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Casting Rain

Chapter Text

Somewhere in the world, monsters and humans were fighting. Somewhere in the world, monsters and humans were dying. This was a fact of the world they lived in, and it was one that every monster took with a grimace and a grain of salt. This was how the world had been for the past several years. This was how the world would likely always be. Until one or the other of the races gave up, or were destroyed. Or perhaps both.

Somewhere in the world, monsters and humans were bleeding. Somewhere in the world, monsters and humans were falling. Somewhere in the world, the darkness was smothering out countless souls - the night a bountiful provider for those prone to ambush and assassination and the mercilessly strangling vice that kept those resting and wounded pinned helplessly. The night shouldn’t be this dark, this vile and gripping. Somewhere in the world, there was an elemental that should be fighting, snuffing out a bit of the power of the darkness as it met monster kind. Somewhere in the world, there was an elemental that should be saving countless monster lives and reaping double the lives of the humans who struggled so mightily against them.

But on this particular dark night, this particular elemental was in fact not fighting. His armor sat on the floor inside his tent, polished meticulously and removed of all signs of marks or rust or blood. His shield sat beside it, cleaned and buffed with the same painstaking effort as a craftsman putting the final touches on their masterpiece. His sword, likewise, a work of precision and perfection that came from fastidious and almost obsessive care. There was no sign of fight in them tonight, and there wouldn’t be for the next day or so, much to the elemental’s chagrin.

For this was a fire elemental, a powerful being with quick wit and solemn demeanor. And though a great asset to monster kind everywhere, he had one glowering weakness. And that glowering weakness made his core shiver with every nervous step he paced about his tent. Every footstep drowned out by the sound of his inability as it pattered around him outside the meager protection his tent provided.

Somewhere in the world, monsters were dying. Somewhere in the world, he should be stopping that from happening. But unfortunately, here in this particular elemental’s more immediate world, it was raining. For fire elementals, there was no greater Achilles heel than water, especially the kind that dumped mercilessly from the sky on autumn evenings much like this one. And though this particular fire elemental quite enjoyed the rain, the smells and sounds it brought and the life it encouraged, he was forced to hate it when it kept him from battle. After all, battle was the only thing he’d been summoned to do. What should he do with himself when he wasn’t allowed to do it?

So he polished his armor and his shield and his sword. And when he’d polished it at least seven times, he sat it down with maximum care and paced. He walked circles in the ground to the sound of the falling rain; he sighed at it and jumped when it sounded to be slowing. But inevitably he paced again, and he pined away for the chance to be useful. And his friend and escort watched him, mending his hammer from where he sat on the floor of the tent. He stayed well back away from the pacing elemental, though he had a keen smile on his face as he watched his nervous friend walk. The hammer-wielding monster paused in his repair work, stroking thoughtfully at a small pointed beard and shifting his weight beneath an armored turtle shell.

“You keep going like you are, Grillby and you’re liable to pace a hole right through the earth itself,” he said with a sharp bark of laughter, causing a pause in the elemental’s step but unable to stop the endless circling completely, “You’re going to have to learn to except days like this sooner or later. Might as well practice in it now.”

Grillby threw a pair of fiery hands in the air in reply, exasperation written in the flail of his body and the narrowing of his eyes even if he had no other real facial features to show it.

“I feel so useless Gerson!” the elemental said with a deep sigh that was hardly a step away from a growl, “I should be out there helping them! Asgore shouldn’t have gone through with the offensive tonight. He should’ve waited!”

Gerson through his head back in a rolling laugh, earning a scowl from Grillby, “This war has gone on long before you were summoned, and it will continue long after you and I are both dust, I’m sure. Well… probably I before you, if I’m completely honest. You elementals have such a strange way about time.”

Gerson let out another chuckle, “One offensive with you stuck behind the front lines won’t lose us this war. Besides, I hear there’s a couple strong names aiding the ranks tonight, Lady Thetis for a start.”

“Ha!” Grillby snorted, finally stopping his feverish pacing to glower down at the turtle monster, “Of course they’d take Thetis! She’s a fish!”

“Aye, but it ain’t her gills that’s killing humans, Grillby,” Gerson said with a grin, “Like it or not, those spears of hers could rival your fire on even the worst days. She’s brash I know, but you’ll get used to her.”

Grillby waved a hand at this, “Oh sure. As soon as I get used to hearing her rant about the pointlessness in elementals. I have a soul just like she does. It’s not my fault it’s a little harder to snuff out than hers.”

“Thetis is proud, Grillby. She thinks we’re on the same level as humans as far as power goes,” Gerson reminded the elemental goodnaturedly, “Monsters of your caliber who only feel pain or weakness from one specific thing make her feel like we’re cheating. You make her uncomfortable. She doesn’t have a mean-spirited bone in her body though, she’ll warm up to you eventually.”

Grillby crossed his arms stubbornly, glowering, “I’d rather she not! She’s loud and reckless and just about everything she touches explodes at some point or another!”

Gerson shook his head, turning his attention back down to his battered hammer. The shaft of the two-handed war hammer was cracked after it had given a glancing blow to a human shield. Gerson had been weaving magic through it all night in the hopes of repairing it, and had succeeded in stitching some of the wood back together crudely. It was likely to shatter next time he used it - assuming he didn’t find a real smith to fix it before he and Grillby were deployed to the front lines again. He worked again for a few minutes on one of the thicker portions of the crack, scowling to himself when his magic fizzled about it rather uselessly.

“Well, since you’re already in a foul mood, I suppose giving you more bad news won’t make it worse,” Gerson said with a disappointed huff as he sat the battered weapon aside. Grillby’s scowl shrank into something less angry and a little more worried.

“Bad news?” he echoed.

“Aye my friend,” Gerson said with a tired smile as he got to his feet, “I sat in with the council today, and it’s been decided I’m to be promoted. Starting tomorrow I’ll be at the head of my own company of fifty, and have been given the most honorable title of Hammer of Justice.”

Gerson cracked a somewhat bitter grin, “Though I’ll have to fix my hammer again before I do too much more justice-ing again.”

Grillby blinked at Gerson, a thrill rippling through him and turning his normally bright orange into excited hues of yellow and white.

“What? But that’s amazing news, Gerson! You should be out celebrating!” Grillby said enthusiastically, his whole body grinning, “Why do you say all that is bad news? Well… I admit being on the front lines as a commander will be dangerous… but still! Shouldn’t you be excited for this?”

Gerson chuckled, “You still haven’t gotten it, have you lad? I’m being reassigned.”

He poked Grillby’s chest gently with a scaly finger, “You on the other hand, are not. They’ll be giving you a new escort.”

“...oh.” Grillby deflated, his fire burning cool and low, “That’s bad news.”

“I wager it’s about as bad as you plan on making it,” Gerson said, trying to keep his voice light, “But it will be difficult for you. Most monsters don’t take well to erm…”

Gerson flashed an apologetic smile, “Well, you summoned ones.”

Grillby rubbed his arm self-consciously, “Yeah.”

Silence stretched between them, spattered with the sound of falling rain. Grillby sighed, shifted on his feet uncomfortably, and turned to resume his pacing. This time it was less a restless motion and more a cathartic one, and Gerson didn’t stop him. He held a cool smile on his face and watched the elemental move around the tent again.

“Do you at least know who is replacing you?” Grillby mused, glancing in Gerson’s direction as he walked. The turtle monster crossed his arms and smirked.

“I do in fact,” he said with a chuckle, “That would be Lady Amathea.”

“She sounds familiar.”

“She should, lad. Amathea the Brave. She would be Thetis’ older sister, if I recall correctly.”

“Oh joy,” Grillby groaned, slapping a hand to his face.

“Don’t be like that, now,” Gerson said warningly, “Amathea is a very proud and dignified woman, and quite the war hero in her own right. With her as your escort you’re sure to see plenty action and plenty more glory. You know she had her own company before she lost her arm.”

Grillby sighed, “Yes and I’m sure she’s just as loud and bawdy as her sister.”

Gerson shook his head, laughing quietly, “You’ll like her Grillby, don’t judge her yet.”

Silence sank between them again for a moment before the turtle monster continued, “You know she’s got another monster already in her charge right now.”

“So I’m sharing an escort then?”

Gerson shrugged, “Desperate times lad. They can’t be throwing all their powerful monsters onto the back lines to serve as escorts. But look on the bright side now; you’ll finally get to meet another elemental.”

“That’s… true,” Grillby said after a pause, “It’d be nice to see someone else… up close. Instead of watching them work from the other side of a battlefield.”

“That’s the spirit,” Gerson chuckled, slapping Grillby encouragingly on the back, “You’ll be fine. Now, I’m going to see if any of the smiths are still working in this blasted weather. Do you need anything while I’m gone?”

Grillby shook his head. He received a nod in return, and Gerson disappeared out into the storm without another word. Thunder rumbled dimly, and Grillby grimaced. He looked up at the ceiling of his tent; making sure water hadn’t pooled or forced the canvas to sag anywhere. He didn’t need to be doused in the middle of the night while he was resting. When he was sure the sky wasn’t going to start falling down on him, Grillby let out an exasperated sigh and flopped onto the ground, staring up at the ceiling from the center of one of the paths he’d paced in the dirt. His life was already crazy enough. He didn’t need more change thrown into the mix. Grillby’s light dimmed as he breathed, his core growing cooler as he put himself to sleep.

Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day, assuming the rain would stop long enough to let him live it.

Chapter Text

Grillby’s fire came crawling back to life with the dawn, the sound of movement in the camp around him rousing him. The sound of the camp, and not the sound of rain. That made for a pleasant morning. He yawned and stretched, his flame stoking from his dull and resting red to a vibrant yellow, rolling a pleasant heat through the air. Gerson groaned from where his cot sat at the far end of the tent, stirring as the warmth from Grillby’s heat sent the cold-blooded monster pitching back into wakefulness. The elemental got to his feet, brushing dirt off his tunic.

“I see you got your hammer fixed,” Grillby said groggily as he stifled another yawn. The hammer had returned to its former glory - shimmering slightly from magical reinforcements the smith had managed to work in late the night before. Whoever Gerson had found to work on the weapon last minute had done a remarkable job given the short amount of time it had taken them to work. Gerson mumbled some kind of an incomprehensible affirmation into his arm tiredly - yes the hammer had indeed been fixed at some point in the night, how wonderful that you noticed. Outside of that though, he made no move to stir from where he slept. The elemental chuckled.

“You sure they picked the right monster for that whole ‘commander’ thing? You seem to prefer sleeping to - what was it again? Oh right - Justice-ing.”

Gerson gave a tired laugh as he slowly pulled himself to his feet, “Well heaven help us if the justice-ing needs done at the crack of dawn.”

Gerson stretched, various joints popping and cracking as he did so. He took his time smoothing wrinkles and creases out of his clothes and stretching just about every other muscle in his body that could possibly be stretched. Then he stumbled out of the tent, waving for Grillby to follow.

The elemental fell into step shortly behind him as he emerged into the cool autumn morning. It was a dreary, damp sort of morning. The rain had been replaced by a delicate, misting drizzle that was more fog than actual rain. It teased at Grillby’s flame uncomfortably, setting a burning hum to his magic that almost hurt. He stoked his core a bit in the hopes that the water would start evaporating before it hit him. There was a breeze as well, though Grillby was unbothered by it. Being made of fire meant he always felt comfortably warm - though he did notice that Gerson stayed a few steps closer to him than normal, appreciating the portable heat source. The day wasn’t all too dreary, Grillby noticed with a pleasant flicker of his flame. The sun peaked through several gaps in the clouds, gilding the camp and surrounding hillsides in soft oranges and golds.

The camp was a large one, nestled quite nicely in the valley between two hills. At the crown of each hill, bruised and desolate against the brightening sun, stood lookout posts. The skeletal structures took advantage of the higher ground, spying out across the horizon at any human movements that might be striking up nearby. Today the lookouts would be much less worried about humans, however, and watching more keenly instead for the converging of several new companies of monsters as they traveled their way east to the rolling hills and forests beyond. East was where the main battles were held, the monsters trying harder and harder to stifle the rising tide of war before it scattered them against Mt. Ebott to the west.

This particular camp was one of several key training and summoning grounds. With each new company that settled into it, it spat another out bristling and ready to fight. Like a matron it nursed the wounded that returned to it back for help, or held their dust should they fall in it’s embrace. Grillby himself had come and gone from this place several times already, following Gerson whenever his company was sent to the front lines and returning again when the battle was over. He enjoyed the safety this placed offered, the familiarity. It was the closest thing to home he’d ever had. He’d been summoned here, after all.

Grillby followed Gerson obediently to the mess tent - the tent soaring higher and stretching longer than any other structure in the entire camp. The cooks had already struck up a breakfast and lines had started to form around cauldrons filled to the brim with bubbling, energizing stews. Grillby ignored nervous glances in his direction when he entered the tent and cringed away from monsters that otherwise weren’t paying enough attention to shuffle away from him as he passed. He didn’t need to start off the morning by accidentally burning anyone. Gerson chuckled when Grillby let out a flustered huff.

They approached the cauldrons at a crawl, everyone too tired and weary from the foul weather to even rush for the warm food. Gerson took his portion with a thankful nod, chatting happily with the monster behind the cauldron as he waited for Grillby to be served as well. The fire elemental got double the amount Gerson did, which was normal. But Grillby still felt self-conscious toting two bowls out of the line instead of one. Other monsters eyed his portion hungrily but not jealously. Elementals were powerful monsters after all. Even if no one truly knew how they worked, the extra food seemed to fit into some made up magical logic. He was constantly burning something to stay alive, so he should have more energy to burn.

Grillby followed Gerson step-by-step as the warrior settled at a table, offering as he always did for Grillby to set beside him. And just as he always did Grillby refused, taking note of the nervous looks his presence brought around the wooden tables and oiled canvas. He wanted to tell everyone he could control his fire well enough to sit or stand wherever he pleased. He wanted them to know his touch didn’t burn unless he wanted it to, just like their magic didn’t hurt without intent. But there was this tiny voice in the back of his head that told him not to reassure them. The tiny voice told him if he lost control for even a second this place would go up like dry tinder, and he’d have proven himself wrong and proven everyone else right. So instead he sunk to the ground, wincing slightly at how damp the earth was, and sipped on his breakfast with a quiet facade of contentment. Gerson shrugged and began wolfing down his meal, occasionally peppering it with smatterings of tired conversation across the table.

The weather was hell last night wasn’t it? Heard it made fighting on the front rough. Sure they’re probably fine, but my brother’s fiance’s getting worried because that letter they’ve been waiting on is late. Heard the humans and their mages are getting a little more ambitious. Starting to really worry about the elementals we’re throwing at them. What? No your friend will be fine I’m sure. Maybe we should switch to something lighter? Heard there’s to be a wedding tomorrow. There’s a nice grove of trees just out of camp and they’re setting up over there. Did you tell them you were promoted yet? You were? That’s fantastic!

Grill by listened and ate and waited, casually soaking in bits and pieces of news as the monsters in the tent talked around him. Gerson wasn't long, the camp division of work prompting everyone into motion an hour after daybreak. Monsters left to dig latrines, gather food, dump trash and do laundry. They left to hone their skills, get clothing and weapons mended and prepare for the incoming units before they converged on the camp. Gerson and Grillby were spared from most of these duties - Gerson’s status as an escort meaning he had more important things to attend to then the menial work the average soldier did.

The turtle monster lead the way once again, striding a bit faster now that he had a meal behind him to get him ready for the morning. Grillby noticed with a happy flicker that the misting had stopped, replaced by a pleasant warmth as a patch of sun lit the valley. They left for the command tent, Gerson receiving more in depth instructions as to his reassignment. Then they left for the training grounds - a large and bitterly lifeless field of dirt used to practice magical and physical attacks and drill units in how to battle in unison with one another. Here they waited for the rest of Gerson's old company to converge after their morning duties. Normally the two would be sparring - Gerson fulfilling one of his key roles as escort in keeping Grillby fit for battle and making sure he was in control of his magic. This particular morning, however, Gerson spent the time rereading through the documents involving his reassignment.

“Alright,” the turtle monster sighed without looking up from the papers he clutched in his hands, “There's to be a small promotion ceremony before lunch it looks like. I'll have to find Amathea for you before then.”

“Find her?” Grillby asked from where he'd settled onto the ground, “She's not in the camp?”

Gerson shook his head, “She's been moving from unit to unit with her charge. Now that she’s escorting you as well, they'll probably settle her here permanently. I'd wager she's with the incoming units now.”

Gerson took a second to glance up at the sky, trying to gauge the time as best he could given the cloud cover.

“They should be here soon,” he finally said vaguely. Grillby nodded.

“You know, Amathea and I trained together? Before you were summoned and all. Back when I was still just a regular,” the turtle monster said with a chuckle, “Didnt ever get to know her too well. She wasn't much of a people person. But I'm sure she’ll warm up to you.”

Grillby snorted at the obvious pun, “Good to know.”

The fire elemental shrugged, “I'm not worried too much about her. I'm worried about you.”

His flame gave a nervous crackle as he laughed, “You're not allowed to die out there. Remember that alright?”

Gerson let out an enthusiastic wa-ha-ha! of laughter, beaming down at Grillby with a wide grin, “Are you kidding? The humans won't know what hit ‘em! Just you wait Grillby, the Hammer of Justice will make humans shake in their shoes when they hear its name.”

Grillby laughed, “You do that.”

The two shared a companionable silence, broken by an enthusiastic yell from across the training yard. Grillby got to his feet as Gerson’s unit began arriving in bits and pieces. Monsters laughed excitedly with him, congratulated him on his promotion and wished him luck on the battle front. Gerson answered them with teasing and the melancholy sort of happiness that came from parting company. There were prayers of safety and strength said, good-natured bets exchanged on when they'd all meet again. Someone decided they should all go out for drinks after the promotion ceremony.

Some of the monsters spoke with Grillby as well, more used to his presence than most of the rest of the camp. His service with them had brought fond memories and warm nights and they were loathe to see either him or Gerson go - though Gerson’s lively personality would be the more sorely missed of the two of them. There were smiles and luck wished with his new escort. Someone joked about having to learn how to start a fire and cook their own food now that Grillby wouldn't be there to help while they were in the field. It was a pleasant and bittersweet exchange, cut short only when Gerson’s former commander demanded they all join together for one last drill run before Gerson had to get cleaned up for his promotion ceremony.

The Hammer of Justice moved to oblige with enthusiasm when a trumpet call cut him off. All heads turned to the sound of the blast - the horn blower giving three long calls. Grillby flickered nervously.

“Looks like the new units have arrived,” Gerson hummed, “Looks like we’ll be cutting this short.”

The turtle monster beamed at Grillby, “Ready to meet your new escort?”

The elemental shook his head, eliciting a round of laughter from the monsters gathered. He chuckled himself before departing, one last round of goodbyes echoing after him and Gerson as they left. There was a frenzy about the camp as they walked, monster soldiers running out to meet the new companies. The incoming monsters probably didn’t realize it, but they were the largest source of news and change the sleepy camp ever got. They got with them goods from home, still fresh and good for trade. Items to read, fresh clothing and fresh tools for mending the old with, foods packed by families bidding fond farewells. Warm comforts that the more battle worn monsters of the camp often lacked.

As the crowded camp swarmed to life Grillby’s fired quelled in nervous tension, made uncomfortable by the closeness the world seem to press in around him. It was bearable, but he never enjoyed it. And from the sideways glances some monsters pitched in his direction, he made them just as uncomfortable. He tried not to let it bother him. Instead he focused on the main road of the camp as it was cleared, watching monster soldiers and families alike as they cleared the way for new units to come marching through. And march through they did! All assembled in rank and file, looking official in their relatively new uniforms. The commanders rode horses, the beastly creatures picking their way gingerly but pridefully across the ground. Their nostrils flared and ears twitched at the new sights and sounds, tiredly curious about this place they’d been led into.

Behind them came the units, an assortment of monsters of every imaginable shape, size and species. They were footsore but content, well trained enough to resist the urge to look out at the crowd of people edging the road. A few of them glanced sideways at Grillby as they passed, stoic expressions replaced for a moments by looks of question and intrigue. Very few of them had ever seen an elemental before. Grillby faintly wondered if he should be flattered.

Gerson was suddenly elbowing him, smiling excitedly, “Oh! There! There you see! That’s Amathea.”

Grillby followed the direction Gerson was pointing, blinking quietly at the monster when he finally spotted her. She resembled Thetis - or what Grillby remember of Thetis - fairly strikingly. She took the vibrant red and turquoise scales their family line seemed to carry, eyes shining unnaturally yellow against them. She was indeed missing an arm, and even from the distance Grillby stood at he could see changes in the color of her scales on her neck and face to indicate scarring. This didn’t detract from her at all though, instead molding her into a proud and stoic visage. Something that looked nearly legendary. She’d run through fire and come out undying. It was impressive and intimidating all at once. Her hair hung in a loose braid, the red fibers threading together and ending just below the small of her back. Her ear fins were ripped and twitched delicately as she walked. Her mouth was a firm frown.

Grillby felt his fire sputter into a cooled red-orange.

“She’s terrifying.”

Gerson thumped Grillby on the back with a happy laugh, “Well of course she is! That woman has seen more fighting than you or I a hundred times over.”

“I thought you said you trained in the same class?”

“Aye we did!” Gerson chuckled, his voice humbling some as he continued, “And she outclassed everyone there. She’s a strong fighter. I’ve never seen such powerful magic… outside of you that is. And she has the mind of a tactician, a brilliant one. After a handful of sweeping victories she was promoted in a heartbeat. Even after she lost her arm they had to force her to join a company on the back lines.”

There was a crackle of a laugh in Grillby’s fire, and Gerson frowned.

“What’s so funny?”

“Just wondering if the fair lady realizes she has such a committed admirer,” Grillby said, nudging Gerson playfully with his elbow. The turtle monster blinked at him speechlessly for a moment, opening his mouth once to say something before deciding against it at the last moment. He snorted and twisted his face into a frown.

“Come on Grillby, it’s not like that at all!” he chirped, crossing his arms indignantly, “She’s a hero, is all I’m trying to say.”

“Oh yes a great one indeed,” Grillby said, his voice deadly serious, “And you’re quite heroic for pursuing her.”

He burst out in happy laughter when Gerson punched him hard on the shoulder. It didn’t hurt, though Grillby felt a ripple run through his flame from the impact. Monsters nearby shuffled away from them slightly, unsure if an actual fight was about to break out or not. Gerson gave Grillby a ferocious glare, though the elemental chuckled at the blush that rosied his green face.

“Oh you know I’m just teasing,” Grillby said finally, trying to put his friend at ease, “Did you happen to see the elemental with her?”

Gerson grumbled a begrudging ‘no’ before turning his attention back to the incoming units. They were nearing the end of the parade now, supply wagons drawn by animals and monsters alike taking up the rear of the line as they plodded down the road. The crowd around them began to disperse a bit, the rush of excitement dying down as they went to help the newcomers pitch tents and brush down animals. Others left to prepare wares to trade, or resume daily chores they’d just gotten done procrastinating. Gerson waved for Grillby to follow him.

“Come on,” Gerson said with a bitter smirk, “Let’s go get you and the lady introduced so I can get ready for my ceremony.”

Grillby crackled in a final chuckle before falling in step behind Gerson once again. He tried to stamp down his nervousness as they went, feeling his fire get brighter and hotter as he became just inches more emotional. He didn’t want Gerson to leave, but at the same time he was happy for him. He didn’t want to change escorts but he knew he had no choice in the matter.

Life was becoming interesting. Grillby wasn’t sure if he liked it yet.

Chapter Text

“Well this turned into chaos quickly,” Grillby said with a nervous flicker.

He and Gerson stood against one of the permanent tents of the camp, watching with mild amusement as the new companies rushed to pitch tents and organize roll calls before the lunch call would inevitably disperse them and lose them to the crowded camp. Watching them work could only be comparable to watching thousands of ants as they rushed to repair a disturbed anthill. The massive group of possibly two hundred monsters worked and scurried with a frantic hurry that might have been productive from a smaller number, but en masse only seemed to cause confusion and dissonance. Grillby thought with an odd sort of amusement that if they’d just slow down for a few steps and organize themselves they might move faster. Or at least look more like a cohesive unit instead of a congealed mass. There was order there, he knew. Even as he watched tents were raising and companies were gathering even in spite of the rush of movement.

“Give ‘em an hour and it’ll look like they’ve been here for years,” Gerson said in belated reply, pulling himself away from the engrossing disorder before them. He scanned over the moving crowd, gaze pausing momentarily on commanders as they directed monsters every which way, searching for Amathea and coming back short. He sighed out an exasperated breath and waved Grillby forward.

“Alright let’s see if we can find your escort in this mess.”

Grillby hesitated, crackling nervously at the sight of the crowd. Grillby rolled his eyes and gave the elemental a forceful shove, sending him staggering forward a few steps with an indignant crackle.

“They’re more scared of you than you are of them,” Gerson said with a chuckle, for once falling in step behind the flustered elemental instead of the other way around, “They’ll part for you better than they will for me. I see one of the commanders ahead there. Ask her if she knows which company Amathea was supposed to gather with.”

Grillby paused long enough to lock his gaze on a particularly imposing lizard monster as she directed a handful of young monsters hefting shovels - likely off to dig latrines or some other such functionally necessary task. Grillby sighed a harsh breath, his flame billowing about him a little larger and brighter, before stepping into the current of a crowd as it rushed about him and away from the relative safety from where he’d been onlooking. He somewhat sensed Gerson following him, stepping just close enough that anyone who was forced to move aside for Grillby would still be out of the way when Gerson passed as well.

The effect Grillby had on the bustling movement was a thing he didn’t think he’d ever fully get used to. Soldiers once intent on their tasks halted when his light burst into their peripherals. Hammers paused a bit longer in their fall to meet stakes and anchors. Conversations trailed into silence for a moment, footsteps stammered. Glances were cast and even orders found a second to lapse. And of course, as to be expected, monsters stepped back away from him in an extended effort to not so much as graze past him.

And though he flickered nervously, feeling very much like a spectacle or stage show, only Gerson could tell it. No one else here knew the subtle ripples he gave were because he was uncomfortable, or that the brightening of his flame was in nerves instead of pride. And he had no real facial features to betray any of these things. Even though walking suddenly felt unnatural and his presence something to be tolerated with muted amazement. But of course, Grillby had to remind himself that the soldiers here were new. They’d never fought before - elementals and other summoned beings were practically the stuff of legends to them. Even humans were an abstract concept, not yet fully realized or filled with intent. It was only natural for them to stare, even it it came at the expense of his comfort.

The monster Grillby was purposed on saw him coming long before she would ever see any other soldier. She flashed him a grim smile, more used to being close to a powerful monster than her recruits. She may have even fought with one before. Grillby was grateful for how casually she watched him, how her body stayed relaxed instead of rigid and nervous as he approached. He stopped before her, crossing an arm over his chest and bowing slightly in a salute. Gerson stopped beside him and mirrored the gesture.

“Grillby, Elemental of the 35th division,” he introduced himself as he straightened, “I’m here for my reassignment. I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of a Commander Amathea.”

The monster nodded, ushering to the west of where her company pitched their tents, “Amathea was traveling with the 52nd division, that’s Brigg’s monsters there. He’s one of them dragon-types. Hard to miss. He’ll know where she’s throwing her tent up.”

Grillby’s flame churned thankfully, blues weaving their way amidst the oranges and yellows he normally flared.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” she grinned pleasantly, and Grillby noticed gaps where some of her sharpened teeth had been lost through the years, “I’ve heard a lot about you and your escort from the back lines there. Keep up the good fight, yeah?”

Grillby nodded, and she dismissed him with a final smirk. Gerson fell in step behind him again as he parted the slowly organizing crowd. Even in the last few minutes more tents had been raised and some of the monsters were beginning to disperse. Though Grillby was still uncomfortable. He could feel eyes on him from every angle and it made him feel like the mist from earlier that morning was still burning through him. It made his core shiver and his soul pulse awkwardly.

Brigg was indeed easy to find, once they’d finally located his side of the camp. The dragon monster was massive, towering over most every other monster there by at least a foot, possibly more. Wings, uselessly small but tipped with angry looking claws, fluttered emphatically as he shouted orders, moving with his arms as he directed monsters to and fro. When he spotted Grillby, he flashed him a snarl that could curdle milk.

“Good morning sir,” Grillby said politely, purposefully ignoring the glare. Though he made it a point to forgo his previous formality of a bow and salute, “I’m Grillby of the -”

“I know who you are, elemental,” the commander cut him off abruptly, a growl in his throat, “You’re looking for your babysitter, right?”

Grillby felt himself flush, a wave of heat disturbing his flame as he crackled indignantly. Gerson shifted uneasily behind him, taking a step back away from the now uncomfortable warmth. If Brigg noticed the change, he stubbornly ignored it.

“I’m here for my escort,” Grillby responded, biting back the edge in his voice, “Commander Amathea. I was told she was among your unit.”

Brigg snorted, smoke curling out of flared nostrils. He jerked his thumb back, pointing over his shoulder and past a flailing wing that attempted to mirror the motion.

“She’s on the far edge of the camp that direction. Try not to burn anything on your way over.”

Grillby left without another word, still bristling from the curtness of the exchange.

“The nerve of some people,” he huffed furiously when they were out of earshot. He fumed as he walked, his fire rippling and hissing in an agitated and emotional indignance. The moisture in the ground at his feet steamed slightly as he passed, leaving small billows of smoke-like heat that wisped in a trail behind him as he walked. A few more monsters than before stopped to stare at him, concern and awe mingling with what had previously just been curiosity.

“Grillby,” Gerson’s voice pitched low warningly, “Calm it down.”

Grillby bit back a very childish ‘why should I?’ in response. Instead he growled out a long sigh, taking back control of his flame and batting down the heat to a more comfortable level for the monsters around him. Gerson stepped a little closer to him as he did so, patting the elemental on the back cautiously.

“There you go,” he hummed, “You’re fine. You know, he strikes me as the kind of monster who talks down to everybody anyway. Don’t take it personally.”

“A babysitter,” Grillby muttered bitterly, though he still managed to keep his flame in check, “He said I needed a babysitter. Is that all you escorts are?

“Of course not,” Gerson said pleasantly, “That would imply that you can’t take care of itself - which you can. We’re just around to make sure you’re coping with society well. And don’t let petty things set you off.”

“I’ve never been ‘set off’. I’ve never burnt anything I haven’t meant to.”

“I know, I know,” Gerson chuckled, “But other elementals have before. It’s just our way of being cautious.”

Grillby swallowed any other comment he could make, focusing instead on the task of finding his next babysitter - oh he was going to be seething over that for a while. He weaved his way through a handful of pitched tents, stepping cautiously around monsters and their scattered belongings as they organized themselves. The crowd was thinning, monsters either busying themselves with unpacking their bags in their portable homes or running out to trade or get an early lunch. After the units came in, they were generally given the rest of the day to get acclimated, figure out where things were and relax from the trip. Grillby saw a few of them writing letters to family, telling of the safe arrival.

Finally they broke free of the ranks and lines of tents and spotted what they were searching for - a large tent pitched beneath two trees just outside of the normal camp space. Amathea stood outside it, her back to the pair as they approached. Her fist was planted sternly on her hip as she looked at the tent, gauging whether it was pitched sturdily enough and whether or not she should move it. Grillby’s previous anger twisted around in his core, turning into something that much more resembled nervousness.

“Amathea the Brave!”

Grillby jumped at the sudden yell from Gerson, the turtle monster beaming as he stepped forward to pass the started elemental. Amathea turned to face them, frowning - though Grillby noticed it was from confusion instead of any ill intent. Her ear frills twitched as she waited for them to approached. arms crossing impatiently.

“I know you,” she said matter-of-factly when Gerson stopped before her, “We trained together didn’t we?”

“Gerson, newly promoted Hammer of Justice,” the turtle monster bowed to her as he introduced himself, “I admit I’m surprised you remember me. We didn’t speak much.”

“I never forget a face,” something in her eyes gleamed pridefully, though the rest of her expression remained stern, “Good to see someone from my class is finally joining the commander rank.”

Amathea switched her gaze away from Gerson, settling those piercing yellow eyes on Grillby, “And you’re my new charge, I’ll bet.”

Grillby jolted when she shoved her arm forward in his direction. He blinked at it, marveling at the fact that she’d actually offered him a hand shake. He took it cautiously - and awkwardly, as she shook with her left hand.

“Grillby,” he said simply, “It’s an honor to meet you.”

She gave his arm a firm shake, the barest of smiles twitching at the corners of her mouth, “Well met then. I’d reintroduce myself but it would seem you’re already acquainted with my name at least.”

Amathea shot Gerson a look, and the turtle monster gave a wahaha! of laughter in response. Grillby couldn’t help but feel a little awestruck by his nonchalance in the face of her fierce seriousness. Even while smiling Amathea exuded a kind of blaring confidence that he was sure could part seas at her command.

“I’m forgetting something,” Amathea’s annoyed mumble cut off Grillby’s thoughts. She replaced her fist on where it had been on her hip, and then rolled her eyes. With a quick snap, she faced the direction of the tent again, gills and frills flaring as she took in a harsh breath.

GASTER!”

Both Grillby and Gerson jumped at the bellow. The two exchanged a look, Gerson’s noticeably more impressed than Grillby’s. A shadow suddenly tumbled through the tent Amathea had set up, stumbling over their feet as the staggered for the exit. Grillby felt his entire flame flush with excitement. Excitement that immediately wiped itself away as the figure lurched out of the tent. Tall and lanky and almost fragile looking. He towered almost a head taller than Amathea, and straightened out what looked to be the long black clothing a doctor would wear. Long black sleeves nearly obscured skeletal hands, which practically glowed white in comparison to his clothing. The robe-like tunic dropped past his knees, flaring out around similarly dark breeches. As he straightened, the monster glared at Amathea. Grillby felt a jolt of surprise as his gaze traced a long crack extending from the monster’s broken right eye, ending jaggedly somewhere around the back of his skull.

He was a skeleton. Very much not an elemental.

“Woman if you’d give me six minutes of peace,” the skeleton, Gaster, said with a condescending huff, “I might actually be able to get some work done.”

His arms moved rapidly as he talked, nearly signing out what he said with emphatic gestures and sweeping movements. It was grand and unsettling.

“Oh hush, you were probably napping anyway,” Amathea snorted, turning to once again face Grillby and Gerson, “Gentlemen, meet my current charge. Wing Ding Gaster.”

Gerson chuckled, “Wing Ding?”

“Family name,” the skeleton shrugged, “Hilarious right?”

Gaster’s eyes suddenly widened - the broken right one widening ever so slightly in unison with the other. A light sparked there, bright and curious as his eyes rested on Grillby. A quizzical smile snaked across his features, and he leaned forward a bit. Grillby stifled the reflex to take a step back away.

“Well aren’t you interesting?”

Amathea backhanded Gaster across the shoulder, cutting him off before he could say anything else.

“Don’t be rude. He’s a monster, not a science project,” she said patronizingly, and Gaster flashed her an amused grin.

“Well yes of course,” he said with a wave of his hands before turning his attention back to Grillby, “I’ve just… never met one of this kind before.”

He offered a long hand to Grillby, his smile kind but unnerving. Grillby shook it hesitantly, wincing as the skeleton seemed to analyze every movement he made as he did so.

“Grillby,” he said simply, and Gaster’s smile widened.

“It’ll be a pleasure to work with you, Grillby. You know, I always did find the concept of you elementals… fascinating. Hold still a minute.”

Suddenly he stepped close, leering down at Grillby with the kind of unsettling curiosity that a bird might feel when penned in a birdcage. Grillby shrunk away under his gaze, grimacing in Gerson’s direction and silently pleading for some sort of assistance as Gaster paced around him. The turtle monster just shrugged uncomfortably, seeing no real harm in the exchange. To Grillby’s surprise, it was Amathea who came to his rescue. As soon as Gaster has paced around the elemental once, the fish monster grabbed him by the soul, his whole body flashing with green immobilizing magic.

“Alright weirdling,” Amathea growled, “What did we say about personal space?”

“Oh come on,” Gaster said indignantly, “He’s an elemental.”

“Yeah, and you’re a creep,” came the curt reply, “Personal space. The rest of us have it, even if you don’t.”

She released him, but kept a steely glare on him to keep him from making another move towards Grillby.

“I swear, I don’t know what kind of crazy your parents raised you on,” she huffed, “You’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other while you’re running laps around the camp. Which you will do.”

She looked pointedly at Grillby now, “The rest of the escorts seem to think wild magic has to be tamed. I say it should be tempered. Enjoy the rest of your day’s rest. Because you’ll have none of it for the rest of your stay with me. And you.”

Amathea spun on Gerson with a commanding snarl, “Don’t you have somewhere to be? You’ve done your job. Get!”

Gerson gave her a good-natured smile, “Alright alright.”

He gave Grillby one last pat on the back, “It’s been awesome working with you Grillby. Come find me and the unit tonight around supper. We’ll have some fun before I’m shipped off, alright?”

Grillby nodded nervously, “Stay safe Gerson.”

“Now where’s the fun in that?” came the laughed reply as Gerson walked off.

Amathea walked after him, slinging a pack over her shoulder as she went, “And I’m off to trade. You two ladies are old enough to take care of yourselves. Be back here by sundown.”

Grillby felt his core sink into his feet, “W-what? But…!”

Grillby sighed, a prickling sensation teasing his flame. Gaster was watching him intently, waiting for something. The elemental’s shoulders sagged, his flame cooling into reds and oranges in dismay and nervousness. Brilliant. He didn’t want to be stuck with Gaster. He’d known the monster for all of a handful of minutes and already he wished he could have been partnered with anyone else. Anyone who didn’t stare at him like some sort of street show attraction. Someone who didn’t radiate unsettling magic, with the gaze of a rook watching a funeral procession.

“You and your friend split a tent, correct?”

Grillby slowly looked up at Gaster, cringing under his stare, “Uhm… yes.”

“Well, we’d better get your belongings moved here,” the skeleton offered, his smile ever present, “Seeing as we have time to kill and all.”

Grillby sighed anxiously, shifting uncomfortably where he stood.

“I can get them myself.”

“Nonsense!” came the enthusiastic reply, “I’ll be bored to death if I don’t do something. And there’s no harm in getting you settled.”

Grillby felt his flame flicker a little dimmer. Of course. With a wordless wave, he moved off back towards his side of camp, ushering Gaster to follow. The skeleton fell in step beside him, hands in his pockets and steps prideful and fast. Thought they stood apart, Grillby had the uncanny, crawling feeling that they were far too close. Some part of Gaster must have sensed this. Those bright eyes peered down at him, toothy grin almost permanently fixed to his face.

“Interesting.”

Chapter Text

If Grillby didn’t feel like an oddity walking through camp, he definitely felt like it now. Though he supposed he shouldn’t be taking all the credit for the various glances and stares in his direction. Gaster by himself could draw in a crowd with his peculiar, borderline eccentric brand of weirdness. A doctor garbed in deathly black, who also just happened to be a skeleton. Possibly the only skeleton in camp, no less. Paired with the only elemental within at least a dozen miles, who already attracted enough attention on his own just by existing.

Grillby tried to ignore it, stepping lightly and flame dim, wishing for not the first time in the last hour that he had been summoned - or even born - as something with much less swagger and grandeur attached to it. Though… he had to admit… he somewhat admired how Gaster seemed perfectly ignorant of all the attention their funny looking pair was attracting. He watched the comings and goings of the camp with eyes that were overzealously curious, as if the world were his observatory and he were the most ambitious beholder of all that transpired within it. His face was ever calcified into that quizzical grin, his gaze uncomfortably intrusive and examining.

Grillby faintly wondered what was going on inside the skeleton’s head, only to dismiss the thought entirely a second later. Honestly? He probably didn’t want to know.

“This place is gigantic,” Gaster observed outloud, waving his arms grandly to express his point, “Not sure I’ve ever been in a camp of quite this size. How in the world do they manage to keep order around here?”

Grillby shrugged, “Mostly on a unit-by-unit basis.”

“How so?”

Grillby could feel that piercing gaze on his flame as Gaster refocused his attention on the elemental. He suppressed a shudder, busying himself with looking very interested in the muddy footpath they were following back to his tent.

“Uh… well… there’s horns that sound off every few hours normally,” Grillby elaborated after an uncomfortable pause, “One’s the dawn call. Depending on your unit you’ll go to roll call then, or breakfast. Most of the incoming units - erm… that would be yours… ours… I suppose - go to roll call first and then cycle into the mess tent afterwards. The next call will have us doing drill, or training. The noon call will go for lunch. Next call is chores. Those will be handed out by the unit commander. Mostly cleaning and laundry, gathering food and water, stuff that makes a camp this size run.

“Erm… the last call is for the nightly roll call and a free time. You can get supper. Some monsters choose to go to the canteen or trade instead, or use the time for anything they didn’t get done during the day. Sleep is a bit relative, given how many different monsters are here. Though I’ve seen monsters punished for being too rowdy after dark. They’ve got a stockade, but no serious crime has happened here in awhile. Most of us are too busy to drink and too tired for unnecessary violence. Gambling is only allowed if the betting isn’t with real coin, and they do have patrols who check.”

Gaster chuckled at this, eyes alight with amusement, “Sounds like you’ve had experience?”

Grillby shook his head, “I watch and I learn.”

“Sounds like a boring existence,” Gaster responded.

Grillby… didn’t quite know how to respond to that. He settled for narrowing the white lights that served as his eyes in a glare, refraining from saying anything. Had the lunch call really not been sounded yet? Was he still less than halfway through his day? He bit back a sigh, his flame rolling off a heightening heat, stirring in annoyance and frustration. Today was going to be long, that much was clear already. Gaster blinked down at the elemental, observant enough to notice Grillby’s change in temperature and countenance all at once.

“What are you thinking?”

Grillby’s flame gave a surprised crackle. He glanced up at the skeleton, his whole body frowning, “What?”

“What are you thinking, right now,” Gaster pressed again. His face was a mask of inquisitive wonder, those eyes gleaming down starlike from the darkness in his sockets. He gave a mischievous grin - apparently Grillby’s expression had changed.

“No, right now, actually.”

“I’m… thinking a lot of things?” Grillby said guardedly, questioningly, flashing the skeleton a wary, sideways glance. He could practically feel Gaster’s his searching interest radiation off of his spindly form, and he flickered nervously as if the movement could brush the stare away.

“Oh come on, name something,” came the ever pleasant, overly curious response. Grillby felt his core twist into difficult knots.

“Why do you want to know so badly?”

Gaster laughed enthusiastically at this; it was a dry rattling sound that shook his shoulders and shuffled his clothes. It was about the only time that morning that the skeleton had made any noise and hadn’t emphasized the movement dramatically with what Grillby was slowly realizing was some sort of language with his hands. Some of the motions had been repeated when he’d used words twice. The elemental also wondered, cautiously, if maybe the laugh was humorous only and had no ill will to it. At least… Gaster didn’t seem spiteful about Grillby’s reluctance in answering his pestering questions.

“Humor me,” Gaster prodded with his voice and his elbow, nudging Grillby lightly in the side. Grillby… wasn’t sure how much he liked that. This was the third time someone had willingly touched him today outside of Gerson - his old escort being the only monster previously with the… courage…? Common sense really. The common sense to know that Grillby wasn’t going to burn them on contact. He wasn’t used to it. He didn’t like it.

“Alright fine,” Grillby, trying to sigh out some of his tension as he spoke, “One thing?”

“One thing,” came the parroted response.

“You’re weird.”

“How am I weird?” Gaster laughed, his voice pitched in humor but his gaze still deep in that unsettling inquisitiveness that was beginning to grate harder and harder against Grillby’s nerves.

“You said one thing,” the elemental protested stubbornly. This earned him another one of Gaster’s enthusiastic, shuddering laughs.

“You shared one thing, I’m asking you to elaborate on it,” Gaster said nonchalantly, his hands flailing in grand gestures upon the word ‘elaborate’ as if he could encompass the world with them, “We’re going to be spending a lot of time together you know. Why play the ‘mysterious stranger’ card this early in the game?”

“Mysterious… what?” Grillby sputtered, “We’ve just barely met. You expect to know everything about me before nightfall?”

“Oh heavens no!” Gaster grinned, waving his hands in such an exaggerated manner that he narrowly missed hitting another monster as they passed. Grillby flinched at the closeness of the call. Gaster continued as if he hadn’t even realized something was amiss - and likely didn’t.

“There is much more to any monster than can ever be learned in a single evening - probably doubly so for a monster of your…” Gaster flashed him an imposing grin, “... type? Caliber? Species perhaps? It’s the newness, the excitement. I can’t help but be curious.”

He chuckled to himself as if he were holding back some grand secret, “And I can guarantee you the more you ignore me, the more annoying I’ll get.”

Grillby didn’t know if he should be offended or attempting to brush off everything his nuisance of a shadow had just said. Was this some kind of a joke? Was he kidding? Or was he seriously just this… honestly Grillby didn’t even know what to call it. Eccentric was probably a good word for it.

“You’re insane,” he finally muttered, watching the skeleton out of the corner of his eye warily. Gaster cackled, clapping a hand down on the elemental’s shoulder and nearly making him jump out of his skin - if he had any. He quickly shoved Gaster’s hand off, his flame crackling rapidly in flustered sputters and sparks.

“And you,” Gaster grinned, “Take things way too seriously.”

The elemental scrutinized Gaster for a moment, coming to an abrupt stop in the middle of the foot path. He crossed his arms, resisting the urge to tap his foot nervously. Gaster just flashed him that ever present, plastered on grin. After a short pause that was noticeably more tense for the elemental than it was for the skeleton - as ironic as that was - Grillby let out a whining sigh, his soul squirming around inside of him nervously. As uncomfortable as he was he just… couldn’t bring himself to tell off the other monster completely. He’d rather just deal with the harassment then start something that could make it worse. At least for now the skeleton was acting on genuine curiosity.

“Look let’s just… get the whole packing thing over with okay?” Grillby said carefully, picking his words as carefully as one might flowers for a funeral, “Drill me with questions later.”

Gaster stared at him for a minute longer than he really needed to, something in his smile becoming a bit less enthusiastic - though Grillby saw now real change in it. Maybe it was the white pinpricks of his eyes that dimmed just a tad, or a sluggish edge to the movements of his hands as he gave a wordless agreement. Grillby blinked at the strange sort of sign language uncomprehendingly for a moment. Realization slapped him with a jolt and gave a relieved sigh, a flicker of blue glancing through him for a moment before he stepped off with renewed speed.

“Come on, my tent’s just up ahead.”

Gaster walked just a step behind him, and in Grillby’s peripheral he could see the monster signing furiously - though he couldn’t understand an inkling of it. Perhaps when the inevitable string of questions and unquenchable curiosity flared up in the skeleton again, Grillby would ask him what the signing actually meant. As it was now, he had to stomp down the feeling that the monster was talking about him rudely behind his back… literally. Maybe he was just… letting of nervous energy. Fidgeting or something. Yeah. That had to be it.

Hopefully.

Grillby lit up pleasantly when his tent finally came into sight, beaming in enthusiastic yellows and oranges at his home. The closest thing to home he’d ever come by, he figured. It was bittersweet knowing he wouldn’t be sharing it with Gerson anymore. But the turtle monster far deserved his promotion, and Grillby could never be anything but proud for him. Without a word Grillby disappeared into the tent, dimming slightly when he realized Gerson’s belongings were already gone - the monster had probably stuffed them into his inventory to store them for later. It was something Grillby now had to do with his own effects, and he got to work immediately.

Grillby packed his armor away neatly, making sure every inch of it was just as spotlessly clean as he’d left it the night before - which of course it was. He bundled the pieces together in groups, trying to take up as little of his space as possible. He only had a limited amount of space in his inventory and he loathed the thought of making multiple trips. He tucked his shield away next, glancing for a second at the prayer of safety etched into the back of it and repeating it in his mind. His sword was next -

“A sword? Really?” Gaster asked, suddenly hovering over Grillby.

Grillby let out a muffled shriek, his flame giving a flare of heat and sparks as he startled for the umpteenth time that morning. He flinched immediately after, expecting to hear some sort of shout of pain from Gaster - only to look up and notice the skeleton standing just far enough back that the flare couldn’t burn him. Grillby blinked at him incredulously.

Had he seriously not been that close or had he actually…?

Grillby scowled, heat rolling off of him in waves, “Would you not sneak up on me like that please?!”

Gaster chuckled, hunching over slightly so his head didn’t brush against the top of the tent, “Oh come now, I couldn’t possibly have expected to startle you that easily.”

“It doesn’t matter!” Grillby exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air exasperatedly, “I could’ve seared that grin right off your face just now!”

This gave the skeleton monster pause, and his easygoing smile twitched. Whatever he was thinking, he waved it off almost instantly.

“Don’t be so dramatic,” he hummed, “You’re as likely to burn me on accident as I am to hit you with an attack.”

He made a show of brushing off his tunic, Grillby raising a few degrees in temperature in exasperation.

“Look not a single scorch mark. You weren't even close,” Gaster continued with an easygoing smile.

Grillby wondered if the skeleton was insane - or perhaps completely lacking in common sense. He supposed a world could exist where he were both, but that would probably be giving the clueless monster too much credit. Grillby drew a long breath. Well… Maybe… Gaster had mentioned he’d never met an elemental before. Maybe he was just hopelessly ignorant. Yeah. Yeah that had to be it.

“Just…” Grillby huffed out a sigh, cooling back down to an indifferent orange glow. “... Don't go out of your way to tempt fate, okay?”

Gaster barked a laugh, “If accidental dusting were truly my fate I'm sure I'd be spread to the four winds by now.”

Grillby shot the monster what he could manage of a stiff glare. To his mild surprise, Gaster understood the subtle expression. He raise his hands in a placating gesture, rolling his eyes playfully.

“Alright, alright. I’ll walk on my absolute tippiest tippy-toes from now on. Reassured?” he said with a chuckle. Grillby gave an exasperated groan and returned to his task of packing. Gaster kept a ‘safe’ distance and inspected the elemental as he packed, emanating his peculiar brand of lackadaisical curiosity all the while.

“I do truly wonder about the sword though,” Gaster hummed, “I was under the assumption that elementals used magical attacks?”

“Well yes,” Grillby answered tersely, standing stiffly after he’d shoved away the last of his belongings. He dusted off the knees of his breeches before turning to walk abruptly from the tent. Gaster followed, shadowing the elemental as he began removing stakes from the ground and slowly tearing down tent piece by piece. Gaster blinked at him as he worked for a moment before crossing over to one of the other anchors and working as well.

“Alright,” Gaster pressed further, smiling to himself as two more pairs of hands materialized in the air beside them, “If you use magic attacks then why a sword? I know some of the less magically inclined monsters take up arms, but I can’t imagine it being much of a help for you. No offense but you reek of strong magic.”

He flashed that grin in Grillby’s direction, “Well, you’re made of strong magic, so I suppose the reek would follow naturally.”

With an unconscious command he set the floating, spectral copies of his hands to work tearing out the remaining anchors and supporting the tent as it was collapsed. Meanwhile, a final pair of the wraithlike hands worked and waved as he spoke, signing out his words for him while his actual hands worked. Grillby watched them as they moved about hypnotically before finally addressing the skeleton’s question.

“Not every problem can be handled with… erm… strong magic?” Grillby answered cautiously.

“Like what?”

Grillby wished he had proper eyes to roll, “Heavens above - why do you need to know?”

Gaster chuckled, smiling excitedly as he stepped away from the final anchor holding the tent in place. The entire structure collapsed in on itself, and his ghostly helping hands dissipated as it did, fizzling out of existence with magical hisses. With his now free, normal hands he signed once again as he spoke, the movements precise and defined as if he’d been waiting to answer a question of his own like this all morning.

“Well that’s simple, Grillby,” he said, “Because I don’t know the answer.”

When Grillby said nothing he continued, as if some floodgate in him had burst open and suddenly he needed to tell anything that had ever been on his mind.

“How boring of a world would this be if nobody existed to question how or why it worked? What power grants humans such tenacity in life that we monsters need elementals like yourself to contest? Why does the Sun turn in a disc about the Earth, along with the rest of the celestial plane? Why would a sword with physical attacks benefit a being who is renowned for it’s magical skill? For what purpose were we placed here, in this time, instead of any other? Why exist or why stop existing?”

Gaster laughed as he spoke, radiating a genuine and almost childlike happiness. And as he spoke he worked, using magic to lift and fold the remains of the tent with effortless proficiency. He did the same with the ropes it had been tied with, the anchors and supports, bundling them together and sliding them into his inventory.

“I’ve asked questions like this of the world around me for as long as I can remember,” Gaster said pleasantly, “Because nobody else asks them. I realize to you it’s trivial, and prying. But eventually you will find it is to our mutual benefit. We will eventually be on the battlefield together, you know.”

He piped a laugh at the distressed way Grillby’s flames flushed.

“Yes, a breakable, frail skeleton like me sharing space on the field with a phenomenally powerful and destructive force. A fun concept, yes? I know I’m excited.” He cleared his throat and continued, “But say we’re ever fighting within close proximity to each other and you are forced to draw arms as opposed to using magic. Am I to assume that you’ve exhausted yourself like a regular monster would have for that to be the case? If so, should I also assume you’re near death, as you’re made completely of magical energy and it has doubtlessly been depleted? Or perhaps you have a physical form beneath your magical radiation, and you would revert back to a more vulnerable state, and I should be rushing heroically to your aid?”

He snickered at this, the spastic motioning of his hands stilling for an instant before he continued, “Then there’s always the possibility that absolutely nothing has happened with you and you are using it for a tactical reason. After all, I’ve never seen an elemental before, much less watched them work. I’m running on incomplete assumptions, if you will. Hmm… Are you feeling well, friend? You’re dimming.”

Grillby gave a start, snapping out of the overwhelmed daze that Gaster had managed to ramble him into. He felt like he’d just been hit by a wall of questions - even if most of them weren’t strictly directed towards him. With a flush his light brightened again, and he shook his head as if to clear it.

“When in the world did you find time to think of all that?” Grillby asked, unable to hide the bafflement at the edge of his voice. Gaster just flashed him that lackadaisical grin once again.

“I’ve been told I ask too many questions,” came his simple reply.

Grillby let out a soft “huh”, hands on his sides and mind twirling with bemusement.

“Alright then, scholar,” he motioned to what Gaster was wearing, “Or should I say doctor. My turn for questions. If you’re such an intellectual, how did you find yourself in a training camp, under the charge of who I’m told is one of the fiercest women alive, instead of a docile monastery in the north?”

Gaster shrugged, “I actually was quite content with the refugee camp I found myself in several months ago. I was a doctor there, and quite a proficient one in fact. My work there before and during the raid that destroyed it has landed me under the scrutiny of quite a few prying eyes. Some of them a bit less… friendly than others.”

He gave a nervous laugh, motioning his hands in what eventually turned into a worried and helpless shrug, “So now I’m wandering around between camps with Amathea until things settle. If I’m completely honest with you friend, I believe you being thrown with us might have been much less of an act of convenience in escorts and much more in the way of insurance for those on our wide who are betting on our survival. After all, there are several qualified monsters that could have escorted us separately.”

Grillby paused, letting the words sink in.

“What… what happened?”

Gaster let out a loud gasp, making Grillby jump in surprise. The skeleton grinned at him, grasping a hand to his chest dramatically and doing his best to widen his eyes in a feigned look of shock. Grillby sputtered confusedly.

“Grillby! We’ve just barely met. Do you honestly expect to know everything about me before nightfall?” He exclaimed, his voice struggling to sound aghast as barely suppressed laughter tugged at his nonexistent throat. Grillby crossed his arms, but found humor in the irony in spite of himself.

“We’re going to be spending a lot of time together you know,” Grillby parroted back to him, pouring every ounce of condescending into his voice that he could manage, “Why play the ‘mysterious stranger’ card this early in the game?

Gaster let out a long laugh, throwing his head back and rocking on his heals. He jabbed a bony finger at Grillby.

“You know what? I like you. Just the perfect blend of uptight and humorous.”

“Uptight?” Grillby struggled to keep his voice sounding amused instead of… well... insulted.

“It’s fantastic,” Gaster chuckled, “Now, my glorious tour guide, would you mind directing us back to where we pitched our tent? The sooner we get you set up, the sooner I get to sleep. Heavens alive all that marching just makes me want to snooze for days.”

Grillby spun on his heel, heading off back the way they’d come. He gave a subtle smirk.

“Huh, so when Amathea said you were napping earlier...”

Gaster gave an indignant huff, “I’ll have you know I was doing something of the utmost importance!”

“Oh really? And what was that, pray tell?”

The skeleton flashed him a wide grin.

“Well I mean… it wasn’t not napping, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Chapter Text

 

After careful scrutiny of the ground around Amathea’s tent, Grillby finally decided on a place to pitch his own - making sure he was safe from any water that might run down the hills should another heavy rain start like the night before. Which was very well possible, given how threateningly grey the skies had begun to look as the morning progressed. Actually assembling the thing turned out to be relatively simple with Gaster’s help. For as pestering as the skeleton was with his thousands of questions, he was in the end quite an efficient worker. And with the aid of his summoned hands, he had the tent together without Grillby having to help hardly at all. He felt guilty for not helping more - this was his home after all. Gaster didn’t give him a chance to apologize for it though, because as soon as he was finished the skeleton slipped into he and Amathea’s tent, collapsing inside with an over exaggerated sigh. He was asleep in seconds, and Grillby was finally left to his own devices.

“And then there was one,” Grillby hummed to himself, “... now what?”

He supposed he could probably meander his way to the mess tent and see if lunch was an option - cringing internally at the thought of the hoard of monsters probably crowding towards it for a meal after their march that morning. And he wasn’t feeling particularly hungry anyway, just bored. He paced for a few minutes, running through his options. He didn’t have anyone he could write, nothing he’d really like to trade for. When was Gerson’s promotion ceremony again? They tended to be small affairs but… he still wanted to show some support while he still could. And then there was the gathering tonight his old unit wanted to do. That was sure to be interesting. Lonely in the long run perhaps, but Grillby could handle a bit of bittersweet.

Finally Grillby made a decision and with a reassuring breath, plunged himself back into the crowded camp. It was strange walking through without an escort of some sort. He’d made runs around by himself alone before, of course. He wasn’t coddled so much that he was never alone. But on the general whole, Grillby spent most of his time in someone else’s company. Making decisions without someone else’s input was different. It was supposed to be liberating, he knew, but instead he felt nervous. Hyperconscious.

Stepping around other monsters when from being an unconscious action to a laborious chore. With so many new monsters wandering around, it was like trying to dodge raindrops. Huge, meandering raindrops with minds of their own and no care in the world for where they stepped or stopped or stumbled or anything else for that matter. Of course Grillby did stick out a little bit more than the average monster, but everyone today seemed to be completely ignoring his presence in the most disastrous ways possible. Just making his way across camp set every single one of Grillby’s nerves on edge - and the more flustered he got the more heat rolled off him, and the more dangerous he was to the monsters in his immediate vicinity. He didn’t know how many times he’d mumbled apologies to monsters who had stepped just a little too close for comfort.

After what seemed to be half an eternity, Grillby managed to stumble onto the small parade field where the short ceremony was sure to be held. It was normally used for teaching units to march in rank and formation, and tomorrow Grillby was sure that some of the new units would be here walking in circles on command and trying their hardest to stay in step together. Today, however, it was going to be used for something just a little more glorious. There were a few monsters gathered already - they worked on dressing the field in a meager attempt to make the promotion affair seem a bit more dignified. Magic was being used to clear stirred up mud that the rains had caused the night before. A small podium was being assembled - or attempted to be. The monsters who worked on it seemed to be struggling between the heavy weight of the thing and the spongy ground. A few clumps of monsters with nothing better to do crowded around each other, talking pleasantly as they waited for the ceremony to start. From the looks of things, Grillby judged there might be an hour or more to go until things actually kicked off.

The elemental cast his gaze up towards the sky again, his whole body frowning as he watched the last break in the cloud cover disappear behind a veneer of grey. He tossed up a silent prayer to the heavens that the rain would hold off long enough for him to watch the ceremony - and maybe until he made it back to his tent that evening too, if it could be managed. Though from the looks of the sky downwind, he probably shouldn’t be pressing his luck.

For such a beautiful time of year, fall seemed to go out of its way to be inconvenient for him, it seemed.

With nothing better to do, and not all that willing to go walking through another crowd again, Grillby moved towards one of the working monsters and offered his help. He kept his voice low but pleasant, biting back a sigh when the monster he spoke with still managed to look intimidated. They stammered for him to wait a moment and scurried off to a superior, pointing back at Grillby when they were questioned on who was asking for what. The second monster glanced at him, blinking in surprise for a moment before waving him over. Grillby brightened as he approached, trying to look pleasant but realizing belatedly he was probably just making himself look more intimidating.

“You were the monster who asked to help?” The coordinator asked disbelievingly. She was a lythe canine monster, some mix between a dog and something with horns if the small prongs beside her ears were any indication. Grillby nodded.

“Yes, actually. I’m a bit early for the ceremony and figured I could offer some assistance.”

The girl glanced over to where a few of her subordinates were struggling with the podium, and then back to Grillby again, “Well, d’you think you could fix our mud problem?”

Grillby could’ve laughed, “I think I could manage that. Would you have them clear the field?”

She nodded, moving off to bark a few orders to the monsters nearby. They immediately began tearing apart what they’d managed to put together, shuffling away and churning up even more of the muddy earth as they went. The monster Grillby had first spoken with began clearing away the monsters huddled nearby as well, cautioning them away in case something should go amiss. Grillby new it was unnecessary, but he didn’t intervene. He waited patiently, nodding back to the coordinator he’d spoken with when she gave him the all clear.

Grillby sighed in a deep breath, letting his core heat up and expand. He sparked, fire rippling in bright whites and blues. Heat rolled off of him in waves, the ground at his feet misting as the moisture inside it began to evaporate. As he exhaled, a ring of fire bloomed about his ankles and expanded, rippling outwards and rolling just above the bare earth. Immediately the ground began to hiss and fizzle, he could feel the earth beneath his feet become a little more firm as the water was forced out and into the air. And his fire kept blooming outwards, coursing across the field where he knew the crowds would be standing, back to where the podium had begun to be assembled and then forcibly moved. A thin, misty steam rose, swirling about the parade grounds as the fire rippled to its end. It fizzled out abruptly when it reached the edges of the parade square, blinking out inches before anything flamable could so much as brush it. Grillby stomped a foot on the ground experimentally, flickering contentedly when the ground didn’t yield as readily as it had before. He tossed the now startled-looking coordinator a thumbs up.

“Should be good now I think,” he called over to her, unable to bite back his pride at her baffled expression. She paused for a blink before calling her workers to get started again, nodding appreciatively when they began reassembling the podium without the fear of sinking in the mud. A few monsters nearby clapped and gave muted cheers. Grillby gave a bashful flush and bowed to them, earning himself several laughs and a few more claps.

“That was a neat parlor trick!”

Grillby let out a gasp and flinched, hardly stifling a shriek as it bubbled through his throat. When he was sure his core hadn’t managed to implode from the shock, he gave his foot an angry stomp. He spun abruptly on his heel, staring up at what was quickly becoming the most annoying grin Grillby had ever seen.

“Do you know any others like that?” Gaster asked, eyes glittering in that ever present star-like wonder. Grillby crossed his arms, giving in to his urge to tap his foot in nervous tension. Gaster blinked down at him, confused for a moment before realization dawned on him. He chuckled, waving his hands emphatically as he took a wary step back.

“Oh lighten up a little, hothead,” Gaster laughed, though there was an apologetic slowness to his motioning hands that Grillby just barely noticed, “No harm no foul.”

“I swear to heaven above if you do that again…!” The elemental muttered bitterly, but trailed off in a seething growl before he could lay claim to anything truly threatening. No matter how annoying the skeleton got, Grillby doubted he could ever hurt him on purpose. Gaster kept smiling, thought there was a strain in it. He kept motioning his hands in the same expression over and over again. It looked familiar.

“What?” Grillby sighed defeatedly.

“Sorry,” Gaster said, jerking his hands decisively.

The elemental shook his head, “Yeah whatever. Aren’t you supposed to be napping or something?”

Gaster shrugged, “I don’t sleep long.”

“How did you even find me?”

If it were possible, Gaster’s grin got even wider. He tried and failed to widen his eyes - the broken one twitching but remaining stubbornly in place. He leaned forward, giving his hands a wild flare.

“Magic!”

“More like stalking,” Grillby muttered, eliciting a nervous laugh from Gaster.

“Oh don’t be cruel,” Gaster said, his smile waning just a bit, “I figured you’d have noticed by now, friend. I’m not exactly the type for subtle tedium.”

Grillby had to admit begrudgingly that Gaster was probably right about that.

“Anyway, that wasn’t a parlor trick,” he said bitterly, “I don’t use magic stupidly. They wanted my help.”

“Huh,” Gaster looked genuinely impressed, for what it was worth, “Well whatever it was, it was quite fascinating. That kind of magic just comes naturally to you?”

“It was a fire burst,” Grillby murmured defensively, “A lot of monsters who work with fire magic can do those.”

“Really? I’ve never seen it before,” Gaster mused out loud, more to himself than Grillby, “Ah well. It was impressive nonetheless.”

He paused, considering something before signing with a bit more gravity, “I’m constrained to bone attacks myself, along with a small handful of things I’ve picked up recently from the camps I’ve been in. Watching other monsters work their magic always fascinates me. It’s always interesting to see someone do something you’re incapable of.”

Grillby shifted on his feet a bit uncomfortably, sighing as his agitation began to abate. It was hard to be bitter with the monster when he seemed to constantly exude some overbearing, child-like wonder.

“That’s an interesting way of looking at it,” he admitted finally, “So how about you? Any… what was that again…?”

He raised his fingers in condescending air quotes, “ Parlor tricks ?”

Gaster laughed, moving his hands in rapid excitement, “What, are you kidding? Of course I do! Heh, most of them are more for survival though.”

He suddenly gasped, his mouth splitting into a wide grin, “Hey I know! Why don’t we spar?”

“What?!”

Grillby felt like he’d been punched in the gut. His very core gave a jolt of surprise, his flame swarming through trepid, washed out hues of white and blue.

“Yeah, it’ll be fun! And probably kill a good bit of time too,” Gaster continued with fearless abandon, “I mean, you’re waiting on your friend’s ceremony right? It’ll keep us entertained for a bit.”

He chuckled, “Might entertain everyone else as well.”

“That’s not a good idea,” Grillby managed to squeak out past the building, queasy feeling in his gut, “That is definitely not a good idea.”

“Oh come on live a little, firefly,” Gaster laughed, “A friendly spar never dusted anyone.”

“No, no no no, infinity plus one, no,” Grillby said quickly, finally able to get a bit of firmness back into his voice, “You’re a skeleton.”

“And you’re an elemental,” the friendliness in Gaster’s tone dissipated, turning into something a bit more serious and - if it were possible - confused, “I’m made of bone, no stained glass. I mean, I know we tend to be fragile but I’ve lived this long for a reason you know. Come on. Trust me on this one. It’ll be great.”

“No.”

Gaster paused, obviously trying to figure out something convincing to say. His hands signed out a few of his thoughts for him before he finally managed to pick something, “Weren’t you curious about my magic just a handful of seconds ago?”

“Not that curious,” Grillby said decisively, crossing his arms and hoping to cut off any further argument, “I don’t spar. Not for fun anyway.”

Gaster frowned, caught somewhere between disappointment and genuine confusion. He opened his mouth to say something, hands stuttering for a second as he started and stopped one or two motions. With a sigh he waved one of them, as if dismissing something. His smile worked it’s way back onto his face, smaller than before but not unkind.

“Alright, whatever you say I guess,” he said, his voice pitching back into a shadow of it’s earlier enthusiasm, “Though I will warn you, Amathea’s the kind of escort who thinks sparring is the only way to train. Might want to mentally prepare yourself for that when it happens.”

“I’ll cross that road when I get to it,” came Grillby’s curt reply.

Silence passed between them, the two monsters shifting awkwardly for a moment, at a lost for what to do or say. Grillby cast a wary glance up at the sky again, his flame fluttering in a scowl when he saw it had gotten darker. Gaster glanced up as well, a puzzling frown on his face. He signed something, Grillby just barely catching it out of his peripheral. Curiosity got the better of him.

“What was that?”

He signed it again, frowning a little deeper, “Erm… worried about the rain? Basically. Some things don’t translate well.”

“Where you come from, does everyone sign like that?”

“Well, no,” Gaster said with a shrug, “My brother lost his bottom jaw when he fell out of a tree when we were little. We found a way of talking in spite of it.”

He grinned, “We grew up pretty isolated, so there wasn’t really anyone there to tell me it was weird… or stop the habit. And now that he’s no longer here I have no will in me to stop.”

Grillby felt himself dim, “Oh… I’m sorry.”

Gaster made a dismissive gesture with his hand, his smile becoming wistful, “It’s how life goes sometimes. Heh, I have to admit, I do quite enjoy how baffled some monsters look when they watch me talk. They get so lost watching my hands they stop hearing me speak. It’s… interesting.”

Grillby watched the complex motions of Gaster’s hands as we spoke, soaking in each movement. It was hard to tell what any of them meant. Grillby could hardly tell where one motion stopped and the other one started.

“Over time Amathea picked up a few of them,” Gaster continued, rambling a bit, enjoying the quizzical way Grillby tilted his head as he tried to decipher the movements he made, “We use them sometimes when we need to be quiet while out on the field. Taught a few of them to some of the units we joined.”

Grillby paused, thinking. He raised his hands hesitantly and, after a pause, waved them in a circle around each other once. After the motion was finished, he pulled his right hand forward, palm out towards Gaster’s chest. The skeleton blinked down at him, surprise lighting up his glittering eyes.

“You said that was ‘sorry’ earlier, right?” Grillby asked, peering up at Gaster, flickering apprehensively, “Or did I just say a bunch of nonsense?”

Gaster’s face slowly brightened, his lackadaisical grin baring his teeth and his eyes lighting up with excitement, “No no! That was good! You caught that quick.”

Grillby felt himself lighten a little, sighing a bit with relief. Finally, something safe to talk about.

“Would you show me more?” He asked with a contented flicker, “Since we have a wait.”

For someone who couldn’t properly grin, or widen his eyes or other such emotional cues, he sure managed to light up at the prospect of teaching someone his language. He quickly motioned for Grillby to sit beside him on the ground, and the elemental followed suit.

“What do you want to know first?” He asked happily.

Grillby thought a moment, finally giving a shrug, “I don’t know, really. Names?”

Gaster nodded, frowning slightly, “Huh… alright well…”

He went through a long, slow motion, holding his left hand stationary as he waved his right hand over it twice with a quick flick of his wrist. Then he jerked his right hand upward to carve an ‘x’ by his right shoulder.

“That’s how my brother referred to me,” Gaster said with a grin. He took Grillby back through the motion several times, correcting subtle differences in the way the elemental moved his hands.

“So did you two just… make this up?”

“Yeah, mostly,” Gaster chuckled, “Most of it probably won’t make sense. Some of the motions are nonsense things. Things we thought looked interesting or complicated. Some of the motions repeat for related things.”

He paused, “Hmm… so how about you then? How do you want to be called?”

Grillby shrugged, at a loss, “No idea.”

Gaster chuckled, making a sweeping gesture, “Well this is fire. This one is smoke. Uhm… man. Warmth.”

Gaster flashed a mischievous grin, “Uptight.”

Grillby rolled his eyes and let out a groan, earning himself a rattling laugh from Gaster.

“Give me some words. We’ll make you something,” Gaster offered, smiling good-naturedly. Grillby paused, thinking. He started listing off words. Stars, rain, light, peace. Dark. Ancient. Strong. Cautious. Upon his asking, Gaster would fuse some of them together, add flares to the motions or simplify them. Grillby would copy some, ignore others. As they worked, monsters gathered. Some watched the two, blinking curiously at their strange conversation and wondering what in the world they were up to. A few small children pointed at the funny fire man and the skeleton who were talking with their hands. Others were grabbing spots to stand for the ceremony, casting expectant looks up at the podium and the tents nearby as some of the monsters to receive the promotions began to gather. They settled on a motion shortly before the ceremony began, Gaster motioning through a calm set of flourishes - a simplified amalgamation of stars, sky, and fire. The skeleton grinned, signing the motion over and over and committing it to memory. Grillby echoed him, feeling surprisingly happy.

“There! Grillby,” Gaster said matter-of-factly, as if the word had existed all along, “I like it.”

He signed the motion again, more to himself than anyone else, “Yeah, that’s a good one.”

Grillby chuckled, slowly pulling himself to his feet. The monsters nearest to him shuffled a few antsy steps away from him, cautioning themselves away. Grillby ignored it, focusing instead on Gaster as the skeleton hopped smoothly up. He dusted off his long black tunic, laughing as he went.

“Wanna see what I call Ammy?” He asked, barring his teeth in a mischievous grin. Grillby nodded cautiously. Gaster took him through a jerking motion - something short and fast and brash. Grillby tilted his head up at the skeleton.

“What was that?”

Gaster grinned, “Promise you won’t tell?”

“What are we, five?” Grillby laughed.

“Gotta promise,” Gaster chimed, grinning all the while.

“Fine fine,” Grillby sighed happily, “I promise. What’s it say?”

Gaster snickered, hardly able to contain himself as he signed it again.

“Angry fish mom.”

Chapter Text

Movement at the front of the field drew the two monsters’ attention, and Grillby brightened when he saw Gerson emerge from the line of tents to join a few other gathered monsters who were eagerly awaiting the promotions they were to receive. He stifled the reflex to wave childishly to him from where he stood. Grillby stuck out like a sore thumb. If Gerson hadn’t noticed him by now, he was going blind. Gaster shifted on his feet beside the elemental, fidgeting impatiently as he waited for the ceremony to start. He had just enough time to open his mouth to say something to Grillby when a short trumpet blast shot through the air around them. A few monsters jumped, not expecting the sound. The general clamor of the crowd died down.

“Oooo, it’s starting,” Gaster hummed, and Grillby shushed him. He cast one last wary look up at they greying sky before focusing his attention on the monster stepping up to the podium. He was a large goat monster, some relative to the king. The current head of the camp, Commander Dreemurr. Grillby hadn’t met the monster personally, but he’d seen his comings and goings on occasion. He had a friendly voice and a kind smile, Grillby remembered.

“Good morning my fellow monsters,” the commander said, his voice carrying over the slowly silencing crowd, “We are gathered here on this fine morning to honor and celebrate the great acts of bravery and discipline that has set a number of our own apart from the rest. These monsters gathered with me today are to be honored by becoming a part of the commanding staff, to help lead and aid in the protection of our great people…”

And so it went. Dreemurr, Grillby had realized during several other of these affairs that he had seen, had a strong way with words. His speeches were inspiring, even though his voice remained calm and his demeanor poised. This speech held a particular pride for Grillby though, knowing his mentor and friend was the one receiving the praise and honor. The fire monster felt like his soul might burst for his friend, and he beamed happily from where he stood. Gaster, for what it was worth, managed to remain quiet and mostly still as the event progressed. He fidgeted a bit, occasionally shifting his weight from foot to foot and making silent motions with his hands.

“... and now without further adieu,” Dreemurr said with a regal bow of his head, “I will bestow upon these fine monsters the honors and titles they have earned through their hard work and dedication. Step forward Javen.”

One of the monsters who had been lined up patiently by the podium stepped forward and bowed. Dreemurr stepped forward to meet her, waving a hand over her head and shoulders and crowning her in a soft burst of fire magic.

“Rise, Javen, the Sword of Truth.”

There was applause as Javen rose. The monster bowed to the onlooking crowd before stepping to the side.

“Step forward, Raphael.”

The next monster in line stepped forward and bowed. The Commander crowned him in magic, naming him Raphael the Warbreaker. Then came Elwin the Valiant. Charon the Unyielding Shield. Saren the Rising Storm.

“Step forward, Gerson.”

Grillby wished he had a proper mouth to grin with. He settled instead on brightening as much as he could, flaring to life brightly. He tried to ignore the handful of monsters that shuffled a step or two away from him when the air around him got hotter. He was a bit surprised when Gaster stayed in place - though he supposed if anyone would, it would be him.

“Rise Gerson, The Hammer of Justice.”

There were a few whoops and cheers from the audience - some of the more rowdy of Gerson’s old unit making a fuss from where they stood amalgamated with the rest of the crowd. Grillby didn’t cheer, he was a bit too timid for that. But he clapped as enthusiastically as he could, sparking and crackling all the while. Gerson bowed politely to the crowd, and by the time he’d stepped aside he was grinning like a child. The crowd calmed down enough for Dreemurr to move on to the remaining monsters in the line, each new name being met with cheers and praise.

The Commander was on the second to last one when Grillby felt a prickle against his core. He flinched, shuddering off the feeling only for it to hit a second time. It stung slightly, like someone had poked him with a needle. Movement caught the corner of his eye and he glanced over at Gaster, who was holding a hand out experimentally - catching a raindrop on his finger bones. The skeleton frowned over at Grillby.

“Is rain a thing you can do?”

Grillby shook his head, flinching as another heavy drop landed on him.

“Should you leave?”

“I’ll be fine,” Grillby murmured, stoking himself a little hotter in the hopes of warding off some of the threatening drops, “It’s just sprinkling. Just as long as this gets done with before a downpour starts-”

“Don’t mean to put a damper on that,” Gaster cut him off abruptly, “But if you have to fight through a crowd while it starts raining harder, that’ll put you in a pretty sorry state.”

Grillby gave a nervous flicker, his core churning around in his chest apprehensively. He glanced around at the crowd, and then forward at podium where the commander had finished with the naming as was going into a final speech about bravery in the face of adversity and some other such inspirational nonsense. It was starting to rain a little harder, a few monsters on the fringes of the parade grounds already ambling towards tents and shelters. Grillby shivered, a feeling of pins and needles jabbing at his head, neck and shoulders as more rain fell.

“If we leave now we might be able to get you back to your tent,” Gaster offered, “It’ll be a bit nicer than crashing in one of the traders’ tents, or the mess hall. Or outside.”

Grillby shifted on his feet uncomfortably. He wanted to stay and support Gerson. Though, he supposed he’d at least gotten to see the monster named and most of the ceremony take place. The rest now was just formality. And Gerson would never ask him to stay when his life could be in danger. He was probably wondering why Grillby was still there at all. The elemental huffed out a defeated sigh.

He still felt guilty though.

“I should leave,” he finally conceded, his sentence ending in a fretful hiss when a drop of water landed just above his eye. He turned to make his way through the crowd, monsters attempting to part for him but inevitably running into too many people standing beside them to move far enough for Grillby to make his way comfortably. It was a strain trying to go through without touching anyone, and he earned himself a handful of nasty or shocked looks when he managed to brush into someone. Gaster followed like a shadow, watching Grillby move with a mix of mild concern and curiosity, absolutely rookish in how he towered over the elemental as he walked.

By the time they’d wormed their way back into open space again, the rain had started to pick up even more. Grillby dashed off as soon as he had the room to, hissing and wincing every other breath. The rain stung, prickling against his flame and making his core shudder. It helped that it wasn’t raining quite hard enough to soak through his clothes, he had some small protection at least. But the parts of him that were exposed were beginning to ache from the stings, his fire starting to cool despite his attempts to stir it warmer. A tense whine shuddered it’s way through his chest. This was absolutely miserable.

It was starting to rain harder.

For a few soul-splitting seconds, Grillby wondered if he would make it back to his tent before the skies let loose and a real downpour started. What an inglorious way to leave this world - snuffed out because of his own stupidity and stubbornness. He should’ve retreated inside as soon as the sky had clouded over. Grillby skid to a tremulous halt, looking around wildly for someplace to escape the weather. After a pause he realized he was missing someone. Grillby spun around in a circle, eyes flicking to and fro around the path he’d run down.

Gaster was nowhere to be seen.

Brilliant.

Grillby sighed bitterly to himself, turned and resumed his dash back towards his tent. The skeleton could find his own way back. It wasn’t like Grillby could stick around to wait for him anyway. And for someone so clueless, Gaster sure had a way of popping up where you least expected him to be. If the skeleton could figure out where Grillby was, he could figure out where his own tent was.

Grillby was halfway across the camp when the downpour he’d been dreading finally decided to rear it’s ugly head. The elemental watched it come, first as a grey haze that seemed to engulf the world in front of him. Then as a gust of wind that propelled some of the first droplets towards him. He wasn’t even given a chance to react. There was a ping on his soul, and for a split second every part of his flame and his soul shone blue. Whatever magic that had clenched itself around him weighted him down for a moment before suddenly whisking him off of his feet. He hit the ground in a bitter skid, slipping into a nearby tent just before the downpour slammed into his new shelter.

Grillby lay there on his back, stunned, watching as the top of the tent shook as the rain hounded into it. What in the world.

Movement caught the elemental’s peripheral, and he glanced over to see Gaster standing beside him. A grin split his face and he gave a quiet wave. Grillby sat up slowly, blinking up at Gaster.

“Was that you?” He asked incredulously.

The skeleton shrugged, “I mean, it wasn’t not me if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Grillby looked outside at the rain, gaze resting pointedly at where the line of water ended just before his feet, then back up at Gaster Back outside again. Back to Gaster.

How?

Gaster chuckled, “What do you mean, how?”

“You were gone!” Grillby exclaimed, finally pulling himself to his feet, “I checked, you’d disappeared! I’d lost you in the crowd back there! And now you’re here. Before I got here.”

Gaster didn’t say anything. He just grinned mischievously, arms crossed over his chest in some mix of proud and smug.

“And then there was the…? Was that blue magic?” Grillby sputtered, “You said you only knew bone attacks.”

“I also said I picked up a few things,” Gaster pointed out, his voice content and the motions of his hands confident, “Parlor tricks. Remember?”

Grillby would have been gaping if he had a proper mouth to do it with. In place of that, his fire doused itself into pale whites and blues, sparks occasionally fizzling to life around him. He watched the skeleton for several long seconds.

“Monsters don’t just… pick up blue attacks,” Grillby paused a moment, and then added, “Or any strong attacks like that. That’s boss monster material.”

Gaster gave a helpless shrug, “I mean, all I did was pull your soul over here. It’s not really that big of a deal.”

“What other ‘parlor tricks’ do you know?”

Gaster laughed, “Oh come on Grillby. Don’t ruin the surprise. Life get’s boring that way.”

He shifted on his feet uncomfortably for a second before saying, “Besides, it’s… really not that big of a deal. Magic just comes easier to some of us.”

Grillby looked unconvinced. He felt unconvinced.

“Anyway,” Gaster smiled nervously down at Grillby, “I’m glad I found you quick enough. That could’ve gotten nasty huh? With the rain? I’m curious though. Why don’t you wear something a little more… protective?”

Grillby tilted his head to the side questioningly.

“You know, a cloak, something with a hood. Something that’s been water proofed maybe?”

Now it was Grillby’s turn to shrug. He held his hands out helplessly.

“I guess… monsters are just worried I’ll catch it on fire,” Grillby mused, “I mean, waterproofing is done with oil or grease, which catches fire pretty easily. And water proofing magic wears off within a few uses. Not to mention the craftsmen who weave it aren’t exactly cheap.”

“Well a hood surely wouldn’t do any harm,” Gaster’s voice pitched a little in worry, “Unless you’re like a candle and you’ll just snuff yourself out if we put a cap on your head.”

Grillby shrugged, “Monsters just get scared. It’s irrational, but fire scares people. It’s not that big of a deal. I mean it only really rains like this in the autumn anyway. I don’t -”

Gaster suddenly whisked forward, clapping a hand on either side of Grillby’s fiery face. The elemental stiffened in an instant, biting off the end of his sentence with a terrified shriek. The skeleton peered down at him with fervently searching eyes, his teeth clenched in a questioning frown and the bony ridge above his unbroken eye lowered.

“... What. Are. You. Doing,” Grillby demanded in a tense whisper, almost too afraid to breathe. With every fervent flutter of his core he begged his fire to cool as much as possible, his whole body pitching into molten, rapidly dimming and horror-stricken reds. Gaster ignored him, one hand resting on the side of the terrified elemental’s face while his other slipped up to wave through the free-flowing flame that wisped from the top of his head.

“Huh,” the skeleton finally tutted, stepping back after the longest and most intense seconds of Grillby’s life. As soon as he did the elemental let out the pent up breath he’d been holding, his fire blooming back to a flustered strength and ferocious heat in seconds. For a few core-splitting moments Grillby thought he might pass out from relief.

“I don’t get it,” Gaster said with a confused frown, “You’re not even hot. And I don’t have a single hit point out of place.”

“Are you insane?!” Grillby shouted, and Gaster jumped in surprise, flinching back a step.

“You don’t do that,” the elemental continued, his voice coming out much more ragged and emotional than he was expecting, but unable to help it, “Especially to me. You don’t do that to me! It is hard enough making sure I don’t accidentally burn things just by existing close enough to them, without monsters like you!

Grillby jabbed a harsh finger at Gaster’s chest, eliciting another start from the shocked skeleton, “Going out of their way to… to scare me at every turn, intrude on my personal space, prying at me like I’m… like…”

He let out a bitter growl, too angry to even explain himself.

“Especially you. Especially a monster like you who has the natural stats of a magpie! You’ve got what, two hp?!

Gaster blinked at him, a nervous grin slowly meandering across his face.

“That’s an exaggeration. I have at least seven.”

Grillby let out an exasperated shout that tapered itself into a groan as he collapsed backwards, sitting on the ground with a terse sigh. He massaged where his temples would be with nervous hands, flickering violently. He heard more than saw Gaster shuffling awkwardly, trying to think of some way to amend the situation. The skeleton finally sank to the ground as well, for once making sure he was a comfortable distance away from the flustered elemental. He sat quietly for a bit, waiting for the feverish flickering from Grillby’s flame to calm to something much closer to it’s normal, smooth orange burn. For a short while at least, the only sound that kept Grillby company was the rain. He could almost pretend like Gaster wasn’t even there.

“The ‘7 hp’ thing was a joke.”

Grillby looked up slowly, scowling at the nervous smile on the skeleton’s face.

“I actually have much more than that. Skeletons just get the ‘fragile’ rep because our attack and defense doesn’t tend to get very high. It’s stupid to me how monsters tend to overreact about that.”

Grillby didn’t respond. He just continued to lock Gaster in a seething glare. Gaster sighed, dropping what was left of his smile to frown thoughtfully forward.

“Grillby, I’ve got a question for you.”

“Oh joy.”

Gaster’s frown tugged a little lower. He paused for a second, his hands stalling as he considered whether he still wanted to ask. With a shrug, he continued anyway.

“When was the last time you burned someone?”

Grillby’s flame gave an uncomfortable flicker.

“Recently.”

Gaster paused reassessing the question in his head. He waved a hand, dismissing the answer as if it didn’t matter.

He asked again, “When’s the last time you burned someone accidentally?”

Grillby considered the skeleton for a moment, his glare softening a bit.

“Never, that I recall.”

“Okay,” Gaster continued, “When’s the last time you burned something by accident.”

Grillby’s fire burned hot in a scowl, “What’s it matter?”

“It matters,” Gaster sighed, standing up, “You’re scared of your own skin. Fire. Body. Being. Whatever you call it.”

The elemental said nothing, choosing instead to look down at his feet as if they were the most interesting things in the world. Gaster waited, expecting some kind of response and getting nothing. They shared the same space in awkward silence, once again letting the rain speak through the silence for them. Grillby could feel the skeleton’s eyes on him the entire time, soaking him in as if they were a spunge. Whether he was analyzing him for an answer or just staring to purposefully make Grillby uncomfortable, the elemental didn’t know.

“What are you thinking?” Gaster asked.

Grillby glared up at him, scowling.

“Right now.”

“I think you should leave me be,” Grillby said finally, unable to contain the bitterness in his voice, “I’m exhausted and I’m not up to dealing with… whatever it is you intend to do next.”

To his mild surprise, Gaster didn’t respond. He just regarded the elemental coldly for a moment. Then without any further argument, he walked outside. Into the rain. That was still pouring in sheets. Grillby watched the doorway, waiting for some sign that the skeleton was going to come back and bug him again. His bitterness quickly congealing into something much more along the lines of worry when he didn’t return. It was ferocious weather, even for a monster that wasn’t an elemental. The kind that soaked you to the bone and made your soul sick.

With nothing better to do, Grillby got to his feet and paced, examining the strange tent he’d found himself in as he did so. It doubtlessly belonged to someone. There were belongings stacked cautiously on the ground, away from the edge of the tent so the rain couldn’t soak them. Whoever it belonged to must have gotten caught out somewhere and had run for the nearest shelter they could find instead of backtracking all the way back here. Grillby felt strange and foreign, careful not to disturb anything as he paced. What a mess he’d gotten himself into.

He hoped the rain stopped soon.

Begrudgingly, he admitted to himself that maybe he shouldn’t have snapped so harshly at Gaster. He definitely deserved to be yelled at for invading his personal space like that. And he desperately hoped the skeleton never did it again. But… Gaster had probably just saved his life. Or at least saved him a lot of pain. Even if he was trapped in some stranger’s tent, stranded in the middle of a downpour. And maybe he’d been a little high strung about the close call, and got a little too angry when his comfort zone was ripped away.

Maybe Gaster was right and Grillby was worrying too much.

Grillby paused in his pacing. A sound struck up outside of the tent, quite obviously the sound of someone splashing through the torrential rain as it fell in buckets from the sky. Grillby frowned nervously, a thousand excuses coming to mind for whoever the owner was he’d have to apologize to. He relaxed, however, when it was actually Gaster. The skeleton slid inside, every inch of him soaked and dripping, forming a nice puddle around his feet in seconds. He scowled down at himself, his teeth clenching in a disgusted expression.

“Ah man,” he groaned, “This isn’t going to dry anytime soon.”

“Why are you back here?” Grillby asked a little bit harsher than he intended to. Gaster frowned at him, making a show of rolling his eyes - as hard to catch of a gesture as it was, given his broken eye and lack of eyebrows.

“Because I’m considerate,” came the curt reply as Gaster reached into his inventory. He produced a sheet of canvas that looked similar to what the tents were made of. It could have been torn right from one, in fact. He unfolded it carefully; making sure the water-proofed outside was where it was supposed to be. He abruptly threw it over Grillby like a blanket, earning a startled ‘oof!’ from the surprised elemental. Grillby pulled it off of his head, staring down at it confusedly. He ran his fingers gently across the fabric.

“What is this for?” He asked, blinking up at Gaster.

“You have somewhere to be this evening right?” Gaster asked, raising the bony ridge of his unbroken eye, “Your friend mentioned something when he dropped you off.”

“Oh… well… yes,” Grillby murmured more to himself than Gaster, “But…”

“You afraid you’ll burn it?”

“Well… no,” Grillby sighed.

“Would you rather go back to your tent…?”

“... no,” Grillby said slowly, “It’s just… it’s raining a lot.”

Gaster flashed Grillby a humorless smile. He grabbed the canvas off of Grillby, using his summoned hands instead of his own, firmly remaining several steps back away from the elemental. The hands pulled it taught and followed him as he stepped outside again. Grillby watched him go, confusion rippling his core. There was a ruffling from outside as he did something with his magic, followed by an expectant pause. Gaster peeked his head back in the tent again.

“Well are you coming?” He asked, a smirk jerking at the corners of his teeth. He disappeared outside again. Grillby stepped cautiously after him, hesitating just inside the opening of the tent. Gaster was standing in the rain, water rolling off of him in droves, though he really didn’t seem to mind it. Instead he just smiled, pointing at a spot just above Grillby’s head. Grillby leaned out of the tent and looked, surprised to find the canvas still being held by those ghostly summoned hands. He’d stretched it tight above the elemental, shielding him from the rain. Grillby cautiously stepped underneath it, watching in pensive wonder as it followed him, floating just a few inches above his head.

“Now,” Gaster cleared his throat, “Where are we going exactly?”

Grillby blinked at him.

“Preferably before I drown.”

“Uhm…” Grillby looked around and finally picked a direction. He muttered a timid, “This way,” to Gaster and walked. They went slowly, Gaster directing the floating hands and canvas with enough precision that barely a handful of drops managed to hit Grillby as they walked. And Grillby, trying to be at least a little helpful, threw his fire into a white-hot glare, trying to keep the skeleton at least a little warm. If it helped at all, Gaster didn’t mention anything.

Grillby sighed and waved his hands at the skeleton. Gaster blinked at him, barely able to hold back a grin as Grillby signed to him.

“You moved your right hand wrong,” Gaster remarked dryly, “Apology wasn’t necessary anyway.”

Chapter Text

It was the first time Grillby had walked in the rain before - for obvious reasons. And… it was surprisingly peaceful. It was like he had a small island of protection in the midst of this imposing sea around him. It was different. Comforting. After all, even in spite of how threatening it could be, Grillby had always loved the rain. It was a force of nature he would never get tired of seeing, hearing, smelling. This was the first time he’d ever properly enjoyed it, submerged himself in it as far as he was capable. If he had the chance, Grillby might walk like this forever.

From the looks of it, though, Gaster was enjoying the whole ordeal much less than the wistful elemental, which Grillby really couldn’t find it in his core to blame him for. Gaster’s shoes and the hem of his pants and long tunic were caked in mud, kicked up from walking halfway to hell and back just to give Grillby a makeshift umbrella. He was completely soaked, wasting his magic away slowly just to keep the umbrella afloat, and he waved his hands spastically in a quiet rant that Grillby didn’t know enough of his strange language to understand. All of the motions seemed unfamiliar and frenetic, and while he wasn’t particularly scowling, he had a pitiful, exhausted expression on his face that made Grillby want to wince. At least seeing the unfamiliar motions that meant Gaster probably wasn’t ranting about him specifically. Maybe.

That was good, right?

“If you start getting tired we can take a rest somewhere,” Grillby offered lamely after several minutes of their slow, silent meandering. They’d been keeping their pace deliberate and reluctant, neither one of them wanting to risk accidentally dousing Grillby because either of them misstepped. It was probably a miserable, tedious walk for Gaster. One hinged on meticulous control of his magic and special care for his every movement.  

Gaster made a dismissive gesture with his hand, though Grillby noticed it was sluggishly done, “If I couldn’t handle petty magic like this I’d be dust by now.”

The elemental shrugged in reply. The mess tent loomed in the distance, grey and foreboding in the haze that the rain created. Grillby could already hear the bawdy, laughing voices of the monsters inside. It was going to be crowded and uncomfortable, but it would also likely be warm and dry. Two things Gaster would be wanting fairly soon.

“Are you going to be okay?”

For the first time in what was probably too long, considering Gaster’s personality, the skeleton barked a laugh, “Yes I’m going to be fine. It’s just water.”

He frowned at this and then signed apologetically, “I mean… for me it’s just water. And having no humor means I’m always in good humor so I can’t get sick.”

The skeleton grimaced at Grillby’s blank expression, “I don’t suppose you’ve studied any modern medicine?”

Grillby shook his head, “I’ve been summoned for a purpose that doesn’t involve many scholarly ventures.”

Gaster shrugged, cracking a genuine smile, “I could talk for hours on it so don’t get me started.”

Grillby beamed a little brighter, glad Gaster had returned to some semblance of his natural spirits. He moved to ask for an explanation, something to get him talking more, when a loud shout cut him off. Both he and Gaster jumped in surprise.

“ALRIGHT YOU RAGGABRASH YOU’VE GOT YOURSELF A BET THEN! OR ARE YOU SUCH A LOITER-SACK OF A GREEN COMMANDER YOU’LL LET A ONE-ARMED LASS SHOW YOU UP?!”

Gaster sputtered a laugh, walking a little faster towards the glowing light of the mess tent. Grillby stepped after him.

“Oh heavens above Ammy,” the skeleton muttered under his breath with a grin, “What are you doing now?”

“Never known such a brash klazomaniac to call herself a lass! As you wish my lady, I’ll make your match!”

Grillby and Gaster stormed into the tent then, Grillby flickering with laughter at the sight before him. There was a circle of cheering, laughing monsters around one of the tables in the hall. Bets were obviously being placed, eager eyes directed towards the two monsters at the table in the center of their circle. There was Amathea, leaning confidently over the table. Her face, normally stoic, was split in a fierce and exhilarated grin that flashed amber with her sharpened teeth. Her fist was clenched tight around Gerson’s, who glared back at her with determined grit and a sparkle humor in his eye. A third monster standing off to the side of both of them held a hand on their clenched fists. With a countdown he let go, and Amathea and Gerson were immediately pitched into the most fearsome of arm wrestling matches that Grillby had ever seen, arms shaking with effort and faces scrunched up in expressions of strain. Around them the other monsters cheered, whooping and yelling for whoever they were betting on to win.

“Ammy’s gonna break his arm,” Gaster said with a shake of his head. He didn’t step towards the ruckus though, choosing instead to start wringing out his clothes. He already had a substantial puddle around his feet just from standing. Grillby looked between him and the arm wrestling match for a moment before grabbing the skeleton’s attention.

“Heat doesn’t bother you, right?” he asked, pausing the skeleton in the middle of his meager attempts at drying off. Gaster nodded slowly.

“Hold still.”

With a flick of his wrist, Grillby caged the skeleton in a tunnel of fire, precision keeping the flame just inches away from him the entire time the magic coursed about him. He held it there for a slow count to twenty before dropping it, watching as steam wisped away from the skeleton’s clothes as he did. Gaster looked down at himself, stunned for a moment, and then back up at Grilly.

“That… should be a little dryer,” the elemental mumbled, self conscious under Gaster’s scrutinizing stare, “I didn’t burn you right?”

“No no, I’m fine,” Gaster split into a grin, leaning towards Grillby excitedly, “That was amazing! How in the world did you-”

The harsh slam on the table jerked both of their attentions back to the arm wrestling match. Much to Grillby’s surprise - and to many of the other monsters’ surprise as well, from the mixed cheers and groans everyone was making - Amathea’s arm was pinned, Gerson having wrestled her into submission. The fish monster laughed, shaking off the sting in her arm when she was released. Gerson was grinning, flushed from the strain and triumphant. He rubbed his sore wrist with his free hand, laughing at his friends as they passed around winning bets and congratulations.

“Alright, lass, fair is fair,” Gerson chuckled after the ruckus had died down enough for him to talk over, “You going to show us that siren voice of yours?”

“Oh alright,” Amathea said with an overdramatic sigh, “Don’t let it ever be said Amathea the Brave was a liar. But we’re doing this a certain way.”

Amathea stood from her seat, turning to her audience, “All you fustilarian raggerbrash that want to waste your time listening to this angry voice, get a chair and get in a circle!”

With a shuffle of movement monsters went to work, shoving aside empty tables and clattering about mixed-matched stools and chairs. Amathea herself sat herself on the table that had served as her arm wrestling arena, lording over the rest of the monsters as they moved with that vicious grin of hers. Grillby tilted his head to the side questioningly.

“What is she doing?”

“She’s about to sing,” Gaster answered simply, “Or… well… she’s gonna play at it anyway.”

He grinned, “She’ll kick you out if you don’t join in.”

Grillby sputtered a spark-covered sigh, “Oh but of course.”

Gaster laughed good-naturedly, scooping a nearby stool off the ground and moving towards the circle, “Live a little, firefly.”

Grillby shook his head, huffing out another sigh. With a resigned shrug he moved to join the others. Gaster parked his stool beside Amathea’s table, beaming up at his escort with a conniving anticipation. He knew what was coming next, even if the rest of the monsters didn't. Grillby somehow managed to find a seat near Gerson, sitting cross-legged on the floor beside him. The turtle monster flashed a grin in his direction before turning his attention back to Amathea as the last straggling monsters moved into place. There had to be twenty of them struggling for space in the circle.

“Alright lads,” Amathea began, yanking something from her inventory. She sat it on the table between her knees, showing off a large, ornately decorated ivory flask. She worked at uncorking it as she spoke.

“Any of you know what this here outstanding spirit is?”

There were several shaking heads, a few grumbles and awkward shuffles. Grillby noticed Gaster stayed wisely silent, watching Amathea’s routine as if he’d seen it a thousand times. The fish monster leaned towards her audience, grin slipping into a mysterious shadow of what it had been previously. Her voice lowered, rolling through her throat enticingly as she raised one of her eyebrows in a smirk. And as she spoke she spun the little jug in a hypnotizing circle, just slow enough to draw the attention of the eye and fast enough to make the head subtly spin.

“This here aqua vitae, my friends, is the brightest and best thing you’ve ever laid your eyes on. Seasoned with the broken spirits of mermaid prey, brewed with phoenix tears and the spit of the dead gods of the southern isles. The nectar of kings to rival the water of the fountain of youth. Sweet enough to soften your soul with a final bite to break it. One sip has sent the faint of heart and stomach to a wine-sick sleep. This, my friends, will make all other liquors before it taste seem like horse piss and all after like that muck you bury in the latrine.”

She abruptly stopped spinning the jug, deftly lifting it into her hand and pouring a small bit into a glass beside her with practiced ease.

“Call it liquid courage if you like, lads and lasses, but whatever it is, it’ll be the thing that gives you enough pluck to take on a siren in a singing contest,” Amathea barred her teeth in that ferocious grin, “Which is what we’re doing here tonight. So, here’s how this works.”

Out of her inventory with a flourish of magic came a silver colored coin. Amathea grinned.

“Reputation for singing have I,” she began, “But I'll be dead before I sing alone. So we have ourselves a game. You take a drink of this white lightning and you sing yourself a song. I know some of you lovely monsters have voices to kill a Scottish cat, so I'll request only one stanza from you. Then you flip this here coin. If the crown winks at you, you pick to your left side who sings next. If it doesn't, you pick to the right. If it falls on its side and it's neither than you've got some luck on ya I can't touch.”

This earned her a few nervous laughs.

“So I'll give you one last chance to back out,” her eyes flicked about the circle daringly, “You have the guts to hear a siren sing and risk your singing back, by all means stay awhile. Relax. Have some fun.”

She barked a laugh, “If not, get outta here.”

There was an exchange around the circle, monsters musing to themselves and each other about getting up and leaving. No one wanting to be the first to admit they were too self-conscious or cowardly to stay and risk singing in front of strangers and friends alike. Grillby flickered nervously, letting out a few apprehensive sparks as he glanced around the circle and saw no one moving. He didn’t want to sing. Though with a sigh he had to admit he couldn’t even really leave the tent while it was raining, so he’d be forced to sit anyway. Perhaps if he were picked he could politely refuse?

‘Alright then,” Amathea growled, leaning back and picking up her glace, “Since I lost the bet, should I start?”

There were apprehensive shiftings and glances. A few monsters nodded, feeling relieved that they wouldn’t be the first ones asked to sing. Others - more enthusiastic and ready for the game - gave brave cheers for Amathea to begin. One of them was Gerson, who seemed to be trying his darndest not to gaze at Amathea with completely star-struck eyes. Amathea tossed around for suggestions on what to sing, laughing at some of the suggestions thrown at her. There were a few love songs, a ballad she had considered but then put down with a wave of her hand. One monster asked after a song in a language Grillby had never heard of before, and there was a special sparkle in Amathea’s eye when she heard it.

“From the north are we?” She asked over the noise of pitching ideas, and the monster humbly nodded. The crowd quieted down, watching as the girl leaned back in thought, sharp teeth chewing at her bottom lip as she cast around for a song. Finally she nodded.

“I’ll not sing that one lad, but I’ll give you one you’ll appreciate,” she said finally, a grin slowly crawling across her face. She tipped her drink back, downing whatever liquor she’d had in her flask in a single gulp. She huffed a sigh, setting the glass aside and rolling her shoulders back as she composed herself. Suddenly the laughing, overbearing and gruff personality was draining from her, replaced with the cool and proud that Grillby had seen her projecting when he’d first spotted her marching into camp. It was intimidating, and the air about her demanded silence, commanded attention.

“I’ll be singing for you bawdy curs Suil a Ruin,” she paused, glancing around the circle at the questioning stares, “Or in your common speech, Go My Love.”

She sighed, eyes drifting closed as she searched back through her memory for the lyrics. And then she opened her mouth and sung. The very sound of it took Grillby’s breath away, as if the air was shimmering with her every word.

“I wish I were on yonder hill

Tis ther I’d sit and Cry my fill

Till every tear would turn a mill…

I’ll sell my rod I’ll sell my reel

I’ll sell my only spinnng wheel

And buy my love a sword of steel…”

A pause passed in which the air shook, shuddering in apprehensive of her next words. Grillby sighed into it.

Suil, suil, suil a ruin.

Suil go sochair agus suil go ciuin.

Suil go doras agus ealaigh liom…

Amathea paused, feeling the last line come to her with an invisible melody only she could hear.

Is go dte tu… mo mhuirnin… slan.

“I’ll dye my petticoats, I’ll dye them red,

And ‘round the world I’ll beg my bread,

Until my parents shall wish me dead.”

Suil, suil, suil a ruin.

Suil go sochair agus suil go ciuin.

Suil go doras agus ealaigh liom,

Is go dte tu… mo mhuirnin… slan.”

She paused again, drawing in a breath and pausing the magic that held them spellbound. There was some call in her voice, a sound like bells and the rushing of wind that Grillby couldn’t describe. And it pulled at his soul. He found himself leaning in towards her, mirroring the same earnest glances that held many of the monsters around him equally enraptured. And if Amathea minded, or even paid it notice, she showed no signs of it. She just continued with that voice that was smoother than silk and so empty and full. As of it could lull the very cosmos to sleep and in a same motion toss it back into an exhilarated wakefulness. It was indescribable and numbing, and so full of emotion.

Suil, suil, suil a ruin.

Suil go sochair agus suil go ciuin.

Suil go doras agus ealaigh liom,

Is go dte tu… mo mhuirnin… slan…

Go, go, go my love

Go quietly and go peacefully

Go to the door and fly with me

And may you go safely… my darling.”

And just like that, in a single instant, whatever stagnant magic that had held the spheres of the cosmos stopped still dropped itself as if it had never been to begin with. Grillby found himself gasping in a deep breath, his flame billowing to life from where it had managed to dull to such cool shades of orange and red that he’d nearly doused himself. Around him, something similar was happening to the rest of the monsters in the group. Gerson shuddered, sitting back with the stiffness of someone who’d been holding the same position for hours. He rubbed his face tiredly, as if the motion could extinguish what remained in the air of the gripping sound and the magic that came with it. Other monsters coughed or took a moment to just breathe, but all of them were awestruck. Dazed. Trapped in the void left behind when the voice ended. Amathea smiled pitifully at them, taking in a sight she’d doubtlessly seen a thousand times before and would surely see a thousand times after. She gave them a moment to regain composure and save face, to pretend they hadn’t been as pulled in and helpless as they had been.

When Amathea judged them recovered and ready to continue, she flipped that shiny silver coin of hers into the air and grabbed it deftly in her fist.

“So, shall we see which of you sorry souls get’s to test their voice after mine?” She asked with a sly grin.

And so they continued, Amathea flipping the coin and grinning sidelong at her victim of choice - a daring Astigmatism with a courageous look in their eye. They sang the first few lines of a child’s song Grillby had heard some of the young ones singing when he’d passed them at times. It was a lighthearted conversation between a pair of blackbirds, and when the monster ended it the monster they picked to continue it took up the following lines in a heartbeat. They threw back the liquor, some monsters shuddering and coughing at the roughness of it and eliciting jeers from their friends who sat beside them. They sang an odd mix of ballads and nursery rhymes, their voices an amalgamation of trained beauty and gruff misuse. There were laughs shared, acknowledgments given, cheers called and made.

Grillby noticed, no one dared ask Amathea to sing again.

And no one asked him to either.

Gaster sang once, the skeleton proving very quickly he had neither a strong voice nor the temperament to take singing seriously. He sang a repetitive verse about a man in the moon who played on a ladel, and how everything he owned was made of cheese. It was ridiculous and monsters laughed all the while he sang it. Grillby heaved a sigh of relief when the skeleton chose Gerson to sing as opposed to forcing the elemental into the spotlight like he fully expected him to.

The group had clapped and cheered their way through a dozen songs before the first ones finally began conceding to the need to sleep. They finished their drinks and parted ways with friends. A few of the better singing monsters were congratulated on the talent they didn’t know they’d had. Grillby said a final goodbye to Gerson before the two parted ways for the final time.

The night was cool, the rain a faded spattering of it’s former torrential glory. Gaster and Amathea talked in hushed voices as they walked, Gaster congratulating her on her beautiful performance and Amathea dismissing every word he said with quips about his poor taste in music. Though Grillby noticed that through it all, a smile hid on the corner of her lips as she spoke. Of course, Gaster drilled her with questions as well. He asked about the language and how she knew it, where it came from and why he’d never heard her use it before. Amathea answered him with a wistful voice, talking about green isles to the north and strange religions hidden in rolling glens. She spoke of home and how it had once been a place of mystery and harmony. She said nothing of why it wasn’t anymore, or why she was so far south now. But if the scars she bore were any indication, no one needed to ask.

Grillby collapsed into his tent, feeling like his soul was both the lightest and heaviest he’d ever felt it in his entire life. He dulled his fire quickly and slept, eager to make the most of what was left of the night before Amathea woke him in the morning to train. To test his strengths. Possibly to spar. He hoped he didn’t let them down. Or himself down for that matter.

Grillby felt himself rouse once, pulled into wakefulness by movement outside his tent that he wasn’t expecting. He propped himself up on his elbow, watching through a half-asleep daze as Gaster stumbled out of his tent and into the quiet night outside it. The rain had picked up again, but the skeleton didn’t seem to care. He staggered forward several steps before sitting down hard on the wet grass. Grillby couldn’t hear from where he sat, but he knew the skeleton was talking to himself by the way he waved his hands about. The pull in them was shaky, jerking and foreign.

Grillby watched him for a handful of heartbeats, wondering if he should risk the venture outside to ask if he was alright. As he watched though, Gaster pulled himself together to sit cross-legged on the ground. The movements of his hands slowed, finally stopping to rest on his knees calmly. He sat with his back turned to Grillby, gaze focused somewhere outside and vanishing in the distance at some point the elemental couldn’t discern. When he was sure the skeleton was alright, Grillby curled over on his side to sleep again.

Whatever was wrong, he could ask about it in the morning.

Chapter Text

Grillby awoke at dawn to the sound of a trumpet in the distance, heralding the morning for the sleepy residents of the camp. He yawned and stretched from where he lay, basking in the comforting feeling of his flame slowly fanning itself into strength. It sent a rush of warmth like a shiver through him, and he got to his feet slowly as it surged over him. One glance at the sky outside told him the rain had finally passed over them - there wasn’t a single cloud in sight and the breeze that teased his flame was dry and soft. The sunrise bloomed across the sky in stunning hues and values, some forgotten god painting the new day across a blank canvas.

Grillby blinked, his flame sparking and rippling in deepening hues of worried red. Gaster hadn’t moved from where he’d sat the night before. He was a few yards away from the tents, his back still facing them. He was currently hunched over something, weaving magic through his hands and whatever he had draped over his crossed legs. Grillby meandered over to him.

“Good morning,” he said brightly, stopping beside the skeleton as he worked. He frowned abruptly when he realized what he was working on.

“Wait a second… is that mine?” Grillby asked indignantly, and Gaster paused in his work to smirk up at him.

“Oh don’t sound so offended,” he said tiredly, unfolding the tunic from his lap and handing it up to the bewildered elemental, “I just got done, anyway.”

Grillby looked down suspiciously at the skeleton before checking over whatever he’d done to ruin… oh. Well. That’s… Definitely not ruined. Grillby blinked at it for a moment, then down at Gaster. Something in his expression must have given away his confusion, because Gaster laughed tiredly at him.

“It’s a hood,” he explained needlessly, his hands moving slowly with the drawl of his words, “I mean, you need a proper cloak so the rain doesn’t soak through your clothes, but I figured that would at least help.”

He paused and then added a little more bitterly than he’d probably intended, “It’s fireproofed. So for heaven’s sakes don’t worry about using it.”

Grillby blinked down at the cloth in his hands.

“You’ve been working on this all night?” He asked incredulously, “Why?”

Gaster shrugged before pulling himself to his feet and extending into a long stretch in the same motion. His bones rattled and cracked as he moved, stiff from how long he’d been sitting.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he yawned, “It was bugging me anyway.”

“Well… thank you,” Grillby said gratefully, “I appreciate it. Really.”

Gaster feigned a disgusted face and waved away his words, “Oh don’t, it wasn’t a big deal. I needed something to do anyway. Just wear it next time it rains so we don’t have to worry about you dousing yourself. It’ll get soaked quick though without any proper waterproofing. So keep that in mind.”

Grillby nodded, cataloguing the warning in the back of his mind for later.

“Well aren’t you two just the most adorable things on a late summer's morning?”

Both of them spun around to face Amathea as she emerged from her tent. She bared her teeth at them in an enthusiastic grin, “Bonding. Camaraderie. Helping each other for the common good of all. It’s commendable.”

Gaster and Grillby exchanged a nervous look, cringing at the sarcasm lilting at the edge of her voice.

“What do you want Ammy?” Gaster whined tiredly.

“What every good escort wants,” She replied graciously, borderline patronizingly, “For her two charges to work together in harmony and perfection. Increases the chances of living through battle, builds lifelong partnerships. So, to celebrate this wonderful moment, I propose we start our first task of the day doing a little activity in teamwork.”

“Ho boy,” Gaster sighed, tilting his head back in a subtle eye roll.

Grillby sputtered and crackled nervously, “Shouldn’t we be joining the others for roll call? And probably breakfast as well?”

Gaster ushered a hand pointedly at Grillby, agreeing silently. Amathea just smiled in reply.

“Oh come now you lot, we have a new member in our happy little family,” she purred, tilting her head a bit to look in Grillby’s direction as she finished her sentence, “And as his escort, I need to know what he knows. Helps me train him later, right?”

“I… suppose,” Grillby murmured.

“So,” Amathia flicked her gaze back over to Gaster, who was pouting as best a skeleton could without any lips or eyebrows to emphasize it, “We’re going to stay away from the rest of the camp a little bit. Get to know each other. After all, we could be on the front lines tomorrow. I’d like to know at least a little bit about how we all function as a unit.”

The fish monster paused, eyes rolling upward as she searched her own thoughts, “Breakfast sure sounds nice though. Alright you pair of loggerheaded clouts! First exercise of the day is getting food. Grillby, Gerson tells me you’ve got a good pair of hands around a campfire. We’ll get you ingredients, you cook.”

What?” Gaster groaned, “Why does he get the easy job?”

“Because you could burn water in an ice storm, bonehead,” Amathea grinned, giving Gaster a playful smack on the back of his head, “You’re a better hunter anyway. Nothing hears you coming. Now get.”

Gaster grumbled something incomprehensible underneath his breath, his hands signing out his thoughts bitterly as he walked off.

“And try to find something substantial please!” Amathea called after him, “It’ll be a hard day for ya if you’re sleep deprived and hungry!”

Gaster threw his hands up in the air exasperatedly, not bothering to turn around and shout anything back. Amathea smiled after him fondly, watching him as he disappeared over the top of the hill. She huffed a sigh, shaking her head before directing her attention back to Grillby.

“Alright firefly,” she said, “We’ve got a small cook set you’re welcome to use. Nothing fancy, just a pot and some cups and bowls. You’ll be needing water drawn, am I right?”

Not really knowing how else to respond, Grillby nodded. He wondered for a second if maybe he should offer to get it himself - water got pretty heavy, especially if you only had one arm to work with. Not that Amathea would ever admit she needed that kind of help if she were anything like Thetis. Should he say something? Uhm… Well… No. You know, he probably shouldn’t. She’d probably take offense to that. And Grillby wasn’t too keen on peeving her off so shortly after they’d just met. Amathea moved back to her tent, coming out shortly afterwards with the pot - well it looked more like a small cauldron, by Grillby’s reckoning - under her arm. She moved off wordlessly to fill it with water, vanishing somewhere in the direction of the camp and leaving Grillby to work on setting up a fire. Grillby tried to stomp down his annoyance at the irony.

With a crackling sigh he listed his way about their little camp site, moving some stones into a circle to make a fire pit. If he were thorough, he’d dig a hole in the ground to better contain whatever they lit. But as Amathea had said earlier, they could be on the front lines tomorrow for all they knew. There was no sense in setting up something permanent. And even besides all of that, with Grillby around the fire would never be out of control anyhow. That was one of the quieter, less notable perks to being a fire elemental: fire just tended to listen to you whenever you directed half a thought in it’s general direction.

By the time Amathea had returned, Grillby had a small fire going - though it hissed at him quite angrily past the moistened wood he was forced to use to light it. It should be grateful he even found the half-dry stuff he was feeding it, the petulant little thing! He’d also managed to set up the rack he’d be suspending the pot over, and dug out the spice box from his inventory that had been collecting dust - the harmless, dirt-related kind - since the last time he’d used it while deployed. Amathea nodded to him approvingly, leaving the pot with him before moving off to ‘find some greens’. He wished her luck - this really wasn’t the time of year that any of that stuff would be growing. Unless she fancied chowing down on dandelion leaves and too-early-chives with whatever thing Gaster brought back.

Grillby hoisted the pot over the fire and waited, watching with quiet boredom as it struggled to boil. He fidgeted through his inventory, deciding with a sigh that no, polishing things for the two-hundredth time since he’d last used them probably wouldn’t be a productive way of waiting - though he did convince himself checking to make sure nothing had tarnished was a good enough idea. … Nope. No change there. Grillby shifted where he stood, wracking his mind for something to do while he waited on the others to return with, well, everything he needed to actually do his job. One of the more damp logs in the fire collapsed as the one beneath it crumbled, sending a small plume of smoke blooming around the pot as it heated and setting the fire to hissing and sputtering. Grillby laughed quietly at it, reaching a hand in to reposition the logs so the fire could breathe a little better.

“Oh hush,” he mumbled at it, “I’m fixing it, stop complaining.”

“Can you actually talk fire?”

Grillby jumped, letting out a muffled shriek of surprise - and also nearly knocking the cauldron off it’s hook. He managed to stop it from tipping, though not before a bit had sloshed over the side, onto his hand and into the fire. Both he and the flame he’d been tending let out a pair of angry, fwooshing shouts and clouds of steam. Grillby staggered back away from the sputtering mess, crackling angry curses under his breath and wringing out his stinging hand. Gaster was beside him in an instant.

“Ah, whoops! Sorry sorry!” He said quickly, weaving close to the elemental to inspect the wound, “Here hold still, let me help.”

“No thank you,” Grillby sputtered, sparks weaving their way around him furiously as he backpedaled away from the approaching skeleton, “I’m fine. I’m fine!

He huffed out an angry breath, smoke curling about his face in wisps as he gazed down at his arm. The fire on his hand had nearly extinguished itself into a molten, congealed red, bruising with hints of orange and blue. He rubbed at it distractedly, his whole body lilting into golds and yellows as he winced uncomfortably at the sting. Gaster watched him apprehensively - but also curiously, Grillby noticed with a frown.

“It’s just… put out a little,” Grillby muttered finally, defensively.

“Grillby, I'm a doctor,” Gaster sighed, flashing a strained smile, “Let me fix it up. I swear I can't possibly make it worse.”

“I’m fine,” the elemental growled back with a forceful spark. He took a step back away from Gaster and tucked the wounded hand underneath his arm, shielding it from sight.

Gaster rolled his eyes and groaned, “Oh for heaven’s sakes…!”

He flicked his wrist, and Grillby suddenly found his very soul tugged still by blue. He hardly managed to stutter a protest before Gaster had closed the distance between them and snatched up the elemental’s hand in his own.

Gaster glared down at it for a second. There was a spark, like lightening but smaller and more frail, that arched out from the skeleton’s chest where his soul should be. His free hand signaled it, striking and stinging Grillby’s molten hand for a moment. It resonated with something in his soul - he felt it give a slight, itching tug - and then the fire on his hand bloomed back to life as if it had never been stifled. The whole thing could have happened in the blink of an eye. If Grillby had looked away for an instant he wouldn't have seen it happen.

If this was healing magic, it was of a kind Grillby had never seen before.

Gaster whistled a low tune past his clenched teeth, “Huh… Strange.”

“W… What’s strange?”

Gaster paused and looked into Grillby’s eyes, face set in a stern and deathly frown. His voice was heavy and serious as he spoke.

“Its interesting really. All that fuss and neither of us has turned to dust yet.”

He cracked a grin, and Grillby scoffed and scowled. He sent Gaster staggering back with a shove - setting the skeleton laughing that rattling, wheeze of a laugh of his.

“Oh get out of here,” Grillby frowned at him, “Don't you have a job to do or something?”

“Already done,” Gaster chuckled past a smug grin. He reached into his inventory, offering out three blackbirds. Grillby couldn't help but gape.

“No way.”

The skeleton shrugged, “I managed to grab a rabbit too. We don't really need that though. Ammy will probably make jerky out of it or something.”

How?

Gaster laughed, “I mean, you're definitely not the only thing out here who can't hear me coming.”

His laughed petered out into something more nervous and regretful, “... Sorry about that, by the way.”

“We’ll see how sorry you are after I've stitched a bell to your collar,” Grillby threatened mildly, “But blackbirds? I've never worked with delicacies before.”

Gaster shrugged, settling nearby to begin preparing the things so they could cook, “Bird is bird. Just because some human noble says only kings can eat it doesn't mean a thing.”

Grillby shrugged. Gaster could be right. Then again, humans tended to have at least some vague reason for doing things - and Grillby was no palace chef. He was also pretty sure he’d heard somewhere you were supposed to bake these things into pies instead of stewing them… However that was supposed to be managed.

As soon as Gaster was done cleaning them Grillby set to work cooking. Not that stew was hard to cook at all - it was something any monster could do if they had the patience to watch and stir and make sure nothing burned. Fire magic was helpful but not exactly required for this sort of thing. By the time the fowl was half-cooked Amathea finally returned. Her boots were muddy and her hair disheveled, but she offered from her inventory a small number of plants and roots Grillby had never seen before - though he trusted her when she said they were edible. Gaster mumbled something bitterly about how sick he was of eating cattails.

It took an hour, lots of stirring and puzzling over what ingredients he was actually cooking with, but Grillby finally managed to make something that was edible. He tried it first just to make sure - not that he didn’t trust Amathea or Gaster, they just... didn’t really seem like the cooking type.

“Well I’ll give you one thing elemental, they were right when they said you could cook,” Amathea chuckled past a mouthful of food.

“Would’ve been easier to just get something from camp,” Gaster grumbled, though Grillby noticed he didn’t have any trouble eating the food he was offered.

Amathea shook his head at him, flashing a long-suffering smile at Grillby as she did. See? Look at this! I deal with this every day, can you believe it? Grillby did his best to stifle his laugh into his soup as he sipped it. Hmm… blackbird was definitely a human dish. Grillby sure didn’t have a taste for it. Though whatever Amathea had brought tasted decent. He’d have to ask her what it was later.

Next on Amathea’s list of ‘bonding activities’ was combining their tents - something Grillby shuddered at but begrudgingly conceded to. She was his escort after all, what she said went (plus the extra canvas space was perfect for pacing in on rainy days, which there were sure to be more of). Both Ammy and Gaster were surprised he didn’t have a bed of any sort to sleep on. Both of them had bed rolls - Amathea actually looked to be in the process of converting hers into a hammock for whatever reason. But Grillby reassured them that he was perfectly fine the way he was, and added quietly to himself that if Gaster startled him again it was one less thing he’d likely catch on fire.

“Alright lads,” Amathea said with a smirk, “Break time.”

“Seriously?”

Gaster patted Grillby on the shoulder, smiling dryly, “Oh don’t worry, Ammy doesn’t give breaks unless something terrible is about to happen. Right Ammy?”

Both of her charges gave her skeptical looks - Grillby’s noticeably more worried than Gaster’s. Amathea grinned a little bigger, an excited sheen lighting up her eyes.

“Aw, and here I thought I was unpredictable,” she whined, though the grin on her face didn’t so much as twitch, “Enjoy your free time while you have it. I’m going to the parade grounds. And by the time I get back, you two better be ready.”

She pointed a clawed finger at Grillby, “You and me are going to have a spar, tinderbox.”

Chapter Text

Grillby's break time went much less in the way of a relaxing break, and much more in the way of nervous pacing around the campfire. And while he was stamping a neat circle into the grass, Amathea went to prepare the field, and Gaster napped. Or at least, he looked like he was napping. He was lying beneath the tree their tents were pitched beside, arms pillowed behind his head, just staring at the sky. The lights of his eyes were gone; it was the only reason Grillby thought he might be sleeping and not just staring off into the distance. The skeleton had actually fallen asleep with his sockets closed - however that was managed. But at some point during Grillby's pacing the sockets had opened. It was a little startling, more than a little disturbing. It was also weird seeing the monster so still. He didn't even breathe - though as a skeleton he probably didn't need to.

Would it be an understatement to say Grillby didn't want to spar? When Gaster had mentioned that's how Amathea trained, Grillby hadn't really expected that to mean it would happen immediately. It was exasperating, nerve wracking. Of course, he had no reason to be worried. While Grillby definitely wasn't the epitome of pin-point control and accuracy when it came to fighting, he was pretty good at only hitting what he wanted to hit. And if for some reason he managed to hit Amathea? Well if she was half the war goddess Gerson made her out to be, her stats were bound to be at levels that could take a hit from Grillby. Take several hits even. But there was still that chance

There was that tiny little voice in the back of his mind that said he could kill someone, very easily, even on accident. Losing control of everything for even so much as a second was too much.

Grillby paused mid-step when he heard Gaster move, shuffling into a drowsy sitting position. He balanced his spindly arms on his knees, blinking ahead unseeingly as the lights of his eyes slowly relit. He watched as the skeleton's eyes searched something in the distance that wasn't there, looking slightly lost. With a groan and a blink, though, Gaster had snapped out of whatever half-asleep daze he'd managed to drag himself into, and he rubbed the side of his skull tiredly.

"You know, for someone who doesn't sleep much, you sure enjoy taking naps," Grillby observed, a smile in his voice. Gaster flopped onto his back dramatically, stretching himself out in the shade with a yawn.

"I nap because I don't sleep much," he grumbled.

Grillby shrugged. Made sense, he supposed.

"And you do know the more energy you waste on pacing, the harder it'll be to control yourself right?"

Grillby crackled an indignant huff, crossing his arms, "What makes you think that's what I'm worried about?"

Gaster laughed drowsily, signing lazily into the air above his chest as he spoke, "What are you thinking right now, friend?"

There was a pause.

"Ten gold says it's about the spar."

Grillby shifted uncomfortably on his feet, a little too prideful to admit the skeleton was right. And also a little uncomfortable he'd been pegged so easily - though he supposed all his fretting was pretty easy to catch onto.

"You know, meditation does wonders for that kind of nervousness," Gaster offered, finally sitting up again and deciding to stay there. He chuckled at the confusion that rippled through Grillby's flames in blues.

"Yeah, pick a god and start talking," he said with an easygoing shrug, "I hear they tend to be forgiving. Well… except the southern ones. Or you could hum I guess, if you're the singing type. Chanting works too I guess if you aren't musically inclined."

Grillby blinked at the skeleton quizzically. He never would've figured Gaster would do anything calming. He seemed a little too scattered for that. The elemental shrugged inwardly. He'd only known the skeleton for a day. He probably shouldn't be making too many assumptions in the first place. Gaster watched the elemental expectantly before finally clearing his throat.

"You… going to ask any questions?"

"What?"

Gaster chuckled, "A monster you barely know introduces a weird thing to you and you're not even the least bit curious? No 'what do you meditate on?'? 'What are you thinking?'? 'Why do you do this thing?'?"

Grillby gave a flustered crackle, "It's not my place to pry…?"

The skeleton grinned up at Grillby from where he sat, "You live a boring life friend."

The elemental gave an indignant 'harumph!' and crossed his arms, "And I suppose you like talking about yourself too much."

Gaster shrugged, "Maybe. But if I'm encouraging someone else to explore the world around them at the expense of my own privacy, I'd say it's a small price to pay. How do you expect to find your place in this world if you don't know how the world works?"

Grillby shook his head, "My place in this world was dictated by whoever summoned me. I don't need to explore past that. You might think it's boring, but it's just… simple like that."

"That would be where you're wrong friend," Gaster stretched where he sat and finally got to his feet. He tilted his head at Grillby, "This war won't last forever you know. Maybe past my lifetime, but I've heard you elementals have a funny way with time?"

Grillby gave a cautious nod.

"So say nobody douses you before or immediately after all this ends? For better or worse, you're stuck here," he made a grand gesture at the air around him, "What happens then? I doubt you'll just fade away after your 'purpose' is gone. Assuming you haven't already found something else to live for, what will you do?"

What… would he do? No, no wait there was no point in thinking about this. Well… maybe there was a bit of a point. But there were a lot of 'if's involved and immeasurable and unpredictable time in between. The concept… did make him nervous though.

"And you meditate on these kind of things?" Grillby asked apprehensively, his flame flickering in an erratic fidget, "I can't possibly see that as relaxing."

Gaster laughed, waving his hands as if he could brush away what the elemental had said, "Well of course it isn't! This is heavy stuff. Stuff you figure out over time, y'know? Well, I suppose some monsters might grasp something like that and find relief in it but I'm not self-assured enough for that."

He ushered for Grillby to come closer, "But here, if you'd like I could show you-"

The skeleton trailed off, glancing past Grillby for a heartbeat and then rolling his eyes, "Aw Ammy! Five more minutes."

Grillby turned as the fish monster approached. She was grinning a broad, hungry smile, the kind of thing Grillby imagined you might see on a shark when it had set it's appetite on something.

"Nope!" She snapped briskly, though not unkindly, "I was so kind to give you lubberworted lot some time to slack off. Now we're working - let no monster say Amathea the Brave trained a pair of scobberlotchers! If you're not ready that's your own fault."

She paused for a moment and then said, "And both of you bring any armor you've got. We're doing this the right way."

With a flourish and a spin she stormed back towards the main camp fully expecting her reluctant charges to follow - which they did. The three of them skirted and muddled their way through the teeming camp, the downpour from the night before doing a grand job of turning every road and path through the place into a muddy mess. Grillby had to step carefully on more than one occasion, taking care not to sting himself on any of the many patches of standing water that littered the world around him. He noticed Gaster watched him, curious and concerned.

At last they came once again to the parade grounds, which was once again a soggy mess. Grillby noticed in the center Amathea had marked off a rectangle for sparring, the ground churned and destroyed by what he guessed must have been the work of dozens of spears. It was plenty of space for a fight, and as they approached teal-colored, glowing spears burst out of the ground in a cage around it. Grillby tried not to flinch at the sight of it.

"Alright you two," Amathea turned back to face them, fist firmly planted on her hip, "Equip what you need to, let's get started."

Grillby flickered nervously, his flame teasing into a worried red. He shifted on his feet uncomfortably, flicking through his inventory twice before finally sighing and and closing it again.

"Would it be too much to ask…" Grillby murmured with another sigh, "... if I could… see where you two are at first?"

Something in his core was shivering with worry. And he knew there was no reason for it. He'd gotten used to how Gerson fought, and they two of them had sparred well. And as Grillby had told Gaster the night before, he'd never ever hurt anyone he hadn't intended to. Even when he'd fought with Gerson, any hit point pulled out of place was as controlled and intentional as Grillby could manage. Not to mention that for Amathea to be an escort, she, of course, had to be able to handle herself. And from the way Gaster tossed his magic around, he was probably just as proficient. He shouldn't be worried.

If only it could be that simple.

Amathea scowled, lips curling into something that much more resembled a snarl than her previous grin, "What? Absolutely not."

Grillby felt his flame flicker a little lower, dismayed. Gaster blinked at him, those pin-prick eyes gleaming.

"This little exercise here is so I can know what you can do. Not the other way around," she said matter-of-factly, "And knowing Gerson's sparring habits, I highly doubt you're much of a match for me anyway. I admire his passion and intent! But he's not exactly a Dreemurr in a fight."

Gaster watched Grillby hesitate, watched him sputter nervously for a second. And then with dramatic suddenness, Gaster slumped his weight against Amathea, propping himself up against her shoulder with his elbow. She flashed him an indignant snarl, which he returned with that ever-so-lackadaisical grin.

"Get off me!"

"Oh don't mind her, Grillby," Gaster made a show of a fake yawn, ignoring the fidgeting monster as she shoved him off, "She's just scared she'll lose and look bad in front of her new charge. Guess she's not really all that brave, huh?"

There was a second where all expression wiped off of Amathea's face. A second where she blinked at Gaster incredulously and the gears in her mind ground to a halt, slowly processing what he'd just said. And just as slowly, her mouth writhed its way into the most vicious scowl Grillby had ever seen. Gaster remained unfazed, though Grillby noticed he'd started moving his hands in the same motion several times in a row, with the expression and intent of someone who had just started seriously questioning their life choices.

"Excuse. You?!"

"I mean, she's a great fighter don't get me wrong, and sure she might beat me," Gaster grinned wider by the second, side-eyeing his mentor with impish glee as her temper started seething, "But she definitely couldn't win against me and you. Let's just be honest here. So go on, humor her. She's gotta look good to ya for at least a couple weeks."

Amathea burst out with an angry laugh, stopping Gaster before he could say more, "I'm sorry, it sounds to me like you think you can take me on bonehead."

She punctuated the end of her sentence with a sharp jab of her forefinger at the skeleton's sternum. Gaster laughed painfully past it.

"I mean, I'm not saying I couldn't take you, if that's what you're insinuating."

Once again, the fish monster's expression wiped blank. She narrowed her eyes at the skeleton for a moment, ear frills twitching tempestuously and her gills flaring in an angry huff. In an instant she whipped her hand forward, clenching it shut around a fistful of Gaster's tunic close to the skeleton's delicate neck bones. Her face split into an exhilarated grin. For the first time since the exchange began, Gaster's facade broke into an extremely nervous frown.

"You're on, Gaster!"

With a solid swing of her arm, Amathea ripped Gaster off his feet and sent him flying over her hedge of spears and into the fighting square. The skeleton landed with an ungraceful, rattling crash. He was on his feet in an instant though, backpedaling away from the angry fish monster as she vaulted over the line of spears herself. As soon as they were a good distance apart, Amathea shot forward her first attack - a shower of blue spears that arched towards Gaster in diving spirals. Grillby watched in amazement as the skeleton danced out of the way of every single one, moving so quickly that, if the elemental had blinked, he never would have seen him move at all. Just before the shower of spears stopped, however, a single spear jerked its way out of the ground, the crackling green magic shattering through Gaster and forcing the skeleton onto one knee. There was an aura of green that surrounded him, and a shimmering green shield attached itself to his soul.

"That's cheating Ammy!" Gaster shouted to her across the field, "You know I can't lift this thing!"

Amathea let out a peal of half-manic laughter, "I'm sorry! I can't hear you over the sound of me winning!"

Her attacks resumed, that same volley of spears ripping through the sky and arching towards a now pinned Gaster. It was all the skeleton could do to heft the shield into place in time to black the spears from smashing into him. Those he couldn't move for in time he countered, bone magic fizzling into existence and rippling upwards to shatter the spears of crackling magic before they could leach away his HP. He did this for volley after volley, remaining stubbornly untouchable as Amathea used increasingly fast-moving and intricate patterns in an attempt to shatter his defense. And he should remain untouchable! Amathea would be ashamed of him otherwise - after all, they'd been sparring partners for months now, hadn't they?

When the volleys didn't work Amathea dropped the green magic and Gaster stumbled back onto his feet with a gasp of relief. It was only there for a moment though, as soon he was dancing from one place to the other, dancing out of the way as spears leaped up to stab him from the ground beneath his feet. Gaster jumped forward out of the way of a spear, planted his foot firmly on the ground for a moment and flicked his wrist upwards.

A bone attack bloomed out of the ground beneath his foot, shooting him up into the air with an exhilarated whoop! Gaster wreathed himself in spinning circles of bone attacks, and with a move of his hands sent them cascading on Amathea from above as he plummeted back to the earth. The fish monster smashed through them with a spear she summoned into her hand, spinning it with her wrist in elaborate flourishes that Grillby could hardly follow.

As soon as Gaster's feet touched the ground he sent a wave of bones rippling outward towards Amathea, the interlocking attacks mealing about and churning up the ground as they rumbled forward. The skeleton shot after them, moving so quickly he could keep up with the magic as it rippled forward. Amathea spun, crackling spear extended, cleaving a spot of safety for herself and deftly dodging a swing from a bone club that Gaster had materialized during his run.

Then began an intimate and intricate dance between them, fighting with the weapons in their hands as they stepped and ducked and weaved to and fro for safety. And as they did they continued to summon attacks, patterns of bones ripping apart magical spears and shattering into magical static and dust not seconds later. Whenever Gaster's club smashed into Amathea's spear, it too would shatter, the brittle, summoned bone nothing against the strength and intent behind the weapon Amathea bore. But whenever it shattered Gaster reformed it with such speed and precision that it hardly seemed to disappear at all. It was something that took skill and, honestly, it left Grillby impressed to say the least.

What decided the fight was a clever maneuver on Amathea's part. She shattered Gaster's club in one forward swing, reversed her grip and swung back towards the skeleton again without a second's hesitation. He took a step back to dodge, slamming his heel down into a waiting and crackling green spear. Gaster had enough time to feel the magical gravity yank him downwards before Amathea's next attack dispelled it, and while he was off-balanced the fish monster knocked his feet out from under him.

Gaster found himself lying in the mud, Amathea's foot on his chest, pinning him to the ground. A hail of spears and crackling magic hovered above the both of them, prickling and ready to strike.

Gaster laughed out an exhausted breath, "So when I said I could win…"

"Blowin' smoke outta both sides of your mouth again, weren't ya?"

Amathea moved back, offering a hand to help Gaster to his feet as her magic dissolved into nothingness above them. She shoved him out of the sparring ring, once again planting her fist on her hip and grinning at Grillby with a prideful sneer.

"So, elemental," she grinned, "You still wondering if I'm good enough for you?"

In spite of himself, Grillby had to laugh. And he had to admire Amathea. Through her entire fight, the cage of magic she'd erected hadn't flickered once. She was disheveled but whole, her concentration flawless. And she seemed to have energy to spare.

Plus that temper she had that made Grillby rethink asking if she wanted to rest before fighting again so soon.

Gaster groaned and collapsed onto the ground beside Grillby's feet, rubbing the side of his face tiredly.

"You owe me," the skeleton laughed good-naturedly, and Grillby beamed down at him. Gaster shoved weakly at the elemental's legs as he walked towards the sparring ring.

"Go get her, firefly."

Instead of jumping over the array of spears like Amathea and Gaster had, Grillby walked right through them. It always felt weird having another monster's magic pass through him, like for a second he was looking into something deeper than they knew existed. For a brief second he felt something inside it, visceral and emotional and raw. A stubborn grit, loyalty and fondness. A fondness of life and a fondness of the living. It was protective and encompassing, matronly.

Maybe 'angry fish mom' was more apt a description for Amathea than Gaster realized.

As Grillby approached he equipped his armor, feeling its familiar weight as it settled across his body. It was pretty useless in the grand scheme of things, made to make him look more intimidating than he already was, and not really offering much in the way of protection. Light chainmail settled neatly over his tunic, darkly stained steel gauntlets clung to his hands, the fingers cut short so he could grip and burn anyone who got too close. There were pauldrons that clung to his shoulders, stained the same dark as his gauntlets and pointed sharply at his shoulders. There was a belt sashed firmly around his waist, which held his scabbard and his sword. And of course his shield - which he didn't need and decided not to use for this fight at least.

Amathea looked him up and down, nodding her approval before equipping a similar array on herself - though the sleeve of one arm was trimmed off, for obvious reasons. And she also had a breastplate to help protect her chest better than the light chainmail ever could - a hard enough hit with a heavy weapon and the links tended to break. She had a cape as well, one that stopped at her waist and hung off her shoulders like lavender silk. There was some magic infused in it, Grillby could tell, though what it was and what it did he had no idea.

"First off," Amathea shouted across the field to him, "Got a couple rules we use for the spar. Break any of them, and you've forfeit your bragging rights for the round."

She smirked at this before continuing, "Rule one! Stay inside the spears at all times - magical attacks included. Keeps bystanders from getting backlash."

Grillby glanced around - bystanders? Sure enough, while Amathea and Gaster had been duking it out, the tiny beginnings of a crowd had begun to form. A couple of the monsters watching looked like they were taking bets already. How wonderful.

"Rule two!" Grillby snapped his attention back to his escort, "You can't take more than half your opponent's hit points. There's no use in sparring if we're beating each other half to dust - not like you'll be bothered by that. But the rest of us will. Don't worry, me and Gaster know our limits just fine. We'll tell you if we've had enough."

"Good to know," Grillby muttered worriedly.

"Final rule," Amathea squared her shoulders, a spear materializing into her hand, "Is a general fighting rule. No cheap shots. No throwing your opponent out of the cage or elbows or fists where they shouldn't belong. All that nonsense. Now…!"

"Show me what you've got!" Amathea dared him.

Grillby nodded and at his command, fire billowed to life around him in a ring, heat surging and filling the air with the water that had soaked the ground. He sent a wave of the flame at Amathea, something huge and impressive that took up the entire width of their fighting space and rose several feet into the air. It broke and cascaded down on the fish monster like a flood.

She answered it with green, that emerald shield springing to life in her hands and absorbing what magical flames that touched it. And forward went an answering surge of spears, tearing apart the battered earth around Grillby's feet. The elemental walked through them unheeded, stumbling maybe once as the attacks ripped through his form and vanished with the crackling static of spent magic. Aside from making his walk inconvenient, they didn't harm him at all. Amathea blinked at him in surprise - obviously she hadn't expected that. Though already there was a keen glint in her eye, that warrior's intuition that Gerson so praised springing to life in the face of a challenge.

Grillby wondered what she was thinking. And then rolled his eyes at how Gaster-ish of a thought that was.

The elemental drew his sword and strode towards Amathea, fire lighting the air around him that spun and sputtered with potential before pouncing forward towards the fish monster. It roared and surging in jets of concentrated fire magic, tearing apart the wall of spears Amathea erected to defend herself. She just barely leaped out of the way as they converged in a searing pillar where she'd been standing. But instead of being afraid, angry or anything else Grillby would have expected, she was laughing. Laughing with exhilaration and adrenaline as she was forced to dive and roll out of the way of pillars and waves and walls of flame. And all the while Grillby approached her, one confident step after another, fire billowing behind him and lacing through the cracks and holes in his armor like some twisting cape in the wind. The heat of it dried and cracked the ground he walked on, and made his armor begin to glow.

When they were close enough Grillby halted his waves of attacks in favor of his sword, and it flashed and cleaved through the air in powerful blows that sent stinging numbness through Amathea's arm when she blocked them. She grunted and reeled from the shock of it - Grillby could see it in the look in her eyes and how she flinched under the hit that she hadn't expected it. Most didn't. After all, Grillby didn't look strong. But really what was form to a creature made of magic, to something that could change that form at will if they really really wanted to?

Amathea caught onto it fast, faster that Gerson had when they'd first sparred at least. Caught on to how unstoppable the elemental was. He took no damage from magical or physical attacks. His sword work was strong enough to keep her pinned in place, heavy enough that she could hardly block the strikes he executed. He didn't send fire in patterns, or reserve his magic for an extended fight, because his magic could extend for as long as he was alive. There was no need to hold back, to practice restraint. She didn't even know if it was possible for him to tire.

She was going to lose.

Not because he was better than her. Not because he was smarter than her. Not because she lacked skill or tact, or because she wasn't prepared enough or strong enough. He was going win simply because he was too powerful to lose.

But he wasn't perfect, he wasn't immortal.

Amathea broke away from Grillby, panting and shaking from the strain of the fight. Though Grillby noticed that the wall of spears caging them in still hadn't faltered. The gleam in her eyes wasn't desperate, her frown spiteful. No, she had the look of someone who still had a plan. Amathea dropped the spear in her hand, letting it fizzle away into magical static at her feet. She squared her shoulders and took a calming breath.

And before the elemental could react, suddenly he was locked in place by her voice.

" Come all you pretty young local girls…"

She was stepping close to him again, cautiously, making sure the spell of her song was working. Grillby felt the grip on his sword slip out from between his fingers.

"... A warning take by me..."

He couldn't move. He could hardly think.

" ... And don't be quick to fall in love…"

What even was this song? He'd never heard anything like it before. Maybe it was another something from where she came from.

" ... With everyone you see…"

Wait, he shouldn't be thinking about music right now. What was he doing again?

" ... For when they're in their prenticeship…"

Grillby was suddenly aware of a hand on his shoulder, forcing him to kneel. He blinked and realized he was staring up into Amathea's bright yellow eyes.

" ... They'll swear their time is out…"

Was that… cold he was feeling? Grillby had never felt cold before. It felt a bit like getting rained on. It was uncomfortable.

" ... Then they'll leave you, as mine left me…"

That was when Grillby realized the glow that reflected in Amathea's eyes was red. Cool. Dim. Dying red. If he could panic, he would, but whatever fog she kept him under held even that reflex in place. He wanted to stay something, to tell her to stop. This was bad, this was bad.

… right…?

" ... To blow the candle out."

As soon as the song had ended, whatever magic in her voice that was holding Grillby still released him. Grillby gasped, his flame swelling back to bright life and sending a shudder through his very core. Amathea stepped away from him, gave him space to breathe for a minute. When he looked at her again there was a new respect there, and a fear. Her expression remained as calm as her voice had been.

"We'll call it a draw," the fish monster said finally, watching Grillby with those eyes that had turned calculating, measuring the fight and what new information it had brought her. It took her a minute, but eventually she managed to crack a smile at him.

"You're not half bad, tinderbox," she smiled, offering the elemental a hand and helping him stand, "You gave me a run of it. That was impressive."

"Thanks."

Wow, that came out a lot shakier than he'd expected it to. Amathea noticed it. She looked him up and down, a thoughtful frown dragging at the corners of her lips.

"You alright?"

"Fine enough."

She paused and looked him over again, "You're not lying to me are you?"

Grillby managed a tired laugh, "No I'm not lying."

"Good," she said, her smile inching back across her face again. She gave him a punch on the shoulder, which he gathered was supposed to be reassuring, "You did alright, elemental. You're a mindless brute of a fighter, but we'll drill some tactical sense into that head of yours."

Amathea walked past him towards one of the walls of her fence of spears, which even still bristled with the same power and intent as they had before.

"So, you've got a weakness to water, and apparently siren song," Amathea chimed as she went, "Anything else?"

"Uhm… not that I know of."

"And you wouldn't lie to me about that right," she shot him a stiff glare over her shoulder.

"Not at all."

Amathea paused just in front of her spears, adding something together in her mind. Finally she seemed to come to a decision and hopped over the fence.

"GASTER!"

The skeleton - who had apparently fallen into a doze at some point during their fight, either from the siren song or his own laziness - shot to his feet in alarm… only to groan in annoyance not a second later.

"What do you want Ammy?" He whined, "I've done my spar for the day."

"Not enough of one," the fish monster grinned at him, "Grillby's up for one more round. Aren't you tinderbox?"

"I mean… not really...?"

"Listen to that rousing enthusiasm!" Amathea laughed, shoving Gaster back towards her fighting square again. The skeleton paused just outside the hedge of spears, tossing a look of concern back at his mentor.

"Target practice, bonehead."

Gaster blinked at her for a moment, the ridge above his good eye going down in concern, "You're not serious."

The fish monster flashed him a patient smile, or as patient as her smiles could get anyway, before calling back over towards Grillby, "Only water and siren song, right tinderbox?"

"That I know of!" Grillby felt his core give a nervous shudder. He just got done figuring out he was a bit more mortal than he'd thought he was. Did they really need to tempt fate again so soon?

Much to Grillby's dismay, Gaster gave a shrug and took a running leap over the spears and into the fighting square. Grillby became faintly aware that the crowd that had gathered before him and Amathea had been fighting was getting larger. He suddenly found himself feeling very exposed, very worried. Very much like he shouldn't be where he was right now.

"Well, this should be interesting," Gaster chuckled, "Right firefly?"

Chapter Text

Gaster made a show of stretching and shaking himself off, doing a really good job of looking like there was nothing in this world worth a care. Grillby of course felt the exact opposite, but the good thing about lacking facial features was no one could really tell how tense he was. Well, aside from the way his fire kept changing color, but that was something Grillby knew most monsters didn’t read into. Or at the very least couldn’t figure out when they did. Except for Gaster, who by some strange miracle had already been able to figure out when the elemental was more nervous than normal.

“You ready to get this thing started?” Gaster laughed, rolling up his sleeves in preparation for a fight. Of course, the sleeves were so baggy over his slender bones that they just dragged back down again, but Grillby did catch the glint of chainmail underneath them. When had he equipped that?

“I’m not ready at all.”

Gaster chuckled at this, eyes glittering with excitement, “Aw c’mon Grillby, this is gonna be fun. And I promise I won’t shatter into a thousand pieces. Not even a hundred!”

Grillby shook his head, doing his best to stifle a crackle of laughter.

“What, still not convinced?” He stuck out a his smallest finger, “Not even if I pinky promise?”

Grillby let out a flurry of sparks, laughing at the absurd, childish glee in Gaster’s voice, “Would you take this seriously?”

Gaster barred his teeth in a grin, making a nonsensical and exaggerated shrug with his arms and shoulders, “Oh live a little firef-”

Grillby had enough time to gasp, blue suddenly clenching around his soul, before he went flying to the side. He let out a muffled screech when he landed, slamming face-first into a soupy mess of mud several feet away from where he’d been standing. It stung, oh! It stung! He wiped it off furiously, his core flaring and drying the mud before the moisture could do more than pester away a few hit points. And then he was swept off his feet again, dragged across the ground and into a hedge of bones that slammed through his torso with enough intent to make his soul shiver. It didn’t hurt of course - he took no damage from it - and as he stumbled to his feet he realized that Gaster had dropped the blue magic finally. Thank heavens for that. But it was eye opening, and a little terrifying. If Grillby were any other monster, that kind of attack would’ve done some serious damage. Dust-worthy damage, even.

Gaster piped up a happy laugh, grinning and signing excitedly, “You can’t be serious! That puddle only took off three of your hitpoints? Man, and that didn’t even scratch the surface, did it?”

Grillby brushed a last bit of drying mud off his arms, “So much for no cheap shots.”

The skeleton shrugged, that grin of his starting to look a little less carefree and a little more dangerous the longer Grillby looked at it.

“I prefer to call it using my environment,” he moved his hands as he spoke, and Grillby gave a jolt when he realized the movements didn’t match his words.

The ground around the elemental’s feet suddenly exploded into life as bone attacks of all shapes and sizes ripped up the earth, slamming into him over and over and threatening to knock him off his feet again. Grillby gave an exasperated huff, a white flame roaring to life around him and crashing down on the attacks, burning them into nothingness in seconds. He kept the flame spinning around him, chewing up all the new attacks Gaster summoned before they could overwhelm him again. And as it worked he sent a jet of flame surging towards the pestering skeleton.

Gaster dodged it deftly, making a show of yawning as he danced out of the way, “Wow you’re slow.”

He spun out of the way of another, “Heh, you’re slower than Ammy. I didn’t even think that was possible.”

At the third Gaster was laughing again, “Oh lordy, you’re killing me here firefly.”

A fourth, “Figure of speech of course. You’re not even close yet.”

Grillby stifled an annoyed groan. He had never ever fought someone so fast to dodge before. And no matter how much Grillby tried to speed up his attacks, Gaster just danced out of the way. A few if the shaves got closer… Maybe… If you squinted your eyes at the skeleton and really paid attention. And for every snide comment Gaster threw, the crowd gathered around them laughed a little bit harder and sneered a little louder in unison with him. It was infuriating. Humiliating even.

“Hey tinderbox!”

Both Gaster and Grillby paused, looking towards the mentor still waiting on the sidelines. Amathea grinned.

“You're trying to hit a mouse with a bear-sized mallet,” the fish monster quipped, “You need to think smaller.”

“Awww Ammy!!” Gaster groaned, “Don't coach the new guy!”

“And you bonehead!” Amathea snapped, giving Gaster a surprised start, “I see you signing your attacks over there! You are not some far-east monster on the Silk Road! You do not shout your attacks before you make them!”

Gaster let out another long, whining, childish groan, earning him another round of laughter from the steadily growing audience.

“Yes mom!”

Meanwhile Grillby was trying to ‘think smaller’. How in the world had Amathea gained the upper hand against such a fast moving target?! It did help that she had that immobilizing magic, but Grillby had no such thing. All he had was his fire. Well… He supposed he could speed up his attacks a bit more by making them smaller. Think small… Think... small…

The ring of fire Grillby was standing amidst flared to a heightened life, yanking Gaster's attention back to the elemental in a heartbeat. Bits and pieces of the core ring broke apart, elongating into wicked looking, white-hot and plasma-like ‘spears’. Of course, they weren't actually spears. They lacked the form that Amathea’s did - really they were just sticks of flame that bristled quite angrily in Gaster’s direction. They felt weightless to Grillby, and maybe if he put just the right power behind them…

The first spear went rocketing off faster than any attack Grillby had conjured so far, exploding against the ground with a shower of searing sparks and debris where Gaster had been standing a second before - so the skeleton could still dodge them. That was annoying. But Grillby did notice he looked a lot less carefree than he had a moment ago.

Armed with this newfound arsenal, Grillby launched forward with his attacks en masse, forming quick volleys of the dangerous things and throwing then at Gaster by the dozen. Suddenly the skeleton was scrambling to keep out the line of fire, his lackadaisical dance of defense turning into a haphazard mix of dives, rolls and staggers towards safety. Of course, some of his work was needless - Grillby’s aim wasn't nearly as good as Amathea’s was and he would've missed on his own quite often. But the flares and debris caused when the molten projectiles hit the cool ground could leach away hit points just as well as any direct hit could, and Gaster took no chances. He didn’t know yet how strong Grillby’s attack was or how powerful his intent.

At some point during one of the volleys, Gaster managed to regain some of his previous composure, adapting to these new attacks and figuring out how to counter. He gave a flourish of his hands - which dragged a condescending shout from Amathea about tying his hands together so he’d stop - and with precision Grillby was both amazed and annoyed with he began meeting the spears in mid-air with spinning bone attacks. The spiraling discs of bone met the spears with small explosions, bursts of fire and bone colliding into a shower of magical debris.

With another flurry of Gaster’s hands he threw forwards three waves of bones, the interlocking and weaving attacks slamming into Grillby with staggering force. Each wave that slammed into him threatened to knock him off his feet, but Grillby somehow managed to stay standing. And then he was bracing himself against the final wave and answering it, sending a wall of fire as wide as their arena hurtling towards the quick-footed skeleton. It banished the impending bone attacks into shatters of residual magic. Threatened to devour the skeleton as well.

Gaster mimicked the attack he’d used during his last fight then, throwing himself into the air and over the wall of flame. A second attack from Grillby met him in the air, one of those angry spears smashing hard into Gaster’s shoulder and sending him tumbling with a surprised shout. He hit the ground rolling, only stopping when he tumbled into Amathea’s unyielding wall of spears. There was a second of horrified silence when Grillby realized he’d actually hit someone oh heavens he hadn’t actually expected to do that. Or at least not that hard! He took a pensive step forward, only to stop when Gaster threw a hand up in the air, fisted into a thumbs-up. The skeleton got to his feet, wincing as he rolled his injured shoulder.

“I’m good!” He called breathlessly as he signed, wincing again when he moved his hands a bit too enthusiastically and jerked his shoulder, “We’re good. Keep going.”

The two of them swung back into motion again, Grillby a bit reluctantly but quickly gaining again in speed and power the more Gaster smirked and jeered at him when he missed - which he did quite often. They were a dance of fire and bone, power matched against speed with ingenuity being the only possible thing to bridge the gap between them. Gaster was fearless and quick on his feet, fully aware of how capable he was of staying well out of Grillby’s way. He stayed smart and refused to close the distance between them - he’d seen how the elemental had torn through Amathea’s attacks with that sword of his, he knew getting close to that thing was a bad idea. And meanwhile Grillby was trying to box the skeleton in, force him into a corner, force his feet to still a little bit.

The elemental threw up another wall of flame, one that stretched across their battlefield and forced Gaster to leap over it to dodge. And when he did Grillby threw forth a small volley of those spears, watching in mild amazement as the skeleton met them with spinning attacks of his own, letting them take the damage for him. As he fell Grillby dashed to meet him, that sword Gaster had been avoiding so well yanking from its scabbard in a fluid motion as he closed the distance between them. Gaster met the first sweeping blow with a bone club he summoned into his hand, staggering back as the sword cleaved effortlessly through it and nearly took his arm with it. The skeleton struggled to remain a step ahead of the sweeping blade, dodging around Grillby in a circle of ducks and pitches.

There was once when the elemental nearly hit him, the tip of his sword coming dreadfully close to Gaster’s collar bone. Grillby prepared to jerk back before it hit, but was cut off when Gaster yanked his soul blue and threw him back. He managed to stay on his feet, stumbling back several steps to regain his balance while Gaster backpedaled in similar fashion. Though Grillby noticed, the skeleton’s was more from the shock of the near miss than a lack of balance. He had a haggard expression on his face, a mix of surprise and something else a little more guarded. And then his hands were moving, signing something that Grillby couldn’t really recognize. The elemental braced himself, ready for more bone attacks to rip up the ground at his feet and throw him off balance again.

Instead, he was met with heavy smell of magic bristling to life, the crackling of inert energy as it amalgamated into something useful and gigantic. A pair of angry jaws opened wide above Gaster’s shoulder, forming together like wet ashes slow and crumbling and cracking. There was the start of a spine, vertebrae linking into place and held loosely by a dull, purplish and sickly magic that seemed to bruise the colors in the air. The eye sockets of the skeletal, half-formed beast blinked into bright life, fixing a deadened stare on the elemental and hissing as the magic inside it began bubbling and building, condensing into something powerful and deadly. Just as it began forming shoulder blades and forearms, just as the ribs started to define themselves amongst the ashen magic they were made of, the skull began to cave and crumble and crack. It was then that it whined and fired a long, white blast.

Grillby took the hit head-on, the magic enveloping him from head to toe. It took his breath away, and his vision. Surrounding him in harsh and void-like white. He could have stopped existing, or maybe existed a little less. And all around him he could feel. That uncomfortable feeling of whatever was behind the magic, and it roared around him in that pulsing white in some mess of anguish and bitter and distraught it roared why?! It screamed why like this?! Why forever like this?! I’m so tired just let me sleep. I hate it let me sleep. I don’t want. I don’t. I hate it. I hate it all. I just want to sleep! I j..us.t w.a...n..t t.o sl.e..e...p….!.....!!

The beam blinked out of existence just as the last of the summoned monster crumbled away again, dusting the ground around Gaster with its ashen remains. When it left it found Grillby still standing and unscathed, though his flame was pitched in the washed out white of the blast that had barreled over him. He shook his head, regaining some of his composure and his normal color along with it. Across from him, Gaster seemed to relax a bit with relief and after a pause their attacks resumed.

Now that Gaster knew Grillby wouldn’t… well… he hadn’t really been sure what would happen if he caught Grillby up in that beam. But now that he knew it had the same effect on the elemental as just about every other attack he’d used before, he summoned the beastly things to help him more and more as they danced through their battle. Sometimes he would fire one at a time, others he would throw together two, three, four at once. Grillby took some of the hits and avoided others. They didn’t hurt him; but with each hit he took and each glimpse into the magic he saw, the more the elemental dreaded getting hit again. There was a seething in his soul that twisted against the beastly stuff of it. They unsettled him, and he took great pains to dodge them wherever he could. When another blaster fired in between sweeping bone attacks, Grillby finally hazarded to meet it. It was, on some level, a fire based attack after all. Shouldn’t he be able to…?

He threw forward his own jet of flame, the two attacks colliding in angry roars of fire and magic. They fanned upwards, their forward momentum leaving them no other choice than to splay outwards in a shower of sparks and dying magic. The display brought a few impressed oo’s and ah’s from the on looking monsters, and then renewed cheering for the fight to finish.

When a second beam fired Grillby met it as well, and as the waves of fire magic cascaded apart he jolted through them, leaping through the walls of flame before they had died down completely. Gaster had enough time to blink and frown in surprise as Grillby seemed to magically materialize in the air in front of him. And then they were both on the ground in a tangle of limbs and armor and tunics. Grillby managed to pin the lanky skeleton’s arms to the ground, and in an instant the spar was over. Gaster grinned up at him, laughing quietly to himself at how it had all ended up. Grillby was just glad the skeleton hadn’t managed to dodge.

“Well, isn’t that interesting?” Gaster said past his grin.

“What’s interesting?”

Gaster laughed, “All of that and I’m still not dust.”

Grillby rolled his eyes, moving so the skeleton could get to his feet. Gaster brushed himself off, still chuckling to himself, “You really worry too much.”

“I knocked you out of the sky,” Grillby reminded him as the two of them walked to the edge of their little arena - Amathea was already dropping the spears to let them through.

Gaster waved his hands dismissively, “Oh please. I’ve taken harder hits from a whimsun.”

Sure you have,” Grillby crackled a laugh and shoved Gaster playfully in the shoulder. The skeleton laughed back, though he rubbed at the shoulder a bit painfully as they walked. Huh… whimsuns must hit pretty hard then.

“Well done, both of you,” Amathea said with a gracious smile as the pair stopped before her, “I’ll make decent fighters out of you yet. And Grillby, that was quite some adapting you did there. I was worried for a minute that Gaster might exasperate you into quitting.”

“I would’ve worn him out eventually either way,” Grillby said, stubbornly pretending that there weren’t a few times he’d been ready to wring the little skeleton’s neck during all the dodging and jeering he was doing. Gaster beamed, throwing Grillby a mischievous sideways glance but somehow remaining wisely silent.

You though,” Amathea poked a finger at Gaster’s chest, “What have I told you about signing your attacks?!”

“Ammy…”

“Don’t you ‘Ammy’ me!” The fish monster cut him off with a vicious glare, “If I can figure out what that hand language of yours is, so can anyone else! Not to mention it’s gotta be your most defining feature.”

Amathea made a show of signing out something as best she could with only one hand to work with, something Grillby couldn’t understand. He would’ve guessed it was gibberish if it weren’t for the way Gaster’s eye sockets widened a bit when she signed it.

“The one who speaks in hands, remember bonehead?” She asked as her arm worked, her voice lowering into something that hinted at a warning, “I’ll break you of that habit if it kills me - for fighting at least.”

Gaster scowled and crossed his arms. He twitched as he said it but he managed to mutter a defeated “yes ma’am” without signing a single syllable. Amathea nodded her approval, gave a short sigh and then let a smile work its way across her face again.

“Oh don’t pout, Gaster, you know I’m just trying to look out for you.”

“Yeah yeah.”

She chuckled at this before shooing the two of them off, “Alright good spar and all that. I’ll give you the evening to rest up while I figure out what we’ll start training with tomorrow.”

Her smile split into a vicious, snarl of a grin, “That’s when the real fun starts.”

With that, Amathea left them, wandering off in the direction of the mess tent and vanishing out of sight. During their talk, most of the crowd of monsters that had been watching the spar had dispersed - much to Grillby’s relief. Those that lingered seemed more intent on collecting bets and whispering to each other than actually approaching the elemental. That was the beginnings of a good evening already. Grillby glanced over at Gaster.

“So…”

The skeleton blinked at him.

“The one who speaks in hands?”

Gaster gave a sigh, one very much lacking in his normal overdramatism. Suddenly he looked very tired, as tired and bitter as the magic in those monsters he’d fired. Grillby did the best to hide his discomfort at that.

“The man who speaks in hands, to be more precise. And I’m fixing that,” he said finally, scowling to himself as he signed out his sentence out of habit, “It’s nothing you need to worry about.”

“Really?” Grillby wished he could raise an eyebrow at the skeleton, but settled on rippling blue instead, “You know, I’ve only been here a year? And yet every time I’m told something like that, I end up having to worry about it eventually.”

“Yeah but you worry about everything,” Gaster laughed dismissively.

“Reasonable paranoia never hurt anyone,” Grillby said with a matter-of-fact cross of his arms.

“Yeah sure whatever,” the skeleton shrugged, “Stop mothering me, it’s not a problem. Now, I’m going to go eat what’s left of that lovely breakfast you made us and take a well-earned nap. And maybe teach you some more of my weird language, if you decide not to be a nag.”

Grillby suppressed the need to roll his eyes, but followed obediently when Gaster moved to walk back to their campsite. They ate and talked sparingly, mostly about Gaster’s hand-speak and what general motions meant. The skeleton begrudgingly admitted yes he’d been saying every attack as he’d thought them, and yes if Grillby paid close enough attention he’d probably know what was coming and be able to compensate for it - assuming he was fast enough on the uptake and got way better at dodging. Oh yes that’s right, he never really needed to dodge attacks did he? I bet you’re a menace on the actual battlefield huh? Must be pretty cool to be able to absorb attacks like they’re nothing.

By the time Amathea returned, Gaster had fallen asleep in the tent and Grillby was a few sentences more knowledgeable in the skeleton’s language. He signed a hello to Amathea when she approached, and she beamed and gave her best imitation back. It was weird, but Grillby felt a strange sense of camaraderie knowing the three of them might share a language that no one else would know. It seemed childish and sneaky, like a secret code that small monsters would giggle about as they sent messages back and forth to each other, hiding their contents from parents and other prying eyes. It was fun.

“I see Gaster’s learning you a thing or two about his weirdness,” the fish monster laughed, grabbing a seat beside Grillby with a weary sigh. There was a stiffness in her movements, and Grillby rippled a bit with concern.

“You alright?”

Amathea punched him gently in the shoulder, chuckling, “Oh don’t take that worried tone of voice with me. It’s been awhile since I’ve used so much magic in one day is all. I’m tired, but I’m far from being dust.”

Grillby nodded slowly, “Right.”

“You know, you surprised me today, tinderbox,” Amathea smirked, “You took one look at that blaster of Gaster’s and you kept going like it was nothing. I thought it might scare you off.”

“What would give you that idea?”

“Oh please,” the fish monster grinned, “I don’t need any fancy magic to know when someone’s scared out of their own skin. It is so interesting to me that someone so powerful can be so terrified. But then again, I was never scared of much of anything.”

She gave a rueful chuckle, rubbing her bad shoulder, “Which is why I’m Amathea the Brave, not Amathea the Wise.”

There was a pause between them where Amathea closed her eyes and rested a moment and Grillby tried his best not to ask any awkward questions about how she lost her arm. There was a squirming moment in his core where he remembered the feeling in Gaster’s magic, and he cast a gaze back at the tent to make sure the skeleton hadn’t stirred.

“I… did have a question for you,” Grillby said slowly, hushing his voice a bit and dragging a look of tired concern from Amathea, “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Shoot.”

“Well…”

Grillby explained in a quiet voice about being able to feel things in other monsters’ magic. The scattered impressions and emotions behind the intent that made it. He recounted what he’d felt in Amathea’s spears, and the fish monster raised her eyebrows in surprise at it. Then he told her what he’d felt in Gaster’s magic. About how uncomfortable it felt, how consuming it was. How bitter, how cold. And she wasn’t surprised at all. The fish monster rubbed the back of her neck uncomfortably for a moment before sighing.

“Gaster… is a much bitterer person than he’d like people to believe,” she said finally, “And the more you get to know him, the more you’re going to realize he’s very dark and very resigned to how he thinks his life is going to go. Now as to why that is, well that’s up to him to tell you. But, I can give you a forewarning.”

Grillby nodded slowly, “...okay.”

“Gaster gets really quiet and really withdrawn when something’s bothering him. Like fullbody distracted quiet. He doesn’t fidget; he doesn’t think out loud with his hands, he just quiets. And he’s going to start having nightmares. Well, more than he normally does.”

“Nightmares?”

The fish monster shrugged, “Yeah, I’ve never really been able to keep him snapped out of those. They just happen. He doesn’t make a fuss. The most I’ve ever seen him do is wake up a little out of breath. He might wake you up leaving the tent at night. It’s normal, and unless he looks really disturbed it’s best not to bother him about it. Most of the time he avoids them by only sleeping a couple hours at a time. Keeps him a bit more tired than I’d like him to be, but if it helps him cope then it’s for the better.”

“So that’s why he naps so much then,” Grillby mused quietly, and Amathea nodded.

“Now you’re catching on,” she flashed him a warm smile, “Don’t worry about him too much. He’s not made of glass and he’s been doing this since long before you were even summoned. But if it will make you more comfortable, I’ll tell him to keep the blasters to a minimum when you guys spar.”

The elemental nodded to her, giving her a quiet ‘thanks’ as she stood and stretched. She patted him reassuringly on the shoulder as she walked away, laughing about a letter she should be getting to writing. Grillby sighed to himself as she left. What a weird trio they were turning out to be, and they’d only been together for a day and a half. Maybe playing the ‘mysterious stranger card’ so early in the game really was a bad idea. Well, one thing he knew for sure: whenever Gaster spilled his guts about every weird thing he had going on, it was sure to make life that much more interesting.

Chapter Text

The next day dawned on them bright and ferocious and filled with the sound of Amathea’s voice. Her loud, shouting, insult-laden voice. She made good on the promise she’d made to Grillby on the first day they’d met and she started them running. Laps around the camp, down a handful of hunting paths in the woods, anywhere and everywhere she thought they could go before the sun got low enough for the mess tent to serve food. And the entire time, Grillby felt discouragingly outclassed.

Of course, he’d figured Gaster would be a better runner than he was. From the way the monster dodged it was easy to tell he had agility and speed that Grillby couldn’t touch. While Gaster grumbled and complained the entire time Amathea coached him onward, the elemental noticed that he was always one step ahead of everyone. He never tripped or stumbled on any hindrances in their path, never ran into an unwary monster that stepped in their way, and never once did he fall behind. He wasn’t exactly graceful, but he carried himself like someone who knew what he was doing and had a lackadaisical confidence in every stride.

Then there was Amathea, who ran with them and with a loyalty and conviction Grillby admired, refusing to let the two of them do anything she couldn’t or wouldn’t do. No wonder she had been heralded as such a great commander when she still had a unit at her disposal! Every path she took them down was reasonably dry and lacked any large hazards for the fire elemental as he ran - something she had to have staked out ahead of time. She set a pace for them that was fair, constantly checking with Gaster to make sure he was awake enough not to run head-on into a tree. The entire run was peppered with her shouts of encouragement mingled with several insults that Grillby had never heard before, and that Gaster mostly rolled his eyes at. Synonyms for ‘lazy’ were being added to the elemental’s vocabulary by the dozen.

And then there was Grillby, the elemental who had never really been trained this way because nobody really figured he’d be running from anything aside from the occasional scramble for cover during a rainstorm. The elemental who didn’t really have a physical body to upkeep, so no one really figured running would be an exercise he would need.

Grillby felt like a woshua with four left feet. He tripped, he stumbled, he struggled to keep up. His biggest enemies seemed to be his feet and whatever ground he touched. He was lucky he didn’t run into anyone. And he was quickly finding he didn’t like running. It made him tired. The kind of core shuddering, light-dimming tired that using too much magic did to him. He frequently found himself dimming and would have to take a conscious moment to stoke himself back up again. And after the third lap around the camp Grillby found himself struggling to maintain a stable form. He could feel himself rippling, like his core didn’t want to hold him together anymore and was going to ooze apart. It made him feel gross and uncomfortable and he grimaced through the whole thing.

Oh the sigh of relief he gave when Amathea called them to a stop and let them have breakfast! A short breakfast. A hurry-up-and-eat-we-have-work-to-do breakfast. Grillby hardly had enough time to pull himself together before they were off again. Their next activity of the day was a little less strenuous and a little more enjoyable, and mostly for Grillby’s benefit since it was all something Gaster had already heard before.

Amathea was teaching Grillby strategy. The three of them sat in a circle around the fire at their little campsite - Gaster trying his darnedest not to fall asleep while Amathea talked - and the fish monster coached them through the key attacks she thought they should know.

“There are four types of attacks I want you to be able to use,” Amathea explained, her magic weaving into life and the pressure of it hanging about her shoulders in a soft miasma. It was ready to spring into life for a demonstration should she call on it, “And while I’m with you I’m going to make sure you at least get the basics of them. So pay attention!”

Grillby watched as a hoard of spears formed behind the fish monster, piling together above her in a bristling display.

“The first one is ‘the hammer’, as I like to call it,” she continued, “Hammer attacks are big and heavy and powerful. You’re trying to drag as much hp out of your target as you can manage in a single blow. You, my dear little tinderbox, are a giant, never ending hammer. You’ve been taught to hit hard and keep hitting hard until whatever you’re hitting is too bent out of shape to function anymore. Good technique for someone who doesn’t have to worry about being hit back, I’ll admit. But when you’re fighting silly dodging things like Gaster? Yeah not so much.”

The skeleton gave a tired grin at this, side-eyeing Grillby mischievously. Amathea dispelled the barrage she’d summoned and focused her magic instead on a single spear that glowed bright green.

“Second type is ‘the spear’. Spear attacks are far-reaching and aimed for a single weak point, like a long spear or a pole-axe is used against armored knights. You’re not trying to beat anything into submission. You’re trying to stab at the gaps in the armor before they can hit you. Those exploding sticks of yours yesterday were a good example,” Amathea rolled her eyes, “A little crude , but they function just as good as any of mine I guess.”

Grillby wasn’t sure if he should take that as a compliment or not.

“Third is ‘the sword’. You’re wanting something fast and stabby that you can use over and over again. Everything Gaster ever does is a sword attack,” she paused, grimaced and then amended, “Minus the blasters. They’re probably hammers. Anyway , sword attacks tend to be more useful at short range, unless you’re like this bonehead here and can dodge and throw things at the same time.”

“Aw,” Gaster barred his teeth at her in a grin, “I’m sensing some jealousy.”

“It’s cheating is what it is,” Amathea grumbled past a rueful smile, “Cutting off my attacks like that. It’s annoying.”

She rolled her eyes and with a smile finally finished, “The fourth is pretty obvious. Defense. We’ll call it ‘the shield’. That’s my green attacks and probably Gaster’s blue ones as well. And that’s your core, tinderbox. Your whole body is a defense mechanism. You absorb attacks and eat up magic and… really anything if you put your mind to it.”

Amathea gave a wry smile, “I watched a fire elemental like yourself devour a whole forest and turn and use it to make a whirlwind of fire from sea to sky. Pretty damn impressive.”

Grillby grimaced. Sure it was impressive - Grillby could never pull off something like that on his own - but it was also probably messy and gross and wearying as well. He’d never eaten anything other than monster food, and hoped he stayed that way.

“So,” the fish monster’s voice snapped him out of his thoughts, “Now that you know a basic gist, we’re going to put it to use. Hands-on learning is my specialty.”

Amathea grinned at this and stood, ushering for her two charges to follow. She paused them a safe distance away from their tent, aimed them at some trees and barked at them to start attacking. She drilled them - another thing Grillby wasn’t used to. He’d been drilled in marching before, but never in fighting. It was different, interesting and tiring. She stood by and would call out an attack type - spear, sword, spear, word, hammer, hammer, shield! And for each attack she called they responded with a similar attack. Gaster of course knew what he was doing, and threw his attacks around with nonchalant ease. Grillby, on the other hand, earned himself several shouts from Amathea before their time drilling was up.

You call that a spear?! No think smaller, faster tinderbox! I called sword! Sword!! And just how is that shield supposed to protect you? Good, now make the wall bigger. Yes, bigger. You can do it, tinderbox - Gaster stop signing your attacks!!

And so the day went until the afternoon when both Gaster and Grillby were fatigued and shuttering and hungry for lunch and anything to replenish all the magic they’d spent. Grillby did notice that as the day progressed that despite Gaster’s lack of any real rest, let alone an actual nap, the skeleton seemed to wake up more and more. He laughed, he joked. He elbowed the elemental and whispered ridiculous comments about Amathea being some sea witch cursed to wander the land, beating people up and forcing good-for-nothings like himself and Grillby to work much harder than they had to. At which the fish monster slapped him none-too-gently on the back of the head and retorted something about Gaster being a plague of a nuisance himself - though there was a grin in her voice as she said it.

There was little rest for them in the evening either. Amathea gave them an hour to sit and remember what not being in a constant state of motion felt like. Gave them a bit to catch their breath and for Grillby to begrudgingly tell himself that yes he could do this and no he wasn’t going to fall into a molten soup if he stood up again. And of course Gaster tried and failed at getting some sleep in. Then Amathea was up again with that stamina that seemed to be never ending and that voice that never wavered even for a moment.

“Alright tinderbox,” she harumphed as she paced beside where the elemental sat, “You’re pretty handy with that swordwork of yours, right?”

“... handy enough,” came his weary reply.

“Handy enough to give Gaster a few lessons?”

This dragged a long groan from the skeleton, who was lying facedown in the grass just a few steps away from where Grillby sat. He clasped his hands behind his head and nuzzled his face a little harder into the ground, as if he could somehow dispel whatever nightmare reality was becoming for him at the edge of Amathea’s statement.

“No Ammy, we’re not teaching the skeleton to do a sword thing,” he said with a muffled grumble into the grass.

“Yes, Ammy, we’re teaching the skeleton to do a sword thing,” Amathea parroted to him, giving his side a soft nudge with the toe of her boot, “What happens if you ever meet a human mage, huh? You think they’ll give a damn about your fancy magic?”

Gaster managed to give her a sideways glare out of his broken eye, the rest of his face still hidden behind his bony arms, “If a human mage gets involved that’s when this skeleton runs for cover. Same with the angry fish, if she’s learned anything from last time.”

This time the nudge she gave him was a lot less like a nudge and a lot more like a kick.

Ow! Hey, I have a point and you know it,” the skeleton scowled up at her as he dragged himself to his feet - if for no other reason than to stay out of the range of that angry boot, “Mages are boss monster problems. Little guys like us don’t stand a chance against big magic using humans. We’re dust in ten seconds flat. Learning a sword thing won’t help that at all.”

“So says about the only non-boss monster who could actually take on a mage,” Amathea prompted, raising an eyebrow skeptically, “They wouldn’t be able to land a hit on you. And besides, being able to counterattack with something physical might serve you well someday. All your attacks crumble after one hit, after all. You’re learning it.”

Grillby interjected just as Gaster opened his mouth to speak, “Woah woah, wait a second!”

He crackled nervously after he’d gotten their attention, clearing his throat to try and sound a little less anxious than he felt, “I’ve only been learning swordcraft for a year. I’m hardly qualified to be teaching anyone anything.”

Amathea laughed at this, surprising Gaster and Grillby both. She flashed Grillby a grin, her eyes sparkling knowingly.

“Tell me something tinderbox,” she mused, “Why did you choose to take up a sword instead of - say - a warhammer, like Gerson? Or a battle axe or spear or polearm or whatever else you could have chosen to arm yourself with.”

Grillby paused, his flame coloring through thoughtful greens and subtle blues, “I… don’t know.”

“Yes you do.”

Grillby blinked at her confusedly, “I just wanted it.”

“Aye ya did,” she chuckled, “And didn’t it just fit your hand like a glove? Didn’t you learn so much faster than the others training with ya? But then, isn’t that just the funny way with elementals? Always terribly good at something special with no real reason why.”

Grillby… had nothing to say to that. Amathea gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

“Trust me, tinderbox, you’re more than qualified. Whether you know it or not,” she hummed reassuringly before urging them off, “Now go on. Get teaching. I’ll be back  before the sun dips over the treeline.”

“And just where are you going, oh cryptic leader?” Gaster asked condescendingly.

Amathea made a show of a shrug as she walked off, calling back to him coyly, “I’m a commander aren’t I? I’ve got things I have to attend to.”

Gaster let out a pitiful whine and yelled after her, “Like what ? Your entire unit is standing right here !”

Her only reply was a quip of a laugh barked over her shoulder as she disappeared into the rest of the camp.

Chapter Text

It took a bit of awkward scrambling and asking around, but eventually Grillby found what he needed for attempting to teach Gaster how to sword fight. It mostly consisted of finding some training blades and a dummy willing enough to let a novice smack at them for a few weeks. Grillby stood by and waited while Gaster went through every type of sword he’d brought, shaking his head at every single one and bemoaning how fruitless of an effort it was to try and teach him how to swordfight. He’d picked through his selection twice before finally shrugging uselessly.

“This isn’t going to work, firefly,” he muttered, “All of these practically weigh more than I do! I can’t swing these around.”

Grillby gave a crackle of a laugh, shaking his head, “If you can drag me around with that blue magic of yours, you can pick up a sword. They’re not that heavy.”

“Still can’t swing one around,” Gaster pointed out stubbornly. This earned him an eye roll from the fire elemental.

“If you don’t pick one, I’ll pick one for you,” he said finally, wrenching another moan from the defeated skeleton and sending him shambling back over to the swords again. After dragging his feet for a few more minutes, he picked up a one-handed sword and flipped it over in his hands meekly.

“It’s really dull,” he commented pessimistically, to which Grillby shrugged.

“It’s just a training blade. If you take to it, we’ll get you a real one sometime.”

There was a pause where Gaster tested the sword a bit, swooping it around in the air haphazardly in some mock show of what he’d seen other monsters do. Grillby did his best not to cringe. Ho boy this was going to take a lot of work, he could tell already. Finally Gaster seemed to decide this was as a good match of a blade for him as he was going to get and waited for Grillby to give him some instruction.

Which he tried to do. As best he could. Given he’d never ever taught any monster anything about sword fighting before in his life. Or really, anything about anything for that matter. He started by showing Gaster how to actually hold the sword properly, pulling his own out of his inventory to demonstrate. He explained that what Gaster had was a simple arming sword, weighting enough to help give heavy swings while still small enough to be relatively easy to maneuver and carry. The only catch? They were short, dangerously short. Especially for a monster so used to an aloof and long-range type of combat. This Gaster took with a grain of salt. He was already going to be uncomfortably close to someone swinging a sharp object at his body, might as well get used to being way too close.

Grillby on the other hand bore a longsword. The blade itself was nearly one and half times longer than the blade on the sword Gaster had chosen, the grip longer as well to make room for strong two-handed strokes - though with how strong Grillby was when his fire was devouring a battlefield and a rush was going through him, he often switched to single-handed techniques that shouldn’t regularly be possible. It was the fortunate thing about having a body that depended wholly on magic, instead of much in the way of the physical.

Grillby quickly stepped Gaster through the parts of his sword - yes you stab things with the pointy end. The edge is used for deflecting, but for heaven’s sakes don’t catch a hit near the end of your point unless you want to break the darn thing! And yes, that does happen. The guard is not just to protect your hand you dingus, you can deflect blades with that.

When he figured the skeleton knew how not to stab himself, he placed his own sword back into his inventory and picked up one of the remaining arming swords that Gaster had dismissed - a short sword that was just a small bit longer than the one Gaster had picked. He frowned at the unfamiliar weight of it - it was light, much lighter and shorter than he was used to.

“Please don’t tell me you’re going to start swinging that at my face already,” Gaster whined, and Grillby crackled in a laugh.

“Maybe if I wanted to dust you,” he said with a flicker and a smile in his voice, “I’m just going to teach you some drills. That’s how they taught me at first. You’ll love ‘em.”

“If they’re anything like Ammy’s drills, then I think we’ll have to agree to disagree,” Gaster groaned.

“Oh lighten up,” Grillby caught himself about to give Gaster a pat on the shoulder, and stopped, remembering to be self-conscious. There was an awkward pause where he didn’t know what to do with his hand before mimicking an exaggerated shrug, “You can uh… teach me some more of your hand-speak when we’re done. Sound like a fair trade?”

The best answer he got out of the skeleton was a grumble.

So Grillby stepped him through some drill. Literally, stepped him through it. He showed him how to move his wrist for different cutting strokes. How to step and move his feet. And when he’d taught Gaster a handful of them, he practiced the set with him, moving through steps and slashes and jabs over and over again. It was a mind numbing task for Grillby, and normally he would just let his body sink naturally through the motions. Relax into them and lose himself to the familiar, mindless motions. But he had Gaster to attend to, and he was constantly slowing down and showing the skeleton monster different things. Re-teaching him how to move his wrist or his foot when he slid just a little off.

And Gaster did what the skeleton did best - asked questions. Why do I hold my wrist this way? Why step forward with my left foot? This doesn’t feel natural, what’s wrong with it? Where does my other foot go again? Do you move your arm and your foot forward at the same time?

Grillby was surprised at how he could answer them all, and answer them well enough for the skeleton to understand. And Gaster learned surprisingly fast. Not as fast as Grillby had when he’d been taught - the elemental had barely so much as blinked at what he was shown and was mirroring it perfectly. But within the first dozen or so moves through the sets, Gaster was very nearly fixing his own slips and mistakes. Those curious eyes that took in everything studied every inch of Grillby as he acted out the motions and then translated them back to his own limbs when he moved.

Grillby didn’t know how long they worked before Gaster was inevitably back to griping and complaining about tiring out. Before his swings got just sloppy enough to permit him a pause. Gaster took the break gratefully, resting on his short sword as if it were a cane and making Grillby cringe as he did so. He flashed the elemental a tired smile.

“Confidence looks good on you, by the way,” Gaster said with a nonchalant wave of his hand, bursting out into laughter at the sudden flustered crackles and ripples the comment dragged from Grillby, “Well that didn’t last long.”

He waved his hands in rapid motions at the bewildered elemental, talking quickly past a broad grin as he tried to calm him down.

“Your color, firefly, your color,” the skeleton laughed, emphasizing his words with his decisive hand movements, “You go all kinds of colors when you know what you’re doing. It looks cool. That’s what I meant.”

He chuckled, “Stop flashing at me like I just invaded your personal space.”

“Oh,” was about all Grillby could find to reply with. Whatever color he had been, it was already replaced with a fever pitch of flustered yellow and orange. It suddenly struck Grillby that… he wasn’t actually sure what color he was when he was… confident. The only time his body felt that natural to him was when he was lost in something, his mind elsewhere and focused on something more important. He hesitated a second before asking, hiding as much of his awkwardness as he possibly could.

“Uh what… what color was it, exactly?” Grillby muttered, “I didn’t realize I was… I wasn’t normal…?”

Gaster blinked at him incredulously, obviously confused.

“You’re kidding,” he said finally, the ridge above his unbroken eye going down in a concerned frown, “Do you have absolutely no self confidence at all?

“Oh hush,” Grillby tutted out an indignant puff of smoke, “I just wasn’t paying attention.”

“You’ve never paid attention, though?” Gaster was laughing again now, going from confused to amused in seconds, “You do know you change color all the the time right?”

Grillby crossed his arms, body flickering in a defensive scowl. Oh he never should have even asked, should he?

“Oh forget it.”

Gaster shook his head, his chuckling dying off into a patient smile at the elemental, his hands moving a few times in apologetic motions before he spoke again, “Alright alright, calm down, I was joking. And you weren’t a color. You were every color.”

Grillby blinked, “... Seriously?”

“Yep,” Gaster grinned, “Purple, blue, green, orange, yellow… just about every color I’ve ever seen a fire magic monster use. It was cool - er - awesome. Fire can’t be cool. Anyway, it started sometime while you were going through the sets.”

Gaster tapped the center of his own chest, “It looked like it bloomed outwards from here. Since it kinda rippled down your arms and up your face. Is that - you know - where your fire comes from? In your chest?”

Grillby shifted on his feet uncomfortably, suddenly much more self-conscious than before. Gaster really paid much more attention to things than Grillby gave him credit for.

“My... core?” he said carefully.

“Is that what you call it?” and there came that sparkling curiosity that seemed to take over Gaster’s entire body, “Is that your soul?”

Grillby shook his head, hesitantly explaining, “My core and my soul are different. Though, I suppose they probably rely on each other. Uhm… if my core goes out my soul will shatter. It’s… I guess it’s what keeps me lit?”

Gaster was leaning forward slightly as he listened, drawing in every word of Grillby’s as if it was air he could breathe. Grillby stifled the urge to take an uncomfortable step back.

“How does it work?”

To this, Grillby could only shrug helplessly, “How does any magic work? It just does. I do know it takes a lot of energy to sustain. That’s why I eat so much more at meals than the rest of you.”

He paused and added, “And when I get tired it doesn’t like to hold it’s shape anymore. Like -” he sighed, finding it hard to explain, “- like I can feel it has a shape.”

Grillby cupped his hands in a circular shape, as if he were wrapping his hands around a large bowl and getting ready to drink.

“And it’s holding itself together. It’s heavy and dense and packed together and contained. And when I’m tired it gets weak and wobbly and starts to spread apart.”

He spread his hands apart as he explained, trying to at least show how it felt even if he couldn’t explain it well, “The further apart it gets the harder it is to… well, stay like this.”

Grillby ushered a hand to himself, “I feel like I’m going to just drip apart. It’s gross and uncomfortable. I… don’t imagine there’s an equivalent I could relate to you. But I guess it’s a bit like a melting feeling. Like I’m suddenly made of honey or something, instead of fire.”

Gaster looked like he’d just had explained to him some obscure wonder of the world, as awe-struck and attentive as he was when Grillby spoke. In spite of how uncomfortable he felt, Grillby couldn’t help but smile tiredly at it.

“We’re not going to get any more sword training in now, are we?”

“Depends,” Gaster answered, his entire a body a grin and his hands signing rapidly, “Can we drill and talk? Because I need to talk about this.”

Grillby shook his head, smirking and sighing in defeat, “We’re cleaning up first though.”

Gaster let out an excited whoop and was off in a flurry, those ethereal hands of his flashing about to gather the discarded swords and help Grillby drop them back off in the hands they belonged to. The skeleton was a jittering mess of excited and impatient, but ultimately managed to stave off his flood of questions until after they were sat back at their tent.

“So you have to hold yourself together?” Gaster asked brightly as he grabbed a seat around their campfire. Grillby busied himself with lighting it - and wondering faintly whether he should cook something for when Amathea got back.

“Not really,” he said with a shrug, “I mean, not in the way you’re thinking. Once I’ve picked a form, for the most part I say there. But I’m not as solid as you are, and if I decide to I can make myself look differently. It has to be a conscious decision though, like deciding to run instead of walk.”

Grillby frowned to himself. Did that even make sense? No, that made absolutely no sense. Well, at least Gaster seemed to get it anyway. He was already signing excitedly and spitting out another question.

“So you can make yourself look different? Can you do that now?”

This dragged a short laugh from Grillby, “No. Well, I could if I wanted to. But I wouldn’t fit into my clothes anymore.”

“Have you always looked like this?”

He shrugged, “When I was summoned I was smaller. More compact. But with all the magic and energy they insisted on keeping me fed with, that turned out to be too uncomfortable to stay as small as I was. I’ve shared the field with a few other elementals though, and they seemed to prefer something larger than me even, more intimidating.”

“How big could you be?”

This, Grillby didn’t really have an answer to. He’d never really tried to be anything bigger, though he was sure he could be. Pretty sure anyway. Mostly sure. Hmm…

“No idea,” he settled on finally, “I’ve never tried.”

He shook his head, cutting Gaster off just as the skeleton opened his mouth, “And I have no desire to find out. Not right now anyway.”

“Oh,” this threw the skeleton into silence for a moment, whatever train of thought he’d been going down derailing for a moment. Though Grillby could tell he was by no means finished - just fishing for a different question. Grillby took advantage of the pause to get some dinner cooking - throwing in what remained of what Gaster had caught when Amathea sent him out the day before.

“Okay how about this,” Gaster finally said while Grillby cooked, “Does your magic come from your core? Or does it come from your soul?”

The elemental tilted his head at Gaster, and the skeleton explained.

“Right so normal monster magic is rendered from the soul right? For me anyway, especially when I use my strongest magic, I can feel a tug,” Gaster tapped the center of his chest where Grillby assumed the monster’s soul normally sat, “So we know our magic comes from here. And then our physical bodies surround it. For monsters like me it’s just bone. Monsters like Amathea have scales and organs and all that goopy stuff. But it’s still just the shell around the soul.”

“Okay,” Grillby hummed.

“So for you, is your soul just your life then?” Gaster asked, “And your magic, does it come from your core instead?”

Grillby shook his head, “No, my magic definitely comes from my soul.”

He shrugged, “I guess my core is just the shell, like your body is. Probably.”

The elemental gave a nervous, crackling laugh, “I’ve… not thought about it much.”

Grillby dropped his gaze down to his hands, as if he could find the answer there somewhere. What even was he? He knew that whenever his fire was put out in a place, his body didn’t just disappear. Not completely. It hurt, there was something physical there beneath the flame that was there just enough to feel even if it wasn’t enough to take damage when he was hit by something like a sword or an arrow. Or magic. He was solid enough for someone to touch his shoulder without their hand just sinking into him. Solid enough to wear clothes, to pick up objects. After all, if he were incorporeal he’d just be a ghost, wouldn’t he?

“I don’t know,” he said finally, “I’ve always just… been, you know? I don’t really ask how.”

Gaster was smiling thoughtfully, “You know, you’ve gone through your entire life with monsters telling you you’re so drastically different from the rest of us.”

Grillby nodded.

“Why didn’t you ever ask about it?”

“Well I wondered to myself,” Grillby murmured, shifting uncomfortably as he spoke, “But at the end of the day I just… well… it didn’t really matter to me enough. I knew what I needed to do, and what I had to do. I didn’t need to know why I could do it, or how it affected me.”

Gaster chuckled, “You’re a much more accepting monster than I’ll ever be. I mean, think about it, firefly. You were dumped into this world at the whim of someone else and immediately told to fight. Not just fight - to kill - in the name of whatever their cause was. Would you have just followed along if it were humans summoning you to fight us? If you were crossing swords with Ammy or me? Or… your friend… Gerson, right?”

Grillby felt himself start to sputter, his flame flickering a little more erratically and his core - not his soul - tensing and squirming around inside him uncomfortably. He felt sick. And worried. And… just a tiny bit angry as well, if he were completely honest.

“But I’m a monster,” Grillby offered a bit lamely, and Gaster shrugged.

“Some monsters would argue you’re not,” he pointed out, and Grillby flinched at it, “Some think you’re something different, apart from humans and monsters both. I mean, you aren’t born. Not like the rest of us are. You don’t feel pain or tire the same way. Some of you don’t have to eat, depending on the type. It’s a convincing argument to make.”

“It felt fine,” Grillby scowled, gulping down his rising temperature and exasperation, “The monsters who summoned me asked me to help. They could’ve bound me with a pact or with runes and made me help without asking permission, but they didn’t. They told me what I was getting into before they asked me to help. And they didn’t dispel me when they saw how small I was when I was summoned and go fishing around for something more powerful. It felt fine, there was no reason for me to-”

Grillby abruptly stopped when he realized Gaster was signing frenetically at him.

“I… what?”

“Back up a bit there,” the skeleton frowned at him, “There’s magic out there like that?”

Grillby blinked at him.

“Pacts and runes to force you to do something. There’s magic like that? That’s a thing?”

“Uh…Yes?”

The look of confused concern that had woven itself across Gaster’s face was suddenly replaced by something much more intense and angry. Grillby let out a flustered crackle, his fire flickering quickly through yellows and whites as he scrambled to figure out something to say.

“I mean… it’s nothing that’s been used here,” he explained as quickly as he was able, “But it exists. It happens to summoned creatures a lot actually. They have to make a pact before they’re dispelled and… sent back to wherever they came from, I guess? It’s not common magic. But… it happens. It’s mostly when humans want to make sure the creature they’ve called up won’t kill them I think, or when something is summoned that’s old and filled with a lot of bad intent. But regardless, the monsters here could’ve used it on me when I came here and they didn’t. It’s good proof that, at the very least, they don’t bear me any ill will. I can’t say the same for most humans.”

There was a silence that passed between them then where Gaster stared at the fire and Grillby tended to the food that was cooking - and trying very hard not to be self conscious as he did so. He really hadn’t expected the conversation to take the turn that it did.

“How did you know?” Gaster asked finally, and Grillby looked up at him confusedly.

“Know what?”

“If no one has ever used magic like that against you, how did you know it even existed?”

There was a long pause where Grillby rolled that question around in his memory and came up short of an answer. Finally he shrugged and turned back to his cooking.

“I just know,” he answered as matter-of-factly as he could manage, and Gaster seemed content enough with that answer. Or rather, content enough that he’d get no better answer out of the elemental for now. There was still a suspicious glint in his eye though, and a thoughtful frown that didn’t look like it would move from his face unless someone gave it a reason to. Well… Grillby could at least try and lighten the sour mood up a bit.

“So…” the elemental broke the awkward pause, “What are you thinking?”

He took a breath, trying to mimic the theatrical pauses Gaster did when he ever asked that ridiculous question, “... right now?”

Gaster flashed Grillby a grim smile, “I’m thinking you’re not telling me everything. But… I’m not gonna press.”

His smile got a little bigger, “Even though you just gave me at least a dozen more questions to ask.”

The skeleton shook his head, “But I owe you a signing lesson right? So let’s do that instead.”

Grillby sighed gratefully and nodded, “Yeah, let’s do that.”

They let the rest of their evening lapse into a mix of cooking and teaching. Grillby struggled through learning a couple more phrases of Gaster’s speech and learning to recognize a few of the more general motions. And how to tell the pauses between words apart - that seemed to be the most important thing Grillby needed to get a handle on. Right now, everything that Gaster signed, aside from a few key motions, just looked like a mess of purposeful flails. If he could just tell them apart, where one stopped and another started, it’d be a little easier.

True to her word, Amathea returned before the sun had managed to dip below the trees - but only just barely. She looked tired. The kind of mentally drained tired one got when they’d had to be apart of something unpleasant. But she perked up quickly over the food Grillby had made for them.

Of course, Gaster asked why she looked so grim. And she gave a tired response riddled with statistics and field movements that Grillby found hard to follow. But he caught the general gist at least - the humans were pushing in and monsters were falling back, and the commanders here were talking about who was being deployed where and when. Brigg’s unit, the unit they were conjoined with, was being held at this camp for the immediate future while the human mages were off the main battlefield. As soon as they were spotted again though… Amathea had given Grillby a meaningful look, and the elemental had nodded, understanding. After all, they were what he’d been summoned to deal with. Thinking about it made Grillby feel antsy, like the skin he didn’t have was crawling. Ever since the autumn rains had started, he’d been stuck here in the camp. It was slow and lethargic and boring. Safe, but the condemning kind. The kind that said he should be out helping.

He hoped the rain stayed away for him to be of some use, at least for a little while.

Chapter Text

There was a routine they settled into, a schedule for the days that helped spend their time productively - in preparation for whenever they weren’t in the safety of camp any longer and would have to pull their weight in the war effort. They started every morning with a run, Grillby grimacing and sighing the entire way as he attempted to hold himself together correctly. He hoped it would get a little easier as he got used to it, got into the motion of things and actually learned how to run properly, but for now it was just a nuisance trying to keep up.

Then Amathea would drill them in those particular techniques of hers, Grillby experimenting with the way he could throw his magic around more and more with every passing lesson. This part of his day was probably the part he enjoyed the most, when he got to experiment and try new things. It was the part of the day that Amathea tended to give him the most praise as well, lighting up at the thought of this brute of a monster learning how to conduct himself with strategy and subtly. Though Grillby was still rather well aware that most of the attacks he did were what she considered hammers. He was… still working on that. Stemming the flow of his magic and shaping it into something meticulous and useful was a task he was still getting the hang of.

Finally, in the evenings when Amathea left to meet with the other commanders of the camp and Gaster and Grillby were left to their own devices, the two of them would run through sword work. Gaster learned well, and learned fast. He was no swordmaster, heaven’s no! He was far from learning all there was to learn about different drills and techniques and flourishes that could be helpful when your opponent slipped. But all he was taught he absorbed like a sponge, and he was getting stronger. Though he might not have noticed it himself, Grillby noticed how the skeleton would go a little bit longer every day without complaining about how his arms felt numb and he wanted to quit.

And then in the final hours of the day, they were given their individual tastes of freedom. Sometimes Gaster would nap, sometimes he’d disappear into the mess of a camp for a few hours and do some trading or some drinking or… well whatever else a skeleton could do. Or he and Grillby would sit and work on the speaking in hands together. The elemental was learning pretty quickly that he had no natural talent when it came to learning new languages. It was interesting for sure, but the more he learned, the harder it was for him to retain things it seemed. He found himself asking the same questions over and over, it was disheartening.

Some days, just to switch up the routine and put what they were practicing to use, they would spar instead of drill. Sometimes in magic, sometimes in swords.

Grillby was still finding Gaster a maddeningly hard target to pin down, though he could keep up better now that he was using smaller and faster magical attacks. He was learning ways of combining his waves of fire with smaller, shorter bursts. He was learning how to attack and dodge at the same time. He was learning how to cope with an enemy that fought back for more than a handful of seconds against his brute force. It was a challenge, one he hadn’t had in awhile - possibly his whole life - and he found himself excited to try the things he learned during their spars. It was relieving to know what he was learning could actually be used, and used well.

The sword spars however were starkly different. After all, the entire point of sword fighting wasn’t to hold your opponent for a long period of time. Even for the average monster, it was well known that the shorter the swordfight the better. The goal was to end the fight in seconds if possible. The longer a fight dragged on, the easier it was to lose.

Gaster’s main problem, Grillby was finding, was in how light the skeleton hit. Grillby had crossed swords with monsters and humans alike - the former much more than the latter, for obvious reasons - and never had he run into a monster with such a light touch as Gaster. He supposed it was to be expected on some level. Gaster was a skeleton, he didn’t have much weight to throw behind his strikes. For Grillby, it was like trying to spar with a child. Deflecting Gaster’s attacks was the work of a flick of his wrist, disarming him was only a matter of knocking him around enough to throw him off balance. The only thing that helped the monster was that he was fleet-footed, and once confident in what he was doing his attacks were fast as well. It was a struggle with the unfamiliar weight of the sword, but Gaster was capable of flourishes and combinations of attacks that Grillby would be hard pressed to execute himself. The skeleton was good at strategy - a trait that had likely rubbed off on him from Amathea - and was constantly trying to find ways around Grillby’s impenetrable defence.

On days when Gaster was especially exasperated with how his work had gone, he would pin Amathea down when she got back from her meetings and spar with her as well. Just to get a fresh partner and a fresh look at how his attacks could work. Of course, he was thrown off a bit by the challenge of his short-reaching weapon against Amathea’s spear. The first few times the two had practiced, Gaster had nearly given up in exasperation.

Grillby was glad the skeleton decided to keep trying.

There was something else that the elemental was figuring out the more they spent time together. Something he was noticing about himself. Grillby was happy. Not that he had been miserable while working with Gerson. There was a fondness there for the turtle monster that Grillby would probably never lose, and the elemental found himself missing the monster’s sarcastic laughs and playful jabs at him over his nerves, missing just how warm and friendly he was to have around. But at the same time, Grillby’s heart and soul went out to these two monsters that he’d practically tumbled headfirst into. It went out to them in a way he hadn’t expected in monsters he’d known for such a short period of time.

There was an acceptance he found in them that he didn’t remember feeling anywhere else. Even Gerson had been intimidated by Grillby’s presence a time or two, tiptoed or cautioned around him, unsure of what the elemental would do when he was emotional or upset. Gaster and Amathea though? They joked and laughed with him as if he were a perfectly normal, non-elemental kind of a monster. When he was petulant they treated him the same way they would treat each other. When he was angry, they worked with him instead of balking. When he was nervous, they reminded him he had nothing to be afraid of.

Gaster’s pestering questions got annoying quickly sure, and he still had a thing or two to learn about personal space and announcing his presence in a way that wouldn’t scare the daylights out of the elemental. And yes, there was more than one occasion where Amathea’s brass ran away from charming and turned into abrasive and offensive. But regardless Grillby found himself wishing them nothing but the best. He found himself willing to do things for them he otherwise would not. He found himself protective of them and their happiness.

All of this he realized a handful of weeks into their stay with each other. First of all, Grillby found himself doing something that was already very unlike himself - going into camp during his free time, as opposed to staying at his tent and enjoying his solitude. It was one of those days where Gaster had decided to go harass the rest of the camp with his presence while Amathea met with the other commanders in the afternoon. Normally, Grillby would have just let himself unwind in comfortable silence. Maybe polish his armor a few times just in case they were deployed in the next few days. But shortly after Gaster had disappeared into the mess of tents and monsters of the camp below, Grillby’s mind had started wandering into some things that were very much not relaxing, and much more along the lines of distressing.

Amathea was still getting on to Gaster about signing his attacks during their spars. She was more than justified in it. Even Grillby, who was having such a hard time learning the handspeak, was beginning to decipher what the different gestures meant. Even when those gestures were ones he’d never seen before. It was worrying Grillby more and more, how vulnerable it made the skeleton. It was a glaring weakness and, the more he’d thought about it, the more he thought he could find a way to help fix it. After all, Gaster just needed something to do with his hands.

So Grillby had decided that walking through the crowd of a camp was worth the discomfort, at least for a little while. He walked with purpose, inventory heavy with a few trade items he knew would get him what he needed. He stopped at a few different vendors, talking with them briefly about what he needed and getting some sound advice on what to do about his little idea. For as pleasant as the conversation they made was, he was glad to be rid of them and on his way when finished. It was hard to be pleasant when all a monster was doing was trying to sell you something completely off-topic and of absolutely no use.

Grillby made out with a small bolt of cheap black fabric, a needle and an ample about of thread. He was striding on his way, head up and shoulders squared in a mimic of the imposing walk Amathea had when she went about her business. Grillby had noticed most people leaped out of the way for her when she did this, and was pleasantly surprised when they did the same for him as he went. The curious stares he got leaned more towards impressed, monsters musing to themselves about what pressing business he must be on to look so stern as he went.

That was when a commotion had struck up, ripples running through the camp like wildfire in the wake of it. Someone was getting into a fight. Grillby heard it in the whispering around him, noticed the shift in the atmosphere. He paused mid-step, his flame tinging into pensive yellows and greens. That couldn’t possibly be…? No. No, Gaster was a lot of things, but a brawler wasn’t one of them. Nothing to worry about. The skeleton was probably on his way back to the tent now. After all, the sun was getting low. Amathea would be back soon.

“A fight? Seriously?”

Grillby frowned as he walked by a passing conversation, slowing a bit to listen out of curiosity. And not worry. Because there was no reason for that right now.

“Sure a fight, if you could call it that,” came the terse reply, “I saw the tail-end of it. The other guy just kept dodging out of the way.”

Grillby stopped walking completely. No.

“Pff! First fight we have here in weeks and it’s not even interesting.”

Grillby let out a whine of a moan, looking up at the sky pitifully. Why. He huffed out a sigh of smoke and turned to walk back the way he’d come, startling the two monsters he’d overheard speaking when he suddenly intruded on their conversation. Huh, was that what he looked like when Gaster snuck up on him?

“Sorry to bother,” Grillby said with an apologetic flicker, “But uh, you wouldn’t happen to know if the monster involved was a skeleton, would you?”

One of the monsters, a cat-like creature with ears that made him look like he was stuck in a flinch, shook his head, “N-no sir. He was moving too fast.”

Grillby could’ve rolled his eyes. Oh that sounded like Gaster.

“Did you catch anything at all?” Grillby pressed nervously, measuring out a roundabout of Gaster’s height with his hand, “Tall guy? Wearing all black, maybe?”

The monster nodded, “Y… yeah?”

“For heaven’s sakes!”

Both the monsters in front of Grillby flinched as he gave a bitter spark, fire lilting into fretful purples and blues, “Oh but of course it’s probably him.”

In an instant he was jogging back off the direction he’d come from, barely managing to shoot a frustrated ‘thank you’ over his shoulder at the monsters as he went. If Grillby had luck, he’d be cursing it. Of course Gaster would manage to get himself into trouble. Well… to be honest he figured out of any of them it would be Amathea who would get stuck in a brawl first. She had that kind of personality, even if she was a commander. But Gaster suffered from his own brand of sarcasm that could get under a bad-tempered monster’s skin just as well as Amathea’s overbearing brashness could.

Grillby skid to a ragged halt just outside an imposing semicircle of monsters. All of them seemed pretty intent on the scene before them, some cheering and waving and others shouting insults. Grillby hazarded a look around, scowling at the fact that no commanders were in sight to break up the mess. But of course, they were all meeting for the evening weren’t they? They couldn’t begin to suspect the entire camp would fall to chaos while their backs were turned for more than two seconds. Okay, maybe not the entire camp, but close enough.

A few attacks rippled through the center of the ring of monsters, causing parts of the group to flinch and reel back, realizing there was nothing separating them from what was happening inside. Grillby let out a groan of dismay when one of the spirals of magic that fizzled out of existence above the heads of the crowd was an unmistakable bone attack. There was a jeer from inside as well, but Grillby couldn’t hear the words said above the noises of monsters chattering excitedly around him. The pitch in the voice sounded like Gaster.

Grillby suddenly realized he had no idea what to do. Break up the fight? How was he supposed to do that?! There were monsters everywhere! And what would it even help? If the monsters were determined enough to keep going… augh and what had even started this in the first place?! Grillby stomped a foot angrily on the ground, managing to grab the attention of some of the monsters nearest to him. One of them took a wary step away from him, shooting a pensive stare at the fire that was now blossoming into aggravated whites, purples and blues.

Well. Might as well. Try something.

Exasperated and worried, heat rolling off of him in waves, Grillby strode towards the crowd. The monsters that had noticed him immediately stepped out of his path, some of them flinching back a few more steps because of the uncomfortable heat. Those who didn’t notice he grabbed by the shoulders - flinching as he did so - and pushed them aside. He got a lot of startled, angry looks, most of which were cut off the minute realization struck. Grillby shoved his way past the ring of monsters just as their roaring reached its most enthusiastic pitch, the side he’d entered through quieting pensively when he stumbled into the openness of the ring.

The first thing Grillby noticed was Gaster, a look of confused shock on his face, his teeth barred in a nervous sort of half-grin. The second he noticed was the monster holding Gaster menacingly, some large lizard-type with knicks on normally shiny scales from whatever attacks Gaster had landed on him. The monster had Gaster by the collar of his shirt, standing on his absolute tip-toes so his feet weren’t yanked off the ground. The last thing Grillby noticed were the two other monsters beside him, one that had noticed Grillby shove his way through and another that hadn’t. The one that had noticed looked like they were already regretting they’d been caught.

There was a heat and an anger that flashed through the elemental that he had never felt before in his short life. His core practically shuddered with it. His throat and his chest felt tight with it. His entire body pitched into a bright and furious blue. Grillby was striding forward in an instant, flame billowing behind every step and leaving brand-like marks in the ground as he walked. Whatever attack the monster holding Gaster had begun to summon crackled apart instantly as Grillby’s hand clapped down on his arm. The monster’s face lit up in angry surprise, and with a howl he dropped Gaster, staggering back and clutching his wrist. Grillby could hardly suppress a hiss as it shivered about  him in a snaking, haze of smoke. He always hated the smell of burning scales. It was tart and sharp and put a taste of metal in him that he didn’t like.

“What is going on here!?” the elemental demanded, standing imposingly between a very relieved looking Gaster and the monsters he’d stopped. The cheering and laughing of the circle of monsters watching had stopped, replaced by a stunned sort of silence that echoed deafeningly back at Grillby. It was a struggle to remain unphased by it. He took a step back, pivoting sideways to shoot Gaster a hard glare but still keeping an eye out for movement in his peripheral. Gaster blinked at him.

What happened?

The skeleton coughed out a laugh, signing pensively through a couple of sentences that Grillby was hard-pressed in catching. He thought he saw something apologetic but he wasn’t sure. Finally Gaster managed a sheepish and unconvincing, “It was just a uh... misunderstanding?”

Grillby snapped his head back around to the three other monsters who’d been caught up in the fight. The main one had his face contorted into a snarl, angry magic bristled around him with a bitter intent that set Grillby’s flame billowing. Gaster took a hesitant step back. One of the monsters with the first, a pyrope who was sputtering nervously at the potential in the air, started rattling off excuses. Explanations, rather. Grillby faintly registered something about cheating, and someone being taken advantage of. And someone else being annoying and patronizing and someone else not taking kindly to being talked down to like a piece of stupid garbage. B-b-but! Really l-like the skeleton said, this was all just a big misunderstanding and blown w-way out of proportion. Shouldn’t we all s-scatter before a commander shows up and we’re c-court martialed?

It was around the last sentence that things started to sink in. The fury that bubbled around in Grillby’s core started to beat itself back. Reason and self conscious nervousness starting to reclaim the forefront of Grillby’s mind. The blue in his flame flushed itself out as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by a jittery and strained sort of yellow-white. Grillby let out a tense sigh of smoke, suddenly remembering just hot hotly he was burning. He calmed it just enough to walk through the crowd without accidentally burning anyone, waved for Gaster to follow him, stepped away from the fight. He needed to calm down. This was stupid. Grillby didn’t fight. Grillby didn’t -

The monster with the burn on his wrist reached forward and snagged Gaster by the arm as he passed. He opened his mouth to yell one last insult, but shut it abruptly when Grillby’s fist connected with the side of his jaw.

Well. That didn’t exactly go to plan.

 

Chapter Text

“For what it’s worth,” Gaster said with a miserable smile, “For your first fight it wasn’t all that bad. Ammy will probably be proud… you know… when she’s done being pissed.”

Grillby and Gaster had been penned up in the stockade for the past two days, as was customary for any monsters caught in the middle of a fight. The other three monsters involved had been wisely moved to the medical tent first, then thrown in a makeshift stocks on the other side of the camp to serve out their time.

Amathea had been the first one on the scene to break them up, followed quickly by Brigg and two other commanders Grillby hadn’t recognized, probably there for the other monsters involved. They’d gotten an earful from Amathea first, cursing the stars above for being stuck with such irresponsible fopdoodles, acting like a pair of skelpie-limmers. Doing quisby for this fustilarian tripe of a brawl, what utter gob-shite they were. A rough translation from Gaster later said she was yelling about them acting childish and wasting their time on stupidity. Well. She wasn’t wrong.

Grillby hadn’t stopped pacing since they’d been penned in their makeshift prison. The rut he’d started to wear was impressive. Well, it wasn’t a rut really. More a circular path stamped in with shoe-prints and scorch marks. Within the first few hours of them being stuck in there, Gaster had given up on trying to get Grillby to calm down. No matter what he said or did, Grillby insisted on standing and pacing. Mostly in silence. Occasionally making an outburst about how rashly and stupidly he’d acted. Pensively rambling about how none of this should have happened.

“Grillby you’ve been at this for literally days,” Gaster sighed, “Look, monsters get into fights. It just happens sometimes. They’ll give us a slap on the wrist and let us out by tonight. Then Ammy will grind our noses into the dirt with training and everything will be fine.”

I don’t fight,” Grillby said sternly, not pausing for so much as a step, “I never fight.”

“Okay, okay,” Gaster raised his hands placatingly, “It happened once. It’s nothing to lose sleep over.”

There was a pause where Gaster’s only answer was the sound of Grillby pacing.

“Aren’t you exhausted?”

More pacing.

“Grillby! You’ve been red since last night, you’re going to put yourself out!”

This Grillby knew was ridiculous. Something as stupid as pacing all night wouldn’t put him out. Not in the slightest. But before Grillby could protest, Gaster had pinged his soul blue. Grillby found himself forced to the ground beside Gaster, landing with a startled ‘oof’. He gave the skeleton a vicious glare.

“Oh pout all you want,” Gaster muttered, stubbornly holding Grillby in place, “You’re resting for five minutes. If for nothing else than for my sanity. You didn’t even sleep, firefly.”

The most Grillby could protest at this point was by crossing his arms and twitching his foot where he lay - which he did. He let out a pensive sigh.

“What’s your problem, anyway?” Gaster signed tiredly, frowning down at the sputtering flame, “If you were just going to regret it so much later, why bother intervening in the first place?”

Grillby crackled a sharp laugh, “It was literally impossible for me not to do anything. You were about to get beat half to dust. I had to do something.”

“Not true,” Gaster shrugged, “You could’ve just let me take whatever I had coming. I mean, for all you know I deserved it.”

Grillby blinked up at the skeleton, thoughtfully quiet. He’d never really… actually asked what the fight was about. Well, not in a way that got him a straight answer at least. And even when he was answered, he was a little too worked up to pay attention. He’d just been so angry. He’d lost control of his sense of reason for a whole two minutes. How terrifying.

Did you deserve it?” Grillby asked.

Gaster gave a noncommittal shrug, “Depends on who you ask.”

“I’m asking you.”

To this, Gaster gave a broad grin, one that both annoyed and unsettled Grillby.

“What did you do?

“Oh it really was just a big, stupid misunderstanding,” Gaster laughed, “We were playing knucklebones, there might have been some gambling involved.”

Grillby gave an exasperated groan.

“And I was having a real good lucky streak actually,” Gaster said pleasantly, “And it was looking like I was going to win the final round. And insults start being thrown about. Which I personally took offense to. I was being such a good sport about it too-”

“You insulted them back,” Grillby corrected, flashing Gaster a withering glare.

“-and they didn’t appreciate my humor about the situation at all,” Gaster continued with a grin, “And started saying things about me cheating. And it just kept escalating. I mean, I tried to avoid the conflict-”

“You ran away. Probably insulting them the entire time.”

“-but they just wouldn’t give up the chase. Some monsters are just so unreasonable.”

“So what, they accused you of cheating so you guys started calling each others’ bluff?” Grillby asked with a bitter crackle, “That’s it?”

“Well mostly it, yes.”

Grillby let out a loud whine, pulling the hood Gaster had oh-so-kindly stitched into his clothing weeks before down over his face, “I almost seared a monster’s arm off over a game of knucklebones?!”

Gaster chuckled and patted Grillby on the shoulder, “Oh there there. You didn’t fight anyone over a game of knucklebones. You fought them because they were fighting me over a game of knucklebones.”

Grillby let out another low whine, his fire somehow managing to sputter even lower and cooler than it had before, “All over a stupid misunderstanding. Because they thought you were cheating? What’s even the point to that?”

Gaster wagged a finger at Grillby condescendingly, a laugh at the edge of his voice as he spoke, “Now now, firefly, don’t you start assuming things now. At what point did I ever say I wasn’t cheating?”

Grillby blinked up at the skeleton, muted horror rippling through his flame in pale whites and greens.

“No.”

Gaster’s face split in a wide grin.

No.”

Barely stifling a laugh, shoulders bobbing as he strove to contain, Gaster signed out a single motion to Grillby.

Yes.

“I could literally kill you right now.”

Gaster gave a shrug, his grin settling back into that normal, lackadaisical stupor, “I do have that effect on people.”

“What would ever possess you to do that?!” Grillby whined, pulling his hood as low as he could over his face shamefully, “This is why all the religious monsters say gambling is of the devil. You know that right? You. Right now. Living proof.”

Gaster gave a hearty laugh at this, “Oh fine, fine. I’ll never ever do it again. Will that make you stop whining?”

Grillby shot Gaster a sideways glare from underneath his hood, “I don’t believe you.”

Gaster chuckled again, offering out a pinky finger for Grillby to shake with his own, “Pinky promise.”

“Last time you offered me that, you tried to kill me,” the elemental growled stubbornly.

“Well I do already have your soul blue,” Gaster grinned.

If Grillby could raise an eyebrow at the skeleton, he could have. Instead, he wrapped his pinky finger around the skeleton’s and gave it a suspicious shake.

“If you get into a fight again over something stupid like this, I refuse to come save you,” Grillby muttered.

“That’s fair.”

And I’m breaking that finger.”

Gaster let out an exaggerated squeak, shielding his vulnerable pinky away from Grillby and opening his eyes as wide as he could manage, “No.”

Yes,” Grillby tutted, though a smile had managed to creep back into his voice, “I’ll snap it right off. Mandatory promise rules.”

“Says the guy who didn’t even know what that was a month ago,” Gaster muttered with a laugh. The two lapsed into a bit more comfortable of a silence than they had been in before, Gaster finally releasing his hold on Grillby’s soul so the elemental could at the very least make himself comfortable on the ground. The skeleton gave a quiet sigh, looking back over at the elemental.

“In all seriousness though, thank you,” he said, the smile on his face waning as he gave a sigh, “That was a mess and you got me out of it. And I appreciate it.”

Grillby paused, letting those words sink in a moment before saying, “Yeah well… I’m sure you would do the same for me so… don’t worry about it.”

Grillby sighed out a hiss of smoke, his gaze locked on the sky and away from the skeleton that had begun scrutinizing him oh-so-closely as he spoke, “And if you wouldn’t do the same then… well I still wouldn’t worry about it. I mean, there’s no point in anyone trying to rescue something that can’t exactly die, right?”

Gaster frowned, the full body kind of frown that dragged his shoulders down and curved his spine and forced his arms to hug his knees. The brow above the eye that could still move pulled down harshly, the lights of his eyes dimmed just a bit. For a few seconds, he was rendered completely speechless, his mind reeling around a bit to find something appropriate to say.

“I’d still back you up,” Gaster managed finally, “I mean… I’d probably make everything worse, what with you worrying about how fragile I am so often.”

He gave a grim chuckle at this and shrugged, “But it’d be cruel to make you face things alone. Even if you are mostly invincible.”

He grinned, “ ‘Sides, someone’s gotta drag you outta the rain when you’re too dumb to run for cover.”

Grillby gave a condescending tut!, “That happened once.”

“Still happened.”

“And you grabbing me in time was pure luck.”

Gaster huffed a laugh, grinning, a comeback on the edge of his teeth, when Amathea’s voice cut him off. The two of them were immediately on their feet, listening as her voice grew closer. When she was close enough for the two of them to make out what she was saying, however, and who she was arguing with, all previous pleasantry from them dropped out of the air like fizzling magic.

“- no use in talking about this any more. You brought your case to Commander Dreemurr himself, and even he told you you’re completely out of line.”

“That’s because Dreemurr is too soft-hearted to take away the job of a handicapped veteran!” came the snarled response, “I don’t care what you used to be capable on the front lines. What matters is what you can do in the present. And you are clearly incapable of training the pair of drabble you have.”

“What, because of one scrap?” her voice was right near the door to the stockade now, her hand might as well be on the latch, “Brigg if you intended to take away the work of every small unit commander who’s had boys in a fight you’d lose half the army.”

There was a huff and a growl, Brigg about to make some retort when Amathea’s voice snapped his chance away, “This is not a discussion. Come at me with some intent, commander and I’ll match you. But if you just intend to vent in my ear then I would suggest you find someone who cares.”

Grillby and Gaster exchanged a glance. Using what broken up signing he could manage, Grillby asked silently:

Threat?

Gaster signed slowly back. It took Grillby a second of piecing together, but with a startled flicker he got it.

Sounds more like a duel, to me.

That was a scary thought.

The two weren’t given a chance to dwell on it long. The door to the stockade was pulled open with a flourish and Amathea stepped aside to let them out. Brigg was already storming off, disappearing into the mess of tents and bodies outside. Gaster gave Amathea a nervous grin.

“Are mom and dad fighting?” he asked playfully, earning himself a hearty punch to the shoulder.

You. Shut up,” she said with an unamused scowl, her fist planting itself firmly on her hip as she exclaimed, “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in?! Gambling. Cheating. Brawling. Causing a huge disturbance.”

Her glare shot around to Grillby, making the elemental flinch, “And you. You sent one monster to the hospital tent with scarring burns. And that poor pyrope won’t be able to light properly for a week.”

She snarled back to Gaster again, “And that other beastie had at least twelve stitches! Twelve, Gaster!”

“I know I know, it was a mess,” Gaster said quickly, signing frenetically as he went, “It was dumb and it won’t happen again, I swear.”

He gave Grillby a sideways glance, “Double swear.”

Amathea poked him hard in the sternum, making the skeleton flinch back a step, “Oh, you better believe it isn’t happening again. So help me, I’m going to run you so ragged you won’t even have time to think. And that goes double for you, tinderbox! You were supposed to stop him from doing something stupid. Not make it worse!”

Amathea let out an angry sigh, her gills flaring in a huff. She closed her eyes tightly, moving her hand up to pinch the space between them.

Aiya!” she growled past her gritted teeth, “My mother always told me I’d grow up to have children just like me, and I didn’t even have to have my own for that damn curse to work.”

Gaster and Grillby exchanged an uncomfortable glance. Well, if they hadn’t been feeling guilty before, they were certainly feeling it now. Gaster scratched the back of his head awkwardly, frowning to himself for a moment before his hands moved sluggishly to voice a thought. Some kind of consolation. A sigh from Amathea cut him off. She gave the two of them a tired smirk, a withering kind of look that displayed some kind of haggard and worried optimism. She gave the two a searching look up and down before allowing her smile to get a bit brighter.

“I suppose I must have taught you a thing or two right, though,” she laughed quietly, “You came out pretty well unscathed didn’t ya?”

Grillby gave a nervous laugh, “That was more an accomplishment on Gaster’s part. It was three against one when I showed up.”

“Yeah, and it’s a good thing you did show up, or things would’ve gone much differently I’ll bet,” Amathea hummed, “Let that be a lesson to you Gaster. Don’t pick a fight you can’t win.”

“Yes ma’am,” Gaster laughed sheepishly, “Like I said, won’t happen again.”

He paused before adding, “I mean, unless they start it-”

“Don’t you even finish that sentence,” Amathea groaned, “Alright, let’s get home. I’d like to actually sleep tonight.”

She turned and started walking, expecting them to follow, “Heaven’s alive, that tent being empty is a plight on the nerves on a dark night.”

Grillby wasn’t sure whether the whole ordeal had gone better or worse than he’d expected. Assuming he’d expected anything at all. The words he’d heard Amathea and Brigg exchanging wouldn’t leave him as they walked, though, and he found himself frowning tensely about them as they went. Brigg wasn’t a friendly monster to begin with. Obviously the elemental didn’t know him personally, and normally he’d hate to assume. But the thought of Brigg calling Amathea’s authority into question all because of Grillby and Gaster’s petty mistake? That was a thought that made his core boil. They were halfway to the tent when Grillby gathered up enough nerve to ask about it.

“Amathea? Was Brigg… threatening you?”

The fish monster barked a loud laugh, “One fight down and you’re already itching for more, are you?”

Grillby gave a flustered flicker, “N-no. That’s not it at all! It’s just… if he’s giving grief over us-”

“Brigg’s problem with me runs a bit deeper than just you two,” Amathea hummed, cutting the elemental off, “The scaley means well, I’ll give him that much. He’s the type of brute that needs to know without a shadow of a doubt that he can protect what he needs to, and he’s unafraid of making hard decisions to realize that. There’s something to respect in that. Takes a strong soul to believe that way.”

“... Right…” Grillby said slowly.

“However, he believes you have to have a certain soundness of mind, body and soul to protect monsterkind to the best of your ability,” Amathia’s fins twitched and she scowled, “So monsters like myself he believes are no longer fit to fight. A lot of monsters would agree with him, I’ll grant you. Monsters who reassigned my unit and sat me aside as an escort. But I tell you lads, it’s the strength of the soul that makes a monster, and my soul is strong and fierce and will stay that way for as long as I live, make no mistake!”

She huffed a bitter sigh and glowered, “And if I have to beat that into his scaly hide then I will.”

Grillby glanced sideways to Gaster, and the skeleton frowned and signed worriedly back. There was a pause between them before Gaster spoke up.

“So what happens if he decides to duel you then?” the skeleton asked.

Amathea shrugged, “Dunno. I’ve never dueled before. But if it comes to that, you better believe I’ll have a lot of fun making him look like a pin pillow.”

Neither of them had much of a response to that.

Chapter Text

Amathea allowed them to sit out what remained of their day in some remnant of peace, telling them to take advantage of the kindness now while she afforded it - there was going to be hell to pay come morning. Grillby was already shuddering at the thought of having to work even harder than he had been before. He wondered what in the world she might have planned as punishment for them in their training regimen. Though for as worried as he was about whatever was in store for them, it was nothing compared to the worry churning around in his core at the thought of Amathea getting into a duel.

Grillby wasn’t the only one worried, if the quiet on Gaster was any telling sign. Since they’d arrive back at their tent, Gaster hadn’t bothered to speak. There was a faraway look in his eyes, something that saw past the flames in the campfire to something in the back of his thoughts. And whatever he was thinking, he chose to keep it to himself. Not even his hands moved give a sign of it’s nature. It was troubling, but Grillby found himself unwilling to pry. Gaster was probably just a bit overwhelmed about everything that had happened over the last few days. Honestly at this point, the whole fight seemed more a dream to Grillby than a reality. He couldn’t blame the skeleton if he was feeling stunned. But with Amathea already asleep for the night and Gaster’s mind in no-man’s-land, it made for a quiet campsite, and Grillby had already had his fill of nervous pacing.

He needed to do something to take his mind off of worrying though.

Grillby gave a start when he remembered he still had the fabric and thread in his inventory. He’d completely forgotten about that! Well, if nothing else he could busy his hands with something. It wasn’t quite as distracting as he could’ve wished - it was easy for the mind to wander while the hands were busy - but it was something at least. So Grillby left Gaster to his thoughts and retired inside, finding himself a corner out of the way where he could sit and sew. He was no master at it. He… couldn’t actually remember a time when he’d last sewed anything… assuming he ever had. Err… And Amathea was sound asleep. Well, that was just brilliant. Well, sewing anything couldn’t possibly be that hard. All sorts of monsters did it, didn’t they? Oh lord.

Grillby sighed out an apprehensive wisp of smoke and got to work as best as he could. He stumbled through threading the needles - how in the world can you even see that tiny thing?? - and debated for a while on how and where he was supposed to sew what he was trying to make. He ended up tearing up his stitches three times, staring and hesitating for several minutes and eventually laying it aside.

So much for doing something nice.

It was then that Gaster stumbled inside, rubbing his face tiredly and collapsing into his bed face-first with a world-weary sigh. Grillby blinked. Had he really wasted that much time? Peering at the world outside earned the elemental a glance at a starry, slightly overcast sky. The camp was darkening, fires and torches being put out in favor of the majority going to sleep. A few monsters were moving in from the outposts on the hills to switch shifts with their relief for the evening. Wow, he really had wasted that much time. Grillby gave a sigh of his own, flickering lower in defeat before collapsing onto the ground to sleep.

--

That night, Grillby awoke to the sound of Gaster having a nightmare. Or rather, to the sound of him breathing raggedly. At first he didn’t know what to make of the sound, his mind too tired and sluggish to process what it was. Wasn’t that just the sound of his fire? No, no. He didn’t make nearly that much noise when he was asleep. Ha, well, he wouldn’t really know what he sounded like when he was asleep, but whatever that was it definitely wasn’t him.

When he’d finally been awake enough to process that it was Gaster, he clamored to his feet abruptly. He cast a worried look in the skeleton’s direction, at a loss for what to do or how to help. Aside from the erratic breathing, and the occasional twitch his fingers gave from where they draped over the side of his makeshift bed, there wasn’t much to indicate something was amiss. Even his breathing was just a mild hitch, something like a snag in his throat like he was about to speak or shout but never actually making it past the breath. The bony ridges above his eye sockets were drawn low, even the broken one managing to twitch a bit lower. It felt a bit too unsettlingly like he was glaring in Grillby’s direction, and the elemental stepped aside to disappear out of the possible field of vision.

Should he… do something? He remembered Amathea had told him to leave Gaster be but…

Grillby rubbed the back of his neck uncertainly. He’d heard of monsters having nightmares because of the war. It wasn’t a new concept to him. It happened quite often given the terror of the situation and how it could grip people. He’d… also heard of monsters making things worse by waking their friends. Accidently getting attacked or waking them only long enough for them to have a second nightmare as soon as they fell asleep again. But this was the first time it’d happened to anyone he knew.

Grillby cast a look in Amathea’s direction, looking for some sort of advice - the commander was sound asleep, snoring under her breath and oblivious.

With a nervous whine and a bitter spark, Grillby crept over to where Gaster slept. He paused, hovering apprehensively over the skeleton as he shuddered and his breathing hitched a little more fervently. What was he supposed to do? Well, Gaster couldn’t really hurt Grillby if he attacked him upon waking could he? Maybe it was worth it to try… but gently. So he didn’t awake in a panic?

Grillby cautiously fanned himself a little warmer - comforting warmth. Hopefully the kind of warmth one might feel from a hearth or fireplace. The change in temperature made Amathea shift uncomfortably in her sleep, she muttered some sort of gibberish complaint as she did so. Gaster saw no change, his lack of skin making him relatively resistant to the subtle changes in temperature Grillby was making. The elemental sighed out a breath and leaned forward to hover a hand over the skeleton’s shoulder.

“Gas-”

He nearly fell backwards in surprise when the skeleton’s hand flicked up to grab his wrist, his grip tight and vice-like. The lights in Gaster’s eyes were still out, his face stuck in the troubled glare from when he was dreaming. For a few tense seconds, Grillby held his breath and waited for Gaster to strike out, make some sort of overwhelming noise or motion. Instead, the skeleton’s brow just wrinkled a bit further, the lights in his eye sockets winking to life sluggishly. He stared disorientatedly at the hand that gripped Grillby’s wrist for a moment, his teeth gritting in a confused frown.

“What?” he blinked, something finally occurring to him, and looked up at Grillby. With a startled ‘oh!’ he released the elemental in an instant. The elemental clutched his hand close as soon as he was free, suddenly very aware of the harsh shuddering of his soul in his chest. That had given him a start, to say the least.

“Sorry,” Grillby managed awkwardly, giving an apologetic flicker, “You okay?”

Gaster barked a shaky laugh, his eyes giving every corner of the tent a quick, pensive sweep before countering with a cautious and faltering, “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Amathea shifted in her sleep again, yanking both of their gazes in her direction. There was a pause between them where they both silently wondered if she would wake up, and a visible sigh of relief when she didn’t. Gaster made a quiet sign for them to go outside - Grillby noticed the skeleton’s hands were shaking as he did so. They crept out as silently as they could manage, leaving their commander to sleep in relative peace. Grillby was signing apologetically at the skeleton before they’d even made it out of the tent. Gaster shot him a quizzical smile, though something about him was still off. Jittery and nervous and unnaturally still. His hands moved gruff and sluggish in response.

“What are you sorry for?” he asked, a breath of a laugh on his teeth.

Grillby’s flame lilted into deeper reds and oranges as he spoke, subtle worry pulling his flame cooler, “I shouldn’t have woken you. I’m sorry for that. It’s just… you looked a bit… you sounded… Well. I thought you were having a nightmare.”

Gaster sighed out a breath, rubbing the side of his skull tiredly. He didn’t meet Grillby’s gaze as the elemental spoke, instead choosing to study the grass somewhere off to his left. He blinked in that direction forlornly for a few seconds before finally lifting his gaze up to the elemental.

“No you were fine,” came the weary response, “I was going to wake up soon anyway. So uh… you saved me that bit I guess.”

His gaze dropped again, growing a bit distant as whatever was eating up his mind sucked away his focus. Grillby shifted his weight on his feet uncomfortably for a moment, grasping for something to say. Finally he settled on, “Do you… want to talk about it?”

This dragged a short, bitter laugh from the skeleton, “No. Not really.”

He sighed and sat where he’d stood. After a pause, not knowing what else to do, Grillby mirrored the motion. Silence ate up the space between them, peppered with the sound of a few night insects that hadn’t been quite driven off by the cooling autumn nights. Gaster fidgeted with his hands awkwardly, and Grillby watched with quiet concern.

Finally the skeleton muttered, “You should try to go back to sleep.”

Grillby gave a quiet flicker.

Please, firefly.”

The elemental gave a quiet sigh before climbing back to his feet, “You’re sure you’re fine?”

“Probably not,” Gaster managed to sign with at least a hint of humor, a smile lighting up his eyes a little brighter, “But I will be.”

The skeleton seemed to compose himself with a bit of finality then. Straightening the tired curve in his spine and crossing his legs, shuffling to get comfortable. He closed his eye sockets and sighed out a calming breath, deliberate and consoling. The stance was familiar, something that flickered at the edge of Grillby’s mind. Peaceful. Was this that meditation Gaster had spoken with him about once before? Whatever it was, it was already zapping away the raggedness that the nightmare had left behind on the skeleton’s frame, replacing it with a practiced calm.

Grillby might have to ask the skeleton to teach him that sometime.

For now though, with a final flicker and yawn the elemental shuffled back into the tent, content to grab what remaining sleep could be afforded to him while he had the chance.

Chapter Text

The morning broke on them grim and early and cool. The clouds that had half-eaten the sky the night before had spread to consume the horizon as the day bloomed to life. It brought with it a mist and a muffled sort of cool that left the soul sluggish and tired. Along with this dreary morning however, came a guest. Grillby was awoken by the sound of voices: Gaster’s defensive and tired and the new-come monster’s frank and earnest. The elemental sat up tiredly just as Amathea stepped past him, grumbling quietly to herself about the earliness of the hour and who the hell would bother them at the crack of dawn. Grillby yawned and stretched and pulled himself to his feet, stepping after Amathea and into the grey daylight.

The monster - a rabbit-type monster with dim colored fur and bright, wild eyes - twitched her whiskers welcomingly to Amathea as she approached her. She gave a fidgety salute before reaching into a messenger back at her hip and offering Amathea a small letter. With a wordless nod she left, dashing back in what must have been the direction she came in from. Grillby gave another tired yawn, his fire dim and fatigued.

“Well, that was abrupt,” he mused outloud to himself, glancing back to his captain, “What was that-”

He stopped mid-sentence when he saw the worried frown on Amathea’s face. She opened up the letter reluctantly. Gaster watched her from where he sat cross-legged on the ground - he didn’t seem to have moved much since the night before.

“It’s not from Thetis is it?” he asked quietly.

Amathea let out a tense sigh, visibly relaxing as she read the letter, “No, it’s not.”

Grillby looked between the two of them, his body pitching into cool, confused colors. Gaster smirked at him, hands moving tiredly as he explained.

“Ammy and her sis, Thetis, write each other letters. Whenever they pass near each others’ camps, they go out of their way to deliver them,” he said with a shrug, his voice quieting a bit when he added, “If the letter comes from someone else… well… that means she didn’t get the chance to deliver it herself.”

“Oh,” was about the only thing Grillby could come up with to say in response.

“Aye,” Amathea hummed quietly, reaching across to tuck the letter into a pocket on her hip, “I’ve had two brothers get their letters delivered to me. It’s grim. But... I can’t imagine what I’d do with myself if any of them just disappeared one day and I had no idea what happened to them. This way at least they aren’t just dust somewhere, forgotten, like so many other monsters are.”

She paused, frills twitching in thought for a moment before brightening slightly, “Though thank heavens for little miracles, this isn’t that .”

The fish monster chuckled, rolling her eyes emphatically, “Oh but aren’t you boys so lucky. Looks like I won’t have time to drill you to dust after all. This is a summons. Our unit and those adjoined to it are shipping out by noon. Looks like they’ve finally spied themselves some mages for us to get after.”

Grillby’s fire stoked in an instant, “Really? Finally ?”

“Woah, don’t get too excited there firefly,” Gaster smirked, shuffling to his feet.

“I haven’t been on the front lines since the autumn rains started,” Grillby whined with a bitter spark, “How am I supposed to help anyone from back here ? I was summoned to be out there, doing things to cut down on the waste of monster life. I’m powerless here.”

Amathea chuckled, giving the elemental a reassuring pat on the back, “Well worry about it no longer, tinderbox.”

She waved a hand to them, ushering them along, “Alright, let’s get this mess packed up. We’ll need to be rallied up with Brigg and ready to go as soon as possible. They’ll probably need our help getting mobile.”

Gaster rolled his eyes, groaning, “Oh why even bother helping him anyway? He’s a jerk.”

To this, Amathea gave Gaster a gentle smack on the back of the head, “Words like that are what get people killed out there.”

Both Grillby and Gaster caught her in a confused stare.

“There’s monsters out there depending on us captains to lead well and work together,” she explained, firm and serious, “Dissonance between us will get people killed. Whatever personal problems Brigg has with me, they’ll be set aside in favor of the lives that need kept safe and I’ll be doing the same on my end. Blunt and misguided the scaly might be, but he’s still got a good soul. I’d expect you two to treat him as such.”

Amathea smirked, “Which means not going out of your way to instigate the man. If there’s a quarrel to be had, he’ll be taking it up with me personally. But I doubt that’s a thing to happen. Now you two get moving. If you pack up fast enough you might even get some breakfast before we shove off.”

She broke into a wide grin then, “Unless you want to start living off of hardtack and jerky so soon on our adventure.”

Gaster let out one last complaining groan before finally shambling off to start packing, Grillby following close behind. Anything they could make do without of for the journey, they stowed away. Only the barest of what they could carry they kept. Armor and weapons were shoved into inventory slots, bedding packed as lightly as possible without the elements being a danger. The tent was torn down and folded and compacted as far as could be managed. Cooking supplies were left - as soon as they began travel, there wouldn’t be much time for such niceties. They’d instead be surviving off of stored goods, hard breads and dried meat, maybe even some dried fruits and vegetables if it could be managed. Anything that wouldn’t spoil during the walk. Though Grillby did manage to save some space in his inventory for his spice box, smiling to himself at the knowledge of improving at least a handful of their meals while they muddled their way along.

If previous experience served well enough, Grillby new the next camp would be much less comfortable than this one had been. They were always that way the closer to the front lines they got. Supplies were more or less scarce, depending on what supply trains made it through to them. Units would be constantly moving in or out, retreating or advancing. The camp itself would move with the major troop movements. There would always be an air of expectancy, urgency. Waiting for the inevitable call to fight. Waiting for the call to flee.

There were always wounded there as well, infirmaries full of the healing or the dying. Gaster would probably have a lot more work to do - he was a doctor, after all. As it was in their camp now, there were plenty enough doctors to help the few wounded they took in. They weren’t close enough to any major battles to have to heal too many monsters. Occasionally they would get overflow from the battlefront, the wounded brought in on carts and wagons when it could be afforded to them. Though instances like that were few and far inbetween, unfortunately. Monsters were woefully fragile after all. Many fell down before they could reach an outpost like theirs where they could be treated properly.

A camp on the front lines would be starkly different than this. Sometimes there were more wounded than there were healthy. Sometimes so many of them that the doctors couldn’t reach them all. The smell and taste of dust would be rampant, and Gaster would likely be knee deep in it, helping to prevent the loss of life. Grillby shuddered at the thought. He was going to miss home while they were gone.

When they’d finished packing what they could - and managed to slip in a quick breakfast - Amathea led them down into the main camp to join up with Brigg and his company. It was an effort to keep up with her, with her purposeful strides that carried her far and fast. When they found him, Brigg was already instructing his unit in packing everything that would be necessary for when they marched tomorrow. Wagons were being rolled, horses saddled and oxen hitched, monsters scurried to and fro in preparation. There was an air of nervousness, an air of tense worry and excitement that sent a rush through the air and put a bitter taste in the magic the monsters cast as they worked.

But of course, Brigg’s unit was a new one, made up mostly of recruits who hadn’t seen actual battle yet. For them, the war was about to become much more real, much more visceral and powerful. Soon, they were going to figure out what battle was, what humans were. Every expectation was going to be tested and dashed apart, and they were going to have to pick up the pieces and decide what to do with them. That’s how it had been for Grillby anyway. Of course, there was something in his soul that hummed and had told him what would happen when he’d first stepped foot in battle - some salient advice that spoke peace to him when others only knew worry and dread. It was hard for him to believe he had ever felt the nervousness they were probably feeling now, though he was sure he must have felt it at some point.

Amathea took one glance around at the mess of monsters and equipment and with a prideful step made her way past them, Gaster and Grillby in tow. Brigg was in the middle of directing a handful of monsters getting food into some wagons for the trip to whatever camp they were to be shipped to. When she stepped up to him, she waited patiently for him to finish. Grillby couldn’t help but notice how small and… almost frail she looked beside the hulking brute of a dragon monster. He was taller than even Gaster was, all muscle and scales and teeth. She could have been a child beside him, a child who was confident and defiant and everything she was ever supposed to be. When he turned to face her she glared up at him unflinchingly and unapologetically, and she spoke with authority.

Much to Grillby’s surprise, Brigg responded in kind. He wasn’t derisive or confrontational. There was a perpetual twitch in his movements, a bitterness and innate frustration in him that had been there since Grillby had first met the monster. But the hostility he’d had in his voice the day before when he’d spoken with Amathea was absent, replaced with a loud sternness that was busied with preparation for war. Amathea had been right after all - this was more important to Brigg than any personal squabbles he could possibly make.

The two exchanged quick information on which camp they were marching out to and the length of the journey. Gaster gave some impatient signs when he realized they’d be walking for a week, maybe more. Grillby did his best to stifle a chuckle at him. They were moving out with two other units, converging on a riverside camp several miles to the east. One of the human armies had managed to drive the monster lines back, at least two mages ravaging the battlefields there. Grillby’s fire gave a concerned flicker at their mention. He should be there now . Not here, waiting for the long march.

Grillby and Gaster were put to work loading up the equipment and supply wagons that would be following behind the units as they marched. It was a lot of stacking and throwing and passing around, and while the work was mindless and busy it at least passed the time quickly. It gave Grillby a distraction from the nervous itch building inside him that made him want to move, want to leave. If he had the chance, he’d be pacing. Gaster stayed nervously silent.

Noon came, the units were organized together as well as they could be. The call was given and they marched.

Chapter Text

“Are we there yet?” Gaster whined, sarcasm and boredom dripping off every word, “I don’t want to walk anymore.”

“We’ll get there when we get there, Gaster,” Amathea growled annoyedly. The skeleton grinned back at her.

The company of monsters had already been plodding along steadily for days, meandering across what few roads and open ground could be afforded to them on the way to their destination. It was slow going. They were confined to the speed of the oxen that pulled their supply carts, the large animals managing half the speed of the average walking monster - and that was in good terrain. Climbing hills was quickly becoming a chore, a struggle to be avoided at the cost of adding time to the journey. At this rate, it might be another week before they made it to their destination. That’s what Grillby figured anyway, and the thought made him nearly mad with impatience.

The rest of the monsters in the company didn’t share his enthusiasm, however. They didn’t mind the prolonged walk. Many creatures amongst the group were still looking about each other with nervous anticipation, both afraid and excited for whatever the battles ahead would bring. Of course, there were always some monsters that wanted to prove their glory in battle. But much more numerous were those just hoping to keep friends safe, to survive, to actually tell stories of greatness or have the chance to dismiss them. Conversation was a strange mix of light but tense, laughs were nervous and forced and bright all at once.

Even Gaster seemed to have given in to the heavier atmosphere, his sarcasm thicker and his humor darker. There was a quietness in his movements that worried Grillby, it showed once in a while almost distractedly, tugging his wild hand gestures a bit slower and more reserved even when he was at his best. When they pitched their tents at night, Grillby knew the embittered skeleton was having nightmares, worry about the coming events dragging them to the forefront of his sleeping mind. They didn’t always wake the elemental, but every morning Gaster was up before either Grillby or Amathea were. Sometimes he managed to drift off into doze again, others he stayed wide-awake. It had Grillby worried. If Gaster was to do any fighting at all, he needed rest.

It also didn’t help that, whenever Amathea could, she had both Grillby and Gaster doing drills or out scouting or foraging or any other task she could get them assigned to. After all, she still had to punish them for that fight they’d gotten into. In her words: I’ll be damned if you get off easy just ‘cause they have us wandering halfway to hell! She constantly volunteered them for work, which meant extra walking and extra magic and extra annoyance. Though… Grillby supposed he should be grateful for the chance to be useful after having gone so long in the comfort of camp. At least it gave him something more productive to do than just walking all day.

Now they were walking with the rest of the company, having switched shifts a few hours ago with the other scouts walking about the wandering group. They’d found little of use while they were out, a few animal paths, a stream. There were telling signs of skirmishes in some parts of the country they’d passed through, remains of short fights between defending monsters and roving groups of humans. They were nothing compared to the battlegrounds Grillby knew were waiting for them at their destination, but they were still enough to make the scouting crews nervous. Grillby couldn’t blame them.

After all, just about everything made the elemental nervous.

“You know what we need?” Gaster asked, snapping Grillby’s mind back to the present.

“Oh here we go,” Amathea groaned.

“Wings,” Gaster continued matter-of-factly, “If we all had wings, we wouldn’t have to worry about all of this cross-country walking nonsense.”

Grillby blinked at the skeleton incredulously, a smile lighting him brighter. He was joking… right?

“Well you can’t give everyone wings,” Amathea bickered at the nonsensical skeleton, “It’s an impractical waste of magic at best and impossible at worst.”

“Not true!” Gaster tutted, “We’d already be at the camp if we were in the air. There’s nothing up there to walk around or meander a cart through. Whimsuns do it all the time! And ghosts! And it’s so much easier for them to get around places!”

“Ghosts are incorporeal,” Amathea said, rolling her eyes, “They don’t count. Everything is easier for them - except picking things up.”

“Maybe that’s what we need. Limited incorporeality,” Gaster shrugged, “No humans could kill us then.”

“You can’t make monsters incorporeal!”

“It’d be perfect!” the skeleton continued regardless, “Flying. Phasing through objects. And you ‘d still be able to use magical attacks!”

“Yeah, and you’d constantly be pining for an actual existence,” Amathea argued back, “Not able to feel hot or cold. Not able to eat anything. Not able to touch people or fiddle with objects…”

Gaster waved his hands dismissively, “Oh it’s a good idea and you know it! But fine. Back to the wings-”

“What if a monster’s afraid of heights?”

Both Amathea and Gaster paused in their argument to look back at Grillby. The elemental sputtered blankly at them for a moment before adding, “I mean… you’re not going to make a bunch of monsters fly if they’re terrified of heights, right? You wouldn’t force a Volcan or a Vegetoid or - you know, any of the deep-earth monsters to fly. It’s completely out of their element. If monsters like that were meant to fly, they’d have been born with wings you know.”

There was a pause where Amathea raised her eyebrows at Gaster and the skeleton signed out loud the counter arguments he was forming in his mind. Finally after a few flourishes of movement that Grillby could hardly catch, the skeleton seemed to come to a conclusion he liked.

“Well, just being out of your element doesn’t automatically equate to fear,” he said simply, “And if we want to take the phrase literally here, you’re out of your element all the time and you’re not-”

Gaster cut himself off abruptly, scowling to himself as he gave a haphazard and exasperated sign that pulled a crackling chuckle from Grillby.

Amathea grinned, “Thought that one through well, didn’t ya?”

Gaster did the best eye-roll he could manage, “Okay, but Grillby’s anxiety is not an unconquerable fear.”

“Well no, mine isn’t,” the elemental said with a shrug, “But it is distracting, and at its worst it can be pretty miserable. I’m constantly hyper conscious of how I’m supposed to carry myself and my temperature and how close I am to other monsters. Imagine that but in the air, with dozens of monsters who don’t know what they’re doing. And add in wind and the fact that everything probably looks different from up there than down here so they’d all have to learn how to get where they’re going. And even whimsuns don’t fly during storms, so you would be constantly at the mercy of the weather.”

“Conscious of the weather? Yes. At the mercy of it? No,” Gaster huffed, “We can predict weather patterns for up to a week. And if there were some well-versed astrologers present with the companies, safe navigation across the skies would be child’s play.”

“Child’s play? Sure, if the child is playing with a broadsword,” Amathea laughed, flashing Grillby a broad grin that the elemental returned brightly, “Besides, most astrologers don’t want to risk their necks out here against humans.”

Gaster waved his hands dismissively, “Oh you two make such a fuss about little things that can be hammered out in the process. The real problem is finding a way to make the wings and attach them. Wouldn’t that be a fun challenge to play around with?”

Grillby shrugged, “I can hardly think of new attacks, Gaster. I don’t think I could wrap my head around making monsters fly.”

“Now that’s just quitter talk.”

“Lad’s got a point, Gaster,” Amathea smiled, “All the magic I know I’ve been taught somehow or another. And even when I’ve tried I’ve never been too keen on making my own. Now Thetis, my sister, she can create with that magic of hers! I bet if you two hit your heads together hard enough, you’d make a pair of wings eventually.”

Gaster let out a chuckle, shaking his head. He opened his mouth to say something, pausing when a commotion ahead of them grabbed all three of their attention. Grillby could hear shouting, and he leaned to look around the monsters nearby him to no avail. Gaster, a head taller than most everyone around them, leaned forward to scrutinize what was up ahead, and with a sharp frown took off in the direction of the noise. Grillby and Amathea exchanged a quick glance before the fish monster waved for the elemental to follow. The closer they got, the more Grillby could make out what the monsters ahead were shouting, and his flame pitched red with worry.

“-eed a healer! Someone who can use green! Please! We need help!”

No wonder Gaster had run when he had.

By the time Amathea and Grillby arrived, Gaster was already kneeling beside another doctor - a madjick whose face was already creased in a forlorn frown. He was pouring green magic into a dog monster that lay barely conscious on the ground, her hands clutching uselessly at a rip in her chest that oozed blood and dying magic. Grillby recognized her as one of the scouts that had been sent out when the groups the elemental and Gaster had been a part of came back in. Nearby her, shaky and half-panicked stood the scout who had been her partner, and who by the looks of the blood smeared across his uniform had dragged her back to safety.

Amathea was beside the monster immediately, leading him a few steps away from the girl and asking him questions in a low voice about where they’d gone and what had happened. She had to repeat herself several times before the monster could manage to answer, voice quivering somewhere between panic and shock.

Grillby stood off to the side of it all, watching with a kind of morbid and sickening curiosity as the Madjick doctor poured more and more green into the wound with little success. For every part of the dog monster that seemed to heal, the part beside it would unravel again. The wound opened and collapsed in on itself slowly, the fur and skin turning ashen and then to dust.

Gaster sucked in a quiet breath, “She’s falling.”

To this, the Madjick paused in its work, looking up at the skeleton and finally offering a grim nod. Green wasn’t going to work against this. The wound was too deep and the help too late.

“May I?”

It was phrased like a question, but from the way Gaster brushed the doctor’s hands to the side, it was obviously a command. With a crackle of magic and a flick of his wrists, Gaster pulled his soul from his chest, small and glowing and white. The skeleton muttered a quiet apology to the girl before calling forth her soul as well. Gaster scrutinized the two of them, watching with a bitter frown the cracks that spider-webbed themselves around the monster’s soul and deeper with every second she went without healing.

Then, with a small tug that sent a shudder through Gaster’s soul and a wince across the skeleton’s body, Grillby watched as a thread of magic unraveled itself from Gaster’s glowing heart and laced itself across to the girl’s. Gaster leaned over and worked diligently, eyes inches away from the girl’s soul as he filtered his own magic into the cracks of her being. And with a start Grillby realized the girl’s wound was healing, the ashen pieces that had begun to break away into dust reforming and solidifying themselves again as Gaster stitched her back together again from the very center of her soul.

Whatever magic Gaster was doing, Grillby had never seen it before - and neither had the doctor that now gaped beside the skeleton as he watched him work. It was slow and deliberate and painstaking, but it worked. Gaster worked in silence for several minutes, a constant wince on his face as he sewed together the broken soul. It put a strain on him. Grillby watched as the longer the skeleton worked the more his hands quivered, the more often he would have to pause to take a steadying breath and still his hands before resuming. Finally with a disgruntled huff he paused his work.

“I can’t do all this,” he muttered with a scowl, before his eyes flicked up to scrutinize Grillby who had unconsciously stepped forward to watch more closely the skeleton’s healing magic. Gaster eyed him thoughtfully for a moment, calculating something in his own head before beckoning the elemental closer.

“Grillby I need to borrow you.”

With a nod the elemental knelt down beside him, “Uh… what can I do?”

“Trust me when I tell you I know what I’m doing,” Gaster answered.

“I can do that.”

The skeleton gave Grillby one last scrutinizing glare before yanking his wrist and pulling the elemental’s soul free from its hiding place in the center of his core. The feeling that swept over Grillby was a lot like the soul-stifling feeling of blue, only much closer and tighter and much more disturbing. It sent a shudder through him, the unnatural pull sending a cold chill through his very core. Then Gaster was yanking harder, unraveling a single, molten thread of magic from Grillby’s shuddering soul and weaving it together with his own before getting back to work, stitching the dog monster back together.

It felt… strange - though also predictable, in a way. It felt very much like there was a string attached to the very center of Grillby’s soul, and someone was tugging on it constantly. And it felt uncomfortable, persistent and annoying. Grillby had to stifle the reflex to cup his hands protectively around the shuddering soul and push it gently back where it belonged. But he couldn’t do that, both for fear of it hurting the monster so reliant on him right now, and for fear of hurting himself.

Oh he hoped Gaster knew what he was doing!

With the newfound help from the thread from Grillby’s soul, Gaster worked with renewed vigor and speed. He stabilized what was left of the cracks in the monster’s soul, pausing once that was done to banish the cord that ran from his own soul into it and relaxing the moment the strain was taken off of him. Then with an apologetic frown in Grillby’s direction, he went on to work on the wound itself with only the thread from the fire elemental to sew it together with. The touch of Grillby’s magic started working immediately, sinking in and healing up a gruesome crack slashed in the monster’s collar bone from whatever it had been that’d hit her. Then the magic was woven into the tissues of the wound itself, pulling it together and closing it up and stopping the ooze of blood that had spread out across the girl’s chest.

Stars above that tugging was getting more uncomfortable by the second.

But as Gaster stitched and sewed and wove the magic Grillby could see life returning to the monster, and he was grateful for every second of that wearying pulling and yanking on his soul. As the skeleton pulled the last pieces of the wound together, the dog monster opened her eyes. She blinked up at them with a mix of exhaustion and relief. Hardly looking up to notice her, Gaster finished his last few stitches before banishing the magic that held Grillby’s soul in its unnatural place. It was the most relieving feeling in the world for Grillby, feeling his soul sink back into his body and nestling itself in his core again. The elemental crackled a comfortable sigh.

Gaster was already back on his feet, helping the dog monster to stand slowly - the Madjick doctor steadying her as she swayed for a moment. Then the girl was off to her partner, barking and laughing excitedly as he hugged her and chattered excitedly about her being safe. Grillby moved to stand himself, but Gaster’s had on his shoulder stopped him.

“What?”

“Just take it slow,” Gaster said worriedly, “I took a lot of magic out of you.”

Grillby blinked up at him confusedly, “But I feel fine.”

Gaster barked a laugh, “Yeah, but you’re sitting down right now. I don’t need you passing out the minute you stand up.”

If Grillby had an eyebrow to raise, he would. Instead he humored Gaster by standing up slowly, crossing his arms smugly when nothing happened. Gaster raised the ridge above his unbroken eye, smiling.

“You’re not serious,” the skeleton chuckled, “You feel anything at all? Tired? Nauseous? Shaky?”

Grillby shrugged, “No. Well… my soul feels shaky but…”

The elemental glanced down at his chest as if he could see the thing there again, revealed and vulnerable outside of his body, “I think that’s just because… that happened.”

Gaster paused for a moment before asking a bit hesitantly, “Did it hurt at all?”

“What? No,” Grillby sparked nervously, “Uh… was it supposed to?”

To this, Gaster could really only shrug, “Depends on who helps me, I guess. I’ve had assistants before who told me it was extremely painful. Others, said it was more like an itch, or a sting. Granted, they were stronger monsters and tended to have a higher LV as well.”

“Did it hurt you?”

Gaster grinned, “Doesn’t matter if it saved a life, does it?”

His face dropped to a more sober expression after a moment, “Though that was one hell of a wound, wasn’t it? Takes a lot of intent to make something like that.”

“Or a lot of magic,” Amathea interrupted, stepping over to the two as they spoke. She gave Gaster a proud smile.

“Thank you for that, by the way,” she said, resting a hand on his shoulder, “You did well.”

Gaster brushed her off as nonchalantly as he could manage past the prideful swell in his grin, “So what’s this about magic?”

“They managed to flounder their way into what’s left of the Adwick Stronghold,” Amathea elaborated, “It’s the remains of a fort the humans managed to erect a few years ago in this territory. There were a lot of magical traps set in the effort to keep it from falling. They stumbled into one when they got to close to one of the walls.”

Grillby blinked, a nervous flicker teasing his flame “Adwick Stronghold… that sounds familiar.”

“It should, to you at least,” Amathea hummed, “That’s where they killed Mistral, the storm elemental. It was the first elemental death in the war. Caused quite the drop in morale when it happened.”

She gave a thoughtful pause before sighing, “We should be in the shadow of it by nightfall, if we keep moving at a steady pace. As long as we don’t get too close to it, we should be safe. Though, I’d suggest warning the rest of the units to watch where they’re stepping from here on out.”

Chapter Text

Evening brought them to the shadow of Adwick, and they pitched their tents and lit their fires in the shelter of its looming presence, just outside the furthest wall. Looking at it now, it was clear to Grillby that the fortress had once been a grand one - grand enough to use as a headquarters for the rest of the invasion the humans had planned, before the great battle that destroyed it was launched.

It had two walls, one long and snaking about its base - the one they camped beside now. It crumbled in dozens of places, great gaps and cracks in its cobbled surface tearing it into segmented pieces, marking the improvised entrances the monsters had made when they’d attempted to take the fort. The second wall was further in, tighter built and raised as the fort neared the crest of the small hill it had been built upon. This wall was very nearly blown outward on itself, whole portions of it knocked over as if it had been brushed aside by a sweeping hand. Small sections of the wall stood braced, somehow anchored well enough to withstand the catastrophe of the battle that had rocked it. The towers connected to these walls stood as well, though chunks were missing.

The only piece of the fortress still mostly intact was the keep, which sat in the very center of the fortress. It was hard to see it above the rubble and ruin of the rest of the structure, but with the glimpses that Grillby saw, he could tell it still stood. The only imperfection to mar its surface was a large, scorched crack that ripped through its side - a stroke from the devastating lightning conjured by a powerful elemental as she lay siege. From the ruin around the rest of the grounds, it was clear to see why the fort had been abandoned, even with most of the keep still intact. There was no way the walls could be rebuilt to their former strength, especially not with the war waging around it. Now the ruined structure stood solemn and dark against the dying light of the evening sky, a monolithic tombstone - a reminder that the devastation had in fact happened, and it had destroyed more than just wood, iron and stone.

An elemental had died here.

That thought alone made Grillby twitchy and nervous. His fire couldn’t seem to cast itself out of a perpetual and sickening yellow-green hue. It made his core shiver, his soul flutter harshly around in his chest. He shouldn’t be surprised. He shouldn’t be affected this way. He knew he was mortal. A little less mortal than the other monsters around here, sure, but he always knew he could be killed. He always knew it was possible. But in the shadow of this castle, knowing it had been done before to someone like him - suddenly he felt much more fragile, much more real. It was unnerving.

It made him want to pace, to do something mindless to take his thoughts away from the sinister looking fortress that hovered over him like some sleeping behemoth. For lack of anything better to do - and to deter any nervous pacing that might consume him and disturb any other monsters near him - Grillby pulled out the sewing project he’d worked on several nights before, the one he had started for Gaster while still in the safety of his home camp. His hands shook annoyingly while he worked, his nerves doing their darndest to get the better of him. The extra challenge worked for him this once, though, forcing him to concentrate more on the task at hand and less on the creeping feeling of dread that was crawling around in his gut.

When night came, he couldn’t sleep.

Grillby gave it a valiant effort at least. He doused his flame down as cool as he could go, shifted through at least a dozen positions. He even tried humming quietly to himself, counting imaginary sheep. He must have laid there for hours trying, and never getting anywhere. His soul was too busy shuddering, making everything from his core outward feel unnatural and skittish. With a defeated sigh, Grillby finally gave up on sleep and wandered out to the nearest fire, settling on sitting there and staring forlornly at the ruined fortress as if winning some kind of staring contest with it would grant him sleep. The restlessness in his soul didn’t want him to keep still. He fidgeted and flickered and eventually paced.

Then, for no other reason than to give himself the slightest chance to calm his nerves, Grillby decided to walk to the fortress himself. It was dark of course - the moon was less than half full and could do little more than cast the world in washed out shades of blue and grey. But that’s where the convenience of being made of fire came into play. Grillby simply fanned himself brighter, filling the night around him with flickering whites and yellows.

He passed first through that snaking, segmented outer wall, stepping carefully and silently praying he didn’t set off any lurking, malign trap left behind after the battle. Even with the light he cast, it was hard to tell the difference between a decorative carving on the stone and a powered trap rune. Really he doubted they would hurt him much, he’d proven time and again he was mostly immune to the magic humans threw at him. But that nervousness in his soul hummed in a paranoid pitch at him anyway, and so he stepped lightly and he hoped with his whole being he didn’t stumble into something foul.

By his luck, he managed to pass by the inner wall unharmed, clamoring over the haphazard stonework that was strewn about the ground. There were other things here as well, more obvious remains of the battle. Broken pieces of metal likely from shattered swords, discarded pieces of armor, possibly even bone, remains that had been missed in the scuffle and the rush to safety. It was grim, but these were things that Grillby was more or less used to seeing. As he stumbled into the courtyard that held the keep, they bothered him little.

Adwick’s keep stood before him now, cracked but whole and foreboding. The stone structure was much more intimidating with Grillby standing like a tiny, flickering spark against it. The fire elemental approached it slowly, fire dimming slightly and pitching into even more nervous hues the closer he got. He ignored the cold battlements for now, the shattered opening into the gatehouse of the keep that more than likely ran up to its roof. He ignored the sounds of his reverberating footsteps as they echoed back at him across the ruins of the courtyard, or the scuffle of ruined cobble as it cracked against his feet. Instead he crept straight over to the ruined keep wall, staring up at the ominous crack that had threatened to split the building in two.

The crack itself ran all the way down from the top of the keep to the ground, making it’s ragged and zig-zagging path all the way down the side of the wall. The energy of it had burst cobbles from the wall itself, making larger gaps and cracks along its path. One the ground at the base of the wall, scorches ran out in twisting patterns as the heat from the lightning strike that had caused the damage dispersed itself into the ground. It was hard to believe any creature that could cause this could ever die. Grillby reached out a hand to the wall, feeling the cold surface and giving a crackling sigh.

An elemental died here.

A shift in the rubble nearby snapped Grillby’s attention away from the wall, and he spun to face the noise. He gave a relieved spark when he saw Gaster ambling towards him. The skeleton signed to him across the distance as he approached, his voice distorting as it bounced around the broken courtyard.

“I did that on purpose, just so you know,” he said, a shaky laugh in his voice, “I don’t need you stumbling into a trap just because I scared you stiff.”

Grillby chuckled back, “I appreciate it.”

The skeleton stopped beside him, craning his neck up to look at the battered wall and letting out a low whistle through his teeth, “That’s impressive. Lightning?”

“Mistral of the Storm,” Grillby corrected, “I’ve heard she was one of the most powerful elementals ever summoned. Though, I guess any monster than can summon lightning is going to be impressive.”

There was a pause between them where Gaster stared up at the twisting strike with those hungrily curious eyes of his, and Grillby stood thoughtfully. Wordlessly, Grillby turned to make his way towards the keep, Gaster following behind him as he picked his way through the rubble.

“You know, Ammy’s gonna kill us if we spring a trap out here,” Gaster mused, gaining only silence in reply, “Not that I don’t care for exploring. Trust me, I could adventure anywhere for days! But I tend to enjoy the adventuring of the non-death-y type, if you catch my drift?”

Grillby nodded absentmindedly but didn’t answer. He meandered his way into the keep, blinking about for a staircase and finally finding one built into the wall ahead. The keep was eerily empty inside, all echoes and shadows and creeping silence. The air was cooler too, and a stifling sort of damp that teased the elemental’s flame into something a little more molten.  It felt claustrophobic inside, what with the skulking darkness and the stoic walls. Grillby was used to canvas tents and open skies. The oppressive walls were eerie to him, and sent a crawling feeling through his core. But he wanted to reach the top of the keep, so he continued forward, stoking himself brighter in a brave attempt to stave off the gloom that seemed to pulse around him.

Grillby,” Gaster hissed in a whisper as he followed after, “We should go back. Firefly are you even listening to me?”

Finally the elemental cracked a laugh back at him, stepping on the bottom most stair and looking up at the climb above him, “Aren’t you supposed to be the one flinging us headlong into bad ideas?”

“My bad ideas don’t involve death traps,” the skeleton pointed out, huddling closer to Grillby as the elemental continued upwards, “You saw that poor scout earlier. And she had all that awesome muscle and armor in the way to take some of the hit. I’m a skeleton with light chainmail and doctor’s robes.”

“And that’s why I’m walking in front.”

“Oh please,” Gaster snorted, “Sure you absorb magic but if something goes shooting out of a wall it’ll still rip you in half!”

Grillby shrugged, “I doubt it’ll rip me in half. I’m pretty molten on the inside so it’ll go right through me.”

“This still doesn’t help me,” came the bitter response.

There was a pause between them where they ascended several more steps and emerged at last onto the stone roof of the keep structure. The rush of fresh air sent a brighter color through Grillby’s flame, and the elemental gave a sigh of relief. He stepped towards the ledge, looking out at the distance he’d walked and the spark-like lights of the camp they’d left behind. The horizon rolled out around him, rocking and diving with every hill and smattered with forest.

“Grillby?”

The elemental glanced back over his shoulder to Gaster, who still hadn’t moved far from the stairs.

“Why are we up here?”

Grillby shrugged, sitting down where he’d stood, “Couldn’t sleep. And I didn’t feel like pacing around camp.”

“And so obviously if you’re not going to pace in camp, you have to brave a castle death maze?”

Grillby crackled a soft laugh, “Obviously.”

Gaster crossed over to join him, sinking down onto the cold stonework. His hands fidgeted through a few questions before he finally picked one to voice aloud, “It’s not because of the soul thing today, is it?”

The elemental shook his head, a smile in his voice, “Of course not. What you did today was awesome. I’m just… nervous.”

“Okay,” Gaster hummed, “Nervous about what?”

Grillby huffed a sigh, a puff of smoke snaking through the air around his face, “I don’t know. Well… I do know. I just don’t know why it’s bothering me as much as it is.”

He ran a hand across the top of his head anxiously, ruffling the flame that billowed off him, “An elemental died here. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“Oh.”

“They told me a lot about her you know,” the elemental continued quietly, “The monsters who trained me. Not so much Gerson - I guess he realized it got to me. But she was the example you know? Why you only ever take on one human mage at a time. Everyone knows they’re powerful. I mean, all humans are but… they just have this knack for causing mayhem when two or three of them are gathered together. Especially when they’re desperate.”

Grillby sighed, “The battle here, Mistral should have won it. She broke the monsters through both the walls, caused that crack in the keep. But when she rose to the top to approach the mages, they used some kind of powerful magic. They used their souls, they died trying but they still managed it. They conjured up a storm with winds so fierce it tore her apart. She couldn’t keep her form anymore. She was literally ripped apart by her own element. And even after that, it blew apart the walls, killed monsters and humans alike. Nobody won this battle.”

The elemental shuddered, “I can’t… I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. How much it would hurt to be torn apart from your very core like she was, like so many of them were.”

He crackled a harsh sigh, “And… that’s my fate if a human ever decides they can do it. I don’t have to think about this stuff often you know? I’m not like normal monsters, I don’t have to worry about getting stabbed in the back or taking an arrow in the wrong place or even getting struck by angry magic. But if a human decides to kill me, no matter what it takes to manage it, they will. That’s… that’s terrifying to me, that something could be that determined to end my life.”

Gaster nodded quietly, waiting for the elemental to finish. When he was he didn’t know how to comfort him. There was nothing he could really say, and nothing that Grillby expected him to say.

“Did I wake you up when I left?” Grillby finally broke the silence, “I’m sorry if I did.”

“Not at all,” the skeleton replied with a bitter smirk, “Nightmares and all that.”

“Right. You’ve been having those a lot lately.”

Gaster nodded solemnly, a frown transfixing itself across his face. He opened his mouth twice to speak, hands working hesitantly to form something to say.

“Grillby you’ve fought a lot of humans, right?”

“Probably hundreds at this point.”

“And… they do some crazy stuff sometimes, right? Stuff that’s unexplainable even?”

“...yes?”

The skeleton gave a quiet nod, frowning a little deeper as he considered something. His fingers twitched, stifling the impulse to sign his thoughts outloud. He looked like he was on the verge of saying something, but for several minutes all he could manage was a stiff sigh and a could of awkward half-signs.

“Well this has got to be good if it makes you speechless,” Grillby joked with a good-natured flicker.

Gaster smiled down at his fidgeting hands for a moment, though it very quickly disappeared as he finally looked up at Grillby.

He set his face in a grim frown as he asked, “Have you ever killed a human and… somehow they just… came back?”

Chapter Text

It took a moment for Grillby to fully process the question - and realize it was a serious one. Coming back to life? What? That wasn’t a thing, was it? Well, not a real thing at least. He’d heard smattered tales before about corpses coming back to life - but normally even humans talked about those things with some sort of disregard. Unless he was talking about ghosts or…?

The elemental blinked at Gaster for a moment uncomprehendingly, “Uh… explain?”

Gaster gave a sharp sigh, “Don’t judge me firefly.”

The Grillby chuckled quietly to this, but when he realized Gaster was serious he gave a firm nod, “I won’t judge.”

Gaster twiddled his thumbs nervously for a few long seconds, building up some sort of courage to continue talking about what he’d started. Grillby waited patiently.

“I just… this has been bothering me for a long time,” Gaster finally muttered, “And… it’s a long story anyway.”

Grillby waved a hand in the general direction of the horizon - which was still dark and showed no signs of morning, “I literally have all night.”

The skeleton nodded, frowning down at his nervously twitching hands as he continued to fidget. Then the fidgeting turned into signing. And after a few rounds of signs that Grillby had some trouble recognizing, Gaster started speaking.

“So earlier today, that healing trick I did. Right, that wasn’t exactly normal healing magic. It’s something I came across after a lot of study into how souls work. It’s actually pretty interesting, the magical theory behind it. It has to do with the transfer of magic from a greater soul to a lesser soul, a bit like how water likes to run from a shallow pool into a river? But you have to break the wall of the soul to let the stream flow, that’s the thread there that I pull out. And it fits into wounded souls so easily anyway, since the walls are already shattering. It takes magic out of the sharing soul, so you have to be careful you don’t start damaging yourself - losing HP and things like that.”

The skeleton chuckled quietly to himself, “I’d… leave that out but it’ll help you understand a few things later involving… erm… well... anyway, a couple years ago now, when I first discovered it could stop a monster from falling down, I approached the local military about becoming an improvised sort of healer. I was sent to a refugee camp to work as a doctor for monsters fleeing the fighting in the north as they worked their way south to Mt. Ebott. There I helped stabilize those fallen down, as well as the severely wounded, with the magic from my own soul as well as the magic from a few assistants of mine.”

“As the fighting progressed south, our camp came into the line of fire. With so many wounded, we were unable to move quickly. There was a general nearby who was sent in with a few companies to help keep back the fighting while we did our best to get mobile. That… was horrendous.”

Gaster sighed, rubbing at his eyes tiredly as if he could stamp out whatever memory he was being forced to conjure up, “The fighting made it into the camp. And there was a human…”

Gaster blinked down at his hands, face scrunching up as best it could into a confused frown, “They weren’t a mage, I don’t think. They never used any magic that I saw. But they fought continuously, like they was half dead or half gone. No expression, blank stare, like their soul wasn’t rightly there. They went against the general first - I saw it from the infirmary tent. Heh, I was hiding I guess. Hoping nobody stumbled inside so I wouldn’t have to defend myself, or the wounded with me. And I watched the human die.”

Gaster hesitated for a moment, flashing Grillby a nervous sort of half-smile, “This is where the ‘don’t judge me’ part comes in, firefly.”

The elemental nodded.

“One of my patients called out for me, and I turned away for just a moment to help them. And then… something happened. It was like my whole body twitched, but more than that. Everything twitched. And when I looked back outside the general was collapsing into dust and that human was still very much alive. And they were walking towards me.”

Gaster let out a dry laugh, “I’d never been so scared in my life. They just… stared. They didn’t speak even though I kept babbling things at them. Telling them I was a doctor. Telling them to have mercy. There were sick and dying there. They didn’t need to do this. We shouldn’t be fighting. And they just looked right through me with this… vacant expression. Like I wasn’t even there. And I fought back as much as I could. Grillby, I killed them. I killed them twice. And just like with the general everything seemed to twitch. The entire world twitched. And they were back, halfway through a sword stroke that I didn’t see coming because they weren’t there a second ago they were dead and bleeding everywhere and-”

The skeleton let out an exasperated sort of sigh that rattled itself into a growl in his chest, his signing becoming shaky and frenetic as he spoke, “I would’ve died. Should’ve died. But one of my patients-”

Gaster laughed, “You would never guess who. A poor girl who’d lost her arm in battle and had spent the last week delirious with fever and hardly conscious in bed. Amathea. Before they could dust me, she grabbed their soul with green. Just for a second before I think she lost consciousness again. But it gave me enough time to knock them over, pin their hands to the ground with a couple of bone attacks. And… I don’t know. It occurred to me that human souls were so strong, maybe that’s why this one wouldn’t die. So I dragged their soul out and I started tearing it apart using that same magic that I normally use to help people.”

Gaster paused again, face wrinkling into something confused and frowning, “It was so… red. I’ve seen a handful of human souls shatter - hard not to given the fact that this is war. I’ve seen flashes of color from a lot of them them. But they’re always so pale, almost white. And never red. I’ve seen blue and yellow and green before. But red was new. And I remember there was so much of it. I was grabbing handfuls of that soulstuff and ripping it apart and still it took forever to finally break their soul. And the entire time they were thrashing around, kicking and screaming and shouting threats and finally crying and begging. But by that point there wasn’t much of them left anymore. I couldn’t have healed them up again even if I’d wanted to.”

“Obviously that kind of mess doesn’t stay quiet…” the skeleton fixed a bitter sort of half-smile on his face, “I’ve got humans who believe I’m going to steal their souls, and monsters who think I could use something like this as a weapon. But I don’t know enough about it yet to teach it to anyone, and I’ve been too busy dodging humans to prove either side right or wrong.”

Gaster trailed off, falling thoughtfully silent for several long minutes. He’d stopped fidgeting, his hands had gone still. And Grillby waited patiently for whenever he started again. The entire story sounded horrifying. A human coming back to life? And worse yet one so determined to kill. A human so warped up and violent even their soul was wrong. Grillby gave a shudder. And how painful it must have been to be torn apart from the very soul.

“So, back to the earlier question,” Gaster said quietly, “Have you ever fought a human like that? One that just wouldn’t die?”

“No.”

The skeleton paused before asking, “Do you think I’m crazy? That I was just… seeing things?”

For once, Grillby was very happy he didn’t have facial features. He cleared his throat and said in as deadpan a voice as he could manage, “Oh no, you’re absolutely insane. Classic case of mania right here.”

Gaster rolled his eyes, managing a small grin. Grillby gave a good-natured laugh, and then a sigh. He reached out hesitantly to give Gaster a reassuring - if slightly awkward - pat on the back.

“I think if you saw a human come back, you saw a human come back,” the elemental said, “Humans are difficult. They do impossible things and they shouldn’t be able to. I’ve seen them cut through entire units while suffering from deadly wounds, or poked so through with arrows they could have been a pin-pillow. I’ve watched them recover from poison and electrical attacks. Saw them manifest magic even though they’ve obviously never used magic before. I’ve watched their souls persist after their bodies have been burned to ash, sometimes waiting for minutes or hours before finally succumbing to whatever afterlife they’re sent to. It doesn’t surprise me that you would find one that just… decided it wouldn’t die.”

Beside him, Grillby could feel Gaster nearly slump over with relief. He heaved a world-weary sigh, resting his head in his hands and blinking tiredly out across the horizon.

“Good to know,” he murmured.

“... is that what you’re nightmares are about?” Grillby hummed quietly, “About fighting that human again?”

To this, Gaster shrugged. He tried to sound nonchalant, but his voice cracked somewhere once or twice as he spoke, and Grillby knew it bothered him.

“Less the human and more the soul-ripping part,” the skeleton mumbled, his gaze rooted steadfastly on the stone roof they sat on, “Sometimes it’s still the human there, screaming at me. Sometimes I’ve done it to myself - those ones are always interesting. A little easier to detach myself from, I think. Sometimes it’s people I know…”

He barked a quiet, bitter laugh and flashed Grillby a side-long glance, “I’ve... never really gotten used to those. But I can’t rationalize it enough to make it stop, so I try to get over it as quickly as I can when I wake.”

“Isn’t there something you can do about that?” Grillby asked, “Some herb you can take to help you sleep or-”

Gaster was already shaking his head, “Help you sleep yes. There’s lots you can do for that. My problem isn’t sleeping. It’s the dreaming bit that gets nasty. I’ve heard woundwort and rosemary are supposed to help but I’ve tried it before and I’ve yet to see results. Besides, it’s too hard to find and keep on hand during all this fleeing and fighting. Maybe if I were holed up in a fortress somewhere, or one of the larger cities by the mountains. But since I’m out here…”

The skeleton splayed his hands out in front of him in a helpless sort of motion, “I have to make do.”

“Is that what the meditation is?” Grillby pressed, “Making do?”

Gaster chuckled, smiling a little wider, “Wow Grillby, are you feeling ill? Wild hijinks up a magical tower and asking a bunch of questions? Who are you and what have you done with my friend?”

The elemental let out a flustered crackle, “I mean if you don’t want-”

Gaster was already waving his hands at him, shushing Grillby in his own eccentric way, “You’re fine, I’m just teasing. Yes, the meditation stuff just helps me relax and get some rest. It doesn’t replace sleep by a long shot, but it helps make things a little more bearable. And it calms everything down a bit.”

The skeleton grinned, “That’s why I think you should try it. Maybe if you had a few minutes of feeling comfortable in your skin, you’d be a little less nervous.”

Well, it sounded nice at least. And Grillby had to admit whenever he’d seen Gaster wake up from a nightmare, he seemed much better after a few minutes of just… sitting. And he felt a little guilty now that the skeleton had followed Grillby all the way out here instead of doing that one thing he probably needed to do. Maybe he could…

“Could you teach me how?”

Gaster laughed incredulously, “What, here? Right now?” he ushered about them, “On top of a death tower?”

Grillby sparked as he laughed back, “Heavens above! Gaster, I will carry you back to camp if you’re so worried about traps. Besides, we’re not moving anywhere. We can’t spring something by sitting and talking.”

The skeleton chuckled, signing happily, “I will hold you to that firefly, don’t tempt me. Alright, fine. It’s not that complicated a thing to do anyway. Just… make yourself comfortable we’re going to be here for a bit.”

Grillby did as he was told, situating himself as comfortably as he could on the cool stone they rested on. Meanwhile Gaster settled into a very practiced position, sitting cross-legged with his back fairly straight, arms resting limply in his lap.

“Okay, so the point of meditation,” Gaster said, “As far as I’ve been learned anyway, is quieting your thoughts down enough to find some peace - or if you’re religious, enlightenment. But we’re not going there yet. So you’re going to focus on not thinking about things.”

In spite of himself, Grillby chuckled, “Easier said than done, I think.”

“Well yeah, for you,” Gaster grinned back, “You always worrying about something. But you’re not going to do that now. Just, focus on breathing. Whenever you start thinking about something, go back to concentrating on your breathing. And don’t fall asleep.”

This dragged another laugh from Grillby before the pair of them lapsed into silence. Grillby watched as Gaster closed his eye sockets, a deep sigh rattling his ribcage as he sat. Grillby observed the skeleton for a few moments, waiting for some sort of revolutionary thing to happen before finally mirroring that same sigh and closing his eyes as well. It was strange to him to be so still without dimming his flame to prepare for some sort of sleep. His body felt restless because of it, and his mind wanted to wander. But when it did, Grillby did his best to recenter himself back on his own breathing, focusing on the slow in-and-out motion.

He became conscious of how his legs were folded beneath him, and how they were starting to stiffen. Conscious of how his arms were positioned and how unnatural it seemed to feel now that he was suddenly aware of it. He could feel his fire as it flickered faintly in the breeze, pieces of it sparking away to vanish into the night without his magic to sustain it. He could feel his core, molten and fluid shifting around just beneath the surface of the flame that encased his body. He could feel his soul in his chest, not exactly pulsing, but radiating magic to the rest of his body in a steady, vibration-like hum.

He could have stopped existing, or maybe existed a little less. And, somehow, he realized that feeling wasn’t a new one. In fact, it was warm and teasingly familiar, yanking at the edge of his mind like some kind of distant memory. A floating feeling, light and soft and quiet that crept across his soul and made him feel like he was moving even when he wasn’t. It wanted to encompass him, to take over his senses but there wasn’t enough of it there for that. There needed to be more. He needed to be somewhere else for this. He needed-

Grillby blinked his eyes open when he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. Gaster was peering curiously at him, a smile on his face and the lights of his eyes bright with wonder. Slowly, the elemental realized the light bouncing off the skeleton’s pale face wasn’t yellow or orange like it should be, like the color he normally was. In fact, it wasn’t any single color Grillby knew he could make. The elemental dropped his gaze down to his arms, blinking down at them in surprise when he realized just about every color he ever knew himself to be was rippling through them, molten and churning as it flowed slowly down and away from his soul. Of course, as soon as his surprise took over, the colors quickly faded into yellows and greens again. In just a handful of seconds he was normal.

And very much wondering how in the world he’d managed to do that.

“Well, that sure was… something,” Grillby finally managed after and awkward and confused pause. Gaster laughed.

“That was something? That was something beautiful is what it was,” he said, signing quickly in his excitement, “That is what you were doing the first time you were showing me those sparring sets.”

Grillby looked down at his hands again, as if he could magically make that colorful rippling reappear.

“What were you thinking then?” Gaster asked, “When you were doing that? What was going on?”

“I… nothing,” Grillby murmured, “I just started feeling like… well like I’d done this before?”

What did the skeleton expect him to say? Grillby was at least ten times as confused as Gaster was, and he was the one who actually did it - whatever it was. Though Gaster was right. It had been pretty.

“Maybe I’ll try this again sometime,” the elemental said after a pause.

“Well of course you will!” Gaster grinned, slowly getting to his feet, “Now you’ve got me curious. I get that it’s probably nothing, but it’s a cool nothing, so I need to know about it.”

He offered a hand to Grillby, which the elemental took gratefully, “C’mon, let’s get back to camp.”

Gaster took a few steps, paused, and then turned back to the elemental, “So, how did you want to carry me then?”

Grillby groaned, rolling his eyes as best he could manage, “Oh come on Gaster. I swear nothing’s going to bite you on the way down the stairs.”

The skeleton grinned at him, “I told you I was gonna hold you to it, didn’t I? So, how are we doing this? I could hop on your shoulders. Piggyback ride? Then there’s always bridal style-”

“Or I could throw you over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Wouldn’t that be a glorious sight back at camp?” Grillby quipped with a crackle of a laugh, “Besides you’re taller than me. Carrying you is just going to be awkward.”

“Well then you shouldn’t have said anything,” the skeleton responded with a stubborn grin, arms crossed childishly, “Now come on. Be a hero and save the skeleton from the evil human death tower.”

After a few more sighs and eye-rolls and groans, Gaster finally ended up on Grillby’s back, boney arms wrapped around his molten neck and lanky knees tucked under the elemental’s arms. They probably looked ridiculous with Grillby picking his way slowly down the stairs, trying to balance his awkward burden in such a way that neither of them went tumbling. And all the while Gaster narrated their descent, praising the ‘brave hero’ who ‘single-handedly stormed the evil human fort’ and ‘rescued the incredibly awesome and totally-could’ve-saved-himself-if-he-weren’t-so-lazy skeleton warrior’. He even threw in a few imaginary mage fights for dramatic effect, making whooshing fire noises and fake explosion sounds. The elemental would be lying if he didn’t say he was laughing the entire walk out to the wall. He did manage to drop Gaster off his back before they actually walked into camp - he had to save at least a teensy bit of his pride. Both monsters collapsed beside the fire closest to their tent, Grillby stretching out on the ground close to the comforting, crackling little blaze and Gaster settling beside him.

As Grillby closed his eyes and dimmed his flame, he gave a small smirk in Gaster’s direction, “Thanks for following me up there, Gaster.”

The skeleton grinned, “Don’t mention it firefly.”

 

Chapter Text

The remainder of their journey was mostly - thankfully - uneventful as they traveled towards their destination. Grillby and Gaster were continually stuck with scouting and foraging duties - per Amathea's punishment for their brawling - but as they neared the camp they were to be stationed at, their training schedule all but halted. The commander spent less and less time with them, and more and more time with the other commanders of the units as they hazarded to plan their next movements upon entering the camp they were destined for. Amathea agonized over battle plans and orders, cross-referencing all the information she could get her hands on and calculating their best opportunity for survival. She hardly had time to eat or sleep, she was pouring over so much information.

That was another thing Grillby had come to notice as they traveled - there was a noticeable increase in intelligence officers wraithing their way through the camps at night. Apparently something big was in the works, the thought of which made him extremely nervous. It was always hard to notice them - most of the monster intelligence force were ghosts after all, and excellent at blending into their environments. When noticed, Grillby would hardly be able to glance them from the corners of his eyes as they wafted to and fro, whispering in harsh voices about enemy movements and ally movements alike, pausing only to magically salute each other should two meet. The elemental recognized a few of them from previous ventures of his, but they were always too busy to speak with him directly, and he didn't mind it. Whatever news they had for him would never be good anyway. And while he tried not to hold grudges against them for it, it was still hard to see them as anything other than bringers of some sort of misfortune, either for himself or someone else.

They were two nights out from the camp they'd been ordered to before Amathea finally approached her little unit about the affairs she'd been discussing, and when she sat them down she had the grimmest of frowns and sternest of glances. She'd let them eat supper first, and settled them around their campfire, tapping her foot nervously and twitching her ear frills with pent-up energy. It was hard to shake off the sense of dread building in the air with her glaring absently at both nothing and everything at the same time.

Gaster finally cleared his throat and grabbed her attention, "So uh… don't mean to be rude here but I think you might be scaring people with that snarl you've got going there."

"Good," she responded mildly, "You should be scared."

Grillby and Gaster exchanged a glance.

"So," Amathea sighed, "You already know the only reason these units are moving is because they spotted a pair of mages out here, and tinderbox here is our best bet of killing them before they make havoc of anyone else."

Both Grillby and Gaster nodded, Grillby's flame pitching into more nervous hues as he did so. The fish monster huffed out a breath, ear frills twitching as her mouth twisted into a bitter frown.

"Alright, I'm hesitant to call this bad news lads, but I'll admit it definitely isn't good," she said finally, "First bit of news is we're not being posted at the destination camp like we'd planned before. We're picking up reinforcements, and we'll be heading back out the next morning for our new destination. There's a small army of horsemen to the north, and we're to be intercepting them."

Gaster's whole body frowned, pitching into deeper hues of red and orange, "That's a pretty short notice change. What's the rush?"

Gaster signed a worried agreement beside him.

"Simply put, we don't know where the mages are," Amathea explained, gills flaring in a frustrated huff, "We've had eyes out for weeks, but for the life of us we can't pin them down. From what we've managed to find, it seems the humans aren't keeping them stationed with a single unit. Instead they're moving them about to the largest threat to their advance. Ingenious planning really. Two men on swift horses can cover more ground than a small army with supply trains in tow. And if we can't pin them down, we can't send monsters like Grillby out to their location. We've lost ground over this, and several units as well. A right illusive pain in the tail these magicians are making themselves out to be. So if we want to get tinderbox within shouting distance of the damn things, we need to give them something to shout about first."

Grillby gave a nervous flicker, his soul suddenly feeling queasy. Gaster raised the bony ridge above his unbroken eye, face twisting into a quizzical frown, "And what exactly are we supposed to do to get their attention?"

"Well, the plan so far mostly involves taking a hammer against an anvil, so to speak. They want to approach for a full engagement, and then have tinderbox here break the charge when it comes for us. Horses are pretty panicky creatures when faced with a lot of fire and noise. If we can break their momentum and scatter them out, we can tear apart the whole unit before they can regroup for a full attack. They figure if we can tear apart a unit like that, we'll be getting a good bit of attention," she cast a meaningful stare in Grillby's direction, and the elemental felt another nervous twinge run through him, "Especially when they learn an elemental was the one who managed it."

Grillby sputtered, sparks breaking away from him and shattering apprehensively against the night breeze, "Surely they don't expect me to be able to take out an entire army by myself! Even I have limits on magic. And if I exhaust myself I'll be no use against a bunch of mages anyway!"

Amathea splayed her hand out in a helpless gesture, "We've talked about this long and hard tinderbox. This is the best way to get their attention without losing a bunch of lives in the process. Obviously we're preparing for an engagement. The units we're picking up at the base camp are pikemen - they'll be good against the horses should the charge go through unbroken. But we're still leaning on your firepower to take out the bulk of the force."

"And what if I can't?! You need more than just me. You need another elemental, maybe two. You'd need a monster twice as strong as me at least!"

Amathea shook her head, "Grillby you're the only elemental here for leagues, we don't have the time to transfer another. And trust me when I say you'll do. You're thinking too small lad, way too small."

She waited a moment for the elemental to calm down his nervous sputtering before continuing, "You remember when I was teaching you about the different attacks I wanted you to learn? Specifically the shield. I told you a story about the fire elemental I knew years back who ate a whole forest to raise his strength."

The fish monster raised her eyebrows at the elemental, "Now do me a favor and think that big for a minute."

Grillby's gaze dropped to the ground between his knees. Oh. Well. That's. A bad idea, is what that is. Or, a really good idea, maybe, if he could even handle it. But…

"Ammy, I have no idea how to do that," he said finally, "I've never had to try before. I don't even know where to start figuring it out."

Amathea opened her mouth to speak, but Gaster cut off what she was going to say.

"I mean, it can't be that hard to figure out, right?" the skeleton asked with a smirk in Grillby's direction, "That's just a matter of intent, it sounds like."

This earned him a pair of vacant stares, which the skeleton returned with a slow forming grin. Grillby was at a complete loss. Intent? Didn't intent have to do with damage and force when it came to magic? That's all he'd ever heard it used for, at least. Though, he also never thought too deeply into how magic worked or why, while Gaster did. He supposed if anyone could figure out how this new kind of magic worked, it would probably be Gaster. And the skeleton was already explaining, hands moving slowly as he organized his thoughts into words.

"Intent is the driving force behind magic," the skeleton hummed, "We know we can safely spar together because we have no intent to kill. Our hits are already softened for us. On the same hand, that's how a monster's damage can jump up so high in battle - because we want to kill something. Intent applies to colored attacks as well. I know for blue, it's the intent to hinder your opponent. And if you have enough intent behind it you can actually hold the soul and toss it places, as opposed to simply weighing it down."

"Sure," Grillby huffed, sparks dancing around him exasperatedly, "But fire isn't magic - normal fire, at least. And it doesn't have a soul."

"And blue can pick up objects without a soul," Gaster pointed out, before turning to Amathea, "Give us a bit, Ammy. I'm sure we can figure this out."

Grillby could've smacked Gaster. How could he be so sure? He wasn't the one who had to pull this off, Grillby was. And Grillby was pretty sure he couldn't do this. He was hardly wrapping his head around what Gaster was saying already! But Amathea was already nodding, eyes sparkling with relief. And then she was leaving, off to relay the information to the other commanders and make preparations. Grillby couldn't do much more than give Gaster a withering glare, his whole body flickering in a frown. The skeleton flashed him a toothy grin.

"Oh don't look at me like that, firefly. You can figure this out. It's just work with intent."

"I hope you're right, Gaster," the elemental huffed a smoky sigh, "Because if you're not…!"

"I'm right," Gaster said firmly, smile not wavering for a second, "Now come on. Let's get you started."


"Gaster, you're insane."

"Well look at the bright side firefly, at least you're finally in your element."

It turned out Gaster's grand master plan for figuring this new magic out had actually been quite simple - and also quite humiliating from Grillby's point of view. He cleared out the little rock circle that served as their firepit and ordered the elemental to sit in the middle. Then he'd spent the next hour collecting firewood - stacking some neatly around the fire monster and piling the rest to the side where it could be used later. Then the wood was lit, and Grillby sat in the middle of the burning mass, his own fire peaking into different self-conscious hues as passing monsters gave him strange looks and stares.

"So? How's it feel?" Gaster prompted with a smirk, "Feel like an all-powerful super-being yet?"

"No," came the half-pout of a reply, "I just feel ridiculous… and kinda warm I guess."

"Is that all?"

"I mean, I don't normally feel warm," Grillby pointed out, "I've only really ever felt cold before, or normal. So uh… I guess it's probably really hot in here?"

Gaster raised the ridge above his unbroken eye, "Seriously? Nothing else?"

"Can I get out now?"

The skeleton chuckled, "You've been in there for like… ten seconds Grillby."

"This is boring. And dumb. Mostly dumb."

These comments Gaster ignored, the skeleton choosing instead to pace around Grillby for a few minutes. He signed to himself, organizing his thoughts and observing. The elemental twiddled his thumbs and waited, wondering what it was exactly he was supposed to do. It did feel comforting in the fire, protected and warm, in a way. Even past the worry in his soul he felt as if the space around him was soothing, impervious to the world outside his cocoon of fiery safety. But even here amongst it, he still felt apart from it. He was his own entity, and the fire burning around him was a part of something else. They weren't connected, which meant Grillby couldn't absorb it or gain anything from it. They were just existing in the same space.

Gaster stopped his circling, "Alright firefly, here comes the tricky part."

"You mean the part neither of us has figured out yet," the elemental snorted.

Gaster flashed him a long suffering smile.

"The part only one of us hasn't figured out yet," he corrected as he settled down in front of Grillby, sitting rather smugly a few inches away from the campfire, "I already know this is possible. Intent is a mind over matter sort of thing. Once you get it, you'll never believe you couldn't do it in the first place. That's how I taught myself how to use blue. Well… that and some soul fiddling. But this whole fire business is just an extension of being; it's not nearly so complicated as learning a whole new type of magic."

Grillby offered a resigned sigh in return before turning his concentration back to the fire around him. He still didn't really understand how this was supposed to work. There was probably some sort of science involved that Gaster knew that made something like this so easy for him to understand. Gaster was good at that sort of thing - obviously, since he'd made a whole new type of magic all by himself! Meanwhile Grillby barely understood how his own body worked.

"Just relax, Grillby, and try not to overthink anything," Gaster chuckled, "Here, try this."

The skeleton mirrored the way Grillby sat, resting his hands limply in his lap, "Breathe in a deep breath and match the fire around you. It's not warm to you anymore, you're the same."

The elemental did as he was told, wary and a bit nervous. He closed his eyes and stoked himself hotter and brighter, matching the feel of the flame around him, the color and the warmth. It was then that he felt… strange. It was a bit like the phantom feeling he got when a person was standing too close to him, like they could be touching him even though they weren't. But there was no one close to him now, only that cocoon of fire that now seemed much less like a blanket around him and more like a presence. Like dozens of hands held just slightly away from his body, threatening to touch him but never moving quite close enough. It felt claustrophobic and tense, and he didn't like it.

"Alright, now go back down to your normal temperature Grillby," Gaster's voice cut through his uncomfortable thoughts, pleasant and casual and possibly a little closer than he had been before, "You know, that nice comfortable temperature where I can do stuff like pat your shoulder without burning my hand off."

With a chuckle Grillby started to sigh himself cooler.

"Tsk! You're the only thing cooling down firefly. I need you to bring everything down."

Grillby blinked his eyes open, frowning at Gaster who had indeed moved closer. He was kneeling just out of the fire's flickering reach, watching the elemental intently.

"I can't really make fire that isn't mine cooler," Grillby said with a nervous spark.

Gaster waved a hand experimentally at the flame, feeling the heat.

"Then you've got to make it yours," he said simply, "It doesn't have a soul, Grillby, just a tiny bit of intent and it'll do whatever you want."

"I don't-"

"Just match your fire with it again," the skeleton instructed, and with a nervous gulp Grillby did as he was told. Gaster watched him and smirked.

"You're like, right there. Can't you feel that?"

"I mean, I feel something," Grillby said exasperatedly, "But I'm hardly in control, it that's what you're getting at."

Gaster paused, thinking hard on something before asking, "Okay, so under what circumstances would you ever have the intent to burn me?"

Grillby blinked at the skeleton for a moment, core shuddering under a slowly growing feeling of panic, "Probably never."

"So, even if you were blazing hot," Gaster continued slowly, "And I decided to do a stupid thing and touch you anyway, what would happen?"

"I'd try to cool down," Grillby sputtered, sparks flying as his panic started to build, "Key word is try, Gaster."

A mischievous grin settled across the skeleton's face and he waved a hand lackadaisically at Grillby from where he sat.

"Gaster don't…"

The skeleton ignored him. Instead, he made a show of rolling up his sleeve, keeping his hand clasped on the baggy fabric so it didn't roll back down his arm again. He glanced back at Grillby, eye ridge raising slightly.

"Ready?"

"No," Grillby shouted, sparks flying, "You're going to burn yourself Gaster."

The skeleton rolled his eyes, smile not faltering for a moment, "Reach a hand out for me Grillby."

Grillby hesitantly did as he was told, fire flickering wildly with worry. The fire around him seemed to feel his unease as he reached, licking around his arm haphazardly as if a stiff wind were teasing it into motion. One of the burning logs toppled over, spraying sparks and crackling agitatedly. Grillby's hand stretched out open-palmed and expectant, shivering just slightly from his nerves. It flickered through the same hot colors as the fire around it, bright whites and yellows that would be painful even for a monster with no proper skin to burn.

"Okay, so do you want me to count to three, or should I just reach in?" Gaster asked.

Grillby shook his head in dismay, though he already knew his protests were getting him nowhere. Just how in the world was Gaster so calm about this?! The skeleton let out an amused chuckle.

"Okay, so I'll count to three then," he said casually, as if he were doing anything other than sticking his hand in a fire pit, "One…"

Grillby closed his eyes and winced. Oh this wasn't going to work!

"Two…"

Gaster's voice sounded so smug. He could hear the smile in it. Well, he wouldn't be smiling for long, that was for sure! Meanwhile Grillby was doing his best not to panic. His core was shivering and humming uncomfortably in his chest, some space in his stomach turning itself in knots. The fire around him was once again feeling that stifling, claustrophobic kind of close against him, itching and foreign in his nervousness.

Something bumped into his hand, and he let out a started shriek of a noise at it. Grillby's eyes snapped open, and he blinked in total bafflement at his hand, which was clasped neatly around Gaster's skeletal fingers. The skeleton's arm up to the elbow was surrounded by flame - fire that was now pitched in panicky and sickly hues of yellow and green, matching the colors of Grillby's arm exactly. But it didn't so much as singe the skeleton as it flickered around his delicate bones, instead dancing around them harmless and ghostly. Gaster grinned wide in the pallid light, eyes reflecting shifting colors as Grillby's surprise - and then relief - rippled every inch of the fire into gentle blues.

"Three."

Grillby blinked down at their hands, back up to Gaster's grinning face, and then down to their hands again, "That… doesn't hurt at all?"

"Nope."

"... when…?"

Gaster shrugged, gently pulling his hand back and resituating his sleeve down his arm, "Roundabout the time I got to two. You weren't watching, but the entire color of the fire just lit up with your nervous colors."

He crossed his arms in a smug grin, "Told you it was easy. Have some more faith in me for heaven's sakes."

Grillby rolled his eyes, "Alright alright. You were right. I guess..."

The elemental blinked around at the flickering blaze around him, watching the colors turn, "So uh… what now?"

"Now you gather it up, nice and neat, and pack it into your soul," Gaster sighed as he relaxed backwards, propping himself up against one of the piles of spare firewood he'd stacked, "Like you would with your own flame when you're cleaning up after a spar."

Simple as that, the fire leached itself out of the burning material around it, as if it had been Grillby's to command all along. It sped up in burning as it did, hungry for just a bit more of the wood around it before finally giving up and disappearing into the rest of the flame in Grillby's body. There was a tense itch in his soul when it was finished, like there was a little more of something there than he was used to.

Gaster reached into the stack of wood at his back, smiling at the sputtering coal that were the only thing left of the fire, "And now we get to do it all over again."


The following days had Grillby constantly burning and consuming. The first night of fires had been nervous ones, always needing some sort of extra prompting from Gaster to get the elemental going. But by the following morning, Grillby was strolling about and scooping up every campfire that had been lit. It sure saved them time in stamping them all out before heading out for the day. As they scouted, Grillby found himself small patches of things to burn, dead trees and debris they came across. All night long he burning something.

The slow inward trickle of energy started out as an itch, barely noticeable against the constant energetic hum of his soul. But the more he consumed, the more the restless itch turning into a push, his core reverberating with extra magic that his body didn't know what to do with. It pitched him into brighter and brighter colors, kept him restless and pacing. He felt jittery and full, like his core was ready to split open. He couldn't sleep. There was too much of him for that. It felt like his very soul was cramped up into some tiny place, curled up and aching to stand and stretch. He had felt something like this before shortly after he'd been summoned, when they monsters that had called him forth fed him and trained him and made him too strong for the tiny vessel he'd been summoned in. He'd decided then to morph himself into the form he was in now.

A form he enjoyed enough to resist the feverish tug as it begged him to become something bigger.

He made monsters nervous, no doubt - both the new ones that joined them as well as the companies already present. Grillby could notice the reek of powerful magic dripping off of him. And the constant white and blue hues that brightened the world around him only ever got more intense instead of dimming down. By the fourth day, he couldn't even lower his heat past a certain level. Even Gaster could feel it emanating off of the elemental when he stepped too close. His constant pacing put people on edge.

If only they knew it was all for them, and not just some nervous episode from a twitchy elemental.

They were six days into their march after picking up reinforcements that they spotted signs of the humans they were supposed to engage. Scouts stumbled upon tracks from hunters moving out to scavenge food for the force. Ghosts brought in reports of an army two hundred horses strong gathered at the edge of a river, too close for comfort but too far for them to engage before nightfall. One more day. They were one day away from their destination. No fires were lit that night, meals were cold and tense. Watches were posted, nervous and alert.

That night as Grillby paced, begging closer the hour that he could finally be rid of some of the magical mess building up inside of him, Gaster joined him - woken from a nightmare and unwilling to go back to sleep. He let the elemental pace in silence for a while while Gaster himself thought, stewing on a worry brought to the forefront of his mind by the angry recurring dream.

"Grillby?" Gaster asked finally, bringing the elemental's energized pacing to a hesitant stop, "What happens tomorrow?"

The elemental shifted on his feet uncomfortably, unable to keep completely still, "Uh… what do you mean?"

"I've never really been a part of a battle before," Gaster said quietly, "Little skirmishes yeah, and of course that one fight that started it all. But I've never been on an open field before, in the thick of it."

Grillby shrugged, "Well if I do my job right, you won't be in the thick of it. Nobody will."

"But assuming we are… what happens?"

The elemental frowned - a subtler motion now that his color couldn't pitch much to compliment it, though he did manage a small tinge of orange amongst his coursing whites and blues, "Well, it'll get chaotic fast. Your best bet is to stick close to Ammy. Her spears will make short work of any horses that get past the pikemen. And of course you've fought humans before."

He shrugged, "And I guess, always remember there's no right or wrong out there. Only what you can live with."

Gaster blinked at him uncomprehendingly, and Grillby explained, "You're the difference between life and death for someone. If you can't handle that responsibility, then you can't. You're not a lesser monster just because you can't kill someone who's running away, or begging for their life. You're no lesser because you can, either. And if something goes wrong because of that decision, you had no way of knowing that would happen, so there's no use blaming yourself."

Gaster watched Grillby for a long moment before nodding, dropping his gaze to the ground at his feet, "I see."

The elemental cleared his throat, dragging Gaster's gaze back up to him again, "So uh… speaking of self-image and being lesser and all that…"

The skeleton smirked, "Don't tell me you're getting stage fright."

"Of course not," Grillby said with a nervous laugh, "It's just… well… elementals get kind of scary to other monsters. And I wanted to make sure you wouldn't be one of those monsters. That get kind of twitchy. After they uh… see me do things."

Gaster blinked at Grillby once, a grin slowly splitting his features. He let out a laugh, "You're not serious, firefly."

Grillby made a helpless gesture with his hands, "Look, even Gerson was intimidated the first time we went to battle together. And we were side-by-side then, when I wasn't lighting an entire army on fire."

Gaster hadn't stopped laughing since Grillby started talking, and now he wiped an imaginary tear from his eye, chuckling and grinning, "Heavens alive, firefly, I know you're harmless. And we've sparred at least a hundred times! You think anything you do tomorrow is going to scare me off? Or Ammy off?"

Grillby crossed his arms stiffly, scowling, "Ammy's fought with elementals before. You haven't."

"Grillby, I fought a human that wouldn't die," his laugher was dying down a bit now, replaced by a more serious kind of smirk at the edge of his teeth, "Nothing can scare me at this point."

Grillby threw his hands in the air exasperatedly, but didn't argue back. Gaster could think his worrying was ridiculous if he wanted to - Grillby would worry anyway. But… a corner of his soul felt a bit of relief even past all the nervous twitching and humming of his core.

Chapter Text

Morning came upon them bright and pleasant, the barest tugging of a breeze snatching at the hems of capes and tunics. The sun put a glint in the armor of a host of monsters, a flicker of fire across poleaxes, spears, lances and swords. The sky was brilliantly blue, the day warm for autumn. The landscape was alive with the sounds of birds and small animals, restless as the magic in the air. It was beautiful. It twisted Grillby’s stomach in knots and peaked his flame through every shade of blue and white he could possibly be.

The scouts had come back that morning with news that the horsemen were now moving in their direction, moving to engage. To wipe out the small army of monsters who dared to test their might against their horses and swords. Now the monster host stood waiting for the convergence, the air tense as a bowstring, magic and intent stirring like a bitter miasma in the breeze. Ahead, the world sprawled out before them, a clearing hemmed sparsely by trees, the field dotted with dandelion fluff.

Grillby huffed a breath from where he stood, smoke wafting in an ashen halo around his head. He was at the front of the mustered army of monsters, standing rigidly beside Amathea and Brigg and a small handful of commanders he’d been unable to become acquainted with. Gaster stood shortly behind him, fidgeting anxiously with his hands and sweeping his eyes across the field before him for the first sign of a human breaking the tree line. He’d been a nervous wreck all morning, worrying over and over again about whatever would happen today, not knowing what to expect. Amathea on the other hand had been nothing less than enthusiastic. Reasonably wary as well, she had spent most of the morning delivering rousing talks to the more jittery parts of the companies as well as reviewing countermeasures with the other commanders. Now though, standing before the grand field where all her planning was destined to unfold, she was eager and ready. Amathea gave a roguish grin, hand planting itself firmly on her hip as she heaved out an exaggerated breath.

“Beautiful day for a battle, eh tinderbox?” she asked, clapping him enthusiastically on the back, “Not a cloud in sight, even ground to walk on…”

“Large open plain, perfect for horses,” Grillby murmured worriedly, more to himself than the commander beside him. His soul giving a nervous shudder past it’s uncomfortable, bursting feeling.

“Aye, and perfect for burning,” Amathea pointed out, voice steady and reassuring, “Less of a chance of us getting cut off by a brush fire.”

“That happens?” Gaster squeaked from behind them.

“It’s not a problem if you account for it,” Amathea shrugged, “But woe to the commander that forgets once an elemental releases their element on something, it tends to have a mind of its own! There have been units caught in their own crossfire before, especially in nasty forests where things tend to go up like a box of tinder. Open fields like this are a bit more forgiving, especially on days like this where the wind is down.”

A horn blast in the distance burst through the air, echoing across to them in a wail of warning. Grillby wasn’t sure what it signaled for, but a restless sort of shiver passed through the monsters around him at the sound of it. Amathea’s smile turned sharp and dangerous as the sound died off.

“Brace yourself lad, they’ll be along soon,” the commander said, a magical spear crackling to life in her hand - just in case, “You remember what to do if the charge doesn’t break?”

“Pray,” Grillby chuckled with a sarcastic flicker. Amathea jabbed an elbow into his side and he amended, “Retreat back to the front line.”

“Good,” she flashed him a gentler smile, “You’ll do fine, tinderbox.”

A second horn sounded, closer now and foreign - humans rallying to the sound before breaking from their cover at the other end of the field. Amathea gave Grillby a sound shove, sending the elemental staggering out to meet them while Gaster stepped up to fill the void he’d left behind.

“You ever see an elemental at their finest, Gaster?” Amathea asked, her voice a low purr in her chest as she waited for the fight to begin unfolding. The skeleton shook his head.

“Just our spars. And I keep hearing those actually aren’t all that fantastic.”

Amathea barked a laugh, clapping a hand on his shoulder, “Well then! You’re about to see why so many monsters wish we’d never started summoning elementals into this mess.”

Her face split in an exhilarated grin, “And why the likes of us are all the more glad we did.”

 

Grillby couldn’t have felt more nervous if there were a thunderstorm brewing overhead. He felt terribly exposed and alone, walking away from the body of monsters behind him and across the expanse of flat dangerously open ground before him. It felt weird and unnatural. It made his entire core shudder. He also worried that the humans would notice something weird was going on, seeing him out and alone like this. But Amathea had insisted they’d be too enthusiastic in charging forward to much care what kind of daft monster was standing out there alone to meet them - not until it was too late anyway.

(*)

Grillby stopped walking when a rumble like thunder started to tremble the air around him. He could feel it shivering through the ground at his feet, a soft reverberation that jittered its way through his body and set his nerves that much more on edge. They were coming. He could see the muffled glint of metal through the trees in front of him, the shouts and whoops as riders spurred their horses faster. The rumbling in the air and the earth intensified. Then they were crashing out into the open, swords drawn and teeth bared in a ferocious charge that would put the fear of the afterlife in any sensible monster. They shouted to each other in their strange, guttural language, the thrill of battle pushing them and their horses faster. They organized themselves into a dangerous arrow of a formation, ready to drive right through the monster army behind Grillby. 

Heavens alive there were so many of them.

A soft, creeping sort of calm crawled its way through the elemental’s soul as they neared. They couldn’t harm him, they didn’t even know who or what he was. As they thundered closer, they didn’t hesitate for a moment. Even as the heat started building in the air, so rapid it wilted the grass at Grillby’s feet and warped the air with waves as it bloomed around him. There was a tense, bursting feeling building in his soul as he prepared to let this new strength loose. A dozen white darts of flame flickered to life in the air around the elemental. They were so small and unassuming, strangely dim in the brightness of the day and the haze of heat around them.

With a sigh of relief Grillby released the fiery projectiles on the line of horseman, feeling the tense build up in his soul relax just slightly. Much like the ones he used while sparring, these exploded into a hail of molten, burning debris on impact. Horses staggered, reared and stumbled. Men screamed and went tumbling into the beasts behind them. The smell of burning hit Grillby in a sickly and ragged mess of metal, perfume and sulfur. It weighted the air and hung heavy in the smoke left in the attack’s wake, only stirring when Grillby struck again with another volley of those molten darts.

The loud, thundering charge was quickly fragmenting into a struggle forward as horses wheeled and reared and humans prayed they didn’t trip over the fallen beasts and comrades in front of them. But still they came forward, defiant and angry, war cries mingling with the sounds of the burning and dying and the shrieks of injured horses. Grillby waited for them to get nearer before bearing open his soul to them in a wave of white fire, panicked screams answering it as it crashed down on the charging animals and men. The molten attack broke across them and clung to their bodies like burning honey, sending an entire section of the charge collapsing into the blazing grass, a formless mass mixed in a heat so fierce it could melt armor, flesh and bone. Horses that stumbled into it - their momentum carrying them too fast to stop - and pitched their riders as they screamed and floundered on legs too burnt to carry them any further. A familiar crackling sound filled the air - not the sound of burning tinder, but the sound of dozens of souls shattering, some managing to flash a weak color before they splintered apart.

In a handful of minutes Grillby had reduced the charging, raging army into a reeling and panicking mess of men and animals, many now spurring their horses around to flee back in the direction they’d come while riderless beasts kicked and bolted. The elemental fired after them relentlessly, darts and cartwheels of flame tearing after the fleeing army faster than they could run. A triumphant cheer rang out behind him, and the frenetic itching in his soul finally started to settle. Grillby heaved a smoking sigh, letting loose a final volley of burning darts.

A blinding white flash consumed his vision, a roar like thunder wrapping itself around every inch of his consciousness. Grillby blinked, suddenly on his back in the grass, a blurry smear of blue and white sky the only thing he could make out in his dazzled vision. He staggered to his feet, half-blind and confused, the world lilting and bleary with patterns of light burned into his vision.

What in heaven’s name…?!

He managed to catch sight of a white flicker, brighter than the flame of the carnage before him and tinted softly blue. Grillby leaped out of the way of it just as it charged for him. He felt more than heard the deafening boom that followed, the concussion ripping through the air and setting his ears to ringing even more than they already were. A white streak of lightning cleaved through the ground where he’d been standing, and Grillby felt a rush run through his tingling soul.

A single human was left charging towards him instead of fleeing madly away - a slowly refocusing blur of dappled grey horseflesh and glittering steel. There was a staff in their hand, blazing a defiant trail of light behind them, a phosphorescent streamer flickering in the wind.

It was a mage, screaming an incantation and digging their heels into their horse’s sides to spur it faster. Another arc of lightning blazed from the staff in their hand, stretching jagged and broken fingers down to meet discs of flame Grillby conjured to counter with. They shattered together in a flare of tangled sparks, a roaring peal of thunder splitting the air and shaking the elemental’s core with the closeness of the sound. The intensity of it sent a ripple through the field, waves of sound and heat scattering the delicate dandelion fluff in the grass into floating swirls of ashen white. Grillby narrowed his eyes at the human, growled out a tense hiss of smoke, and filled the air with an answering roar of flame.

The human screamed back at him in exasperation, their words lacking the normal grace of an incantation and instead pouring from their mouth in a stream of anger and fear as they wheeled their horse about. The animal was fleet-footed and sure, leaping wildly away from the pinwheels and spears of fire Grillby shot towards it, guided by the well-timed nudges of its rider’s heels, knees and bridle. They were maddeningly fast, the animal’s frenzied hooves sending clods of dirt and grass flying with every bound. Grillby found himself struggling to hit them, sparks and debris singeing the animal’s coat and burning smoke from the human’s billowing cape but never catching enough to do damage. The mage steered their horse back and forth across the field twice, clinging close to the animal’s neck to make themselves a smaller target, before finally wheeling and retreating.

With a bitter scowl Grillby realized the field was mostly smoldering and empty, only a few remaining horseless humans still scrambling for safety. The mage had been making a distraction. And now they were retreating back into the woods, a streak of grey against the blurring tree line. Grillby shot after them one last volley as they fled, his deadly lances of flame splitting deep scores into the trees and sending sparks and wood shattering into the air. In the mess of crackling wood and debris he finally landed a hit, tearing a burning rip into the horse’s shoulder. The animal squealed and toppled over, legs flailing as it rolled and struggled to get back to its feet. When it finally managed to stand, it bucked and kicked before galloping away, riderless, shoulder still smoldering from the searing hit that had knocked it off its feet.

Even at the distance he stood at, Grillby could see the telltale flash of a strong soul shuddering before it cracked apart, dissolving with a pale flicker of crumbling cyan.

 

Chapter Text

"I told you you'd do tinderbox, and here I am right!" Amathea beamed, clapping a strong hand against Grillby's back in congratulations.

It had taken the elemental a moment to bring the fires he'd let loose on the little plain back under control - enough so that they didn't threaten to destroy half the countryside as the troop began their long march back to a base camp. The stench of burning flesh, hair and flora clung to Grillby's clothes like syrup and ash. He'd probably smell like death for weeks; It was the kind of awful, persistent scent that never really seemed to wash away, whiffs of it waiting to kick up again just when you'd thought you'd rid yourself of it. The smell was worth knowing he had saved the lot of monsters behind him one battle at least - though the display was sure to attract an overwhelming amount of attention. When they fought again, they wouldn't be able to rely on the elemental to hold the entire force back. For now though it was obvious the host of monsters were celebrating, relieved and impressed by the work the elemental had managed to do.

"I'll admit that mage surprised me," Grillby said with a flicker of a smile - glad his friends could actually see the change in colors now that he'd loosed enough of that maddening energy to cool, "I didn't even realize they were there."

"They surprised you?" Gaster let out an incredulous laugh, "It scared me and Ammy half to dust! All we saw was a flash of light and you were just…!"

The skeleton punctuated the end of his sentence with a wild splay of his hands, as if it could somehow explain what he'd seen and felt. Amathea's ear frills twitched in a nervous smile, nodding to Gaster as if she understood the motion.

"Aye lad. If you'd've climbed to your feet any slower that beastie would've had me to contend with!" she declared, teeth bared in a ferocious snarl, "Mage or not, no human is hurting one of my boys and getting away with it!"

Grillby chuckled at this, flushing soft blues in embarrassment, "Good to know you'll come to my rescue, Ammy."

"Just her?!" Gaster barked a laugh, puffing out his chest mightily, "She would've had to get in line, let me tell you!"

Grillby flashed in the bright colors of a grin - both at the hilarity of the idea of them coming to his rescue and the touch of emotion he felt knowing they would offer to. Really they should never have to come save him. He was there to make sure monsters like them didn't have to face a mage's might, after all! But even still, their enthusiasm was comforting, warming to the soul. Grillby was glad he had them.


Much like the walk out to battle, the walk back to camp was agonizingly slow and uneventful - though this time Grillby and Gaster managed to weasel their way out of a few of the many scouting and hunting trips. The number of ghosts wafting about the army as they walked went down, dispersing to collect information on how the humans would move next. Grillby watched them come and go with apprehension, wondering when the troop might be moved off again. He could feel foreboding rising around him like intent in the air no matter how hard he tried to stifle the feeling. Maybe he was just nervous? He'd used a good piece of magic in the fight. Perhaps he was just feeling the absence and calling it nerves because he'd never felt it before?

After a few days of walking, no ground-shaking news crossed them and Grillby managed to breathe a hesitant sigh of relief. Perhaps, for a little while at least, they were safe waiting for the humans to regain their feet.

The camp they finally managed to settle into - the one they'd passed over in their rush to meet the horsemen - was simply named "Front Line Camp". Apparently the commander who had established it wasn't too bright with naming things. In hindsight, calling it a camp was a bit of a stretch. It wasn't much more than a collection of pieced together tents and supply wagons hiding in the shelter of a rocky hillside, a roving army that constantly moved and shifted with the tides of war. There was an air of exhaustion there. No monster was ever stationed there long, only pausing long enough for their unit to receive more orders and then move out again - either to battle or to another camp as forces were shuffled to and fro.

The only portion of the camp that could be called any kind of permanent was the group of large canvas tents that served as the infirmary. There were doctors stationed there every hour of the day, ready to take in the sick and the wounded. It was here that the world seemed dismal, even after the victory Grillby had managed to grab for them. The air stung with the crisp, sterile smell of green magic and the clinging softness of dust.

By midday their tents were pitched in the shadow of the hill, crowded together but glad for a place to rest. Gaster managed most of the tent-pitching for their little group, those extra pairs of hands he could summon making quick work of the building. Grillby hardly had to lift a finger. Instead he busied himself in making small fire pit for cooking while Amathea paced and leafed through a few letters of information she'd received upon arriving. She was already worrying herself about what their next move should be, not even giving herself a few minutes of peace first. With a smirk, Grillby rifled through his inventory for the small box of spices he'd managed to keep from when they'd left their first camp. He could at least give everyone one nice meal before their lives kicked into action again.

He'd just got a strong fire going when a ruckus struck up in the main camp, snapping up all of the little group's attention. Grillby watched as a handful of monsters went jogging about settling army. They went about from one group of monsters to the next asking things that were too obscured from distance to make out, though from the tone in their voices Grillby could just barely make out it was a question at the edge of their voices.

"I wonder what's going on," Grillby hummed from where he sat.

"Well whatever it is, it's got people in a tizzy," Amathea frowned worriedly, "We should probably go see what's going on."

Gaster let out a world-weary sigh at the suggestion, collapsing onto the ground in protest. He glared up at the sky with a look of exaggerated exhaustion.

"But we just got here," he whined, throwing a slender arm over his face dramatically, "I want a nap and I want food!"

He ushered indignantly in Grillby's direction, earning a flicker of a smile from the elemental. Amathea rolled her eyes, smirking.

"Look! Grillby's started a fire and everything! And he's a good cook. Can't we eat first? My feet hurt and I don't want to move!"

Amathea gave the skeleton a nudge in the side with her boot, chuckling, "Aw you poor lamb! Explain to me again how something without muscles or skin can be sore, would you?"

Gaster gave her a withering glare, "You shush with your sarcasm."

The fish monster gave a hearty laugh, "Alright you whiner. Lay there and have your dinner. But if those monsters make their way over there I won't turn them away."

This seemed to satisfy Gaster. He propped himself up by the fire, content to doze until Grillby managed to cook them something. Which the elemental did try to do at least. But it took a few minutes to get anything going, and by the time he already had, the voices of the monsters searching amongst the tents were much closer. Soon they were stumbling right into them, disheveled and a bit out of breath from traveling along the line of warriors. It was a cat-like monster that approached them, eyes dark and tired from a long day. She brightened almost instantly when she walked over to the fire.

"Oh! You must be Doctor Gaster!" she said with a sigh of relief. Gaster startled when he heard his name, sitting up to fix the girl in a questioning sort of glare.

"Uhm… depends who's asking?"

"We've been looking for you!" she said quickly, unfazed by his wilting sarcasm, "Well… we were looking for doctors specifically... But one of the monsters near the front said you healed a fallen down monster a while ago. They told us to look for you."

The ridge above Gaster's unbroken eye rose.

"We need help," she continued, "There was a nasty battle to the east, a large one. They're sending all the wounded they can here, and we're sure our doctors can't handle them all. We're asking all the doctors assigned to these units to help in the medical tents until things are under control… well as much as they can be."

Gaster frowned, a look crossed between disappointment and apology worming its way across his face. He started moving his hands to sign something - Grillby could already make out him saying no. The elemental let out a flustered spark.

"Gaster! You've got to help!"

"Firefly I would if I could," the skeleton frowned at him before turning back to the girl, "Really I would. But I don't use normal healing magic. I can't help a large group of people. I'd just get in the way."

"Lad, you once had an entire camp you helped heal," Amathea said gently, "Surely there's something you can do here."

Gaster let out an exasperated huff, scowling, "That was different! I had two, three, sometimes four assistants with me at all times. All of them high level monsters with a lot of magic. That was the only reason I could do the work I did then. By myself I can handle a handful of minor wounds, maybe keep someone from losing a limb if I'm lucky."

"What about me?" Grillby asked, earning a flustered laugh from Gaster, "I helped you with that other monster you healed. And I have way more magic than you. I didn't even use all the extra I got before the battle."

"I can help as well, Gaster, if you need it," Amathea said with what was supposed to be a reassuring grin - though it looked a bit more like a snarl, "Just say the word."

Gaster looked completely at a loss. He signed through a few partial sentences of protest, whining dismayingly as he flicked his gaze between Amathea and Grillby for a few long seconds. Finally he hissed out a breath through his clenched teeth and turned to the girl.

"If we can help, we will," he said, and the cat monster nodded gratefully before jogging off to gather any more monsters who could use some sort of healing magic. Gaster rubbed his face worriedly as she left, eyes scrunched shut in thought. After a pause he started signing quickly, fixing Grillby and Amathea in a hearty glare.

"You guys don't even know what you're signing up for," he pointed out bitterly.

"Give us the shortest version you can then," came Amathea's immediate reply, and Gaster dropped his gaze back down to his feet, thinking. He muttered something under his breath about the last camp he was in, a bit too quietly for Grillby to catch everything he said. He hummed quietly to himself for a moment, hands moving as he thought something through, and then started explaining.

"Alright, the best way I've ever worked was when I had three assistants," the skeleton began, "I had two monsters I would pull magic from, and a third who would mark my patients. Most of my work went into stabilizing falling monsters - there's a sad few healers out here who can manage the kind of magic it takes to bring a monster back from over the edge. Obviously there's only two of you…"

Gaster looked between Amathea and Grillby, "Ammy you're going to be my marker."

The fish monster nodded, ear frills twitching forward a bit as she waited for orders. Gaster gave her a quick run-through of what he was looking for - he needed her constantly combing through the monsters brought in, finding any the normal doctors couldn't handle and setting one of her blue spears beside them to show Gaster where to go next. He would pass by anyone else, focusing his attention on the monsters that needed him the most. Amathea's magic stood strong even when she walked a distance away from it - a skill few monsters could keep a handle on well. She was perfect for the running task.

Then there was Grillby, Gaster's storehouse of magic that would be used during his healing. As the skeleton discussed this part, there was a bitter steal of seriousness in his voice, and he kept Grillby locked in a steady glare. He explained as best he could that what he would be doing was, basically, picking apart little pieces of the elemental's soul and sewing it into the cracks of other monsters. It was going to be exhausting, possibly painful work, and came at a decent amount of risk for Grillby's own soul and HP. After all, taking too much of any monster's magic could end in disaster.

"Not that I'd ever put you in any danger," Gaster managed as reassuringly as he possibly could, though Grillby was already turning shades of nervous green, "But working with this kind of magic is like playing with fire. You have to do it cautiously. So we're going to set up a system. Okay?"

The elemental nodded slowly, "What did you have in mind?"

"I need a trick, something small and easy to do but takes some concentration," Gaster summoned a small spinning attack into the air beside his moving hands; it flickered vibrant blue with measured intent, "Like this. And when I ask you to, you're going to do it for me. Every time I ask, firefly."

Before Grillby could even think of a response to that Gaster was going on, his voice vehement and stern, "And you listen to me Grillby. When I tell you to do something, you do it. You don't ask me questions and you don't hesitate, alright? If I tell you we're moving on, we're moving on. And for heaven's sakes, if I tell you you're done, you're done. And you tell me if you start losing HP, or feel wrong in any way. It's useless trying to help other monsters if you're killing yourself, alright?"

"Alright."

Gaster huffed a heavy sigh, somehow managing to look both relieved and tense at the same time, "Good. Okay. Now let's work out that attack…"


An hour later the three of them were jogging across the camp to the healing tents, Grillby casting pensive looks into the distance where a train of wagons had rumbled into view. Before them, winged monsters of all sorts carried the more severely wounded in, rushing to get them to safety. Already they were diving into the healing tents, dropping off their passengers before flurrying off again to grab more. By the time Grillby and the others made it to the tents themselves, they were already nearly full to bursting, the first of the wagons pulling in and unloading their wounded. Gaster entered, a strange sort of blank expression washing across his face and he took in a bracing breath.

Inside the tents was chaos. Grillby had never been in the healing tents after a battle before - he'd never needed to be. He'd never been the sort of wounded that needed treatment, the worst he'd ever suffered from being a mild case of magical exhaustion that came from a long fight. He'd seen death, he'd seen monsters dying.

This was different.

There were monsters lined up in rows on cots and, when those ran out, the floor. They were moaning and crying. Some laughed hysterically, some shook as they sunk into physical or mental shock. Some few screamed, while others lay unconscious or nearly there, gazes vacant and glazed over. And everywhere there was the stench of leaking magic, blood and the coating sand-like smell of dust that stained the inside of the nose and mouth and filtered through the air as doctors and nurses rushed back and forth through the mess of wounded bodies. It was a smell that was uncannily gritty and hard, like neglect and forgetfulness. Already some of the cots were being emptied, monsters having succumbed to their wounds in the short time they'd been lifted to safety and crumbling away before any other monster could help them. Meanwhile doctors and nurses stumbled from monster to monster. Some operated on physical wounds, holding down and sewing together thrashing bodies while others poured green into bleeding or broken wounds. Some of the doctors wore grisly hooked masks, a soft bundle of herbs inside saving them from the angry smells of death and dying in the tent.

Grillby felt his insides twist as the sight, the smell rocked across him in waves. His core, his soul shivered and he felt sick. He was barely aware of Gaster putting a wraith-like hand on the small of his back.

"Don't stare," he whispered, forcing the elemental to pay attention to the lowered voice instead of the chaotic noise ahead of him, "Put your eyes on the floor if you have to. And for heaven's sakes keep breathing as steadily as you can. You can't pass out."

The elemental managed an estranged nod, gaze dropping slowly to the floor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Amathea set her jaw and storm forward. She took off at a run, dodging neatly around flittering nurses and doctors and lifting spears into existence near the heads of every dying monster she saw. Spears shivered into life, short pauses marking the intervals at which Amathea paused to inspect the monsters before her before moving on.

Gaster's eyes swept across the room, narrowing at a pair of monsters nearby who were quite obviously out of place. They were soldiers, one a tall and thin dragon-like monster and the other a shorter demon-esque with daintily curling horns. They were dressed in the emblem of the king and light chainmail - standing out starkly against the fluttering black cloaks of the doctors and nurses that hurried past. They stood huddled close together, shock and dismay widening their eyes and setting a shudder through their bodies. Gaster was storming over to them in an instant, Grillby barely managing to remember himself enough to numbly follow.

"You two!" the skeleton barked, yanking startled jumps from the huddling monsters, "This isn't a waiting room. If you're not unloading wounded you need to leave."

The demon-monster was the first to speak up, dragging herself slowly from the stupor of her surroundings, "We were summoned here by one of the nurses. They were asking for anyone with green."

Gaster looked between the two warily, "You both use green?"

"Never for… this…" the dragon said hoarsely, his voice shuddering faintly, "But yes… we can."

In a sweeping gesture, Gaster wrapped his long arms around the two of their necks, surprising them both as he began leading them along to the nearest blue spear.

"Well what are you standing around for?!" he said with a sarcastic sort of brightness at the edge of his voice, "There's monsters that need that magic of yours."

He released them in front of the first monster, ushering quickly for Grillby to join him at the poor creature's side. The mouse-monster was unconscious, leaking a sickly mix of magic and blood into a pool on the floor. Grillby gulped down a growing need to vomit as he stepped in it. In an instant Gaster had yanked out a glowing cord from Grillby's soul, sending another wave of nausea and discomfort through the jittering elemental. Meanwhile the two monsters Gaster had roped along with him stood watching in the kind of morbid horror and curiosity that tugged childishly at their attention.

"You two have names?" Gaster asked, his voice lilting into a fake sort of casual.

"Thea," it was the demon girl who spoke first, before pointing to the dragon, "And this is Merek."

"Doctor Gaster," the skeleton introduced himself with a tense grin, his gaze never leaving the soul he worked on, "So you two have never worked in a medicine tent before huh? That's unfortunate. But workable I think. Just listen closely."

Gaster finished his sewing up of the cracks in the monster's soul well before he had with the dog monster that Grillby had helped him with before. The nasty wound still adorned the creature's body, oozing threateningly though much less than before. Gaster took Thea by the shoulders and stood her closer to the wound.

"Alright, put your green there," he instructed, waiting for her to do as he said obediently before continuing, "You pour everything you've got into that until it's small enough to bandage, alright? Then you call a nurse. It's their job to finish the physical stuff like that."

Thea nodded, frowning and glaring at her work with growing resolve as the wound began healing.

"Do you know what magical exhaustion feels like?"

She shook her head.

"Okay, you're going to start feeling weak," Gaster explained, "Shaky probably. And nauseous - more than you probably already do, if you're anything like I was the first time I walked into a mess like this. You might start seeing things moving in the corner of your eyes, and it will start getting really hard to concentrate on your magic, or make it move like it's supposed to. When that happens, you call a nurse. They'll get someone to take your place, or at least get some food and rest into you before throwing you back in. Now, when you're done here you move onto the next spear and start healing, understand?"

She nodded to him one more time. Without further question, Gaster grabbed Merek by the wrist and dragged him off to the next spear. Grillby followed a step behind them, flickering nervously. Gaster hadn't bothered to let his soul sink back into its normal place - the precious seconds it would take to summon it back again to work with were seconds that could be spent healing someone else. Even still, Grillby didn't imagine he'd get used to the exposed feeling any time soon.

With practiced care Gaster mirrored his previous work on the next monster, speaking in soft tones to Merek as he re-explained what he'd just told Thea. The dragon monster was shakier than his partner, hands shuddering and a grimace fixed across his face as he began healing. But after a few seconds of work, Gaster deemed the monster good enough to leave on his own and jogged off to the next spear, Grillby in tow.

The elemental watched his friend work, trying to find some livable medium between disgust at the wounds he was introduced to and the obnoxious pulling on his soul that came from Gaster's magic. Every monster they worked on was in horrible shape, all of them too far gone for normal green magic to heal them - not until Gaster stabilized their souls. Many of them or unconscious, a few of them crumbling away already by the time they got there. Once or twice they passed cots that were marked but only contained a pile of dust. These made Grillby feel the worst, his soul twisting in ever-tightening knots. There were some patients that needed held still, stuck somewhere between delirium and nightmare from the wounds inflicted on them, too terrified to realize the monsters hovering over them were trying to help. Grillby helped with these as best he could, clamping strong hands down on thrashing arms as Gaster summoned his extra pairs of hands to cling to the legs and shoulders to hold them still. By the time Gaster was finished with them, they were sound enough to recognize the creatures around them, and stammered breathless thank you's and apologies.

The longer they worked, the more exhausted Grillby began feeling. The bitter tugging Gaster's magic caused started feeling less and less like a tug and more and more like a pain, first dull and aching like a bruise but then rapidly growing sharp as they walked from monster to monster. There always seemed to be another spear waiting for them, three springing into the air for every one monster they helped. Though the feeling of nausea Grillby had felt was starting to fade away - that was good news right? Maybe?

Was there even such a thing as good news anymore?

As they progressed through the monsters, Gaster constantly asked Grillby questions. His voice was a strange mingling of reserved and casual, alien in the chaos of panic and pain that echoed around them from the wounded monsters.

"How long ago were you summoned, Grillby?"

"Sometime last year. Near the end of winter."

"Have you ever seen it snow?"

"A couple times. I could never get too close to it though. It's not like rain - it all tends to fizzle out before I can reach it I guess."

"Show me that attack we worked on."

"Alright."

Grillby lost count of the number of times Gaster asked him to summon that tiny attack. It was nothing special really, just a fist-sized wheel of fire that Grillby willed into being. He made it spin in his hand three times before dispelling it again. And each time he summoned it, Gaster would give him a searching look, and then a nod, and they would move on.

Augh! Grillby's chest was really starting to hurt. How many monsters had they helped? Had he ever been keeping track? He felt like that was something he should be keeping track of. They were three rows in now, but he had no idea how many monsters they'd healed and how many they'd passed by. That always left a sour flicker in his flame - passing monsters by. They weren't dying, which seemed to be Gaster's one reigning stipulation for helping anyone. Of course, that meant those monsters could still be healed with green, which was good. But they didn't know what Gaster was doing. They didn't know how his magic worked.

As they cried and begged for help, all they saw was a doctor walking away.

"Hey Grillby, how long ago were you summoned?"

"Uh… Last year. I guess."

"You remember what time of year it was?"

"Well I remember snow so… winter."

"Huh, snow's pretty awesome. It's about the only thing I like about winter time. Though doesn't that get nasty with you being an elemental?"

"I'm… pretty sure it doesn't work the same as rain."

"You'll have to tell me about how it works sometime. First though, show me that attack again, will you?"

The pain in his chest was getting distracting now, shooting outward away from his soul in pins and needles across his core. If Grillby had teeth, he was sure he'd be grinding them together. As it was now, it took a mighty amount of concentration to keep from groaning every time Gaster started yanking away at him again. Shuffling over to a new monster was a chore of movement that stretched seconds into years, and it was all Grillby could do not to hunch over and grab his chest. He'd almost slipped into a shock of a stupor of his own when a shimmering sort of magic yanked his awareness away from his own pain and back to the world around him. He looked up at the strange, familiar sort of newness with a bleary-eyed gaze, surprise creeping into him when he laid eyes on Amathea several rows away from him.

He watched her as she knelt down beside a small dog-monster. The creature's muzzle moved in cries of pain that Grillby couldn't hear across the distance, but he could already tell the monster was shuddering apart, their form hazy as they began collapsing to dust. Or was that Grillby's vision going weird? He… couldn't really tell anymore. Amathea looked across to Grillby and Gaster, a world-weary, exhausted look falling across her face when she realized the two of them wouldn't make it over to help the monster in time. The commander leaned in close to the falling monster, lips moving slowly close to the creature's ear. There was a soft haze of magic, and the creature's whimpering stilled. They passed into dust as softly as one might fall asleep. Amathea paused there for a moment, her whole body wilting as she gazed down at the pile of dust. Then she hauled herself back to her feet and dashed off again, setting up more spears in her wake.

Grillby winced. Gaster was tugging him to his feet - when had he started kneeling? - and asking him questions again. The elemental heaved a sigh and answered them, stumbling along beside the skeleton as he lead him to the next glowing spear. He was summoned a year ago. Snow was involved. He didn't care how it was different from rain. What was that thing he was supposed to be showing Gaster?

Chapter Text

“Grillby. Hey, you still with me?”

The elemental blinked slowly. When had they gotten over here? Had they really worked their way through all of those rows? All the monsters and faces and wounds were blurring together into some strange cloud outside his consciousness. He didn’t even really feel like he was in his own body anymore… how long had Gaster been trying to get his attention? He hadn’t blacked out or anything had he? Come to think of it, Grillby couldn’t exactly remember the last few minutes of time. There was just a bit of empty fuzziness in his memory.

How long had he even been here? It… felt like days.

“Firefly!” Gaster snapped a pair of bony fingers in front Grillby’s face, and the elemental refocused on the skeleton with a sluggishness that felt like he was moving through syrup.

“Sorry,” Grillby mumbled, though it was so soft it was lost to the sound around him.

Gaster wrapped him in a searching glare before demanding sharply, “Make the attack.”

A realization crept through Grillby like a slow trickle of sand through an hourglass and he gave a halting, reluctant flicker.

“I’m... fine.”

Grillby.”

Under normal circumstances, Grillby figured he would be scrambling to do as he was told in time to assure the skeleton that he could, in fact, keep working. But… he could feel inside him that he couldn’t. There was just a feeling of empty where his magic should be. He wasn’t completely exhausted - if that were the case he likely wouldn't be able to hold a form any more. But he was starting to realize the world was swimming faintly in his vision, and the pain in his chest was intense but somehow forgettable against his mounting exhaustion, as if he’d managed to detach himself from it.

“I don’t think I can.”

Grillby’s voice rumbled through his throat like a mix of sand and gravel, the words spilling clumsily out of him sounding nothing short of tired and confused. He was just so tired. His body felt unnaturally heavy, his mind strangely apart from it and blank. It was an effort to concentrate on his friend’s face as Gaster frowned - not out of disappointment but out of worry. There was a strange grip on Grillby’s soul as the skeleton searched his stats, concerning himself with just how much magic he’d taken out of the elemental, and smirking with relief when he realized Grillby’s stats were intact.

“Alright, time for you to get some rest,” Gaster said with a tired sigh of his own. It took a moment for Grillby to register just how exhausted the skeleton himself looked. At this point his dark robes were spattered in blood and magic, dust peppering the disheveled fabric along the hems of his sleeves and by his ankles. His face was strangely drawn, the lights of his eyes dim within the darkness of his sockets, and he hunched a bit as if his spine no longer had the strength to stand him straight anymore. Grillby gave a weak flicker of concern.

“Shouldn’t you be resting too?”

Gaster shook his head, “No, I’ve got more work to do.”

“But… you can’t heal anyone else on your own.”

He couldn’t right? Honestly Grillby was a little too tired to remember, and too confused to try. The entire event had become a garbled mess in his head, and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t focus hard enough to remember anything past it. His thoughts kept getting eaten up by a weary sort of buzzing exhaustion in his mind, lost in a fog as soon as he thought of them.

“I won’t be healing,” the skeleton said tiredly, his hands barely managing to keep time with his voice as he signed out his sentences half-heartedly, “But I can help some of the nurses with bandaging and cleaning wounds, and setting bones and things like that.”

Grillby blinked slowly, taking a minute to comprehend the sentence before saying, “But… you’re exhausted.”

Gaster’s face split in a warm grin, and he gave a soft chuckle, “Not as much as you are. Come on, go eat something and get some rest.”

He put a guiding hand on Grillby’s back and started leading him out, the elemental too tired to do more than protest quietly - and he wasn’t even sure his protests actually made it into words at this point. Through his haze he realized there wasn’t a spear in sight. Had they actually gotten to everyone, or had Amathea been forced to leave before them? He couldn’t remember seeing her in a while - though he couldn’t remember much right now anyway. The tent was also much quieter now after their hours of working. Monsters slept, some of them fitfully, recovering from the trauma of what they’d been through. Some still needed further healing, and nurses and doctors tended to these with the same shambling exhaustion that Grillby felt. A few of them looked fresher, likely having taken their rests earlier in the night so they could help those who hadn’t had a chance to rest later. The floor was still a mess of waste and dust, the smells of it all having burned themselves out in Grillby’s senses hours ago. But in spite of it all, so many monsters were still alive.

After he’d had some rest, Grillby could be thankful for that.

Gaster led Grillby a few tents over to a hastily set up cooking tent. He sat him down there to eat, not leaving his side as he did so, hovering with a faintly concealed worry. The thick stew was barely a drop into what now felt like an empty reservoir where Grillby’s magic should be, but at least it steadied his tilting vision a bit. With a little less to distract him, Grillby was reminded of that aching in his soul, and he let out a soft groan as the dull, bruise-like pulse started radiating across his chest. Gaster blinked at him with concern.

“Are you alright?”

Grillby managed a slow shake of his head, “Everything sucks.”

The skeleton chuckled at this, smiling tiredly, “Well yeah, I could’ve told you that.”

His smile shrunk a bit, “You’re looking pretty dim there firefly. What’s wrong?”

“Everything.”

Gaster smirked and gave a long-suffering sigh, “Anything wrong with you specifically?”

The elemental did his best to shrug, giving a wince of a flicker as he did so, “I’m tired. And my soul hurts.”

Gaster nodded, his gaze sharpening into something more concentrated, “Sounds about right. Stabbing pain or aching pain?”

“Aching,” Grillby mumbled, “And it keeps spreading out across my core.”

“Where to?”

“Just on my chest and shoulders.”

Gaster gave another nod, “Has your HP changed at all?”

“Nope.”

The skeleton hummed a soft tune under his breath, thinking. Grillby gave a weak laugh.

“Are you diagnosing me, doctor?” he asked with as much humor as he could manage to muster into his voice. It was hard to sound funny when you felt too tired to form a proper sentence. Gaster still caught it though and chuckled back.

“Oh please. I can see your symptoms from a mile away,” his smile waned a bit, “Just wondering if I should’ve stopped you sooner is all. I mean, my assistants have complained about pain before. It’s the shooting part that worries me. I should probably check your soul for cracks.”

Grillby flickered a smirk, “Sounds like you’re not going to though.”

Gaster raised the ridge above his unbroken eye, “Well I was just working with your soul. I figure I would’ve noticed something then.”

The skeleton yawned and stretched, slowly making his way to his feet. He fetched Grillby another bowl of stew, checking the elemental’s stats again while he ate and fussing quietly over how much or little he was hurting. When he was sure Grillby wouldn’t be collapsing on his walk back to their tent, he let him go, retreating back into the healing tent with a bracing sigh. It took some bitter reasoning with himself before Grillby managed to haul himself to his feet and begin the long stumble home. He was grateful the world didn’t pitch whenever he took a step - though he still felt unbearably empty and drained.

It was the middle of the night now. The moon was high above his head, proclaiming brightly just how long Grillby had been submerged in the mess of wounded. It was going to be a long night for the doctors and nurses still working. As the elemental walked, he grazed by the dying fires lit by other soldiers in the camp, scooping them into himself when he came across portions of the camp that were already fast asleep. They’d probably be baffled about it in the morning, but at the moment all Grillby cared about was filling the exhausted void and easing the ache in his chest.

By the time he reached his tent, his aching had dulled and he felt a little more revived - at least enough to feel like a living monster instead some kind of walking dead thing. He was surprised to see a decently-sized fire burning when he arrived, and Amathea still awake. She had found herself a place to sit on the ground, her head propped up tiredly in her hand and her elbow balanced on her knee. She looked nothing short of miserable, frowning forlornly into the dancing flames. Her ear frills twitched when she heard him, and she flashed him a tired smile through tangled hair that was coming undone from her braid to fall in her face.

“Welcome back tinderbox.”

Grillby sat down heavily beside her, “Glad to be back. And glad to be done… for now at least.”

“Gaster’s still working I take it?”

Grillby nodded tiredly, and Amathea sighed.

“That boy’s a miracle when he wants to be,” she said quietly, “How many monsters would’ve died today if he wasn’t here?”

She smirked and nudged her shoulder into Grillby’s, “And you giving him the magic to help all those people.”

Grillby flickered humbly, “I didn’t do a thing.”

“Tell that to the dozens of monsters still breathing in there,” Amathea said, her voice soft and tired, “You’ve done a mighty thing today Grillby. Not all victories are carved with steel and dust, you know.”

The elemental nodded, letting the thought sink in. What they’d done, what Gaster had done, really it was miraculous. The magic Gaster could do was new and groundbreaking, and a wonder on its own. And it had taken nothing short of a powerful elemental to charge it into a mighty tool. Of course, it was a struggle for Grillby to think of himself as truly powerful - there had to be dozens of elementals out there mightier than he was. But he was the most powerful monster in the camp, possibly for camps miles around. Even if he felt shaky and sick now, it was worth it knowing what he’d helped accomplish.

“You were a wonder yourself you now,” Grillby smiled, “I mean, honestly we’d probably have been lost without you.”

Amathea’s gaze dropped to her feet, that forlorn expression reclaiming her features.

“You okay, Ammy?”

“Honestly tinderbox, I’m not rightly sure,” she sighed, frowning, “I wasn’t prepared for that.”

Grillby nodded solemnly, remembering the shock it had been walking into the tent and being assaulted by the sights, sounds, smells. The horror of it all had almost been overwhelming, only the distraction caused by Gaster’s work keeping his mind grounded. If it hadn’t been for that constant tugging on his soul snapping up his attention, he probably would’ve gone into some kind of horrified shock from it all. He’d never seen that side of war before.

“That was new to you too huh?”

“Aye. Last time I was in the thick of that mess, I was the one getting worked on,” Amathea’s lips twisted into a bitter sort of half-snarl, “I was too far gone to really know what was happening back then, but not this time. That was all a bit of a shock. And there was Gaster, walking about as casually as if he’d been there all his life. I’d love to know how he manages to cope with all that.”

Amathea scowled, blinking despondently into the fire, “Monsters died in there, Grillby. I mean, I’ve seen monsters die before. I understand it just happens, that there’s nothing I can do about it sometimes. But they were so close to making it. They were right there.”

She reached her hand out towards nothing, fingers grasping at something that didn’t exist, “If there had just been some way to help them hold on, to hold all their pieces together until someone could get to them…”

Amathea sighed, letting her arm fall back to rest on her knee again, “It’s not fair, Grillby.”

For a long while, neither of them said anything. Amathea was collapsing slowly into herself, her thoughts distracted by what she’d just seen. Grillby had never seen her looking so small. He… actually couldn’t remember a time he’d seen her so distraught over anything. She was always so zealous and wild, strong willed and proud. She carried herself with the confidence of someone who commanded giants. This wasn’t the Amathea he was used to. This Amathea was tired and sad, and crumbling a little on the inside - and a little intimidating because of it.

Though if he were completely honest with himself, Grillby had to admit there was a growing tenseness humming through him, his own emotions slowly tilting themselves out of place. What he’d been too tired to rightly remember was slowly creeping up on him, like the cool drop in temperature in the shadow of a building storm. As the silence stretched between them, it twisted in his gut like an icy knife and set his fire in miserable hues of purple and red.

“I uh… saw you singing,” Grillby said quietly, trying one last effort to distract himself from the twisting emotions. The fish monster gave a dismal nod.

“Aye. It… probably wasn’t my place to do that,” she said slowly, “But Gaster was busy, and even if he wasn’t, I doubt he would have made it over to help that poor creature before…”

She ushered her hand in front of her in a helpless sort of gesture, as if the motion could finish the sentence for her, “She was in a lot of pain. I figured I could at least soften it a little. Make it a little more peaceful. Honestly I probably shouldn’t have intervened.”

Grillby gulped down a growing lump in his throat before murmuring, “I think it was right. I mean… if it were me in the same place… I would appreciate it.”

Amathea’s frills twitched and her gills gave a shaky flare as she took in an unsteady breath. She paused, holding her breath for a moment, and Grillby tilted his head in her direction questioningly.

“Grillby you little gobshite!” Amathea shouted suddenly, her voice an angry snarl. The elemental flinched as she made a move to smack him - she missed - before she huffed out a bitter breath through her flaring gills and buried her face as best she could in her hand.

“You don’t say things like that to people!” her voice quivered even in spite of the indignant tone in it. Grillby blinked at her rapidly, sparks flying in his surprise.

“I’m sorry! I was just - are… are you crying?!”

Amathea gave him the nastiest glare she could muster, even as she furiously wiped away tears, “Aye ya gobermouch, I’m crying! What did you expect me to do, with you spewing fool-born sentimental codswallop like that!?”

Grillby sputtered incredulously for a second, unable to form any sort of reply. Then with a crackling snort he burst out laughing, sparks shivering through the air. It made his chest hurt just from the jittering movement, but for the life of him he couldn’t stop himself. A mighty shove from Amathea sent him over on his side, and Grillby curled up there laughing and hugging his chest, and finally crying because he was laughing too hard and that hurt. Molten tears sizzled on the ground as he laughed, burning little circles into the ground before they fizzled out like sparks. Grillby could feel Amathea glowering at him even still, and it just made him want to laugh all the more.

“You - ahaha! - you’re so angry!” Grillby finally managed, a hand clutched to his chest painfully as he started to still the fitful giggles, “Because I made you cry?

He got a grumbled reply that he couldn’t really hear - though he was sure insults were involved. Finally he managed to calm down enough to sit back up, flickering a grin at her bitter and indignant frown.

“I’m sorry,” he chuckled as apologetically as he could manage, “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Yeah, well you won’t expect the punch in the gut I’m gonna give you later either,” Amathea grumbled back, though there was the faintest spark of humor in her eye, the twitch of a contained smirk at the edge of her mouth. Grillby held up his hands in a placating gesture.

“I said I was sorry. Please don’t ambush me later,” he said with a quiet chuckle, “Though, I did mean what I said, all laughing aside.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Amathea huffed, her smile finally breaking the surface of her lips to flash those bright yellow teeth in Grillby’s direction, “In eight thousand years when you finally start to flicker out, I’ll be sure to do you the favor.”

Pfff! I highly doubt I’ll live that long,” Grillby said with a crackle of sparks, “Especially if those mages have anything to say about it.”

“Oh don’t you even go there,” Amathea said, shoving Grillby playfully - and noticeably gentler than before, “You’ll jinx yourself, for one thing. But you elementals will probably outlive the rest of the world if you try hard enough. If anyone will see the end of this war, it’s going to be you.”

Grillby shot Amathea a withering smile, “I’d rather not see the end of it alone, you know.”

Amathea shrugged, “You’ll have to take that one up with fate. But I know I’m not planning on going anywhere. And neither is Gaster.”

“Good to know,” the elemental hummed.

Amathea slowly got to her feet, yawning and stretching and swaying on her heels for a moment before steadying herself again, “Well, I’m going to sleep. I was hoping to welcome Gaster back as well, but it looks like he won’t be turning in anytime soon. You should get some sleep too, tinderbox.”

Grillby nodded after her as she shambled into their tent. He took his time absorbing the fire Amathea had built before finally hauling himself to his feet and following after her. He collapsed onto the ground in the tent, making himself as comfortable as he possibly could before dousing his flame and willing himself to sleep.

Grillby didn’t know how much time had passed before a shuffling outside woke him up. His senses took a moment to drag their way into awareness - enough time for the shuffling outside to make its way inside. Gaster stumbled into the tent, taking one sweeping look around to remember he hadn’t had time to set up his bed before he’d left to work on the wounded monsters. He settled on plopping face-down on the ground beside Grillby. The elemental gave a flustered spark when the bitter smell of dust and magic washed over him.

“Gaster why?” Grillby whined in a childish whisper, turning over on his side to face away from the skeleton.

“Oh deal with it,” Gaster’s voice mumbled back at him, muffled against the fabric of his sleeves as he pillowed his arms beneath his chin, “You don’t smell like rose water yourself.”

Grillby let out an irritable crackle, a few sparks sputtering tiredly as he did so. He dimmed his fire a bit, hoping to get a little more sleep before the sun rose - however soon that had to be at this point.

“You know, for all that mess, I think I know what happens next now,” Gaster sighed quietly; his voice a hoarse and exhausted whisper.

“What are you talking about?”

“There were about as many monsters suffering in there from burns and frostbite as there was from flesh wounds,” Gaster elaborated.

“Frostbite?”

“Nasty damage that happens when your body gets too cold,” Gaster hummed under his breath tiredly, “Makes your skin turn black.”

Grillby blinked confusedly before rolling over to face the skeleton, his fire lilting into confused colors, “But it’s not cold enough for that, not this early in autumn at least.”

Gaster raised the ridge above his eye, frowning a silent question in the elemental’s direction. Grillby hissed out a bitter breath.

“Magic?”

Strong magic, probably from our other mage,” Gaster sighed, burying his face in his arms, “And ten gold says they’re gonna be pissed when they find out what happened to their friend - if they aren’t already.”

“Sounds like loads of fun,” Grillby said with a low grown, turning onto his back to try and fall asleep again.

“Let’s just hope ‘loads of fun’ doesn’t happen until we want it to,” came the skeleton’s bitter reply. Grillby didn’t bother answering back.

Chapter Text

The next week sprawled out before them hitching and hazy. For Grillby it was a strange mix of highs and lows, where he spent his louder, people filled moments feeling at relative ease while his quieter moments were filled with a strange sort of empty. The fiasco in the medical tent had chipped away a bit more at him than he’d figured it would, and a hanging cloud of memory at its events seemed to hover over his shoulder persistently. It tangled with Amathea’s words about how unfair it all seemed, and made his world seem a little more dismal than it had before. It didn't help that Gaster spent almost every waking moment back in the medical tents tending to the wounded. Whenever Grillby even thought of the place he felt a shudder go through his core and a phantom smell of dust ghost-like in the air around him.

With Gaster working and Amathea already busying herself with finding their next destination, Grillby was often finding himself alone. Though the silence gave him a chance to recover his magic, so he supposed he could find a bright side even in this if he had to.

Grillby passed his time training - which was a lot more boring when done alone - and sewing on the project he'd started what now felt like eons ago. Begrudgingly he broke down and asked for some advice from Amathea, who chuckled at him but took a few minutes to help him along. She was fairly decent at sewing apparently, though she required a little assistance with making sure the fabric was held in the right place while she worked.

The morning Grillby put the finishing touches on it was the morning Amathea and the other commanders found their new heading - a site to the North West where a large army was advancing. According to the ghosts scattered across the area, there was a mage among them that was leading their advances, the imposing size of the army and might of the magician making short work of most forces in their path. Several smaller monster armies had been forced to retreat and converge further south, and messengers had been sent out for reinforcements and, if possible, an elemental. They were to be packed and on their way immediately, and Grillby was sent to retrieve Gaster before they moved out. There was no time to lose.

Grillby shuddered when he entered those healing tents again. It was a lot emptier inside now, many of the monsters having recovered after the nearly constant work of the doctors in the camp. Some still slept on cots or lay boredly waiting for help, arms or legs held with splints and slings as the slow process of healing broken bones took place. Even with green magic helping, some things took more time than others to fix. It took a few seconds to pick out which of the dark-robed figures hovering over patients in the room was Gaster.

The elemental picked his way gingerly through the maze of cots and monsters, sometimes exchanging a nod or pleasant word offered to him by nurses or doctors as he passed them by. When he found Gaster he stopped short, fire lilting into confused and distressed colors.

The skeleton was working on someone. Grillby could see the delicate magical cord joining both Gaster’s and the monster’s souls together. Shortly to the left of Gaster sat a monster, shoulders hunched and head bowed brokenly. There was the subtlest hitch in their breath that told Grillby they were crying. Gaster said something quietly to them in a hushed voice, and with a silent nod they left, brushing past the elemental in their hurry. Grillby watched them dash out of the tent, his fire colored confused and dismayed. When he turned back to Gaster, the monster he’d been working on was gone, the cot they’d been lying on now lined with a fine layer of dust.

Gaster heaved out a tense sigh before drawing himself up and turning away from the sight before him. He paused when he saw Grillby, blinking a few times in surprise, before finally moving towards him.

“Did Ammy send you over here to get me?” Gaster asked in a low voice.

Grillby nodded, “Uh… do you need me to come back later?”

Gaster was already moving past him though, and with one last glance back at the dusty cot Grillby followed. Outside, the skeleton heaved in a deep breath, re-centering himself.

“You okay Gaster?”

“As okay as I can be,” Gaster responded, a weary smile curling across his face, “I’m definitely ready for a break though. And a nap. A nap sounds fantastic.”

Grillby blinked at the skeleton in muted surprise, “You sure you’re alright? After that?”

Gaster shrugged.

“Can I ask what happened?”

Gaster whistled a harsh noise out through his teeth before signing slowly, “There wasn’t anything left I could do.”

He paused, thinking for a moment before continuing, “There wasn’t anything physically wrong with them - if there was I could have fixed it. But what they had was more like a sickness of the soul. It was lowering all of their stats slowly over time until eventually there just wasn’t anything left. When a monster falls like that, there’s nothing I can do. There isn’t enough left of the soul for me to heal without completely rebuilding it - and I’m not even sure if that’s possible to do.”

“That’s terrible,” Grillby said quietly, “What kind of sickness can even do that?”

Gaster splayed his hands out in front of him helplessly before saying, “They lost hope Grillby.”

Grillby felt a flicker of surprise and confusion glance through him. But just as quickly as he felt it, it washed away. It made sense for a sickness like that to exist. Monster bodies were very deeply connected with their souls, so much so that any damage to one could affect the other. If the soul decided it couldn’t go on, what was there to stop the body from just unraveling into dust?

“I’m not used to seeing it, honestly,” Gaster sighed, “In the refugee camp I worked in, monsters were always fleeing to safety. They were looking ahead to protection or freedom, to something better. It was very few and far in between that I ever ran into a monster that had lost all hope. Here though… some of these monsters have been fighting for years. Some of them don’t think it’s worth it anymore. Some of them can’t see any end to the suffering that’s going on here. Monsters that have fallen down like this, there’s nothing I can do to fix them. I can heal a lot of things, but unfortunately the will to live isn’t one of them.”

Grillby gave a thoughtful nod before asking again, “... and you’re sure you’re okay?”

To this, Gaster shrugged, “Honestly Grillby, it’s very hard to feel true grief for a monster you’ve never met. I’m sad I couldn’t help, and I’m sorry for the monsters that have to live through the loss. But there’s not much more I can feel for them.”

Grillby nodded, finally letting Gaster lead them away. Gaster’s answer didn’t set right with him. There was a wrongness in how apathetic it seemed. Grillby heaved a soft sigh - that was probably why he’d never be a doctor. Even besides the fact that Grillby couldn’t use green, there was no way he could distance himself enough from the deaths that inevitably happened, or the monsters left behind to grieve for them. Gaster was a lot stronger than the elemental was in that aspect at least.

Gaster let out a soft chuckle as he walked, a bitter smile lighting up his features, “You think Ammy will let me change clothes before we leave? I smell like hospital tent.”

With a jolt and a flicker, Grillby started shuffling through his inventory, “I actually might be able to help with that…”

After a moment or two of rifling around in his inventory slots - why did he have so many of those anyway? - Grillby proudly produced what he’d been working on for so long. It was a long robe not unlike the ones Gaster normally wore, a dark black in color with a lighter grey sash that could be tied across the waist. The most notable feature though, unique to this robe, was that there were a pair of pockets sewn into the fabric at the sides where Gaster’s hands would fall. The skeleton blinked at this in surprise for a moment, before smiling and equipping the new garment. It fell across him a little loosely - they might have to ask Amathea to help them tailor it a bit eventually.

Gaster looked down at the pockets, a question in the expression on his face, “Any particular reason why those are there?”

“Well, Ammy’s always trying to get you to stop talking with your hands while you’re fighting,” Grillby said with an apprehensive flicker, “And I thought since you couldn’t really break the habit, that maybe if you had someplace to put your hands…?”

As he spoke, Gaster slipped his hands into his pockets, looking down at this novel idea and marveling at the thought put behind it. His eyes lit up in the bruised purple color of his magic, and bone attacks crackled to life in the air around him. The skeleton’s arms twitched as he tried to keep his hands still in his pockets, but whatever silent command he gave the attacks still executed itself as naturally as if he’d been signing. They spun and then slammed into the ground at Gaster’s feet, disappearing with a crackling fizzle of spent magic.

The skeleton gave a broad grin, “Grillby, this is great! I mean, it’ll take some getting used to but… this helps. This helps a lot.”

Gaster’s grin twisted mischievously, “And now I’ll kick your butt when we spar!”

Grillby chuckled, shoving the skeleton playfully in the shoulder, “As if.”

Laughing quietly amongst themselves, the mood between them lightening slightly, the two made their way back to camp - and to an impatient Amathea who had already torn apart and packed their tent and was ushering them faster on their way.

The new march they embarked on was undertaken as quickly as possible, the tone infinitely more serious. They moved in a stiff and hurried march, leaving behind the supply trains that followed at the slow constant pace the oxen could keep. At the speed they moved, what would be a week or more’s walk for the oxen they might even manage in a few days - especially since they no longer had to navigate animals and carts through trees or down hills. Their driving objective was reaching the other armies before the humans could pin them down and destroy them.

There was something in the way the commanders urged the armies faster, something in the rush in the air that told Grillby the coming battle was going to be an important one. Something about where it was located, and how fast they needed to get there to make sure the site didn’t fall. Though the only thing he could discern on his own without a map and a head for planning was that they were uncomfortably far south. These humans were a force to reckon with if they’d manage to move the entire front line back.

They were so close now. Scouts were spotting signs of battle. They could smell magic and smoke in the air. The tangled mass of monsters that spread out as they marched were organized into rank and file, with Amathea’s little company unnervingly close to the front. Of course, this was the safest place for Grillby to be. They further in the front he was, the easier it was to keep his fire hitting the humans instead of the monsters standing around him. What he worried about was Gaster. Amathea was a commander. She’d stood on the front lines before. But Gaster had already said he’d never been a part of a real battle before. With a nervous flicker, Grillby decided he would have to keep an eye on him as best he could during the chaos of what was going to happen next.

Chapter Text

Grillby knelt crouched between a pair of trees, his flame cast as low as he could manage it as he waited for Amathea to give the signal. To his right, Gaster knelt beside him, a skeletal hand gripping the elemental's shoulder as if it could reassure him. It clawed nervously at his armor, but Grillby knew better than to ask Gaster to move it, not now while there was nothing to distract him from the feeling of dread building in the air. Behind them both, Grillby could hear the soft crunching and scuffling as the rest of the army shifted nervously, waiting for the other commanders down the line to give their final order. They were just beneath the crest of a hill, hidden from view in the thick trees that rimmed its surface. On the other side of it, the battle they'd been meant to intercept had already begun. They were late.

But their lateness did afford them an opportunity - an opportunity Amathea and the other commanders intended to exploit. The humans had no idea they were en route. They wouldn't know they existed until the new army was swooping down on top of them. That was what they were setting up now. As the shouts and clashes of battle rung muffled in the distance before them, and the smell of magic and smoke pervaded the air, the commanders enacted their one last scheme before joining the fray. They had gathered up every ice-using monster in the shambling force, instructing them in making a slow creep of frigid magic. It poured down into the valley below in a slow creep that glazed over the grass, just barely visible as a shimmering coating in the midday sun.

A whistle sounded low up ahead and Grillby snapped his head towards it. Amathea was loping over to him, her body stooped low just in case someone should catch the glint of her armor over the hillside. She slid to a halt in the pine needles and dying leaves that carpeted the ground, grinning at Grillby with that golden smile.

"Ready to go tinderbox?" she asked in a harsh sort of whisper, ear frills twitching with glee, "They'll be sounding the charge in a few minutes."

"Is this really necessary?" the elemental hissed back at her with a quiet spark, "We could already be down there you know!"

Amathea let out a growl of a chuckle, "Trust me Grillby, this is worth the extra minutes. Cover will keep our momentum going."

Her face split open in an exhilarated grin, "And it'll make one hell of an entrance!"

Grillby shook his head, sparking in annoyance, "Whatever you say."

"As long as it doesn't get us killed, I'm all for it," Gaster muttered with a nervous laugh.

Amathea gave Gaster a hearty pat on the back, "You just stay close to me and Grillby. We've seen enough of this mess to get you through the other end of it. Just for heaven's sakes, don't go chasing some fool human and getting yourself trapped with a bunch of them! More good monsters fall to that mistake then I'd care to admit to."

Gaster nodded, his hand squeezing Grillby's shoulder one last time before finally letting go. He stuffed both his hands in his pockets and frowned at the crest of the hill before him. A loud thump shook the air, knocking twice into one of the trees above them. The hulking form of Brigg rose to his full height on the hilltop, the dragon's tail hitting a final knock into the tree beside him and echoing down the hillside. Amathea sprung up instantly, dashing forward.

"Everything's in place!" she chimed over her shoulder, "Let's go!"

Grillby was on his feet in an instant, following in the commander's footsteps with Gaster fast on his heels. Behind him he could hear the shift in the forest as every monster behind them did the same, orders slowly relaying themselves down the ranks. A creeping feeling of nervousness twisted its way around Grillby's core, gripping him ever tighter as he reached the crest of the hill. For a ways below him, sprawled out like pieces on a game board he could see humans and monsters battling. The line of them stretched for as far as he could see across the valley below, an undulating mass of mixing banners, creatures and magic. The sun glanced across weapons and armor, moving flashes marking the paths of the fighting. Scattered at the backs of the front lines reinforcements marched and messengers ran, relaying orders and readying to spring forward should any point across the line break. Grillby was impressed by just how many bodies were down there. Though he realized with a malcontented flicker that in the mess of people below, there was no way he could decipher if the mage he was looking for had even made an appearance yet.

Amathea motioned for Grillby to move, and the elemental nodded, switching his gaze to the grass down the side of the hilltop they stood upon. The fine layer of ice that coated it was hardly noticeable, a dew-like shimmer that was quickly melting in sunlight. The elemental sighed out a breath, sending snake-like tendrils of fire down to it, the white-hot attacks singeing the grass before meeting the cool ice and erupting into a cloud of smoke and steam. The hissing cloud cascaded into the valley, and with a final order the monsters standing on the hill moved to follow it.

Any humans who saw the cloud would have no idea the host behind it, nor what creatures helped it come into existence. They could hardly pick out the straggling figures as the last of the group began their descent to join the rest. It was a good plan, worth the wait for the extra moment of surprise where any generals of the human's armies would be unawares as to what exactly was entering the field past the creeping cloud. Grillby still thought it was a bit showy though. And it impeded everyone's vision, not just the humans' they were trying to outflank.

They were three-quarters of the way down the hill when the call was made to run, and suddenly their concealed march rolled into a forward charge. Grillby felt the wind fan his flame hotter, sparks and tendrils of it spreading in the air behind him as the nervousness in his core hardened into a rush of determination and cool acceptance. He could feel Gaster at his side, the skeleton's fleet steps keeping pace with Grillby as they charged. Just shortly ahead of him, Amathea punched a fist forward, an enthusiastic screech on her teeth, clawed fingers wrapping around one of her spears as it crackled to life. Grillby huffed out a smoking breath, fiery spear-like attacks sparking to life near his shoulders. He slipped his shield from his inventory and onto his arm just as the first human sprung into view, materializing just as their makeshift fog began to disperse.

Grillby hunched his shoulder behind his shield and crashed into the unawares human with his full momentum and weight, sending him flying to the side with a crunch of breaking bone and a startled scream. In a fluid motion the elemental pivoted around to the next he saw, sword rising into his hand and striking fiercely into the weak spot in the human's armor right where his arm met his torso. With a harsh sigh, Grillby released the flaming spears he'd been holding in reserve into the crowd before him, slamming one into a clump of warriors who had just turned to meet the new menace, the second scattering a few more. By the time his momentum began to ebb away, Grillby was in the middle of a crowd of humans, sword and spear points bristling in his direction as the startled host finally managed to turn and face the charging mass of monsters that had slammed into its side.

The bright shimmer of blue and teal blossomed to life then, Amathea's hail of spears diving from the heavens a staggering rain of armor-shattering intent that sent humans diving out of the way and lifting shields wearily above their heads. In its wake bone attacks leaped from the ground, impaling human bodies on their sharpened points as Gaster took advantage of the opening in defense that Amathea created. The skeleton kept his hands stubbornly in his pockets, a nervous smile dancing on his teeth as he skirted away from the falling sword-stroke of one of the surviving humans. With a purple flash of the skeleton's magic, Gaster had the human shattered on a dozen bones.

Grillby marched stubbornly forward, patterning parries with his shield and lunges with his sword alongside vicious fire attacks that ravaged both the creatures close to him and those he could see to shoot farther away. His whole body echoed a grim frown, his fire stoked hot enough to burn his armor in smelted reds and golds and scorch the ground he stepped on. It boiled and seared away the blood that spattered on him whenever his sword fell and stung him with the bittersweet smell it left behind. There was a tireless hum reverberating in Grillby's core, driving him step by persistent step forward. And while he worked his eyes darted back and forth between Amathea and Gaster, keeping a sharp look for if either of them stumbled or reeled from the shock of losing HP.

His friends were strong though, and for all his worries about Gaster the skeleton seemed to be holding his own. He was a flurry of movement, dancing steps that deftly evaded sword strokes and spears and a keen eye that reserved attacks only for the most opportune moments. Gaster sent as many humans to their graves as he incapacitated with clever stabs to the joints at their legs. After all, a man who fell injured was just as useless in a fight as those who fell dead. It was only a matter of making sure the wound was severe enough to keep them down.

Meanwhile Amathea was making herself a beast of a warrior, timing her attacks in crushing waves that sent humans staggering away from her, reeling and regrouping in an attempt to find safety in numbers. The few that made it through her seemingly impenetrable fortress of crackling spears were met with the grip of green magic, or the most soul-rending magical screech that Grillby had ever heard. Twice he felt the sound of it go off with a heavy concussion nearby him, and each time he glanced over bewildered to watch as whatever human Amathea had been fighting with fell back lifeless before the grip of the magic in her voice, face contorted into looks of pain and awe from the shock of the sound.

It was disheartening watching how well they moved, how viciously they fought, only to have two, three, four more humans spring up where every single one fell. The further they cut into the forces before them, the denser the army of humans became. Slowly yet surely their momentum died off, drawing their entire force into a bitter stand-still of exchanging blows and magic as the humans rebounded and fought back tooth and nail. This was when battling got trickier, when the final shock of their forward charge made way for the press of bodies and the slow grinding loss of life. This was when you had to stay conscious of your surroundings and pray that some turn in the tide of the battle didn't see you stranded amidst a sea of your enemies, alone and ready to be dusted.

It was then that the battle slowly started turning for the worse on the monster side, when their rugged standstill made way for the reinforcement troops standing behind the struggling line of humans to regroup with a plan. Grillby wouldn't have noticed it happening. He was too intent on the group of humans before him, on dashing their sword strokes away and reaching fiery attacks towards them, seeking to stagger an opening to split their ranks apart. It was Amathea, ear frills twitching and keen eyes glaring, who noticed the imperceptible shift in the way the line before her fought, shields made a little more ready and ranks closing a little tighter.

"Bowmen!" she screeched, her magic-laced voice carrying farther than any other commander Grillby had ever worked with. She instantly dropped to one knee, that magical shield of hers crackling to life as the high, shrill whistle of flying projectiles keened to life overhead. Grillby snapped his head up towards the sky, grimacing at the dark needle-thin lines that crossed each other in the sky. All down the line, humans lifted their shields to take shelter for a moment. Behind him, Grillby could hear shields and magic crackling and shifting as monsters scrambled to do the same. His gaze flicked to Gaster, the skeleton staggering back a step fearfully as his pinprick eyes locked on the flying projectiles as they traveled on their arc downward. He had a look of sheer panic plastered on his face, confused magic trying to decide how it was supposed to shield him from the coming onslaught.

Grillby jerked forward and grabbed him, clamping a hand around the skeleton's arm, throwing him to the ground and crouching beside him. The elemental hefted his shield higher, using it to shield Gaster's face and chest while the rest of his armored body stood between the falling bolts and his friend. There was a breathless pause as Grillby braced himself, before the bitter hail slammed down on top of them. Monsters behind them screamed and fell, but Grillby was too intent on holding his shield in place to bother looking back at them. His arm jarred with each arrow that pinged off his shield, his body shuddering from the impacts of the angry bolts. Those that hit his shield broke or skittered away, save for one that managed lodge itself shakily in the dents caused by the others. The tip of it stabbed bitterly at Grillby's hand through the back of the shield itself. A few more heavy hits jabbed themselves into Grillby's molten body, piercing through his chainmail with all the intent of the humans behind them. He stuttered out a sharp gasp as they punched into his core.

"Grillby?!" Gaster hissed, eyes darting nervously around at the arrows decorating the elemental into a molten pincushion. Grillby rolled his eyes.

"Oh I'm fine," the elemental spat past a shudder as he clamored to his feet, "That just feels so uncomfortable."

Gaster stumbled to his feet after him, a nervous grin on his teeth, "Well uncomfortable is better than dead I guess."

There was a lingering, panicky sort of worry clinging to the edge of Gaster's smile, and Grillby struggled not to scoff at it. He was an elemental for heaven's sakes! And the arrows sure weren't made of ice or water.

"If you two ladies are done chatting about the weather!" Amathea shouted at them, bringing their attention back to the present. She'd dropped her green magic, and with what remained of their line she was backing up, regrouping amongst the injured and dusted monsters caught in the hailstorm of arrows.

"Gaster! Target practice!" she ordered, pointing with her spear in a vague direction ahead to their right, "Grillby get ready to follow it up! We need to take out those archers before they throw another volley!"

"Right!" the two of them shouted in unison before scrambling into action. Gaster threw a hand out, directing the slow buildup of magic as it curled around him and piece by piece opened around his body in a cage of bones and slowly forming teeth. Grillby stepped close to him as a handful of humans surged towards them, alerted by the reek of powerful magic as the beastly blaster crackled to life. The elemental went to work with his sword and his fire, keeping them back as the last pieces of Gaster's skeletal dragon clicked into place and the blast of concentrated magic fired. The air was ripped apart by screams and the overwhelming stench of burning flesh.

The blast fizzled out, leaving a gap in the line of humans that quickly scrambled to reform itself again. But not before Grillby could get a good look at the line of archers standing back behind them, bows raised and arrowheads glittering just before their release. Grillby leaped into motion, a wave of fire coursing in the opening Gaster's attack had left behind. This time when the arrows released, only half the number of the last volley made it into the sky.

Gaster and Grillby sunk into a clockwork kind of tandem, filling the void the other left behind while Amathea gave them direction, her spears flooding in where they missed or rested. Grillby guarded the skeleton when he charged his heavy attacks, obliterating small portions of the line of humans before them, punching holes in their defense. And when he rested between attacks Grillby filled the magical void with waves and lances of flame. They stood together until their footsteps grew tired and their magic less ravenous and consuming.

Thankfully, mercifully, the sun began setting before exhaustion could shake them apart. A retreat was called, and as the remaining skirmishes on the field killed themselves off, each side retreated back.

"I don't understand," Gaster panted exhausted, "We're stopping? Did we win?"

"They retreated first," Grillby muttered, "I say we won the day."

"Nobody's won, numbskull," Amathea growled, glancing nervously back over her shoulder as she led them back across to field where one of the larger groups of monsters was amalgamating itself together, "Not yet anyway. Just everyone knows you can't fight in the dark unless you're a ghost… or insane."

"So we just… stop? Take a break for the night?" Gaster laughed incredulously, "You're kidding."

Grillby shook his head tiredly, "Oh trust me, if you can sleep with that bundle of joy just across the field, then you're crazier than the monsters fighting in the dark."

"Oh just be happy it's not a full moon," Amathea spat, her voice bitter and tired, "Give them enough to see by and humans will find a reason to keep tearing things apart."

She shot one last look over her shoulder before mumbling under her breath, "Damned determined things."

They stumbled their way along in the failing light, Grillby quickly becoming the only thing to illuminate their path. As they went, Amathea would occasionally pause to point Gaster to one fallen monster or another, checking to see if they'd fallen too far to make the walk back where they could get some form of mediocre help that could be afforded. Not many joined them.

Their camp for the night was a bitter makeshift shelter at the base of the valley, really only sheltered by the trees that grew nearby. It broke any wind that could sweep through, but still left them feeling strangely exposed without any barricades or walls to give the illusion of safety. A quick headcount was made, a basic scope of injured and fallen taken note of. They'd lost nearly a third of their number in one day to death or injury. Some nasty hope in Grillby's chest prayed the humans fared the same.

"I don't understand though," Gaster said, finding a flat enough piece of ground to sit on and settling down, "Isn't this battle supposed to end when you kill the mage? We didn't even see one."

"Well of course we didn't," Amathea tutted, ushering with her hand for Grillby to sit beside Gaster, "And if that mage is smart, they're going to cause as much grief as far away from Grillby as possible. Help me pick these arrows out of his armor, Gaster, he looks like an old maid's pin pillow."

Grillby flickered a smirk, holding patiently still as Gaster and Amathea went to work on his armor, wiggling arrows free of their clinging holds and breaking a few of the fragile shafts in the process. Meanwhile Grillby got to work on the one stuck in his shield, grimacing as he tried to pull it free without damaging the thing even more.

"Fighting won't stop just because the mage dies either," Grillby hummed, "Well… it might. It'll hit their moral pretty bad. But they've still got the numbers left to ravage us if the battle goes right for them. If their commanders can maintain enough control they'll keep fighting."

"Well that sucks," Gaster growled as he ripped an arrow free from where it had lodged itself by Grillby's neck. He twisted the deadly little point in his hand for a moment, frowning slowly.

"Uh… thank you… by the way."

Gaster chuckled a crackle, sparks shimmering away from his form, "For what? Throwing you in the dirt?"

Gaster gave him a soft shove, "For saving my life. I'd be dust right now if it weren't for you."

Grillby shrugged, dragging an annoyed growl from Amathea as she tried to yank another arrow from its place, "Don't worry about it. Everyone freezes up at some point. Fighting like that gets to you, especially when you're pretty sure you're about to die."

The ridge above Gaster's unbroken eye rose, "Really? Everyone freezes up like a complete moron when they're fighting?"

Grillby flashed in nervous, hesitant colors, "Well I mean… I didn't. But… I'm really weird. I'm sure Ammy's done it before. Right Ammy?"

"Aye sure I have," the fish monster growled triumphantly as she finally broke free the arrow she'd been menacing, "At the absolute worst time too."

Gaster gave an incredulous laugh, and Amathea grinned.

"Don't believe me do you? Ask Thetis, she'll let you know about it all right. My siblings and I came south on a boat, looking to destroy ourselves a couple of seaside villages on a little adventure. Got ourselves caught in a storm right of the coast. And to make matters worse, a big scaly sea dragon decided we were a tasty morsel!" the commander let out a satisfied tut as she pulled the last arrow in Grillby's armor free, "So there I was on the prow of our fine sea beauty. Staring into the big eye of that overgrown beasty. And Thetis and my brother Irade were yelling at me to sing. If ya just sing at the beasty you stupid girl it'll let us go and we can make shore!"

She heaved a dreamy sigh, remembering, "And I froze up like ice. Couldn't even scream I was so scared. Of course, that's when my older brother Ghirdam swooped in to save the day with those magic chains of his. Tied the great beasty's mouth shut while Thetis poked it full so full of holes it couldn't float anymore. A couple of the crew set us onshore gentle as a feather. I was so shaken up when they set us down I started bawling like a wee lass who's just had her heart broken at the spring fair."

Both Grillby and Gaster blinked at Amathea for a moment, watching as she smiled wistfully at the memory as if she were talking about a Sunday breakfast.

"You're joking," Gaster breathed incredulously, and Amathea rolled her eyes.

"Oh alright, so maybe I exaggerated the crying a bit," she harrumphed, "But I did cry when we made landfall. Tears of disappointment. You know how long Ghir lorded that damn rescue over me?!"

"She's not joking," Grillby chuckled.

"Say Ammy, is there anything you do that doesn't involve some wild death-defying adventure?" Gaster snorted. The commander fixed him in a vicious grin.

"Not if I can help it!" she chimed grandly, getting to her feet, "Now you two cumberworlds get yourself some rest while you still can. It'll be a long fight tomorrow, and you've a better chance of living through it if you've slept even a little."

Chapter Text

The next morning they were up shortly before dawn, organizing into rank and file and preparing to greet whatever the dawn brought to them. The second day of battle was always the day that Grillby noticed the gap between him and other monsters - as rude as it was to view it like that. He himself felt fatigued, like his meager rest during the night hadn’t been enough to recharge his magic. And with nothing but hard tack and dried meat available for them to eat as a breakfast, he found his reserve of magic feeling a little emptier than it normally would be. Overall though, he felt ready to fight again.

The monsters around him were a different story. Those that had survived the fight of the day before looked exhausted, sore. There was weariness in the way they carried themselves as they roused for the bleak coming day. Even Gaster and Amathea suffered from it, though Amathea seemed to be faring better than the skeleton did. The fish monster, though obviously worn and sore from the day before, exuded a tireless and rousing sort of enthusiasm. She spoke encouraging words to the monsters around her, shared in their pain, complained softly about bruises or scrapes she’d received and boasted about the victory they were sure to gain today. Meanwhile Gaster trudged along looking a lot like he was half asleep - or at the very least trying to be. He’d used his blasters a lot the day before. Grillby figured he was probably just about spent.

“So uh… I know you’re probably going to ignore this,” Grillby hummed, “But, you do know no one will blame you if you rotate to the back, right?”

Gaster let out a loud scoff, “What, and leave you up here to have all the fun by yourself?”

“Yeah, good death-y fun. While you’re already half dust from exhaustion already.”

The skeleton waved a hand dismissively, “I am not. I just… need a minute.”

He blinked ahead at the field spread out before them, at the trampled ground and shapeless forms of armor and weapons and formless lumps of bodies that littered the expanse. A nervous scowl wormed it’s way across his teeth.

“Today is going to be hell,” Gaster finally said, and Grillby smirked.

“Well at least you’re enthusiastic.”

An arm draped itself around Gaster’s neck, and suddenly Amathea was in between them, her teeth bared in a bitter smile, “Good, keep your enthusiasm! The more you want to win, the better your odds are.”

She stepped in front of them, assuming her place along the line. Amathea squared her shoulders and braced her feet against the ground, her fist on her hip as she took a deep breath of the morning air.

“Keep your intent strong and your wits about you, lads,” Amathea cried, gills flaring, “With our hearts and souls all rousing together, we can’t lose!”

Grillby crackled a soft laugh, letting his spirits lift just a little. Gaster flashed a nervous grin, hands sinking into his pockets as a horn blast sounded in the distance.

“I hope you’re right, Ammy,” he mumbled.

“Aye of course I’m right!” Amathea chimed, “Humans are strong lad, but they’re nothing before us if we stand together.”

Amathea’s smile waned into something more like a snarl as the humans began marching into view, the morning sun setting their armor ablaze with color. From where they stood now, their numbers looked impressive, their front line spread out across the valley in a wide fan. The center of their line curved closer than the rest, a giant arrowhead marching towards the monster force. They were imposing, and armored shell of an advance with heavy shield and lance bearers at the front. Banners from different army houses caught in the breeze weakly, the still air doing little to lift them. Grimness hung about them in a cloud. Grillby scanned the line nervously, leaning forward slightly to get a better look, searching for the one human who would be toting a great staff instead of a sword or shield.

They weren’t on the front line - for an anxious second Grillby wondered if they were there at all.

Then the horn sounded down the line, signaling for the monsters to begin their march to meet the humans approaching them. Grillby gulped down the growing tightness of nerves in his soul and stepped forward. The air shuddered with the sound of hundreds of footsteps walking together, intent and stirring magic building in the deadened morning air. As they neared their enemies, Grillby could hear the shouts down the line as the human commanders screamed orders. The commanders among the monsters echoed back.

The march on both sides turned into a charge.

Just before the two walls of bodies crashed, an explosion of brilliant color erupted from the monster side, preemptive attacks bursting through the headlong human charge. Every element, every variation of magic - barring healing green - surged to meet the oncoming mass of warriors and stagger them before the monsters crashed into their ranks. The humans responded in kind, bracing lances at their sides to drive them through the approaching creatures, shields rising into place to try and block some of the wild and devouring magic that burned forward. Grillby winced as he watched Amathea erect her own dangerous wall of spears just before the lines met, humans screaming as they skewered themselves against the glittering points. Driven by the momentum of the men running behind him, they had no chance of stopping, and only a haggardly handful managed to dodge in time.

Grillby sucked in a deep breath, feeling his own magic swirling mad and hungry in his chest. And in his exhale right before the clash he sent into the mass of running bodies four blazing wheels of fire. By the next breath his sword was in his hand, and with a growl he was plunging it forward.

The world exploded to life with roars, cries and shouts mingling with the crackling of magic and the ringing cacophony of metal against metal. Grillby stormed forward aggressive and resolved, every ounce of his soul pouring into the fiery attacks he spewed into the crowd before him. Molten lances jolted into humans just out of his sword reach, wheels of flame lurched into running bodies and clung to their armor, scalding the delicate flesh just underneath the metallic surface. Twice Grillby found himself standing forward enough from the rest of the monsters around him that he could drive cascading waves of fire into the fray of people. He sighed out a smoking breath as the attacks settled, resting for a few seconds in their aftermath and bracing himself for what moves he made next.

In the corners of his eyes he caught glimpses of Amathea and Gaster as they worked beside him, Amathea once again firing a bitter hail storm of spears that dropped from the heavens and leaped up from the ground. She kept one long spear in her hand always, spinning the pole about her body in flourishes and parries that kept even the fiercest swordsmen at bay. Her voice stunned them or shattered their souls.

Gaster’s magic sputtered like dying embers in the fighting, heavy and bruised flickers of purple that sent rippling bone attacks into the humans that approached him. He reserved the bulk of his strength for now, making up in precision what he lacked in overpowering ferocity. Though more than once Grillby watched a human fly back into the weapons of his comrades, their souls breaking in the freezing death-grip of blue magic.

Grillby himself struggled not to become overwhelmed, his gaze focusing for only an instant on the next glance of flesh before he moved on to the one after. A handful of times he felt the jarring impact of a sword or spear glancing across his armor, sometimes actually into his body, when his defense slipped or a determined human managed to slip in a strike at him while he was busy with another. These he shook off with little more than a shudder through his core and a more focused swing of his sword. He wasn’t getting tired, he knew, but he was getting sloppy. There were too many people to keep track of, and there were forever more coming forward. How long could this keep going on? Surely the humans were just as exhausted as the monsters were.

A screech from Amathea’s direction pulled the remainder of Grillby’s focus to the present. He hesitated a moment, expecting some barrage of arrows or shift in the line. But when he glanced at her he saw the captain fighting ferociously against another human soldier, eyes blazing angrily and a fresh cut oozing blood down her arm - sure to add another scar to the collection that adorned her body. Amathea was staggering back away from them in a quick shuffle of footsteps, spears falling in rapid succession on the human as they advanced seemingly invincible towards her. The glowing attacks shattered just before they could hit the human, one particular spear glittering with enraged intent managing to shatter a crack in the invisible shield.

Grillby sucked in a sharp breath.

“Gaster!” he called, gaze snapping to the skeleton who was ducking beneath the angry axe-fall of an armored knight nearby, “Be careful some of them have wards!”

The skeleton dispatched his opponent with a well-timed bone club to the side of their face. He glared in Grillby’s direction, his expression torn between weary and bitter, “What the hell is a ward?!”

Grillby circled closer to his friend, sword raised to intercept any other approaching knights. He explained as quickly as he could, “They’re just… weird magic humans make sometimes. Like invisible shields. They write prayers on something of theirs and every once in a while it actually does something.”

“Well that’s absolutely brilliant!” Gaster shouted exasperatedly, throwing his hands in the air - and tossing a human away with his magic in the process, “And how, pray tell, do you even deal with those?!

Grillby crackled a smirk and pointed to Amathea. With an angry screech the fish monster crashed into the human she’d been facing, half a dozen spear points digging into the already cracked ward and shattering it to pieces. Within another instant the human’s soul was shattering along with it, and Amathea was lunging towards the nearest knight to her, spears blazing.

“You hit it hard enough,” Grillby laughed bitterly, “Some of them just block. Some of them reflect your magic back at you. Keep the blasters to a minimum until you know what you’re up against.”

Gaster spat an incredulous laugh, “Would’ve been nice to know that yesterday when I was blowing the whole field halfway to hell and back!”

“Well look on the bright side!” Grillby sparked in a chuckle, “You’re not dust yet are you?”

Before Gaster could muster his sarcasm another knight engaged him, and he and Grillby were forced apart as they sunk back into the fight again. The elemental felled one opponent and spun to face the next flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, flinching back when he realized the movement wasn’t another weapon brandished in his face but a blast of magic.

Grillby twisted to the side and raised his shield in the same instant, the heavy impact of the magical blast staggering him backwards. His shield suddenly felt heavy, the arm hefting it consumed by a painful searing sense of cold. With a start Grillby realized the blast of magic was ice, the creeping spell building up and wrapping around the shield to sink freezing claws into his arm. With an agonized shriek Grillby tore the shield away, and it clattered to the ground with the ravenous ice magic still growing and crystallizing on its surface. Meanwhile the elemental clutched at his wounded arm painfully as his fire desperately flared in an attempt to burn off the ice that had clamped around it - hopefully before it could leach away too much of his HP. Beneath his fingers he could feel core cooling and bruising over. The fire on its surface was extinguished, the molten surface underneath hardening like cooling lava. It stung, but the ice hadn’t held long enough for the wound to be deep. He’d just scratched the surface.

Grillby exhaled a smoking growl, fire rippling in bitter whites and blues as the mage who’d cast the spell stepped into his sight.

This one was powerful. More powerful than the last that the elemental had encountered. Grillby could feel the intent behind their stare all the way down in his soul. They wore the darkly dyed robes of some sort of nobility, a family crest of some sort emblazoned pridefully across its chest. Flashes of finely-crafted chainmail glinted underneath the fine garments. In their hands, they held a neatly curving staff, clawed hands clasped at the top of it around a powerful glowing stone. Their eyes glittered darkly down at Grillby, their face unnervingly passive and calm, eyebrows drawn down in a determined glare.

Grillby took a fearless, challenging step in their direction. With his shield gone, he was left feeling exposed and hesitant to close the distance between himself and the mage. Though he had to admit, he would rather be without a shield then have any of his regular armor freezing over. He raised his sword slowly, the tip pointed threateningly in the mage’s direction.

This was what he was here for.

The mage responded by pointing their staff at Grillby and shouting a spell, the well-rehearsed words rolling off their tongue in sharp, harsh syllables that Grillby couldn’t understand. The elemental dodged out of the way deftly, scowling at the spear of ice that skewered the ground where he’d just been standing. He responded with shots from his fiery lances, throwing forward the deadly projectiles as quickly as he could form them. With a practiced flick of their wrists the mage flashed his staff up to meet the blasts, a shouted incantation forcing them to break on a shimmering magical shield. The human’s soul glowed into existence in the center of their chest, answering the call of the magic they used.

Without hesitation Grillby dove into a series of attacks with his fire. Lances flickered to life, snake-like tendrils of flame snapped up from the ground to grasp at the mage’s staff and armor. The human flicked aside his attacks as if they were nothing, deflecting some and extinguishing others. Their whole energy went into defense, the ferocity of the elemental working to stagger them back one or two tentative steps. But with maddening skill the mage managed to hold their ground against the onslaught, remaining mostly untouched save for some singeing at the edge of his flowing robe sleeves. Every move they made was flawless, every attack timed with the efficiency of someone who had run against an enemy like this before. This was a human who had fought an elemental before and won, who had gained the LV and EXP to do it again if they had to. A shudder went through Grillby at that realization, but still he pressed forward.

In one solid move they deflected another one of Grillby’s short volleys, spinning away from them and in the same moment muttering a spell in counterattack. Grillby braced himself against the flash of magic and formed another attack to -

Suddenly the elemental was swept off his feet, tossed to the side by a powerful brush of blue. A rush of water ran past him, the magical blast missing him my inches. An onslaught of bone attacks forced the mage to dodge, their intricate patterns and spacing distracting the human for a moment from making a new spell. Gaster was at Grillby’s side in an instant, his eye sockets wide in a mix of panic and anger.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?!” the skeleton shrieked, and Grillby sputtered in answer.

“How was I supposed to know their next attack was going to be water?!”

Gaster signed something in exasperation before shouting, “Where the hell is your shield?!”

“Gone!” was all Grillby managed to get out before the voice of the human cut him off. Gaster blinked, and then dodged behind Grillby as a strike of lightning arced from the human’s staff with a building and roaring crack! The elemental braced himself against the impact, barely managing to stay on his feet. Grillby felt the electricity absorb itself into his core with a faint, buzzing tingle of pins and needles. He crackled with angry annoyance, eyes locking on the human warily.

“Didn’t pull me out of the way of that one did ya?” the elemental barked sarcastically.

Gaster let out the best indignant huff he could in spite of his fraying nerves, “I’ve seen you take on lightning before!”

“But how did you know it was lightning?!”

“Does it matter?” Gaster shrieked, dragging both of them out of the way of another blast of ice, “I just know some of the language is all.”

“How do you just casually know human spell language?!”

There was a flash of blinding light from the mage’s staff, and a muttered incantation Grillby couldn’t hear. Then his soul was suddenly heavy, and he fell to his knees with a shimmering green shield in his hand, deflecting a barrage of icy needles. Amathea added her spears to the fray, forcing the mage back several steps.

“What are you two doing?” Grillby called with a flare of nervous sparks, “I can handle a mage!”

“Aye sure ya can,” Amathea snarled, “And I’m the monster queen.”

Her magic released him, and Grillby staggered to his feet, Gaster on one side and Amathea on the other. The mage stared back at all of them, the crystal on their staff flashing menacingly and their eyes narrowing slightly.

“You said your shield was gone?” Amathea asked in a low voice, and Grillby nodded, “Alright, I’ll be your shield then. Gaster, tell us his spells when he makes them.”

The skeleton nodded.

“How do you kill these things, Grillby?” Amathea growled, and the elemental shook his head.

“A few clear shots,” he responded, “Mages are just as mortal as the rest of them.”

Amathea nodded, brandishing a spear, “Alright then. And Gaster for heaven’s sakes, don’t get hit! These beasties have enough intent to kill a boss monster with a single spell.”

Gaster gulped thickly, a nervous frown grinding his teeth together. But even still he nodded in return, refusing to back away. The human pointed their staff at the group.

“Lightning!”

Grillby lurched forward to meet the attack, Amathea’s shield materializing on his arm. The intent behind the spell shattered the magical shield as soon as the two met; a brilliant lightshow of blue and green sparks spiraling across the elemental’s vision. Grillby drew his sword and kept going, a row of bones and spears flowing forward at the same speed as his heavy footfalls. The human shouted a something “Dispell!” and the attacks crumbled away before a blinding, consuming light that pulsed in ripples from the staff. “Water!” Blue pulled Grillby out of the way of the attack, and he surged forward with a wave of fire. The two magics collided and burst in an explosion of boiling steam that was quickly churned up by a volley of Amathea’s spears. There was a scream of pain amidst the obscurity of the fog, before an angry “Dispell!” was shouted. The human nursed a deep cut in their side and a chunk of their HP dropped into nothingness.

Grillby blinked, his soul giving a startled lurch in his chest. Amathea’s intent was mercilessly strong. For a split second he had to wonder what LV she had to have to strike as hard as she did. Within an instant the human was snarling another spell, and Grillby was dodging out of it’s reach.

Working together, Grillby found himself both unnervingly close and startlingly far away from the mage as they fought. At any turn of words the human was either shouting spells that forced Gaster to pull Grillby to safety, or they were parrying attacks from the elemental or Amathea that allowed Grillby to rush in dangerously close. Twice Grillby swung his sword forward for a hit and the mage was forced to fight back with their staff, the flawless wood notching under the heavy hits from Grillby’s sword.

Three against one, the human was quickly being overpowered. They couldn’t keep track of every monster at once. And when they managed to keep Grillby or Amathea’s attacks back, Gaster would swoop in with a well-timed hit of his own and leach away that much more of the creature’s HP. His attacks were nothing compared to the heavy blows Grillby and Amathea could create, but they bled the same, they stung the same, and with every glancing blow the human’s desperation increased.

Finally to try and even the odds against them, the mage screamed a blast of magic in Gaster’s direction - hoping to cut off the monster warning about their attacks as they made them. An arc of vicious lighting poured from the battered and scorched staff. With a furious and half-panicked flourish Amathea cast her shield on Gaster just as the thunder roiled the air. Grillby took the opening and lunged at the mage, his sword leading.

The mage screeched, the lightning they’d been throwing cut off abruptly as they staggered back away from Grillby. As they moved they tore Grillby’s sword free from where it had lodged itself in their gut, sending flecks of blood sizzling across the elemental’s arm. In their daze and their pain, their legs couldn’t hold them. They collapsed to their knees, grasping at the pouring wound, blood, health and magic gushing through their fingers and onto the ground.

They gazed down at the wound for a startled moment, their face a mask of pain and horror as they realized they’d lost. There was a painful hitch in their breath that shook their shoulders, before they slowly tore their gaze away from the wound and up to the elemental that had caused it. In their eyes burned something fierce and unrelenting, mouth twisting in a defiant snarl.

Grillby tightened his hand around the hilt of his sword before reversing his grip to stab down at the human before him.

They snapped their head and their arm up in the same, sudden motion, white-knuckled fist clenched tightly around their staff as they screamed out one last desperate spell. A strike of lightning burst from the sky and slammed into the staff, yanking another soul-rending screech from the human and nearly throwing Grillby off his feet. The frail wood of the staff shattered under the weight of whatever was cast, the crystal it clutched splintering away, the light fading out instantly. There was a deafening clap of thunder that shook the air, dying off into a lasting rumble as the spell ran its course. Then the human slumped into the dirt, their glowing soul shattering to pieces.

Grillby blinked down at what was left of them in bewilderment, startled sparks breaking away from his flame and dispersing into the air, “What the hell…?”

No!

The elemental spun to face Gaster, his fire lilting into confused colors of blue and green. The skeleton’s gaze was locked on the sky above him, his hands grasping uselessly at his skull in a look of growing dismay.

“No,” he repeated to himself, voice cracking as he shouted, “No no no they can’t do that!

Grillby felt his soul drop into his stomach. Hesitantly, he looked up at the sky. What had once been a cloudless sky was quickly darkening, clouds rolling out from where the lightning of the spell had struck. The clouds were monstrous, huge and thick, gathering and amalgamating together faster by the second. They billowed and built into a giant anvil, polluting the blue sky with a haze of yellow and orange, the clouds themselves broiling into deepening purples and greys. A gust of wind clawed at Grillby’s flame, his clothes, the smell of moisture building thick in the air. A dizzying, sickening feeling wrapped itself around Grillby’s soul. The sight of the storm held him spellbound, rooted to the spot with slowly rising terror. Suddenly he found himself thinking about Mistral, the elemental who’d been torn apart by the storm.

“Downpour.”

It took a monumental effort for Grillby to wrench his gaze from the darkening sky. He fixed Gaster in a sick and dismal stare. The skeleton gazed back at him, eye sockets wide with building horror. The staggering downturn in temperature as the pressure in the air dropped hit them like a new gust of wind, sending a shudder through Grillby’s body, down to his very soul. Somewhere overhead, thunder ripped apart the sky.

Gaster’s voice shuttered in a broken and cracking whisper as he repeated, “They said downpour.”

 

Chapter Text

(*)

Grillby didn't know what he was feeling anymore. Emotions roared at him deafeningly while his thoughts remained dangerously silent. It was as if the half of him that mattered, the half that should be racing to find a way to survive, was numb. There was a panicked tightness building in his chest and throat, crackling his flame in every wan color of white and washed out blue it could possibly be. He was strikingly conscious of his breathing, and how he was doing it wrong. It was too quick and irregular, and made speaking that much harder. But really there was only one thought that had managed to rise from the chaos in his mind, a single sentence that rooted him in place.

"So that's it then."

Amathea and Gaster tore their gazes away from the darkening sky, from the building storm overhead. Amathea looked so angry. She looked more furious than Grillby had ever seen her - angrier than the day they'd gotten into that stupid fight that sent he and Gaster to the stockade. If she could fight the sky, he was sure she'd be doing it now, hurling spears through jagged lightning bolts and casting the storm away. Meanwhile Gaster could only seem to look heartbroken, his jaw hanging just slightly agape and his hands working to form some kind of sentence, some reassurance, but only managing lost gibberish.

Grillby felt his chest grow tighter.

"That's it," he repeated dumbly, "I'm done."

"No," Gaster started, but the ominous rumble of building thunder drowned him out. Grillby felt a drop of water stab needle-like into the top of his head.

"You're not done," Amathea snarled, grinding her teeth, "To hell with that right now you're not done!"

She spun on Gaster with enough speed and ferocity to make the skeleton flinch, "Gaster get him out of here."

"Ammy I can't just desert-" Grillby started but Amathea's sharp glare cut him off.

"You're not deserting you're following my orders!" she barked, her body giving an angry shudder and her gills flaring in a bitter shout, "Get to safety. Gaster's escorting you. Gaster! If he can't run so help me you drag him with blue."

"We're just leaving you behind?" the skeleton stammered, and Amathea scoffed at him an enraged laugh.

"I'm your commander I can handle myself!" she snarled, "Gaster listen to me-"

Another handful of drops pinged off the elemental's armor. Grillby flinched as a drop traced a sizzling path down his back.

"- if we win this battle we'll be chasing down fleeing humans for days. As soon as the storm passes find a group of monsters and stay there until we reform ranks. If we lose, we'll be pushed south to the Scattered Hills Camp and you regroup with us there," Amathea huffed a breath, glancing back at Grillby before saying as fervently as she could, "Come back safe, and make sure he comes back with you!"

Then she was shoving Gaster in Grillby's direction, pausing only to wrap her arm around the elemental's neck in a tight hug.

"This isn't goodbye and this isn't the end," she growled, her voice low and severe, "Survive, tinderbox."

As best he could past her crushing grip, Grillby nodded. Amathea released him, and with one last shove sent the boys staggering away, "Go!"

Grillby took off running, shoving his way past humans and monsters alike in a mad scramble to get off the field, Gaster bounding close behind him. A lull made its way into the fighting, all creatures startled by the sudden change in the weather, and for a few moments at least their escape was easier than it could have been. Commanders rallied their soldiers together as lightning streaked across the sky. Soldiers disengaged each other in distracted wonder at the threat unfurling above them. A darkness like night fell across the valley, the rain falling faster with every passing second.

The faster it fell the more Grillby hurt. It started on his face and neck, raindrops like acid piercing into his fiery form and evaporating against his heat. It stung the revealed parts of his hands, dampened his tunic and streamed into cracks in his armor. It was a painful, stinging nuisance, as if he'd stepped into a cloud of hornets, not bad enough to stop him from running but quickly increasing. His breath became ragged from exertion and pain, his mind ever more frantic.

When the crowds of warriors restarted their fighting, Grillby was barely halfway across the field to his escape. Suddenly he was elbowing past humans swinging weapons in his direction, eager to kill whatever monster was so stupid as to flee. Grillby met them distractedly, fiery attacks flying out only in an attempt to sweep the soldiers out of his path, to blast a way through to his safety. If he could just get out of the valley. If he could just get into the forest. If he could just find somewhere to hide…!

It was raining harder.

Grillby yanked his hood above his head, only for the fabric to start soaking itself instantly. The cool of it pressed down on him, smothering him. Every piece of cloth on his body clung to his core and seared at it bitterly, putting him out like a wet blanket over a cooking fire. Water collected in the gaps of his armor and streamed in rivulets down his shoulders, back, across his arms and legs. Every step was pain. His breath came out in smoking gasps, ragged and hurting.

Grillby was so wrapped up in his suffering that he didn't notice the human that lurched for him as he passed. With an angry shove Grillby was knocked off his feet. He suddenly found himself face down in the mud, a ragged scream bubbling up through his throat as the acid-like damp pressed in on him from every side. It was all he could do to lift his arm in time to stop the sword stroke that arched down towards him, catching the glistening blade on his armored forearm. He looked up at the human, mind racing for some sort of attack that would force them to let him go.

The human's soul was suddenly wrapped up in blue, and in the blink of an eye they were wrenched backwards, cartwheeling through their comrades and finally crashing to the ground in a muddy heap. Grillby scrabbled to his hands and knees then, almost extinguishing his hands entirely as they pressed down against the mud to drag himself up. He gulped down a building sob and clutched them to his chest, the bruised cooling of his core making them stiff and calloused like crumbling rock.

Then Gaster was hauling him to his feet, shouting over the sound of the building rain and the battle.

"Keep moving! You can make it we're almost there! Grillby come on!"

One agonizing step after another, Gaster coaxed Grillby back into a run. Through a haze of pain and whimpers Grillby felt the tug of blue, Gaster's grip already vice-like on his soul. Every time he stumbled it pulled him to his feet. It forced him to dodge humans he was too preoccupied to notice anymore. It hauled him forward, staggered him back, pushed him to and fro. And all the while Gaster was a flurry of footwork, dancing around falling blades and diving around magic attacks, and even daring to fire forward some of his own. Every few steps he lifted bone attacks beneath his feet, adding momentum to his run and sending him leaping over the heads of some of the soldiers in his way. A well timed shot from his blaster gave them the gap they needed to break ranks entirely.

Before they made the trees they were in a full-on downpour, the rain coming so thick and fast the world was a haze of grey for several feet before them. And Grillby was screaming. His entire world had turned into a hail of stabbing, searing cold. His body became stiff with the cooling of his core. Each forced step cracked the skin of the cooling element only for more of the molten mess to flow like blood down his arms and cool again. He was wrapped in the most complete agony he had ever felt in his life. He was dying. He was dying.

What miracle was it that kept him alive even now? Gaster's hand on his back was the only thing leading him in any direction. The skeleton's grip on his soul a lifeline that was quickly fading. How long until his soul just shattered apart and Gaster had nothing to lead anymore? How long until everything just stopped?

Breaking into the tree line did nothing, the rain only slowing a little as the leaves tried and failed in stopping the droplets from passing through. Grillby found himself stumbling over rocks and roots, climbing a hill he didn't have the strength left in him to climb. His run became a staggering shamble that no amount of pleading or prodding from Gaster could quicken.

Finally Grillby collapsed, sobbing and screaming into the mud. He couldn't get his arms beneath him to pull himself back up. His body wasn't listening anymore, his legs so cold to the point of tingling with a growing, burning sense of numb. His reflex to convulse or writhe in pain was smothered out by his overwhelming sense weakness. In a painful effort, Grillby curled up with his arms crossed over his head and his knees bending up towards his chest. He lay there and screamed.

"Make it stop!"

Gaster was at his side in an instant, pulling at him body and soul in a desperate attempt to get Grillby to stand, "Grillby! Grillby come on I can't do this on my own here!"

But it was useless. Grillby couldn't move. He couldn't even rightly hear Gaster speaking anymore. Everything was a haze of the sound of falling raindrops, the sound of his own core sizzling and stifling, the sound of his own whimpers and cries as they tore jaggedly at the inside of his throat. His senses were overwhelmed with a feeling like he was being stabbed apart piece by piece. And the longer he lay there the deeper the feeling of painful numbing cold seeped into his body. His hands were completely numb, the barest of heat still seeping somewhere in the centers of his wrists and up his arms. Would he die like this? Waiting for his very soul to shatter against the force of his entire body succumbing to this stinging and consuming feeling of cold?

"Grillby! Grillby!" Gaster shouted over the noise of his friend's screaming, "You can't stop here! You have to move. You have to…!"

He had to what?

Hopelessness was welling up inside the skeleton's soul, threatening to break in a downpour of its own. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know what to do! Literally nowhere was safe for the smoldering elemental. There was no tree with a dense enough canopy to block out the rain, no caves or overhangs for shelter. There was nothing. Nothing but mud and rain and useless, useless everything else. What was he supposed to do?! Build a shelter?! What could he even do that would save the elemental before he sputtered out completely - if it wasn't already too late?

Gaster leaped to his feet, pacing around his friend and looking wildly about for anything, anything that would work. His eyes rested on a tiny burrow at the base of a tree, the opening barely large enough for some fox or hare. With a desperate shout, Gaster yanked out one of his blasters and fired at it, blasting away a chunk of the earth and deepening the hole ever so slightly. He cast one last panicked glance down at Grillby, whose unsettling screams were already fading to hollow and weakening cries.

He summoned another blaster and fired again.

Again and again and again as fast as he could summon them, as many at a time as he could managed without shattering his own soul, Gaster fired, carving out a cave piece by burning piece. By the time he was finished, the base of the tree was a splintered and smoldering mess of wood, mud and clay. Whatever creature's burrow had been there was obliterated, leaving a gaping hole yawning open at the world with smoke still rising faintly from its insides. Grillby's cries had stopped. Hesitantly Gaster turned back to his friend again. The skeleton heaved a sigh of relief when he saw a form there instead of a pile of dust.

Gaster wrapped his arms around Grillby's chest, pinged his soul blue, and heaved. He dragged Grillby over to the little makeshift shelter, dropping him inside before sliding in after himself. With the flick of his wrist he sealed up their entrance with a hedge of interlocking bones pieced so thickly together, only the occasional drop made it through to splash on Gaster's shoulder.

The inside of his shelter was cramped and dark, illuminated by a few of Gaster's glowing blue attacks and, by some miracle, what little light could still seep its way off of Grillby's body. It was like laying in a tomb, the space just barely big enough for the two of them to lay side-by side. And the space was quickly filling with thick, smothering smoke.

Gaster lurched over to his friend, tearing off any piece of armor or clothing he could get his skeletal fingers on. He fumbled with clasps and cursed under his breath, his hands shaking from fatigue and panic. Grillby was smothering to death beneath Gaster's fingers and he'd be damned if the elemental died just because the skeleton couldn't get his hands to hold steady! The smoke from the dying flame seared at the sense of smell inside Gaster's skull, stabbed at his eyes and made it harder to see what he was doing. In spite of it all, Gaster somehow managed to pull the armor off Grillby's shoulders, and the tunic after it.

This seemed to help already. As soon as it was off, Grillby sucked in a shuddering breath, as if the dampened cloth had been stopping his breathing. He coughed out the breath painfully, sparks shuddering weakly out from his throat. Gaster worked on pulling off the elemental's waterlogged boots next, shoving the remaining wet clothes as close to his hedge of bones as possible and as far away from the elemental as he could manage. Just leaning over Grillby to grab the last of his effects, Gaster could hear the elemental hiss in pain whenever his own sopping clothing dripped onto the elemental's form. As an afterthought, Gaster unequipped his own soaked clothing, leaving him in nothing but his chainmail and his boots. Hopefully that would make the elemental a little more comfortable at least.

And if Grillby passed - Gaster's soul gave a sickening lurch - maybe it wouldn't be as painful. With a grim frown, Gaster pulled Grillby's soul out into the open, and then his own with it.

"... everything hurts…"

Gaster paused, his soul giving a painful hitch at the sound of Grillby's voice. He was so weak. He rasped at barely a whisper, the sound raw from the screaming he'd done while trapped in the downpour. Once again, sparks fluttered out of his throat before fizzling out. The inside of the elemental's mouth - finally visible now that the flame that normally encompassed him was gone - and the inside of his throat were, really, the brightest things Gaster could see. The rest of Grillby's body was covered in a cracking patchwork of what could have been volcanic stone, seeping dying light from in between the cracks and casting the inside of their shelter in weak tones of orange and red. The molten core - right? That's what Grillby called it? His core? - was still shifting slowly underneath it, though dulled into much colder colors than it should be. Even when Grillby had doused his hand on their cooking fire, Gaster remembered seeing shifting colors of white and yellow.

"I know, Grillby, I'm fixing it," Gaster said, his voice quivering slightly, "It's going to be okay."

"... am I dying…?"

"I mean, if you want to get technical here, we're all born dying," the skeleton mumbled, unable to form any meaningful sarcasm in his worry. Looking into Grillby's soul was almost as devastating as seeing the rest of the monster's form. His HP was next to nothing, dwindled down to some sliver of a number in the single digits. Gaster choked on a gasp.

If I had been just a few seconds later…!

Grillby heaved a deep sigh, his breath shuddering and his chest flinching painfully as he did so. His eyes opened slowly, shifting colors of red and orange barely lighting what should have been a bright white light. He let out some wincing noise of pain.

"... Gaster…?"

"I'm working on it Grillby, just hang in there."

Gaster got to work unwinding a cord from his soul, wincing at the uncomfortable feeling of his magic unraveling from his soul. He lifted the cord to Grillby's soul and, frowning dismayingly, started to work on the largest crack he could find. The elemental's very essence was as spider-webbed with cracks as the rest of his body… Gaster wondered if he had enough magic in him to even fix them all. Grillby's soul was so much larger than Gaster's was, and Gaster pouring his magic into it felt very much like he was trying to fill an ocean with a tea spoon. It needed more magic to stabilize than any other monster he'd worked with, more magic than Gaster even thought he had left. But he worked nevertheless, hoping against hope there was enough in him to at least bring the elemental back from the brink of falling.

"... where are we…?"

"In a hole in the ground," Gaster answered, an attempt at a smirk twitching at the edge of his teeth, "There weren't any inns in the area, sorry."

"... what a shame."

Gaster winced as the tug on his soul tilted away from uncomfortable and closer to painful, "I mean, it's not too different from just sleeping on the ground. You do that all the time anyway right?"

"Yeah."

"And it's got a roof that doesn't leak. Even some castles can't say that," Gaster hummed.

(#)

He flinched a second later as he fixed another crack in Grillby's soul, only for one to rip itself open in his own.

"Shit," Gaster hissed under his breath, stopping in his work to examine the damage. It was a small crack, hair thin and shimmering against the faint purple glow of the magic in his soul. But for as unassuming as it looked, it packed a punch. His HP dropped by nearly twenty points. The exhaustion from the day before, and the hits that Gaster had taken today, already had his health down a third from what it should be.

Was he really so low on magic? Well, he had used an awful lot of blue just getting here… and then there was the blasts that had made their shelter…

Gritting his teeth, Gaster hesitantly pulled at the magic of his soul. The crack burst out across the surface of his soul instantly, shattering a zigzagging scar across its surface. The suddenness of it and the sting through his body that followed made his whole body jerk, and nearly took his breath away as well. His HP dropped another fifteen points. Gaster let out a breathless curse.

Grillby shifted weakly beside him, "... Gaster, stop."

"It just... surprised me is all," the skeleton stammered, glaring warily down at the threatening little crack, "It's actually not… that bad."

There was a soft chuckle beside him, rough and painful, "You're a bad liar."

"Excuse you, I'm a great liar," Gaster laughed with as much enthusiasm as he could muster - which unfortunately, wasn't much, "If I don't sound convincing then I must be telling the truth."

The skeleton frowned at the two floating souls, his just barely starting to crack and Grillby's still riddled with shattering scars. He couldn't fix it. The thought hit him like a punch in the chest, and Gaster grimaced. He didn't have enough magic in him to sew back together everything that was wrong. He could use up his entire soul trying and he would still probably miss something. Gaster huffed out a breath he didn't realize he was holding, and when he did he felt tears springing to life in his eye sockets. Along with the most bitter sense of hopelessness he'd ever felt in his entire life. Grillby was dying and Gaster, the monster who was supposed to stop that from happening, was useless in the face of it.

Scowling and bracing himself, Gaster resigned himself to one last attempt. He might not be able to fix everything, but he could at least focus on the worst of it.

"Well," he breathed, "This is going to be unpleasant."

With a preemptive wince, Gaster yanked the cord running from his soul and started resuming his work. He could feel the crack on his own soul get larger, a shivering pain building up in his chest in the wake of it, but he refused to give it a glance. Instead he grit his teeth and focused on weaving the deepest cracks in Grillby's soul shut, only glancing back at his own soul to catch the dropping numbers of his HP. Ten points gone. Twenty points. Another fifteen leeched itself away. Then a staggering thirty. Gaster's hands were shaking again.

The skeleton worked stubbornly, the ache in his chest crescendoing until he was at a third of his HP. Then with a strangled sort of gasp he dropped the cords away, letting his soul sink back where it belonged. Gaster didn't realize how rigid he had gone until he was practically melting into the ground beneath him with relief. He lay there quietly for a moment, blinking at the ceiling and waiting for the unsettled feeling in his soul to ease.

Finally, Gaster let out a tired laugh, "See? Told you it wasn't that bad."

There was a pause.

"Firefly?"

Gaster shifted as best he could in the confined space to look down at his friend. Grillby was unconscious, his breathing shallow and slow, his eyes closed. Gaster's magic had managed to do something though. The glow in the cracks of the elemental's body was just the smallest bit brighter, glowing closer into oranges then they were to reds. Some parts of his form were becoming molten again, especially around his chest where the elemental's soul had sunk back into place, the strange rock-like plating that his cooling core had turned into giving way again to the molten surface it was supposed to be. A flutter of hope wriggled around in Gaster's ribcage. Maybe after some rest Grillby would be alright. Rest worked wonders on monsters, after all. It healed HP and replenished bits of magic almost as well as food or medicine.

But the doctor in his mind brought Gaster's thoughts back to the grimmer, realistic possibilities before him. Grillby's soul was still cracked all to hell. It was a little better yes, but he certainly wasn't stable. He needed a real doctor, one who could use green, and a lot of it. As he was now, Grillby could easily slip into shock from the sudden horrendous drop his HP had gone through - or even slip into a killing sleep. One of the kind that kept him wasting away for days until he finally just turned into dust.

Gaster shuddered.

Grillby needed help, desperately. The thought wandered through Gaster's mind that he could possibly try and run for help. He was fast and quiet. Gaster was sure he could slip past whatever fighting was still happening and find someone who could help. The problem with that would be dragging them back to where Grillby was before anything happened to the elemental. And then there was the problem of Gaster's bone attacks, which were right now the only thing keeping the rain from pouring into their makeshift shelter, and even then just barely. Dropping them for even an instant could put Grillby in danger. And even if Gaster could crawl out without damaging the elemental even more, he knew the attacks themselves would fizzle out as soon as he was far enough away. Gaster scowled. If only he were as strong as Amathea, he could hold them there until he got back.

That wriggling, aching feeling of hopelessness writhed its way back into Gaster's ribcage. The skeleton blinked forlornly at the ceiling above him for a moment, tracing the creeping structures of the burned tree and plant roots still left behind there. What a mess over one human. Why couldn't they just accept their fate and die without destroying everything? Why hadn't they stopped them before they could fire off that last spell? They should have done something, anything. If he'd only known -

Gaster gave a quiet, bitter laugh. That was the catch though, wasn't it? They hadn't known. They couldn't have. Who could have ever suspected that human would throw what was left of their pathetic, shattering soul into such a powerful spell? If they were a monster, they would have been dead already. But they weren't a monster. They were a human.

Gaster sighed, stopping his aimless tracing of the ceiling to glance back over at his friend. Grillby hadn't moved an inch. As weak as he was, he probably wouldn't.

"I'm exhausted," Gaster mumbled to his friend, "If I go to sleep, firefly, you promise you'll still be here when I wake up?"

Of course there was no answer. There was hardly any sound he could hear besides the angry downpour that hadn't so much as lulled since it had started. Just below it, weak and rasping, Gaster could make out the sound of Grillby's breathing.

With a sigh, Gaster shifted himself around in the claustrophobic space. He managed to make it onto his side, scooting as far away from the elemental as he could so any moisture left on the skeleton couldn't hurt him as he slept. He pillowed his bony arms underneath his skull and waited, watching the soft shifting of melting colors on Grillby's chest. Gaster hoped against hope that as soon as he closed his eyes the elemental wouldn't collapse into dust.

"Please, please be here when I wake up, firefly…"

Chapter Text

This was familiar. He remembered it well. So much so he could almost be lucid. But no matter how hard he tried, it was like his consciousness was pinned to the floor. But he had no control. He was just going through the motions.

I'm dreaming. I know I'm dreaming.

Gaster was thrown over one of his patient's cots. He hadn't expected the human to catch his attack like that, to toss him away like he was nothing. He landed with a startled shout and a rattle of bones, and instantly he was scrabbling to his feet. Attacks forming while his mouth shouted a jumble of words that didn't make sense anymore. He dodged around a handful of sword swings, tripped over a badly placed surgery cart. Knives, bandages and other utensils scattered. Gaster's legs were tangled up in his own robes and scraps of broken wood. He was too intent on scrambling free that he didn't see the human lunge forward. He glanced up in time for his left eye to shatter and for a splitting pain to crack open his skull.

Gaster threw the creature backwards with blue, all the while screaming about what had just happened. The human lunged again -

This is different.

Amathea's green wasn't there to intercept them. They kept coming. Gaster wasn't ready for that. That wasn't supposed to happen.

But the sword didn't sink itself into Gaster. The skeleton flinched and blinked and when he opened his eyes again he could see the tip of the human's sword ripping its way through iron and fire.

He's not supposed to be here.

Grillby collapsed backwards, writhing, his fire being rapidly put out. His core cooling into hard black stone. He was screaming.

This is wrong. He can't be hurt by swords, and that human had no water or ice.

Gaster was crawling to him, leaking a magic trail from his wounded eye. His armed pulled the dying elemental closer.

"I can fix this! Just hold on I can fix this!"

The dark black of Grillby's cooling core immediately faded to gray. Suddenly the only thing Gaster was holding was dust.

"No wait…! This isn't right! I could've helped him! I could've - !"

A foot planted itself in the center of Gaster's back, and the skeleton was slammed face first into the dust on the ground. It stung at his open wound, coated the inside of his mouth, burned his nose and eyes.

"You can't fix anything."

This is wrong. The human never spoke before.

The sword was shoved through him with an ear-splitting crack!

Gaster jolted awake with a shuddering gasp. In the half-panic of wakefulness he realized he couldn't see anything. The skeleton bolted upright - !

Gaster cracked his forehead against the ceiling of their little shelter, and with a screech of pain he flopped back over, clutching his hands to his face while incoherent curses streamed past his teeth. Ow ow ow ow ow! Did he lose HP from that?! It felt like it! Heavens above, his whole skull hurt from that! Gaster rubbed his aching skull, willing the pain to dull. Tears smarted at his eye sockets and he let out a pathetic whine. What a marvelous way to wake up.

Well, at least he was warm…

Wait. He was warm.

Gaster managed to tear one of his eye sockets open and roll onto his side - still rubbing his throbbing skull in the hopes of soothing it. The lights of his eyes fell on Grillby. The elemental was still there. Still alive. He was very much not a pile of dust. Gaster heaved a sigh of relief, his breath hitching in the smallest of laughs. He let out the smallest prayer of thanks to whatever was listening.

Grillby was still unconscious, he didn't seem to have moved even an inch in his sleep. He was radiating warmth though, the slow creep of it seeping into Gaster's bones. The most relieving thing though was that, for the most part, his body was molten again. The strange, blackened cooling of his core had melted away, the heat seeping from the elemental's body slowly reclaiming it. Patches of the damage still remained, the cracked plate-like wounds clinging mostly to Grillby's hands and traveling shortly up his arms before disintegrating into reds and oranges. The elemental's body was slowly healing itself piece by burning piece.

A resounding crack! - the sound almost exactly like the sickening noise from Gaster's dream - tore the skeleton away from his friend and instead to the wall of bones he'd erected over their shelter. Cracks were splintering through them, something was pounding them apart from the outside. Gaster's soul turned nervously in his chest as they were slammed into again, this time followed by the loud, sharp syllables of a human's speech. In his dazed state, it took Gaster a few seconds to comprehend what they were saying.

"There's more here!"

"Well what are you waiting for?! Drag them out!"

"I'm trying!"

Another hit crashed into Gaster's wall of attacks, this time shattering a few of the bones into magical waste and dust. Past them, Gaster caught a glimpse of a pair of heavy boots. Gaster gulped down a breath he wasn't really capable of breathing. A sinking, bitter feeling wrapped itself around his soul and the skeleton scowled. The monsters had lost. They must have, if humans were taking their time to clear them out. But… that wasn't right, was it? When Grillby had smashed apart the horsemen weeks ago, the monsters hadn't chased down every last one of the fleeing men. They hadn't even stuck around long enough to worry about the wounded left on the field. Why would the humans be going after the monsters if they'd fled?

Gaster's soul gave a startled hitch - wait, they'd left Ammy behind. They'd left Ammy on the front lines and the monsters had lost. Oh no. No no no. This couldn't be happening. Grillby was unconscious, very nearly fallen down. Amathea might be dust on the bottom of some human's heels for all anyone knew.

Gaster was alone.

With one last hit the remaining bone attacks were shattered. Gaster cast one last frantic look at his unconscious friend, mind reeling for what he should do, before strong hands came down on him. They grabbed scrabbling fistfuls of his armor, the skeleton unable to flee anywhere in the confined space. With an angry grunt the human that had grabbed Gaster dragged him backwards, the skeleton writhing around in their grasp uselessly.

"No no no no wait!" Gaster shouted, hands scrabbling up to the fists clenched on his armor, trying to pry them free. He was tossed aside, landing roughly at the muddied feet of another human. There was another at the shelter still, leaning down to look inside for any other monsters, grungy blonde hair falling in their face as they leaned forward. They reached a hand in and - Gaster flicked his wrist, throwing up a hedge of glittering blue attacks and stinging the human's hand away. The human leaped back as if they'd been bitten by a snake, wringing their hand out and glaring in Gaster's direction. Ha! Let them stomp through that.

The blonde scowled, "Well don't just stand there and let it keep throwing magic around! Kill it!"

Immediately Gaster found himself face-to-face with the nearest human's sword, the point glittering dangerously close to his broken eye. Gaster threw his hands up placatingly, a nervous grin splitting his features.

A third human stepped into Gaster's view, a hand at their sword as they paced threateningly forward, "That was a gutsy move there, friend!"

Gaster's soul gave a lurch as they stomped closer, slowly drawing their sword from it's scabbard at their hip. They had incredibly blue eyes for a human, the skeleton noticed. He was used to them looking much more grey or brown. Somehow though, Gaster managed a broken up, nerve-choked laugh.

"That's a good one, really," he squeaked nervously, "Gutsy? Skeleton? Please tell me that joke was on purpose."

All three of the humans stopped in their tracks. Gaster moved his hands slowly, signing shakily as he talked.

"You know," he rambled, "Gutsy like brave…? And then… gutsy like… you know… the stuff skeletons can't have… because… skeletons don't have guts. It's a play on words...? Like... a pun...?"

The human nearest to Gaster took a nervous step back, though that sword still pointed threateningly in his direction. The skeleton gulped.

"Well I mean, if I have to explain it I guess it's not that funny," he commented as an afterthought, wheezing out a terrified laugh.

The blonde was very close to blue-eyes now, and he leaned over to whisper with a shell-shocked kind of rasp, "These demons aren't supposed to speak our language."

Blue-eyes shook his head, "He's speaking in hands."

The smile immediately dropped off of Gaster's face, replaced with a dizzying and gripping feeling of fear. He'd been talking with his hands. He'd been talking with his hands! Just how stupid was he? Blue-eyes - who was looking more and more like the leader of the small group - glanced back at the tree that Gaster's shelter was nestled beneath. Something in they way they looked said they'd pulled a few puzzle pieces in their mind together.

"You're hiding the elemental in there, aren't you?" they said, a growl in their voice.

Gaster blinked, his chest slowly tightening with a buzzing and mounting panic. He glanced up at the human towering over him now, their sword tip having relaxed downward just a bit, but still poised threateningly enough to tear through Gaster's torso at the slightest moment's notice. His gaze flicked back up to the blonde who was creeping back over to the hedge of stinging blue bones Gaster had summoned.

"So what if it's down there? We can't kill it."

Blue-eyes was looking back at Gaster again, face scrunching up in a suspicious glare, "I'm sure we can find a puddle big enough to drown it in."

The skeleton felt his soul lurch around in his chest, and he managed a very shaky laugh, "Oh come now, it's a beautiful day outside! Birds are singing. Flowers are blooming. It'd be a shame to soil such a nice morning with… violence."

The panic building in Gaster's soul was very quickly turning into terror. This couldn't be happening. This couldn't be happening. What could he do? Could he fight them? What even was his HP at? And that blue-eyed human was terrifying - was that childish to think? It was wasn't it? But they knew something that the others didn't. They'd noticed Gaster's hand movements and recognized them, and they knew Gaster was with an elemental. How could they know that? Why did they know that?

The blonde was kneeling down beside Gaster's hedge of bones, looking very much like they were going to try reaching in despite the blue magic that would undoubtedly burn them each time they moved. Through Gaster's haze of fear, confusion and panic one clear thought struck him - he'd rather be beaten to dust before he let anyone drag Grillby through the mud again. No creature alive was ever meant to be in that much pain, let alone twice.

And despite being outnumbered, Gaster did have one thing going for him - even if blue-eyes knew something the others didn't, they still obviously had no idea what Gaster was capable of. Because of course, Gaster was just a frail, helpless little skeleton. And everyone knew skeletons were clever, but also terribly easy to kill. They were only really a threat when they were in large numbers, or when one particularly strong skeleton managed to gain enough LV to become a boss monster.

Gaster was no boss monster, that was for certain. But he also wasn't normal.

With the flick of his wrist Gaster snatched up the soul of the human guarding him and tossed them forward, intending to slam them into blue-eyes. Of course blue dodged out of the way, the staggering swordsman landing instead in a heap in the mud. Gaster scrabbled to his feet, wincing self-consciously as he signed out his next attack. Bones exploded out of the ground, ripping a jagged path towards the three humans. Blue-eyes and the blonde both scrambled out of the way. The stunned swordsman took the brunt of the attack as they staggered to their feet, the bones crashing into their armor and leaching away over a third of their HP in a single go. One of the jagged points ripped a hole in their armor and sent blood spattering across the ground.

Gaster slipped his hands in his pockets, balancing lightly on the balls of his feet as he prepared to dodge. All three humans brandished their weapons in his direction bitterly, Gaster shot them a pensive grin.

Please, please don't let me get dusted before I can get Grillby out of here…!

"Sorry to disappoint you fine human beings," he spat with a nervous chuckle, "But if you really want that elemental, you're gonna have to dust me first."

Blue-eyes came charging forward. As nonchalantly as Gaster could manage, he dodged.

"But that should be so easy for you brave, strong humans right?" the skeleton asked to nothing in particular as he danced around the blonde, who had come running up while Gaster's back was turned.

"After all, I'm just a weak little skeleton," Gaster opened an expecting hand, a bone attack summoning into his grasp. It was unnaturally pointed at the end, a bone sword glittering dully with his purple magic. He smashed it forward, parrying an arcing stroke from the swordsman. His last spin of a dodge set Gaster between the tree and the three humans. All three looked that much more aggravated knowing all of their first attacks had missed. Gaster shrugged his shoulders dramatically.

"Hm, I don't seem to be dust yet. Weird."

The blonde spat in Gaster's direction. The skeleton feigned a disgusted look, "Well aren't you charming."

"Would you shut up?!" the swordsman shouted, brandishing his weapon at Gaster fearlessly. In spite of himself, in spite of the situation, Gaster couldn't help but crack the widest grin. The temptation to shout 'make me!' back almost got the better of him. Instead he just offered another helpless sort of shrug. As he did, row upon row of bones shot towards the three humans that stood against him. The intricate, interlocking attacks forced the humans into a fierce pattern of dodging, all of them being stung once or twice by the needling hits. Gaster scowled.

If he were Amathea or Grillby, these humans would already be dead. Their intent was strong enough to kill humans in just a handful of hits. And here was Gaster, stuck whittling down their health handfuls of HP at a time. But the cuts the sharp edges of the bones made bled, and the humans got weaker and slower. It was blue-eyes that finally managed to close the distance that Gaster had put between him, that sword of theirs swinging in a flurry of strategic strokes at Gaster's head and neck, and his moving hands. Gaster dodged each sword stroke, the summoned weapon in his hand occasionally leaping up to counter with his own.

For a few seconds he was extremely grateful Grillby had given him swordfighting lessons.

Then the other two humans were closing in on him, and it was all Gaster could do to keep out of the reach of their blades. He tried to dodge around them so that they got in each other's' way, his constant movement a circle around their bodies that was a nuisance to keep up with.

It was the blonde that landed the first hit - much to Gaster's surprise. The skeleton had just side-stepped his way away from the swordsman's blade, just barely catching the movement out of the corner of his eye as the blonde brought his sword across in an angry two-handed stroke. It was too fast for Gaster to bring his bone sword around to intercept it. He managed to throw his arm up to block the stroke from its downward plunge towards his face, a growl slithering past his teeth when the blade connected with his forearm. Gaster's chainmail kept the sword from cleaving it off - thank heavens - but he felt the unmistakeable, shivering crack as the force of the hit sent fractures through the fragile bone. The skeleton choked on a gasp as nearly fifty points of his HP were snapped away.

In the next breath Gaster clutched their soul in blue and threw them into blue-eyes, who had been halfway through a deadly swing of their own. They tumbled into one another, blue-eyes catching the sharp edge of his comrade's sword as they fell. Gaster backed away from them, eyes darting warily between the swordsman and the blonde as they stumbled back to their feet. Blue-eyes was slower in rising, clutching at a new slash that had cleaved it's way across his side. Really, they shouldn't have been standing at all. But there was a burning glint in their eye that wouldn't surrender. Gaster took another step back in the face of it, his good hand clutching at his wounded arm. All along the fracture throbbed in pain, and each time he moved burning needles seemed to spring to life along the wound's length.

The humans sprung towards him again. Gaster huffed a sigh through his teeth, shifting his weight on his feet to dodge. He grabbed the wounded blue-eyes' soul in a vice of a grip, and with every ounce of his strength flung the human into the nearest tree. They smashed into the bark-face first, some angry crunch of breaking bone answering the hit before they crumpled to the ground, moaning and barely conscious. Gaster ducked out of the way of swordsman's falling sword.

Fighting two against one was maddening - only barely less so than fighting against all three. It was clear that blonde and swordsman were used to fighting together. Who knows, maybe they had even faced high LV monsters like Amathea before? But whatever the case, Gaster was hard-pressed in ducking past their interchanging sword strokes. Every once in awhile he managed to get enough distance between them to throw forward his bone attacks, leeching away bits and pieces of their HP. Once the blonde managed to thrust a vicious stab at Gaster's ribs. His chainmail had crumpled around the blow, snatching away another huge chunk of HP but thankfully keeping the bone from being broken - though there was a bruising ache there every time Gaster jostled it the wrong way.

The blonde moved in for another one of their heavy hits, the swordsman managing to maneuver them into position past Gaster's interlocking bone attacks and manic dodging. Before they could hit, Gaster grabbed their soul in the fiercest blue he could and tossed them backwards. They slid through the mud, a bitter screech on their lips. The swordsman lunged forward for Gaster, blade leading, and the skeleton just barely managed to ping the human's soul blue in time to send them crumpling to the ground at Gaster's feet. There was a pause where their eyes widened and they scrambled to get their arms underneath them. But Gaster's blue kept crushing them down, only relenting when he sent bone attacks shooting out of the ground and into their stomach and chest.

Gaster dropped the attacks and snapped his gaze up, frowning at the look of anger and that flushed the blonde's face red. They charged forward, sword raised and a dozen curses streaming past their clenched teeth.

Before the human could reach him Gaster pinged their soul blue. He shoved the human back into a nearby tree, knocking the air from their lungs. Then he threw them to one side, then another, until their sword was scattered from their hands and they lay crumbled on the ground still. Gaster dropped them then, his whole body shaking from exhaustion. As soon as he did, the human stirred. The skeleton let out a loud groan in dismay.

He was getting way too tired and too low on magic to deal with this.

But it was almost over. He reformed that sword-like bone attack in his hand, storming forward as the human managed to stumble to their feet. They blinked up at him as he raised the attack back for a powerful two-handed stroke, in their daze just barely managing to bring their hands up to shield their face.

When Gaster's attack came down it crumpled against an invisible shield, shattering instantly in a flurry of sparks and a backfire of magic. The force of the explosive fracturing of his weapon sent Gaster stumbling back, a cry of pain yanking out of his nonexistent throat as his wounded arm cracked a bit deeper from the force of the backlash. Gaster clutched at it fiercely, another pitiful whine yanking past his teeth as the added pressure from his hand twisted a new spiral of pain up his forearm.

After a few seconds Gaster managed to yank his gaze away from his broken arm and up to the human, who looked just as surprised and lost as the skeleton did. Gaster's face twisted into an angry sort of snarl when something before the human caught in the light, some strange warping in the air.

It was a ward. Had that always been there? Or did it just choose to activate itself now, when the blonde was in danger of being killed? Either way Gaster didn't care. A bitter, seething sort of anger was bubbling up in his soul at the amount of pain this one human had caused. Why was it always right when they were about to lose that humans always found some way of making everything worse?! And what was Gaster supposed to do now? Grillby had said something about breaking wards hadn't he? Gaster just had to hit it hard enough, right?

It was obvious already bone attacks weren't a heavy enough attack to get past the inconvenient little shield. Gaster might have just enough magic left to deal with it - he hoped so at least. He needed to do something anyway. Already the human was casting their gaze around, looking for the sword they'd dropped earlier.

Gaster took a deep breath and dug into every last reserve of magic he could possibly possess, feeling the angry yanking on his soul as he summoned forth the gaping jaws of his blaster. The human paled at the sight of it, stumbling a few wary steps back as the loud whine of building magic filled the air. Gaster charged the snarling canon until he couldn't hold the crackling magic any longer, and with a rush of a sigh he released the blaze in a roaring beam of white fire. The human screamed, armed coming up fearfully to shield them once again. From where he stood, Gaster could see a crack shatter across the ward.

But… something was wrong. The white of the beam wasn't fading out.

A blinding light...

...devoured...

.

...Gaster's...

..

...vision...

Everything hurt.

When Gaster came to, that was the first thing he noticed. The second thing he noticed was that everything was burning. His broken arm was a mess of throbbing hot pain and pins and needles. There was an uncomfortable heat in his bones, the bitter smell of scorched earth bit at the inside of his skull. As his eyesight came into focus, he could make out the base of the tree that had served as he and Grillby's shelter during the night. The bones that had covered its entrance were gone. Whether they were burned away or just disintegrated from Gaster's lack of magic, the skeleton couldn't tell. The tree itself was ablaze with a wraithlike white fire, the unnatural power of Gaster's blaster forcing the wet bark to burn.

Gaster wheezed out a painful laugh. The ward had shot his attack back at him.

Grillby had said something about that too, hadn't he?

Gaster should've seen that coming.

Augh everything hurt so badly.

Gaster became aware of the sound of footsteps shuffling around behind him. The human. The human was still alive. Of course they were still alive. Would the world really be normal if they hadn't miraculously survived all that?

Come to think of it, Gaster was kind of surprised he himself had survived. Huh. Weird. That probably wasn't going to last long. Coughing painfully, Gaster rolled onto his stomach. He couldn't stop the cry of pain that squeezed past his gritted teeth when he jostled his broken arm. He managed to pull himself onto his knees, cradling his wounded arm against his chest. He settled his slightly-out-of-focus gaze on the human, who was pulling a sword away from what was left of one of their comrades.

Gaster should be standing up. Really he should.

He should be trying to grab that human's soul with blue.

Or throwing forward some bone attacks.

At the very least he should be begging for his life, like any respectable monster would do when faced with a determined human and a severe lack of any magic to defend themselves with.

But Gaster did none of these things. Mostly because he already realized it didn't matter. Gaster had killed two of this creature's friends. Were they friends? Yeah, probably. He had beat the thing nearly to death. He'd threatened twice to end it's life - and failed miserably both times. Now he was out of magic and out of luck. And from the look in that human's eyes - a bitter smile wormed it's way across Gaster's teeth - mercy wasn't what the human wanted to give to anyone right now. The way they brandished that sword, soaked in their comrade's blood, they didn't intend on listening to any final cries from some half-dead monster who wasn't worth the trouble.

Gaster really didn't blame them.

Though he had to admit, he had never really imagined he'd go out like this. Well, he'd never imagined dying, actually. Out of the thousands of things that Gaster had mused and guessed about, the way he would die was not one of them. It was far too pessimistic a thing to think about. But if he had wondered about something like that, he severely doubted he would've come up with this specific scenario. This was one of those flashy hero deaths, where the guy went out trying to protect their friend in some valiant show of ultimate loyalty. That was the kind of death monsters like Amathea or Grillby would end up having. Not Gaster. He wasn't brave. He obviously wasn't strong, or he wouldn't be in this situation in the first place.

The human closed the distance between them, shambling forward brokenly but with grim purpose. Gaster cracked a rueful grin at them as they approached, mildly disappointed in himself for not being able to come up with some witty final last words. His soul gave a fearful flutter in his chest as the human stopped before him, face twisted in an angry sort of snarling scowl. They let out a grunt as they hefted their sword towards their shoulder. Gaster watches the movement, his soul going sick in his chest with a strange mix of apathy and regret.
Just before the sword swung down Gaster flinched and closed his eyes.

The air was split with a shattering crack.

Gaster huffed out a surprised breath past his clenched teeth. That sound had come from behind him. The skeleton flicked his gaze up to the human, who had taken a step backwards in surprise, eyes glued on the space behind Gaster's shoulder. Gaster twisted around to look back.

The tree had a giant crack up through its center, splintering just slightly wider as the skeleton watched. The ghostly flame that had been devouring it was being sacked inside, ripping charing angrily at the bark before finally releasing and crackling away.

For a few moments there was deafening silence.

And then a hand, glowing with white fire reached out of the makeshift cave. Slowly, crackling bitterly from the effort to move, Grillby pulled himself out of the shelter and into the daylight. He pulled himself to his feet, wraithlike sparks and whisps of flame rippling away from him with every move he made. There was a pause where the elemental took in the scene before him, and then Grillby was stepping forward. He didn't say a word, only focused on dragging each foot in front of the other, weak but intent.

Gaster winced as the human dropped their sword, staggering back away from the skeleton as Grillby advanced. They brought their hands up to defend themselves, probably praying the miracle ward that had saved them from Gaster would save them from the elemental as well. But as soon as Grillby's fiery hands touched the magical shield, horror wrote it's way across their face. Whatever heat Grillby was exuding was intense, intense enough for even the skeleton to feel it brush across his bones when the elemental stalked past him.

When his hands met the invisible shield, it sparked and then warped like melting glass. The crack that Gaster had scored into its surface shivered open wider as the magical defense collapsed. Grillby leaned his weight against it, flickering in that furious white light, braced against the flying sparks as the shield tried and failed to deflect something that wouldn't relent.

With a resounding crack it finally shattered completely, and as it did Grillby fell forward into the human now cowering before him. His molten form encompassed the pitiful creature, clinging to their skin as it began to melt and burn away. They curled onto the ground screeching, only inhale that angry flame in a gasp that seared then from the inside out. Abruptly their struggling and screaming stopped, overtaken by the sound of their body burning away into nothing.

Gaster blinked, a strange mix of gratefulness and confusion tugging at his soul. He watched what was left of the human crumble and burn away, blinking worriedly at the flame that consumed it - the flame that very much should be an elemental and right now looked like nothing more that a regular fire. Had... had Grillby just...?

What little gratefulness Gaster had managed to feel in his soul was immediately washed away by panic.

"Grillby?"

He scrambled to stand, letting out a painful gasp when his legs disagreed with the motion and he was instead sent pitching over to the side. Gaster managed to push himself back onto his knees, whining at every jostle of his broken arm.

"Grillby!" he called again, his voice giving a panicked crack, "You moron! You cannot be dead after I just about dusted myself saving you. You hear me?!"

The flame before him gave the barest of out-of-the-ordinary flickers, like it had just blinked into wakefulness. Then the white flame seemed to gather itself together, leeching away from what was left of the human and amalgamating together into a tottering, standing form. Grillby stood there a moment, swaying in his feet unsteadily before sinking to the ground again. This time, instead of just collapsing into a puddle of fire he managed to maintain his form. And as Gaster watched, the white of the blaster fire Grillby had absorbed slowly started burning itself away. It was replaced with the dull, red flame of the very exhausted elemental's normal fire.

Grillby stared back at Gaster, the familiar flickerings of an exhausted smile just barely giving his red flame the slightest hues of orange.

"I suppose that would be pretty rude of me," the elemental said weakly, his voice a sputter of smoke and relief.

Gaster grinned. He grinned and he laughed, relief washing over him in waves. Thank heavens. Thank everything. He laughed even as his whole body started shaking, his fear and panic from before finally catching up with him. And then he wasn't laughing anymore. He was sobbing, his good hand clasped against his face as if that could stop his hysterical tears from falling. His arm throbbed. His soul ached. Every part of his body burned with one tingling pain or another. He'd almost died. He'd almost... he'd…

At some point during his breakdown, Grillby crawled over the him. He wrapped the distraught skeleton up in a hug, seeping the most comforting kind of warmth Gaster had ever felt in his life. He hugged Grillby as best as he could back, finger bones grasping at the elemental's back while he buried his face against his shoulder. He winced every time a tear fell against Grillby's body, but Grillby himself didn't so much as flinch, didn't once move to pull away. He just held the shaking skeleton as he shuddered and cried. After what seemed like half an eternity of Gaster convincing himself he was crying over nothing and that he needed to pull himself together, the skeleton managed to speak.

He let out a miserable laugh that sounded just a little too much like a sob to be genuine, "This war is way too death-y for my taste, firefly."

Grillby's shoulders hitched, and Gaster couldn't tell if it was it was in laughter or a sob of his own.

"Me too."

Chapter Text

It was Grillby who eventually brought both of them back to reality, the elemental breaking their embrace when he was sure Gaster wouldn’t break into any further hysterics.

“We need to find camp;” Grillby explained tiredly, his voice still ragged and hoarse, “There’s bound to be more humans where they came from. They’ll be crawling all over these hills looking for monsters.”

“But why?” Gaster asked, distraught, “Why the hell do they even bother? If we’ve lost, we’ve lost. They don’t have to exterminate us.”

Grillby sputtered a few weary sparks, “It’s a route.”

Gaster blinked at him, lost.

“It’s easier to wipe out an army that’s running than it is when they’re fighting back,” Grillby explained in a low voice, “We need to keep moving, and we need to hide.”

The elemental swept his gaze across Gaster, taking in the scuffs and scrapes that littered the skeleton’s frame. He carried himself hunched over, as if something were wrong with his ribs. And then of course there was the very obvious break in his arm - that had to be hurting him terribly.

Grillby himself still felt weak. He’d barely been conscious when he’d realized the tree above him was on fire, and the magic he’d absorbed from it was only just enough to get him standing. He wished for nothing more than to curl up on the ground and sleep. Sleep until he felt better. Sleep until someone found him and finally choked his flame out. He dreaded now standing up and trying to continue on, knowing any moment their doom could collapse on top of them. And… as much as he hated to admit it to himself, Grillby was afraid. He’d… never felt so mortal in his life.

If it weren’t for Gaster, he’d be dust.

It was with a bitter resolve in his soul that Grillby decided, no matter what, he was going to get them back to safety. Even if it took everything he had left. Besides, Amathea would kill them if they didn’t show up at some point. Or she’d tear apart the entire countryside looking for them.

“Can you stand?” Grillby asked finally, and Gaster snorted out a bitter laugh.

“Maybe. Can you?”

The elemental gave a short laugh of his own, “We’ll see.”

With a groan he pulled himself to his feet, his legs feeling heavy as led and weak as a fawn’s. His whole body felt exhausted and shaky, it took a concentrated effort to make sure he didn’t lose his form again. Grillby’s vision tilted subtly. But after a few seconds of swaying and searching for a balance that should have been natural and now seemed impossible, the elemental managed to stay on his feet. Gaster followed suit, groaning painful breaths past his clenched teeth with every movement.

It took them both a mighty effort to shamble to their shelter and grab the rest of their belongings from inside. Grillby hazarded to re-equip his tunic and boots at least, wincing when the still damp fabric burned against his core. But it was better than nothing, and he knew with as weak as he was it would be impossible to try and walk in armor. Gaster switched out his chainmail for his robes as well, sighing a bit with relief when the extra weight was cast off. At least now it would be a little easier to walk.

Then, leaning close to each other for support, the two broken monsters started walking.

“Scattered Hills Camp,” Gaster mumbled as they went, “That’s where Ammy said they’d be. There should be a river south of here. It’ll take us in that general direction.”

Grillby gulped down the nauseous feeling of fear that tightened the elemental’s throat, “We don’t… have to cross the river do we?”

Gaster paused, frowning. The look in his eyes was haunted, fearful, “Uh… I’m sure… I’m sure I’ll be able to use blue by then. I can carry you across.”

Something in Grillby’s soul twisted, a worming sensation of dread creeping inside of him and his voice shivered, “... I can’t do that again.”

“I know, firefly.”

“I can’t cross a river, Gaster.”

Gaster nodded, offering Grillby a pat on the shoulder, “We’ll figure something out.”

Grillby tried to convince himself the shaking feeling overtaking him was exhaustion.

Eventually the two lapsed into silence, Gaster nudging them in a certain direction and Grillby concentrating on walking and listening. Every sound he heard sent a shiver through his core, every movement out of the corner of his eye startled him. If humans found them, they were as good as dead. Grillby’s core churned nervously. If humans found them…

Their pensive silence stretched on for hours, only ever broken when one or the other staggered and almost fell. Several times during the day they stopped, either because they had to rest or because they were sure they’d heard something that was worth hiding from. They spoke little, both too tired and too intent on their surroundings to bother. Once or twice in the distance they heard things, fractured shouts that bounced across the landscape too distorted to tell if they were from friend or foe - or from a fight between both.

When evening fell on them, they found some bushes to crawl into and huddled there for the night, one keeping watch while the other slept. Grillby took the first watch, too pensive to sleep even with how exhausted he felt. After all, the last time he’d slept, Gaster had almost been dusted. That was different, he told himself. He had no control over that. If he could’ve woken up any sooner he would have.

Just the thought of it made Grillby’s insides churn dismayingly.

Gaster curled up beside the elemental, wounded arm held close to his chest in an effort to keep it still as he slept. He stayed close to Grillby, soaking in the elemental’s natural heat as the chill of the night set in. And Grillby watched his surroundings as intently as he possibly could, hood pulled low over his face in an attempt to keep as much of his light hidden as possible. It took a mighty effort not to snap his head in the direction of any sound he heard, to convince himself not every rustle of leaves or falling branch was a pack of humans sweeping the forest for monsters to dust. Sometime around midnight Grillby couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer and was forced to wake Gaster so he could sleep.

Hours later, Grillby awoke to Gaster gently tapping his shoulder.

The minute his eyes opened Gaster was motioning for him to be quiet, a bony finger pressed against his teeth warningly. His eyes darted back to the space behind Grillby’s shoulder. Then elemental felt a shiver run through his core, and slowly as possible he looked back, gaze locking on the tall form of an armored human alarmingly close to him. They stood between two trees on a piece of higher ground, eyes scanning what of the forest unfurled below them that they could see. They looked ragged, armor covered in scarring from fighting, the dull sheen of dust coating it in places and blood spattering others. They had no real weapons to speak of. Once Grillby glanced what could have been a dagger on their belt. What really concerned him though was the horn they held in their hand, ready to sound a warning at any given moment.

They were a scout of some kind, the elemental decided after scrutinizing them a few moments longer. There was likely some force of men nearby, waiting for them to return and tell of any groups of roving monsters they’d managed to spot.

Gaster moving in Grillby’s peripheral grabbed the elemental’s attention back. Wincing slightly, the skeleton signed as best he could with only one arm to work with. It took some repeating, but Grillby got the gist of it.

What do we do?

The elemental shook his head, signing slowly back, we wait.

Gaster paused, eyes darting back up to the human before signing, if it sees us?

Grillby flickered a frown that was too subtle for Gaster to really see, we run.

The skeleton nodded, focusing the rest of his attention on the human instead of questioning further. He knew he was in no shape to fight. Grillby wondered if the short, uncomfortable rest Gaster had been allowed was even enough to replenish any magic. Grillby himself still felt starved, an empty pit where his energy should be. He might be able to fight, but he didn’t think he’d manage it for long.

They lay in wait for what felt like an eternity, willing the human to leave so they could make some escape. Finally, the human moved on, backtracking towards the north where whatever company they were moving with was sure to be waiting. Still the two monsters refused to move until they were sure the human would be too far away to spot them, and too unlikely to come walking back for anything. Then Grillby pulled Gaster to his feet, both of them taking a minute to regain feeling in their sleepy legs before they started off again. They staggered away as fast as they thought they could manage, dragging one foot in front of the other and constantly looking back over their shoulders.

“That was a scout,” Grillby explained in a whisper.

“Well if we’re lucky it’s just the one, then,” the skeleton breathed back, wincing as every step sent a jolt of pain through his arm and his ribs, “Scouts go before how many warriors? Eight? Ten?”

Grillby shrugged, “Maybe. If there really is just one.”

Gaster nodded forlornly, his face twisting into a frown, “Should we… I dunno… walk at night or something? Find some place to hide during the day?”

Grillby managed to crackle a tired chuckle, “Oh yeah sure. If you feel like walking beside a giant torch in the middle of the night.”

“Technically you’re still a torch in the middle of the day.”

“Yeah, a much less noticeable one.”

Gaster gave a helpless shrug, immediately regretting the motion when it yanked a hiss of pain through his teeth. The elemental flickered a frown at him.

“You alright? That’s not leaking away HP is it?”

The skeleton gave a rueful laugh, “Thankfully no. The damage is already done. It won’t take anything else out of me unless I break it more - and we’re going to hope I don’t do anything to make that happen.”

A pause passed between them where Grillby scanned the world around them and Gaster nudged them in a different direction, trying to get them headed south again.

“If you want,” Grillby offered, “We could stop for a few minutes and you could heal it.”

“With what magic, firefly?” Gaster laughed, “I’m fresh out, and I’m not so much as touching your soul until you’ve seen a real doctor.”

He frowned at the ground as it passed beneath his feet, letting the conversation trail off. There was a painful sort of haunted look that ghosted across his features, and he gave a withering sigh, “I should… probably be checking that actually.”

“That bad, huh?” Grillby hummed, morbid curiosity and fear writhing around in his soul. He’d intentionally been ignoring his stats ever since they’d started walking. He didn’t need to know just how bad his HP still was - how fragile he had become. He didn’t want to know. It was just one more thing to worry about. One more reason to fear being discovered. At least for now he could pretend he was just tired, and not on the brink of flickering out like a candle in a gust of wind.

Gaster’s voice, quiet and weary, dragged the elemental out of his thoughts, “... I didn’t think… you were going to wake up.”

Grillby looked away, flickering a weak frown as the skeleton continued.

“If I had been seconds slower… you wouldn’t even be here,” he whispered, “And even after I started sewing your soul together you still passed out.”

Gaster wheezed out a miserable laugh, “I was… afraid… when I woke up… you’d just be...”

He ushered his hand towards nothing in particular, as if the motion alone could somehow explain the way he’d felt. As if it could encompass the fear, the hopelessness, everything he’d been faced with. Grillby placed a comforting hand on Gaster’s back.

“Well I’m not falling down anytime soon,” Grillby said as optimistically as he could manage. Gaster didn’t respond.

Hours passed away in vigilant silence, the two monsters focusing on the task of getting to safety as quickly as possible - especially knowing there were humans somewhere behind them. Twice Grillby glimpsed the scout through the trees again, and they were forced to scramble for some place to hide while they waited for the creature to pass them by. Each time the human passed though, Grillby noticed they looked just that much more intent. They knew there was something out here.

The human came and went. The two monsters held their breath as they waited for the sound of footsteps to fade away. They continued on.

They hadn’t managed to walk more than an hour or so before a horn blast shook the air, making both monsters flinch in surprise. Grillby’s soul gave a fearful shudder as he spun around to look back the way they’d come. Sure enough, there was the scout that had been following them all day, standing proudly on the crest of the hill they’d just clambered over. Somewhere in the distance behind them, far away but still too close for comfort, an answering call resounded back.

The two monsters exchanged a look, turned and ran.

Gaster laughed past gritted teeth, “Well, it was nice knowing you Grillby.”

The elemental sparked bitterly, yanking his hood low over his head in the hopes it would make him a little less visible, “How much farther until we reach the river?”

Gaster made a senseless motion with his hand, “Firefly I know what the map looks like, not the exact distance away we are!”

Grillby felt his chest tighten, fear worming its way across his core, “Well let’s pray it’s close then!”

They ran and staggered, slipping on fallen leaves and dodging curling roots, all the while listening as shouts broke up behind them. The ground was rough, every hill they climbed was grueling and the steep slopes were just as much a hindrance while climbing upwards as it was while trying to descend. The brush was clumped just close enough together that it slowed their run, but just far enough apart that they could still be seen for some distance. The only good news was it hindered the humans as much as it did the monsters.

They scrambled their way up one particularly steep hill, Grillby grabbing ahold of saplings and some of their spiraling roots as he tried to pull himself up. Gaster was right beside him, his good hand clinging to Grillby’s shoulder so the elemental could help him up. They stopped at the hill’s crest, Grillby shooting a panicked glance over his shoulder to the movement below them. The scout that had sounded the alarm was running his way to the base of the hill they’d just climbed, and the elemental could make out the scrambling shapes several paces behind them.

“Well, that sucks,” Gaster said breathlessly, “We’re trapped.”

Grillby snapped his attention back to the ground in front of him, flickering dismayingly. Just a few steps ahead, the world dropped off in front of them. Grillby stepped closer, peering down over the edge. His soul writhed in his chest at the height.

Gaster shifted on his feet, daring to look back, “If we run along the edge we might be able to find a way down before they cut us off...”

“We’re going to jump.”

Are you insane?!” Gaster shrieked, “Falls like that kill people!

“I don’t take physical damage,” Grillby pointed out.

“Well I can,” Gaster shouted, “And I don’t feel like dying today!”

Grillby scowled, “I’m going to break your fall, Gaster. Now come on!

Before the skeleton could protest further, Grillby had clamped a hand on his arm and dragged him closer. In a swift movement he’d picked the skeleton up in his arms and took a few running paces towards the ledge.

Gaster dug his fingers into the fabric of Grillby’s tunic, screaming with every step the elemental took forward, “God damn it Grillby if you kill me I will haunt you for the rest of your life!”

Grillby closed his eyes and jumped.

For several sickening seconds there was a feeling of utter fear and weightlessness in Grillby’s soul. The wind howled past his face almost as loudly as Gaster was screaming. Grillby clutched the skeleton tightly, waiting expectantly for the impact of the ground against his feet.

A low hanging tree branch was the first thing that slowed their fall. Grillby let out a surprised shout as he crunched through the bark, snapping the limb in two. The fall from there to the ground was short, and Grillby found himself on his back in the grass, his entire core shuddering from the landing. He blinked up at the sky, the broken tree limb swaying menacingly above him. Gaster still clung to him, motionless and quiet, though Grillby could feel him shaking slightly.

“Are you dead?”

There was a pause, and then Gaster shifted, crawling away from the elemental and collapsing face-first into the ground.

“I’m telling Ammy you tried to kill me,” he whined.

Grillby coughed a laugh, slowly dragging himself to his feet, “You know, I don’t think she’ll care.”

He helped Gaster stand, pausing once to glance up at the fall they’d taken. The hillside before them was mostly rock and scattered clinging weeds, a few trees like the one that Grillby had fallen into clinging in some of the stone crevices. At the very top, gaping down at the monsters, was the scout they’d been running from. Their gaze met Grillby’s for a moment before they were shuffling away from the ledge, their voice bouncing down the wall as they shouted instructions back at the humans following them.

Gaster was already making his way along the wall, walking as fast as he could as he picked his way across. Grillby jogged to catch up with him.

“It’ll take them awhile to find a way down,” Grillby called, “We should break south while we still can.”

Gaster shook his head, pointing upwards with his good hand, “That scout just called for archers to get ready. We’re better off staying by the wall.”

Grillby sparked a frown, oh brilliant.

Gaster waved his arm in a grand gesture, “Besides, if we keep running south, won’t they get the idea that we’re trying to make it somewhere specific?”

Grillby huffed a sigh, “Maybe. But it’s the best chance we’ve got.”

The skeleton shrugged; about to say something else when the sharp crack of an arrow rebounding off the rocks beside him cut him off. Grillby looked up in time to see three archers readying to fire, a fourth refitting a new arrow onto their bow. The elemental lurched forward and shoved Gaster towards an overhang in the rock, just in time to feel the shuddering impacts of a pair of arrows sinking into his core. The intent behind him made him stagger, his fire giving a bitter shudder. Then he jolted forward again after Gas-

Gaster?

Grillby slowed his staggering run into a confused jog. Gaster was… gone? To his left was just the rock wall of the hill side. To his right, rolling hilly forest. Before him, where his friend should be running there was nothing. What… what in the world…? A wall of worry hit him and he froze. Was Gaster hit? Was Gaster gone? A surge of panic welled up in Grillby’s chest.

That was when a hand grabbed him by the fabric of his shirt and practically pulled him off his feet. He was dragged out of the open and thrown roughly into the ground in a… cave? Grillby hissed painfully when he was shoved down onto the ground, the earth here damp against his core and stinging like needles. There was a heavy boot pressed against the small of his back, keeping him pinned against the wet earth. His soul gave a painful, shuddering lurch when some of his HP was leeched away.

Grillby managed to raise his head a little to look around. Just ahead of him, Gaster was on his knees, close enough that Grillby could reach out a hand for him if he wanted to. But he didn’t move. Even in the dim light he could see the skeleton signing something over and over again, his face a fearful grimace.

Don’t move. Whatever you do, don’t move.

Chapter Text

Grillby was a bitter mix of fear and confusion. But from the frantic warning Gaster was signing him, he decided for now that trying to fight back against whatever had grabbed him was a bad idea. He wished he knew why. He wished he could move his own hands to ask. He really wished he wasn’t forced to lie against the damp ground the way he was. He could already feel it seeping into his clothes, and it hurt. Every few seconds he felt the aching jolt through his soul that said he was losing HP. It couldn’t be taking off more than one or two points at a time, but Grillby already didn’t have much to begin with. He wondered how long he could stay like this.

As best he could, Grillby looked around. The cave was shallow. Grillby could just make out the back of it past Gaster’s shoulder. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Grillby could make out the shady form of something up against the wall behind Gaster, and the slight glitter of metal. He could feel the presence of whoever was on top of him, and some sinking feeling in his soul told him these two creatures that had grabbed them weren’t the only ones in the cave.

What really baffled the elemental was how he’d missed the cave’s entrance when he’d been looking for Gaster outside. It was large enough to be obvious. He should have seen it. How hadn’t he…?

There was noise behind him, the shuffle of pensive footsteps as shouts resounded just outside their hiding place. The soldiers were coming. Grillby looked back over to Gaster, a questioning frown sparking across his features. The skeleton kept his eyes glued forward to what Grillby couldn’t see, slowly signing.

They can’t find us. Two just ran past.

There was a pause and Gaster frowned, spreading out towards the forest now.

The lights of his eyes darted towards something closer, a kid. Using magic.

Whatever was crouched behind Gaster moved, that glint of metal moving with them to prod the skeleton in the side. Immediately, the skeleton stopped signing, flinching away from his captor just slightly. For what it was worth, Grillby managed to shoot them the nastiest glare he could manage. If they noticed, they didn’t react.

They waited, Grillby tense against the cold and damp that was slowly seeping into his core and Gaster obediently still and terrified. Eventually, the sounds of searching faded off into the distance, whatever pressure that was keeping Grillby pinned shifted impatiently. Soft voices started whispering back and forth to each other. Grillby could make out the harsh, jittering tones of human speech. The one above him was male he knew, older sounding and harsh. The one that argued back was higher pitched and weary, words clipped and answers short.

As subtly as he could manage, Gaster started signing a translation.

Don’t know what to do with us. Man wants to kill us. Woman not so much.

Grillby frowned. The motion Gaster made was one he hadn't seen before.

Guy says - that word again - kill thousands. Wouldn’t run unless too weak to fight.

In spite of their situation, Grillby noticed a spark of humor in Gaster’s expression, thinks he can kill you with a canteen full of water.

Grillby shuddered.

Woman says he’s being stupid. We’re all running from the same thing.

The skeleton’s hands went still as he waited for a new turn in the conversation. Apparently the two humans were arguing each other in circles, their voices harsh and bitter whispers. At some length, the weight pinning Grillby down shifted, the man grumbling some last protest under his breath as he let the elemental free. Grillby blinked at Gaster, who signed simply.

Be slow.

Grillby did what he was told, rising slowly to his feet. As he did so, the human who had been so insistently shushing Gaster moved into the open, joining the rest of the group at the front of the cave. Grillby gave a surprised flicker when he realized they were a child, a boy just barely too young to join the human armies. They joined four others who huddled at the front of the little cave. The man that had been holding him down was older, grey-haired and sour-faced. He was brandishing a canteen fearlessly in Grillby’s direction, and had a battered sword sheathed at his hip. The woman behind him was probably the same age as him, her long hair tied with a cord into a pony-tail, grey mingling with what was probably once very fair brown hair. They had two children with them, two young girls no more than thirteen years old. The taller of the two proudly wore a necklace inscribed with the monster nation’s delta rune. It glowed slightly, magical energy humming through it.

A tense silence stretched between the humans and the monsters, neither knowing what to do about the other. Finally, the man said something, voice gruff and demanding. Grillby and Gaster exchanged a glance. Gaster signed subtly.

Wants to talk to you.

Grillby flickered an anxious spark, “Why?”

The skeleton shrugged, “You’re an elemental. He probably figures out of the two of us, you’re the guy in charge.”

Grillby sighed, frowning, “You speak human well enough to translate?”

As if to answer his question, the skeleton turned and spoke to the man in front of him. He signed his words so Grillby at least could understand what the skeleton was saying.

What would you like to know?

The entire group of humans seemed taken aback by this, the two adults especially exchanging a look of surprise. They hadn’t expected either of the monsters to speak their language, apparently. The man spoke to them warily, Gaster signing as his words as he talked.

“There are soldiers all over these hills. That’s from your battle isn’t it? We heard they had cornered a large army on the hills to the north.”

Grillby flickered a frown. Why would they be wondering about that? Well, he supposed these humans weren’t exactly soldiers. None of them wore any armor, and outside of the man speaking, none seemed to have any kind of weapons either. Their clothing was ragged and mis-matched, patched together in some places while others were left with new holes and stains. They looked very much like a family running from the war. Grillby realized he and Gaster looked pretty similar right about now.

“Yes, we came from the battle there,” Grillby said slowly, pausing with each sentence so Gaster could relay his words, “We were separated from the others while we fled.”

“Where are you going?”

Grillby frowned, cautiously answering, “Why do you ask?”

There was a pause where the man and the woman exchanged a few words, which Gaster basically translated to them asking should we tell them anything? It was clear their whispered argument wasn’t doing much other than waste time and make their children nervous. The two girls huddled a little closer to each other, the boy looking back and forth between the arguing humans confusedly.

Gaster sighed, “Well at this rate, we might make it back to camp by next spring.”

Grillby crackled a quiet laugh, his color flickering slightly into brighter oranges, “Pretty sure Ammy will have torn apart the countryside by then.”

The elemental paused and then whispered, “Tell them we owe them a debt of gratitude for hiding us, and they don’t have anything to fear from us.”

“And why am I telling them this?”

Grillby looked back up at the small family, the adults still whispering suspiciously amongst themselves. Since the two monsters had begun talking, their voices had dropped even lower, the man especially suspicious of the tones in their voices, wary about what they could be planning.

“The woman said earlier we were all running from the same thing,” Grillby hummed, “And then they asked where we were going. If they’re fleeing the army as well, they probably think they’ll be safe wherever the monsters are hiding. Or this is a very elaborate trap. But somehow I seriously doubt that.”

“I’m going to remind you that we’re both half dusted and couldn’t escort a fleeing family anywhere, let alone protect them if they asked us to,” Gaster grumbled, and Grillby shrugged.

“I offered to heal you.”

“Yeah, and I reminded you that you’re a moron,” the skeleton scowled.

The angry tone in his voice snapped up the attention of the humans who had now gone silent listening to them talk back and forth. With a bitter sigh, Gaster started translating to them, his hands moving wincingly as he signed out his words as well. He told them the two monsters were grateful, and had no intent to harm, tacking on a quick apology for raising his voice and scaring them.

He paused, glancing over at Grillby, before saying, “You asked where we were headed. We are on our way to a camp we were promised would be near here. I… seriously doubt we will make it there in one piece though, especially with the soldiers hunting monsters down.”

The man and the woman exchanged a few whispers before he said, “Maybe we can help each other.”

Grillby gave a nervous flicker.

“There is a river south of here, and past it, the forest is said to be cursed. The soldiers won’t follow us there. No one who goes in has been known to come out again,” the man frowned in the direction of the children before saying, “We wouldn’t be going there ourselves if we didn’t have to. But Cris knows magic, and Col is old enough now that the army will take him. If we can just get across the river, they will be safe from this mess. With the soldiers running through here, though, we won’t be able to make it. They shoot at anything that moves, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

Grillby was suddenly very conscious of the arrows still lodged in his shoulder. A normal human wouldn’t be able to recover from such a thing without a doctor to help them. He shuddered to think of how it would affect a child.

“We know you’re wounded and weak,” the man continued, “But Cris knows healing magic, and we have some food we can share. In return, we need protection.”

Gaster tilted his head at Grillby, a humorless smile on his teeth, “So would you like to tell them now or later that if we take them across the river we’ll be walking them straight into an angry monster camp?”

The elemental crackled a weary sigh, “We need their help, Gaster.”

“Well yeah,” Gaster laughed bitterly, “But we can’t exactly thank them for their help by throwing them to the wolves.”

“Our word has to count for something;” Grillby said stubbornly, “Monsters aren’t cruel. If we explain the situation we were put in, surely they would let the family go.”

“There’s a fine line between cruel and overly cautious, firefly,” Gaster hummed, “And assuming they do let the family go, do you think they’ll ever let a young magic user just walk away? Knowing if she ends up with the army, she’s going to turn into that thing that almost killed you?”

Grillby felt a creeping dread latch onto his soul at the mere thought. It made him feel sick, churning around inside him with bitter anxiety. But Gaster was already talking again, hands moving as he signed out words Grillby wasn’t paying attention to anymore, his voice a garbled mess of incoherent human speech. Grillby’s eyes had wandered over to that little girl who suddenly held just a little more menace than she had before. She would be a mage someday.

Gaster agreed to the human’s terms.  

With the evening fast approaching them, they settled into the little cave for the night. Grillby found a dry-ish corner to sit in and stayed there, watching quietly as the small family went about the business of building a fire and passing out their food for the evening. Gaster stayed beside him, making quiet observations as they went. The man’s name he learned was Brom, and he seemed to be an elder of some sort, perhaps a grandfather to the children. The woman was his sister, Alesia. The child mage was Cris, her sister Eva. Col seemed to be their brother.

The little family passed around a meager dinner of bread and jerky, and after they’d eaten Alesia brought the monsters a small portion for themselves. It was a meal Grillby had probably eaten a thousand times in his life, but never before had it tasted so good to him. A small amount of the void where his magic should be filled itself, his fire burned with a new sort of warmth. Gaster beside him seemed to feel the same way. The skeleton dug into his meal gratefully, sighing happily when he was finished and some of his HP had been replenished.

When they were finished, Alesia brought Cris over to them, and the human girl worked on healing them. She started with Gaster, placing her hands delicately on his arm and whispering quiet incantations at the wound. Her magic was weak. Grillby could just barely feel it’s presence emanating from where he sat. But her intent to heal was comforting and persistent, and within a few moments the angry fracture in Gaster’s arm had diminished to a few hair-thin cracks. The girl lacked the skill needed to heal the wound the rest of the way, but regardless by the time she was finished Gaster could move the arm in the grand gestures he was used to with only a dull ache echoing back at him.

Then she moved on to Grillby. As soon as she began healing, a strange sort of questioning expression crossed her face. She said something to Alesia with a quiet smile. Gaster smirked.

“She says your soul feels so big and empty,” the skeleton hummed, “And that she’s never felt anything like it before.”

“Most people haven’t,” Grillby answered quietly.

The girl smiled warmly, “Well, I’ll consider myself lucky then.”

She worked on Grillby as long as she could before Alesia deemed the girl was draining away too much of her own magic to continue. Then she ushered the little girl away, instructing her to get a good night’s rest. The family huddled close together near the entrance of the cave, Brom keeping a silent watch as the night went on.

Gaster elbowed Grillby gently, catching his attention, “You okay, firefly?”

“I’m worried,” the elemental answered with a nervous spark, “But… I’m glad luck was on our side for once.”

The skeleton snorted a laugh, “No kidding. Let’s just hope these guys’ intentions are as transparent as they seem.”

Grillby nodded, lapsing into silence again. He leaned back against the wall behind him, wincing just slightly at the prickling cold and damp there, but glad he had enough strength in him to fan his core warmer to combat it. It had been three days, and already he’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be normal, to feel strong. He wasn’t in pain. He didn’t feel faint, or like his core was about to collapse in on itself. And while he still didn’t feel whole, he definitely burned brighter.

“You think Ammy’s still waiting for us to come back?” Grillby asked suddenly, and Gaster frowned beside him.

“... Do you think Ammy’s actually alive?” he countered, his voice and hands still with worry.

The elemental sighed out a breath of smoke, “I don’t know.”

When Grillby slept that night, he dreamed of rain. He dreamed of stinging, acid-like needles that clawed at him as they fell from the sky so thick and gray the world was a haze before it. He dreamed about a human whose face was a snarl as they glared at him in defiance, and the screaming spell that brought the whole of heaven down on top of them.

He awoke the next morning to Gaster gently shaking him and telling him if he burned any hotter he’d start catching things on fire. The family was watching the two monsters with concern, especially the frantic elemental that had somehow managed to burn white-hot in his sleep. Grillby mumbled a soft apology to them and hurriedly worked on containing himself as they passed around breakfast. Morning was a few hours old by the time they staggered into the sunlight and began their trek south.

Grillby and Gaster moved much faster now that they were healed and recuperated on some level. Gaster stayed close to Brom, the two talking quietly about where they were headed and how they were supposed to keep going in the right direction. It was strange seeing Gaster working side-by-side with a human. It was strange walking in their company, together, with no one trying to harm the other. It was strange watching their children play and complain, strange to watch a young mage use her magic to do silly things like blow leaves in her siblings’ faces and jump a few steps further away when they were playing tag.

Gaster and Brom stayed at the front, while the kids walked and played shortly behind them. Meanwhile, Alesia seemed to have taken a liking to Grillby, or perhaps she was just keeping a watchful eye on him. Either way, she walked shortly beside him, the two bringing up the end of the small procession of people. She spoke sometimes, mostly to the children, corralling them closer when they started to wander. But sometimes she spoke to Grillby, or to no one, and the elemental could do nothing more than flicker at her questioningly. After all, he understood nothing of their language.

By noon they were seeing signs of the soldiers again, and the light optimism the family seemed to be emanating immediately sobered. They clumped together, ushering the two monsters to walk close with them as well. Cris murmured a spell and they walked on in silence. When Grillby gave Gaster a questioning look, the skeleton signed with a look of muted wonder on his face.

Invisible.

It was like this that they passed the soldiers they’d seen the day before, the group of them having stopped to rest in the afternoon warmth. Gaster had fun making obscene gestures at the scout that had spotted them the day before. Grillby was a little too paranoid to join in the fun, worrying too much on what would happen if the girl’s spell slipped for any reason. Though he had to marvel at her skill for her age - even war mages avoided illusion spells because of the power needed to maintain them.

As it turned out, Cris only managed to move with the spell for a few minutes before Brom had to carry her, the little girl exhausting herself before they’d managed to get a safe distance away from the resting soldiers. Even still she kept the spell going until they’d walked nearly an past the lazy encampment, finally swooning and dropping the spell. As she slept they passed her around, Brom first handing her off to Alesia to carry while they walked, and Alesia eventually handing the girl to Grillby when she was too tired to carry her anymore.

Well, Grillby could honestly say he’d never imagined he’d be carrying a human mage to safety before, let alone a child. She was so thin and frail, tired enough that she slept soundly even when she was lowered into the elemental’s arms. As vulnerable as she was, even in spite of the worry coiling around Grillby’s soul, he started to feel protective of her. Of all of them really. They were so… kind. He’d never felt human kindness before. He’d hardly thought it was even possible.

Nightfall found them making camp amidst a small hedge of trees, sheltered from sight for the most part by the dense foliage. As close as the soldiers were, and as open their camp, they chose not to light a fire - and also insisted Grillby pull his hood up in order to make himself less visible. As night fell, the autumn chill set in, the children complained but ultimately gave in to the reason of not having a fire to keep them warm with. Grillby watched them with a bitter frown.

“I’m about to do something dumb, aren’t I?” the elemental sighed to Gaster, whose face was already split in a grin.

“No no, this is going to be fantastic,” the skeleton chuckled. Grillby did the best eye-roll he could manage.

“Just tell them to get over here.”

The elemental settled onto the ground, lying on his back in the most comfortable position he could manage, knowing what was coming next. He sighed out a deep breath, stoking his core and flickering into warmer hues of orange, yellow and white. Gaster chuckled something to the humans, and Grillby could hear the questions in their voices back.

That was when Eva, the youngest daughter, crept over to him. She curled up at the elemental’s side, mumbling with happy contentedness to the others. Then Cris was laid beside him, the girl wiggling closer to the warmth in her sleep, until her head rested gently on the elemental’s outstretched arm. Then Col joined them, hugging Eva as she fell asleep. Gaster sat by Grillby’s head, grinning and chuckling.

“How’s it feel to be a portable fireplace?” he asked with a smirk, and the elemental crackled a sigh.

“This is literally the strangest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Gaster laughed quietly, “I bet so.”

His laughter faded, his face resting into a soft, wistful sort of smile, “You’ve got to admit though, they’re a lot more pleasant when they aren’t charging towards you in a giant hoard of spiky death.”

“Most things are, I think,” the elemental responded, glancing down at the children nestled against him. Yep, this was definitely the strangest thing he’d ever done, and probably ever would do. He didn’t see himself helping any other humans any time soon, at least.

“Brom says we should be at the river tomorrow,” Gaster hummed, “We’ll be home soon.”

Grillby’s soul twisted fearfully in his chest, “... I can’t cross a river, Gaster.”

“Well, I’m a lot stronger now,” Gaster said, his voice optimistic and tired, “I should be able to carry you across.”

There was a pause.

“I won’t let you drown, Grillby.”

“I know.”

The skeleton sighed, giving Grillby a reassuring pat on the shoulder, “Try not to worry about it. It’ll be okay.”

With that, Gaster shuffled to his feet and made his way back over to Brom and Alesia, speaking with them in hushed voices about the walk tomorrow. Grillby watched the sky, trying to calm the feeling of dread crawling across his core.

Chapter Text

Grillby awoke to Gaster’s hand on his shoulder, gently nudging the elemental awake. As soon as his eyes were opened, he saw Gaster motioning for silence and nodded. He could still feel the weight of the kids up against him - they hadn’t stirred once in the night, it seemed. Brom and Alesia were crouched just in Grillby’s peripheral vision, intently watching some point in the distance Grillby couldn’t see from where he lay. Gaster signed slowly.

Scout.

The elemental nodded.

Pretend you’re asleep.

He nodded again.

Gaster crept away, his steps light, so quiet Grillby hardly heard him as he slipped away. Ah man. He’d forgotten how silent the skeleton was when he wanted to be. He remembered a time when Gaster could sneak up on him without even trying. When had he gotten used to that?

The elemental tightened his grip on the children around him ever so slightly, preparing to protect them if he had to. The heavy crunch of boots stalked near enough for the elemental to hear, and Grillby frowned. A branch was moved to the side, a sharp intake of breath hissed as they were discovered. And then the startled shout as Gaster made his move. Grillby felt Eva cling to him fearfully as her and the other children were startled awake, though all of them kept wisely silent.

Grillby sat up in time to watch the human’s legs get swept out from under them, and they landed with a heavy crash against the scattered leaves on the ground. The skeleton summoned a blue attack in his hand, flipping it around and stabbing it straight through the scout’s chest. They let out a strangled noise as they braced themselves, only to blink in surprise when they felt no pain. Gaster leaned down against the attack, leering a grin. His hands signed shakily as he spoke.

“Don’t move stranger, or you’ll never move again,” the skeleton hissed in a whisper, “You are familiar with blue attacks, yes?”

The scout’s eyes widened, and they just barely dared a whispered yes of an answer. Gaster winked his broken eye shut, smiling.

“Then I suggest you stay very still.”

The skeleton then reached down to yank up their dagger and horn, tossing them both off into the distance somewhere while Grillby helped the children to their feet. All three of them dashed over to Brom and Alesia, both of which were looking at the pinned human with a mix of horror and bitter resignation. It could’ve been much worse after all.

Grillby realized this as well, smirking, “Suddenly rethinking killing things, Gaster?”

The skeleton gave a dry smile, “Eh, these kids don’t need that kind of nastiness on their conscious yet.”

The elemental eyed the scout, frowning thoughtfully, “Well if you’re not going to kill him, at least throw his shoes away too.”

“His shoes?”

“If it slows the soldiers down, it’s worth it. When your attack wears off, he’ll have to find them before he can track us down. That and his horn. If we’re lucky that’ll buy us enough time to get across the river before the rest of the soldiers come crashing down on us.”

Gaster frowned thoughtfully for a moment before chuckling, “Good point.”

While Gaster worked on removing the scout’s shoes, Grillby got the family ready to leave, ushering for them to quickly gather anything they’d scattered in the night. Then they were off, moving as quickly as they could herd the children along. Brom led the way, pushing them steadfastly south. Grillby and Gaster took up the rear, alert for any signs of more scouts or soldiers in the woods. Grillby felt tense, his core shivering anxiously and his soul pulsing in his chest. In the distance they heard that horn finally sound off, the echo of it just barely carrying to them over the breeze.

Gaster told the humans to hurry.

Now Grillby was checking behind them at every hill they climbed. The soldiers would catch up to them, he knew they would. They were trained for persistent marches and fast sprints, trained to follow enemies trying desperately to flee. Even fully healed, Grillby and Gaster would have had trouble shaking them of, and slowed as they were by three children, there was no way they could move fast enough to evade them completely.

It was Col who spotted the first soldier, the boy having noticed Grillby’s constant backwards checking and beginning to take it up as well. He shouted and pointed just past Grillby’s shoulder, and the elemental turned in time to watch the glint of steel in the distance catch in the sunlight. He braced himself in time for an arrow to punch into his chest, grimacing as the intent behind it sent him stumbling back a step. He answered in kind, a flaming lance shivering to life and rocketing off in the general direction the human had shot from. Grillby watched the archer dive for cover just as the lance hit their previous hiding place, the impact of the attack scattering debris and fire before it fizzled out.

Col pumped a fist in the air, shouting some triumphant something-or-other that Grillby couldn’t understand. They grinned up at the elemental, only to gasp when they saw the arrow sticking menacingly out of his chest. Grillby simply yanked the pestering thing out of his chest before shooing the child after the others. He knew the kid would never understand him if he tried to explain it didn’t hurt. But Col would realize sooner or later that Grillby wasn’t turning to dust, he supposed. Gaster shouted ahead at the others that they needed to run.

“How much farther?” Grillby called, and Gaster gave an incredulous laugh.

“You know, I think we’ve had this conversation before!”

“Ask Brom, bonehead, he probably knows!”

Gaster gave an exasperated, flailing sign as he ran before chattering the question back to the human.

“He says it should be just ahead,” the skeleton called back, and Grillby nodded.

He kept an eye at their back, watching as two or three archers wove their way through the trees behind them. They ran from cover to cover, staying stubbornly out of the line of Grillby’s fire. One shot was enough to make them cautious, it seemed.

“There it is!”

Grillby slid to a halt just before he ran into Col again, the child having stopped with the rest of the group as soon as the river came into sight. Grillby just glimpsed the stony beach through the trees as the grass gave way to shore. Once he thought he saw the glint of water. The elemental turned to look behind them, scattering two of the archers who had taken aim in the time the others had stopped. Behind them, he could see glimpses of more soldiers moving through the trees, these likely toting swords. With an urging shout he hurried the group onward, stopping to throw a few of his fiery lances back at their pursuers before he followed.

Grillby made it out of the tree line last, stumbling to a shuddering halt of the rocky beach of the river. And it was a river. From where he’d stood before, he hadn’t gotten a clear view of it, but now he could see just how impossible it was. The water was fast, rushing along in a churn of greens and browns. All the rain the wizard had conjured just days before was still draining off the hillsides and into the river, raising the water higher and churning it faster. And from how far away the other side of the water was, Grillby highly doubted Gaster would be able to carry him.

Gaster seemed to be thinking this as well because he was already running dozens of questions by Brom, talking too fast for the elemental to keep up with his frantic hand motions. But with every answer he was given, the skeleton just looked that much more desperate. Meanwhile Alesia had her arms around the children, a bitter and forlorn expression on her face. Even if she and Brom somehow make it across, there was no way they were getting the children through. Not without risking them being swept downstream.

“Gaster!” Grillby barked, cutting off the frantic skeleton halfway through another sentence, “What’s Brom saying?”

Gaster gave Grillby a distraught frown, voice shuddering slightly with panic, “He says this is the ford. It’s… the water here is only supposed to be ankle deep. But clearly it’s not.”

Grillby tilted his head at the rushing water, “Is there another crossing point?”

Gaster shook his head, “Not for miles.”

Grillby nodded, scowling at the rocks at his feet. Finally he looked up at Gaster again, “Can you get across?”

“Firefly, no.”

Grillby crackled angrily, colors flushing into blues and whites, “Gaster can you get across?

Gaster stamped a foot on the ground firmly, “I am not leaving you here!”

“You have to,” the elemental barked, sweeping a hand out at the river, “Unless you think you can pull me across that.”

Gaster opened his mouth to protest, but Grillby cut him off, clasping his hands fervently on the skeleton’s shoulders and shooting him a stern glare.

“Listen, these kids aren’t going anywhere either. They need help, or they’re going to be trapped over here when those soldiers start trying to tear us apart. You’re the fastest one here anyway. If anyone can get help it’s you.”

Gaster opened his mouth again, hands twitching as he tried to come up with some sort of argument, before finally he said, “If they overpower you, they’re going to throw you in the river Grillby. This isn’t like a battlefield. They actually can win.”

“I know,” Grillby sighed, “But what else can we do? Even if you could somehow get both of us across without being swept downstream, there’s no way you’ve gained enough magic back to carry all those kids – and Brom sure can’t fight off soldiers on his own. If you have any better ideas, tell me and I’ll be happy to try anything. But I can’t see a better way.”

Gaster paused. Grillby could see his mind frantically searching for answer, before finally he huffed an angry sigh. He slapped Grillby’s hands away from his shoulders and straightened his robes, finally resolving himself on what to do.

“You better not die before I get back,” he growled as threateningly as he could manage. Grillby sparked a weary smile.

“I’ll do my best.”

Gaster spun on his heel and stormed towards the river, shooting a very bitter “I’ll be back” in Brom’s direction as he went. He hesitated at the water’s edge for a moment before stepping in. His first few footsteps were easy, the water near the bank shallow and slower than the water further in. But with every step it got deeper and quicker, surging up past his knees and rushing around his waist. By the time he’d sloughed halfway across, the water was up to his middle and threatening to yank him away. He almost lost his footing once, Grillby watched him stagger to the side with the current. But Gater pinged his own soul with blue, making himself heavier and harder to push.

Grillby watched him struggle through until he finally managed to clamber into shallower water, the blue of his soul flickering as his grip slipped and finally released. Gaster didn’t as much as look back when he made it to the far shore. He ploughed through the tree line and disappeared on the other side. Grillby sighed, smoke ringing itself around him as he turned to face the hill he knew the soldiers would soon be clamoring down. With the flick of his wrist he pulled open his inventory and started equipping items. His sword flickered into existence in its sheath at his hip, the familiar weight of his armor slipped across his torso and shoulders. His shield slipped onto his arm, and he ran a thumb across the prayer of protection etched into the back of it.

Element of fire, grace of the sun, protect me and mine, ere the day is done.

Grillby pulled the shield from his arm and offered it to Alesia, who still stood with her arms wrapped around the children’s shoulders. She looked at it fearfully, took in every crack and score across its surface. It was Col who grabbed it, grunting under its weight before hefting it onto his arm proudly while his sisters huddled that much closer to him. Brom approached then, whispering something earnestly to Cris. The little girl nodded and then whispered a spell. As her and her family crouched around Grillby’s shield, they all disappeared from sight. The elemental smirked.

Hopefully they wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire now.

Up the hill, he could hear the scattered shouts of the soldiers coming closer. Apparently the archers had decided to wait until the rest of the force was there before daring to fight against the elemental again. Grillby drew his sword, and as he did he formed four of his fiery lances into being. He flipped the sword in his hand experimentally, reminding himself of it’s weight and balance.

The first of the soldiers crested the hill.


Gaster had never run faster in his life. He scrambled, he clawed, he kicked and lunged. And all the while he screamed for help. Someone was bound to hear him. Someone had to hear him. He tore up hills and stumbled back down their slopes again, crashed through their valleys dodged in between trees. Every few steps he threw up an attack beneath his foot, shooting himself into the sky in the hopes of seeing something, anything. But each time he was met with nothing but the vast expanse of trees and foliage, and a growing sense of helplessness. There was a bitter churning in his soul, making his whole body feel sick.

If he’d just been strong enough, this wouldn’t have been a problem. If he’d been strong enough, he could’ve saved them all. If he were strong enough he could have grabbed all of their souls with blue and ferried them across. If he were strong enough he would be fighting with Grillby, blasting the soldiers off the hillside before they could cause any more mayhem. If he were strong enough he could’ve ripped a tree over with blue and thrown it across the water for a bridge. If he were just strong enough. But he wasn’t. Once again, Gaster was powerless.

So he ran and he called, until his soul ached and his arm throbbed from every jarring impact that agitated the cracked bone. In his frantic, headlong rush, he tripped on a scramble downhill and tumbled. He landed at its base with a startled shout, catching a face full of dirt and yanking away a dozen HP in the process. Before he could stand himself, a large, clawed hand gripped him by the scruff of his robes. He was lifted into the air as if he were nothing more than a ragdoll before being dropped back on his feet. Gaster looked up, a ragged sigh of relief wheezing past his teeth.

Towering over him, muzzle transfixed in an ever-unpleasant snarl, tiny wings ruffling on his back, was none other than Brigg. But his normally bitter eyes reflected concern as he looked the frantic skeleton over, his snarl softened into something less demanding. His voice grumbled low in his chest, a growl that shook the air with its bass.

“You were with the elemental.”

Gaster nodded breathlessly, “We need help.”

The commander barked a command over his shoulder, calling a handful of warriors that had been patrolling with him into the open. The monsters watched Gaster expectantly, Brigg making a grand gesture back the way Gaster had come.

“Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

When Grillby fired he aimed straight for any archers he saw - he didn’t need them missing him and accidentally shooting one of his humans by mistake. The blasts scattered them easily, two of his lances missing just barely while the others slammed directly into the targets he’d aimed them for. Then he was summoning forward spinning wheels of fire, sending them cartwheeling up the hill towards the soldiers scrambling down towards him. One of the wheels missed completely, lighting a large section of brush on fire. Grillby scowled. He couldn’t afford to be sloppy. Not right now. And here he was missing things. Where had his control gone?

Two humans made it to the base of the hill before the rest, charging towards the elemental with angry shouts. Grillby loosed his last volley of spears into the hillside before swinging his sword forward, to intercept the blade of the nearest one. The second ran right past him. For a panicked second, Grillby thought the family had somehow been found. He threw his shoulder into the human before him, ignoring their blade as it bit into his armor and throwing them to the ground. He spun to the human who’d run past -

Grillby had just enough time to stagger backwards as a spray of water when flying towards him, his arm outstretched in an effort to ward off the bits that hit him. His arm sizzled painfully at the droplets that landed, but most of it missed. The human who’d run past was ankle deep in water, dunking their helmet into the river and dragging back up more water to throw. Before he could toss it forward, Grillby launched a lance into his chest, exploding the soldier back into the river where they were sucked away downstream.

Something slammed into Grillby from behind and suddenly the elemental was thrown horrifyingly close to the water’s edge. He threw his hands out to stop his fall, only to have the loose pebbles and mud slide beneath his fingers. His arm slipped out from under him and slid forward, a cloud of steam erupting around it as it was plunged into the water that was now inches away from his face.

Pain. Like his entire arm had been ripped apart. The elemental shoved himself away from the water and managed to wrench himself to his feet, a garbled scream caught in his throat as his panic constricted it shut. Finally it wrenched itself out of him in a muffled sob as he frantically stumbled away. Then there was movement in the corner of his eye, and Grillby swung blindly with his good arm, still clutching his sword in a balled fist. The broadsword crashed into the chest of the oncoming solder, crumpling their armor and cutting a bleeding gouge into their chest before they collapsed to the ground.

Four more humans had made it to the base of the hill. And now they were advancing, slowly encircling the wounded elemental, trying to back him once again into the water. The elemental backed a wary step away from them, wincing against the movement as it shot pain through shuddering core. The spark of movement caught his eye, and he dared a glance past the humans at the blazing hill side.

Grillby threw forward his wounded arm, growling as the movement cracked his cooling core and sent another shiver of pain lancing through him. As he leaned forward the fire on the hillside answered, his intent snatching it up where it writhed and pulling it in towards him. With a roar the fire leaped off the hillside and crackled into the waiting elemental’s body, scattering the humans as they moved to get out of the way of the smothering heat. Grillby felt a short rush of energy burst through his core, and the pain in his arm disappeared as the smoldering core reignited. Wielding his sword in both hands, Grillby charged towards the nearest soldier.

Grillby spun and slashed, parried and dodged, and all the while he struggled to find some balance between his distance from the river and his distance from the family hiding in plain sight. He didn’t want to walk too far away from them for fear of the soldiers stumbling into them. The soldiers had seen the family running with the two monsters – there was no way the soldiers would just let them leave. But now the rest of the soldiers had picked their way down the hill, and Grillby found it hard to hold his ground when all seven of them wove around him at once. He didn’t have much to fear from their weapons, but getting in close to them just opened him up to another shove back towards the water.

One fall had been enough to tell the elemental that was something he needed to avoid at all costs. So Grillby fought with everything he had. His sword sung through thrusts and slashes, burst of flame sent men staggering back. Once he managed to wrap a fiery hand around a soldier’s arm, a burst of heat bending the metal beneath his grip and sending the man to his knees.

Grillby jabbed forward at the soldier standing nearest to him. He realized the minute he did it something was going amiss with the strike. The soldier twisted just slightly to the side, their blade coming up in a maneuver that locked their swords together hilt to hilt. There was a second where Grillby was forced to pause to wrench his sword free, and two soldiers ran up beside him, shouting incoherent words of triumph. Before the elemental could so much as brace himself something was intercepting them, all angry screams and a rough flurry of glinting metal.

Col had torn away from the family of humans, braced behind Grillby’s shield as he slammed into the first of the charging soldiers. The surprise and sudden impact sent the man staggering into his comrade, and they fell in a tangle of limbs and armor. Grillby wrenched himself free of the human before him and, core humming in frantic reds and purples, staggered to put himself between the child and the soldiers recovering from his sudden appearance.

Grillby glared down at the child, who did nothing less than beam up at him and heft that shield a little higher. He shouted something enthusiastically that Grillby couldn’t understand, and the elemental huffed an agitated breath of smoke. Were all human children so reckless?! Well, it was pointless yelling to the child about what they’d done. They wouldn’t be able to understand a word the elemental said anyway.

So instead Grillby just stretched an arm out protectively out in front of Col, glaring as threateningly as he could at the soldiers regrouping before him, and willing the child not to do anything else as stupid as the stunt they’d just pulled. Brom made it to his side then, the old man shouting angry words at the soldiers as he brandished his sword forward. Col smiled at the man, fearless and proud even in spite of the peril he had just thrown himself into.

Grillby’s soul writhed anxiously in his chest. Why?

Why make everything worse? Why put themselves in this position? Grillby couldn’t help but marvel at these humans’ recklessness. They shouldn’t have helped the monsters in the first place. They could have just let the soldiers chase them down and act as some sort of decoy while they made their escape the first time. Instead they’d sheltered them, healed them, offered safety in numbers. And here was this child and his grandfather, quite obviously defying the soldiers that stood before them, soldiers they must know they lacked the skill to fight. If they had just stayed hidden, there was a chance they could have escaped. Why had Col run over to save him? He could understand Brom coming to protect the child now, but the man should be telling Col to run and be trying to escape himself, not standing beside Grillby and brandishing a sword at human soldiers.

Why?!

Well regardless, they were his problem now.

Determination bubbling in his soul, Grillby glared towards the soldiers who brandished their weapons so dangerously in his direction. He twirled his sword in his hand, feeling the tug on his soul as he willed his magic to burn forward. He silently prayed Brom and Col were smart enough to keep their distance.

A wave of fire rippled forward to meet the humans as they came running towards him, and Grillby’s soul felt sick with the magic it took to bear it forward. Two of the humans crashed through it, yelling startled shouts as the heat singed their skin and heated their armor. The others managed to retreat before it, backtracking several steps in order to dodge the oncoming assault. Grillby took the moment of panic in the men who’d made it through, charging towards them sword outstretched. The first he felled in a blow they didn’t see coming, their eyes still dazzled by the brightness of the wave that had washed over them. The second recovered in time to fight back, his sword a furious movement of parries as he struggled beneath the elemental’s onslaught.

Then the wave of fire Grillby had summoned died off, and the soldiers that had balked before it were now approaching. The elemental gave the man he’d been engaging a hearty shove, sending him tumbling to the ground, before he backed up heavy steps to guard Brom and Col. His fire flared back to life again, anticipating the blows of the soldiers coming forward.

A thunderous roar shook the air, followed by the heavy splash of something ploughing through the river. Grillby sparked in surprise and turned towards the rushing water, flame pitching into flickering hues of relief. Brigg was storming towards him, his gigantic form tearing through the muddy water in heaving strides. On the far bank he could see Gaster standing with a handful of other soldiers, too weak before the flood to risk barreling through it like the captain had. But magical attacks were being prepared, and the first rain of magic came crackling across the water, aimed towards the soldiers who had also paused to balk at the monsters that had come to the rescue.

The falling hail of magic snapped the soldiers back into motion. Two came crashing forward, desperate to get to the elemental before Brigg could save him. One unslung a bow from his back and turned to aim towards the firing monsters. The remaining hefted shields in the air, hoping to defend against the raining attacks.

Grillby darted towards the soldiers charging towards him, movement in the corner of his eye telling him Brom had moved to join him. The two of them crashed into the coming men, swords flashing in parries and thrusts. Grillby prayed the old man could hold his own in a fight. The elemental himself was already getting tired, he could feel it in the heaviness of his blade and the slow response of his magic. But it was almost over, he kept reminding himself it was almost over. Help was arrived. They were going to be saved.

As if to answer his thoughts, the crackling of magic exploded to life in Grillby’s peripheral. The elemental lunged towards Brom, shoving the man to the side as a conjured hammer, flickering in jagged colors of green and yellow, smashed into the ground. Brigg’s attack sent shockwaves through the ground, spirals of magic stabbing at the soldier’s feet and legs as they shrieked and stumbled backwards away. Brom watched as the magic fizzled, mouth agape in a look of wonder and fear as Brigg towered over him. The dragon monster hefted his hammer high on his shoulder, ready to throw it forward again to ward off the coming soldiers should they make another charge.

“Elemental, get ready, we’re getting out of here,” the dragon growled, yellow eyes daring the soldiers to take a step forward.

Grillby shook his head adamantly, “Take me across last.”

“Are you insane, boy?!”

But the elemental was ignoring him, turning to run back to where Col was standing. The little boy was watching Brigg with a look of absolute wonder, eyes sparkling as he grinned up at the heroic captain. Grillby grabbed the boy’s attention, pointing to the captain and then across the river. By some miracle, Col seemed to understand what the elemental was trying to say. With an enthusiastic scream he started babbling off something over his shoulder. Alesia’s voice answered back, and the invisible shield around her and the two girls dropped. Cris was already in Alesia’s arms, the fatigue of holding up the spell for as long as she had already getting to her.

Grillby dashed back to Brigg, who was hammering another attack into the ground, threatening back the wary soldiers who were already starting to press forward.

“Take the children across,” Grillby commanded, feeling the tired pull on his magic as he formed two more lances into being, “I’ll hold them back.”

“Boy I am a captain you’ll do what I say,” Brigg snarled, “I’m not risking my neck for a pack of humans!”

“I’d be dust already without them!” the elemental argued back, “Brigg, if you’re leaving them here at the mercy of these monsters, you’re leaving me here too then!”

Grillby sparked through every bitter color he’d ever felt in his life, whites blues and purples twisting together in jagged, sputtering colors. The dragon glared back at him, his face wrinkled in a bitter snarl, scales bristling slightly. Honestly, he was strong enough he could force the elemental if he wanted to. It wouldn’t be too hard just to throw the monster over his shoulder and start wading back across the river. But in the end Brigg was still a proud monster, and there was too much good will in his soul for that kind of thing even now. With one last growl and a puff of angry smoke through his nostrils, Brigg turned to jog towards the humans on the bank, his magical hammer vanishing with a crackle of bitter magic.

“You better know what you’re doing, elemental!” he snarled back over his shoulder. With rough hands he snatched up Col, dropping the kid on his back to cling to the wings fluttering on his shoulders. Then he grabbed up Cris and Eva, one in each of his massive arms, and began wading back into the river. Eva started screaming the minute she was taken away from Alesia, scared and confused. Grillby could hear the woman calling words of comfort across to her from where she was left stranded on the shore.

Grillby sputtered a sigh of relief, and with renewed resolve in his soul, moved towards the soldiers still standing on the bank. There were six of them left, all of them ragged and tired from the fighting they’d already done. Three still had their shields raised, fending off the magical attacks that still cast themselves across the river to them. The archer among them was refocusing his attention on Brigg. Grillby had to stop that.

The elemental broke into a run, releasing the lances he’d summoned on the two remaining humans on the bank. One dodged out of the way, he watched her move out of his peripheral as he passed. The other took the hit square in the chest and was knocked onto their back, armor crumpling and melting together under the searing heat, though the vacant expression in their eyes said they felt nothing of it.

The archer, intent on Brigg as he made his way across the river, hardly saw the elemental coming until just before they loosed their arrow. Panic gripped them for a moment, Grillby saw it in the way their eyes widened when they finally realized how close monster had managed to get to them. Not knowing what else to do, the spun towards the elemental, loosing the arrow they’d pulled back. The thing bit into Grillby’s shoulder, the intent and fear behind it almost making the elemental stumble. But Grillby was already too close. He slammed his sword forward.

One of the shield bearers leaped forward in time to catch Grillby’s falling sword before it could sink itself into the helpless archer. The force of the blow notched a grove into the shield, and the human was sent to their knees under the weight of it. Then the other shield bearers were turning on him, their plight against the monsters across the river momentarily forgotten as they scrambled to save their comrades. Grillby backed a few steps away, flickering forward another pair of lances –

The lances the elemental had summoned fizzled out almost instantly, roiling in unstable reds and oranges before collapsing on themselves and into a shower of sparks. Grillby felt his soul give an empty shudder, and he took another step back.

Was he… out of magic…?

He wasn’t given a chance to wonder about it. The human his previous lance had missed suddenly crashed into his side, screeching incoherent threats as she shoved him towards the river. Grillby struggled to regain his footing, to stay on his feet as she drove him backwards. He managed to slam his heel backwards and stop his sideways stumbling just before the river’s edge, his boot sinking into the loose gravel and sandy mud. He lifted his sword in time to catch her’s before it finished its downward plunge towards his chest, their blades sliding together until their hilts locked.

Grillby shuddered at the feeling of cold as it swirled around his ankle. He was thankful he had thick boots to keep the water at bay. But his foot was sinking deeper as the soldier threw her body weight into him, trying to slowly push him into the water. He shoved back, sparking and sputtering hotly as he fought against her forward push, begging his foot not to slip in the mud. His soul gave a shiver of dismay as he watched two of the remaining humans move into position behind her, ready to help her shove him into the river. In a frantic effort to get her to let go, Grillby fanned himself hotter, watching as the heat from his flame lit the hilt of his sword into molten colors. The soldier winced at it, her fingers dangerously close to the burning metal. But with a look of determination and a steadfast glare, she refused to let go.

The two humans pressed forward with the first, creeping dread gripping Grillby’s soul as all three of them combined forced Grillby’s feet to slip back -

Then there was the press of a body against his back, and Grillby’s backwards slide through the gravel halted abruptly. He could feel wiry fingers clutching at his armor as they shoved forward, Alesia’s muttering voice making itself known above the rush of the angry river. The woman heaved as hard as she could, and with her help Grillby managed to take the barest of steps forward, the water pulling against his boots as he moved. He could feel the cold around his feet turning into a prickling and biting chill – the water was starting to soak through the leather.

A flicker of movement caught Grillby’s peripheral, and the elemental sputtered a gasp when he remembered the archer. The human was turned towards them now, that bow of theirs aimed towards Alesia, the only thing keeping Grillby from tumbling into the river. Brom was moving towards them, towards the humans keeping them pinned. Grillby waited just a breath, waited for Brom to distract the human at the end of the line. The force pushing against him lessened just slightly.

Grillby wrenched his entire body to the side, throwing his sword and the soldier’s locked with it to the side away from him. She went tumbling forward, the soldier behind her stumbling as well as suddenly the weight they were pushing against vanished. Alesia let out a surprised shout as she was pulled along with the elemental, her grip on his armor yanking her to the side and out of the way of the falling humans. Grillby sensed more then saw the arrow that had been aimed at her, the deadly shaft sliding harmlessly into the river. Grillby stumbled over, the force of his sudden lunge nearly throwing him to the ground. He caught himself just before he fell into the shallows, biting back a scream as his hands splashed into the water as he stopped his fall.

Then Alesia was helping haul him up, shoving him onto the river bank and away from the deadly river. The archer turned to them again, the shield bearer beside him lunging forward to ram into the elemental. Brigg’s hammer slammed down on them as he barreled out of the river, crushing both shield and bearer in a single heavy blow. The arrow the archer loosed buried itself in the dragon’s arm, and with a mighty roar Brigg tossed his magical hammer into the human, sending them slamming back into the sand. They didn’t rise - with a bitter spark Grillby hoped they never did.

Then with a condescending snort, the commander grabbed up Alesia, and Brom as he backed away from the three remaining soldiers. Brigg threw the two humans over his shoulders as if they were nothing, wading once again into the rushing water.

Grillby was left alone with the three remaining humans, standing on the beach without sword or shield, his hands slowly burning back to life as he willed his core hotter. Now though, the three remaining humans seemed wary to approach. They glanced amongst themselves warily, as if suddenly realizing there really were only three of them left standing. He could see in their eyes a question, if continuing was really worth it. If it was worth risking the rest of their lives just to kill one monster. They’d come so close several times, but each try had lost them one more comrade. Did they want to end the same?

Grillby decided to try something.

Grillby hoped against all hope that they hadn’t noticed his misstep earlier when he’d been unable to summon his lances. He prayed they didn’t realize he was as spent as he was. He didn’t want to fight anymore. He was so close to freedom, to safety. There was a shift in the elemental’s soul, and he sparked in a grimace. He could feel the change all the way through his core. It sent ripples of unnatural color through him, strange off-tones of purple and red intermixing with exhausted yellows. He felt his soul burn just a little brighter, white against the rest of the fire of his form as his defense dropped and his attack rose just slightly.

Grillby was sparing them.

It took the soldiers before him a moment to realize what the change meant, and when they did they frowned to each other in looks of confusion. One babbled something to the other, their voice soft and urgent. The other bit back, chastising and angry. As the two argued, the woman in front of them stared, eyes searching Grillby’s for some hint of deceit. Finally she barked something over her shoulder at the others. Suspicious and glaring, she backed away from the elemental, inching towards the hill and away from the river. The others followed her, silent and wary, until finally all three of them broke away, disappearing over the crest of the hill. Grillby coughed out a sigh of relief he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He sunk to his knees in the gravel, exhausted and thankful.

He waited there patiently for Brigg to return for him, the dragon monster huffing tired breaths from his several trips across the rushing water. He offered Grillby a hand to help him stand.

“Crazy elemental,” he growled, smoke curling past his teeth, “You don’t just spare humans.”

Grillby shrugged, “It worked, didn’t it?”

“You’re lucky they didn’t decide to dust you at your weakest moment,” came the bitter, growled reply. The elemental made a helpless motion with his hands, unable to really argue. He’d never spared anything before. He had no idea what would’ve happened if they’d decided to keep fighting.

Grillby flickered gratefully knowing he didn’t have to find out just yet.

Brigg scanned the hillside where the humans had retreated, small eyes glittering warily, expecting them to come barreling back over. When they didn’t, he huffed a smoking breath through his nostrils and snatched Grillby up in his gigantic claws. Grillby found himself slammed into the monster’s scaly shoulder, fear suddenly turning in his core as the dragon took large steps forward. Grillby gripped at the armor on Brigg’s back as the dragon waded into the river, shuddering as he watched the frothing water swirl higher and higher the further the monster walked. He blinked down at it, terror shuddering his soul, twisting it inside his chest and making him nauseous.

Grillby’s grip on Brigg’s armor got a little tighter.

He felt the monster tilt his head, casting a glance at the elemental strewn over his shoulder. Brigg gave a loud huff, the sulfurous smell of his smoke biting at the air, “You know, this is when I’d mock a lesser monster for being afraid of a little water.”

Grillby tried to see the humor in the statement, but for the moment all he could feel was fear. Fear that he could reach out his hand and touch if he were stupid enough to want to try it. The water swirled threateningly about every one of Brigg’s long strides, pulling against the monster, grabbing and splashing and trying it’s hardest to suck both he and the elemental downstream. The water was so churned up, Grillby couldn’t see the bottom. It was all nasty greens and browns, mud and debris.

Something struck Brigg in the side, heavy and dark in the water. The dragon let out a heavy grunt, and his foot slipped. For a brief second, Grillby was no longer looking at the water gurgling and churning angrily past them. For the shortest of seconds, Grillby was staring up at the edges of the treetops that hung over the river, and the sky glittering past them. The elemental blinked, realizing they were both falling.

Both Grillby and Brigg hit the ground breathless, thousands of wet pebbles stinging into the elemental’s back and shoulders. Grillby blinked, still staring at the sky. But the water was still growling in his ears, he could hear it. If Brigg had dropped them, why wasn’t he dead?

Fervent shouting snapped up Grillby’s attention. His gaze shot to the far bank, blinking dazedly past Brigg as the monster staggered to his feet. There stood Cris, the pendant on her chest blazing with bright green, her tiny hands outstretched towards the elemental. She was holding the water back. Brom and Alesia stood beside her, shouting either encouragement or telling her to stop, Grillby didn’t know. And he wasn’t given a chance to try and figure it out. Suddenly Brigg grabbed him up, and with a snarl and a heave tossed Grillby as far as he could throw him. Before Grillby could hit the water again, his soul was caught in the tight grip of blue, and with a hearty pull Gaster sent Grillby skidding into the safety of the riverbank.

Grillby had never been so happy to be tossed around in his life. The elemental staggered to his feet in time to watch Brigg take a step forward. Then Alesia was screaming something, her voice coated in dismay as Cris’ eyes rolled back and the little girl fainted.

The wave of water she’d been holding back promptly released, slamming into Brigg mid-step and tossing the monster into the water.

Grillby was already running down the river bank, some of Brigg’s frantic patrol dashing after him, “Gaster!”

“Got him!” the skeleton shrieked, his hand reaching forward and his blue magic arcing with it. Brigg’s tumbling form came to an abrupt halt in the water, and he clawed and scrambled to regain his footing against the force of the pressing river. Gaster groaned from the effort of holding him back against the push, his grip on the dragon slipping by the second.

“Hurry!”

Grillby raced down the riverbank, feet sliding against the pebbles with every other step. His gaze was already rooted on the convoluted rescue plan he’d managed to scrap together in his hurry - a tree that had fallen heavy across the water. Most of its branches had been torn away in the current, leaving only half of a rotting trunk that stretched towards the middle of the river. It shook and rocked against the current, but it was steady enough - Grillby hoped it was steady enough anyway. The elemental slid to a halt before it, took a step towards the creaking wood and paused.

The water.

What was he thinking?! He couldn’t rescue Brigg from a river! The monster was twice his size! He’d drag him in for sure! He’d -

Gaster screamed. Grillby’s whole core shuddered from the fear and the suddenness of it. An arc of blue magic, jagged like breaking glass, crackled through the air between the skeleton and where he’d caught Brigg in the river. It was as if the magic were collapsing, wavering and unsteady as something in it started breaking. And then with a crack like thunder it shattered back towards Gaster, sending the skeleton sprawling across the river bank. The current ripped into Brigg and sent him tumbling once again.

Grillby heaved himself onto the pitching log and ran, stumbling and praying nothing crashed into the log and threw him off-balance. He dropped onto his hands and knees at the end of it, reaching his hands out towards Brigg as the monster snarled and flailed as the water dragged him past.

Grillby grabbed one of Brigg’s flailing arms as it passed, hands clenching against dampened and slick scales. He winced against the sting of the cold and wet around his fingers. He held on as strong arms encircled his waist, one of the monsters in Brigg’s patrol having made his way across the log as well. The two of them heaved, pulling back against the weight of the water and Brigg as he was yanked along with it. Two more monsters joined the chain, all of them pulling and snarling, slowly dragging the hulking monster out of the water and onto the relative safety of the log.

Grillby didn’t let go until Brigg had managed to clamor his way onto the log, a sigh of relief sparking its way out of his shivering form. He let the monsters behind him lead him to the safety of the bank. It wasn’t until he stepped unsteadily against the gravel that Grillby realized he was shaking, sparks shivering off of him as his soul jittered madly in his chest. His hands hurt, a cold and sore ache that he hadn’t even noticed coursing through them. He looked down and realized his palms and fingers had been cooled to the core where he’d grabbed Brigg, the strange cold stone cracking painfully as he flexed his shaking hands.

Half numb from the shock of being alive, from somehow managing to come away from the river with only so much HP out of place, Grillby stumbled his way back towards Gaster. The skeleton had gotten back to his feet now, tottering exhaustedly from the blue he’d used and the sting of the backlash when his hold had given out. The two stumbled into each other, Gaster grinning tiredly and Grillby still sputtering those shivering sparks.

“You did it,” Grillby said with a shuddering laugh.

I did it?” Gaster laughed back, “You did it.”

“You got help.”

“You crossed a river.”

Grillby shook his head, “I didn’t cross anything. Brigg-”

The dragon monster stalked past the two babbling monsters, shaking water from his rumpled scales as he went. He lumbered towards Alesia and Brom where they cradled Cris, Eva and Col huddling worriedly at their sides. When they saw Brigg coming, the little family clumped closer together, Alesia spreading her arms to hug the children closer to her and Brom getting to his feet protectively. Grillby and Gaster exchanged a glance, their giddy conversation abruptly fizzling out. The two darted towards the family, stepping between them and the towering monster just as Brigg stopped before them.

“The child,” the dragon huffed down at them, smoke curling past his snarling teeth, “Is a magic user.”

“Nothing but illusion and shield magic,” Gaster answered quickly, hands signing quick and nervous as he spoke, “She’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“You mean to tell me,” Brigg spoke soft and slow, as if he were reasoning with a scared child, “That a human strong enough to hold back a river is nothing to be afraid of?”

Grillby gave a nervous flicker. No no no this wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Did he even have the strength left in him to defend these humans if Brigg decided to do something rash? He didn’t think he did. And from the way Gaster’s hands kept signing the same quiet sentence over and over, it was apparent he felt the same.

A tense silence passed between the three of them, where Brigg glared and Gaster and Grillby struggled to meet the stare in earnest. Finally Brigg continued with a growl.

“Any human magic user should be captured or killed. They’re too dangerous to let escape,” he said slowly, yellow eyes glittering darkly. Then, they flickered with something, like the barest of smirks just before secret is told. To both the smaller monster’s surprise, Brigg moved his lumbering form past them, making his way wearily towards the tree line.

“It’s a shame her magic is so strong,” he continued with a huff, “I’ve never seen illusion magic that can make a whole pack of humans just disappear like that.”

One of Brigg’s patrol, a demon-like creature with sharp eyes, shrugged, “Aye, we searched for hours for those vermin.”

With a chuckle another of the patrol joined in, “I don’t even think they were human.”

The remainder of the patrol chipped in as well, embellishing the little story with quips about powerful forest spirits, specters and magic. One remarked on how brave Brigg and Grillby were for taking on an army of over fifty humans on the far bank all by themselves. Gaster heaved a sigh of relief, nearly collapsing into Grillby as he did so.

“Thank heavens,” he murmured quietly before turning to walk the humans through where they should go next. Brom nodded intently, smiling with relief as he took in the news that the monsters wouldn’t be taking Cris away.

Something nudged into Grillby’s leg, and the elemental looked down to see Col. The boy was offering Grilby’s shield back to him, proudly shoving it towards the elemental and grinning. He said something in that strange excited human speech, and Grillby gave a flustered spark.

“He said he knew you’d save them,” Gaster translated, smiling, “He said that’s what you Undying do, you save people.”

Grillby frowned at the motion Gaster made with his hands on ‘undying’. It was the same sign he’d seen Gaster make when they’d first met the humans, the one he hadn’t recognized. Grillby flickered a smile, reaching down to ruffle the kid’s hair.

“Well Col must be an Undying too then,” the elemental said with a quiet chuckle, “Since he saved me.”

The boy beamed up at Grillby as Gaster translated, his excited eyes burning with excitement and pride. He shoved the shield towards Grillby again, and the elemental gently pushed it back towards Col, letting it rest heavy in the kid’s arms. Col looked down at the shield for a moment, realization dawning on him in a growing look of amazement.

“Help keep them safe,” Grillby said, and as Gaster translated Col nodded vigorously. The boy assumed a grand look of seriousness, flashing Grillby some sort of human salute with his free arm coming up to cross his chest as he bowed.

Grillby paused to look down at Cris, the little girl still asleep in Alesia’s arms. He wanted to say something to her, somehow express how grateful he was that she’d saved him. But she wouldn’t be awake for some time after all the magic she’d spent, and even if she were he doubted she’d understand just how grateful he was. It was a feeling in his soul, something he couldn’t rightly put into words. Not really knowing what else to do, Grillby bowed to Alesia and little Cris in her arms. He murmured one last heavy ‘thank you’ to them before moving to follow Brig, Gaster in tow. The family disappeared from sight as soon as the group of monsters entered the tree line. Grillby just caught one last glance of Eva waving enthusiastically at them before they vanished from sight.

Chapter Text

A weight lifted off of Grillby's soul when at last they stumbled their way into camp. Safety. Home. At least for now. If he weren't so exhausted, he might've cried in relief at the sight of it, and then cried again when he realized how shambled and pathetic it was. The camp was small, terrifyingly so. It was hard to tell through the trees that it huddled so desperately close to, but from what Grillby saw, they must have lost half their numbers or more. Hundreds of monsters reduced to dust within a week, and all of it the result of a single battle.

"Is this all that's made it back?" Gaster asked, his voice a soft gasp of dismay.

Brigg rumbled a low growl, a sound so faint that Grillby felt it in the air more than he actually heard it, like some distant thunder. The elemental's soul gave a nervous twist.

"Aye, it's all we have left," the dragon frowned, exhaustion overtaking his proud features and making him seem aged, "They scattered us like dust in the breeze and have been hunting us down ever since. For now the humans fear these woods too much to search for us here, but it won't keep them out for long."

"And… what about Amathea?" Grillby asked with an anxious flicker.

"She hasn't left the healing tent since we got her here," Brigg said cooly, scowling down at the arrow still poking out of his arm.

Grillby and Gaster exchanged terrified glances, the elemental's fire pitching into pale hues while Gaster signed worriedly, too fast to read. Brigg's clawed hands came down on their shoulders then, stopping them just before they could dash off. Grillby flashed the dragon a mighty glare.

"Walk," Brigg growled bitterly at them, cutting off any protest before it could be made, "You don't even know where the tent is, and you don't have the energy to run in circles looking for it."

With that the commander shoved past them, grumbling as he went, "Amathea's too damn stubborn to be dusted anytime soon anyway."

Grillby and Gaster reluctantly followed behind Brigg as the monster led the way through the camp. Small fires were lit here and there amongst the tents, monsters huddled around them for warmth and the comfort of being close to friends and comrades. Grillby noticed very few of them seemed to be completely whole. Several of the monsters looked like they hadn't slept, or hadn't had time to properly heal themselves since they'd come into camp. Others looked broken in spirit, staring vacantly into fires or making half-hearted conversation. The air around them was cold and dull, their expressions numb.

It had been a while since Grillby had seen an army so devastated.

But he did notice a spark returning to them when they saw the elemental pass, a light of hope springing to life. He could almost hear them whispering. The elemental had survived. The strongest monster had returned. A self-conscious weight draped itself around his soul. If only they knew how weak he'd become since the storm and the battle. If only they knew how close he'd been to being nothing but dust. Grillby walked a little closer to Gaster and Brigg.

At last Brigg stopped them in front of a few tents that had been pitched and woven together, a shoddy attempt at making something large and stable enough for a bulk of wounded. The dragon held the canvas aside for them to come in, ducking carefully after them so he didn't pull down some part of the tent when he moved. He had to keep his his head bowed to make sure he didn't brush against the top of the tent. After a moment the dragon cleared his throat and motioned to the side.

"Over there."

Grillby saw her almost immediately, and his breath caught in his throat at the sight of her. She was sitting up in a cot, frowning forlornly at the ground as a nurse worked on changing a network of bandages that had been bound around the fish monster's chest and torso. Some bandages laced her arm as well, which she held out expectantly for when the nurse moved on to change those bandages next. She must have seen them enter because her gaze panned up to glance across them, the numb forlorn of her expression shattering when she recognized them.

Then she was on her feet and dashing towards them - much to the nurse's dismay. Grillby rushed to meet her as well, Gaster vaulting past him in his excitement. Gaster made it to her first, and Amathea gave a hearty laugh as she and the skeleton embraced. Then she was reaching her arm out to Grillby, and the elemental wrapped his arms around her and Gaster, flickering bright colors of relief. His breath caught in his chest and he felt a tightness growing in his throat. Augh, this wasn't the time to cry. Everyone was safe, everyone was together. He had no reason to cry. In spite of himself, the elemental found himself wiping away a molten tear before it could splash down to burn Amathea's shoulder.

"Every god alive damn you two for making me worry," Amathea grinned, her voice thick with emotion as she pulled away from them, "Gave me a heart attack, didn't you? You decide to do some sightseeing while you were away?"

"It was an adventure and a half Ammy, and I hope we never do it again," Gaster chuckled, an arm still wrapped around her shoulder as he led her back to the disgruntled nurse, "But what in the world happened to you?"

"Ach, what didn't happen to me?" Amathea chuckled, easing herself back onto the cot she'd been sitting on. Grillby noticed with a frown that one of the bandages that had been changed had begun bleeding again, blood and the dark colors of leaking magic seeping in where the bandage wrapped around her side. With an angry huff, the nurse got back to his previous work.

Amathea looked both Gaster and Grillby up and down, her eyes searching them as if she'd forgotten what they'd looked like. Her face was set in a soft, comforted expression, her smile was tired.

"I was starting to wonder if I hadn't lost you two," she murmured, her smile looking a bit more like a grimace. Amathea let out a heavy sigh, her grin slipping back across her features as she looked past Gaster and Grillby to Brigg standing just behind them. Grillby blinked up at the monster - he'd forgotten he was still there.

"You brought them back for me after all, did-ya beastie?" Amathea grinned. Brigg ruffled his wings on his back and crossed his arms - wincing just a bit at the arrow he still hadn't removed. He tilted his head away from her, muttering with a puff of smoke, "You say that as if you doubted me."

Amathea barked a laugh, "I suppose I shouldn't have, should I?"

Grillby gave a flicker of surprise, "You sent Brigg out to find us?"

Amathea ushered to her bandaged torso - earning a scowl from the nurse who had been about to mess with the bandages on her arm, "Well as much as I wanted to do it myself, I was a bit laid up. We're short on doctors and food, those of us who can go without green magic have been. And let me tell you, healing on your own takes a lifetime and a half."

"You wouldn't need healing if you weren't such a daft wench to begin with," Brigg grumbled, another puff of smoke curling past his teeth as he spoke. Grillby gave an angry spark, but before he could say anything, Amathea was laughing and cutting him off.

"And that's why they named me Amathea the Brave, not Amathea the Wise," the commander chided, "Besides, if this daft wench hadn't stepped in you'd be a pile of dust. And then where would we be, beastie?"

Brigg rumbled at this, a growl sounding deep in his chest. It took a moment for Grillby to realize he was… laughing. It was a rolling chuckle that purred like far-away thunder. It sent a shiver through Brigg's wings and lit a spark in his eyes.

"You'd be short at least one elemental who's more daft than you are," Brigg huffed out a smoking breath as he turned to lumber off, "As fate would have it, there's a little less dust in this world then there could have been."

Grillby rubbed his arm self-consciously, flickering a frown in Gaster's direction, "He's not wrong."

Gaster sighed back, rubbing the side of his skull tiredly, "Honestly Ammy… I didn't think we'd make it back at all."

All semblance of a smile wiped itself off Amathea's face. She blinked back and forth between Gaster and Grillby, searching them again as if she'd lost them.

Finally she said, "Tell me everything."

And they did. Gaster started, describing in quiet words their run from the battlefield, how he'd almost lost Grillby on the first night under the tree. His voice shook briefly when he talked about trying to heal him, apologizing briefly to the elemental for being unable to. He talked about waking up the next morning to soldiers dragging him out, about how scared he'd been, how sure he was that he was going to die. About how stupid it was that humans could use wards, and how Grillby had rescued him. When Gaster lapsed into silence, hands still signing in hidden words of fear and regret, Grillby continued on. He told Amathea about their walk, about the humans that chased them, about the scout who'd found them. He laughed quietly when he remembered how bewildered he'd been when Gaster had just vanished, and then how overwhelmed he'd felt when the family they'd found had offered them shelter.

Then both he and Gaster were talking, smiling at the family, at how brave and kind they'd been. How neither of them had expected it. Humans helping monsters. And then Grillby was boasting about Brom and Col, how they'd stood beside him on the beach when he was sure he was done for. How a child had been selfless enough to try and save him. He grinned when he spoke about Alesia, who'd murmured comforting words to her children as they were dragged to safety not knowing if she would make it across with them, that tenacious woman who'd kept him out of the river. Gaster laughed and applauded Grillby on how he'd fought, how he'd protected the family while Gaster himself had run to get help. He told Amathea about little Cris who'd saved them, and how they'd all worked together to drag Brigg out of the river.

Amathea sat quietly as they recounted their tale, her ear frills occasionally giving angry twitches when she heard every time they'd come so close to death. When they finished they blinked at each other in thoughtful silence.

Finally Amathea sighed, "Well boys, I don't know if you have some god-thing looking out for you, or if you've been completely forsaken. You had a run with good and bad luck, didn't you?"

Grillby shrugged, "At least the good luck won out in the end."

"Aye, at least," Amathea smirked.

"What about you Ammy?" Gaster asked, frowning slightly in concern, "You look like you went through hell and back."

Amathea rolled her eyes at this, "Oh please. It's just a flesh wound."

Then her mouth split in a wide grin, eyes sparkling with the familiar zeal that Grillby had been missing, "But it'll make some grand scars to brag over, let me tell you! Got these saving Brigg's sorry tail, if you can believe it!"

"You're joking," Gaster chuckled.

Amathea beamed all the brighter, "I'm a thousand things, Gaster, but a liar isn't one of 'em! It wasn't too long after you left that the humans broke through the eastern line. Would've surrounded us if we had called a retreat any later. And that big mister beastie got himself caught between some halberdiers and some archers while he was getting his unit moving. That's when I swooped in, all spears and screaming magic."

The commander gave a wistful sort of sigh that turned tired as her gaze dropped to the bandages on her arm, which was now cradled in her lap, "I'll be honest with you lads, I don't even remember being hit. One minute I was throwing spears through some archers, and the next I was on the ground with a bloody halberd in my face. Didn't even hurt really - I was damn confused when my magic stopped listening to me and I stopped being able to see straight. Next thing I know I'm waking up here, asking every monster around me if my boys had made it home yet."

Amathea let out a quiet chuckle, ear frills dipping down dismally, "Of course… no one knew who I was talking about. Except Brigg. He probably listened to me whining for a day and a half before he said 'I'll find them' and left me here to my own devices. And since then I've been waiting… I guess he must really think he owes me something if he put his own life out there to drag you back."

"Well it's good to be back," Gaster smiled, "And now that I am back, I can get you healed up."

"Oh no you're not," Amathea snapped instantly, and Grillby chuckled at the motherly bite in her voice, "You get yourself some food and rest. Don't even think about touching me until you've had some of that at least."

"Fine fine," Gaster grinned, "But so help me, I'm healing you in the morning! Come on, firefly."

Grillby waved a quick goodbye to Amathea before letting himself be led from the tent. As he stepped away he just barely caught her murmur in a quiet voice after them.

"Just… don't be gone too long this time."

Chapter Text

Grillby didn't realize how exhausted the day had made him until he and Gaster were settling in for the night. It had taken them a bit to figure out some kind of shelter for the night - neither of them had taken a tent with them when the battling had started, and with the army scattered as it was there were no supply wagons to help fill in the missing pieces. In the end they managed to grab some spare canvas and rope from a kind monster by one of the campfires, and after some fiddling managed to tie it up to a tree like some kind of awning.

Gaster remarked jokingly that he was glad his best friend was made of fire - a shelter as simple as this couldn't keep the autumn chill away like a proper tent could.

Food was a little easier to get ahold of. It was nothing but hard bread and dried meat, meager and basic. But it was by far better than nothing. Grillby was getting used to the uncomfortable feeling of empty magic slowly being filled. They visited Amathea one last time before calling it a night, telling her they'd be back first thing in the morning - and Gaster reminding her once again he was going to get her healed up. They were both surprised to see Brigg walk in just as they left, the commander nodded to them as they passed. Grillby watched him make his way over to Amathea just before they exited the tent.

Well it was… good to see them... getting along…?

The elemental was grateful for the rest when they finally settled in for the night. He curled up against the tree they'd rigged their canvas to, uncomfortable and exhausted but glad for the feeling of safety. Yes safety. Finally. Surrounded by monsters with a cool night and not a cloud in the sky, something over his head to keep him dry just in case, and Gaster and Amathea both healing and seconds away if he needed them. Finally. Finally. He was safe. Grillby fell asleep with Gaster sprawled across the ground beside him, the skeleton for once falling asleep before Grillby did.

When Grillby awoke he didn't wake in the morning like he normally did. He didn't even stir when Gaster eventually yawned and stretched and with those silent footsteps hurried off to go see Amathea. Grillby awoke with a sluggish stoking of his flame, building from exhausted reds to more healthy and vibrant oranges. The sun was high overhead when he finally opened his eyes to see it, his soul humming contentedly in his chest for the first time in what felt like a very long time. He was so taken aback by the feeling that for several minutes he just lay on his back, blinking at the dappled sunlight as it flickered against the top of the sagging canvas above his head. He didn't want to move. He wanted to stare at those shifting spots of molten sunlight and pretend he was back at the camp he'd been summoned in.

Finally with a sigh Grillby pulled himself to his feet, stretching his stiff limbs and crackling warmly. And then with as much purpose as he could muster into his slowly waking soul, Grillby made his way across the camp to the healing tent - occasionally stealing up abandoned or dying fires as he walked. He earned himself a few strange stares from the monsters around him, but it left him feeling revived and full. Finally he was feeling complete again. Good. He never wanted to feel so empty and weak ever again.

Amathea beamed at him when he entered the tent, and he sparked in bright colors back at her. Gaster was fiddling with her soul, too intent on his work to notice Grillby as the elemental entered. He had a nurse at his side, gently weaving her soul-stuff into tiny cracks in Amathea's soul that Grillby could hardly see.

"It's about time you got up, loiter-sack," Amathea barked enthusiastically, "I was starting to wonder if you were going to sleep the whole day away."

"I very nearly did," Grillby laughed with a soft crackle, "But I feel great now. I can almost forget the rainstorm ever happened."

A bit of nervousness crept into his voice and the elemental cast a wary glance at the ceiling of the tent - still dappled with spattered sunlight, "Almost."

Amathea flashed him a pitiful smile, a knowing one, "Don't worry about it too much lad. There are things that take longer to heal than wounds, and you're no lesser monster for them."

Gaster smirked, "Wow you two are sentimental today."

With a flourish of his hands he finished his work on Amathea's soul, instructing the nurse who'd helped him to get some rest. Then he turned expectantly to Grillby, waving for the elemental to sit down on the cot beside Amathea.

"Alright firefly, your turn."

"Me?" Grillby chuckled with an incredulous spark, "But I feel fine - for once."

"Oh hush," Gaster huffed, "There's a difference between feeling fine and actually being healed. Especially with the state you were in. Now come on."

He waved his hand in a familiar motion, and Grillby rolled his eyes as best he could, anticipating the grip of blue as Gaster nudged him forward -

Nothing happened.

Gaster blinked up at Grillby confusedly, then down at his hand, then back up at the elemental again.

"... something wrong?" Amathea asked, watching Gaster with concern. The skeleton signed a few confused sentence fragments, trying to align his thoughts.

"You okay Gaster?" Grillby asked, flickering worriedly.

"My blue didn't work," the skeleton muttered, his gaze dropping back to his hands again, "Why didn't it work?"

"You just got back from a nightmare, lad," Amathea said gently, "You're probably too tired to use that kind of magic."

"But… I got a good night's sleep. I've eaten, I've had water," Gaster looked between his friends, the perplexed frown on his face starting to turn to panic, "There's absolutely no reason for it not to work! It… it was just working yesterday! It shouldn't -"

Suddenly all expression wiped itself off of Gaster's face, his gaze slipping off into the distance, "I broke something."

"Gaster you can't break magic!" Amathea snorted, "It's magic for heaven's sakes! Now calm down."

"No, no I broke something," the skeleton's expression refocused on Grillby, a scowl gritting his teeth, "When I dropped Brigg. That hurt, a lot. I thought I was just overexerting myself, but it felt like something snapped. Something did snap."

"Gaster if your magic broke, that means something in your soul is broken," Grillby said quietly, worry turning his fire in sickly greens, "You'd be dust."

Gaster flailed his arms in a grand, exasperated sign, "No I wouldn't. It makes sense! I cracked up my soul using too much magic like a moron - I must've cracked something important. And while I was trying to grab Brigg it just shattered the rest of the way. Can I even fix that? Oh hell!"

The skeleton gave another exasperated set of signs, berating himself for his stupidity before motioning once again for Grillby to down, "And the same thing is going to happen to you if you still have cracks in your soul. So get over here."

Still flickering in quiet apprehension, Grillby did as he was told, sitting gently beside Amathea on her cot. Gaster got to work checking over the elemental's soul, grumbling bitterly under his breath as he did so. His quiet ramblings trailed off into silent sternness as he flipped Grillby's molten soul around in his hands. The elemental shivered.

There were cracks. They were thin and mending, refracting mixed hues of red and purple through its surface like fiery spider webs. But what unsettled Grillby the most about it was the look on Gaster's face as he examined it. The skeleton looked relieved. The glint in his eye sockets hinted at the expectation for much worse, worse that he'd seen before. Finally appeased, Gaster let the soul sink back into it's place in Grillby's chest.

"It's all just on the surface," Gaster said, sighing, "You'll be fine."

"How much worse was it?" Grillby murmured, morbid curiosity getting the better of him. Amathea raised her eyebrows, echoing the question silently. Gaster shrugged.

"I mean… bad," the skeleton said uncomfortably, "Like I said, I didn't think you were going to make it through the night."

Gaster rubbed his arm distractedly, "Next time we heal a soul that looks like it, I'll point it out to you… if you really want to know."

Gaster hissed out one last sigh through his teeth before standing up, "Now uh… I'm going to go see if I can fix whatever I busted."

Without another word, Gaster left, a troubled frown cringing across his teeth. Amathea and Grillby exchanged dismal glances, not really knowing what else they could do. Of the two of them, it was Amathea who got to her feet first.

"Aye well… since I'm fixed up now I suppose I should help Brigg with damage control," Amathea hummed, "Grillby, you feeling well enough to go on patrol? They'll need help finding food and stragglers. And it'll boost morale to see some powerful monsters walking about."

The elemental nodded quietly.

"And wear some armor," Amathea added, smiling slightly at the afterthought, "It'll make you look more impressive. Make some of the smaller beasties wandering around here feel safe."

"Yes ma'am," Grillby flickered a smirk.

"That's it lad, lighten up," the commander said hearteningly, giving Grillby a reassuring pat on the shoulder, "And if you catch something good enough, maybe you can convince us to have a little bonfire."

Amathea strode off towards the exit to the tent, ear frills twitching as she said, "Heaven knows we need some cheer to clear the dust from the air."


Grillby spent the day volunteering for every patrol he could find, anything that would pass the time and prove useful to the other monsters in camp. Meanwhile Gaster busied himself in the healing tents, grabbing random nurses as volunteers to help him heal the hurting inside while Amathea took her seat once again with the other commanders. It was just her, Brigg and two others that Grillby had never met before, and they were inseparable as they discussed what they were supposed to do next. Now that monsters were being healed, they could get mobile again. The problem now was where they could go.

Word had already gotten back to the capital about their loss, and it was bitter medicine to swallow when word returned that their battle wasn't the only massive defeat to have been suffered by the monsters as of late. Humans were crawling like ants across the hills, numerous and determined, beating the monsters ever further south towards the mountains. And according to Amathea, they were armed to the teeth with mages. She told Grillby and Gaster that night, face grim and eyes distant, that the entire Western front had been destroyed, wiped out by a group of powerful mages who made a force no monster could stop. The entire army had been reduced to dust, the countryside shattered with the marks of extermination and war.*

The monsters were losing. Badly.

Gaster asked in a hushed voice if Amathea had heard anything from her sister. The commander didn't answer. They turned in for the night then, restless and worried. Grillby made himself comfortable between Amathea and Gaster, offering them his warmth as the evening chilled. It took him awhile to actually fall asleep.

When he slept that night, Grillby dreamed of rain and rivers. He dreamed of Gaster and Brigg trying to drag him to safety before both of them finally dropped him, and he was consumed by the burning cold of water everywhere, drowning him, whisking his dust away in an angry current that devoured everything.

Grillby awoke with a gasp, soul shuddering in his chest like a frantic heartbeat, his flames pitched in panicky and feverish hues. Grillby's whole body shook. He sat up slowly, breathing in deep breaths, hurriedly hushing his churning flame into something cooler and less panicked. He didn't move until he'd managed to calm himself back into yellows and oranges - though he couldn't stop his shuddering no matter how hard he tried.

Just a dream, he thought to himself as he shivered, hugging himself as if it could bring some comfort, you have nothing to be afraid of. You're not hurt. You're okay.

When Grillby finally managed to compose himself, he realized his light wasn't the only kind lighting the darkness around him. Laying on his back outside the tent, isolated from Grillby and Amathea, was Gaster. The skeleton's soul was hovering between his hands, highlighting Gaster's delicate finger bones with hues of shifting purple. As Grillby watched, Gaster started unraveling pieces of his soul, delicately pulling long cords of the magical soul-stuff apart and shifting through them, making sense of something Grillby couldn't see. He would pull one cord away and tear it apart - Grillby watched the skeleton flinch as he did - only to turn around and weave that broken cord together with another. It was mesmerizing to watch, and for a while Grillby just quietly observed, flickering in muted blues and purples of absent wonder, waiting for the changing colors to lull him back to sleep.

When they didn't, the elemental shuffled to his feet and then made his way over to his friend. Gaster barely glanced up as Grillby sat beside him.

"You're awake," he observed coolly, getting back to whatever work he was doing on his soul. Grillby nodded, quietly watching once again as Gaster unraveled a pair of cords only to weave them together somewhere else again. Now that Grillby was up close, he noticed the strange network of soul-stuff looked almost like a spider's web, or maybe several webs hung close together. Every cord connected to another, shining purple yet somehow still opalescent, several shifting threads of color glossing across the cords of magic that Gaster wove.

"Did you find out what was wrong?" Grillby asked after a long pause, and Gaster scowled. He pushed a few of the cords around, rearranging his pulled-apart soul back into some semblance of form again - or at least a form Grillby could recognize. The magic was molten, congealing back into its regular shape, shimmering lightly purple. And then suddenly it was solid, like glass, and latticed with imperceptible cracks. Grillby marveled at it, how it worked, how it could exist that way.

Gaster drew a finger bone delicately across the glass-like surface, tracing the deepest crack in the soul and giving the slightest of shivers as he did, "That's what's wrong."

Grillby blinked at the unassuming crack. It was small, smaller than most that Grillby had seen when he'd helped Gaster heal. Gaster noticed the elemental's confusion.

"It used to be a lot deeper," the skeleton explained, his voice low and disgruntled, "But we've been healing a lot over the past few days, so it's started to heal itself back up again."

Gaster moved his hands, and in a flurry of motion his soul pulled itself apart, splaying in a disheveled mess of cords and colors. He traced one of them, and leaning closely Grillby could just see cracks spiraling along the cord until it ended abruptly in ashen colors of greys and blacks, as if the end had been burned out.

"Can you fix it?" Grillby mused, flickering worriedly. Gaster shrugged, glaring forlornly at the broken piece he held between his fingers.

"Yes...?" he finally answered, letting out a long sigh, "If I fiddle with it long enough. I remember how I wove it the first time, so that helps."

Gaster let out another heavy sigh, blinking miserably at the sky high above them, "This just makes me so angry. I'm useless without blue."

Grillby gave a quiet laugh, "You're far from useless Gaster."

"Yes I am," the skeleton spat, his voice heavy and bitter, and Grillby's flame flickered lower in dismay, "I'm not like you Grillby. I'm weak. I was born weak. And I will always be weak. I'm a pathetic mess when I fight anything. Blue magic is the only thing that's kept me alive. I would be dust a thousand times over without it. It's my strongest, most reliable magic. I spent over a year writing it into my soul and teaching myself how to use it the first time. And now it's gone."

Grillby watched his friend in troubled silence for a moment before saying quietly, "Gaster, you're not weak."

Gaster answered him with a harsh laugh, "I'm a skeleton, Grillby. I have no choice in the matter."

"But you do," Grillby flickered in concern, "And you are strong. You've healed hundreds, you've saved my life more than anyone else I've ever met. You killed an unkillable human. You taught yourself magic nobody else knows how to use - think of those bone monsters you make for heaven's sakes!"

"Oh right," Gaster scowled, "You mean the healing I can't do on my own, that I have to have help with? Or the human that would've dusted me if Amathea hadn't intervened? The blasters that can't even break a human ward?"

Grillby blinked at his friend, dismay coloring him in cool and dull reds.

"Oh I know! How about me breaking up my own soul because I couldn't heal you right?!" Gaster continued, hands jerking with every angry sign, "Or the blue magic that was too weak to carry anyone across that stupid river? Or the bone attacks that are so measly and small, it takes ten attacks just to kill a single human?! And then there's you and Amathea, striding forward in all your glory, taking out whole battalions on your own."

Grillby felt like his soul was sinking in his chest, dismay and dread turning his stomach in knots, "I didn't-"

"You're a real monster, Grillby," Gaster interrupted, scowling, "You don't feel pain, you don't take damage, it takes you ages to get tired. If you choose not to, you can go without food or sleep until your magic runs out. Your only weakness is water, for heaven's sakes! It's not fair. You can protect people!"

Finally Gaster seemed to be running out of steam. He heaved out a defeated sigh, the rapid and angry motions of his hands finally starting to still, "I can barely protect myself."

Silence ate up the world around them, silence where Grillby sat worriedly and Gaster begrudgingly got back to work on his soul, tying ends together and untying others. Grillby didn't realize it, but he'd started shaking again. Just subtly, sparks flittering about him in shivering paths before fizzling out again. He… didn't know what to say. But there was one thing that Gaster had said that stuck with the elemental, and after several minutes of pensively watching with knots twisting in his stomach, Grillby finally asked.

"The crack… that broke your blue magic," he said, voice soft and as neutral sounding as he could manage, "That's my fault, isn't it?"

Gaster's hands stopped moving. His angry expression twitched and broke, a rueful grimace sliding across his teeth like a wince.

"You were dying," Gaster finally said after a pause, looking distractedly at his unraveled soul, "I had to do something."

"... is there anything I can do to help you fix it?"

Gaster sighed, finally dropping his hands away and letting his soul sink back to where it should be, "No, Grillby, there's nothing you can do."

A pause passed between them. Grillby did his best not to let the melancholy feeling twisting in his soul turn his fire different colors. The last thing he needed to do was make Gaster feel guilty, especially now that Grillby knew this was his fault. With a smoking huff, the elemental pulled himself to his feet.

"Firefly, you should go back to sleep," Gaster frowned, sitting up to watch the elemental as he began to walk away, "Where are you even going?"

Grillby shrugged, "I'm gonna see if someone on night watch needs the sleep more than I do."

He paused, frowning one last time in Gaster's direction, "Uhm… good luck fixing your magic."

"... thanks," Gaster hummed, confused and a little worried as he signed, "Don't let any humans sneak up on you."

Grillby offered a half-hearted chuckle before moving away again, his soul feeling heavy in his chest. Heaven's alive. What was he supposed to do now?

 

Chapter Text

The rest of the night saw Grillby guarding the western side of the camp, flame flickering as low as he could possibly manage it without forcing himself to sleep, hood pulled low over his head to keep his fluttering flame out of sight. The night was cool. He could tell by the way the air warped as the heat from his body fizzled out into the world around him. Grillby wondered how long it would be before frost started lacing the ground in the morning. A few weeks maybe?

The elemental huffed out a discouraged sigh, smoke billowing forward with his breath. What was he going to do about Gaster? He’d thought after they got back to camp that all the fear, uncertainty - everything that was wrong would be okay again. But Grillby was still afraid, and Gaster was uncertain, and bitter. Grillby didn’t understand what was wrong. Had Gaster always felt this way? Was it just something that was relevant now, after it had been thrown in the skeleton’s face so often recently? But… surely Gaster should understand. None of that was his fault. Blame the mage that summoned the storm, blame the humans, blame the war. Blame anything other than his own weakness. Because Gaster wasn’t weak. Aside from Amathea, Gaster was one of the strongest monsters Grillby had ever met. And not just because he’d saved Grillby’s life either.

The elemental’s soul gave a rueful twist in his chest. Gaster didn’t… resent him… did he? No, no that was impossible. He shouldn’t even be thinking about this. Grillby was strong because he was summoned that way, because he was an elemental, and he had no control over that. Surely Gaster understood…?

Or, a dark thought in Grillby’s mind crept forward, that’s precisely why he resents you. Because you were made this way, while he had to work for it.

Grillby felt himself burn a little lower, and he hugged himself quietly, and you managed to ruin that work. Great job.

Grillby hissed out another sigh, swallowing the sour taste the thoughts had put in him. There was no point in thinking about this. He couldn’t do anything about it right now anyway. Gaster was… probably just venting. He’d be fine after he had some sleep. Right?

Grillby shook his head as if it could shoo the thoughts away. He refocused his attention on the forest around him, resigning himself to feeling anxious and uncomfortable but not letting himself give the thoughts direction. He had more important things to do. He needed to focus, if for no other reason than to feel like he was doing something right.

The night passed slow and uneventful, and filled with Grillby’s flickering and nervous colors. He did his best not to jump at every unnatural noise he heard - that would just make him flare up brighter, and he didn’t want that. He was already too conspicuous as it was. None of the noises he heard turned out to be enemies though. Few of them turned out to be much of anything past a falling branch or a passing animal of some sort. He watched as the sky slowly lit, fire expanding across it only to be consumed by watery blue. The forest crawled to life with birdsong and the chatter of small creatures. Grillby stretched and yawned and finally decided it was light enough to take his hood off and flicker brightly in the warming air.

He passed most of the day like that, standing quiet guard and trying to keep his thoughts from wandering. Twice he had a monster offer to relieve him, but Grillby politely refused. He wasn’t quite ready to come back to camp yet. Besides, he felt more useful keeping watch out here than he did pacing around camp, doing mindless chores. The monsters that offered to relieve him didn’t seem to mind it anyway. There was a haunted look about them, the quiet, damning dread of humans and all the horrors that came with them. Of course they’d rather be in camp, in relative safety, than out here on the fringe where any noise could be death coming.

So when Grillby said he was fine, they didn’t question him. Though one of them was nice enough to get him something small to eat while he watched.

Grillby was left relatively to his own devices until the afternoon. He waited and watched as the sun began to sink, twisting and contorting the shadows into long and reaching shapes as they disappeared into the forest. The dappled light that peered through the canopy above turned a dying golden, embers of light growing cool as the evening chill started to warp the air. The soft crunch of footsteps grabbed the elemental’s attention, and Grillby flickered a quiet greeting as Amathea emerged from the trees behind him. The commander flashed him a sharp-toothed grin.

“I was told I could find you out here,” she hummed, her voice startlingly loud in the quiet air that Grillby had gotten used to. She stopped beside him, leaning back against a nearby tree, “You know, when I told you to take on a few more duties around here, I didn’t mean for you to work yourself to dust.”

Grillby chuckled, his flame crackling amusedly as he gave a shrug, “Standing guard isn’t really hard work.”

“Hard? No,” Amathea conceded, pillowing her arm behind her head as she relaxed back into the tree she’d been leaning against, “But still exhausting. And unnerving when you’re wondering after any humans that could be slinking around.”

“It’s good to be useful though,” Grillby offered. Amathea simply shrugged at this, turning her gaze back to the gently darkening countryside. It would be a few hours yet before twilight was actually upon them, but in the autumn the night seemed to rush towards them. A comfortable pause passed between the two monsters before Amathea hummed.

“We’re leaving out first thing in the morning. You need to make sure your things are gathered - if you even had any to scatter in the first place,” the commander chuckled, “It’ll be nice to be away from this place and finally put that nasty defeat behind us.”

Grillby nodded, “Has anybody else made it to camp?”

“A handful of stragglers,” Amathea sighed, ear frills twitching as she frowned, “Not many, and all of them in bad shape. One I spoke with says the river’s gone down enough to use the ford. We’ll be lucky if we have another night of peace before the humans chase us across the river. It’s sad but, if there’s any monsters left alive out there, they’ll have to find a way of surviving without us. We’ve got no choice now.”  

Grillby felt a tug on his soul at that. The news was bitter to say the least. But… there were some things that couldn’t be helped.

“Speaking of surviving,” Amathea said, catching Grillby in a concerned glare, “How are you holding up? And so help me if you say ‘fine’, I’m going to personally throw you through a tree.”

Grillby laughed, sparking in bright yellows and oranges. Amathea barred her teeth at him in a vicious, threatening sort of grin.

“Aye sure, laugh now tinderbox. We’ll see if you’re still laughing when you’re picking splinters from your backside!”

Still chuckling, Grillby sparked and blazed a grin, “What in the world has you so convinced I’m not fine, Amathea?”

The commander’s grin waned a bit, her glare a little more serious, “Well for a start, you damn near almost set the tent on fire last night.”

She chuckled at the surprise that sparked off the elemental, “Thought nobody noticed that, didja? I’ll admit, I almost didn’t wake up. Was nice feeling all wrapped up and warm. And by the time I realized that was you, you’d woken yourself up. Figured I’d wait and talk to you about it when you were alone. Heaven knows Gaster gets jumpy when he talks about this kind of thing - I figure you might benefit from the privacy like he does.”

Grillby frowned, scuffing a foot against the grass awkwardly, “I mean… it was just a bad dream.”

“Bad dreams aren’t just anything, tinderbox,” Amathea chided gently, “Especially the ones that make you do things in real life. What was it about?”

Grillby scowled, his soul twisting around in his chest uncomfortably. He… honestly didn’t want to be talking about this. It made him feel tense and sick, nervousness starting to writhe around in his stomach.

“It’s dumb,” Grillby finally muttered, sparking bitterly. Amathea only raised an eyebrow at him, silently prompting him to continue. After another awkward pause, Grillby let out a sigh of smoke.

“It was just water. That’s it,” he said finally, hugging himself uncomfortably, “It was the river, actually. I just… I dunno, it scared me.”

“Aye, of course it did,” Amathea’s voice was still gentle and soft, worried, “You have every reason to be scared of it.”

“But I don’t though,” Grillby scowled, frustration pitching his flame into jittering yellows and whites, “I’m fine. I… I mean, I’m healed. I’m not in danger. No damage was done that couldn’t be fixed. I shouldn’t be worrying about this - let alone having nightmares about it.”

Amathea studied the elemental as he spoke, asking quietly, “This not the first time you’ve dreamed about this?”

Grillby sighed out a discouraged breath, smoke swirling out with the heavy sigh. He shook his head forlornly.

“When was the first time?”

The elemental rubbed the back of his neck nervously, “Uh… when we met that family out in the woods. Gaster had to wake me up.”

“That was before the river though, wasn't it?”

Grillby nodded, his soul giving an uncomfortable twist as he muttered, “I was… dreaming about rain.”

Amathea flashed Grillby the most pitiful expression then, full of quiet worry and regret. Grillby flickered warily at it, a bitter taste writhing inside him.

“Ammy don’t look at me like that,” he scowled, “I’m fine.”

“Lad you’re not,” she responded firmly, frowning back at him, “And you’re no lesser a monster for it, understand that. But you can’t just ignore something like this. Ignoring things like this will make them worse, alright? Trust me, tinderbox, I’ve been there. If you keep having dreams like this, you tell me.”

The elemental nodded, and Amathea smirked, “Come on Grillby, that’s not a promise. Do ya need me to do that weird pinky thing Gaster does? Because I will.”

This dragged a short laugh out of Grillby, and the elemental smirked, “I promise I’ll talk to you.”

“Good,” Amathea put her fist on her hip and flashed him an accomplished smile, “It’ll help when we put some distance between us and this nasty place as well.”

Grillby nodded, “Yeah… have you uh… talked to Gaster as well?”

This gave Amathea pause. She frowned down at the grass between her feet, “A bit, though not as much as I’d liked to. I did hear you two spatting last night.”

“I wouldn’t really call it that. We weren’t actually arguing,” Grillby shrugged, and then asked hesitantly, “You don’t think… Gaster resents me do you?”

“You hush that thought right there,” Amathea chidded, “Gaster’s mighty bitter, Grillby, but don’t for a second think it’s directed at you. He’s angry with himself, tinderbox. And who can blame him? The monsters closest to him are twice as strong as he’ll ever be, and there’s very little he can do to change that.”

“But… why?” Grillby flickered greens and blue in confusion, sparks jittering away from his form, “I mean, I understand me. I’m an elemental. I’ll always be this way. But Ammy, you’re a normal monster too. I mean… you’re not normal but…”

Grillby trailed off, at a loss for what to say. He ended his sentence with a confused flicker and a meaningless gesture with his hands. Amathea smiled humorlessly for a moment.

“Gaster will never be a strong monster because he’ll never have the intent or the level of violence needed to become one,” Amathea said simply, sighing as she spoke, “He was given the choice a long time ago wasn’t he? To have Mercy or to Fight whatever he came across. And he decided to be a doctor, didn’t he? He wants to choose mercy, even when he has no choice but to fight. And as far as monsters like me go, I’ve been killing things since I was old enough to make a spear. I have never shown anyone mercy… not that I remember anyway.”

Amathea’s face split into a ferocious grin, and she gave a laugh at the surprise that flickered across Grillby’s face, “That’s right, you’re too young to know any of that, aren’t you? And I don’t really talk about it much either, do I? Grillby, I didn’t come south because I wanted to help out with this war. My family and I were run out of our homeland when the creatures up there had finally had enough of us.”

“You’re not serious,” was all Grillby could think to say. But he knew Amathea, and while her tales tended to be far-fetched, she’d never been known to lie. Even now the commander had a look about her that said she was being serious, even in spite of the grin on her face.

“You know me and my siblings had bets going on who would finally get enough LV to become a boss monster?” Amathea said with a quiet laugh, “We’d go out of our way to attack things just for the EXP. Humans. Monsters. If it moved it was fair game. We were really terrors before we stumbled into this mess down south. I’ll be honest with you, if Ghirdam hadn’t died when he did, he probably would’ve made it to boss monster LV. He was mighty close, and hungry after it like no one else I’d ever met.”

Grillby’s mind was reeling. He flickered all sorts of mixed up, jumbled colors, greens and purples and blues all meshing together in his surprise and confusion.

“But that’s… but you’re not…” he stammered, and Amathea smirked. Finally the elemental managed, “That’s not you. You’re not bloodthirsty, or - or evil. You’re nice, and loyal and a great leader and…”

His sentence stammered to an end when he noticed Amathea’s smile had done nothing but grow since he’d started talking.

“What changed?”

Amathea smirked at this, thinking quietly for a moment, “Well… back then it was my family and I against the world. And we were content with that. We enjoyed it. Our only motivation was benefiting each other and whatever damned souls joined us on occasion. After we joined the war, I became intent on winning, at keeping monster kind from being completely destroyed. Aside from that though, I am still merciless. I am still intent. I want to fight, I’m willing to kill. I’m still hungry for a fight I might lose.”

Her ear frills twitched thoughtfully as she said, “There’s a thrill to a fight that I can’t live without now. It’s written into my soul. I have long lost that part of myself that can look at my enemies and have empathy, see mercy. And I doubt I’ll ever get it back again.”

Grillby blinked at Amathea as if he were suddenly seeing her for the first time. He… supposed she was right. He’d only been on an open battlefield with her twice, but he’d seen already that she fought unflinchingly, she showed no hesitation or fear. Even Grillby still hesitated sometimes, he was still afraid before the battle started. It wasn’t until he lost himself to the motion, the adrenaline, and the gravity of the battle that he truly stopped feeling fear. And then there was Gaster, so confident everywhere else in the world, but who fell apart when his life was on the line.

“So… why did you join the war?” Grillby finally asked, “It sounds like you guys were happy - in a way. You knew what you wanted.”

“Aye we did, and it almost got us all killed,” Amathea chuckled, her gaze becoming wistful as she thought back, “We’d been sailing down the coast destroying just about everything we came across and stumbled right into the middle of this mess. When we heard an army was coming, we laughed. We thought it was just going to be some thrown-together group of farmers, something they’d send after bandits and the like. We were wrong. Almost dead wrong. They cornered us in a cove with almost three hundred soldiers.”

Amathea gave a helpless sort of shrug, “We’ll add that day to the growing list of reasons I should be dead. They’d dusted over half our crew when an angel swooped in with her army, trusted elemental at her side, chasing the bastards away. She was a real boss monster. One of the ones that are born great, you know? Not like the murderous blood-drinkers we were trying to be. Lady Toriel, she was called. We thought for sure she would have us killed or imprisoned. After all, we hadn’t just been attacking humans, had we? We’d been tearing up monster settlements as well. But she didn’t. She looked at us, all holy fire and tired wrath, and she spared us.”

The commander gave an incredulous laugh, as if even now she couldn’t understand it had actually happened, “Can you imagine our surprise? Us bunch of renegades, brought to our knees for the first time in our lives, brought to this great creature’s mercy. And she does the one thing we’ve never expected from any monster. Ghirdam, my eldest brother, he was so impressed by her. Enchanted almost. He swore fealty to her in a heartbeat. And well… we didn’t have to stay with him. But we’d come so far together…”

Amathea sighed, “I never thought in a hundred years this would have been how we all ended up. Ghirdam died still in her service, you know? And Irade followed him not long after.”

Suddenly her face twisted into a frown, her gaze dropping to some point in the distance that Grillby couldn’t fathom, “There’s been so much going on… I almost forgot how much I missed them.”

Amathea sighed out a heavy breath and then flashed Grillby a wan smile, “Look at me getting sentimental like some fool lass.”

The elemental crackled a chuckle, “Sentimental isn’t bad, you know.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Amathea smirked, “But it’s definitely not getting us back to camp anytime sooner. Come on. I had Gaster get us some supper started. If we get back in time we might be able to keep him from burning the camp to the ground!”

She motioned for Grillby to follow her, and with a tired flicker the elemental fell in step beside her. He noticed her gaze looked a bit distant as she walked, her ear frills twitching every once in a while in thought. Grillby figured he knew what she was thinking about. She was probably remembering a pair of monsters she’d been really close to… and wondering how her sister was doing. For not the first time, Grillby found himself wondering about how strong Amathea was. He honestly couldn’t imagine what something like that must be like… he didn’t have any siblings, obviously. Though he figured it might be about the same as losing Amathea or Gaster, or even Gerson. He hadn’t seen the turtle monster in so long… he hoped he was okay.

When they reached their tent, Gaster was indeed still working on dinner. He quite proudly showed off the blue magic he’d managed to repair - flickering Grillby’s soul blue for a few brief seconds before dropping the magic again. The elemental was nervous, but glad Gaster was actually fixing it - but before he could say as much the food Gaster had been making flared up with the rest of the fire. They salvaged what they could, both Grillby and Amathea laughing about the terrible cooking but eating heartily anyway. Gaster sprawled himself out by the fire, eating briefly before getting back to work on his soul, making occasional quips about how obviously the food was Grillby’s fault since he hadn’t come back in time to cook it. He smiled jokingly as he said it though.

That night Grillby dreamed of nothing, and he was grateful.

Chapter Text

They walked, a slow and steady march pocketed with scavenging and patrols and nervous backward glances. They wove their way south through rolling hills and turning forests, the green leaves shifting slowly into golds and reds. The air was beginning to chill as well, especially in the forest where the sunlight couldn’t always reach down it’s amber fingers to grasp at and warm the world. It tried it’s hardest though, and in a few scattered clearings and glens the crowd of monsters trudged their way through the air was bright and warm. The world was dying in spectacular fashion, the entire countryside a smothering blaze. It was beautiful and dismal, like dust dancing through dappled sunlight. It was the perfect mix of melancholy and hopeful, somber and brave.

Amathea had been right - it felt good to be moving again. Every step away from their defeat was like a breath of fresh air, a weight lifted off the soul. There wasn’t a human in sight, and for every passing moment this held true, Grillby heaved a sigh of relief. This stained-glass peacefulness wouldn’t last long he knew. At some point humans would catch up to them, or they’d be sent off towards another engagement. But for now, isolated from the scattered battles and carnage that hid in the landscape, Grillby could pretend he was safe.

Gaster seemed to have lightened up a bit since their departure. He talked more, arms flailing with vibrant energy with every word. He did a good job of keeping Grillby and Amathea entertained on the long walk back to the nearest encampment, peppering thoughtful silences with facts about plants and animals they passed, and occasionally rippling the air with some eccentric idea for magic or travel. The ‘all monsters should have wings’ topic was brought up a few times, much to Amathea’s exaggerated dismay. Every night he stayed awake working on his magic, but when asked how it was going he answered with a little more optimism than he had before. Soon, he said, soon it would be fixed again. He just needed to keep working.

Amathea herself couldn’t seem to get enough of Grillby and Gaster. She stayed close beside them - sometimes huddling a little closer to Grillby when the temperature dropped in the evening and the biting chill wormed it’s way through the air. Honestly, Grillby didn’t mind all that much. He remembered a time when he would have minded, and thinking back on it made him feel foolish, but also happy. If Amathea noticed, she didn’t let on about it. Though she wasn’t shy in regaling the two monsters - and any others that walked close by enough to hear - with stories from before her time in the war. She spoke about brazen, legendary feats, filled with infectious laughter and zeal, about bandits and renegades, near-death experiences and pride and camaraderie. Her enthusiasm was contagious, carrying to the rest of the monsters as they walked, or huddled close around a fire, and listened.

And if anyone called her out, told her the stories were too fantastic to be real? She’d simply flash them that dangerous grin, ear frills twitching with the challenge, fist planted firmly on her hip.

“I’m many things, you snoutbrand ragabrash, but a liar isn’t one of them!”

Even Brigg seemed impressed as he sat back and listened, occasionally giving a skeptical snort when Amathea’s stories seemed a little too far-fetched. But he smiled and he chuckled, and sometimes joined in with a story of his own, his cold gaze and snarling maw softening as he remembered fondly times when the taste of dust wasn’t so heavy in the air. Grillby found himself feeling young and small when he listened to them swap stories. He was content to just listen as they spoke, silently admiring them and their tales - and gently wishing he’d been able to meet Amathea’s brothers while they were still alive. From the way she talked about them, they must have been interesting monsters to know, all bawdy hellfire and zeal just like Amathea was.

After a week of walking south they finally arrived at the encampment they’d been sent to take refuge in, though to call it an encampment was a disservice to what it actually was. In reality it was more like a small fort, chipped out of one of the rockier hillsides where the trees grew thinner and gave way to a large clearing. There was a wall, short and made of a staggered mix of wood and stone, with a single gate in it’s center. The wall was studded in short intervals with vicious-looking spears, snarling outward like hungry teeth so any enemy foolish enough to try and scale it would be poked and pricked by the jagged points. The inner court had several tents, another army had settled there in transit across the country as well. There was a tower near the back of the complex, nestled comfortably against the rocky hillside. Inside it, Grillby knew, the fort extended into the hill itself, cavernous and empty and ready to shelter a bulk of troops if an attack was launched against it. That was where the more permanent troops of the encampment would be, sprawling out in stone barracks that honeycombed the inside of the hill.

The gate was opened, a few quick words exchanged with the guards inside, and the ramshackle army crowded inside, thankful for the safety that came with the wall. Once inside, they were given the eastern courtyard to set up tents and fires and make themselves comfortable. It was the first camp in what seemed like months where comfort was actually extended to them. Monsters were given bedding, broken tents and shelters were replaced with newer-woven ones that the fort could afford to spare. Fresh food was passed around - well, fresher food than they’d been surviving on for the past few weeks at least. It felt like Grillby had been yanked out of the war and thrown into the lap of luxury. It was hard for him to believe that just a month or so prior he had lived in this kind of comfort for months and been bored by it. Now, kneeling beside a cooking fire with fresh ingredients and warm stew brewing, his little box of spices finally coming back into use after so long being neglected, Grillby felt like he was in heaven.

“Oh man,” Gaster groaned, slumping to the ground beside the elemental, “I missed this. I missed this so much.”

Amathea chuckled at him from where she sat on the other side of the campfire, leaning back on her arm as she warmed her feet on the stones that circled the small blaze, “Aye, it’s nice to have walls around us. And something worth eating besides half-spoiled jerky.”

Grillby flickered a smirk, “Yeah… it really makes me miss home.”

The elemental shook his head, “Well - supper will be ready in a few more minutes so -”

Grillby caught a glimpse of movement in the corner of his eye and trailed off mid-sentence. He looked up in time to see a shadow suddenly loom itself over Amathea. The commander’s ear frills gave a nervous twitch and she frowned at Grillby, his flame was already pitching into surprised colors.

With a loud shriek the shadow tumbled into Amathea, and the two of them were suddenly a tangle of wrestling limbs sprawled in the dirt. Grillby leaped to his feet, just in time to catch the dinner pot as one of the two brawling forms almost knocked it over. With a snarl of a laugh Amathea managed to wriggle herself free of the other’s grip and stagger to her feet. She threw her hand forward -!

There were two identical pings! as both monsters threw forward green magic. And then both of them were on the ground, the crushing power of intent and the weight of the green shields both monsters now bore slamming them off their feet. A few seconds of shocked silence passed where Grillby blinked in bewilderment at the two monsters now sprawled across the ground. One looked at the other, vicious grins splitting both their faces as their magic flickered out of existence. Then Amathea snorted, and both of them were roaring with laughter.

Gaster peeked out from where he had taken shelter behind the elemental, a bright smile weaving across his teeth, “Oh… well that’s definitely Thetis. Hi Thetis!”

Thetis was already pulling herself to her feet. She beamed brilliantly at Gaster, lunging for him across the fire, “Ha! If it isn’t twig legs! Get over here!”

Gaster let out a startled yelp as the fish  monster suddenly swept him up in a crushing bear hug, somehow managing to lift him off the ground even though she was even shorter than Amathea was to him. The skeleton writhed around in her grasp, desperately trying to pry her arms away from their grip around his waist.

“Hey hey hey! Don’t crush the skeleton!” he shrieked, “I break way easier than your sister does!”

“Oh don’t be such a kill joy!” Thetis growled with a smile, giving Gaster one last squeeze before finally dropping him back on his feet, “It’s been ages since I’ve seen you guys!”

Her tattered ear frills fanned out in surprise when she noticed Grillby, a pair of silver earrings shimmering subtly in the elemental’s light as the frills twitched thoughtfully. Her smile wavered for a second before splitting wider than it had been before.

“And you must be Grillby,” Thetis beamed, offering Grillby a hand to shake, “Thanks for keeping these scalawags out of trouble while I’ve been out saving the world! Gods know somebody had to.”

Grillby flickered a nervous smile and took her hand in his - immediately Thetis yanked him towards her, wrapping her arms around him in a hug. With a rough yank he was lifted off his feet and spun around before she plopped him back down again - Grillby barely managed to stay on his feet when she dropped him.

Amathea laughed all the while, “Thetis you beastie, don’t terrorize them too much! They’re not used to your manhandling!”

“Train a pair of softies, did you?” Thetis spat back at her, finally making her way back to Amathea to wrap her up in a hug as well, “You’re losing your touch commander.”

“Oh I’ll not take any sass from you, ya fustylugs of a lass,” Amathea chuckled back, breaking their embrace after a pause, “Where in the whole wide world have you been?

She looked her sister up and down before flashing a mischievous grin, “You look like you took a ride in a barrel full of knives!”

Thetis snorted, barely containing another outburst of laughter, “Me?! What about you, you old hag? Is that grey hair?!”

Amathea chuckled, reaching up to yank at her sister’s short red ponytail, “Aye sure, tease my hair when you’ve gone and lopped all of yours off! Fool girl, that was the only pretty thing about you, wasn’t it?”

Thetis growled a laugh at this and gave Amathea a playful punch in the shoulder, jeering some joking response about Amathea not getting any prettier either. The two giggled at each other once more, each drinking the other in as if they’d forgotten what the other looked like. Grillby couldn’t really blame them though - how long had it been since they’d last met? It had been since before Amathea had taken on Grillby as a charge at least, and who knew for how long beforehand that they’d been apart?

Grillby served out food while the two chattered back and forth, each asking the other a thousand questions about what had happened, what glorious things they’d accomplished in the other’s absence. Amathea pointed out a brand new scar Thetis had on display, a wicked looking mark that twisted along the side of her throat, and launched the younger sister into a harrowing story about an ambush and how she’d single-handedly dispatched this thing or another. Grillby had to wonder at how Amathea had even noticed the scar - Thetis was almost as covered and criss-crossed with the pale marks as her sister was. Though Grillby did notice most of Thetis’s looked fresher, harsh and bright against her pale turquoise scales, while most of Amathea’s had faded with time.

When given the chance Amathea bragged heartily on her own exploits, some of which were from before she’d even taken on Grillby as a charge. Thetis soaked in her stories with the kind of hungry curiosity that Grillby had only ever seen in Gaster’s eyes, and he couldn’t help but flicker a smile at it. At length Amathea offered for her two charges to share their adventures as well, and with a grin and a laugh Gaster plunged into their stories, his arms signing in grand gestures the things that had happened to them. Grillby sat quietly and let Gaster talk, only occasionally adding something here or there that the skeleton missed.

The campfire was burning low when Thetis finally sat back, sharp-toothed smile resting contentedly across her features, “Heavens alive it’s good to see you again.”

She glanced back over to her sister, her smile turning sad, “I’ll be honest Am, I was thinking for awhile there that I might be getting a letter from you.”

“Losing faith in me, are you?” Amathea laughed lightheartedly.

“Not at all,” Thetis replied, a smirk on her teeth, “But you’ve started looking pretty mortal lately. Scared me half to dust when you lost your arm, you know. And with the news I got on how your battle down south went...”

She sighed, and Amathea frowned at her, “It’s getting scary out there Am.”

“It’s always been scary,” Amathea’s voice was gentle and comforting, “But we can fight through it. We’ll figure a way of winning this Thetis, you watch, it’ll be okay.”

A silence fell across them. Thetis chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully, ragged ear frills giving a few thoughtful twitches as she blinked at her sister. Finally she mumbled, “You’ve a fine amount of optimism given the losses we’ve taken recently.”

Amathea shrugged, “Well given the alternative is falling in despair, I’ll take dumb optimism. Without hope, we might as well be dust.”

The commander frowned then, “I mean… nothing we do at this point is going to be pretty or glorious. But the point of surviving this mess isn’t to be anything like that. Surviving is just… hanging on until we find a way out. We’re going to do a lot of losing before we finally win anything. But with so many hearts and minds focused on living - well that has to mean something. I’m not sure this world is worth living in if something like that can mean nothing.”

Grillby flickered in thoughtful silence at this, wondering quietly about whether or not Amathea could be right. Thetis had a point - the battle they’d just been through, the loss of the entire western front, it was almost too much. What would happen if they lost? At the rates the humans were going… they might kill all of them, every monster they came across might be reduced to dust. Grillby was starting to seriously doubt the monsters had a chance of winning this war. If Amathea was right, and so many hearts banded together meant something powerful, wouldn’t that just make their situation all the more dismal? After all, so many humans had only one intent left in them now - destroy the monsters. He just couldn’t understand -

“ - why is this even happening?” Grillby mused his thoughts outloud, and all eyes around the campfire turned to him, “Why do we even have to fight? I just… I don’t understand.”

Amathea and Thetis exchanged a concerned glance, and Gaster mimed out some confused sentence to himself with his hands.

“No one ever talk to you about this when they summoned you?” Thetis finally asked, brow wrinkling a bit in an indignant frown, “That’s a shit thing to do if they didn’t.”

Grillby flickered in dull colors, suddenly feeling foolish. He remembered when he and Gaster had first met when the skeleton had brought up something similar. He remembered such a short time ago how Grillby had been content to just follow what he figured was his purpose. But if this was his purpose, to fight and die in this war… slowly he was beginning to wonder why it had to be that way.

“I guess I never really thought it was important before,” Grillby sighed after a pause, smoke curling out with the breath, “But now… I guess… I’m starting to figure out I might die because of this. If that’s going to happen… I want to know what I’m dying for.”

“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that, tinderbox. Isn’t a fun thought to think you might wind up dust you now,” Amathea said with a sad, gentle sort of smile, her ear frills dipping a bit in dismay, “But it’s a good reason to want to know.”

Amathea cast another look to her sister before saying finally, “Well I guess it’ll be because of monsters like us, that all this got this way between monsters and humans, isn’t it?”

Thetis gave a rueful smile, “That’d be about right, wouldn’t it?”

Grillby gave a confused flicker, looking between the sisters, “How?”

“Aye well, there’s two types of boss monsters in the world aren’t there?” Amathea began, a somber smile twisting across her teeth, “There’s the beasties that are born powerful, made to lead and give hope and keep peace. Monsters like Toriel, or the King and his children. And then there’s monsters me and my family that decided this world was too cruel to the weak, and the only way for you to survive was if you were that strong. You start thinking this world is kill or be killed, and then suddenly you’re getting thirsty after that blood and battle.”

Amathea shrugged, “It’s not a popular idea now. Most monsters have figured out that kind of power comes with consequences. But years ago before we were even thought of? The world was a little darker even than it is now. Famines, plagues, forces of nature, wars - it was all pushing monsters and humans alike to be a bit more cruel. And monsters were starting to kill because they thought they had to, and then because they liked the feeling of being strong, and then because they’d killed too much and they were starting to turn into something a little less like a monster and a little more like a demon.”

Amathea paused, running her tongue across her teeth as she gathered her thoughts for a moment, “We had legends up north about them - dragons like Brigg who turned into boss monsters, and suddenly they were taller than trees and spitting poison and smoke that could dust an army. There were ghosts who could steal your soul while you slept and turn the air like ice, who’d call out their victims by screamin’. Terrible monsters, that did terrible things. They didn’t think they were monsters anymore. They thought they were gods.”

The commander snorted and rolled her eyes, “Course thinkin’ like that is dangerous. You start forgetting you can still get dusted, and most of them were, over petty and stupid things they should’ve seen coming. But even after they were gone, the fear still stuck around. Fear that got worse when we figured out we could absorb human souls. After a while the humans decided we were too dangerous to live side-by-side anymore. This war has been ragin’ ever since.”

“So… we started this?” Grillby asked, flickering dismally. Thetis shook her head.

“Hardly!” she barked, crossing her arms indignantly, “For every mass murdering boss monster there ever were, I’d bet my soul there’s been another ten human warlords that have done the same. But humans are forgetful beasties, and stupidly forgiving of the horrors their own kind can make. And if they can’t forgive something their kind has done? Their kind stops being human. They make stories up about them, how they made pacts with demons or were possessed by spirits, or born from some evil thing.”

“The point is though,” Gaster interjected, finally speaking up, “We’re not innocent, and we never have been. This war was going to happen eventually. It was just a matter of who was going to start it, and who was going to win.”

A somber quiet settled over the four of them, thoughtful and dark. Grillby watched the little fire, now mostly embers and charcoal, as it cast pale white and pink hues about the world. Well, it hadn’t exactly been the explanation Grillby had expected - well… he supposed he hadn’t expected much. What still baffled him though was Amathea and her family, and how in spite of all they knew about boss monsters, they had still wanted to be something like that. Why would any monster want that kind of blood on their hands just to be strong? It wasn’t all that great a thing to have… and at the end of the day you were still just as fallible as before. Grillby knew this. But once again he had to wonder if the only reason he thought that way was because he was born strong. And… he had to quietly wonder if any of the monsters around him might resent him for that. It was a paranoid thought that was starting to echo a little more frequently.

Finally it was Amathea who spoke up, a reassuring smile resting across her features, “Well, now that all the serious talk is out of the way… I think it’s time we had a little fun. I’m sick and tired of seeing every monster around this place looking so discouraged.”

Thetis chuckled, “I mean, they have a good reason to be.”

“Aye they do!” Amathea said grandly, getting to her feet, “But they also need to remember we haven’t lost yet. Including this one, it would seem.”

She ushered to Grillby, and he flickered a smirk at her.

“Thetis, feel like singin’ with me tomorrow?”

What?” Gaster was suddenly beaming. He grinned across the fire at Thetis, whose face had twisted into an annoyed scowl, “Thetis! You sing?!

“Aye yes, I sing,” the fish monster said with a dismissive wave of her hand, “Not well. But I can.”

“Oooooh yes!” Gaster laughed, pumping a fist in the air. With a grin he started chanting, “Bon-fire! Bon-fire! Bon-fire!”

“Would you shut up,” Thetis hissed, managing to take her boot off and hurl it at the skeleton, who artfully dodged it, “You’ll wake up the whole damn camp.”

She rolled her eyes when the skeleton grinned back at her, his hands still working in the same motion they had been when he was chanting. Grillby crackled a laugh as the skeleton signed over and over bonfire bonfire bonfire bonfire!

Amathea chuckled, “Don’t worry over it too much Thetis. If you don’t want to sing I won’t make you.”

Gaster beamed, eye sockets narrowing mischievously, “Yeah Thetis. If you’re too scared to sing in front of a bunch of monsters-”

“Who said I was scared?!” Thetis cut him off abruptly, a daring snarl twisting across her teeth, “I’m never scared! I just don’t wanna embarrass Am by out singin’ her is all!”

Excuse me?” Amathea’s smile turned vicious and challenging as she rounded on her sister, ear frills flaring, “I’m sorry I must’ve heard you wrong there for a second. I thought for sure you just said you can sing better than me!”

Grillby busied himself with putting out the rest of the fire - and concealing his laughter as he did so. Obviously he didn’t do it well enough, because both Amathea and Thetis started glaring daggers in his direction.

“What’s so funny?!” Thetis demanded, and in spite of himself Grillby found himself wanting to laugh harder.

“N-nothing,” Grillby muttered as best he could, stamping down the need to giggle, “I just - eheh - can’t wait to see how this turns out.”

“Oh you watch!” Thetis snarled indignantly, “I’ll knock your damn boots off with my voice!”

Gaster draped an arm around Grillby’s shoulder then, leaning against the elemental as he raised the ridge above his unbroken eye, “Oh, we totally believe you. Don’t we, firefly?”

Amathea’s uproarious laughter cut them off then, and gave her sister a hearty pat on the back as she did so - he was surprised the hit didn’t knock Thetis over. Grillby knew it would’ve knocked him off balance, but of course Thetis was probably used to Amathea’s enthusiasm.

“Well that settles it then!” Amathea declared, “Tomorrow night we’ll show these boys how it’s done.”

“Aye of course we will!” the annoyance in Thetis’s voice had already been replaced by a zealous thrill, and the younger sister crossed her arms proudly, “You’re on at sundown, sis!”

The two monsters faded into scattered laughter and talks back and forth as Amathea turned to walk Thetis home. Though Grillby noticed before they walked too far away, Amathea shot Gaster a wink over her shoulder. The skeleton gave her a thumbs-up back, smiling proudly as she disappeared from sight.

“This is gonna be awesome!” Gaster grinned, “I’ve never heard Thetis sing before - but Ammy has some cool stories about the magic she uses when she does.”

Grillby chuckled, “Well if it’s anything like Ammy’s, we’ll probably all be dust before the night’s over. Still… it’ll be a nice distraction.”

The two monsters exchanged tired smiles, Grillby’s fire flickering a bit lower. Gaster sighed and signed to him comfortingly.

“We’re going to be okay, firefly,” Gaster hummed, “I mean, if you don’t believe me, you can at least believe Ammy right?”

The elemental nodded, but stayed wisely silent. Honestly… he was really beginning to wonder if they were going to make it out of this alive. The hoped they did but… the world was starting to look dark. Even still, he supposed he should be grateful. For once, it was raining somewhere else.

Chapter Text

That night was another on a slowly growing list of nights that Grillby had a nightmare. The elemental awoke in a panic, scrambling to get to his feet and get his bearings. He was stopped short by Gaster. The skeleton delicately pinged his soul blue, catching Grillby before he could do much more than sit up. The grip was weak and faltering, but it was enough to get the elemental grounded, help him remember where he was. Grillby let himself be eased back down again, Gaster's grip flickering out not seconds later. The skeleton sprawled out beside him then, his arms pillowed behind his head as he waited patiently for Grillby to catch his breath and calm the panicked flickering of his flame. It wasn't until his flame was casting itself back into orange and yellow hues that Grillby finally dared to speak up. He voice was hoarse and tired in his throat, and startlingly loud against the quiet of the night around them.

"Sorry," he murmured, "Kinda… panicked there for a second."

"I noticed," Gaster hummed, his voice quiet but pleasant, "Nightmare?"

Grillby flickered quietly to himself, a question in the color of his flame. Gaster chuckled.

"Ammy told me."

"Of course she did," Grillby sighed out a soft fluttering of sparks and smoke, "It's not that big of a deal."

Gaster watched the elemental warily for a few seconds before he finally yawned, seeming content to let the conversation drop for now. He curled over onto his side and went to sleep. Grillby watched him nervously, flickering quietly to himself as he watched the skeleton grow still, the lights of his eyes out. The elemental had to worry if it was… safe… having Gaster so close by while he was sleeping. Especially recently, with his nightmares making him flare so much hotter. But… it was comforting knowing someone was close by if he needed them. And besides, he'd never hurt Gaster before. Or Amathea. Or anyone. Maybe he could ignore the feeling of paranoia for now?

Grillby hushed his flame into sleeping hues and, after a while, fell back asleep as well.

He woke up to Gaster complaining loudly about a lack of breakfast, and with a yawn and a chuckle Grillby got up and got to work. By mid-morning he had a soft stew made for them, mostly vegetables and broth with some bread for them to mop it up with. He had to get the bread from one of the stronghold's kitchens - he decided then that as soon as the war was over, he was going to teach himself how to make his own. It smelled amazing, and it didn't look too terribly hard to make.

By the time Grillby was back at their campsite, Brigg had joined Amathea by the fire, and joined them for breakfast as well. The two chattered on and on about various news they'd heard from the Capital and from captains that were around the compound - none of it sounded good. Grillby and Gaster ate in silence, listening forlornly to the two captains as they compared ideas on what to do next, when and why. Brigg seemed concerned with the amount of monsters being lost - muttering something about dust counts and head counts not matching up. Amathea offered for the two of them to talk to Thetis later. Grillby flickered confusedly at that - he hadn't thought Thetis was a captain as well? Then again, he didn't even know what unit Thetis was a part of. How was he supposed to know if she led her own or not?

The rest of the day saw Gaster and Grillby wandering about the courtyard of the stronghold, speaking with various venders and restocking on supplies, getting repairs done to armor. Apparently they weren't the only ones with the idea. The tiny stalls were impossibly crowded with monsters from the units stationed inside the wall, everyone taking the time to get belongings replaced or mended. Little necessities that had been missed were being bought - alcohol, cider, monster candies. Even simpler things like clothes without holes, blankets that weren't threadbare, shoes that hadn't been walked through. There were quite a few merchants that would be happy while counting their gold that evening.

Grillby begrudgingly found himself a new shield to replace his old one, grumbling about how it wouldn't be the same as the one he'd left behind. Gaster thought it was hilarious - after all, Grillby had given the thing away freely! He shouldn't have given it up if he was just going to complain about it later. In the end though, Grillby had to smile. He was sure Col appreciated having the shield more than Grillby ever could. And who knew? Maybe with human luck working the way it did, the little prayer written on it might make a nice ward for them should they ever need it.

While they were out, Grillby insisted on getting Gaster to get a blade of his own - though the skeleton managed to weasel his way out of getting an actual sword. Instead, they outfitted Gaster with a pair of long knives. Grillby knew the skeleton was at least fast enough to use them, even if he knew his friend wouldn't have to use them often. Gaster was much too reliant on magic for anything like that. But should the time come when Gaster was exhausted, his magic spent like it had been when he'd been trying to defend Grillby out in the forest, and the two blades would come in handy to say the least. They were a bit different to use than swords, and Grillby promised to give Gaster some lessons in how to use them. They were useless if the skeleton didn't know how to hold his own with them.

Before they wandered their way back to camp, Grillby did managed to snag some new spices for his little spice box. They were a little more expensive than he'd hoped they would be, but he didn't know when he'd be able to get more - assuming he actually got another chance. In hindsight… it was a little silly to waste the gold on them. For all he knew, he'd be dust before he ever got the chance to really use them. But he was excited nonetheless. Gaster picked up some rosemary from the same cart, and while they walked he handed the little pouch it was carried in over to Grillby. The elemental flickered confusedly at him, and Gaster feigned a stern look in his direction.

"Alright firefly! As your personal doctor, I'm telling you to keep that with you every night when you go to sleep," he cracked a grin, "It's rosemary. So… in theory it'll help keep nightmares away. I mean, it never worked for me but… you know… different cures for different monsters, right?"

He shrugged, "And besides! If it doesn't work, you could always throw it in your spice box."

Grillby flickered gratefully down at the little packet of herbs, and then beamed a smile to Gaster, "Oh. Well… thank you."

"More than welcome, firefly!" Gaster said with a grand flourish of his hands.

"Though," Grillby chuckled as he tucked away the little bit of herbs into his inventory, "I did tell you not to make a fuss about it."

Gaster feigned an indignant look, "What? Who's fussing? I'm not fussing. I was just being nice."

He made a grand show of crossing his arms, his face twisting into a pouty frown - though Grillby could still see the smile on the edge of his teeth and in the lights of his eyes.

Grillby laughed giving Gaster a good-natured shove, "Oh fine. I appreciate the rosemary Doctor Gaster. I'll be sure to sleep with it every night. Better?"

Gaster beamed, chest puffing out pridefully as he signed, much better!

Back at the campsite, Amathea was already arranging for the grand bonfire she'd had planned. She had their tent torn down and moved, along with all the other tents around them. Brigg and Thetis were helping her stack wood for a decently-sized fire. This bustle alone was already drawing a small crowd, curious monsters looking on and wondering what the bonfire was being made for. When word was passed around that Amathea was going to be singing, the crowd got a little larger. Some of the monsters Grillby recognized from Brigg's unit, and as they whispered amongst themselves he realized some of them had been there the first night Grillby had met Amathea, when she'd first sung.

By the time the sun was setting, they had several monsters sat around a small blaze. Amathea and Thetis sat side-by-side, whispering to each other about who was going to sing what. Brigg sat shortly beside Thetis, the giant of a monster looking cramped and uncomfortable, curled up as small as he could be in between the monsters around him. Gaster sat to Grillby's right, listening intently to Amathea as her and Thetis exchanged ideas. A thrill of nervousness crept through the elemental's flame as he looked around at the gathered monsters. There were more this time than the last time Amathea had sung, and they all murmured conversations to each other in hushed tones, looking around expectantly.

Grillby felt his flame flicker into nervous hues of green and yellow. He nudged Gaster quietly, grabbing the skeleton's attention.

"Gaster I think I need to leave," Grillby sparked in an anxious whisper, and Gaster laughed.

"What? Why?" he chuckled, "Look, if you're afraid of Ammy's magic stuff-"

"It's not that," Grillby breathed, "I can't… I can't sing."

Gaster blinked down at him for a moment, taken off guard. Then slowly, a smile curled its way back across his face, "Oh come on Grillby-"

"I'm serious Gaster!" The elemental hissed with a sputter of anxious sparks, "I've never sung anything before past humming by the campfire."

"Well that didn't stop you last time."

"Gaster, it was raining last time," Grillby frowned, "I wasn't allowed to leave."

This gave the skeleton pause. He moved his hands through a few half-finished thoughts, none of them coherent enough for Grillby to pick out.

Finally he said, "Well… I mean… You're quiet and intimidating right?"

Gaster gave a reluctant smile, "Nobody in their right mind is going to pick you for anything - except me or Ammy. And… if it makes you that nervous, I won't pick you if I sing. And you could always, you know, think of a short song? So you don't have to sing for very long?"

Grillby felt his throat get a little tighter, his nervousness churning him into uncomfortable colors as he whispered, "I can't sing."

Gaster smiled, putting a hand on Grillby's shoulder reassuringly. He was going to say something too, hoping to put the elemental's fears at ease at least a little, but Amathea's voice rang through the air and cutting him off. All heads turned to the captain. She sat with her elbow propped up on her knee, hand balancing on a tall flask that she'd summoned out of her inventory. Oh. Grillby forgot she had that. A few monsters exchanged confused looks, wondering what in the world the fish monster was up to.

"Alright ya bunch of bespawlin' loiter-sacks!" Amathea proclaimed, her face split in a ferocious, adventurous grin, "No doubt all of you've been hearing all day about this siren call of a voice o' mine. Most beautiful thing on the all the lands and all the seas, all magic and nonsense. Well, I'll not busy myself with telling ya's if it's true - you'll find out for yourselves soon enough won't you? But I'll give you all a warning now! Siren's voice have I, but I'll be dead before I sing alone! So here's how this works…"

The hand she'd had balancing on the top of the flask moved, flicking up in a quick motion, fingers flourishing as she did. A single gold coin leapt from her fingers, shimmering in the firelight as it turned in the air before Amathea caught it deftly. The held it up between her finger and her thumb, the gilded sheen on it almost dancing in the light of the fire.

"I'll start us off shall I? Let you guys hear this melodious voice of mine. Then this coin here gets flipped! If the king winks at me, I'll pick a person to my left, if the crown, I'll pick to my right. And they're the next in line to sing."

There was a flourish of Amathea's fingers again and the coin disappeared. There were a few started murmurs from the crowd of monsters, a few laughs. Already she'd pulled them all in, immersed them in the adventurousness of her tone and the enthusiasm of her display. Amathea seemed to realize this, her eyes sparkling with pride and mystery.

"If you're picked, you take a swig from this fine drink of mine," she tapped her palm against the flask at her feet, "Ya sing. Ya flip the coin, and we go on. If you're not ready to match me in a singing contest then, by all means."

Amathea did the best bow she could manage from where she sat, arm extending to usher into the night around them, "Take your leave. But if not then sit back and relax! Have a drink. We'll see if any of you muck-spoutin' raggabrash has the pipes to put mine to shame."

This brought a chorus of murmurs and questions through the crowd of gathered monsters, mixing with laughter and daring smiles. Looks were exchanged, concerned and curious glances warping in the dancing firelight. Just like the last time Amathea had given such a show, all the monsters in the circle were loath to leave. Curiosity and wonder held them in place, along with anxious looks at their friends who refused to leave. Grillby noticed a few monsters shuffling off into the night, finally giving in to nervousness - or perhaps already admitting to themselves they couldn't or wouldn't sing. With an anxious flicker Grillby thought he should be joining them.

But Gaster was looking at him expectantly, begging him silently not to leave. So Grillby stayed, sighing resignedly and praying none of the monsters around the circle decided to pick him.

"Alright then!" Amathea barked, getting to her feet. Grillby blinked confusedly at her. This was… new. She turned on her heel and bowed grandly to Thetis, who beamed up at her.

"Care to join me on my grand stage, lass?"

The two sisters exchanged a laugh as Amathea helped Thetis to her feet. At their command, the circle was pulled back - enough that the two girls had a space around the fire to move around in. Amathea took a long drink from that ceramic flask of hers - commenting in a laugh to her sister that she'd need the extra liquor for… whatever it was they were about to do. But the two were practically bubbling with excitement, all smiles and bright eyes, giddy down to their very soul.

"Alright, to start us off tonight, we'll be singin' 'Teir Abhaile Riu' for you fine monsters," Amathea chuckled, and Grillby realized from the tightness in her voice that she was actually nervous, "And we're gonna try to dance."

Thetis grinned, "Aye and if any of you laugh at our mess up here you're dust, just remember that!"

This sent a murmur of laughter rippling through the crowd of gathered monsters. Even Grillby had to stifle a few hiccupping laughs of his own, sparks scattering as he did. Gaster didn't laugh though. His eye sockets were wide with wonder, his whole body leaning in as if he could get a better look at what magic was about to take place before him.

Thetis and Amathea exchanged a glance and a bracing sigh, Thetis stepped back a step, and with a hum of magic Amathea started to sing. Immediately Grillby felt like he was being pulling forward, body and soul, compelled by the magic that reverberated through Amathea's every word as she sang. The ringing, sighing sound of it was breathtaking. Grillby felt like he was falling.

"Look how the light of the town,

The light of the town is shining now

Tonight I'll be dancing around,

I'm off on the road to Galway now…"

Thetis cut in then, her voice springing to life where Amathea's died off. Suddenly the whole world seemed to tilt. Whatever invisible force, gripping and compelling that Amathea's voice made, Thetis' voice seemed to complete it. The shimmer wasn't just an illusion anymore, it was real, as if the air were alive.

"Look how she's off on the town!

She's off on the search for sailors though,

There's fine fellas here to be found,

She's never been one to stay at home!"

The step backwards Thetis had taken before her sister started singing, she pranced forward now. She stepped down hard on her heels, hands planted firmly on her sides as she danced a few steps around her sister.

"Home you'll go and it's there you'll stay,

And you've work to do in the morning!

Give up your dream of going away,

Forget your sailors in Galway!"

They hooked arms then, eyes locked on each other, feet moving in unison, their voices leaping together into a magical harmony. Grillby watched them, mystified and transfixed, feeling very much like he could have been staring through the haze of a dream. Even as their words flew through a language he couldn't recognize, he felt their music tugging at his soul even still. It was a far cry from the stifling feeling that Amathea's normal singing wrapped around his soul. This was something blooming and magnificent, filled with some magic that made him want to burn all the brighter.

"Teir abhaile riu, teir abhaile riu

Teir abhaile riu Mhearai!

Teair abhail gu fan sa bhaile

Mar ta do mhargadh deanta!

Come now, and follow me down!

Down to the lights of Galway where

There's fine sailors walking the town,

And waiting to meet the ladies there."

The two broke apart then, leaping a few short steps away from each other and falling again into that jig of a step Thetis had started with, hands on their sides and smiles on their faces. It was by no means perfect. Here or there one of the sisters' feet fell out of step with the other, their voices paused for longer breaths and their song was peppered with scattered laughter. But there was an enthusiasm and warmth about it even still, something that made it seem perfect enough.

"Watch now! He'll soon be along,

He's finer than any sailor, so

Come on now, pick up your spoons

He's waiting to hear you play them!"

With a shout and a laugh they linked arms again and spun in a dance together. Grillby gave a jolt and a flicker when he realized some of the monsters near him had begun clapping along to the beat they sang. And something was shimmering to life in the air with it, something in the way the bonfire tilted and danced almost in time to the two sisters' dancing.

"Here today and she's gone tomorrow

And next she's going to Galway!

Jiggin' around and off to town

And won't be back until morning!

Teir abhaile riu, teir abhaile riu

Teir abhaile riu Mhearai!

Teir abhail gus fan sa bhaile

Mar ta do mhargadh deanta!"

They broke away from each other again, Amathea stepping back breathlessly as her sister stepped forward. Thetis did a rough little skip and then pitched forward in a mock of a curtsy towards the fire. That feeling of life, awareness, that Grillby noticed suddenly fluttered around him like vertigo, and as Thetis stepped back out of her bow, something else stepped towards her, surging out of the fire with a breath of smoke. Grillby suddenly clenched a hand on Gaster's shoulder, sputtering with amazement. The skeleton returned the gesture with a grin.

"Off with a spring in my step!"

Thetis continued, stepping around this new dance partner she'd made for herself, this creature of fire that returned her bow and stepped in unison beside her.

"The sailors are searching Galway for

A young lady such as myself

For reels and jigs and maybe more

Stay here and never you mind

The lights of the town are blinding you

The sailors they come and they go

But listen to what's reminding you

Handsome men surrounding you

Dancing a reel around you!"

With a laugh Amathea joined the pair, and all three of them were dancing, and Grillby would be lying if he said he could remember the rest of the song. It was around that point that he got… lost. There was so much magic in the air it seemed to almost chime like bells around them, consuming every sense and every feeling. It was thick like honey and sent a shiver through his very soul, cast his fire into a mix of confused and overwhelmed colors and left him all the more breathless.

Grillby was even more taken aback in amazement at this creature Thetis seemed to have conjured out of nowhere. He wanted to call it an elemental, he wanted to say it was something like him. There was an obvious life in it, pieced together with magic and flashing scattered colors from its core outwards. But Grillby could tell it seemed incomplete, it lacked any kind of awareness other than the dance Thetis asked of it. It was still beautiful though, and he couldn't take his eyes off it.

Then they were singing the last verse, their voices fading away into an air-shuddering harmony. And as soon as their song came to a close, that flickering creature Thetis had summoned disappeared as if it had never been. The two sisters bowed as their gathered audience whistled and clapped and cheered. Thetis collapsed back into her seat, while Amathea stood and with a grand flourish flipped that elusive gold coin she'd been holding.

"Alright then! Who's next?"

And so it began. Amathea called upon some monster to her right that Grillby couldn't see across the fire. The crowd hushed into excited murmurs as the new monster sang. They knew they couldn't out do the performance that had come before them, and chose to follow the rousing song and dance with a tune about flowers in the mountains. It was short and sweet, and spoke hopefully of a place where "no discord here is found! Harmonious notes make mountains ring!" They earned themselves friendly smiles and polite applause, and then they were flipping the coin and choosing one of the friends they sat beside to sing after them.

Around the circle the singing went, and hardly a single monster was spared the embarrassment - or the excitement - of being picked to sing. Gaster at some point was chosen, and he sang some nonsense song about going to a nonsense town where salmon grew as big as elves and taught themselves to sing. Every verse repeated the enthusiastic jingle "ri fol latitee o!" and by the end of the song Gaster had the monsters around him clapping and repeating those words along with him. The skeleton took just enough time in choosing the next monster to sing to make Grillby nervous - and the whole circle of monsters was shocked when the skeleton pointed out Brigg in the crowd to go next. The dragon monster huffed out a snort of smoke, a smirk curling across his teeth.

The song he sang was in a language Grillby didn't recognize, though he noticed a few of the monsters around the circle nodding and humming along to the tune. Brigg's voice sounded like it was deeper than the earth itself, each word purring through the air like the distant rumble of building thunder. Smoke and the occasional spark curled out from between his teeth as Brigg sang. When asked after he finished, the commander explained that the song came from farther north than even Amathea and Thetis had sailed, a place his family came from ages ago. It whispered about a fair knight and a monster who had asked his hand in marriage, the promises that had been made and the love that was eventually spurned.

The moon was high, the night dark and the fire flickering low when Amathea finally called out that she had enough drink left in her flask for one last song. The previous monster who had sung looked down at the coin they'd flipped, then back up at the monsters around the circle who watched them expectantly. With a grin they pointed a clawed hand across the circle.

"Alright then, you're up elemental!"

There were a few scattered whistles and claps around the circle as Grillby was passed the flask and the coin. Grillby stared down at the pair of trinkets that had sealed his fate this evening, flickering every possible shy and embarrassed color he could conjure. There was a long pause where his mind was mostly blank - he hadn't expected… the evening had gone on so long and no one had… he hadn't thought… but he couldn't sing!

"Aye well come on then lad, send us off!" Amathea chuckled, pulling Grillby's attention back to the present, "You stayed and listened didn't ya? It's only fair you sing!"

A rousing call of agreement went up around the circle, along with a few more whistles and claps. Gaster gave Grillby an encouraging pat on the back and a playfully whispered, "Come on, live a little firefly!"

Grillby looked around the circle, then back down at the flask and the coin. He heaved out a smoking sigh, then threw back the last of whatever hellish concoction was inside Amathea's flask. It sent a ripple through his core and put a heat in his chest he hadn't been expecting. And it tasted horrible. It stung his throat and sat thick as molasses in his mouth before it burned itself out in his flame. As he coughed and sputtered past the drink, another call and round of laughter rippled through the monsters around him - loud enough that it drowned out his pathetic sputtering before most of the monsters could notice.

"Okay… one song," Grillby muttered hoarsely, his voice tight and nervous. Just about every song he knew had been sung once or twice already. All except…

"This is going to be terrible," Grillby whined, sending a soft ripple of laughter through the monsters around him.

Gulping down the nervousness building in his chest, Grillby closed his eyes and tilted his head back. Remember the lyrics, just remember the lyrics...

"Well, here goes nothing" the elemental gulped down one last bracing sigh. Hesitantly and haltingly, his voice rough in his throat and soft as the dying fire in front of him, Grillby did his best to sing.

"Of all the money that I ever had,

I spent it in good company…"

A soft, encouraging woop! was shouted to him across the fire at this, and Grillby tried to sing the next line a little louder.

"And all the harm that I've ever done,

Alas, it was to none but me,

And all I've done for want of wit,

To memory now I can't recall,

So fill to me the parting glass,

Goodnight and joy be with you all..."

Grillby paused, taking a breath and willing his mind back to remember the rest of the song. The monsters around him he could feel shifting, some leaning closer so they could actually hear the words he was singing, as soft as they were in the night, as rough they were across his throat.

"Oh all the comrades that ever I've had,

They're sorry for my going away,

And all the sweethearts that ever I've had,

They'd wish me one more day to stay…"

Grillby finally opened his eyes to look at the monsters around him, all silent and intent. Slowly he was wondering if this were a bad idea. This wasn't… a happy song. Not now, after all they'd been through. But the eyes that looked back at him were expectant, and he knew he shouldn't stop.

"But since it falls unto my lot,

That I should rise, and you should not,

I'll gently rise and I'll softly call

Goodnight and joy be with you all…"

Heaven's alive, it was so quiet. The monsters around him weren't stirring an inch. There was a heaviness to the air, silent and severe and contemplative. Grillby's voice wobbled, nervous.

"My… dearest dear, the time draws near

When… here… no longer I can stay…

There's not a comrade I leave behind

But is grieving for my going away

But… since it has so ordered been…

What is once past can't be… recalled,

Now fill to me the parting glass,

Goodnight… and joy be with you all,"

Well, he was too deep in it now to quit, even if he had ruined the evening. Grillby focused his gaze on his feet, prayed his voice stayed steady enough to finish. He tried to ignore the weighted feeling that had descended upon them, tried to stamp out the creeping nervousness that kept crawling with bitter claws through his stomach. Or was that just the bad taste from the alcohol talking?

"A man may drink and not be drunk,

A man may fight and not be slain,

A man may court-" Grillby managed a quiet chuckle, and a few other monsters chucked with him - "A pretty girl,

And perhaps be welcomed back again,

But since it has so ordered been

By a time to rise and a time to fall

Come fill to me the parting glass,

Goodnight and joy be with you all…"

For as soft and faltering a singer Grillby was, the last words he sang still hung in the air as if they were pinned there by magic. He figured it was an illusion made up by the stillness that had fallen over the group, but he could never be sure. What he did realize was all eyes were still on him, and when he looked bashfully down at his hands to escape the watchful glances, he realized he was turning in all sorts of colors. He blinked down at his arms, watching as every spiraling color he'd ever known himself to be slowly faded away, washed out with the softer yellows and greens of his surprise and nervousness.

It was Gaster who finally broke the silence.

"And you said you can't sing, ha!" he smirked, giving Grillby a congratulatory slap on the back, "That was fine."

Grillby chuckled, and as he did the air was peppered with the scattered and muted laughter of monsters nearby. Most of the looks around were thoughtful, reverent. Remembering. Grillby could see it in the looks friends exchanged, how a few of them started whispering to each other names Grillby had never known. The names of monsters who weren't there. The names of monsters who were gone. It was with these thoughts and names on their lips and teeth that the monsters finally dispersed, shouting good-nights and goodbyes as they wandered back to their tents. A few hummed tunes as they went, a few others began reviving their previous dandy moods to laugh about the other songs sung. But most of them looked back at Grillby, still hearing that final goodnight and joy be to you all as it turned invisible in the air.

Grillby noticed Amathea and Thetis talking, Amathea walking her sister back to her tent before they said goodbye for the evening. And as they left he was sure he heard the names of their brothers muttered back and forth, one bringing back to memory some adventure they had all had together. The elemental watched them as they disappeared behind some tent, and with a quiet sigh and a flicker he decided… maybe… it hadn't been such a bad song to sing.

He and Gaster were settled down in the tent before Amathea got back. When Grillby fell asleep, Gaster was sitting close beside him, laughing quietly about the music that had been shared as he worked on moving and repairing cords in his soul. Grillby fell asleep to the softly churning blues and purples of Gaster's soul and the skeletons hushed talking. That night Grillby slept dreamlessly.

He awoke to the sound of hoof beats jolting their way through camp.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t the sound of the hoof beats that made Grillby nervous. In fact, outside of the annoyance of them waking him up, he didn’t much care they were there. He wasn’t even worried by the fact that the galloping sound had jolted him awake in the middle of the night, he could tell from the darkness in the tent and the drowsy feeling in his soul that it was well before dawn. He flickered bitterly at this revelation. The day was going to be difficult if he was running on little sleep.

No, what made him nervous, the thing that sent and anxious shiver through his core and a green tint to his flame, was that whoever was riding the horse was yelling. And although the distance and the tremor in the monster’s voice distorted the words past Grillby’s comprehension, he could still tell by their tone that whatever had them riding through in the middle of the night was urgent. This was what kept the elemental from simply rolling over and trying to fall back to sleep. This is what prompted him to stand and stretch and stumble over to Amathea - who was still snoring away quite soundly - and gently nudge her awake. The commander awoke confused and a bit startled, pulling herself to her feet in an instant.

“What wrong?” she yawned.

The cry of the monster answered for Grillby before he could form a sentence to speak. Amathea’s ear frills twitched and she leaned around Grillby to look out the tent, as if this could somehow tell her more about what was going on. After a pause she started walking, flipping through her inventory as she went and equipping her armor, magic slowly crackling to life in the air around her.

“Any idea what’s going on?” Grillby asked with an apprehensive flicker.

Amathea shook her head, pausing long enough in the doorway of the tent to say, “Don’t know. But I’ll find out soon enough. Wake up Gaster and get ready. Whatever it is, it can’t be good.”

Then she disappeared into the night, her running footsteps fading in the direction of the urgent shouting. Grillby did as he was told, nudging the sleeping skeleton awake and explaining what little he knew about what was going on. With muttered complaining Gaster let himself be pulled to his feet. He didn’t seem nearly as concerned with what was going on as Grillby or Amathea were - but then again, he was also swaying on his feet, eye sockets half closed, as if he could fall right back asleep again where he was standing. If Grillby weren’t so tense, he would’ve found it funny.

Amathea must have made it to whatever monster was causing the commotion, because the shouting abruptly stopped - though not before the rest of the camp started stirring, monsters grumbling and crawling into wakefulness as curiosity and worry kept them from sleeping again. A few of them were even starting to emerge from tents when Gaster and Grillby started jogging their way past, both with armor equipped - even if Gaster’s was a bit disheveled in his tiredness. The night air was cool and Grillby could smell a building moisture in it. When he looked up he shuddered at the mass of grey that hung in thin sheets above him. Apparently rain was coming. The elemental suppressed a shudder.

Whatever part of Gaster was awake gave Grillby a reassuring sign, “I doubt it’ll do more than drizzle.”

Grillby managed a nervous flicker in return.

When they found Amathea she, Brigg, and another commander Grillby didn’t recognize were standing around a thin and disheveled goat-esque monster. The horse they’d rode in on was being led away already, the poor beast sweating and exhausted, head hung low as it was nudged towards food and water. The goat monster was speaking fast and panicked, voice hoarse and shuddering as they gave some speech to the circled commanders. The tone in their voice was practically begging.

Please, if we don’t get some sort of help soon they’ll dust the entire unit, or worse!” they pleaded, “They’ve been capturing monsters out there! They’ll take the entire unit back somewhere, gods know what they’re doing to them! You have to-”

“Take it easy, lad,” Amathea interrupted, her voice low and measured, calming, “We’ll not leave your beastie unit out to dust if we don’t have to. But you’ve got to understand our position here. If what you say is true, they’re more than a day, maybe two, march away. Carrying wounded? They’ll likely be taken by what’s chasing them before we even get there. And we’ll risk leading the humans following them back here.”

The monster’s ears lay back against their head, their look some mix between hopeless and indignant, “You’ve got to try!

Amathea huffed out a sigh and opened her mouth to reply something, but stopped when she noticed Grillby and Gaster. She gave them a long-suffering sigh, “Glad you two boys showed up!”

The monster before her flinched at the suddenly loudness of her voice. They blinked at Grillby and Gaster, eyes wide and pitiful.

“Get sir Mavin here some food and some healing,” she ordered, and the elemental nodded, “Meanwhile we’ll figure something out.”

Amathea scowled as she turned to walk off, “And someone find Thetis! I need her.”

The three commanders took refuge in a large tent near the wall. Grillby recognized the flag as a command tent. Wordlessly he waved for the disheveled goat monster to follow him towards it. There were a few soldiers’ tents shortly beside it, and a fire pit ready to be worked with. Grillby got busy lighting it while Gaster got to work checking the monster’s stats and making sure they were intact. Grillby pulled out a few cooking supplies from his inventory, looking up every so often at the command tent to see if anyone had come out yet - they hadn’t. Though he did notice Thetis slip inside at one point.

What did Thetis do that made her so important to have at a meeting between the commanders? Grillby made up his mind to ask her the next time he had the chance.

“Alright, you’re all good,” Gaster sighed from across the fire.

Mavin shot him what should have been an annoyed look, but the monster looked just a tad bit too pathetic and nervous for that sort of thing to hold any weight. Instead he just looked scared, and maybe mildly inconvenienced.

“I know I’m f-fine,” they muttered, “My unit isn’t. You should be h-helping them before it’s too late!”

Gaster held his hands up in a sort of helpless, placating motion, “Hey I don’t give orders. I take them. The commanders are figuring things out. Just give them time.”

“We don’t have time.”

Gaster shrugged to this but said nothing. He realized there was nothing he could do, and he seemed either too tired or too resigned to this to care - though from the way he slouched over, head cupped in his hands sleepily, Grillby was pretty sure it was the former. The elemental himself couldn’t help but flicker at the monster sympathetically. He didn’t rightly know what mess his unit was in, but he could still understand the monster’s distress. He didn’t… really know what to say though. He didn’t have any comfort to give. So instead Grillby focused on the only thing he did know to do right now, which was making breakfast. It took a little time, and once or twice he had to go run after some ingredient or another that he didn’t have, but he had a nice broth cooked up soon enough.

Grillby made a little more than he usually did, offering it apologetically to the monsters whose fire pit they were using.  They accepted it with a bit of surprise, but were overall grateful. One commented as they left about how much better it was than the food they’d been eating before, which dragged some snickers from his friends. Gaster took a hearty serving, and finally started waking up a bit as he ate. Grillby had to wonder how much sleep the skeleton had actually gotten in.

Mavin looked down at his bowl, eyeing the soup in silent confusion before finally looking up at Grillby and saying, “Aren’t you an elemental?”

Grillby paused halfway through taking a drink of his own breakfast. He blinked at the monster questioningly.  Had this monster never seen an elemental before? It seemed unlikely, they’d fled from a battlefront somewhere hadn’t they?

“Uhm… yes. Yes I am.”

Mavin frowned, “Why are you here?”

Grillby sparked in a nervous chuckle, “Well I could’ve asked Gaster to cook, but I can assure you the food wouldn’t have been edible.”

Gaster snorted a muffled laugh into his bowl at this. Mavin ignored him.

“Yes but you’re a fire elemental. Why aren’t you on the front lines?”

All humor Grillby had before dropped away in a heartbeat, and before he could stop himself his flame was rippling in bitter and fretful shades of purple and blue. He hadn’t even managed to form a sentence when Gaster was answering for him. His hands were still cupped stubbornly around his bowl so he couldn’t sign. There was a certain bite at the end of his tone that Grillby barely registered.

“Because elementals get exhausted and wounded just as much as the rest of us,” Gaster said curtly, shooting the monster a withering glare, “He’s a monster, not a war machine.”

To Mavin’s credit, they seemed genuinely confused by Gaster’s reaction. Or at least, confused by how much venom had been in his voice when he’d spoke. Grillby decided, hesitantly, that the monster probably hadn’t worked with an elemental before - or at least, they hadn’t worked closely with one. Monsters working on rumors and hearsay tended to expect too much of any strong monster, elementals or otherwise.

As the three monsters settled into an awkward silence, it started to drizzle. The rain came in a mist so thin and light Grillby had hardly realized it had started, but when he did notice, he suddenly felt sick with nervousness. It was a force of will just to keep from dashing to the nearest piece of cover. The elemental slowly slipped his hood over the top of his head, trying to take comfort in the little bit of shelter it provided. This was silly, he told himself. Drizzle never hurt him. It always seemed to evaporate before it could get close to his core, and the bit of it that he did feel only ever felt like a mild discomfort, a subtle itch across his head and neck.

It was another hour before Amathea and her sister emerged from the tent, followed shortly by the other commanders. But when she emerged she stormed towards them with a purpose, a look of intent etched across her face. Thetis walked just behind her, looking every bit as stern as her sister did.

“Gaster,” Amathea barked, startling the skeleton out of the short doze he’d wandered into, “How well can you ride a horse?”

Gaster blinked at her for a minute before saying cautiously, “Well, I don’t fall off every three steps but I wouldn’t call myself an expert either.”

“Good enough,” the commander smirked, kneeling beside him and pulling a map from her inventory. She traced a path along the surface with her finger, “I need you to run a message here. You’re looking for a unit of about fifty monsters. Tell them we’ll be meeting them here -” from where Grillby sat he could just make out a line he assumed was a river.

Amathea shot the skeleton a stern look, “There are humans following them south. If they catch up to you before you can meet us, cut and run.”

Gaster blinked at her, confused, “But… I can help.”

“Aye sure you can,” Amathea glanced a sideways look to Thetis, “But if what we’re hearing is true, they’re catching monsters for something. And yours is a kind of magic we can’t do without. Honestly lad, I wouldn’t be sending you at all, but out of us you’ll probably get there the fastest.”

Gaster nodded, “Alright. If things go south, where do I find you?”

The two of them spent a few minutes discussing alternative routes and back-up plans before Gaster finally dashed off. Before he was even out of sight Amathea was waving for Grillby and Mavin to follow her.

“Alright tinderbox,” Amathea said quickly, “Still know how to steal fire away from things?”

“Yeah,” Grillby said with a confused flicker, “I couldn’t forget that if I tried.”

“Good,” the commander nodded, “I’ll pack up the tent. You go around, get every fire you see and ignore any monster that complains about it. The stronger you are the better.”

The elemental paused, on the verge of asking a question. What was going on? Why the urgency? But Amathea had already turned and started relaying further orders to Thetis, rattling off names of monsters she needed and what supplies they should get put together in the time they had. Grillby took it as a sign to get moving and ask questions later. They had a walk ahead of them; he had time to find out.

Grillby managed to yell safe travels to Gaster as he galloped out of camp.

Grillby dashed around camp, collecting fire into his soul and dodging the confused and annoyed looks some monsters gave him as he did. By the time the pieced together unit made its way out of the encampment, Grillby’s soul was tense with magic and his flame was cast in a permanent yellow-white. He slid in step beside Amathea as they marched towards the north.

<hr />

The march they walked at was stiff and fast, an air of rush and urgency hanging over them like the drizzle that seemed to follow them across the countryside. Grillby was thankful it was only drizzle. The walk didn’t afford them much time to talk. Amathea was too focused on keeping them moving quickly and in the right direction, Thetis sometimes correcting her sister on their position and timing.

It wasn’t until evening when the footsore unit of monsters stopped to rest for the evening that the drizzle finally stopped - the moisture in the air coating the countryside in a smothering fog as the night moved on. They started few fires and set up only the bare minimum to sleep with. They would need to move with all speed in the morning, and wouldn’t have the luxury in the morning of cooking or repacking their supplies. As Amathea settled in for the night, Grillby finally got the chance to ask what they were out there for.

“To put it simply, we’re just staging a rescue mission,” Amathea hummed, pulling that map of hers back out of her inventory and ushering for Grillby to come closer to see it, “Assuming all goes well - which it might not - Gaster and the unit we’re picking up are going to meet us here.”

She tapped a clawed finger against the map beside a river. There were a few lines drawn over it, and she explained, “The river is deep here. The only way to cross is by this bridge. Used to be a crossing for merchants before the war killed off the trade around here. From what Thetis says, the bridge is in pretty rough shape right about now.”

Grillby tried to swallow down the nervous feeling that had started to creep through his soul.

“Plan is to get the monsters fleeing south across and then take out the bridge after them,” Amathea said, folding the map back up into her inventory, “Normally we wouldn’t go out of our way for something like this. But apparently the humans are taking monsters now. We’re not quite sure why yet, but we’re thinking it has something to do with the loss of the western front.”

Grillby nodded, flame twisting as much as it could into anxious greens, “But why would they want monsters for anything?”

Amathea shrugged, “Your guess is as good as mine lad. But Thetis seems to think these monsters will give us some answers, so it looks like we’re stuck saving their sorry hides.”

Grillby flickered questioningly as Amathea made herself as comfortable as possible on the ground. Before she could drift off to sleep he finally asked.

“What does Thetis do?”

Amathea smirked.

“I mean… it sounds like everything you know about this is from her.”

“Aye of course it is,” Amathea chuckled, “Thetis works with the ghosts collecting information, doesn’t she?”

Grillby gave a bewildered spark. What? But didn’t that kind of intelligence work involve a lot of tact and discretion and…? Things he wouldn’t exactly include Thetis in having? Well, she was smart. She had the same mind for maps and planning that Amathea seemed to have. But...

Amathea gave a soft chuckle at the confused colors turning through Grillby’s flame, “You know I didn’t much believe it either. But I tell you what, that lass has the strongest illusion magic I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s a fair bit helpful when you’re doing things like tricking humans and sneaking up on poor monsters just trying to have a nice conversation before bed, Thetis.”

Grillby gave a surprised jolt as Thetis’ uproarious laughter sounded right behind him. Then the fish monster was plopping down beside him, the air shivering just slightly as whatever magic she’d been holding dropped away.

“You’re no fun, Am,” she grinned.

“How long have you been standing there?” Grillby sparked incredulously, and Thetis let out another loud laugh.

“About halfway through your talking,” she beamed, puffing out her chest and ear frills pridefully, “Didn’t even hear me coming did you? I’m pretty damn good at this whole sneaking business!”

She turned her attention back to Amathea then, smile lilting into something sterner, “I checked ahead along the road. Nothing but open country and fog for the next few miles. We should make the bridge by noon tomorrow.”

“Figured out how you’re getting us out of there yet?” Amathea raised an eyebrow questioningly, “Half a unit of monsters can’t defend a bridge for long.”

“Don’t even worry about it,” Thetis’ smile writhed back across her teeth, cold and cunning, “You just focus on turning that bridge into a pile of nothing. By the time my spell comes over, those humans won’t know sea from sky until they’re fallin’ into it. And you better bet they won’t be tracking us down either!”

Chapter Text

The fog of the night before seemed to linger about them as the morning passed - thick and heavy and smothering. It left a clinging moisture on the ground and cast the world in muffling shades of grey and blue. Even as the sun started warming the morning the fog persisted, dragging it's colorless cloak across the landscape and slicking the ground with droplets of dew in it's wake. It was a strange and eerie sort of beautiful, something insidious and smothering but mystifying as well. It spun Grillby's mind around, made him feel lost and isolated even amidst the small army nearby him. It was as if some ghostly creature had wrapped it's great, silvery arms around him, muffling his sense of direction and making even his judgement cloudy. The world felt sluggish and somber, the quiet broken only by the shuffling of footsteps and murmurs from the monsters behind him.

It was like this that they found the bridge, and Grillby's soul hitched in his chest when he saw it. The thing was barely wide enough for four monsters to walk side-by-side. It was long, snake-like and arching, coming to a rounded peak halfway across the churning river below it before gently descending to rest on the other side in a haphazard stone heap. The bridge itself seemed ancient, the corbelled stone that made it was cracked and weathered, creeping vines and weeds clinging to it's sides, swaying from beneath it. Some of these even twisted and crept their way across the road of the bridge itself, as if slowly yet surely the earth itself intended to rend it apart. There were no walls, no guard to keep a monster from simply tumbling off the side. There was nothing to keep Grillby's eyes from wandering to the water that ran fast and unhindered beneath the fragile shield of stone, nor the damning height he would have to fall to even break the water's surface.

The bridge was nothing short of a nightmare. Judging by the anxious whispering of the monsters that followed behind him, Grillby wasn't the only one who thought so.

The moment they arrived Amathea began barking orders, her voice echoing and breaking across the shrouded world around them. A number of monsters were led to each side of the bridge. One side was instructed to act as backup should something happen to the monsters that would be on the bridge itself. The other side was to await a certain signal before attacking the bridge from the bottom, breaking it down so no one else could get across.

Amathea waved the remainder with her - Grillby included, "Alright lads, the rest of you join me up here!"

Grillby walked beside the commander until her first step onto the stone of the bridge, repeating to himself over and over, you can do this, it's just a bridge. It's stronger than it looks. It will not fall. You will be fine. You will be-

When Amathea took her first step onto the cracked stonework, Grillby stopped abruptly. His eyes were locked on the grit at his feet, his soul shuddered and twisted in his chest, his breathing jagged and wisping with smoke. For a few moments he just stood there, a tremor running through his core, rooted to the spot with fear. It was just long enough for Amathea to realize her last few steps were walked alone, for her to turn around to glance back at him. It was just long enough for the monsters following him to hesitate for a second as well.

Just go, he begged himself, Just move just go. Take a step. Just walk. You won't die. You won't fall. Just -

Amathea opened her mouth to say something - and then Grillby was taking a step forward and walking. He managed to tear his gaze away from the cobbles at his feet and fix Amathea in a hardened and desperate sort of stare. He knew the minute he looked away he'd be looking back at the water again, and if he did that he wouldn't be able to move. The sound of it was so loud it could have been inches away from his feet. The smell of it, the taste of the moisture that hung in the air, every bit of it clouded his senses. It wrapped its presence around him like some malevolent spirit, some foul and seething intent that wanted nothing more than to did its freezing fingers through his core and tear him apart in its current.

The bitter tightness in his soul from the fires he had eaten didn't help. If anything it made him feel worse. It convinced him he was even less comfortable in his own skin than he already was. It made his panic that much more intense. It made every movement feel so much more foreign and unnatural. He felt like he was smothering in his own body.

Grillby fell in step beside Amathea, his gaze reaching past her and out to the far side of the bridge, it's end just visible through the milky fog. Nothing on the other side was really coming into focus though. Shapes across the way were starting to blur together, tilt into each other. On the edges of his vision he could see small lights starting to form, swimming around there like multicolored fireflies. In his daze it took him a moment to register that Amathea was muttering something. It wasn't until the third time she'd repeated it that he realized she was whispering something along the lines of - "Breathe tinderbox, breathe."

Grillby sucked in a quiet gasp, suddenly realizing the tightening feeling in his throat and chest were because he was forgetting that one basic, very important thing - breathing. The lights cleared from his vision instantly, even though the shuddering and nervous feeling in his core stayed. His senses were flooded with wet and cold, the smell and taste of the water in the air burning at his insides. But he forced himself to keep breathing.

Breath by breath. Step by step. Grillby walked his way beside Amathea to the center of the bridge. It was there that Amathea stopped him, speaking to him in a low voice, stern and quiet. Back on the safety of the bank, Grillby knew, the two probably looked as though they were discussing something important, necessary to whatever plan Amathea had put together. No one could tell that the colors Grillby was flickering, the rippling yellows whites and greens, were from his panic. No one could hear Amathea as she spoke to him like a child, her voice drowning out somewhere between the distance and the sound of the river beneath his feet.

"You're alright, tinderbox," she hummed, "This is all the farther you've got to go. You're okay."

"I know," his voice was so quiet it was almost gone.

"I need my strongest monsters up here," she reasoned with him quietly, "In case we have to defend the bridge. You're the strongest monster I have."

"I know," Grillby breathed, his voice a shudder but just barely louder.

"A retreat will be called long before this bridge is in any danger of collapsing. I'll not let you fall, I swear on my life. You can trust me, tinderbox."

"I know I can."

Amathea gave him a searching look, watching as the feverish pitching in his flame tapered just slightly. Listened as his breathing became a little more controlled.

"You'll not run off on me if you get scared will you?" Amathea asked, her voice low and stern, "Think hard on that tinderbox. If you run, these monsters will run with you, you understand that right?"

Grillby nodded.

"They're scared too. Not nearly as much as you I'm sure," she said gently, "And if they see the strongest thing here running, they'll panic. That'll get monsters killed, you know that."

The elemental nodded again. He gulped down a heavy breath, "I… I can stay."

There was a pause, and then a little steadier he managed, "I will stay."

Amathea caught him in that searching look one last time before finally deciding he could be trusted. Then she started explaining her plan - a thing that was ultimately short and sweet and, in theory, easy enough to execute. She was leaving Grillby and the handful of monsters she'd picked on the bridge itself. They would be split in two groups, standing crowded on the edges of the bridge - Grillby shuddered - in order to let the coming monsters pass. In a perfect world where the unit they were saving had plenty of distance between them and their pursuers, Grillby would then lead his monsters off the bridge and from a safe distance the thing would be turned to rubble. If not, however, they would be forced to close ranks and fight on the rugged stonework, keeping the humans at a distance with ranged attacks while Amathea and the monsters she'd chosen for herself beat away at the bridge from below. She'd call a retreat when the bridge was knocked away enough, and they'd collapse it beneath their enemy's feet.

The whole idea made Grillby's soul shudder, made his panic mount a little more in his chest. But his only choices here were fighting on the bridge itself or helping beneath it. And as terrified as he felt suspended in the air as he was, he'd couldn't imagine working right beside the roaring water. This way as well, he was less likely to douse himself when the rocks started falling and splashing water through the air. Maybe this was for the best.

Still. Suspended as he was over his own demise this way… Grillby couldn't stomp down the dizzy fear that kept washing over him in waves. It abated slowly with time as the morning wore on, only to to come shuddering back to the forefront of his mind when his eyes wandered too much. When an unfamiliar jolt vibrated the stones beneath his feet. When some monster to his left or right made one comment or another about the lack of walls or rail work to keep them from falling.

It took a while for Grillby to realize Amathea had left him in charge of half the unit, and that suddenly he wasn't just another foot soldier taking orders. It was about the time this observation busted it's way through his panic that hoofbeats sounded down the road ahead of them. The dark blur on the foggy horizon slowly refocused itself into Gaster's horse, the skeleton leaning into the beast's strides as it raced towards them. Gaster halted the creature on the bridge shortly before the waiting monsters, swinging down smoothly from the saddle and onto the stony bridgework. He beamed at Grillby.

"Fancy meeting you here stranger," he chuckled, before casting his gaze back to where Thetis was jogging towards him, "Where's Ammy?"

Grillby still didn't trust himself to speak. His throat was too tight with nervousness. But Thetis was almost immediately by his side, and the monster was answering for him.

"She's down below with some monsters, working on taking this bridge apart," - Grillby stopped breathing for a second as she said this, "How far behind you are the others?"

"Not much," Gaster shrugged, "Just over the hill back there. And there's humans hot on their tail. So whatever you've got planning, better make it quick."

Thetis chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully before turning to walk back where she'd come, "Alright. Grillby, make sure you and your monsters don't go any farther than the middle of the bridge."

Grillby nodded. His monsters. Oh boy. Why had Amathea left him in charge?

"Gaster grab your beastie. You're back here with me!"

The skeleton let out an exasperated sign, "Wait what? But… but I can help up here!"

Thetis paused on the bridge long enough to shake her head at him and frown, "Trust me Gaster, you'll do more harm than good. If those humans are capturing monsters, it's weird magic-users like you that'll be useful to them most. Besides, when those monsters come across they'll be needing a doctor."

Gaster scowled. For a few seconds he looked like he might argue further. But after a pause and then a frustrated sigh, the skeleton turned to Grillby and gave the elemental a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

"Don't die, Grillby."

"I'll try my best not to," Grillby managed to say back. His voice smoked and writhed in his throat, gruff and anxious, and he hoped he didn't sound too pitiful to the monsters around him.

If Gaster noticed it he didn't let on about it. The skeleton crossed back over to his horse and with a stubborn sort of glare in Thetis's direction he lead the beast across the river, picking his way slowly and carefully so he didn't accidentally send some monster tumbling off the side. It was not long after Gaster crossed that the monsters they were waiting for came into sight in the distance - first as weaving shapes in the fog and finally as actual monsters when they approached. And they were running. Grillby could see no humans among them, but from the franticness in their run he knew they were close behind.

The elemental drew his sword and slid his shield onto his arm. Behind him he could hear the apprehensive shuffling as other monsters did the same. Grillby closed his eyes for a moment and breathed, gagging on the taste of the water in the air and the sickening smell of damp and cool. When he opened his eyes again the first monsters were running past him, down through the aisle that ran between the two flanks of monsters on the bridge. As they passed him Grillby noticed some of the monsters were wounded, grasping at roughly bandaged arms and sides, limping as quickly as their legs could carry them. One whimsalot only made it across because he was being carried between the wings of two others.

The first few humans came into sight. And then a few more, weaving in and out of the fog and scattered foliage that vanished into the milky grey ahead of them. The last of the monsters staggered their way across the bridge then, and Grillby gave the shouted order for them to close ranks on the bridge. Behind him now the monsters stood side-by-side, three to a row, only allowing themselves enough room to strike forward or move back. Grillby was just a step ahead of them, fire keening into ever brightening whites.

There were more humans pouring into sight. More than Grillby had expected to be coming after such a small unit of monsters. The ones that had been leading the group were already slowing down, realizing the threat on the bridge was too much to handle alone. They stopped on the far bank of the river, waiting as their ranks reamassed. Grillby scanned his eyes across them. There was easily a hundred warriors there, maybe more. They were tired - both from the run that morning and from the long marches they'd been forced into while follow the monsters south as they had. And already they were wary of the bridge.

The problem with bridges was simply that, no matter how outnumbered one side was over the other, on a bridge they were forced to fight as if neither had the upperhand. There was only so much room to move, only so many creatures could stand side-by-side. And here the humans were at a clear disadvantage - monster magic was reaching and ranged. They could attack from a distance. The humans only had the distance of their swords and lances. Bowmen were a little more evenly matched, but with the fog as it was, they would be hard-pressed to hit the target they were aiming for.

And then of course, fighting an elemental was a problem to be avoided.

A human detached itself from the army before them, and with prideful steps they approached the bridge alone. They were dressed like a common soldier, their garb a mixture of chainmail and cloth, their only sign of worth being in the crest sewn into the chest of their tunic. But instead of a sword, they carried a short staff with some small and glowing jewel notched into it's top. Well, if this were a mage, it was certainly the most humble one Grillby had ever seen. And while he couldn't feel magic or intent in the air around them like he had in mages before, the confidence with which this human carried themselves put the elemental on edge - well, more so than he already was.

It was by this human's command that the ranks behind them began to march forward. Grillby's soul twisted in his chest. The mage and her men stepped on to the bridge, and as she came the mage threw forward a spell. But the attack didn't come from before him. Grillby felt more than he actually saw the monsters behind him all seemed to flinch. It was like the entire rank of them staggered a step to the left. Grillby lifted up a wall of fire, the white-hot blaze leaping up to crash into a wall of water summoned up from the river beneath them. The two met in an explosion of air and steam.

Then the humans were running across the bridge. Beneath Grillby's feet, he could feel a larger vibration, a hum light magic that rippled through his core. He knew Amathea's monsters were getting hard at work, weakening the bridge structure beneath them so when the time came, they could escape. Grillby cast his gaze forward, fire blazing, a writhing magic building in his chest. A row of his lances flickered to life in the air around him.

"Ready magic!" Grillby shouted behind him, and the air sprang to life with intent, a building volley churning the air like a storm. Every possible magic gathered, attacks of all shapes and sizes all flickering with bright colors and hungry intent. Grillby held them for a moment, waiting for the humans to dash a few steps closer. He locked his glare on the mage that rushed forward, the human's mouth set in a challenging sort of frown, her own magic flaring to life.

"Fire!"

The bridge shuddered into chaos.

The first volley of magic crashed into the oncoming humans like a hammer against an anvil. Soldiers staggered and fell. Some tumbled over the edges of the bridge, screaming into the roiling water below. Grillby shuddered when he heard them, when he watched one or another of the wretched creatures disappear over the edge to their graves below. An insidious voice whispered to him, soon that might be you. He did his best to ignore the thought. They hadn't caused nearly enough havoc yet to call this battle done. He needed to concern himself with the mage.

She was still running forward, her soldiers were still coming with her. Some staggered over wounded comrades, others were wounded themselves. But they were still coming. And the air was humming with that foul human magic, and Grillby was raising his shield to answer it. But she didn't shout a spell. Even as magic surged to life around her, she didn't utter a single syllable, and the magic she hit him with was like none Grillby had ever seen from any human mage he'd ever met.

The ground was suddenly torn apart by lances not unlike Amathea's spears. They ripped out of the stonework, stabbing up from the ground in a wave right towards the elemental. They shattered themselves apart against a protective wall of flame. The second these abated a volley came smashing down from the air, a needle-like sheet of glimmering ice that fell from the sky like a hail of darts. Grillby lifted his shield above his head, bracing himself as the hailstorm crashed into the metal and shattered like glass.

This was monster magic. Grillby couldn't understand why it was being used against him. How could this human use it? Human magic always worked through incantations and spells. How was this mage summoning attacks? How was this mage fighting like a monster?

Grillby flickered a scowl and with a shout raised a wall of flame, sending it surging towards the mage and her men. The human shouted a spell, staff flickering manic colors. The wave of flame parted for her and she continued forward. The men behind her weren't so lucky. Grillby took a daring step forward, ready to race forward to meet her - and then stopped. He couldn't leave the center of the bridge. When the bridge fell apart, this is where it would split.

He couldn't get trapped on the wrong side. Or worse. Be sucked through the cracks in the stones as the whole thing fell apart.

Grillby braced up his shield against his shoulder and called for another volley of magic to be thrown. In answer the mage screamed another incantation, and this time the water rose on both sides of them. It towered like walls, the foamed tops of the gigantic waves circling inward as they began to crash down. Grillby didn't have enough time to panic. He responded with an answering wall of flame, the massiveness of it painful in his soul. Again the walls of fire and water slammed into each other. Again they erupted into a plume of steam and harmless spray. Grillby didn't realize he'd held his breath until he was letting it out again in a sigh so deep he almost fell to his knees.

What even was this mage? For some creature so unassuming, they sure had some powerful magic.

The last volley Grillby's monsters - oh he wasn't going to get used to that anytime soon - had sent forward was enough to break the humans' charge, and now the shattered army slowed their headlong rush and regrouped at a steady march. Some of them seemed desperate enough to flee, but with the press of bodies from the rest of the army behind them, their only freedom lay in carving through the monsters or leaping off the bridge itself. Grillby instructed his monsters to prepare to fire again, and readied his own lances as well.

If the humans were smart, they would flee - and that wasn't just Grillby's wishful thinking either. Already the struggle they would have to face to get to their quarry was turning out to be a brutal one. But that mage… there was a fire in her daring eyes that said she wasn't ready to retreat. She hadn't taken those hungry eyes off of Grillby once, and now the two of them were barely a dozen steps apart. The next volley fired, and before another could be prepared the two armies were engaged - at least, as best they could be given their field of battle. Grillby was face-to-face with that ferocious mage and her strange magic.

The mage attacked in a mix of monster-like magic and muttered incantations, and all of it ice. There were darts and lances jabbed towards the elemental's body, breaths of creeping frost that settled on his armor and crawled across it, groping for any gaps or weaknesses. Once he felt it sting against his throat, and he fanned himself hotter in order to melt it away. He couldn't dodge her attacks, though he desperately wished he could. Even if it weren't for the press of bodies so close about him, he would be too afraid to move much on such a small platform. Instead he parried her magic as best he could with sword and shield, sometimes answering with small bursts of flame that singed her staff and scorched at her skin. Quickly her face became flushed from the heat and the movement, but never once did her defence open long enough for Grillby to end their fight. She wasn't just adept in magic, she was a skilled warrior too.

Grillby tipped forward in a lunge, the point of his sword leading. The mage twisted to the side just a step and parried, her short staff coming down to trap Grillby's sword against the stone at their feet. For a second they stood frozen - Grillby unable to move his sword and the mage knowing as soon as she moved her staff, their fight would begin again. She flashed him a breathless grin, one of an eagerness for battle and adrenaline-fueled exhilaration.

"You know," she said flawlessly in his language, and Grillby scowled at her, "I've always wanted to fight an elemental."

She lifted her staff and danced a step back, Grillby mirroring the motion, "I'm glad the one I finally met is actually a challenge."

When the mage opened her mouth to speak again, she was shouting a spell. Grillby braced himself behind his shield, flinching against the impact of an icy lance. The arm that held his shield felt cold, a prickling sort of sting settling into his forearm. Grillby lunged towards the mage again. His sword crunched its way through ice-made attacks that sprung up to meet him before finally connecting with the mage's staff once again, fiery attacks blooming at his side as it did. Beneath his feet, Grillby could feel the bridge starting to shiver.

After what felt like ages of Grillby attacking frustratedly and never seeming to get anywhere, he finally managed to land a hit. It was nothing spectacular. The mage twisted to the side in time to dodge what Grillby had intended to be a crippling blow. Instead his sword tore it's way across her shoulder, just managing to rip a hole in her chainmail before the stroke was finished. The mage let out a stubborn grunt and lunged forward while Grillby struggled to step back. She was faster than he was.

Before he could bring his shield across to parry, the mage had muttered a bitter spell and jabbed the end of her staff against his hip. The jolt of pain that rocked through Grillby almost made him drop his sword. He let out a painful hiss of smoke and staggered back a step, reaching down with his shield arm to clutch at the wound she had opened up in his side. His fingers brushed against something cold, and he cringed. Grillby scowled up at the mage, sword tip poised threateningly in her direction. The mage herself was frowning back, wincing slightly as she gripped her staff in both hands. Blood clotted at the cloth and chainmail around her shoulder.

That was when a horn blast split the air, and the ground beneath Grillby's feet started to shake. Grillby didn't even have to shout an order. All the monsters nearest to him surged back and Grillby backed away after them, wary of turning his back to the mage who still glared at him dangerously. That is, until a crack split the bridge between them. Grillby spun on his heel and ran for the bank, sparking painfully with every movement. Whatever she'd stabbed him with was starting to burn, an angry, biting cold reaching through his core. As he ran he was sure he felt it moving, needle-like claws spreading out to dig further across his side and into his core.

Before Grillby was even on the shore a shout made it's way to him, a spell cast over the sound of the water and the crumbling bridge. The shuddering beneath his feet shivered and stopped, tapering off with a threatening rumble. Grillby turned and looked back.

The mage still stood in the middle of the bridge, staff held high, the gem in its center glowing fiercely. Haloed around her feet was a growing tide of ice. It jolted and stretched, reaching white fingers across the gap that had formed in the bridge, cementing the stones together, stabilizing the crumbling stone. As Grillby watched it, he felt like his soul had suddenly dropped into his stomach. The pain in his side gave a threatening pulse and he cringed.

The bridge was still intact, and the humans were advancing across it.

Chapter Text

Grillby watched as the last of the bridge stabilized, the mage’s enduring magic cementing the final stones into place. He would’ve been impressed honestly, if it weren’t for the dread crawling up through his insides. He didn’t know which scared him worse - knowing he’d have to go back on that bridge again, or knowing that mage was waiting for him. Grillby was wounded already. He could still feel that… whatever-it-was… sending freezing, tearing pain through his side, and no matter how hot he fanned his flame it wouldn’t be quenched. It endured and it stretched, writhing further up into his core and across his side. It was probably draining his HP away, slowly but surely, but Grillby was too scared to check and make sure. If he was dying, he didn’t want to know. He had enough things to panic about, and there was more work to be done.

Like what in heaven’s name he was going to do now. Fire magic. He needed a lot of fire magic. He was sure he could melt the bridge if he had time but… what about the mage? If Grillby had teeth, he was sure he’d be grinding them together - both in pain and exasperation. He couldn’t do this. That mage was going to kill him. And if she didn’t he was sure the water would. Just the thought of running back onto that bridge was making his breathing go funny and panicked in his chest. But he had to do something. Amathea was nowhere in sight, Brigg was back at camp, and Thetis was off somewhere making illusions. Grillby was in charge here. He had to salvage this somehow.

The elemental glanced about at the monsters gathered close by him, shouting, “Alright! Fire magic users, take care of the ice! The rest of you with me. We’ve got to keep them from coming across.”

Grillby paused long enough to wave for the monsters to follow him. Then he raced back the way he’d come, back onto that precarious bridge. His soul felt tight in his chest - panic, exasperation and pain wormed through him, turning his fire sickening colors and making it harder to focus. Every stride agitated whatever it was that mage had done to him… augh his whole side was burning with cold. The bridgework beneath him seemed to shudder with every step he took, and Grillby prayed the bridge wouldn’t decide to give out while he was still on it.

Already the humans were past the center of the bridge, stepping purposefully across the ice towards the monsters now charging towards them. Grillby sucked in a bracing breath and pushed forward with a wall of flame, pulling hard against the fatigue in his soul to make it molten and white. It flew forward, flaring a bit as it skated across the layer of ice before folding itself around the humans who had advanced far enough. The mage once again muttered a spell to keep herself fireproof, but was forced to retreat back several steps when the men who had advance with her fell. But a cunning smile was playing on her lips, determined and daring, and Grillby scowled at it.

A thin layer of steam rose up from the iced together stones, but the wave of fire had passed across it harmlessly. Just like whatever the mage had shoved into his side, it persisted. Grillby’s soul sank in his chest. He couldn’t keep this mage in check and try to melt away the bridge, especially when her magic was so damnably strong. Already she was advancing on him again, even as the troops behind her reeled and scrambled to follow. The air grew hot with fire magic as the monsters with Grillby got to work. He frowned as he watched them, watched as so many of their attacks seemed to just glance harmlessly off the glassy surface. It would take them ages to do any real damage to this mess! They had a better chance of waiting for Amathea and her crew to blast their way -

Grillby blinked, allowing himself the briefest second of hope, “Gaster.”

The elemental spun to the monster closest to them, “Gaster! Run and get him, hurry.”

The monster turned and ran without question, scrambling back through their comrades and across the end of the bridge. Meanwhile Grillby through up another wall of flame, hazarding the advancing humans back. Across from him, the mage laughed.

“What’s the matter elemental? Too scared to come and fight me again?”

She muttered a spell and fired it at him, and Grillby braced himself behind his shield as a wicked blade of ice arced in his direction. The elemental growled as the impact agitated the wound in his side. This mage was frustrating.

“Grillby!”

Gaster was suddenly at his side, looking breathless and urgent. He was already signing frenetically even before he started speaking, “How can I help?”

Grillby took a protective step forward as the mage’s gaze settled on Gaster. She looked curious and hungry, her magic building around her as she wondered what to do about this new monster. What monster could help an elemental? What manner of creature could melt a bridge when he couldn’t?

Grillby tightened his grip on his shield and glared back at her, watching for any spell she tried to throw, “Can you blast your way through the ice?”

Gaster cast an anxious glance down to the ice at his feet. His teeth twisted in a scowl before he said with a determined nod, “Give me five minutes.”

Five minutes. The wound in his side gave another sort of pulse. Was it actually getting worse or was Grillby just imagining things? Whatever, he couldn’t bother with it now. Grillby hissed out a pent up breath of smoke and sparks, “Make it the fastest five minutes of your life!”

Without another word, Grillby dashed forward. Towards the mage. The one whose gaze had settled itself suspiciously on Gaster - and who Grillby was determined to keep distracted for as long as the skeleton needed. Her gaze centered back on him, surprise making her dance back a step as Grillby closed the distance between them. His sword snaked out to meet her staff, and she grinned.

“Couldn’t get enough of me the first time, could you?” she mocked, and Grillby flickered humorlessly back at her. Before they could engage, the building whine of magic snatched away the mage’s attention. She looked past Grillby, eyes going wide with surprise. Grillby snatched a glance over his shoulder, wincing against another pang from his side as he did so.

Gaster stood in the center of the bridge just a few strides away from Grillby, eyes sparkling with purple magic as he summoned one of his blasters over his shoulder. The great beastly head turned, the lights of its eyes locking on the bridgework at Gaster’s feet before splitting its jaws open and firing. But instead of fizzling out like the creatures normally did when Gaster summoned a blast, this one stayed. The concentrated jet of flame pouring from its jaws melted and tore away the ice and stone. Piece by burning piece Gaster was disintegrating the bridge. He winced as he held the blast there - Grillby couldn’t even imagine the strain that kind of sustained magic could put on Gaster’s soul. He just hoped the skeleton didn’t break something again.

The mage tore her staff away from Grillby’s sword, pointing it threateningly in Gaster’s direction and shouting a spell - and the elemental leaped in front of it, his shield shuddering against the impact of half a dozen glassy, needles of ice. Grillby called forth his own fire and sprung for the mage, hoping to catch her off guard. As he moved, attacks arched overhead, not from Grillby himself but from the brave monsters that had followed him over - though they had been smart enough to stop behind the ice instead of dashing right through it like Grillby had. Spears and lances of blue and purple magic buried themselves into the humans cowering behind their mage. Apparently they were more afraid of the bridge breaking apart than she was. A few of them lifted bows towards the sky and started firing arrows back.

Now with a small bit of breathing room between himself and the rest of the creatures on the bridge, Grillby finally allowed himself to carefully dodge the mage’s bristling attacks. It was easier than lifting his shield and bearing every other hit, even if it made the stitch in his side hurt worse. His paranoia of falling, of tripping or sliding on the ice and toppling into the water kept him from moving much, but just the little room he managed to give himself was enough to help him fight back. Grillby surged at the mage with fire, swung forward with his sword every opportunity he was afforded. He was allowed to be a little more vicious, a little more daring as he struggled against her. Somehow, he even managed to land another hit, drawing blood across the mage’s leg. She stumbled out of his reach, panting and wary.

“Now you’re just being difficult,” she growled, a mockery of a humorless smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth.

Grillby managed to flail his arms in some sort of shrug, sword flashing as he moved. He dared to growl back at her, “And you would have me just walk to my death quietly, mage?”

“So it does speak!” the mage laughed, a high, piping sound like a flute, shrill against the crackle of magic and roar of water, “Walk into it kicking and screaming for all I care, monster! Just as long as it’s your death and not mine!”

Grillby tightened his grip on his sword, wincing as another twinge of pain lanced its way up his side. This time he felt it shoot all the way up to his shoulder, and his soul shuddered as his HP dropped. The mage watched him and smirked.

“I was wondering if that worked,” she hummed, “Though I’m gonna be honest and say I thought you’d be dead by now.”

Grillby flickered painfully. He took a wincing step back, fighting the urge to drop his guard so he could clutch at his wounded side. The elemental was really starting to hope this mage had overestimated her magic. A sting in his side was a pitiful thing to die from, and he didn’t much care for dying today anyway.

The mage raised her staff, a muttered spell putting a glassy spear point at the end of it. She leveled the ice-tipped weapon at Grillby’s chest, and the elemental lifted his sword, ready to parry it aside.

A resounding crack! split the air, and with it the bridge started shuddering and shattering, the ice spider-webbing with veins and cracks. Grillby was almost thrown off his feet as the ground beneath him gave a soul-stopping heave. The pieced-together stonework beneath his feet began to crumble along with the ice the mage had summoned. Grillby spun to look back at Gaster, who stood triumphantly before the gap his blaster had gouged through the rock. He’d only had to carve partway through the bridge before gravity took over, and now the whole thing was tumbling apart again. And as it did, Grillby realized he was on the wrong side of it. The two monsters’ gazes met across the crumbling distance and Gaster’s smile was snapped away in an instant.

Grillby glanced back at the mage. She was already backing a few steps away, watching cracks spider-web their way across the mortar that held the stones of the bridge together. Whatever magic she had used to glue the bridge together the first time, she made no move to use it again. Maybe she’d finally met the match for her magic and it was more power than she could spare to cast the spell again. Whatever the case, the elemental was grateful for it - even if it meant he… Grillby huffed out a ragged breath of smoke.

… Even if it meant he had to jump. If he was going to die he’d rather it not be because of this hell-spawn of a mage. And even besides her - a darker, more insidious thought crept into his mind - these humans were capturing monsters weren’t they? And he was an elemental, one of the strongest monsters the kingdom had. Grillby couldn’t afford to be caught on this side of the river. Even if the alternative meant taking a leap of faith he wasn’t ready for. Even if it meant killing himself trying to get away.

Though he desperately hoped that wasn’t about to happen.

Grillby sheathed his sword, spun on his heel and ran. He ignored the pain lancing up his side. He ignored the voice screaming in his head that he was going the wrong direction, that he was about to leap to his death. His eyes were locked on the growing, crumbling gap that separated him from where Gaster was standing. The skeleton’s eye sockets widened when he saw him and he yelled something - probably to tell him not to do the idiotic thing he’d just set his mind on. Grillby wasn’t listening.

With a terrified scream, Grillby jumped.

On his own he wouldn’t have made it. Grillby’s body would’ve fallen just before the edge and he would have been lost into the water below. But Gaster was waiting for him, half-panicked and frantic, and as soon as the elemental was close enough he grabbed his soul with blue and heaved. The grip was weak and faltering but it was enough, and Grillby landed in a heap at the skeleton’s feet. The impact jarred his body, sent an angry pulse through his wounded side, and Grillby choked on a scream.

Then Gaster’s blue was yanking him to his feet, and Grillby stumbled into a run after his friend.

“Never ever do that again!” Gaster shouted with a fearful laugh as he ran.

Grillby crackled out a painful laugh of his own, “Well it worked, didn’t it?”

Grillby ran faster than he ever had in his life, but Gaster was pulling ahead of him and the elemental couldn’t keep up. He wasn’t fast enough. Even worse still, the ground was crumbling faster than Grillby was running - he could tell in the way the rock dipped beneath his feet, in the way some steps didn’t move as far as he wanted them to. He wasn’t going to make it! He wasn’t going to - !

The riverbank was just a few steps in front of him with the cascade of rock finally passed Grillby’s feet. His boot came down on nothing but air, and with a scream Grillby started to fall.

By some miracle, Gaster’s hand clamped itself around Grillby’s wrist and the elemental’s fall stopped abruptly. Grillby reached up with his other hand and circled it around Gaster’s in a desperate grip. He was shaking; shivering so bad he could hardly breathe. And suddenly the river was much louder. He was so high above it, it shouldn’t sound so close!

“Hang on Grillby, I’ve gotcha!” Gaster called, and his voice was trying to be reassuring, but there was a cracking strain in it that made Grillby start to panic. His soul was pulsing so fast and hard in his chest he was sure it was going to shatter all on its own.

In the few seconds he hung there, Grillby made the mistake of looking down. The instant he did his grip tightened on Gaster as best it could. He was terribly high up, so much so it made his head spin. And there was nothing but water and froth beneath him, the already churning and muddy torrent of water dashed about even more as pieces of the bridge tumbled into its surface. Just glancing at it had been a mistake. If Grillby could cling any tighter to his friend, he would. For now he was helpless, at the complete mercy of Gaster’s grip, and it was terrifying.

Above him Gaster laughed, teeth gritted together as he struggled to keep his grip on Grillby’s hands, “Well what the hell did you look down for? You already knew you weren’t going to like it!”

Grillby was too panicked to think of a reply and too terrified to speak even if he did. He just screwed his eyes shut and prayed, prayed to whatever or whoever could possibly be listening. He didn’t even pray words. He just wished in the barest grip of his panic that whatever happened, it didn’t involve him choking to death on so much muffling cold.

Finally Grillby managed to breathe out a faltering, “Please don’t drop me…!”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, firefly!” came the skeleton’s grunted reply.

It took a few seconds before more hands joined with Gaster’s, gripping at Grillby’s arms, grabbing fistfuls of his clothes and armor. They all heaved, and Gaster snarling out some bitter curses as he pulled with them. A few more monsters had their arms wrapped around Gaster’s waist as well and together they all worked, joining in the effort of keeping the elemental from plunging into the river below. Belatedly Grillby realized he could help, and he managed to dig a boot into the grit he was pressed up against to heave himself up a little faster. Within a few seconds the elemental had been dragged onto the relative safety of the bank. He lay there, just breathing, shaking, that cold in his side still throbbing. But in spite of all that he was still very much alive. He could’ve fainted with relief.

With a painful flicker and a bitter, crackling groan, the elemental hauled himself to his feet to survey the damage they’d done.

Thanks to Gaster - and to Amathea and her monsters as well - the stubborn bridge had finally collapsed. All that was left of the damned thing were the first five feet of stone on both sides of the bank, rooted close enough to the ground that they could stand on their own. They didn’t need the rest of the bridge to support them like the treacherous, arching spine of stone had. A cheer sounded amongst the monsters as the last of the mortar and rock tumbled into the river, the only crossing point for miles, destroyed in a matter of minutes.

To Grillby it felt like hours.

From where he stood, Grillby could see the mage pacing on the far bank, angry magic crackling about every one of her infuriated strides. Grillby had to admit it gave him some satisfaction to see her as angry as she was, storming about in frustrated circles like a caged animal. After a few moments of her bitter pacing she turned and pointed across the water, screaming.

“Survive that wound elemental! We will fight again! I swear it!”

Gaster blinked at Grillby, frowning, “What? Survive what?

For the moment, Grillby ignored him. There was a bubbling, indignant sort of anger building in him towards this mage. He wanted to do something about it before the whatever-it-was she’d put in his side became too much for him to bear. He stepped as close as he dared to the riverbank. Every movement was painful, but he’d be damned if he let this mage know it. He wished he had something witty to say. Any hero worth their grit would think of something cool to say back, he was sure. But Grillby had nothing. So instead of saying anything dumb like he knew he would, he just gave her a grand mockery of a bow, flickering in painful reds and oranges as he did so. The mage across the water gave him an indignant screech - one that was nearly drowned out by the breathless laughter and encouraging cheers of the monsters behind Grillby.

Even over the river he could hear her piping, bitter laughter, the tone beneath it angry and dangerous, “Thistle Bayhaven! Remember my name, monster! That’s the name of the mage that will slay you!”

Gaster stepped up beside Grillby as the elemental straightened. He called back to her daringly on Grillby’s behalf, “Oh yeah? Well you remember Grillby the Mage-Slayer! He’ll take you on anytime human!”

Grillby would have laughed, but instead only managed an exhausted, humorous flicker. The Mage-Slayer? Ha! What a load of nonsense! Well, he had killed mages before but… not enough to warrant a title. Oh well, leave it to Gaster to actually think of the come-back Grillby was completely lost on. It was better than anything Grillby could think up anyway.

Besides, there was no taking it back now. That mage was already leaving, glowering and hissing bitter magic with every step. She stormed away, shouting orders to her soldiers as she went. Grillby turned to do the same, fully intent on putting as much distance between that infernal mage and himself as necessary. But as soon as he took his next step, whatever she’d put in his side sent a bitter twist of pain stabbing through him. With a startled cry Grillby collapsed, hands clutching at his wound. Heavens alive! He felt so cold! What had she done to him? Gaster was over him in an instant, asking him frantically what was wrong. Grillby could hardly answer - he didn’t really know himself. Then Amathea was there, hauling the elemental’s arm over her shoulder with Gaster’s help. She half helped, half dragged him towards the wall of fog before them, all the while yelling for the monsters standing nearby to follow her into whatever illusion Thetis had conjured up. As they hobbled along Gaster peppered him with questions. What happened? Where are you wounded? How in the world did she hit you? Why didn’t you say something earlier?!

Didn’t I specifically tell you not to die while you were up there?

Grillby was a little too busy focusing on his footsteps to answer in more than short, ragged sentences. Well, there went any prestige he could've gained from that encounter. So much for Grillby the Mage-Slayer. At least the mage had been too angry to see that bit. She was already just a smudge in the fog on the other side of the bank, fading off into the distance.

Grillby hoped she stayed that way.

Chapter Text

For the rest of the day until they made camp that evening Gaster did nothing but fuss over Grillby, making sure his stats stayed as high as could be managed while they walked. Amathea dragged him most of the way - much to the elemental's dismay and embarrassment. But they couldn't stop to heal any wounds yet. Thetis had a storm of an illusion conjured up for them, and if they didn't use it now, she'd never have the magic to make it again later. Whatever the illusion was, Grillby couldn't tell. To him it just looked like the fog they walked through was denser than before, the air coated with the taste of magic. But the elemental did notice they left no tracks. Even Gaster's horse, laden with wounded from the unit they'd rescued, didn't leave so much as a scuff on the ground as they walked. Whatever this magic Thetis had was, it was strange to say the least.

That evening Gaster spent an hour and a half pulling an icy spearhead out of its place in Grillby's side, and then another half hour making sure Grillby's soul was stitched back up in all the right places. Grillby turned the deadly little thing around in his hands while his friend worked. It was still freezing cold to his touch, and if he held it in one place too long it would start to quench the flame around his fingers while he turned it. Whatever spell the mage - Thistle - had placed on it, it was powerful. Powerful enough that it could still exist even without her there to keep the magic working. Strong enough that it didn't melt against Grillby's core when she'd placed it there. Strong enough that, the longer it sat there, the more of him it started to cool. Gaster told him there had been a patch of cooled core almost the size of his spread hand along Grillby's side from where the spearhead had done its work. The elemental hadn't bothered to look at it. He didn't want to see how bad it was. Grillby was more than glad just to have the tiny thing out of him.

And as he turned it around in his hands, watching the way the colors of his flame refracted across its surface, he had to swallow the urge to toss it as hard as he could into the fire - the bitter piece of magic would probably put the fire out somehow anyway. Amathea sat across from him, munching thoughtfully on some rations and watching him glower at the unassuming piece of magic. After awhile she spoke up, a wry smile across her teeth.

"Keep it tinderbox, it'll make a great story," she smirked.

"A great story about what?" Grillby asked with an incredulous laugh, adding with mock excitement, "Hey everyone! Wanna hear about the time I almost got my soul shattered by an ice mage?"

Amathea rolled her eyes, "Aye well if you tell it like that then no. Toss it here."

Grillby flicked it across the fire, and Amathea caught it deftly. Then she stretched her mouth wide in one of her vicious, storytelling grins, holding the piece of frozen magic grandly in front of her.

"Like this," she said, clearing her throat before saying in a harrowing, adventurous voice, "Gather round lads! I ever tell you about the time I took on an ice mage back in the great war? Aye fought her one-on-one! Just my flame and her fell magic atop a crumbling bridge. Think I'm lying do you? Well I've got the magic to prove it!"

She flipped the ice piece in the air and then caught it, all the while grinning. Grillby flickered a smirk at her as she tossed it back across the fire to him.

"Then," Amathea continued with a wry smirk, "You show off your scar there and no one can question you."

"Elementals don't scar," Grillby sighed with a smile. And then abruptly frowned when Amathea spoke.

"Might wanna check your side there lad. 'Cause that's a scar if I've ever seen one."

Gaster shot Grillby an apprehensive smile, "Sorry… I was trying to fix it… before you noticed. But uh, your soul is healed and this is not."

"You're kidding," Grillby leaned over to look, hands reaching to the place on his side the spearhead had been. He couldn't see it well from the angle he was at, but he could feel just fine. Where the spearhead had been there was no flame. His core there was cool to the point of hardening, a patch of black against his yellow and orange flame. It was rough against his fingers and cool, but not the painful sort of cold that the spear had been - though it hurt just a bit beneath his touch. It wasn't really cold at all. Just cooler than the rest of his fire. And it refused to melt back into his core, even as he flushed himself into hotter whites to try and get it to melt away.

"You're kidding," Grillby whined.

"Congratulations Grillby," Gaster chuckled, "You're the first elemental known to monster kind to ever have a scar. Well… the first one we know about anyway."

"And a nemesis," Amathea chuckled, "I saw you and Gaster annoying that poor lass. You've got to respect her spirit - even if she is a human. What I wouldn't do for an adventure like that."

"You want her? Take her!" Grillby sighed, "That's one less mage for me to worry about."

"Don't feel so down, lad," Amathea smiled, "You did well today. Really. So what if the lass stung you? She didn't kill you, did she? And that's a fair bit more important."

"I can't believe you bowed at her," Gaster laughed suddenly, and Grillby flickered an embarrassed grin as Gaster got to his feet, mocking a grand bow of his own, "You're welcome miss mage for foiling all your plans!"

He laughed and plopped back down again, "I personally like my little piece of improvising. I think Grillby the Mage-Slayer is an awesome title."

"Aye, and it's not untrue either," Amathea grinned, "You're a strong elemental Grillby, you deserve some sort of title by now. Getting your name about might be a good thing."

"No, it's definitely not a good thing," Grillby flickered with a frown, "What about Mistral of the Storm? She was well known, she had a title. And look what it got her."

"Aye sure, being well-known has it's downsides-"

"Death is just a downside now?" Grillby asked with an incredulous flicker.

Amathea held up her hand placatingly, "Death isn't the downside lad. Drawing attention to yourself is. But it's also helpful. You get prestige during times like this and you become a rallying point. Monsters look to you for guidance. For hope. Like that bowing stunt today. You just spat in the face of one of our greatest fears - mages. And I'll tell you another thing, seeing a fire elemental standing on a bridge was probably heartening as well. All the beasties up there, afraid for their lives on that thing, they looked at you and said 'Well, he's not afraid, and he has the most reason to be! I shouldn't be afraid either!' That's the effect you have on monsters Grillby."

Amathea gave him a thoughtful smile, "And giving you a title of any sort will bring more of that out of you. It will make them remember you. Grillby is just an elemental. There are dozens of them fighting in this war. He's important to a mighty few of us that know him. But the Mage-Slayer. Well, he must some kind of amazing if people are calling him that."

Grillby flickered a weary smirk.

"Oh come on firefly," Gaster groaned, giving the elemental a gentle shove, "At least admit it sounds cool."

"Okay fine, it sounds kind of cool,," Grillby chuckled teasingly, and Gaster gave a proud and satisfied nod.

Shortly afterwards they broke for the night, Gaster and Grillby both lying near the fire to sleep. Amathea ambled off into the night, complaining about needed to gather some news from Thetis on what exactly they had rescued these monsters for. As selfish as it was to think, Grillby prayed they had a really good reason for such a perilous rescue. Not that saving the lives themselves was something to be though lightly of. It was just… Grillby's core hadn't stopped shivering, even after the spearhead was removed, even though there was distance between him and the field he'd just fought on. The whole affair had been nerve-wracking. He was shaken all the way to his soul, and he was afraid to sleep. After something like that… he was sure to have nightmares, wasn't he?

Grillby lie awake for hours, every once in awhile rubbing his thumb against that strange scar on his side, nervous and thoughtful. That was going to take some getting used to. He'd never felt anything like it before - at least not in a way that hadn't healed. Above him the stars turned. The moon peeked its face out through a thin veil of clouds, these ones wisping and thin and colorless. They were the herald of cold and not - thank heavens - the herald of rain.

"Grillby?"

The elemental gave a subtle spark.

"You awake?"

"Yeah," the elemental yawned back, "Are you?"

Gaster chuckled. Silence listed between them for a moment, an occasional crackle of the dying fire barking at them to break it.

"I can't sleep."

"Me neither," Grillby admitted, sighing out a breath of smoke, "Why can't you?"

"Thinking too much," Gaster hummed, and Grillby glanced at him. The skeleton's broken eye was facing him, and the light of his flame highlighted the scarred bone wickedly. The light of Gaster's eye was dull and distant, focusing on something far away in the sky.

"What are you thinking about?" Grillby whispered.

The skeleton pillowed his arms behind his head and huffed out a sigh. His teeth ground against each other as Gaster thought for a moment, trying to find some way to put into words whatever it was that was keeping him awake. Finally he spoke.

"Just… today I guess. The monsters. The bridge," he said finally, and Grillby flickered in surprise, "And you. You're terrified of water, Grillby. Why in the world did you jump across that gap?"

There was a pause and Gaster sighed, "Every time I close my eyes I see it. And I can't believe it actually happened."

Grillby frowned up at the sky, eyes searching for nothing in particular, "Well… it did happen."

"That was terrifying."

The elemental cracked a chuckle, "You're telling me."

Gaster turned his head then, blinking his keen eyes at Grillby, "How did you know I was going to catch you?"

Grillby shrugged, "I didn't."

"But you jumped anyway?"

The tone in Gaster's voice was nothing short of baffled - and maybe impressed as well. Grillby flickered a dry smile at the sky, suddenly feeling very tired.

"Well…" Grillby breathed, "... there wasn't much thinking involved. It was either jump or get captured, and I'd rather be dead than caught so…"

Gaster's eye sockets widened with surprise.

"Well to be honest, I'd probably have been dead anyway if that mage got her way," Grillby admitted with a frown, a hand reaching down self-consciously to brush across his scar, "She was… uh… pretty determined for that at least. But if they really are taking monsters prisoner, and they decided to take me, that's bad. Right?"

Grillby flickered a grimace, "I mean, saying it outloud sounds crazy. But at the time it made sense."

"No it… still makes sense," Gaster said quietly, "It's just a really, really scary decision to make for yourself."

A pause passed between them.

"I just…" Gaster stammered, his voice low and concerned, "... what would've happened if I'd…"

Grillby frowned into deepening reds, "If you'd what? Dropped me?"

Gaster squeezed his eye sockets shut and flinched, as if the thought alone was painful, "Yeah. That."

Grillby gave a sad smirk. Why in the world was Gaster worrying about that of all things? Well… Grillby supposed he shouldn't judge. The elemental was constantly worrying over useless things himself. He understood the paranoia, the fear and the morbid curiosity. He just wished Gaster hadn't taken to feeling that way himself. Especially over something that hadn't actually happened - and if Grillby could help it, would never come close to happening again.

The elemental cleared his throat and said as nonchalantly as he could possibly manage, "Well I guess you'd finally win that 'all monsters should learn to fly' argument."

Gaster rolled his eyes and gave a disappointed groan, "Damn it Grillby, be serious."

"I think I could fly," Grillby continued, the grin on the edge of his voice ruining any seriousness he could put into his tone, "You know, if I tried hard enough. I wonder if I can make flame-y wings?"

In spite of himself, Gaster let out a laugh, "Oh yes. Like a big, fire-covered butterfly."

"A firefly," Grillby corrected with a playful snicker, and Gaster's grin widened.

"That joke was terrible."

The elemental shrugged, "You just don't appreciate good humor."

Their laughter pattered out to into contented sighs and smirks, and then finally thoughtful silence. After a moment Gaster whispered.

"I'm glad I caught you."

"Trust me, I am too," Grillby sighed, "Seriously, I wasn't ready for any of that. I almost panicked when Ammy told me I had to fight up there. I've never been so scared in my life. I was shaking and seeing stars and everything. And then everything else went so wrong..."

Gaster flashed him a reassuring smile, "Well you held it together pretty well. I didn't know you were scared. You actually looked pretty heroic up there. You were pretty green for a bit, you know. But... that's something only I would notice anyway."

The two chatted quietly on for most of the night, both avoiding going to sleep for fear of whatever their dreams had in store. Both taking comfort in the others' presence. They talked until Amathea stumbled her way back over to them, exhausted from the fight during the day and the lateness of the hour. She was the one that finally shushed them, telling them to get some rest while they could still have it. They had a long walk ahead of them.

And walk they did, a stiff march that carried them fast and far - as fast as possible with the wounded they carried. Grillby walked shortly beside Amathea and Thetis, the two sisters musing back and forth at each other as the day progressed, passing information and wondering about the monsters they had rescued. According to Thetis this group was, as far as they knew at least, all that remained of the Western Front - which seemed like good news to Grillby. Wasn't the Western Front supposedly destroyed? If there were monsters here that had escaped the route, surely others had as well?

But something weird was going on. Thetis had spoken with a few of the ranked officers in the group the night before. Most of these monsters were from different units, scattered bits and pieces of what was left of those who had fled. They had been running for miles, and the humans had chased them the entire way. The story the sisters managed to piece together was less than heartening.

Over the course of a few nights, the front had been hit one army after another. Systematically. As if the humans had known where all of them already were before they moved or changed positions. Every unit reported being attacked by one mage or more, and the mages all carried strange magic. Monster magic. Like Thistle on the bridge.

Now Amathea and Thetis were worried. About the only advantage monsters had against humans was their magic. While every monster could use magic, only a few humans could wield their own, and even fewer could take the time to study the spells and incantations it took to make that magic formidable. That's why there were so few mages in the first place. Somehow, the humans had changed that. They were using magic that didn't need commanded, the kind of soul-connected magic that monsters used. And if it really was like monster magic, it wouldn't need nearly the training and direction normal mages had to go through.

Would that mean there would be more mages now? Would they be as strong as the ones they'd faced before? Stronger? Weaker? Was this strange new magic the reason why monsters were disappearing?

Well… to Grillby at least it seemed that was an obvious yes, and Amathea seemed to feel the same. The only thing Thetis seemed sure of was that she needed more information. As soon as she could get her hands on it, she promised to pass it along to Amathea as well.

Already she was talking about what she was going to tell the King in her report - Grillby's head had spun at that. Not many monsters got that privilege. Though he figured most monsters didn't know how to write a report either. Did Thetis write in the monster language from the south, or did she write in whatever language she spoke in the north?

Apparently Gaster's questioning of things had rubbed off on him.

The next day they were back at the encampment they had set out from, and Gaster spent the evening dragging Grillby around the healing tents, patching up every monster they had rescued. None of the monsters were falling down - thank heavens. Grillby wasn't so sure he was ready for that kind of work again. Most of their injuries and wounds were minor. Really, Gaster didn't even need to help, the normal doctors could have taken care of it. But the skeleton was itching for some way to be useful, and this was the best way for him to be. And Grillby had to admit, for as tiring as the process was for him, it was refreshing to see the grateful, smiling faces that came out of it.

Though it came with no shortage of embarrassment either. Apparently every monster present had heard Gaster's proclamation about Grillby, the Mage-Slayer. With every monster they came across Grillby was bombarded with questions. Had he really killed mages? How many battles had he fought in? So elementals really were as powerful as everyone made them out to be? Maybe there's hope for us yet! Gaster thought the whole affair was the adorable sort of humorous - especially when Grillby's flame pitched itself into flustered hues when he was thrown a question he wasn't prepared for. Several times Grillby was thanked, whole-heartedly and soul-baringly, for aiding in the rescue, and every time Grillby could hardly fathom how to respond. A simple "you're welcome" fell so short of the reverence some of the monsters gave him.

For a week they rested - or as close to rested as they were allowed to. Amathea and Thetis spent hours of their time together with the other commanders in camp. Grillby and Gaster hardly saw them. And there was an uptake in the ghosts that came and went - sending messages for Thetis and collecting information for her. There were rumors going about that her report had already made it back to the King and it was causing a stir in the capital.

Left to their own devices, Grillby and Gaster took to sparring and training. Gaster needed it anyway, they supposed. He needed to learn how to use those new daggers of his effectively. Grillby taught the skeleton some simple ways of blocking and parrying, how to disarm a swordsman that was running towards him. The techniques would be useless against some human with an axe or a hammer - any weapon with enough leverage to just toss the daggers aside. But it would help, and that was all that really mattered.

It was a bit weird but… the training made Grillby feel relieved. It felt like a return to normal, more so than anything else he'd done in the past weeks. He was in an actual camp, a safe one surrounded by walls and monsters, where he was allowed to just live knowing he wasn't being shipped away to another battlefield for a little while at least. He was sparring, cooking meals. When Amathea managed to break away from whatever important business she was managing, she was giving Grillby and Gaster feedback on their measly bit of progress as they sparred and it felt normal. The dread in the air and the dust on the breeze became distant, and the nervous tension in Grillby's soul relaxed. Even his troublesome nightmares seemed to decide life was too pleasant to plague him for now. The war grew abstract again, in bits and pieces at least, shifting away from a brutal reality and closer to a bad dream. That was a dangerous way of thinking, Grillby new. It made reality all the more jarring when he was thrown back into it - which he was sure to be. But for now at least he could allow himself the tiniest bit of foolish naivety.

It was a peace he hadn't even known he'd been missing.

Chapter Text

Grillby awoke to Gaster shaking his shoulder gently and whispering for him to get up. At first Grillby tried to ignore him. That he could remember, he wasn't dreaming anything worth staying asleep for. It just felt nice to be asleep, wrapped up in his own body heat and the comfort of his drowsy soul. But Gaster was being persistent, and with a tired groan Grillby stoked himself brighter and warmer as he allowed himself to be dragged into wakefulness. Gaster grinned at him, signing quietly for Grillby to wait there while he stole over to Amathea and nudged her awake as well. Grillby watched, his tired mind slowly wondering if he should be worried about something.

Well, Gaster sure didn't seem urgent. Right now he was trying to have a conversation with Amathea - who was still half asleep. Asking her if she wanted to come with him for - the skeleton glanced back at Grillby before whispering again - that thing they saw this time last year. Amathea blinked at him, tired and uncomprehending for several long seconds before smiling, yawning, and waving him away. She wasn't excited about that nonsense like Gaster was, and would rather sleep. Maybe she'd track them down later and join them.

Amathea hummed with a yawn as she rolled back over to sleep again, "Show tinderbox though. He'd like it."

Gaster was too giddy to be disappointed that she wasn't coming. With a particularly happy bounce in his step he helped Grillby to his feet, signing for the elemental to be quiet and follow him. Grillby tried to sign back and ask what was going on, but in his tired confusion half of his signs were wrong, and Gaster just chuckled at him and motioned again for the elemental to follow. With nothing else to do and a bit of curiosity slowly awakening in his soul, Grillby fell in step behind Gaster as the skeleton led him through the sleeping camp.

It was dark out. Grillby couldn't tell if it was early in the morning or sometime in the middle of the night. Whatever it was, it was dark. The moon was gone, the stars the only things glittering down at him from the heavens, paper-thin clouds sometimes obscuring them from view, but only just. What in the world could Gaster be so excited about at this hour?

The two monsters crept through the encampment, passing a handful of watchmen on their way out. Gaster led them a little ways away from camp, the two of them scrambling to the top of the nearest rocky hillside. The skeleton found them a flat patch of ground where the trees were sparse, and finally motioned for Grillby to find a place to lay down. The elemental did as he was told - albeit confusedly - laying on his back on the cold stone and blinking up at the sky. Gaster situated himself close by him, a pleasant grin on his face.

"Okay," Grillby said slowly, tiredly, "Any particular reason why we're here?"

Gaster just beamed up at the sky, "Because this time of year is my favorite."

He pointed up to some corner of stars in the sky, "Keep your eyes in that direction."

Grillby nodded, smiling slightly at how absolutely giddy Gaster seemed to be. He was smiling, his hands constantly moving in one excited word or another, though they mostly amounted to: firefly, you're going to love this!

Gaster cleared his throat, "So uh… Grillby. Know anything about how the sky works?"

Grillby crackled a tired laugh, "I have absolutely no idea."

"Do you want to know?"

Grillby gave the skeleton a sideways glance, "Will this eventually explain why we're out here in the middle of the night?"

"Yes!"

"Then go ahead."

Gaster beamed at this, his eyes locked on that place in the sky he'd pointed out earlier. Grillby tried to keep his eyes focused that direction as well, but every time Gaster moved his hands as he talked, Grillby found his attention being yanked away towards them.

"Okay so, everything is connected to the four elements," Gaster started, "The ground we walk on is the earth element, and it's at the center of our universe. All the water on the earth makes up the next layer. And it also dissolves into the next layer, which is air. The last layer, way at the top where we can barely see it, is fire. That's where all the stars are, and the moon, and everything else past the clouds, and that entire layer is constantly in motion, moving in circles."

A flicker of movement caught Grillby's eye and he frowned at himself when he looked back at the sky and it was gone. He'd gotten distracted staring at Gaster's hands moving as he'd talked, and he'd missed… whatever it was Gaster had been trying to show him. Whoops. Well, at any rate, Gaster didn't seem to notice. He just kept talking excitedly.

"Now! The cool thing about the air layer is it's responsible for so many brilliant things in the sky!" the skeleton grinned, "The closer to the water layer it gets, the cooler it is, the more it forms things like rain and clouds and snow. Which is another amazing thing I'd love to explain sometime. But… eh not right now. Are you still looking up there where I told you to?"

"Yes?"

"Good! Anyway, so the closer the air layer gets to the fire layer, obviously it'll get hotter right? And well, air and water rises up from the earth layer, and goes up to the air layer. And just when it gets to the hottest part of the air layer, the fire layer starts trying to move it in a circle. And sometimes when the two movements meet they actually catch fire."

"The sky catches fire?"

Gaster laughed, "No, no. The sky doesn't. Just the earth stuff that floats it's way up there. That's how shooting stars are made."

Just as he said this, a light struck out across the sky and Grillby gave a surprised flicker as he watched it. It arced delicately, thin and frail and bright against the backdrop of stars behind it before fizzling out in hues of blue and white. Grillby blinked, crackling in mute amazement. Gaster grinned at him.

"Did you see it?"

"Yes," Grillby said, his flame slowly brightening as his surprise turned into excitement, "That's a shooting star?"

"Never seen one before?" Gaster gave a quiet chuckle.

"No," Grillby laughed, "Well, I'd heard about them but… I guess I don't spend enough time looking up to see them."

"Well keep staring off in that direction and you'll see more."

Grillby gave an incredulous flicker, "What? Really?"

"Yeah," Gaster grinned, "I don't know what it is about this time of year but in the fall there's always a lot of falling stars. Just for a few days before they disappear again. My brother and I first noticed it when we were little kids. We used to watch them every year."

Another of the flares of light shot across the sky, and Grillby flickered at it in wonder. Then another passed by, and a third. They were so small and frail, and so far away from him. And every single time another lanced across the sky, Grillby couldn't help but give a startled flicker, before his flame collapsed into soft blues and purples of awe. He couldn't believe he'd never seen this before! But of course, he hadn't really been alive for very long had he?

"It's amazing," Grillby whispered as another of the flares arced across the sky, this one bright and flashing nearly from one horizon to the other.

Gaster chuckled, "Yeah, it is. I've been watching these for as long as I can remember, and they've never stopped amazing me."

The skeleton let out a whistle through his teeth, his gaze focusing somewhere far away and wistful, "You know, where I came from, we had legends about fire elementals. They said the first ones ever came from falling stars."

Grillby smirked, "Is that why you wanted me to see this?"

"Kinda. It's also just really cool to watch."

The two of them lapsed into silence, Grillby watching wide-eyed as stars began to fall. It must have had something to do with the time of night, because the longer they sat the more Grillby saw. They fell faster, sometimes two or three at a time. Sometimes they fell one after another, like far off dancers following in each other's footsteps. Other times minutes stretched on in between glances of the falling light, and Grillby would wonder anxiously if perhaps the one he'd seen before was the last one.

Dawn was just beginning to color the horizon in lighter shades of blue when Amathea joined them, grumbling about how it was too early in the morning to be awake - though she did so with humor and a smile. They all lay back, eyes locked on that spot on the horizon, waiting for more of the stars to flair into life. Amathea liked shouting out and pointing when she saw one, and she gave Grillby several startles and Gaster a lot of laughs. Eventually the skeleton joined her, every once in a while one or the other of them would point out a star Grillby was looking in the wrong direction to see, and he'd catch the end of a flare just before it died out.

"Did you tell him all your fool science on all of this?" Amathea smirked in Gaster's direction and the skeleton laughed.

"It's not fool science," Gaster tutted, "Monster and human astronomers have been talking about this since before this war even started. And before them we had myths and legends, gods and fantastical creatures…"

The skeleton sighed, "Our love of things like the sky and how it works… it's about the only thing our races have in common anymore."

"Well isn't that the wisest thing I've ever heard come out of that skull of yours?" Amathea said with a sad sort of chuckle.

Gaster rolled his eyes as best he could manage, "Oh shush. It's not wise. It's true. What about your people up north. Didn't you guys ever talk about the sky?"

"Well of course we did," Amathea shrugged, "We've got stories for every one of those stars up there - and none of them have to do with your layer nonsense. It's got to do with the gods and the great kings and spirits of years past us. The druids did all sorts of study on the magic of the sky, and they told us common folk all the stories about it."

Amathea's ear frills twitched thoughtfully, "When I was young I had the chance to learn about it, but I was too busy fighting with my kin to care about it too much. If I ever get the chance to go back, I might track down some of those old druids and ask them a few questions."

Her face twisted into a scowl, "Assuming any monsters up there are still alive."

Another star fell; this one bright red and flashing, and it cast all of them into silence. A thoughtful, watchful quiet fell across them as they watched the sky, watched the stars turn while some of them fell. In the gaps between falling stars, Gaster would point out different constellations in the sky and name them - to which Amathea would laugh and tell him what those stars were called where she was from and the stories they represented. All Grillby could do was sit in silence and listen.

Finally the elemental sighed out a breath of smoke, tilting his head in Amathea's direction as he did, "Hey Ammy?"

"Aye tinderbox?"

"If we do make it through this mess," Grillby said, "And you go back north, can I come with you?"

Amathea's ear frills twitched, her look of muted surprise slowly melting away as a slow grin spreading across her sharp teeth, "You being serious, lad? It's a long way north where I come from. Lots of snow and rain, especially in the winter and spring. It's a tad bit dangerous for an elemental like you."

"Well, if you guys want to go east first," Gaster offered, bright eyes sparkling, "I know a place that does great waterproofing magic. The town I was apprenticed in had all sorts of magic tailors. And maybe I could get them to give me a few lessons too, so we can keep it with us while we travel?"

Grillby sparked a smile, "That… would be amazing."

He glanced between the two monsters, "I'd love to see where you guys grew up. You're going to have to show me everything."

"You bet your soul we will, tinderbox!" Amathea said with an uproarious laugh, "We'll show you so much of this world you'll wonder how it could ever feel small, won't we Gaster?"

"Just wait until you see where I came from," Gaster laughed and signed excitedly, "Open plains and forest as far as the eye can see. And some of the trees grow so tall, if you climb to the top you can almost see where the world ends. You haven't lived until you've seen that."

"Aye lad, and just you wait until you see your first sunset off the ocean," Amathea grinned, "I'm telling you Grillby, that's what real magic looks like."

One of the brighter stars flashed across the horizon then, and all of them paused to watch it. The sky was starting to get too bright to see the dimmer ones - already a line of white light had appeared on the horizon, tinting the blue around it with dull shades of yellow. Soon the sky would be turning from the deep blues of night to the pale colors of day and the stars would have to stop falling. Amathea was the first of them to stir, pulling herself to her feet and brushing the dirt from her clothes.

"Alright lads, time to get the day started," she hummed, "There's a lot of work to be done."

Grillby stretched his stiff limbs and sat up where he'd lay, Gaster mirroring the motion.

"Are we getting shipped out again?" Grillby asked, and Amathea shrugged.

"Soon, yeah, but not for several days yet," the captain hummed, "There's a big to-do that's happening first. The King is on his to this camp."

Grillby gave a jolt of surprise, sparks flying as he did. Gaster frowned.

"The King?" Gaster asked incredulously, "Is this about Thetis's report? What in the world did she say?"

"Her report has a bit to do with it," Amathea nodded, "But it's not the only thing. The humans have a large army coming down from the northwest - a good guess says they're the ones that wiped out the western front. King Dreemurr himself wants to deal with it. And since this is the only walled camp we have left in the north, we get to host the royalty."

"That's a bad idea," Gaster signed nervously, and Amathea heaved out a heavy sigh.

"I'll admit I've got my doubts about it. But the King and his entourage are some of the strongest monsters and elementals this war has seen, and the King and his son are both boss monsters. If they can't deal with this mess, what other chance do we have?"

Grillby and Gaster exchanged grim looks. She… had a point.

"Come on lads," Amathea said, a bit of reassurance in her voice, "They'll be announcing the King's intentions at dawn, and we've got to make this place fit for royalty before the week's up."


It was safe to say that Grillby had no idea what 'fit for royalty' meant, but from the list of chores they were given, apparently it meant clean everything. The main dirt path inside the wall was broadened so the King and his entourage could go straight into the fortress without much hassle. Brigg's troops were moved to the barracks inside the fortress itself, crowding inside with the troops already stationed within. The King was bringing an army, and they would need all the room within the walls they could get - which meant the soldiers already there would have to make do with tight spaces. The walls were worked to be made more presentable, forges were stoked and weapons were honed, a suitable training ground was established. Patrols were posted, hunting parties gathered, inventories counted and food stores prepared.

And in between the chores, training sessions and hunting parties, Grillby and Gaster were being briefed by Amathea on what was going to transpire once the King finally arrived. Every word she said made Grillby more nervous by the second.

In the King's reply to Thetis' report, he had demanded a meeting between himself and every commander within the encampment - something that wasn't uncommon. Strategies had to be discussed, the numbers of available troops exchanged, reinforcements called for. But he had also requested a firsthand account of the battle on the bridge, of the strange new magic they would be up against and the power of the mages that were to be faced. Which meant Gaster and Grillby were coming to the meeting as well - Grillby because of his fighting, and Gaster because of the healing work they had done on the monsters that were rescued. And Grillby was terrified.

"I can't speak in front of a King," Grillby had babbled nervously when Amathea first told him.

"Aye sure you can!" Amathea laughed, "If you can sing in front of this pack of fustilarian drabble than you can speak to a King. He needs to know about that fight between you and that Bayhaven. Keep that piece of ice she left you with handy as well. They'll want to see that."

Whenever Grillby and Gaster were free, Amathea was running them through how to act and what to say. They were to wear their best clothes and armor, which meant patching holes, washing clothes, and shining metal. She walked them through how to bow, not to speak unless they were spoken to. She ran them through their testimonies, reminding them this monster was looking for facts and facts only. No exaggeration was to be made, no mention on how you'd felt or opinions given. And - she'd given Gaster a meaningful look - do not ramble. The King didn't need to listen to their nervous babbling!

Grillby was getting more anxious with every passing minute.

It was another three days before the horns finally rang out to signal the incoming troops. Grillby was helping one of the blacksmiths with their forge at the time. The sound of the roaring flame had nearly drowned out the trumpeting signal. But when they heard it all monsters stopped what they were doing as best they could. Grillby was swept up in a crowd of monsters, muttering disgruntled apologies to any monster that bumped into him in the mess of movement. The lined the one shoddy dirt path in the entire compound, Grillby eventually managing to shoulder his way over to Gaster and Amathea. He and the Gaster stood off to the side of the fortress doorway while Amathea, Brigg and the other two commanders stood in the doorway itself, ready to receive the coming monsters.

What followed was nothing short of the grandest parade of soldiers Grillby had ever seen in his life.

The first fifty or so monsters through the gate were on horseback, the steeds themselves were great warhorses several hands tall, all of their coats dappled in dark colors. The soldiers themselves all wore heavy, plated armor with great stirrups on their saddles for lances. Behind them came footmen, all arranged in neat units of spears, swords, axes and hammers. On the chest plate of every warrior was inscribed the delta rune, the monster kingdom crest. These were elite soldiers straight from the capital's training grounds themselves. Behind these ranks of monsters came the more bestial monsters, monsters that walked on four or more legs whose armor had to be specially tailored for them. These soldiers were impressive to be sure. They were nothing like the ragged, pieced-together units Grillby had seen or been a part of in the past. But what really impressed him was the King himself, and the warriors he kept close beside him.

The King himself was gigantic, a monster who seemed to be a strange mix between a goat and a lion, and he sat proudly on one of the tallest horses in the entire army. His horns curved back away from his face magnificently, gold circlets adorning them both - a sign of his status while on the field instead of a crown - and his dark beard was braided. His gaze was sharp, his eyes the color of molten magic, and intent radiated off him with every move he made. It was almost oppressive, hanging over the gathered monsters like a slowly unfolding spell in the air. It was a smothering feeling that Grillby was used to feeling around a strong mage, or when Amathea began to sing. It wasn't something he had been expecting of his King. He didn't know if he should be impressed or fearful. Beside the King rode his son, a monster of equal grandness to his father, though his hair and beard had more gold compared to the King's gathering greys and blacks. It took Grillby a moment to realize it was Commander Dreemurr, the monster who had been in command of the camp he was summoned in. The very same monster who had given Gerson his title of Hammer of Justice. From the few times they ever encountered each other, Grillby remembered the Commander as someone soft-spoken and optimistic, always carrying a pleasant smile. Now he looked nothing short of stern and somber.

Encircled around the King and his son rode their personal guard, four unassuming looking monsters that could have been made of stone. They were thin and small but otherwise unremarkable, living magic radiating off of them with every movement. They lacked any armor, wearing only simple tunics with the delta rune inscribed across them. They carried no weapons, and they didn't need to. These, Grillby knew, were stone elementals. He could feel it in the way their magic moved through the air and the intent behind it. One of them made eye contact with him, and he thought he saw a barely noticeable smile spark in their green, jewel-like eyes. Grillby flickered a few anxious colors back.

The King stopped his march in front of Amathea and the other commanders. In a grand motion he and his son dismounted, long purple capes flaring with the movement, and the commanders all bowed in welcome. A few niceties were exchanged, general words of welcome and a half-joked apology for the lackluster state of the encampment. The two Dreemurrs were lead inside the small fortress, sending a last instruction for their army to begin pitching their tents. Two of the stone elementals followed the King inside. The two remaining positioned themselves in front of the fortress door, statuesque sentinels that might have never been alive at all if it weren't for the magic that almost seemed to vibrate the air around them.

The fortress units and the grand army dispersed as tents were pitched and units were gathered together. Grillby and Gaster were left standing where they were, watching as the gathered parade scattered like so many ants beneath a crushed anthill.

Gaster let out a long, low whistle through his clenched teeth, "That was impressive."

"I'll say," Grillby flickered, "There's so many of them… I wonder if there are any more elementals in there."

Gaster let out a rattling chuckle, "Not gonna leave me behind for a bunch of boss monster friends are you?"

Grillby rolled his eyes and gave Gaster a playful shove with his elbow, earning another bout of laughter from the skeleton, "Of course not, numbskull! But I've never actually spoken with other elementals before."

"You're kidding."

"No, I'm not," Grillby said with a quiet flicker, "I was summoned alone and I trained alone. I've only ever seen other elementals from across the battlefield, and then we were a bit too busy to talk."

Gaster shrugged, "Well I can't imagine you're missing much. They're just like any other monster, right?"

"Well… yeah…" Grillby said, "I guess so. I dunno. I've just always wanted to talk to one."

Gaster cast a sideways glance past Grillby towards the two sentinels standing by the door. He smirked and signed, What about those two?

Grillby crackled a laugh and signed back, Oh yes, talk to the King's personal bodyguards while they're on duty. What could possibly go wrong?

Gaster made a show of scrutinizing the two elementals, faking a thoughtful expression before signing with a smirk, I think you could take them.

The elemental rolled his eyes as best he could, flickering in the bright colors of a grin, "You're insane. Come on. Let's make ourselves look presentable. They'll be calling us to meet the King soon I'm sure."

"Darn, and here I thought I could finally get a nap in," Gaster grumbled good-naturedly.

The two shuffled their way through the teeming courtyard and into the barracks - Grillby doing his best not to stare at the two elementals as they passed them to enter the fortress. They were much more imposing close-up and Grillby now realized they had only looked small to him before because they were beside the King. Now he realized they were almost as tall as Gaster, and they loomed over most of the monsters around them. Grillby really shouldn't be so intimidated by them, he reasoned with himself. They were just monsters. Important monsters. But still just monsters. Surely he could speak with them sometime when they were off duty?

Gaster seemed to catch onto his nervousness and the skeleton signed with a laugh, Don't worry Grillby, I'm sure if you talk to them they'll warm right up to you.

Grillby laughed, signing back with an incredulous grin, I'm made of fire, Gaster. Anything will warm up to me.

Gaster beamed, Exactly!