Since the restoration of the Elder Sigil in the administrative chamber, Hypnos' stomach has been tangled up in knots, and it's really messing with his sleep cycles. His distress is not about the Sigil itself, not exactly, but he has trouble pinpointing what it is about, even to himself. His thoughts swim in circles around each other like fish beneath a murky surface, too slippery to be grasped. And Thanatos said it's okay to make lists if it helps Hypnos think clearly about his work, and this isn't part of his work, but it's okay, so. Hypnos makes a list.
The list starts from the surface in order to reach the bottom. First the facts and then what follows. So here are the facts, as known to Hypnos.
- Zagreus ordered the restoration of the Elder Sigil from the House Contractor.
- Zagreus did this because Mother Nyx asked him to.
- Mother Nyx missed her parent, Chaos.
- Mother Nyx has been estranged from Chaos since the world was young. A loooong time ago!
- Mother Nyx is competent and independent. But still it has taken aeons for Chaos to reach out to her.
- Sometimes, when she is headed to the Sigil, Mother Nyx crosses the main hall rather than shift directly into the administrative chamber, and she has a smile on her face.
- As she crosses the hall she does not look Hypnos' way.
Hypnos considers this next point. Eight. Two circles stacked to make a number. The knots in his stomach persist.
After giving it some thought, he draws an arc over the top of the number to represent a hood, and then he draws bangs and a frowny face, and stick arms growing out of the sides, and legs for the bottom half. And as he's looking at this tiny, eight-shaped Thanatos, he realizes the seven just above him looks a bit like a scythe already, so Hypnos makes some alterations to it and turns it into a weapon with a big scary eye on the blade. Delighted, he giggles.
"There, that's better!" He folds the parchment back over his fingers, the better to look at the bottom half where his drawings are, and feels a little lighter as he does. "Lists really do help after all!"
Mother Nyx drifts into the hall.
She stops before the giant desk and speaks to the Lord Hades. Her voice is soothing, melodic, with a lulling cadence that washes over Hypnos and stirs in him an old memory. He remembers riding in Charon's boat as an infant god—back when Mother Nyx still held him to her bosom when he wished to be held—and leaning out from her embrace to peer into the River Styx, past the crimson surface to the shadows glimpsed beneath. He remembers thinking, how deep does it go?
The boat in his memory rocks back and forth and in the present Hypnos too rocks back and forth. Darkness creeps into the edges of his vision, and his eyelids feel heavy, and droop, and fall closed.
He sinks into the dream thinking, Mother Nyx will be disappointed. He is supposed to be working. But this is Hypnos' work too, and it is not his fault that he must do it. When the Night comes, it is time for Sleep. That is just the way things are.
And because he is the God of Dreams, he decides what happens in his.
The dream bleeds out of reality, as all the best ones do. It starts with Mother Nyx still speaking to Lord Hades. Her beautiful voice says things difficult to hear. Then, she turns around, smiling, and looks at Hypnos.
I am headed to visit your grandparent, my child, she says. Your company would be most welcome, should you wish to come along.
And Hypnos does wish that very much. A happy coincidence! He claps his hands together and smiles. Oh wow! Really? That sounds great to me!
So they go.
At this point the dream gets tricky. There is some effort involved in recreating a place you've never seen before. But though this may be a journey into the unknown, dreams are Hypnos' domain, and he knows the details don't matter all that much as long as it feels right. Hypnos hovers in the void expanse of his dreamscape like a quill poised over blank parchment. Ready to draw something out of nothing.
Quickly he decides that the Realm of Chaos should be fluid and unmoored, ever-changing, a little island adrift in a sea of darkness. The island travels. Little oars emerge from its shores like insect legs that push it in all existing directions all at once, and along the way, pomegranate trees grow out of the inky black waves to feed the earth when the earth tires of swimming. On the island there are three plush recliners dyed in viscous rainbow colors that slide and shift across the spectrum when observed. One for Chaos, one for Mother Nyx and one for Hypnos. It's important to have a place to lie down and look attentively up at the stars above, for, any moment now—
A many-headed fish leaps out of the void!
It arcs overhead, trailing pearly white light in its wake, like a comet's tail, and under Hypnos' watchful eye it strains its body into a new shape to fly farther, to reach the other shore, but the distance fluctuates beneath—
"You can make it!" Hypnos calls, and the dream listens and the island shrinks, and the many heads become one, long and sharp to maximize velocity, and the fish arcs down towards the sea—
Out of the waves a tree sprouts, and the swordpoint-nosed fish impales itself onto a pomegranate. Red juice splatters all over Hypnos' face. Some of it on his mouth. It tastes sweet as nectar, which is wrong, but delicious. He licks his lips as he weighs this development.
An alien laugh ripples through the dream. Hypnos feels a shiver run down his spine and wrap around the knot in the pit of his stomach, nursing his distress like a baby in a cradle.
"Maybe the spontaneous trees were a little too much," he muses, and waves a hand to dismiss them; but fleshy alien fingers close like jellyfish tendrils around his wrist and restrain the gesture.
I enjoy the trees, Son of Nyx, says a voice that sounds like a thousand folded into one. They can stay.
"Chaos? Grandparent Chaos? Is that you?" Hypnos sits up in his recliner to peer into the dreamscape, looking for the face of another god. Above him three nebulas, arranged in a triangle, swirl in almond-shaped spirals and blink down at him like distant eyes with stardust trails shaped like eyelashes. Throughout the sky, darkness twists in on itself to create an outline of sinewy limbs rising out of infinity. "Whooooa."
The recliner beside his dips under a new weight. Sitting in it is somebody roughly Hypnos' height, with pearly-white skin and a crown of gold and wings carved out of dark grey bone. The colors of the recliner crawl over their body in a polychromatic tide of light that coalesces into a halo at the nape of their neck. Down their torso a hundred faces emerge and vie for prominence and collapse cathartically into gem-encrusted ribs.
"Is this you?" Hypnos asks.
"Wait, hold on, I'm confused. Which one? Big god or little god?"
Both, Son of Nyx. Everything at once. You know this, and you wish for something, and thus you come to me. To what do I owe this visit? Respond.
Their question comes from Chaos-in-the-recliner and Chaos-in-the-stars— everywhere at once —and Hypnos isn't sure where to look to be polite. He peers at the cascading faces of Chaos-in-the-recliner discreetly, from underneath his lopsided sleep mask, but their many mouths form no words. They open and close in silent pantomime, like fish out of water.
Hypnos picks a faraway whorl of refracting light and addresses his reply to it.
"Oh, Mother Nyx wanted to introduce me to you! I know she visits alone most of the time, but hey, the more the merrier, right?" That's his hope, anyway, and in dreams his hopes always come to pass. "She's been so happy since she reconnected with you, so I just wondered what you're like! I hope you don't mind that she brought me here!"
You have come alone.
They're right. The third recliner is empty.
The Goddess Nyx must come here by way of our mutually agreed-upon path. You call it the Eldest Sigil. She cannot circumvent our pact, even inside your Dream.
Hypnos hums, considering this unexpected setback. His stomach churns, and under the surface fish chase each other endlessly. His fingers itch for a quill and a scroll of parchment. "Well, that's odd. Dreams usually go the way I ask them to. But nice to meet you anyway!"
You are disappointed, Son of Nyx. Yet this was an easily predictable outcome. You have dominion over dreams, but dreams are reality for the dreamer, and reality sprang from me. I would provide my input.
"Then... as long as I dream of this place, the rules are up to you?"
Only those already determined before your arrival, Son of Nyx. Everything else is a series of choices, and I am happy to yield to yours, if they are amusing enough.
"So it's more like... an artistic collaboration." Hypnos considers the trees and the leaping fish and the island and the infinite void beyond. Disappointment turns to giddiness. "Hey, should we fill it in a little more? Could you show me what it looks like, the place where you really are?"
I am here, Chaos says. But the hand around Hypnos' wrist, that he had forgotten about, now curls upward and closes over his own. Firm, but not restrictive. My realm looks however is most convenient for the one who perceives it. Nevertheless, your request is amenable. I will show you a recent perception.
With Chaos guiding him, Hypnos turns the drifting island to static white marble. The insect legs retract from the shore and fold upward into doric columns that rise to support vast nothingness. Everythingness . As the world is remade, the recliners are all that remains of Hypnos' design.
The universe hums, considering.
They nudge Hypnos' hand a little to the left, and Hypnos lets out a surprised giggle as underneath him the recliner shifts in that direction, along with the two others, until they bisect the space in a perfect diagonal. The universe hums again, satisfied. The recliners stay.
You have not answered my question. Why did you seek me? Respond.
Hypnos dreams a quill and parchment into existence. "I'd really love to tell you, Grandparent. I hope it's fine to call you that! It's just, that's kind of a hard question to answer, you know? But hold on, I'm going to give it my best shot!"
One implies many. A single answer will suffice.
"I need to work up to it sometimes," Hypnos explains. "Just bear with me for a little while, and I can choose a single answer later, if you want!"
Very well, Son of Nyx. Proceed.
- You, Grandparent Chaos, distanced yourself from Mother Nyx. Even though she was born of you.
All things sprung from me, at the dawn of time. Most of them drifted apart, and sprung others in turn. Like you. In this my relationship to the Goddess Nyx is unremarkable. One of many.
"Hmmm, I don't think that's entirely true. She gets to see you now, so you must like her better than your other children! Anyway, just hold on."
2. You decided, after aeons, that you wished to reconnect with Mother Nyx. You thought her worthy enough to grant her a means to bridge the distance between you.
An interesting premise. What you call worth exists only in the mind, and varies with perception. Like all creatures the Goddess Nyx is worthy and unworthy at once in a myriad ways. Worth did not factor into my decision. I simply longed for her company once more.
"I do, too," Hypnos tells them. It's rare that already at number two he is getting to the bottom of his thoughts, but maybe, if he can dig down fast enough to find the answer, Chaos won't get tired of him.
3. I thought if you could tell me how Mother Nyx became worthy to you, I could learn how to become worthy to her.
You wish to bridge the distance, but distance is mutually agreed-upon. You would know more about the terms of your agreement than I. What does worthiness entail, in the pact between you and her?
3a. I must be independent, like Thanatos.
3b. I must be good at my job for the House, like Thanatos.
3c. I must not seek her approval.
"Though, actually, Thanatos does seek her approval, so maybe scratch that one off the list."
3c. I must not seek her approval.
You resent these rules, Son of Nyx. Did you not agree to them?
"I guess I did?" Hypnos searches his memory to confirm this. His mind conjures this image of the past: he is crying, and his infant hands are balled into Nyx's flowing skirts, and she crouches down to pry them loose and speaks to him in her soothing, melodic voice. Several feet away, projecting independence, Thanatos watches with his arms crossed over his chest. "I just wanted her to be proud of me. I thought if I could be everything she wants me to be, I could make her proud, you know?"
A fascinating contradiction. You would make her proud of who you are by becoming who you are not. As you change according to the terms of your agreement, you will nevertheless remain yourself. Worthy and unworthy at once.
Hypnos takes a moment to parse the words. Chaos' proposed perspective doesn't feel wrong, but it does feel as though he would need to tilt his worldview at a different angle in order to accommodate it and follow where it leads.
4. If worthiness is not the problem, then something else must be.
"You said you missed her company. What was she like when she was young?"
A blind spot. She would observe my creations but never be observed in turn. She delighted in hiding from me, and I would not know she was hidden except for the texture of the darkness between the stars where she waited for me. Eventually she perfected this trick, and I forgot to look for her at all.
"Aww, well, she hasn't lost track of me. She walks by my post all the time!" Hypnos laughs, and it echoes emptily in the vastness of Chaos. He pulls his mantle tighter around his shoulders.
4. If worthiness is not the problem, then something else must be.
"I know she expects me to do better, and I like to think I'm getting there." Thanatos seems to think so, at least. He talks to Hypnos regularly now, and he doesn't lose his temper nearly as often as he used to. But he isn't about to put his duties on hold so he can cuddle up next to Hypnos for a nap, the way they used to as children. Hypnos knows this because he's asked before. "I just don't see what was so wrong about the way things used to be."
You are lonely.
Hypnos blinks, and it displaces the appearance of Chaos-on-the-recliner. The pearly-white fins over their shoulders become silky smooth and unspool down their body to form flowing black skirts spun out of a sea of stars. The fabric billows over Chaos' lower body and spills darkness on the floor. Hypnos wants nothing more than to reach out and bury his face in that memory, but he fists his hands in his lap instead. Distance is mutually agreed-upon. Tears prick his eyes.
My apologies, Son of Nyx. It appears I have misjudged what you are seeking.
He blinks and Chaos is themselves again, no longer wearing Mother Nyx's skirts. All of their attention, split and compounded across their many faces throughout this universe, focus now on Hypnos. Not unkindly. "That's okay. I appreciate the intention."
What do you seek from me? I would entertain the possibility of granting it.
Stars peer curiously at Hypnos, and he peers up at them in turn. The fish sleep, tired of their acrobatics for now. It seems quite silly that he should lie down by himself waiting for a spectacle that may not happen. He stands up and moves to sit next to small god Chaos, who does not move away.
Hypnos hears distant barking echo from the depths, so he pats his thighs twice as if to call the attention of an animal. At once the two unoccupied recliners melt into liquid kaleidoscope light and reform as a multicolor three-headed puppy that runs around the white marble island wagging its tail. Laughter ripples through the darkness, a thousand voices folded into one, and among them Hypnos hears his own, and Thanatos', and Charon's, and Mother Nyx's. Everybody at once.
"It's fun building a dream with you, Grandparent. Usually it's just me tweaking things here and there until it feels right, but it does get a little lonely. I was happy to hear you liked the trees." He smiles. Down the length of Chaos' body, a myriad expressions emerge and collapse in turn. "Is this fun for you, too?"
Without Hypnos' input, a new pillar bursts out of the rainbow-slick marble floor. It stretches toward Chaos-in-the-stars and vines burst out of the stone and curl around the bone-white shaft, and on emerald-green stems hundreds of red poppies bloom. The flower of sleep, eternal and otherwise. But Hypnos did not make these. Chaos did, for him.
Just like your arrival, your creations are predictable, but surprising. I would see more. You are welcome here, if that is what you wish to hear. But you must state your answer to my question, so that we may have an agreement.
Hypnos grins and holds his quill aloft. "Ahem!"
- [Final] I want to make more dreams with you, Grandparent Chaos. I want to get to know you, whether Mother Nyx comes along inside my dream or not!
A dream sacrificed to this realm, in exchange for a dream created in unison. I find your terms satisfactory.
"That means I can come back anytime?"
Yes, Son of Nyx. Dream me, and I will exist for you.
Hypnos is filled with delight. The knot in his stomach unravels. Laughing, he gazes up at the poppies climbing up the pillar. The crimson petals remind him of the rubies embedded in Chaos' chest. He follows them up to the top of the pillar and there he holds his quill aloft, and—
A pomegranate tree springs to life. Once again the stars twinkle with the laugh of everything that is and has been and will be.
"A tree for you, Grandparent! You're the best!"
In perfect unison two jellyfish leap out of the starry sea and collide upon the high branches, exploding in a shower of pomegranate seeds raining down on Hypnos. He catches a few in his mouth, and the Cerberus puppy attempts to do the same, but there are more, many; the universe is full of honey-flavored pomegranate flesh and the seed of promised things to come.
I eagerly await when next you attempt to surprise me, Son of Nyx.
Hypnos wakes because he is choking.
Someone leans over him and presses a cold hand to his diaphragm and pushes in.
"Grah!" Hypnos coughs and spits something small out onto his palm. A pomegranate seed.
"I can't believe you. You were choking in your sleep." It's Thanatos. Thanatos is leaning over him, and Thanatos intervened to help him. Like he always does. Always looking out for Hypnos, in his own way. He is scowling, but there is concern in his eyes.
"Thanks, Thanatos," Hypnos wheezes. He smiles up at his brother, weakly, and some of the tension eases off of Thanatos' stern face. He isn't frowning anymore as he withdraws; by his measure, that's practically a smile. "What's up? Did you want me for something?"
Thanatos doesn't answer right away. Recently that's been happening more and more. Not only does he talk to Hypnos more frequently, but he does so with care. He takes time to go through his list of possible answers in his mind before selecting the one he wishes to convey. That means it takes longer for him to reply, but Hypnos doesn't mind waiting. He's waited this long, to feel cared for like this.
"I merely came to congratulate you," Thanatos says at length. "I saw you got on the board. Featured Houseservant. Frankly, I never thought I'd see the day-or-night, but..." He sighs. "I'm sorry. What I mean to say is, I'm proud of you, Hypnos."
Thanatos' standards are a carbon copy of Mother Nyx's. If Hypnos can make Thanatos proud, then in time he can make Mother Nyx proud. But worth exists only in the mind, and it varies with perception. The Board is their perception.
"Don't act so surprised. You've been doing good work." Thanatos' tone is curt, but Hypnos does not take it to heart. He knows it's always been difficult for Thanatos to be straightforward, but he's trying, and that is enough for Hypnos. Distance is mutually agreed-upon . And in his own way, Thanatos is reaching out.
Hypnos shifts closer to the foot end of his recliner and pats the empty air next to him. "Want to sit?"
"I have work to do," Thanatos replies at once, then winces at his own words. He attempts a smile next, uncertain but sincere. "Some other time, alright?"
"You got it!"
In a flash of jade green, Thanatos vanishes.
As it turns out, Hypnos has work to do too. A line has formed from the Pool of Styx to his post, so he supposes it is up to him to welcome them. He flips to the official list, the one with all their names and causes of death, and waves them in one by one.
From the East Hall he hears Mother Nyx speaking to someone else. Absently he wonders if she, too, has noticed him on the Board. He fantasizes briefly about abandoning his post and crossing the hallway to tell her, but chooses not to. He is already worthy and unworthy. From here on out, the rest is up to her.
The shades move along and Hypnos pulls up his other list and doodles in the margins. Next to tiny Thanatos at number 8, he draws tiny Hypnos as number 9, huddled in his mantle and dozing. One of tiny Hypnos' hands clasps Thanatos', and he redraws his brother's face so that they are both smiling. Underneath them he makes an island floating in a sea of stars. The sea is also a grandparent, and they are smiling with their features that are made out of nebulas and never-ending cycles, and Mother Nyx hides in the crevices of their multifaceted vastness. On the water, trees sprout to life in unexpected places.
Hypnos pops Chaos' pomegranate seed into his mouth and it dissolves on his tongue like nectar, thick and honey-sweet.