condu... Mr. Conqueror.” Groggily, she returned to her seat, next to a sleeping Hat Kid.

Me too, lass,” the smiling Conductor murmured, stepping back into his Owl Express. “Me too.”